Lap Lane

by Ross McMeekin

I tried to explain to Sammy that seventy-percent of beach drownings occurred within ten yards of a person who could help.

“Seems made up,” she said. The bottom of her chin looked turquoise from the reflection of the water.

“No, it’s true. I read it somewhere legitimate. I remember thinking this is actually true.”

Two women kickboarding side-by-side during adult swim probably sounds like it should be on the front cover of an AARP leaflet, but we liked the fact that we could get a low-impact workout and still talk the whole time. And I guess we weren’t really that young anymore.

“So what do you mean by the family was around,” she asked.

“That’s the thing. They were playing in the surf right next to him.”

“What?!”

Sammy had almost shouted. The echo of her voice slapped off the tile walls and the water. When I met her freshman year of college, she was a cheerleader. Being loud was nothing for her.

“I know,” I said. “It’s wild to think about.”

“They were there? That sounds…I don’t know how that sounds.”

I imagined she was thinking the same thing I was, that it sounded unthinkably sad. We kicked for a while in silence. I caught a strong scent of chlorine coming off the adjacent hot tub, where an older guy with an artificial tan and nose plugs was climbing in. I was thankful the whirlpool jets provided some white noise. Voices carry over water.

“Was a lifeguard around?” she asked. “God. If one was, save a spot under the bus.”

These were my neighbors we were talking about, the family. “I don’t think anyone deserves to be under the bus.”

“Well, it would be one thing if the kid ran away and you couldn’t find him and then he drowned.”

“How is that different? It’s not like they intended—”

“They were right there,” she said.

We reached the end of the pool, so we turned around and pushed off the side and continued kicking.

She said, “I have two kids. Sometimes they run off and things can happen. You can’t control everything. But if you’re there? It just seems like a whole other level.”

“It’s so tragic.”

“And that,” she said.

We kicked for a while in silence and talked about people we both knew, what they were doing, things that had happened to them. Then for some reason I told her something I’d never told anyone. I just felt like I had to say it, and she was there. So I told her how when I got home from work most nights Tom’s eyes already had that glossy film over them. How I appreciated that he pretended not to be drunk and asked me questions about my day, but then he sometimes ended up asking the same questions twice in the same conversation without realizing it. It was like he was there one minute then gone the next. This was most nights.

Sammy didn’t say anything. She kept looking straight ahead, kicking. Finally, she said, “I don’t know what to say.”

There were still fifteen minutes left of adult swim.

I said, “So tell me about Timothy. He’s starting Kindergarten next fall, right?” The conversation continued from there.

When I got home, I found that article I’d read. It was on some national lifeguard association website. I forwarded the link to Sammy. I was right; once your air supply gets below a certain level, your basic bodily functions take over and the only thing you can do is attempt to breathe. So it can look like someone swimming next to you is fine when in reality they are unable to say a word or stop themselves from dropping below the waves.

Ross McMeekin’s fiction has appeared recently or is forthcoming in Storyglossia, Connotation Press, Monkeybicycle, Necessary Fiction, and other fine journals. He is the assistant fiction editor at Hunger Mountain, a teacher at the Richard Hugo House, and has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives in Seattle and blogs at www.rossmcmeekin.com.

What drew you to compressed literature? And what is it about “compressed” fiction that continues to hold your attention? Other than power, money and fame, what drew me initially to compressed literature was how, in many stories, so much was left unsaid. It thrilled me when the implications of some thick, dark, underlying subtext would stick with me long after I finished reading. As I explored more authors and journals that featured this type of writing, I found that there was an acceptance of methods and techniques that I had heard were taboo—an example of this is second-person point of view, or rhyming. Hah! I also loved the wild experimentation embraced by the community that wrote and published short forms. It felt right that every aspect of the writing still answered to the imagination.

All of these I appreciate today, but I think ultimately what keeps me reading and writing are those individual compressed stories that have impacted me personally, those few that are so full and intense that I find myself holding my breath even when reading them for the fiftieth time.

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