Ernest was a man who got things right. He knew this for certain when at work because he was told so often. He managed a grocery store that had finally found its sweet spot within the hierarchy of holistic grocers. That was his word–“holistic”–as opposed to “natural” or “locally sourced and served” or any number of other words and phrases that somehow didn’t quite meet the innermost desires of customers. In his humble opinion. But “Hale’s Holistic Marketplace” was now its name (no longer Hale’s Good Foods) and since the revamp of appearance, pricing and image, optimistic stats were booming.
How was Marv, the CEO, to have foreseen that this unassuming man, barely hitting the five foot eight mark and weighing in at maybe 150 pounds (if Marv was a casual betting man) could turn things around way under a year? There was a compact quality suggesting deeper strength and energy, but it was metered out just so. A fastidious man, he guessed. The guy had steadily climbed the rungs of the food business, then suddenly pushed his ideas on a store manager. That was four years ago and HHM had taken over a niche that caters to those with highbrow leanings, perhaps even instincts, but won’t admit to it. The added corner bookstore/ lending library was a hit, for example, because their consumers were a literary–academic, even– type. This meant that soon to follow were paper products and writing utensils, then intricate, bold maps (why did they love maps so much, he didn’t know) and so on, Marv had lost track but they sold.
The guy now at a helm was a genius at marketing as well as overseeing the latest store. No one disagreed. But not everyone liked him; some sneered when they saw him coming but smiled over their judgments. Ernest was a stickler for details, unerring and demanding. He had some patience and tolerance for others–he was not unkind –but it didn’t show well, as he tended toward a poker face. This was a feature developed after childhood when his mother constantly told her smart, string bean of a boy to not be such a crybaby, life was rough so toughen up. He found hiding feelings was half the battle at repelling taunts–especially after he became a fine swimmer. One could not see emotions when submerged in the water. He became a smooth muscled, aquatic creature, fast and adept and best of all, free. Cheering crowds made no difference; he had found his physical element and it complemented his intellect.
The swimming pool still did the trick. If work grievously rattled him or his wife, Lynette, got on his nerves too much, he was in the water for a good hour. That’s what he told her–“Time to refresh and keep my physique in good shape”–when she complained he was gone too much. The lap pool welcomed him every time; the forgiving water flowed about him, a shield of light-filled mystery and power, and he was made stronger with each stroke. Lynette, on the other hand, had tried it three times with him and failed to see the value, much less joy in it. The chlorine, the chilly depths, the need for goggles since she wore contacts. She stank of chlorine for days and her fine hair rebelled. Let him have it, she was meant for mostly sunbathing by their own tidy pool. Oh yes, they had a pool, now, but he could not swim real laps or execute a good dive there, so he left backyard indulgences to her and Sammy, their preteen daughter.
He thought he had done well so far in life. He made good money now and Lynette was happier than the first ten years of marriage. But it didn’t stop her from finding fault. Daily. That he wore bow ties when getting dressed up; the tiny limp he retained from an old hiking fall; his rumination over this and that, quietly to himself; his unfortunate choices of jewelry for her gifts and his lack of insight into Sammy’s moods. His smartness surely rivaled hers and sometimes they sparred for the wit of it, but it could cross a line. It could get dangerous, words like swords.
His size always vexed her–she was two inches taller. He thought she was attracted to him so she could diminish him further by saying he was a “tidy guy” or a “cute shrimp” yet give her a sense of more control, as well. When she pulled herself to her full height, he thought of a giraffe and smiled as one might at such a curious creature. But he thought her rather sexy, anyway, though who would know it lately.
“My Queen, forgive my stature but adore my income,” he would say when really aggravated by her demeaning way, and peck her hand. It was not kind, no, but he did have his limit.
“Be a proper man, stand taller as if you mean it, Ernest, you are such a slouch sometimes,” she insisted and swiped at his head with her palm as if he was truly her subject. Whereby he’d back away, out of the room, head bowed. As he turned to go, he would throw her a scowl, a fierce look, a warning (though of what, really?– just a look)–she couldn’t mistake that feeling in any case.
If anyone at work saw this they would have a field day. Even Sammy waffled between sniggering and looking away, embarrassed for them both. Ernest and Lynette had had better days when younger, living simpler with few worries. They had not mellowed; they had soured.
He would leave for the pool if it was finally enough. It often was more than enough. What else did she want of him?
What was it that made him happy besides monetary success and being right and swimming? So little else.
“I hear you swim,” she said as she stirred creamer into her mug of coffee.
Ernest looked up from his own steaming, bitter mug-full of caffeine.
She added more vanilla-caramel to sweeten it up and as she did so, she pinned back a sweep of glossy hair with her other hand. To keep it from falling in, it was that long and swingy.
“Well,” he said, surprised, and paused, torn between his agenda and this unknown factor.
“I do, too, used to competitively dive, for one thing.” She laughed lightly. “Okay, years ago. But I still do what I love to do.”
“Oh, I see, nice,” he said and started off.
“Where do you go? I’m new in the area.”
He slurped a little, then studied her as she stirred away, eyes on pecan cookies left from a meeting. She snatched one up and dipped it in her coffee.
“There are several good pools, depending upon where you live.”
“I’m just down the street, Premiere Apartments.” She raised her eyebrows at this as everyone knew they were at best mid-grade. One would rather avoid those long-term. “Just for awhile, we’ll see how this works out.”
“This?” he asked as they left the break room.
“Sorry, I assumed you knew…I’m Celeste, an unemployed accountant who is the new cashier?” She held out her hand, cookie already gone. “Remember? I know who you are, of course.”
“Ernest, yes, and welcome.” He shook her hand briefly and she smiled at him again; he thought she had remarkably large front teeth but the smile was downright dazzling. Great for cashiering. He guessed he did recall her but he had met many over the past year.
Dazzling, he thought as he shook her hand. As he walked back to his office, he mused further. A strange thing to think in the middle of the day at work after talking with a new diver. Uh, cashier.
They nodded at each other each morning. At times they passed each other in the aisles and smiled if so inclined. They shared a cup of coffee once more the first month. Some mornings she was not there due to her schedule–he might think of it by lunch time when he vaguely wondered if she’d had a break. He heard nothing but good reports, saw good results. Everyone liked her that was clear, both men and women chatted away with her, both customers or employees.
Ernest once had to pull her aside.
“Mustn’t get too chummy, mind on work, keep the pace brisk, not everything is about personal relations.”
Her pronounced cheeks colored the slightest bit as she turned back to her cash register.”Yes, sir,” she agreed amiably but she was quieter, at least when he appeared.
He felt he might have made her commitment to the store more tenuous by criticizing too soon, so beckoned to her when she was on the way back from the restroom. “You are doing very well, Celeste, keep up the great attitude.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said and hurried on, as if she was only too clear he was the Boss now..
Well, so be it. But he’d been about to say she could have a day shift exclusively if she kept it up. he heard she was taking classes somewhere and wondered if the change would help. He didn’t mention it; let her seek a change if needed, that was best.
All was well at Hale’s Holistic Marketplace, and made better by her being there everyone said. he was about to get a decent raise; he was feeling generous and was about to recommend a couple, too.
Water, the water. He slipped into the deep end without a sound and initial strokes powered him to pool’s center. Slip and slice, rocket through with quiet ease. His lungs were strong and heart steady. His eyes saw legs and feet and hands and arms of others who came for exercise, relief, fun. The color–a rich but soft turquoise, wasn’t this the true and correct color for a pool?–unbound him as well. He felt the sun’s caress although light was primarily overhead lights; he heard the wind in treetops if he pretended long enough. He was entirely himself.
Ernest had lived at a lake for a time before finally marrying Lynette, and if he closed his eyes and floated on his back he was there again. There he was truly liberated from constraint and self-consciousness for the first time, and then various swimming pools were in his life. He was a lucky man to have had them all.
He propelled himself upward and then dove again, slipping through sinuous flow, resistance enough upon his skin to make him work a bit as he sped up. And then–he never imagined or saw it coming– there erupted an explosion beyond his fingertips, wavelets of color with sounds that engulfed him. Someone had dived in, regardless of his presence–though underwater, of course–and forceful bubbles escaped a mouth, legs stirred up the turquoise to a fizzier green-blue.
Before he broke the surface there was a glimpse of a one piece coral suit but then in it was Celeste, her taut, lithe form racing toward air as if to beat him at it. He broke first.
But she didn’t see him, or if she did, she was far more intent on diving. She climbed up, over the edge in one swift movement and strode to the high dive board and walked out like a champ, steely nerves and clear head. He side stroked to the pool edge and watched, hoping to be invisible. Such an elegant form as she bounced once, shoulders and arms clean of line and potent of muscle and legs, too, how all of that moved as she sprang into steamy air. Over and over, a double flip, a clean entry into waiting water and then a quick swim to the edge. And back to the board.
Mesmerized, he forgot about swimming. An amnesia took him from being too little of this and that and the almighty paycheck and residual emptiness and it was just water and her dives and a stillness he felt, an increasing vibration of stillness that somehow moved him as he hadn’t been moved in too long. Celeste and her diving were extraordinary, he saw this in entirety. It was like being awakened from a habit of common thoughts and the dullard of sighing days, then pulled though another dimension where water ruled and Celeste was this creature beyond all others. At least, here. Now.
He put his whole head in the water, resurfaced, shook it hard, got out and went to the roped off lanes to begin necessary laps. He stayed at it long enough that he thought she’d be gone and he’d stop envisioning her dives. Until he rested finally, breathless and wrung out by the cement edge. It was late. Few swimmers were left as it was dinner time. Celeste stared right at him from the distant end, then was gone, too. The last of the light shimmied and skidded across the water and put itself out.
The next day, they didn’t see each other. The following days if happenstance brought their steps toward one another they only nodded, as if nothing had happened. He surmised nothing had, yet he felt as if it had. Yet work was work; swimming was swimming. No one else thought anything was different, and when he looked in the mirror he was the same moderately nice fellow who was short but trim, and smart but not blazingly so, he knew that, and he was lucky to have what he had. But there was something…as if he saw things more clearly, and yet exactly what was it he saw?
This question drove him a little mad–as if a well known picture had been altered, but what and where was the slight mark that had changed all? There was the nagging mystery of it, a puzzle. He kept on with all he knew well and studied it less as the days rolled or lurched by. Lynette only glanced at him a couple of times, as if he said something but she didn’t quite catch and wondered what he meant to say. But he was circumspect as ever. And he never asked her what it was that rippled over her face; she didn’t bother further. he lay in bed listening to her gentle snore and thought she was good at heart but her heart wasn’t really even in this. His was still. But barely, his loyalty and hope the few leaves hanging on a low branch; a gust might do it all in.
Near misses, all.
But there was the pool.
Three times a week, that’s how often he swam laps, when she almost exclusively dove. Some days they came in at different times due to her shifts; some weeks they saw each other once or twice. That is, they spotted each other and almost imperceptibly nodded–and watched one another on occasion as they shared brief performances. Eyes sliding toward the far-off form. They were each expert at what they did so others offered appreciation and wide berth. Ernest was a master of stamina, nuance and fluid rhythms. Celeste was a bolt of lightning, a dancer in midair. Everyone knew their names. Yet the two did not cross paths unless there came a flurry of movement underwater and there–it was her, it was him–closer for a passing moment. No words, no touch.
It was, after all, swimming and diving, water slipping about them and empowering them, transforming a mundane day into eternity, and a blessing. They made the most of it. Their movements meant something, but they couldn’t say exactly what part of a bigger scheme, meanings both nebulous and full of heft and beauty. They awakened in the pool, then gave over to the clarifying brilliance of water. And were happy and no longer alone in their happiness. But they always came and left alone.
Ernest began to chat with people at work, to loosen up a fraction and found he was willing to forgive some wrongness of things from time to time. Then Marv out of the blue sent him a memo: “Remember the bottom line, keep high the bar with your expertise.” It shook up Ernest–had he been failing?– but momentarily. He kept to tasks at hand and learned to relax without slipping up. Others gossiped some about it. He, oddly, had started whistling and caught himself just a bar or so in usually. Celeste heard him but denied it to the others as they snickered, and she just smiled to herself, never veering from the rhythm of her job.
Celeste was working more hours, taking another class and still looking for an accounting job; she wanted more in a life. They worked together, one might run into the other in the break room, and then a briefly shared cup and chatter about ordinary things. He had the family, such busyness, and his good stressful job and there were many little things that made things interesting. They parted as people might who worked together but unequally, each being congenial and going on without a backward glance. They kept their thoughts cool and calm and no one else was allowed access to their knowledge.
The pool never came up; that was the other life they led.
When they swam they were aquatic people, a wilder, finer breed. They moved together, though parallel, within different aspects of water’s identity and embraces. It worked perfectly. And for Ernest, that was excellent enough. For Celeste, it was evidence of an alternate reality of pure love.
6 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Ernest Makes a Splash”
Such a wonderful narrative. I recently watched a Ted Talk on fiction writing. The speaker’s theme was great writing: “makes the reader “care.”
With this story, as in so many others, you have done just that. I truly cared about the three principal characters–yes, even Lynette. 🙂 The spatially separate but spiritually together couple Ernest and Celeste are memorable characters. The highly visual water metaphor works so well, so appropriate. And, the open-ending fit the narrative perfectly. Made me smile.
I enjoyed this story. Yep, this one will go down as one of my favorites!
Oh, Paul, what a lovely thing to read today, I saw Notre Dame burning and then to read such words felt like a balm, small in our wide world of losses but needed. I appreciate your canny comments and specific notations. It is valuable to hear what works–and what may not. And yes, to care–that is the overarching theme in my writing, I hope–that we do not forget our delicate but so resilient human spirit and connectedness, and the beauty which life brings to us even (at times especially) in the midst of heartache and other challenges. How easy to forget, how crucial to remember how valuable this time on earth is, and all we can give to it and others.
Blessings and thanks, Paul.
As good as ever out of your normal element
Can you explain “out of your normal element”, Derrick? Very curious abut that thought. And thank you!
It was about swimming – in water 🙂
I do enjoy writing about water/swimming–thanks for reply, Derrick.