äÖÏÎ þÉ×ÅÒ. ðÌÏ×ÅÃ (engl)
It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying:
"I drank too much last night." You might have heard it whispered by the
parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself,
struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium* heard it from the gold links
and the tennis courts, heard it from the wild- life preserve where the
leader of the Audubon group* was suffering from a terrible hangover. "I
drank too much," said Donald Westerhazy. "We all drank too much," said
Lucinda Merrill. "It must have been the wine," said Helen Wester- hazy. "I
drank too much of that claret."
This was at the edge of the Westerhazys' pool. The pool, fed by an artesian
well with a high iron content,* was a pale shade of green. It was a fine
day. In the west there was a massive stand of cumulus cloud so like a city
seen from a dis- tance-from the bow of an approaching ship-that it might
have had a name. Lisbon.* Hackensack.* The sun was hot. Neddy Merrill sat by
the green water, one hand in it, one around a glass of gin. He was a slender
man-he seemed to have the especial slenderness of youth-and while he was far
from young he liad slid down his banister that morning and given the bronze
backside of Aphrodite on the hall table* a smack, as he jogged toward the
smell of coffee in his dining room. He might have been compared to a sum-
mer's day,* particularly the last hours of one, and while he lacked a tennis
racket or a sail bag* the impression was definitely one of youth, sport, and
clement weather. He had been swimming and now he was breathing deeply,
stertorously as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that
moment, the heat of the sun, the intense- ness of his pleasure. It all
seemed to flow into his chest. His own house stood in Bullet Park,* eight
miles to the south, where his four beautiful daughters would have had their
lunch and might be playing tennis. Then it occurred to him that by taking a
dogleg* to the southwest he could reach his home by water.
His life was not confining and the delight he took in this observation could
not be explained by its suggestion of escape. He seemed to see, with a
cartographer's eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean
stream that curved across the county.* He had made a discovery, a
contribution to modern geography; he would name the stream Lucinda after his
wife. He was not a practical joker nor was he a fool, but he was
determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a
legendary figure. The day was beautiful and it seemed to him that a long
swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty.
He took off a sweater that was hung over his shoulders and dove in. He had
an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools. He
swam a choppy crawl, breathing either with every stroke or every fourth
stroke and counting somewhere well in the back of his mind the one-two
one-two of a nutter kick. It was not a serviceable stroke for long distances
but the domestication of swimming had saddled the sport with some customs
and in his part of the world a crawl was customary. To be embraced and
sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the
resumption of a natural condition, and he would have liked to swim without
trunks, but this was not possible, considering his project. He hoisted
himself up on the far curb-he never used the ladder-and started across the
lawn. When Lucinda asked where he was going he said he was going to swim'
The only maps and charts he had to go by were remembered or imaginary but
these were clear enough. First there were the Grahams, the Hammers, the
Lears, the Howlands, and the Crosscups. He would cross Ditmar Street to the
Bunkers and come, after a short portage, to the Levys, the Welchers, and the
public pool in Lan- caster.* Then there were the Hallorans, the Sachses, the
Biswangers, Shirley Adams, the Gil- martins, and the Clydes. The day was
lovely, and that he lived in a world so generously supplied with water
seemed like a clemency, a beneficence. His heart was high and he ran across
the grass. Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling
that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny, and he knew that
he would find friends all along the way; friends would line the banks of the
He went through a hedge that separated the Westerhazys' land from the
Grahams', walked under some flowering apple trees, passed the shed that
housed their pump and filter, and came out at the Grahams' pool. "Why,
Neddy," Mrs. Graham said, "what a marvelous surprise. I've been trying to
get you on the phone all morning. Here, let me get you a drink." He saw
then, like any explorer, that the hospitable customs and traditions of the
natives would have to be handled with diplomacy if he was ever going to
reach his destination. He did not want to mystify or seem rude to the
Grahams nor did he have the time to linger there. He swam the length of
their pool and joined them in the sun and was rescued, a few minutes later,
by the arrival of two carloads of friends from Connecticut.* During the up-
roarious reunions he was able to slip away. He went down by the front of the
Grahams' house, stepped over a thorny hedge, and crossed a vacant lot to the
Hammers'. Mrs. Hammer, looking up from her roses, saw him swim by although
she wasn't quite sure who it was. The Lears heard him splashing past the
open windows of their living room. The Howlands and the Crosscups were away.
After leaving the Rowlands' he crossed Ditmar Street and started for the
Bunkers', where he could hear, even at that distance, the noise of a party.
The water refracted the sound of voices and laughter and seemed to suspend
it in midair. The Bunkers' pool was on a rise and he climbed some stairs to
a terrace where twenty-five or thirty men and women were drinking. The only
person in the water was Rusty Towers, who floated there on a rubber raft. Oh
how bonny and lush were the banks of the Lucinda River! Prosperous men and
women gathered by the sapphire-colored waters while caterer's men in white
coats passed them cold gin. Overhead a red de Haviland trainer* was circling
around and around and around in the sky with something like the glee of a
child in a swing. Ned felt a passing affec- tion for the scene, a tenderness
for the gathering, as if it was something he might touch. In the distance he
heard thunder. As soon as Enid Bunker saw him she began to scream: "Oh look
who's here! What a marvelous surprise! When Lucinda said that you couldn't
come I thought I'd die." She made her way to him through the crowd, and when
they had finished kissing she led him to the bar, a progress that was slowed
by the fact that he stopped to kiss eight or ten other women and shake the
hands of as many men. A smiling bartender he had seen at a hundred parties
gave him a gin and tonic and he stood by the bar for a moment, anxious not
to get stuck in any conversation that would delay his voyage. When he seemed
about to be surrounded he dove in and swam close to the side to avoid
colliding with Rusty's raft. At the far end of the pool he bypassed the
Tomlinsons with a broad smile and jogged up the garden path. The gravel cut
his feet but this was the only unpleas- antness. The party was confined to
the pool, and as he went toward the house he heard the bril- liant, watery
sound of voices fade, heard the noise of a radio from the Bunkers' kitchen,
where someone was listening to a ballgame. Sunday afternoon. He made his way
through the parked cars and down the grassy border of their drive- way to
Alewives' Lane.* He did not want to be seen on the road in his bathing
trunks but there was no traffic and he made the short distance to the Levys'
driveway, marked with a private property sign and ,a green tube* for the New
York Times* All the doors and windows of the big house were open but there
were no signs of life; not even a dog barked. He went around the side of the
house to the pool and saw that the Levys had only recently left. Glasses and
bottles and dishes of nuts were on a table at the deep end, where there was
a bathhouse or gazebo,* hung with Japanese lanterns. After swimming the pool
he got himself a glass and poured a drink. It was his fourth or fifth drink
and he had swum nearly half the length of the Lucinda River. He felt tired,
clean, and pleased at that moment to be alone; pleased with every- thing.
It would storm. The stand of cumulus cloud- that city-had risen and
darkened, and while he sat there he heard the percussiveness of thunder
again. The de Haviland trainer was still circling overhead and it seemed to
Ned that he could almost hear the pilot laugh with pleasure in the
afternoon; but when there was another peal of thunder he took off for home.
A train whistle blew and he wondered what time it had gotten to be. Four?
Five? He thought of the provincial station at that hour, where a waiter, his
tuxedo concealed by a raincoat, a dwarf with some flowers wrapped in
newspaper, and a woman who had been crying would be waiting for the local.
It was suddenly growing dark; it was that moment when the pin-headed birds
seem to organize their song into some acute and knowledgeable recogni- tion
of the storm's approach. Then there was a fine noise of rushing water from
the crown of an oak at his back, as if a spigot there had been turned. Then
the noise of fountains came from the crowns of all the tall trees. Why did
he love storms, what was the meaning of his excitement when the door sprang
open and the rain wind fled rudely up the stairs, why lead the simple task
of shutting the windows of an old house seemed fitting and urgent, why did
the first watery notes of a storm wind have for him the unmistakable sound
of good news, cheer, glad tidings? Then there was an explosion, a smell of
cordite, and rain lashed the Japanese lanterns that Mrs. Levy had bought in
Kyoto* the year before last, or was it the year before that?
He stayed in the Levys' gazebo until the storm had passed. The rain had
cooled the air and he shivered. The force of the wind had stripped a maple
of its red and yellow leaves and scattered them over the grass and the
water. Since it was midsummer the tree must be blighted, and yet he felt a
peculiar sadness at this sign of autumn. He braced his shoulders, emptied
his glass, and started for the Welchers' pool. This meant cross- ing the
Lindleys' riding ring and he was surprised to find it overgrown with grass
and all the jumps* dismantled. He wondered if the Lindleys had sold their
horses or gone away for the summer and put them out to board.* He seemed to
remember having heard something about the Lindleys and their horses but the
memory was unclear. On he went, barefoot through the wet grass, to the Wel-
chers', where he found their pool was dry.
This breach in his chain of water disappointed him absurdly, and he felt
like some explorer who seeks a torrential headwater and finds a dead stream.
He was disappointed and mystified. It was common enough to go away for the
summer but no one ever drained his pool. The Welchers had definitely gone
away. The pool furniture was folded, stacked, and covered with a tarpaulin.
The bathhouse was locked. All the windows of the house were shut, and
when he went around to the driveway in front he saw a for-sale sign nailed
to a tree. When had he last heard from the Welchers-when, that is, had he
and Luanda last regretted an invitation to dine with them. It seemed only a
week or so ago. Was his memory failing or had he so disciplined it in the
repres- sion of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of the truth?
Then in the distance he heard the sound of a tennis game. This cheered him,
cleared away all his apprehensions and let him regard the overcast sky and
the cold air with indifference. This was the day that Neddy Merrill swam
across the county. That was the day! He started off then for his most
Had you gone for a Sunday afternoon ride that day you might have seen him,
close to naked, standing on the shoulders of route 424,* waiting for a
chance to cross. You might have wondered if he was the victim of foul play,
had his car broken down, or was he merely a fool. Standing barefoot in the
deposits of the highway-beer cans, rags, and blowout patches*-exposed to all
kinds of ridicule, he seemed pitiful. He had known when he started that this
was a part of his journey-it had been on his maps-but con- fronted with the
lines of traffic, worming through the summery light, he found himself
unprepared. He was laughed at, jeered at, a beer can was thrown at him, and
he had no dignity or humor to bring to the situation. He could have gone
back, back to the Westerhazys', where Lucinda would still be sitting in the
sun. He had signed nothing, vowed nothing, pledged nothing not even to
himself. Why, believing as he did, that all human obduracy was susceptible
to common sense, was he unable to turn back? Why was he determined to
complete his journey even if it meant putting his life in danger? At what
point had this prank, this joke, this piece of horseplay become serious? He
could not go back, he could not even recall with any clearness the green
water at the Westerhazys', the sense of inhaling the day's components, the
friendly and relaxed voices saying that they had drunk too much. In the
space of an hour, more or less, he had covered a distance that made his
An old man, tooling* down the highway at fifteen miles an hour, let him get
to the middle of the road, where there was a grass divider. Here he was
exposed'to the ridicule of the north- bound traffic, but after ten or
fifteen minutes he was able to cross. From here he had only a short walk to
the Recreation Center at the edge of the Village of Lancaster, where there
were some handball courts and a public pool.
The effect of the water on voices, the illusion of brilliance and suspense,
was the same here "as it had been at the Bunkers' but the sounds here were
louder, harsher, and more shrill, and as soon as he entered the crowded
enclosure he was confronted with regimentation. "ALL SWIM- MERS MUST TAKE A
SHOWER BEFORE USING THE POOL. ALL SWIMMERS MUST USE THE FOOTBATH. ALL
SWIMMERS MUST WEAR THEIR IDENTIFICATION DISKS." He took a shower, washed his
feet in a cloudy and bitter solution and made his way to the edge of the
water. It stank of chlorine and looked to him like a sink. A pair of life-
guards in a pair of towers blew police whistles at what seemed to be regular
intervals and abused the swimmers through a public address system. Neddy
remembered the sapphire water at the Bunkers' with longing and thought that
he might contaminate himself-damage his own prosper- ousness and charm-by
swimming in this murk, but he reminded himself that he was an explorer, a
pilgrim, and that this was merely a stagnant bend in the Lucinda River. He
dove, scowling with distaste, into the chlorine and had to swim with his
head above water to avoid collisions, but even so he was bumped into,
splashed and jostled. When he got to the shallow end both life- guards were
shouting at him: "Hey, you, you without the identification disk, get outa*
the water." He did, but they had no way of pursuing him and he went through
the reek of suntan oil and chlorine out through the hurricane fence* and
passed the handball courts. By crossing the road he entered the wooded part
of the Halloran estate. The words were not cleared and the foot- ing was
treacherous and difficult until he reached the lawn and the clipped beech
hedge that en- circled their pool.
The Hallorans were friends, an elderly couple of enormous wealth who seemed
to bask in the suspicion that they might be Communists. They were zealous
reformers but they were not Com- munists, and yet when they were accused, as
they sometimes were, of subversion, it seemed to grati- fy and excite them.
Their beech hedge was yellow and he guessed this had been blighted like the
Levys' maple. He called hullo, hullo, to warn the Hallorans of his approach,
to palliate his invasion of their privacy. The Hallorans, for reasons that
had never been explained to him, did not wear bathing suits. No explanations
were in order, really. Their nakedness was a detail in their uncompromising
zeal for reform and he stepped politely out of his trunks before he went
through the opening in the hedge.
Mrs. Halloran, a stout woman with white hair and a serene face, was reading
the Times* Mrs. Halloran was taking beech leaves out of the water with a
scoop. They seemed not surprised or displeased to see him. Their pool was
perhaps the oldest in the county, a fieldstone rectangle,* fed by a brook.
It had no filter or pump and its i; waters were the opaque gold of the
I "I'm swimming across the county," New said. I "Why, I didn't know one
could," exclaimed 1 Mrs. Halloran.
"Well, I've made it from the Westerhazys'," Ned said. "That must be about
He left his trunks at the deep end, walked to the shallow end, and swam this
stretch. As he was pulling himself out of the water he heard Mrs. Halloran
say: "We've been terribly sorry to hear about all your misfortunes, Neddy."
"My misfortunes?" Ned asked. "I don't know what you mean."
"Why, we heard that you'd sold the house and that your poor children..."
"I don't recall having sold the house," Ned said, "and the girls are at
"Yes," Mrs. Halloran sighed. "Yes..." Her voice filled the air with an
unseasonable melan- choly and Ned spoke briskly. "Thank you for the swim."
"Well, have a nice trip," said Mrs. Halloran.
Beyond the hedge he pulled on his trunks and fastened them. They were loose
and he wondered if, during the space of an afternoon, he could have lost
some weight. He was cold and he was tired and the naked Hallorans and their
dark water had depressed him. The swim was too much for his strength but how
could he have guessed this, sliding down the banister that morn- ing and
sitting in the Westerhazys' sun? His arms were lame. His legs felt rubbery
and ached at the joints. The worst of it was the cold in his bones and the
feeling that he might never be warm again. Leaves were falling down around
him and he smelled woodsmoke on the wind. Who would be burning wood at this
time of year?
He needed a drink. Whiskey would warm him, pick him up, carry him through
the last of his journey, refresh his feeling that it was original and
valorous to swim across the county. Channel swimmers took brandy. He needed
a stimulant. He crossed the lawn in front of the Hallorans' house and went
down a little path to where they had built a house for their only daughter
Helen and her husband Eric Sachs. The Sachses' pool was small and he found
Helen and her husband there.
"Oh, Neddy," Helen said. "Did you lunch at Mother's?"
"Not really," Ned said. "I did stop to see your parents." This seemed to be
explanation enough. "I'm terribly sorry to break in on you like this but
I've taken a chill and I wonder if you'd give me a drink."
"Why, I'd love to," Helen said, "but there hasn't been anything in this
house to drink since Eric's operation. That was three years ago."
Was he losing his memory, had his gift for concealing painful facts let him
forget that he had sold his house, that his children were in trouble, and
that his friend had been ill? His eyes slipped from Eric's face to his
abdomen, where he saw three pale, sutured scars, two of them at least a foot
long. Gone was his navel, and what, Neddy thought, would the roving hand,
bed-checking* one's gifts at 3 A.M. make of a belly with no navel, no link
to birth, this breach in the succession?
"I'm sure you can get a drink at the Biswan- gers'," Helen said. "They're
having an enormous do. You can hear it from here. Listen!"
She raised her head and from across the road, the lawns, the gardens, the
woods, the fields, he heard again the brilliant noise of voices over water.
"Well, I'll get wet," he said, still feeling that he had no freedom of
choice about his means of travel. He dove into the Sachses' cold water and,
gasping, close to drowning, made his way from one end of the pool to the
other. "Lu- cinda and I want terribly to see you," he said over his
shoulder, his face set toward the Bis- wangers'. "We're sorry it's been so
long and we'll call you very soon."
He crossed some fields to the Biswangers' and the sounds of revelry there.
They would be honored to give him a drink, they would be hap- py to give him
a drink, they would in fact be lucky to give him a drink. The Biswangers
invited him and Lucinda for dinner four times a year, six weeks in advance.
They were always rebuffed and yet they continued to send out their invita-
tions, unwilling to comprehend the rigid and un- democratic realities of
their society. They were the sort of people who discussed the price of
things at cocktails, exchanged market tips* during dinner, and after dinner
told dirty stories to mixed company. They did not belong to Neddy's set-they
were not even on Lucinda's Christmas card list.* He went toward their pool
with feel- ings of indifference, charity, and some unease, since it seemed
to be getting dark and these were the longest days of the year. The party
when he joined it was noisy and large. Grace Biswanger was the kind of
hostess who asked the opto- metrist,* the veterinarian, the real-estate
dealer and the dentist. No one was swimming and the twilight, reflected on
the water of the pool, had a wintry gleam. There was a bar and he started
for this. When Grace Biswanger saw him she came toward him, not
affectionately as he had every right to expect, but bellicosely,
"Why, this party has everything," she said loudly, "including a gate
She could not deal him a social blow-there was no question about this and he
did not flinch. "As a gate crasher," he asked politely, "do I rate a drink?"
"Suit yourself," she said. "You don't seem to pay much attention to
She turned her back on him and joined some guests, and he went to the bar
and ordered a whiskey. The bartender served him but he served him rudely.
His was a world in which the cater- er's men kept the social score, and to
be rebuffed by a part-time barkeep meant that he had suf- fered some loss of
social esteem. Or perhaps the man was new and uninformed. Then he heard
Grace at his back say: "They went for broke* overnight-nothing but
income-and he showed up drunk one Sunday and asked us to loan him five
thousand dollars. . ." She was always talking about money. It was worse than
eating your peas off a knife. He dove into the pool, swam its length and
The next pool on his list, the last but two, belonged to his old mistress,
Shirley Adams. If he had suffered any injuries at the Biswangers' they would
be cured here. Love-sexual roughhouse in fact-was the supreme elixir, the
painkiller, the brightly colored pill that would put the spring back into
his step, the joy of life in his heart. They had had an affair last week,
last month, last year. He couldn't remember. It was he who had broken it
off, his was the upper hand, and he stepped through the gate of the wall
that sur- rounded her pool with nothing so considered as* self-confidence.
It seemed in a way to be his pool as the lover, particularly the illicit
lover, enjoys the possessions of his mistress with an authority unknown to
holy matrimony. She was there, her hair the color of brass, but her figure,
at the edge of the lighted, cerulean water, excited in him no profound
memories. It had been, he thought, a lighthearted affair, although she had
wept when he broke it off. She seemed confused to see him and he wondered if
she was still wounded. Would she, God forbid, weep again?
"What do you want?" she asked.
"I'm swimming across the county."
"Good Christ. Will you ever grow up?"
"What's the matter?" ;
"If you've come here for money," she said, "I won't give you another cent."
"You could give me a drink."
"I could but I won't. I'm not alone."
"Well, I'm on my way."
He dove in and swam the pool, but when he tried to haul himself up onto the
curb he found that the strength in his arms and his shoulders had gone, and
he paddled to the ladder and climbed out. Looking over his shoulder he saw,
in the lighted bathhouse, a young man. Going out onto the dark lawn he
smelled chrysanthemums or marigolds-some stubborn autumnal fragrance- on the
night air, strong as gas. Looking overhead he saw that the stars had come
out, but why should he seem to see Andromeda, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia?* What
had become of the constella- tions of midsummer?* He began to cry.
It was probably the first time in his adult life that he had ever cried,
certainly the first time in his life that he had ever felt so miserable,
cold, tired, and bewildered. He could not understand the rudeness of the
caterer's barkeep or the rude- ness of a mistress who had come to him on her
knees and showered his trousers with tears. He had swum too long, he had
been immersed too long, and his nose and his throat were sore from the
water. What he needed then was a drink, some company, and some clean dry
clothes, and while he could have cut directly across the road to his home he
went on to the Gilmartins' pool. Here, for the first time in his life, he
did not dive but went down the steps into the icy water and swam a hobbled
side stroke* that he might have learned as a youth. He staggered with
fatigue on his way to the Clydes' and paddled the length of their pool,
stopping again and again with his hand on the curb to rest. He climbed up
the ladder and wondered if he had the strength to get home. He had done what
he wanted, he had swum the county, but he was so stupefied with exhaustion
that his triumph seemed vague. Stooped, holding onto the gateposts for
support, he turned up the driveway of his own house.
The place was dark. Was it so late that they had all gone to bed? Had
Lucinda stayed at the Westerhazys' for supper? Had the girls joined her
there or gone someplace else? Hadn't they agreed, as they usually did on
Sunday, to regret all their invitations and stay at home? He tried the
garage doors to see what cars were in but the doors were locked and rust
came off the handles onto his hands. Going toward the house, he saw that the
force of the thunderstorm had knocked one of the rain gutters loose. It hung
down over the front door like an umbrella rib, but it could be fixed in the
morning. The house was locked, and he thought that the stupid cook or the
stupid maid must have locked the place up until he remembered that it had
been some time since they had employed a maid or a cook. He shouted, pounded
on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at
the windows, saw that the place was empty.
John Cheever. The swimmer
Last-modified: Fri, 13 Dec 2002 09:21:01 GMT