“In the Deep End” by Sarah Jennings

At seventy-one years old, Walter carved through the water at a slower, less aggressive pace than his younger more able-bodied self used to do. But he could still feel the same coursing power in his muscles with each pull against the thick liquid. In the water, his body was light and majestic. He reveled in the way he thundered down the roped-off lane, his ears bombarded with dissonant echoes.

With each sideways reach for breath, his ears broke through the muffled din. A child screamed for “Marco,” flailing droplets of water with each desperate blind reach for her hidden “Polo.” Walter found himself falling into rhythm with this back and forth: breathing in fresh air at the screeching “Maaarcohhh,” breathing out into the water at the muffled “Pohhlowww.” He knew without looking that the duo was Marcy Grennich and her great-granddaughter Emily. They could be found in the shallow end of the pool every third Saturday of the month when Marcy’s family came for a day long visit.

If asked, Walter could tell you who would be in the pool on any given day of the week, precisely between nine and ten in the morning, during his morning workout.

Saturday mornings were the most crowded day of the week with all the visiting families, but Walter always found his lane empty and available. There weren’t very many other residents of the Dalewood Retirement Village that swam for exercise. Most of the other swimmers were women who had taken up synchronized swimming, a class which was held every Thursday at ten. Walter couldn’t help but notice that the group started to arrive earlier and earlier with each passing week, their evaluating eyes roaming his body. On those days, Walter would finish his laps to find a group of bathing-capped women drifting leisurely through the water, smiling and waving their manicured nails in his direction.

The women outnumbered the men three to one at Dalewood, and it was difficult for any man to gather his mail without receiving at least two invitations to dinner, if not three. In Walter’s case, the women seemed to have taken a particular interest. They were like ravenous buzzards waiting for their meal. Each time, they pecked and clawed, but he resisted their advances as best he could. Eventually, Walter had to ask his friend Jack to get his mail for him. Jack was married and, therefore, unappealing.

Walter slowed his strokes to allow his body to drift to the end of the lane. He rested his arms on the smooth, cold tile edge that trimmed the pool and floated there, waiting for his breathing to slow and his heartbeat to calm. He closed his eyes and filled his lungs with chlorine drenched air.

“Excuse me. Walter, is it?” Walter turned and saw a woman he had seen at the pool before, but never spoken to. She was one of the few other serious swimmers at the retirement village. He’d watched her swim many times before. She swam gracefully and powerfully through the water, unlike some of the other people who bobbed like lost fishing lures caught in the current.

“Yes, Walter. I’m sorry, ma’am, but I haven’t had the privilege to meet you yet.” Walter extended his hand out to her over the blue, peeling rope that separated the swimming lane from the rest of the pool.

The smile lines surrounding her eyes crinkled deeper into her skin, displaying years of mapped memories. She lifted her hand to meet his and her wet, tiny fingers were swallowed by his wrinkled boat of a hand.

“I’m Virginia, but people call me Gingie.” She pulled her hand out of his grip and adjusted the baby blue, flowered swimming cap that covered her head. Below her right ear, a small wisp of wet, blonde hair clung to her neck.

“I was just wondering when you were gonna be done. Usually you’re out of the pool by now,” she said, glancing sideways at the lane that he was floating in.

“Oh yeah, sure. I’m sorry. I’ll get out of your way right now.”

He took a small breath and, maneuvering quickly, dove under the rope and broke through the surface of the water on the other side.

Walter could feel Marcy Grennich staring daggers at him from her end of the pool. He could have sworn that the noise level of the room had dropped considerably since he stopped swimming. His neck started to prickle, but he kept his back turned to the nosey people.

“Thanks,” Gingie smiled at him again, turning to dive under the rope as Walter had done.

He watched her dip down, her petite frame slipping through the water like silk against silk.

That patch of blonde hair remained fastened to her neck as she emerged on the other side of the rope. Next to it, a small brown freckle stood out against her pale skin. Walter felt a keen desire to reach out and caress that freckle.

“Gingie,” He blurted before he could stop himself, “Could we have dinner sometime?”

She considered him for a moment, feet kicking beneath her, before she said, “Alright. But I’ll never hear the end of this at bridge tomorrow, just so you know.”

Two nights later, Walter sat on the edge of his twin-sized bed, dressed in his favorite pair of emerald green slacks, waiting for 5:45, when he would leave and meet Gingie. He stared across the room at his wife’s old mahogany dresser. On each drawer, next to the iron pulls, were large, flower-shaped blobs of purple paint. His daughter, Maggie, had desecrated Eliza’s favorite piece of furniture with those little blobs on Mother’s Day, 1977. Maggie, who was five years old at the time, had seen a picture in a magazine of a dresser covered in bright purple flowers, which she quickly decided her mother would love. When Eliza found her, purple paint dripping from the ends of the paint brush onto the new beige carpet they had installed a month before, she flew into a screaming fit of flailing red hair and whipping arms.

Walter shook his head at his wife and her dresser. She never did try anything to remove the paint and later told that story as often as opportunity would let her. Only, she never mentioned the rage she flew into or the sound beating she gave Maggie. The way she told it, Maggie was praised for days for her sweet present. Maggie remembered that day a little differently and always grew quiet when her mother told the story. Walter realized later, after other incidents, that Eliza had been more abusive than she let on.

Despite this, he said, “I wish Maggie would forgive you for that.”

He frowned at the large painting of Eliza hanging over the dresser. It was a piece he had commissioned for her on her 62nd birthday, the year they found the cancer. Walter had taken a local painter his favorite picture of her with the firm demand that he get her smile right, but he hadn’t. In the painting, her lips were thin and they looked silly next to her large teeth. It wasn’t the smile Walter knew: the full pink lips that formed a perfect heart when she puckered and spread wide when she laughed, head back and eyes closed. That smile was harder to come by as Eliza’s drinking became more of a problem. But it came back in full blinding force after she rediscovered sobriety.

Walter sighed and slid off the edge of the bed. He shuffled slowly towards the dresser and placed his hands down onto the soft, green cashmere sweater folded on the surface. It was the sweater Eliza was wearing in the painting. She wore it so much that it was the only thing Walter could ever remember seeing her in. He ran his finger along the silver locket that rested atop the sweater, remembering the night he gave it to her. It was during the early sober years.

When it was time for Eliza’s funeral, Maggie fought him over these items. She had wanted to bury her mom in the sweater and necklace but Walter refused to relinquish them, instead choosing to bury his wife in a simple white dress. He told Maggie that her mother would rail at him from beyond if she knew her favorite things were buried under the ground, resting atop her empty, rotting corpse. Really though, he couldn’t bear to let them go.

Eliza was a woman who seemed to carry the Earth’s gravity inside of her. It was only when he was surrounded by her things that he felt grounded again. But her memory always pushed him deeper than he wanted to go, until he felt like he was drowning. He never imagined that death could be so heavy.

Walter straightened the locket and patted it with his wrinkled hand. He would agree that their marriage and their life had been tumultuous, but it was also beautiful. He glanced at his watch and decided that it was close enough to the right time. As he walked towards the front door, Walter wished he was back in the water, where his body was strong and buoyant, not tired and heavy as it felt now.

Walter held the door open for Gingie as they entered Dalewood’s dining hall. The term “dining hall” never sat well with Walter, as the atmosphere resembled something closer to a high class restaurant with its crisp white linens and fine china. It reminded Walter of the restaurant at the Magnolia Country Club, where he had worked as a fitness professional.

The hostess led them towards a table next to the large floor to ceiling windows that overlooked the lake. Dim yellow light filtered through and silvery dust motes danced around the tables, most of which were full. Walter nodded at his friend, Jack, in the corner with his wife, Martha. Martha reminded Walter of a bird, with her puff of yellow hair and sharp features. That resemblance was strengthened now as she tilted her head down to stare at him and Gingie, her glasses clinging to the tip of her long nose.

Walter slid into his seat and tugged at his collar, growing uncomfortable in the heat of the room. He realized too late that he hadn’t pulled Gingie’s chair out for her, but she didn’t seem to have noticed.

June, Walter’s favorite waitress smiled as she reached their table. She was a tall red-head and she reminded Walter of his daughter.

“Looking lovely this evening, June,” Walter lied. She seemed skinnier than the last time he saw her and he wasn’t quite sure how that was possible. He often wanted to ask her to join him for dinner, the nights he came in and sat alone, if only to fill out her frail frame some.

“Thank you, kindly.” June smiled and placed their menus down on top of the white dishes. “What can I get y’all to drink? Water for you, Walter?”

“I think we might like some wine?” Gingie raised her eyebrows at Walter, questioning. He paused, trying to remember the last time he had drunk alcohol. When Eliza quit drinking, he quit with her. That had been over twenty years ago.

“Oh…well, alright. If that’s what you’d like.” He tried to think of what constituted a decent dinner wine, but his mind was blank. “Do you have a preference?”

“A nice merlot, I think, June,” Gingie said. June nodded and turned sharply on her heel, heading back towards the kitchen.

“Isn’t this a lovely view? I just love this time of day.” Gingie stared out the window and Walter followed her gaze. The sky above the pine trees was faded pink. Delicate ripples cascaded down the surface of the lake and Walter could almost feel the tender wind that pushed against the warm, emerald water. They were too deep in the south, too hidden in the shadows of the pine trees, for the muddy water to reflect the sky’s cotton candy hue.

“Oh, yes,” Walter said. “I used to have a house a few miles from here and I loved watching the sunset.”

Gingie cocked her head to the side, a move no doubt perfected in her youth, and smiled. June approached their table with their wine. She nodded silently and poured a large portion into each of their glasses before she disappeared again. The maroon liquid rippled gently and he felt excited to taste it again after all these years. But his chest tightened with old fears and he didn’t reach for the glass.

“Why’d you move here? I mean, Dalewood is a lovely place, but if I had a choice I wouldn’t be in this place.” Gingie lifted her glass to her lips and took a small sip.

Walter thought of the rushed sell of his home almost a year ago. His doctor found a suspicious mole on his back and during the few days that it took to get the results, Walter spun into a deep fear. He heard the word “cancer” and ignored the word “possible.” He was positive that he had received a death sentence and he hadn’t wanted to leave Maggie with the burden of his home and belongings. The day he left the doctor’s office, he put their house up for sale. By the time he found out he was in perfect health, the house had sold and he couldn’t take it back.

Walter fidgeted with the silverware until they were aligned perfectly. “You don’t like it here?”

Gingie pursed her lips momentarily before she took another sip of wine. “Oh, no, it’s very nice. I just didn’t have much choice in the matter. When my husband, Al, died of a heart attack in ’99, I lived by myself for a while. But I ran into some money problems. So then I moved in with my son and his wife.”

Walter was unsure of what to do or say. He hadn’t been on a date since his very first with Eliza, back in 1967. That night, he took her to a small restaurant the exact opposite of this place: dim lighting, cheap wine, and terrible food. It was all he could afford. But she didn’t seem to mind. She made jokes about the melted candle on the table and the way her platform heels stuck to the floor. Eliza had frazzled him more than he let on back then, and Gingie had the same effect on him.

“It was a nightmare,” Gingie said. “I never got along very well with Patrice—that’s Joey’s wife—but she turned into a real pisser when I moved in. She ended up talking him into moving me here. I like to call her Pissin’ Patty.”

Walter laughed, relaxing slightly against his chair. He lifted the glass of wine to his lips and let the warming sensation trickle down his throat.

“I forgot how nice that feels.” Walter frowned at the glass.

“Oh, geez, you’re not an alcoholic are you?” Gingie’s eyes widened and Walter chuckled.

“No, no. My wife was. It’s just been a real long time since I’ve had a drink,” he said.

Walter stared at Gingie’s pink lips. He was so focused on the muted ridge of her upper lip and the way the skin of her lips separated as she spoke, teasing with their tenderness, that he didn’t hear what she said.

“I’m sorry. What was that?” He asked.

“I asked when she passed away.”

“Back in 2007. Five years ago. Lung cancer.” His words came out staccato and flat. Walter was furious and relieved when she gave up treatment after a year.

Gingie lowered her gaze, allowing a moment of silence, before she said, “I’m sorry, Walter.” She reached out and patted his hand on the table.

A shiver ran up his arm. Her skin did feel like silk, just as he’d imagined. He started to twist his palm up to accept her hand, but images of Eliza in the hospital crashed down on him: the colorful patchwork quilt against dark gray walls, the bits of scalp shining through her silver hair, the concave dip of her collarbone. Before he could resurface, Gingie had leaned back against her chair and her hand had slid out of reach.

Walter silently cursed himself and took another sip of his wine.

Gingie said, “Do you have any children?”

“Maggie, my little hellion. She’ll be forty this year,” he said. “Is your son the only one of yours?”

“No, I have two more: Julia and Jennifer. Al had a fixation on ‘J’ names.”

“Hmm,” Walter said, frowning. “Eliza wanted to name our second child a ‘J’ name too…Jessica or Josephine. Maybe Julia, like your daughter. I can’t remember.”

“But you didn’t have a second kid?”

“No…she was drinking heavily at the time we were thinking about it. There was this one night. Oh, I’d forgotten about this. She was blitzed and tossed a teddy bear into the stove with the ham I was cooking for dinner. I had to fish the greasy thing out before a fire started…”

Walter trailed off and clamped his lips together.

“Oh…” Gingie slowly shook her head, searching for words.

His cheeks and neck started to burn. Walter glanced to his left and heads quickly dipped back towards their food. The clinking of forks and knives grew louder. The room had grown darker in the short expanse of time and the sky outside had shifted into soft purples and grays.

Gingie cleared her throat and said, “Does your daughter visit you very often?”

Walter took a deep breath, relieved. This time he decided to lie. “She comes when she has time.” Truthfully, Maggie had only visited him once since he moved in, even though she lived thirty minutes away. “What about yours?”

“Joey is the only one that lives nearby. But I tell him to stay away if he’s planning on bringing Pissin’ Patty along.”

“I think I’d like to meet the woman who can keep up with you.”

“Oh, she’d scare you to death. Mean as a snake. She doesn’t even let my grandbabies have sweets, but I sneak them chocolate when they visit. That’s a love that needs to start when you’re young.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, if you have a nice long affair with it, it’s a little easier to give it up. I had to when I got old enough to be concerned with my figure.” She reached under the table and Walter heard her pat her thigh twice.

“But wouldn’t having something for a longer time make it harder to give up? Because you’ve gotten so used to it? Don’t you kinda come to depend on it?”

Gingie paused with her wine glass half-way to her mouth. “Well, to tell you the truth, I was never able to really give up sweets. That’s a hard battle to fight.” She chortled.

“I think I’d like to see that painting of yours, if you’ll show it to me.” Gingie’s muted reflection in the bronze-plated walls of the elevator mirrored the tilt of her head. A sliver of her hair, which was longer than most women her age, fell in front of her eyes. She swiftly tucked it back behind her ear. Her nails slid slowly along her neck and around the freckle.

“Well, it’s no different from most paintings of Montana. Big sky, wide landscape.” Walter pushed the button for the second floor. His hands trembled slightly.

“No two things are ever the same, Walter.” She moved a little closer and he inhaled her floral perfume. “But you can’t mention something like that and then refuse a gal’s request to see it. That’s just a tease. It’s like when a woman lets you know she’s got good gossip, but she won’t let it lose.”

He couldn’t remember how he wrangled himself out of these situations in his youth. He enjoyed her company, but the date had been a massive leap for him in the first place. And he didn’t want her in his apartment, afraid of what she might see. But he didn’t know how to refuse her, suddenly afraid he’d lose her company.

The elevator door opened and he placed his hand on the side to keep the sensor activated. “Alright, then. Let’s go see it.”

He headed down the hallway, Gingie following. When they entered his apartment, Walter pointed to the large painting hanging above his fireplace. “There it is.”

“You know, you were right. Big sky, wide landscape. But…oh, look at those colors.” Gingie moved closer to the painting. She rested her arms against the mantle and leaned forward. Her fingers hovered over the painting as she traced the swirling colors of the sky.

Walter rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, his hands tucked into the pockets of his pants. Keeping them shoved away seemed to be the only way to stop them from shaking.

“I’m glad you like it. It’s one of my favorites,” Walter said.

Gingie turned and cocked her head to the side, like she had during dinner multiple times. “Since I’m here already, do you mind if I use your bathroom?”

“Oh,” Walter’s heart started pounding like a race horse lurching out of the gate, but he couldn’t think of a way to say no. “Sure. It’s the third door on your right.” He motioned towards the hallway off the living room and Gingie walked away. Her hips swayed a little too dangerously for a woman of seventy-three.

Walter took a deep breath and sat down on the couch before standing up again. He sat back down and began to fidget with the magazines on the coffee table, adjusting the already straight stack. After rearranging the knickknacks on the table repeatedly until he was satisfied, Gingie still hadn’t returned.

He walked down the hallway, the soles of his shoes making a soft swooshing noise against the carpet. “Gingie?”

“I’m in here.”

Walter turned the corner of his bedroom door. She sat on the edge of the bed, framed in the soft moonlight coming through the window. Slowly, Gingie removed the clip from her hair and let it fall loose around her face. As it curled around her shoulders, twenty years seemed to drift to the ground.

“I got a little lost on purpose. Hope you don’t mind.” She winked at him, her smile lines swallowing her eye momentarily.

Walter took a few small steps into the room, pulled by the gravity of her, of the moon, of past desires. His heart continued the wild pitter patter in his ribcage, a mix of excitement and fear. Eliza was the only woman he had ever slept with and he wasn’t sure that he wanted that to change. Gingie rose from the bed and started to approach him. He moved slowly backwards, very aware of Eliza’s picture hanging behind his head, and he prayed that she wouldn’t see it. He desperately needed to get her out of his bedroom.

Suddenly, she threw her body against his. She wrapped her arms around his neck and forced her warm, squishy lips to his. Walter stood petrified for a moment, with her body draped over his like an apron, before he caved. Softening, he wrapped his arms around her.

But she didn’t fit; she felt wrong. Eliza had been a tall woman and Walter never had to stoop before as he did now with Gingie. Eliza’s hands were gentle; they didn’t grip his skin like Gingie’s.

She pushed her body against his more aggressively and Walter backed into the dresser, the drawer pulls clanking with the impact.

“Gingie—I—” Walter sputtered, trying to disentangle himself. He jerked sideways and his hand flung out behind him to meet something hard and cold. He gasped at the sharp sound of breaking glass.

“Oh, Walter, I’m sorry…” Gingie reached out to try and help him collect the shards of glass, but he waved her hands away. Walter clasped his hands around the broken stem. It was one of the wine glasses from his and Eliza’s thirtieth wedding anniversary. They drank non-alcoholic sparkling cider that night. Eliza couldn’t stop giggling as the bubbles tickled her nose.

He turned to Gingie and watched as her gaze shifted slowly from his eyes to the collection beside him. The sweater, the necklace, the marriage license, the jewelry box, the pictures, the rolled up black socks, the salt shaker, the tube of lipstick, the perfume, the small brass bell, the yarn, the stack of letters. Each delicate element layered one on top of the other in a dangerous game of gravity and memorial.

“Walter, this is…” She reached her hand out and her fingers hovered above the towering pile of yellowed letters. As she brought her fingers closer to his memories, Walter’s body tensed.

“Don’t touch that,” he yelled. The glass shards stabbed into his flesh as he clamped down.

“I—I’m sorry….I didn’t mean to…” Gingie staggered backwards, shaking her head back and forth.

“I think maybe you should go…” Walter stepped around her and sat down on the edge of the bed. Blood oozed out of his wound and rippled over the glass.

He kept his eyes down and watched her feet. They remained rooted in their spot, the pointed tips of her shoes resting over the edge of the rug. Neither of them spoke as they remained frozen in their respective embarrassment. Then, her feet moved towards the bed.

“You know, when Al died, he was only 59.” Gingie sat down next to him and pried his fingers open. She removed the bloody fragments of glass and placed them on the bedside table. She pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and pressed hard against his bleeding fingers and palm. “Oh, I was devastated, but I was able to pack up most everything of his except this one coat. It was brown and had these little patches on the elbows. For months, I wore that coat around the house twenty-four-seven. The only time I took it off was to shower…but I wasn’t doing very much of that, anyhow. It was just so warm and it smelled like him. Like peppermint.”

She stared off into the hallway as if she had forgotten he was there. Walter wasn’t sure if her eyes had glazed over or if the moon had found a surface to reflect its light. His hands throbbed.

“But after a while the smell disappeared and I was left with just the warmth. The comfort of him.” She covered his fists with her hands and turned to look at him. “Then, my daughter Jennifer caught me in it. It had been a long time since he passed at this point. She cried and yelled. Nagged and nagged. So after a while, I stopped wearing it. But I still have it.”

Walter couldn’t imagine this strong, aggressive woman as fragile as she described. Walter thought about his Sunday mornings spent carefully dusting and rearranging Eliza’s memorial until he was satisfied. He’d never let the cleaning lady come near it. He was unsure at what point he had transitioned from devoted husband to devoted worshipper.

“Why don’t you tell me about some of this stuff?” She pointed to Walter’s collection.

He followed her gaze. They seemed smaller than they used to and they didn’t seem to connect like the puzzle pieces he had once imagined. He shook his head.

“Come on now,” she said.

Walter stood and went to stand by the dresser. He started to pick up the black socks, but his bloody hands stopped him. He pulled his hands towards his stomach, just above his belt, to keep the dripping blood away from her things.

He closed his eyes and said, “I can’t.”

“Yes, you can…come on.”

He sighed heavily. He nodded in the direction of the black socks. “Alright…those were the socks I wore on our wedding day.” He kept his hands tight against his body, clenching the handkerchief.

“I know those are them because I never owned another pair of black socks. Anyway, she was prettier that day than I can ever remember. She had these little flowers braided into her hair. Bit of a hippie, I guess.” He chuckled.

“But by the time we got on the plane that night there were only a few left. Too much dancing, I guess. So she pulled ‘em out and pressed ‘em between the pages of a book she’d brought to read. And over the next few years on our anniversary, she wrote me a letter and she glued the flowers to the page. I don’t remember what they’re called…they’re blue, see.”

Walter pointed at the stack of letters. Gingie craned her neck from her seat on the bed. “I can’t. Will you hand one to me?” She asked.

He loosened his grip on the handkerchief. Rubbing it between his fingers, he moved his hands away from his body, but still didn’t pick up the letters. “She’d hide the letter somewhere in the house. Wouldn’t let me into bed until I’d found and read the blasted thing. It’s probably a coincidence that she started to drink around the same time she ran out of those flowers…it has to be. She started drinking after her dad died…”

Hunching forward, Walter contemplated Eliza’s tight, compressed handwriting on the top letter. A rubber band stretched tight around the yellowing stack. The edges of the paper curled up away from the center. On the corner, a blue flower rested next to a drawing of a hummingbird with green and pink plumage. The pair had faded over the years. The veins on the petals were darker than the almost opaque skin of the flower. And the hummingbird’s beak, once embracing its new friend, now disappeared halfway towards the flower’s nectar.

“I bought her more flowers,” he said, “I bought her a lot of these blue flowers. I thought she’d start the letters again, but she didn’t. She was never the same. Even after she got sober for good.”

Walter hands seemed to ache more than his heart. He had been shut up alone for so long, with only Eliza’s constantly hovering presence as company, that he had dived under the surface and blocked out the world to remember the details of her face more clearly. But he was drowning. He didn’t want to suffocate anymore.

Tucking the handkerchief into his pocket, he reached his steady hands out towards the letters and picked them up. His shoulders loosened. “I can’t for the life of me remember the name of this flower,” he said.

The bed sagged underneath him as he sat back down next to Gingie. His thumb caressed the bubbly edges of the glue that held the flower in place. A light coating of blood smeared across the yellowing paper.

“Oh dear,” Gingie whispered and pointed. “Walter, you’re getting blood all over it.”

The blood droplet rolled and embraced the tip of the hummingbird’s beak. It soaked into the paper, the maroon edges fading around the bird, but not quite touching it. Other spots of blood marked the edges and red fingerprints smeared across the slanted handwriting.

Instead of wiping the blood droplets away, he set the letter down onto the bed, away from him. He sighed and took her hand in his, caressing her silky fingers, and said, “I’m thirsty. How about we get a drink?”

She smiled. The lines around her eyes were warm and shallow like the folds in his sheets. She nodded and said, “I’d like that.”

SarahSarah Jennings graduated from the University of Alabama in 2012 with a B.A. in English Literature. In April 2014, she graduates from the University of Alabama at Birmingham with her M.A. in English, concentration in creative writing. She is a writing tutor and an assistant for the Director of Creative Writing at UAB. She is also the fiction editor and administrative assistant of poemmemoirstory. Her prose has been published in Dewpoint and her photos have been published in Superarrow.