by Christopher Brookhouse


I was in college then and a pretty good diver. Not Olympic material, but I usually placed second or third in competitions. Summers, I lifeguarded.

            Sue said to me, I know your secret. You don’t like water. You’re not a water person.

            I’m talking about 1957. Sue and I went out, but we didn’t sleep together. Ten years later and it would have been a different story. Ten years later people slept together all the time. No thoughts about the long term. What Sue said rankled me. She said lots of things that rankled me. Probably why I didn’t have marriage in mind, not with her anyway.

            What makes you think so? I said.

            You want to be the center of attention. You need air, not water.

            She meant that I liked sitting in my lifeguard chair, twirling the string with my whistle on the end, working on my tan, girls checking me out. Best was standing on the edge of the board, springing it, flexing, preparing myself, everyone watching me.

             I didn’t point out that you can’t drive into an empty pool. I don’t think I ever could have learned to live with Sue.

            We had an act, though, Sue and I. I played a drunk. Drunks used to be funny. Some private pool parties, but usually a summer holiday at one of the country clubs.  Fourth of July, around the time dark was settling in, the gloaming people called it. Kids would be bored because it wasn’t dark enough for fireworks yet. Parents would be kicking back with another Schlitz or planter’s punch, and I’d appear all dressed up in a coat and tie. Pants, of course. Socks, leather shoes, and a hat. Men wore hats then. A straw hat. A Panama. I’d be unsteady on my pins, staggering a bit, several sheets to the wind. People used that expression a lot in those days. The members thought I was one of them who had spent too much time in the bar. They laughed and made rude comments. Not too rude. There were ladies present. I’d wander toward the pool, almost falling over the side into the shallow water. I’d catch myself in time, but I had an audience now, and they could see I was heading toward the deep end, toward the diving board.

            Sue was my accomplice. I’d slip off the steps a couple of times and have to crawl onto the board. Then the question was whether I could stand up or not. I could, barely. I’d stand in the middle of the board, swaying back and forth. Then Sue would elbow her way through the audience. She’d be wearing heels and a dress, like she belonged there and was taking responsibility for guiding me off the board and away from the water. She’d grab my belt and try to steady me, but I’d lean back as far as I could and pull her with me toward the end of the board. There we’d be, me leaning over the darkening water, the audience holding its breath. Sue would give me a desperate tug and I’d spring upright again and throw my arms around her like we were going to dance. The audience would let out its breath. All was well. Then I’d fall back again, and Sue would grab me again, only this time I’d take her with me and both of us would tumble into the water. We’d submerge ourselves and work our way out of our clothes. Sue didn’t wear stockings, only a bathing suit under her dress. I’d break the surface first and swim toward the ladder, Sue following me. I’d climb up, wearing my Speedo, one of the new models with nylon. Sue would follow me in her Esther Williams. The men would whistle. Sue would get hold of a microphone and introduce us. She would tell everyone the dives I was going to do and their degree of difficulty. When the night was dark enough for fireworks, we’d put on our clothes and drink a beer and watch the sky with everyone else.

            One time was different. I’d crawled onto the board and this lady tried to rescue me. Labor Day. The nights had turned chilly. Leaves were falling early. She was wearing a loose sweater over her dress, which was cut low. Sue didn’t like me to touch her breasts. This woman seemed to be offering me hers. She held onto my belt like Sue did. Over my shoulder I saw Sue at the edge of the pool shaking her head. The woman yanked on my belt and stood me up, her face inches from mine. I smelled her breath. I didn’t know how many planter’s punches she’d had, but more than one. Now I was concerned for her. Okay, okay, I said. I tried to put my arm around her. She lost her balance and I held on. She hit the water hard. We both went under. I never close my eyes Most people do. She opened hers and stared at me, as if she wanted to smile but couldn’t. I let go. We both floated up. Her husband or someone knelt down and grabbed her hand and pulled her out of the water. The manager wrapped her in a blanket. I stood there dripping. The members were all on one side of the pool, Sue and I on the other. They turned around and left us alone.

            That was the last time we did the act. School started again. I had enough credits to graduate but was enrolled an extra semester, hoping to beef up my application to law school. Sue planned to graduate in the spring in nursing. Except for taking a psychology course, she was interning at the hospital. She lived at home. Her parents went away a lot. Sue liked to cook. She liked candle light. She wore long skirts and white blouses. She told me some of the things she read in Kinsey. She asked me if I dreamed about her, if I ever had emissions in my sleep.

            At Thanksgiving Sue and her parents rode the train to New York. She shopped and went to plays. I couldn’t afford to go anywhere. I rented a room in an old house, half price because I took out the trash, raked leaves, or shoveled snow. A retired professor owned it. Sometimes he slipped me a little extra.

            I was having a beer at Kane’s tavern near the train station. Kane’s was a dark, quiet place with bowls of pretzels and peanuts. Remember me? the woman asked.

            She pulled off her gloves. Her jewelry shined against her skin. She sat down, snapped open her handbag, and laid a twenty on the bar. The bartender brought her a bourbon and ginger and lit her cigarette.     

            Labor Day, the pool?

            You look different, I said.

            She laughed. Different good or different bad? Then she squeezed my arm. I ask rhetorical questions. You’re not required to answer.

            She offered me a cigarette from the brown pack she’d placed on the bar with her Ronson lighter. Oh, I forgot. You’re in training.

            Not anymore, I said. My eligibility ran out. I explained why I was still in school.

            Law? she asked. The money?

            The law sounds interesting, I said.

            Lot of things sound interesting, but after you do them awhile, they’re not so interesting anymore.

            Like what? I asked.

            She regarded her glass, her cigarettes, and her reflection in the mirror behind the bar.

            Like marriage, she answered.

            Was that your husband who pulled you out of the pool?

            Most of the time.

            What’s that mean?

            Ours is an unconventional relationship.

            You see other people?


            But not here, I bet.     

You making some sort of sociological comment?

            This is a neighborhood bar. No one here belongs to a country club.

            You’re more prickly than I thought. Not angry about me spoiling your show?

            Not at all. The water was cold. I was glad to take the night off.

            I might have kissed you, but I wasn’t in the mood.

            Why are you here?

            I drink. This is a bar.

            You don’t live around here.

            I own property.


            The building next door. The apartments? This light isn’t the brightest, but I recognize a couple of my tenants. My name is Loraine, by the way. Which is also the name of the building.   

            I’m John, I said. She offered me her hand. The bartender came over and we ordered another round. You sure you want to stick with beer? she asked.

            It’s what I can afford, I said.

            Don’t worry about money, she said.

            We sipped our drinks. I smoked one of her cigarettes. What else? I asked. What else isn’t interesting?

            Smoking, drinking, sight seeing, stuff like that.

            Why do them?

            Habits. They don’t mean much anymore. Sight seeing is one habit that never caught on with me. The first smoke of the day is okay. After that, it’s down hill.

            What about drinking?

            The payoff’s at the end. You forget stuff and go to sleep. What about you?

            Smoking and drinking?


            I don’t know.

            You don’t know or you don’t want to know?

            I haven’t had much practice.

            How old are you?


            Are you a virgin?

            Blood burned my ears. May I treat that as a rhetorical question? I asked.

            The witness will please answer, Loraine said.

            Yes, I said.

            When I was your age, I was too.

            I had drunk half my beer. Loraine had almost finished her bourbon and ginger.

            She your girl friend, the one at the club?

            I suppose so. But we’re not pinned or engaged or anything.

            And you don’t sleep together.

            I told you.

            You’ll be bad at it. At first anyway.

            How come?

            Some things take time to learn, Loraine said. She leaned over and pressed her cheek against my arm. Kissing, she said, I think I’m getting in the mood.

            She paid for our drinks, pulled on her gloves, and shut her handbag. She put her arm through mine. We stopped and looked up at the inscription: The Loraine: 1923.                     My father built it the year I was born. I’m a dozen years older than you are. My husband’s fifteen years older that I am. But age doesn’t matter much. It’s what you do with it.  

            Sandstone, not a distinguished building, in Loraine’s opinion. Functional though. Five stories. Long narrow windows, Prairie Style, Loraine said.

            The elevator wasn’t working. Loraine stayed on top floor. I followed her up the stairs, the air layered with cooking smells. I watched her hips sway back and forth, heard, or imagined, the whisper of her nylons.

            I like it up here, Loraine said. It’s unpretentious. We were looking out the window toward the train station. Some of the coal cars had snow on them. Depression Style, Loraine said, referring to the furniture: a couch, an end table, a chair with thin upholstery. Another table in the kitchen and two metal chairs painted yellow. The green chair in the bedroom matched the bedspread. A carving of dark roses decorated the middle of the headboard. Loraine held an ice tray under the tap until the cubes dropped out. She poured herself a drink and one for me. I shook my head. She insisted. It will slow things down, she said.

            Loraine’s mouth was soft. I hadn’t tasted my drink yet, but I breathed in hers. We leaned against the wall and kissed until her lipstick came off on me. Then she excused herself. My drink tasted better than I thought it would. She returned with her slip on. She wasn’t wearing anything under it. She folded back the spread and the blanket. She unbuttoned my shirt and we lay down. She guided my hand where she wanted me to touch her and showed me how to do it. Maybe the whiskey hadn’t kicked in yet. Things went pretty fast.

            Now you’re not a virgin anymore, Loraine said. She fixed us both another drink. The air in the room was plenty warm to keep our clothes off. She sat in the chair and smoked. I stayed in bed with the sheet over part of me. She stared out the window, finished her drink, and got into bed again. Things were slower this time. Afterward, Loraine didn’t say anything. She nestled beside me and fell asleep.

            I’d saved up to go dancing on New Year’s Eve. Sue read me better than I read her. You don’t look different, she said, but you are. I knew she knew, but I didn’t know how much difference it made to her. The waiter brought us sparking wine from New York. He called it champagne. It’s not the real thing, Sue said. We weren’t the real thing either. We decided not to see each other for a while.

            In March, Sue phoned and asked if I’d heard from any law schools. I didn’t apply I said.

            I found a job at the Y teaching kids to swim. Mostly, though, I collected rents for Loraine and made sure things got fixed and the tenants were reasonably content. The job came with a room in the basement, but I slept upstairs. I took my time and learned how much ginger Loraine liked in her bourbon. I preferred it over ice.

            Leon was the name of Loraine’s husband. He was an attorney. Maybe that was why she steered me away from law school. She would get dressed and drive home, two or three o’clock in the morning. Leon expected her to fix him breakfast. I worried about Loraine drinking so much and driving. One morning she ploughed her car into a bridge abutment. She died on the way to the hospital. Sue went with me to buy a suit for the funeral. I thought I would find something at one of the stores that rented clothes for guys to wear to arraignments, stuff like that. Absolutely not, Sue said.

            Leon shook my hand. The other mourners had gone back to their cars. The driver in a Cadillac with fins was waiting for Leon. I’d come in a taxi. Beyond the graves a train was going south, hauling coal. The grass was brittle with cold. Clods of frozen dirt were piled on top of a tarp. I remembered seeing snow the first night I’d slept with Loraine. We’d been together two years. She leaves a taste in your mouth, doesn’t she? Leon said.

            She left me a taste for bourbon and a building. Yes, she willed The Loraine to me on the condition that I stay there. If I sold the building, I could keep ten thousand. Leon read me the will. Lots of people didn’t make that much. You could buy a terrific used car for two hundred.

            In the summer Loraine and I would take blankets, climb out a window, and sun ourselves. There was about six feet of flat roof before the edge of the building. Sometimes we sat on the fire escape, drinking and smoking. I’d balance on one of the steps and steady myself like I was going to dive. I saw faces in the windows across the street watching me. Once someone thought I was going to jump and called the police. Loraine explained the situation. They looked me over and didn’t say anything. I heard one of them tell Loraine she shouldn’t drink so much.

            Sue became an R.N. She rented an apartment close to the hospital. She’d invite me over. I’d buy some steaks and potatoes. Usually we’d watch television. I’d leave early because her shift started at five in the morning. Anyway, I didn’t like driving home in the dark. One night Sue took my hand and led me to her bedroom.

            I appeared a bit tentative. I’m not looking for any promises, she said.

            Loraine was always quiet and dreamy, always looking off somewhere. She wanted you to make love to her. Put a smile on her face. Sue was smiling to start with. She seemed interested in putting a smile on my face. She had more experience than I thought.

Sue was lying on her side. Her thumb stroked my knuckles. I stared at the ceiling. Do you think Loraine loved you? Sue asked.

I don’t know, I said. I never thought about it. But she was always sweet to me.

And she gave you a building.

That doesn’t happen every day.

Sue kept on holding my hand. It was time for me to leave, but I could feel her telling me that I hadn’t answered her question.

I dressed and found my car keys. Loraine taught you well, Sue said.

One night Frank, the bartender at Kane’s, remarked what a nice couple Loraine and I made, how good we were for business. We made people happy. Instead of ordering another drink and listening to Frank anymore, I walked home and drank by myself.

I bought some flowers to take to Loraine’s grave, five years since she’d died. Leon showed up, too. I suppose I thought he would.

Are you seeing anyone? he asked.

Sue. She’s a nurse. I see her sometimes. What about you?

I’m too old to fall in love again, he said.

I was surprised. Leon didn’t seem the type to discuss love. With Sue and me, it’s not love, I said.

Leon leaned forward, his hands crossed on the silver knob of his Irish walking stick. Do you imagine it was love that Loraine felt for you?

I looked past Leon’s thick overcoat to his polished shoes. He had small feet.

She never said she loved me, if that’s what you’re asking.

I’m asking if you believe she loved you?

Leon’s left had hung by his side now. I’d heard sticks like his had lead in them to hit someone with.

Sue asked me the same thing, I said. I told her I’d never thought about it.

Surely you’ve thought about it in the meantime.

I’d sound stupid to say I hadn’t.

It’s not stupid to make a mistake.

Okay, yes, I think she did love me.

Because she was intimate with you and gave you a building?

Did she love you?

Leon rubbed a glove over the silver knob and gazed at it a minute, as if it was a crystal ball in which he could see the past, not the future. She would have settled for companionship, but I quit drinking, he said. Then he walked away.

I saw Sue maybe once a month. I didn’t like to drive anymore and the buses didn’t run regular at night.

I stopped seeing her. The companionship thing, I guess. I’d stay at home, pour a drink, disconnect the phone, watch the darkness come on. I’d imagine myself in my lifeguard chair. Loraine was in the water waving at me, like she was drowning. I thought I ought to save her, but I just watched.

Years have passed. The city took the bar and The Loraine to build a highway. Eminent domain. Since I was forced to sell, I could keep the money. More than ten thousand.

I moved to Arizona. It’s very dry here. That’s fine with me.