Summer of ’66, just months after our kid brother Jesse bled to death, my sister Maddie decided she wanted to swim. By then, our father’d already been forced to sell the split-level dream home he’d designed on Broken Arrow Road because of all the canceled insurance policies and the hospital bills and the steady slide of his business since he’d turned things over to his partner, Hap. The November 1963 issue of Architectural Digest had just published an exterior photo shot of the house my father’d built for us kids to grow up in, the photo caption above reading, Home of Architect William Barret Travis Truitt, Jr., the caption below asking the question, “Is this the Mies van der Rohe of Big D?” But a week later, November 22, Lee Harvey Oswald shot J. F. K. from the Texas Book Depository downtown, and three days later, as we watched John-John salute his father’s flag-draped coffin and caisson in the funeral procession across our snowy black and white TV, Jesse blacked out with a nose bleed and tumbled down a short, crooked stairway and into his first coma.
That house had been like a fifties B-Movie spaceship to me, all glass and curved ceilings and walls and forty-five degree angles and cantilevered decks and flying stairs between split levels jutting in and out of each other, a maze of hallways and hidden rooms that my sister Maddie and Jesse were always losing themselves in before we were forced to move out.
That house on Broken Arrow had a new chevron-shaped pool in the backyard which my father’s brother R. E. had designed and back-hoed from black gumbo dirt and tied with rusty rebar and shot with gunite and troweled all the walls and cool the deck himself. But after the pool was finished and set and full of sun-blinding blue water, Jesse and Maddie refused to swim in it. Nothing could get the two of them into that pool, nothing. My father would entice Jesse to the pool’s edge with an Eskimo Pie, would promise to take Maddie to Six Flags Over Texas if she’d just stand on the first step down the ladder to the shallow end, but neither of them would put even a toe in the water.
So next to the big pool my mother set up a small vinyl wading pool for Maddie and Jesse, a three-tubed job from Fed-Mart with a slow leak and a smirking wide-eyed mermaid that grinned up at me as I blew myself blue-faced and breathless inflating the tubes summer mornings.
Whenever Jesse had another nosebleed or a relapse and my parents had to rush him back to Baylor Hospital, whenever we kids were all supposed to do the drill—get dressed and packed in time to rush off to our aunt Netty’s or to our grandmother Hanny’s house in east Dallas to stay for a week or a month—Maddie would scatter her clothes from her dresser drawers all across her bedroom floor and throw off all her clothes and run naked and screaming a long high note out into the backyard, into her and Jesse’s wading pool. And whenever Jesse was back in remission and back home and my mother took him out to the pool to sit in the water on hot afternoons of that last summer he was alive, Maddie would hold him and hold him and wouldn’t let go, or she’d splash cold water into his face over and over again, till he slapped her or stuck his finger in his ear and stared off blue-eyed at the sky.
Maddie refused to swim again until the following summer, six months after we’d moved into an awful green-shuttered rental house too small for any of us, three months after Jesse had fallen into his last coma at Baylor Hospital. Maddie’d just turned seven. Jesse, the youngest, had been two when he first got sick and three when he died, and I was eleven, my sister Hanna ten, my brother Nate five. We still had the blow-up Fed-Mart pool when we moved to Estate Lane, but it had grown so black with mildew and was so patched and cracked it no longer held air, and my father threw it out, hoping Maddie wouldn’t notice. She did, of course—pitched a big fit—and there was no more chevron-shaped pool for any of us to swim in any more. Maddie hounded my father and cried all the time and ran around the house knocking over all the dining room chairs and lamps and bar stools and even our Emerson black and white TV while my father and I watched The Rifleman.
“Goddamn it, little girl,” he said, snatching her up running past him. He flipped her head-over-foot like Lucas McCain spin-cocking his Winchester 1892 Saddle Ring Carbine, then threw her over his knee and gave her a few hard swats on the backside. After that, she just screamed and squirmed and kicked and slapped at my father’s face and chest till he’d fisted her wrists and picked her up hanging in the air in front of him.
“All right, for chrissakes,” he shouted, almost spitting into her face, “I’ll take you to a goddamn pool tomorrow.”
Carrying her kicking over his shoulder into the kitchen to my mother at the sink, he rushed back to the living room and put the TV back on its stand, cursing as he readjusted the rabbit ears with aluminum foil, fiddling away the static on the screen till finally we could see Johnny Crawford shouting, “Pa!” and Chuck Connors shooting down a dozen bad men rapid-fire dead, falling to the dusty streets of North Fork.
The only pool my father could think of to take us to the next day was our crazy-mean grandmother Evelyn’s apartment pool in University Park—the only pool, he said, that might be safe. Even then, I knew how hard it was for my father to take us there. He hadn’t talked to his mother since the day before Jesse’s funeral, which she hadn’t shown up for—my father’d buried Jesse in the adult plot next to my father’s long-dead father where his mother’d planned to be buried herself—but my father said he’d rather put up with his goddamn mother again, no matter what kind of crap she’d pull this time, than take us kids to the public pool at McCree Park. He didn’t want to take any chances with us kids catching polio, he told my mother, and she shook her head and said, “What are you talking about, Deuce? No one’s caught polio from a Dallas pool since the thirties, when you and I were kids.”
But my father wouldn’t listen to her. We could always catch something, he said, you never know, and he called up his mother right off and asked her if he—if his children—could use her pool, if she wouldn’t mind. These were the first words he’d said to her since she and my father and my uncle R. E. had argued for an hour in the funeral director’s office at Restland, till my father walked out of the office, shouting, “Thank you, Mother. Thank you for all your kindness to my wife and my children over the years, and fuck you, mother. Fuck you.”
The first thing Maddie did when we got to Evelyn’s apartment pool was run to the deep end and jump. My father, just off from work that afternoon, threw off his sports jacket and his turtleneck and his maroon dress shoes, and he ran across the pool deck in his silk socks, diving straight down to Maddie, who’d sunk to the bottom of the pool. When he broke the surface again, gasping with her in his arms, Maddie coughed and let out a high, trilling laugh, and my father pulled himself up dripping from the deep-end ladder with Maddie flung over his shoulder, the short red hair of his widow’s peak curling down over his forehead, his slacks stuck to the skin of his thighs and calves, slipping down in back so that the label of his BVDs stuck out. He put Maddie down, her bare feet slapping the concrete deck, and he shook her hard by the shoulders and shouted in to her face, “Don’t you ever ever ever do that again, you hear me, little girl?” Then he spun her around like a dancer and gave her a wet slap on her back end, the loud pop echoing out across the water, but when he asked her again, “Do you hear me?” she just shook her head back and forth and slung water from her long red hair into my father’s face, laughing at him, coughing, her chlorine-red eyes wide and shining with tears.
My father frowned down at her, shook his head, then let out a long sigh and with both palms swept her wet hair out of her face.
“Can’t you control your children?” our grandmother Evelyn said behind him.
“What?” my father said, turning to face her.
“Your child,” Evelyn said, her arms folded, her one-piece bathing suit crimping the white cellulite of her thighs like mashed potatoes, her hennaed hair stiff and carrot-colored. As usual, she’d painted on wide red lips outside the outlines of her own thin lips like a circus clown.
“You’ve lost control,” she said, “of your children.”
“Is that all you can think about, Mother?” my father said, looking down at Maddie. “What about her? Don’t you give a damn about her? She almost drowned, for god’s sake.”
“She seems all right to me,” Evelyn said, then bent over to touch the top of Maddie’s wet hair with the tip of her fingertip—like Maddie had some terrible disease. “Are you all right, child?” Maddie looked up at her and blinked. “See? She’s all right. She’s just fine.”
“Oh, for god’s sake. Come on, Maddie. Let’s go to the shallow end, baby. You can jump from over there, all right?” My father took Maddie by the hand and pulled her stumbling along the edge of the pool, till she’d leaned back against his grip and slowed him to a stop, then leaned back even farther, pulling him the other way. My father jerked back and pulled Maddie up off her feet, gripped her by the shoulders and lifted her straight up into the air, then put her back down and held her there, pushing down on her shoulders, as if that would anchor her. Then he let her go and pointed out to the water. “All right, baby. It’s shallow here. You can jump in here. Right here. I’ll watch you, all right?” But Maddie looked up at my father, then down at the water and bolted back towards me standing on the diving board at the deep end.
“See?” my grandmother said. “I told you. I never once lost control of you boys.”
My father shook his head. “No, Mother, you didn’t. That’s for goddamn sure.”
When my father and Uncle R. E. were kids, my father like to tell us kids, his mother’d raised him and his brother up with a horsewhip to keep them both in line, and she wasn’t afraid of using it—because that’s how she’d been raised, with the same horsewhip her Aunt Bama had used on her after her father abandoned her as a girl to grow up without her brother Tom Ponder in Iuka, Mississippi.
Us kids had it good, my father like to remind us. He’d never ever use a horsewhip on his own kids, not in a million years, though he was happy to use his belt or his hand or anything else that happened to be handy.
When my father saw Maddie running towards me, he said, “Jesus,” and shouted at me, “Stop her, will you, Travis?” Then he pulled up his sagging wet slacks and cinched them tight with his soggy belt. He turned his back to Maddie and me for a just moment, then turned on his mother. “Lost control? Jesus Christ, Mother. Have you ever lost a child?”
I’d started to hop off the diving board and run around the corner of the pool to catch Maddie, but already she’d jumped into the deep end a second time.
I looked up from the diving board to see Evelyn staring down at her red toenails. “I’ve lost them both,” she said. “I’ve lost Robert. I’ve lost you.”
“You’ve not lost us, Mother,” he said, his hands on his hips. “Hell, you’ve run us off.”
I looked down from the bobbing end of the diving board and saw Maddie floating face down close to the bottom of the pool, next to the pool’s drain grates, motionless, as if she were just resting there, the sunlight shimmering blue on her white freckled shoulders and her one-piece mermaid bathing suit, her red hair floating in the water like seaweed, like wings.
“Dad?” I said.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” my father shouted. “You don’t give a good goddamn about any of them, do you, Mother? Sure as hell not enough to go to one of their goddamn funerals. And you don’t give a damn about me. The only person you give a good damn about is yourself.”
I looked down from the end of the diving board, stood up on my toes, dropped back to my heels, stood up on my toes again, the board nodding under me. I wanted to dive but couldn’t. Maddie hadn’t moved. She was still there, lying on the bottom, her hair floating around her head like the long sunburned grass grown up around Jesse’s grave.
“Dad,” I said, louder.
But Evelyn was shouting now. “I don’t have to listen to this filth anymore, especially not from my own blood. I wasn’t going to bring up the terrible things you said to me at Restland, the terrible things you did, but I will not be talked to or treated like that again, do you understand me?” Evelyn slapped my father, then picked up the towel he’d just thrown down and wadded it up, tossing it out into the pool.
Then she began to cry. “Why’d you do that to me, Billy? Why do you hate me so much?” Evelyn pushed my father in the chest. “Why?” she said and pushed him again.
When she couldn’t budge him towards the pool, she tried to pick up the white wrought iron table next to him but dropped it clanging to the deck. Then she dragged the table squealing to the edge of the pool and tried to push it in. “Oh,” she said again, leaning back against the end of the table and tumbling with it out into the shallow end, staying underwater only a moment, then standing up and wiping her dripping wet hair out of her eyes, smearing her black mascara, coughing and weeping wildly, pointing straight up into the air and shouting, “Out! I want these children out of my pool! Right this instant!”
“Dad!” I shouted from the diving board.
Only then did my father hear me. He turned and looked around for Maddie and saw her floating above the pool drain and ran to the deep end of the pool, but by the time he’d gotten there I’d already taken a deep breath and dove.
Lex Williford has taught in the writing programs at Southern Illinois University, the University of Missouri–St. Louis, and the University of Alabama. His book, Superman on the Roof, a novella in flash, won the 10th Annual Rose Metal Chapbook Award in 2016, and his book of stories, Macauley’s Thumb, won the 1993 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals. Coeditor, with Michael Martone, of the Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction and founding director of the online MFA at the University of Texas at El Paso, he currently chairs UTEP’s on-campus bilingual creative writing program. Visit his web site at www.lexwilliford.com.