Swimming Upstream by Kevin Winchester

In the summer of 1973, a man walked along the South Carolina shore, sounds from a prototype personal metal detector beeping in his ears. A few miles north, at the Myrtle Beach Municipal Airport, another man, a pilot, launched his aircraft. The plane was a Cessna kit model, assembled solely by the pilot. When he felt liftoff, he swelled with patriotic pride. He lovingly tapped the plane’s console. This kind of ingenuity is what made this country great, he assured himself.

He flew south, toward Charleston, then circled, and buzzed Edisto Island before heading back north. Ten miles south of Murrell’s Inlet, where the man scanning the beach for buried trinkets listened to the sounds in the machine’s headphones, the pilot noticed a thin spray of oil hitting his windshield. Two miles south, the plane’s single prop worked loose and spun harmlessly into the Atlantic. The pilot wrangled the plane into a downward glide, aiming for the hard packed sand at the water’s edge.

As the plane drew nearer, the man with the metal detector listened as the beeping in his headphones increased. His anticipation increased proportionately. When the plane was only inches from touching the earth, the beeping became a continual buzz and his anticipation grew almost uncontainable. The buzzing and the anticipation both ended when the plane hit him. Livingston Carr, eight at the time, clutched at fuzzy memories of his father for the rest of his life.

His father was an influence, though. Genetics installed the father’s neuroses into the boy and Livingston’s mother told him everything about his father, instilled his work ethic, his morality. Repeatedly. She buried those lessons deeper than the shrink’s brand of detectors could fathom. By the time Livingston graduated college he’d wrapped his dead father’s dogma around him like a prophylactic.

When something challenged Livingston, he silently repeated his life’s mantra: honest, stable, dependable, loyal. He believed it, he lived it. He even developed a series of tics, twitches, habits, and rituals to remind him of the mantra when he faltered. Practical, comforting routines. Something as simple as making sure all the light switches in the house pointed downward led to a consistent eight hours of healthy, rejuvenating slumber each night. Down implied safety, a closing, a proper flow toward completeness. All things flowed downstream, did they not? So, swimming downstream became effortless, preferable at all times. Up? Up was blasphemy, willy-nilly randomness. Nothing flows upstream, it would upset the order of…of…everything. And order was…necessary.

His boss at the Orangutan Condom Company appreciated that about Livingston, especially the loyal part. He focused on it as he waited for Livingston to appear in his office.

“Liv, come in, have a seat.”

“Thank you, Mr. Arnold.” Livingston took a seat.

“Listen, you’re a valued employee, a straight-shooter, so I’m just gonna get straight to it.”

“Yes?”

“We gotta let you go. Nothing personal. We’re cutting nine others. This damn economy, nobody wants to screw when their house is being foreclosed. You know what I’m saying? Nobody but kids anyways, and hell, most of them don’t wear rubbers. Then you get more bastard young ‘uns, more sucking the government tit, more drain on the economy, more lay-offs. It’s a vicious cycle, I tell you.”

“But…when?”

“Oh security’s cleaning your desk out right now. It’s today, buddy. Sorry about that.”

“Well…I guess…Is there a severance? What about my retirement? I’ve been contributing for all of my twenty-two years here.”

“Here’s your last check. And you need to sign this.”

Livingston signed it and slid the paper back toward Mr. Arnold. “What is it?” he asked.

“About that retirement…” He waved the signed paper in the air. “This here is a confidentiality agreement you’ve signed, so what I’m about to tell you, you can’t tell anyone, capice? I know a man like you would never think of such a thing, right?”

“Okay. I guess…”

“Our retirement fund, all of it, every freaking cent, was invested with Bernie Madoff. That shit’s gone. It’s like Elvis, Livingston, it ain’t ever coming back.”

“But what am I…”

The door opened and two security guards entered. One of them carried a small box of personal items from Livingston’s desk and the other gave Arnold a thumbs up. “Good to go,” he said. Arnold nodded and stood.

“Well, Livingston, it’s been a pleasure working with you. Joe and Bobby here will walk you to your car. Let’s see…” he shuffled the papers on his desk. “Yeah, here it is, all your paperwork.”

Livingston stared at the manila envelope in his hands.

“Oh, I almost forgot.” He reached in the credenza behind his desk and tossed a box of Orangutan Brand Condoms on the desk. “Corporate said to give everyone a box when they left.”

Livingston picked up the box and read the slogan: Orangutan Brand—For Those Times When Only Wild Monkey Sex Will Do. How could he tell Trudy?

He couldn’t, and that presented Livingston with a problem. In sixteen years of marriage, he’d never lied to Trudy. Not once. Sure, he told her the poodle perm looked great, he adored her mother, and he agreed that Barry Manilow was a musical genius, but those weren’t really lies. Sometimes Trudy needed reassuring, that’s all. She’d endured enough in her life, she deserved that much. Being a little person brought its own share of ridicule, he knew that, not to mention the everyday things like grocery shopping. At three-foot-ten, how was she supposed to reach products on the top shelves? And the fruit and produce, they always put the best selection at the top of the pile. The company Christmas party a few years back nearly turned into a disaster on several levels. Had Livingston known his boss, Mr. Arnold, had pedophilic tendencies, he’d never have insisted Trudy go. Liv ran interference all night, but Trudy was still furious and Arnold gave him petty tasks for a month afterward.

Trudy depended on him, counted on him to provide. The news would upset her too much, she’d think him less a man. But lying to her violated everything for Livingston and that violation, combined with having no job, would upset the order of their lives, and Liv held that order above all else. He rose each morning, weekends included, at precisely six o’clock, enjoyed a breakfast of bran flakes, one slice of wheat toast—no butter, a glass of orange juice and a cup of coffee as he read the Local section, obituaries first. Always. In winter, he warmed the Volvo’s engine for seven minutes before leaving for work at twelve past seven. Every light switch in the house pointed down before Livingston retired to bed. Tuesday nights were lasagna, Wednesday’s meatloaf, and salmon patties with garlic-mashed potatoes on Thursdays. He and Trudy reserved Sunday mornings from nine to nine-thirty for sex followed by cuddling, missionary position unless a Sunday fell on February twenty-ninth. Then it was leap year sex—still basically missionary, but Liv would move his right leg outside of Trudy’s left leg, for variety.

These were the things that held life itself in place, and were not to be tinkered with.

Rock, meet hard place. Livingston saw no option, so he did what any sane husband, any man would do. And he did it for love. He continued to get up each morning, follow his routine, spend the day at the library reading Walker Percy novels, and come home at the usual time. He’d simply avoid the subject until an idea presented itself. Liv considered his bank account, the likelihood of finding another job at his age, with his qualifications, in the current economy, and convinced himself he could continue the charade for six, maybe seven months. By then, he’d have an idea, Obama’s stimulus money would have trickled his way. Until then, he’d stay shovel-ready and keep his mouth shut.

Like Christ in the tomb, Livingston lasted three days.

The first thread in Livingston’s plan freed itself on Thursday, three days after Arnold fired him. Liv was reading a particularly riveting section in Percy’s Love in the Ruins when he heard a commotion at the front desk. The discussion grew loud, even by coffee shop standards, let alone a library, and Liv found it hard to concentrate. Apparently, word had just come down that, due to budget shortfalls, several branches of the library would close. He ignored the discussion until he realized this library, his sanctuary, was on the list. A second thread worked loose. Liv abandoned his Percy novel and chose a volume of Yeats poems lying inconspicuously across the table. He opened the book and stared at the same page until his shift ended three hours later.

The unraveling continued when he arrived home. It being Thursday, the scent of salmon patties frying and garlic-mashed potatoes…well…mashing, he supposed, should have greeted him. Instead, he smelled pork chops and asparagus. No, no, no. That was Saturdays in months with thirty-one days. A thought gripped him—she knew. She knew, she had to. He closed the door, placed his briefcase in the appropriate location, kissed Trudy—who stood on her stool by the stove, turning the chops—on the top of her head, excused himself to the bedroom under the auspices of changing clothes before dinner (which he never did), went into his bathroom instead, closed that door, turned on the fan, respectfully lifted the toilet seat, and threw up violently. How did she find out?

It didn’t matter. How he handled it, what he said, that mattered. He rinsed his mouth and looked himself in the mirror. Wait. A thought. If she knew, shouldn’t she be angry? If she were angry, she’d serve Spam and sauerkraut for dinner. Sunday’s evening meal, his least favorite. Pork chops over wild rice and asparagus was his favorite, favorite meal. No, no, no, no. Everything was fraying. The center cannot hold, he thought, and now I’m the slouching beast. Livingston took a breath and turned toward the kitchen. Act natural. Be unaffected. Deny. Let her talk first.

“What’s for dinner?” he asked.

“I thought I’d change things up a bit.” Trudy turned to smile at him. “It’s your favorite, honey glazed pork chops, wild rice, and braised asparagus.”

“Is something wrong? What’s happened?”

“Nothing’s wrong, Liv” she answered. “I’m just feeling… I don’t know, not like salmon patties. Does that make sense?”

“But, but…it’s Thursday, Trudy. Thursday.”

“I know.” She flipped the last pork chop and shuffled around on the footstool until she faced Livingston, and then held the spatula above her head and shimmied, starting at her shoulders and ending at her knees. “Exciting, don’t you think?”

Livingston swallowed hard, then swallowed again, his mouth suddenly so dry he thought he’d need the spatula to prize his tongue from his palate. “Well, sure. I guess. That’s great.”

It wasn’t great. Deep in his gut, Livingston felt his universe beginning to shift. He choked back the urge to blurt out the whole story, confess even if she already knew every detail. Beating her to the punch might restore some sense of order. He wished she’d just say it, he hoped equally she wouldn’t, and he wanted his salmon patties and garlic-mashed potatoes.

Trudy served dinner and Liv concentrated on devouring every morsel on his plate. Each bite tasted of guilt, deception, condemnation, and fear. Trudy made small talk and Liv answered, as always, but was suspicious. The news said there’d be nice weather for the weekend. A trap. I’m thinking of painting the guest bathroom. Full of subtext. We need milk, but there’s enough for your morning cereal. An accusation? I’ll pick some up when I get groceries tomorrow. Does she buy groceries near the library? Wait, they’re closing, but when? How are things at work? Oh, dear God.

“Work’s fine, everything’s good. You know, business as usual, the daily grind. Yes, everything at work is perfectly normal.” Livingston’s last bite left his stomach and lunged up his esophagus, gripped the back of his tongue and threatened to reappear on his plate. He cleared his throat, swallowed. “Another delicious dinner, Trudy.”

“Thank you, Liv. See, a little variety can be a good thing.”

“I suppose. Yes, occasionally.”

The rest of the evening proceeded as usual. Trudy worked on her latest cross-stitch project while Liv tried to watch a Discovery Channel show about the mating habits of spiral-shelled snails. His heartburn distracted him and at the show’s end he realized he could never distinguish the sex of a spiral-shelled snail should the opportunity ever present itself. At the commercial break, Trudy announced she was going to bed and a new wave of fear drenched Livingston. Ten o’clock was his bedtime, Trudy always watched the news then Letterman before turning in, well after he’d fallen asleep. Her plan revealed. She’d confront him as he drifted toward sleep and his defenses waned. Trudy kissed first his forehead, then shocked him with a lingering kiss on the lips before going to their bedroom.

Livingston walked to the kitchen, drank a glass of water, walked back to the den, to the dining room, to the kitchen, drank more water. Sat down, stood up, ate Tums, then sat down again before giving up and quietly brushing his teeth and sliding stiffly into his side of the bed without checking to make sure all the light switches pointed toward the floor.

Trudy faced the opposite wall, away from him and for a few calming minutes it appeared to Liv that he’d survived.

Then, Trudy turned and snuggled against him, her hand slipping beneath the elastic band of his pajama bottoms as she did. He wanted to scream: It’s Thursday, for god’s sake, this is not right. It’ll upset everything. What’s wrong with you? But he feigned a yawn and turned his face away from her instead. In his head, he began repeating do not get an erection over and over, but he soon felt that method failing. He thought about Mr. Arnold, he thought about the trade deficit, he thought of a tribe of indigenous Eskimos living within the Arctic Circle. He thought about spiral-shelled snails, and still his blood rushed south. Too much variety for one night. What did this mean for Sunday morning? Did this advance change the terms for Sunday? Replace their usual session? Or was this in addition to?

Trudy’s plan lacked all fairness and bordered on cruelty, which began to make him angry. Unfortunately, that didn’t work either as now, were he to stand up, he could hang a pair of wet dungarees on his erection. He yawned again, but it became apparent this tactic had no effect on Trudy. As she slipped his pajama’s down past his knees, he vowed he’d admit nothing.

Trudy worked the pajamas free and repositioned herself. His breath caught in his throat. Oh my god. Some of the guys at work talked of this. He’d always ignored them, but—oh my god. No, no, no, no. Not fair. Concentrate. Use the anger. Not playing fair. Oh… The light switches. What about the light switches?

Trudy sat up, then straddled him. Okay, he thought, but I’ll not enjoy this. Won’t enjoy. Snails. Nancy Pelosi. Nancy Pelosi. There, that’s some better. Let her do all the work. Trudy positioned herself, cowgirl style, and grinned at Livingston. Liv closed his eyes. Eskimos. Multiplication tables. Mmmm. No, no, no. Golf. Nancy Pelosi. Golf. Spiral-shelled snails. Nine holes at Augusta. Azaleas. Amen Corner. Trudy’s motion increased in speed and efficiency. What was she doing, other than all the work? She couldn’t possibly know about his job, or lack of. “Yes, yes, yes…” Wait, that came from Trudy. But usually, she never made a sound. She must know. She didn’t know.

It had never been like this. Maybe she did know. Maybe she thought of him as dangerous now, maybe she found the lie made him more mysterious. Livingston eased one eye open, and once he saw Trudy’s eyes closed, he opened the other. Her head tilted back and her breath came in bursts, faster, quicker, making an abbreviated “hee-hee” sound with each exhale. The expression on her face was foreign to him. She seemed content to continue doing all the work, but Liv couldn’t help himself once he saw the look on her face and he pitched in. The other images had not helped so he switched to his usual Sunday morning method, counting each thrust. One. Two. Three. Four—why delay the inevitable for her sake, she’d started this. Besides, the quicker this ended, the quicker they’d both fall asleep, which meant another day passed without Trudy’s discovering the current job situation. As soon as he made that decision, he was lost. Maybe she…Oh, oh, oh—the pressure rising. No, no, no, not yet. Snails, spiral-shelled. The lie. The light switches. Snails. The lights. Snails-the lie. Snails-lights-snails-lights-snails-lights-lie-Lie-LIe-LIE—“I LOST MY JOB!”

“You WHAT?” Trudy stood straight up on the bed, and even at three-foot-ten, she towered over Livingston. She insisted, Livingston couldn’t meet her gaze. He looked around the room. This was his life. The beige walls, matching window treatments, accented pillows placed just so on the chair in the corner. The beige walls. The windows closed, the drapes drawn. The framed Kincaid, the un-attributed floral print on the opposite wall. The beige walls, with the white trim and the white, plastic switch cover. Two switches, one for the light, one for the fan. Two white switches in the white cover on the beige wall. Two white switches in the white cover on the beige wall, one pointing down, and the other pointing skyward. Livingston sighed and faced Trudy.

“It’s Thursday, Trudy,” he said. “Thursday. Thursday’s are salmon patties and garlic-mashed potatoes.”

Trudy wanted to admit Livingston was right, wanted to console him, but it was too late. He was already swimming upstream.

__________________________________________________________________________

About the Author:

Kevin Winchester is a North Carolina native and now lives in the Waxhaw area. He holds a BA in English from Wingate University and a MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University. He is currently the Director of the Writing Center at Wingate University where he also teaches Creative Writing. His short story collection, Everybody’s Gotta Eat, released in the summer of 2009. Other short fiction has recently appeared in Gulf Coast Literary and Arts Journal, Story South, Barrelhouse, Southern Hum, and the anthology Everything But the Baby. His creative non-fiction has appeared recently in the Novello Press anthology entitled Making Notes: Music in the Carolinas and also in Tin House Literary Magazine.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s