Contest Winner - 3rd Place
James English’s short fiction has appeared in The Magnolia Review, Hobart, The Tishman Review, Liars’ League (London), The Drum, and The Stockholm Review of Literature. He lives with his wife in Providence, Rhode Island, and teaches Spanish and French at a local community college.
My Hope Level
One of the milestones in my family was to swim Furnace Pond by the age of fifteen and the summer I was going into eighth grade, I got it in my head to do it. My grandparents owned a cottage on Furnace Pond, which was down in the piney woods near Plymouth and not far from all that Pilgrim business, and we visited a couple of times a summer. Uncle Jack and Jenny were driving me there one Sunday in 1967 when I said: “I’m swimming the pond.”
“Bobby,” Uncle Jack said. “You’re only thirteen and a mile is a long swim.” He was at the wheel, Jenny sat next to him, and I was in the back seat. Jenny turned around: “You didn’t get past the Minnow level at Camp Windsor.”
“The Windsor people didn’t know anything. I got past Minnow.”
“Why don’t you wait until next summer?” Uncle Jack rubbed his chin, which was what he always did when he worried about me.
“I want to swim it today.” When you swam Furnace Pond, you got to carve your initials in a rafter in my grandparents’ cabin, along with the date of your swim, and just about every Moffat had their initials up there. I wasn’t permanent anywhere, since my mother gave me up when she was seventeen, my father was out of the picture, and I kept moving from uncle to uncle, so I wanted that. I wanted my initials right next to Uncle Jack’s.
Jenny looked at Uncle Jack. She had on her straw hat and sunglasses. “Who’s going to row the boat next to Bobby?”
“I’ll do it,” he said.
She gave him a disappointed look. “I thought you were going to walk around the pond with me.”
Uncle Jack thought for a moment. “I suppose Nelson could do it, if Bobby really wants to give it a try.” He turned off the main road and pulled into the sandy lane that led to my grandparents’ cabin. It had a tall grass strip down the middle of it and the grass made a swishy sound as it rubbed against the bottom of the Falcon.
“Nelson’s going to be there?” I said. Of all my Moffat cousins, Nelson was the one nobody trusted.
“Why not?” Jenny said.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Off to the right, I could see Furnace Pond, which was glassy and blue, and then all of a sudden we pulled up to the cottage. Grammy and Gramps owned a four-room cabin with a tarpaper roof, a wide porch, and screened windows everywhere. Grammy came out, put her finger to her lips, and said we had to be quiet because Gramps was resting. So we tiptoed into the kitchen and put down our bags. Nelson was at the table, drinking a Kool-Aid and reading a Framingham State College catalogue.
“Why don’t you and Nelson sit out on the porch while the adults get caught up?” Uncle Jack said to me in a quiet voice.
“What a nice idea,” Grammy said. She was wearing a long sleeved shirt, despite the heat, and lace up leather shoes. She smiled at me. “I’ll pour you a Kool-Aid.”
Nelson frowned, picked up his drink, and went outside. I followed him. A few minutes later Uncle Jack came out with my Kool-Aid and a bowl of pretzels, which he put on the porch railing, and then he went back inside. I sat in a beach chair two chairs down from Nelson, sipped my drink, and looked at the pond. It was wider than I remembered, had sandy beaches all around its length, and didn’t allow motorboats, which made it one of the quietest ponds in the state. On summer nights, my grandparents said they could hear people laughing, playing music, and singing at the other cottages. Sometimes, Gramps said, he could even hear a dinner bell ring from the other side of the pond.
“I’m swimming it,” I said.
Nelson laughed. “What’s the farthest you’ve ever swum? A hundred yards?” Nelson had gotten his hair cut for college, and it was short on top and the sides but long in the front, which meant that he kept flicking his head to get the hair out of his eyes.
“I’ve swum more than that.” The most I’d ever swum was two hundred yards at Camp Windsor, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was going to carve my initials next to Uncle Jack’s.
“So go inside and tell everybody,” Nelson said. “I’ll row the boat for you.”
“That’s all right,” I said. “Uncle Jack’s going to do it.” I didn’t know how I’d change Jenny’s plan to walk around the pond, but I’d come up with something.
“What?” Nelson said. “You don’t trust me?”
“I trust you.” I took a sip of my Kool-Aid. “Are the Gasco girls around?”
“Who knows?” Nelson flicked his head, making that shock of hair fall across his left ear.
Everyone on Furnace Pond knew about the Gasco girls. They were sixteen and seventeen, the most beautiful girls on the lake, and were always out on the pond in their canoe. Connie, the younger Gasco, was boy-crazy and liked to sneak out of their cabin late at night and meet lifeguards on the state beach. Marnie, the older Gasco, was serious and mature and spent a lot of time trying to keep Connie out of trouble. I was worried that if we ran into the Gasco girls in the middle of the pond, they’d make Nelson follow them.
Just then Uncle Jack came out to the porch, holding the car keys. “We’re going to the hospital!”
“What’s wrong?” I put down my Kool-Aid.
“Gramps is having chest pains.”
He disappeared back in the cottage. I heard a door shut, loud voices, and the kitchen faucet going on. A few seconds later, Jenny and Uncle Jack came out, holding Gramps under each arm. His shirt was mis-buttoned and he looked sweaty and pale. Grammy walked behind them with a bag, while Nelson and I followed her. Gramps had had a heart attack two years ago and had almost died, and now I could see the worry in everyone’s faces. They helped him get into the back seat of the car, Uncle Jack started it up, and then he rolled down the window and waved to me. “Could you swim the pond another time?”
“I want to do it today.”
“Nelson is in charge, so do what he says,” Uncle Jack said, nodding at Nelson. Then he turned the Falcon around, gunned the engine, and sped down the dirt track toward the main road, which led to the hospital in Plymouth. He ran over several pinecones on the way out and they made a cracking sound before they popped out from under the tires. It was quiet, except for the watery whack of someone diving off a nearby dock and a dog barking farther down the shoreline. Nelson looked at his watch and turned to me. “Hurry up. I haven’t got all day.”
I went into the bedroom and put on my bathing suit, which was black with red stripes down the legs and had a loose liner. The clock above the wood stove said three forty-five. I was excited, but nervous too, since I had doubts about Nelson because everyone said he was a skirt-chaser. I went down the porch steps, walked across the beach, and came to our dock. Nelson was putting the rowboat oars into the locks and bailing out the boat with a tin can. He had on blue shorts, a sleeveless t-shirt, and his hunter’s hat. It was bright red, with two pheasant feathers on the right side, and a long black visor. I knew about that cap. It was Nelson’s girl-hunting hat. His friends used to tease him about it, saying that whenever he wore that hat, he ended up finding girls.
“Why’re you wearing that hat?” I said.
“I feel like it.”
“You don’t need it, do you?”
He jumped in the boat. “Let’s go!”
I waded into the water up to my waist and waited for Nelson. The sand felt gentle between my toes, even though I wished Nelson wasn’t wearing his hat. “How long you think it will take?” I said.
“When I did it, it took me thirty-two minutes.” He fiddled with the oars and pushed away from the dock.
“Can you row behind me? In case I get off course,” I said, wading up to my chest. I knew I’d never swim the pond in thirty-two minutes. I’d be lucky to make it in an hour, since a mile was a long swim. The water was warm, it being late August, and that made me feel better. At least I wouldn’t get cold.
Nelson said hurry up, so I pushed off into the water and started doing the sidestroke. It was my only stroke. That was because I couldn’t do the crawl, I didn’t like to dunk my face, and I could only do the breaststroke for a minute before getting tired, so that wasn’t an option either. Uncle Jack had tried to teach me the backstroke, but I always ended up going in a circle, so that was out too. Nelson rowed behind me, even though I could barely see him. All I could hear were the splash of his oars in the water and the groan of the wood in the oarlocks. Every so often, when he stopped rowing, I could hear sounds from the shoreline. I loved how I could hear so much at Furnace Pond, like it was one huge family with no secrets.A cottage door slammed shut, a lone trumpet practiced scales, and a voice yelled: “Mommy, where are you?” Nelson had to row with his back facing me and every so often I’d say: “How’s it going?”
“How far have I gone?”
“I don’t know.”
I swam twenty more yards and realized that Nelson wasn’t following me. He’d stopped rowing, let the boat glide, and reached in his pocket for a pack of cigarettes. I heard the click of a lighter and then saw smoke coming out his mouth and nose. I stopped swimming and treaded water. “I didn’t know you smoked.”
He laughed. “You don’t know lots of things about me.”
I waited for him to catch up to me. When he didn’t, I said: “Are you coming?”
He picked up the oars and started rowing. “Jesus. You’re lucky I agreed to do this at all.”
That made me nervous and I started swimming faster. I went fifty yards and then paused to look at the sky, which was deep blue and had three big clouds right above me. I took in a gulp of water, spit it out, and switched sides again. I must’ve been a half hour into the swim and feeling tired when I heard the clatter of oars in Nelson’s rowboat and then he said: “Well, look who’s here!”
It was the Gasco girls. They’d paddled out in their green Old Town canoe and were gliding behind me and across from Nelson’s boat. Connie sat in back and had bracelets on each wrist and was wearing a wet t-shirt with nothing under it. I could see her nipples under the white cloth, and they looked pointy and pink. Marnie was in front and wore a sweatshirt, a red hair band, and a whistle around her neck. The hair band had two sunflowers-on-wires that stuck up on either side of her ears and looked like yellow antennas. They’d stopped paddling and were resting their wooden paddles across their thighs. “I like your hat,” Connie said to Nelson. “You out hunting?”
“Who’s that?” she said, pointing her paddle at me.
“My little cousin.” Nelson said this in a bored way, like I didn’t matter. That made me more nervous.
“What’s he doing?” Marnie said.
“Swimming the pond.”
I tried to wave at the Gasco girls, but when I reached up, I took in a mouthful of water and coughed.
“You okay?” Marnie said.
Connie ignored me and looked at Nelson. “Why’s he swimming the pond?”
“We all do that,” Nelson said. “It’s this Moffat family milestone. You girls have any family things?”
Connie laughed. “Our mother lines the liquor bottles up alphabetically.”
“No, she doesn’t,” Marnie said.
“And Timothy chases mom around the cabin in a pig’s mask and then pins her down in the bedroom.”
“Connie, stop it!” Marnie said, turning around and staring at her. “That’s not a family thing. Besides, you shouldn’t be talking about that.” She tried to paddle away from us, but since she was in front and Connie was in back and controlled the canoe, she was stuck. I watched as the Gasco girls paddled hard against each other and then, after a few moments, Marnie gave up. The water around me felt denser because of the current they made.
“That sounds like a family tradition to me,” Nelson said. He stopped rowing, took a long drag on his cigarette, and flicked it in the water. It hissed and went silent. “Does your mother grunt?”
Connie started laughing, making their canoe rock from side to side. Then she made a grunting sound, which made Nelson grunt, which made both of them laugh louder. As this was going on, their canoe and Nelson’s rowboat came up on either side of me, which meant that the three of them talked right across me. I didn’t know why that happened. Maybe they were excited and couldn’t slow down. Maybe it was because of Nelson’s hat. Whatever the reason, I liked having them on either side of me. I was tired, but I was sure I’d swum more than half the pond, so I thought if I could just pace myself, I’d make it.
“So,” Connie said to Nelson. “Who you hunting for?”
“The prettiest girls on the pond.”
“The Gasco girls,” Nelson said. “Everyone knows that.”
“And when you find the prettiest girls,” Connie said in a high voice. “What are you going to do with them?”
“Give them what they want!” Nelson’s voice sounded excited now, and hungry. Across the water, on the shoreline, I heard a cowbell ring.
“Marnie,” Connie said. “Where’s mom?”
“No,” Marnie said. “You’re not doing that again.”
“Just tell me. Where is she?”
“She’s at the doctor’s. In Quincy. She’s coming back at six.”
Connie twirled the paddle in her hands. “And when is Timothy returning from Boston?”
“Connie, please,” Marnie said. “That’s enough. You’ve already gotten in too much trouble.”
I stopped swimming, treaded water, and looked around. I could see wood smoke coming from a cabin on the far shore. It was bright gray, almost the color of silver, and it went straight up and then started to go sideways, and it made me wonder if it was blowing toward the hospital in Plymouth where Uncle Jack worried about Gramps. I knew Grammy and Jenny worried about Gramps in Plymouth as well, but I only thought about Uncle Jack because he was the uncle who liked me the most, came to all my football and baseball games, and was starting to argue with Jenny about keeping me longer than the plan, which was four years each uncle, and that filled me with hope. (No one in the family had ever argued about keeping me longer than the plan, which was why my hope level was so low.) That was when Nelson asked the Gasco girls when Timothy was returning from Boston, Marnie said ten p.m., and Connie asked Nelson if he was free. He smiled at her and said he could be free if she wanted, which was when I raised my head out of the water and asked him to please not leave me. It was quiet for a moment and then Connie told me I was old enough to finish the swim on my own, Marnie said they were not going to abandon me in the middle of the pond, and Nelson laughed.
“It’s not abandoning if the person says it’s okay,” Connie said to me. “Right, Bobby?”
That was when Marnie slapped her paddle on the water so hard it made a loud crack, almost like a gunshot, and it must’ve been heard all around the pond. “We’re not abandoning Bobby!”
“Who said Bobby would be alone?” Nelson rowed closer to me and leaned over the left side of his boat. He was so close I could see the feathers on his hat clearly and they were green and blue and shone in the late afternoon sunlight. He said: “What d’you think?”
“Don’t go!” I said.
“Too bad for the hunter,” Connie said. “He’s going to miss his big chance.” She started to paddle again and their canoe moved away from us.
“Wait!” Nelson said. He turned to me. “Pick up the pace, Bobby.”
I couldn’t pick up the pace. My arms felt like lead, my neck hurt, and I’d swallowed a lot of water. My heart had been beating rapidly throughout the swim, but now it started pounding so hard it slammed against my ribs. I waved and splashed my arms. “Nelson!” All of a sudden, Connie steered their canoe over toward Nelson. A second later, the two boats bumped together, Nelson put out his hand, and Connie jumped in his rowboat. “Connie!” Marnie yelled. “Get back in here!”
“Shh,” Connie said. “The people on shore can hear you.” She put a cushion on the back seat of Nelson’s rowboat and sat down.
“Where to, milady?” Nelson said to her.
“As you wish.” I heard the creak of Nelson’s oars, felt a swirl of water around me, and then they were gone. Suddenly, everything was quiet again. I looked up at the sky and the three clouds had disappeared. I looked at the nearest shoreline and saw that the silver smoke was gone. I looked in the direction of Connie and Nelson and could barely see them.
That was when Marnie stood up, held onto each side of the Gasco canoe, and walked to the back. When she got there, she turned around, sat down, and picked up a paddle. “You want a life jacket, Bobby? I’ve got one right here by my feet.” She was closer now and I could see how beautiful she was. Even though I was tired and scared, it was exciting to be out in the middle of a lake with a beautiful girl. The beautiful girls at school never looked at me. I said: “How far is it?”
Marnie looked toward the shore. “A football field or so.” She leaned over the canoe and got so close to me that I could see the dots on her sunflower antenna. “How bad do you want to make it?”
“Bad.” I took a breath. “I want to carve my initials next to Uncle Jack’s.”
“Who’s Uncle Jack?”
“That’s who I live with.” I started to swim again. “For now anyways.”
That seemed to be enough for Marnie and she picked up her paddle, angled the canoe so it was five feet away from me, and moved at my speed. Between breaths, I asked her if she was sure she wasn’t going to take off on me the way Nelson and Connie did, since I didn’t need any more people leaving me, and she said of course not and what were my initials.