THE PONCE de LEON SENIOR THERAPY SWIM by Wendell Mayo
MOODY LIMPS FROM PARKING LOT to main entrance, and before he can recall taking his daily doses of Cholester-Awl and Osteo-Butresss, swish go the doors, a little wet smooch trailing. He stops, waits, looks about, thinks the doors stand agape for someone else, then realizes they stand gaping for him, just him, only him, and he inches ahead, enveloped in dank primeval warmth, a swirling atmospheric soup, like the dawn of time. He gags on chlorine, feels swept along in a swill of procreative chemicals, like the first single-cell organism in Creation, jiggling cilia to move forward, close along one wall, into the steamy Senior Men’s Locker Room, until he confronts a tract of olive-drab slime growing in the grout of a tile. Moody recoils, fearing he may contract MRSA on top of the torn meniscus in his left knee, result of a sixteen-year old’s jumping low-line sidekick in the martial arts class Moody enrolled in at age sixty, the injury Moody’s fault, part of the dojo creed: You get hurt, it’s your fault. Everything is your fault all the time.
Another spasm of pain ripples from his knee to groin, so Moody ventures farther into the locker room, until the fog begins to part, slowly, peeling away eons of anticipation in seconds—and at last encounters three monstrous figures in dim drizzle, old men sitting on benches, buck naked, sagging, puckered ass cracks galore, all in various stages of dragging on swim trucks in terrifying slow motion. One has an eight-inch incision running vertically along his spine, scars of suture blooming like tiny violets either side of the wound. The man rises, snugs his trunks with a sound like a last gasp, and shish-shushes baby steps toward the exit to the pool. Then a second senior brushes slowly past Moody, examining him on his way out with one raised bushy eyebrow sprouting a stiff wild hair above the others. The third man has thoroughly tangled his street pants and swim trunks about his ankles. He rises and faces Moody, swings his old, wrinkled pendulous dong square in Moody’s view, and pleads with his eyes, no effort of human speech, just pleads silently, as if Moody’s his Paleolithic man servant. Moody goes over and tries to untangle the man’s pants and trunks—too-big, floppy, printed with little pimply Howdy Doody faces. He realizes he can’t unknot the man’s tangled trunks unless he kneels, the old man’s dong hanging just at his forehead.
After Moody leaves old Tangled Pants diddling with his trunks’ tie-string, he changes in a modestly secluded area of the locker room, then exits through another set of wet smooching doors—and there it is, the Ponce de León, what passes for a Fountain of Youth, gold paint trimming the perimeter of the rectangular pool, chest-high water, a vague plume of antediluvian mist rising from the surface, a rousing scent of fecundity—if not for gray heads lumbering at random through the sloshing virescent liquid, looking like survivors of a shipwreck. A teenage girl, the Lifeguard, perches above all, like an angel divining who will be saved from the marine calamity and who will not.
Above the chlorine smog is an enormous mural of Juan Ponce de León, painted onto garish green cinder blocks. He wears a mustard-yellow doublet high about his neck, half-armor breast plate, and is topped with an ornate morion with red-white-red plumes. Diagonally dividing Juan is a green sash terminating in a rapier and its blue scabbard. Juan points with one finger, left, and Moody’s thinking he must be pointing off-mural, at something like the mythical Fountain of Youth, though his eyes, gazing in the same direction as his fingertips, are open too wide to be regal, and not wide enough to be stunned by some amazing New World discovery. Rather, he seems to be looking at Moody, like he’s one of his old Conquistador pals, as if to say, “Don’t I know you? Where’ve you been all these years?” Juan seems to tell Moody to dive right in, to say the legendary restorative waters are fine, only Moody wonders, if the water is so wonderful then why are so many old fish sloshing about, barely keeping their gasping geriatric gills going? Statistically, there ought to be one or two individuals in some stage of youthful retrogression in Juan’s Golden Pond.
So accosted by the eyes of Juan Ponce de León, Moody blurs his come-hither orbs and examines the background of the mural, some unknown, verdant cove, on which bobs a small three-masted galleon, inscribed Santa Maria de la Consolacion. But he doesn’t need consolation, doesn’t want to cast off into the uncertain seas of the Senior Therapy Swim. He doesn’t need anyone. Maybe he can live with the pain? He turns to flee the formidable Fountain, then runs smack-chest into Tangled Pants, so close he can smell the morning oatmeal on his breath.
Tangled Pants ceremoniously pops an orange pill in his mouth. He swallows twice.
“Water pill,” he says.
Moody wonders why Tangled Pants tells him this, recalls a water pill’s what his father used to call it, and it kept his father up nights whizzing in the bathroom. Then, suddenly, the diuretic cloud lifts and Moody understands—Tangled Pants is daring him to enter the pool with the knowledge that, in all likelihood, Tangled Pants will pee in the Ponce de León! Tangled Pants continues to stand there, with a kind of “join-us-if-you-dare” stare. Moody feels his flight instinct kick in again, but how can he go without explaining before he shoves Tangled Pants aside and tears off? How can he with the man’s dare lingering in the halogen haze?
He tells Tangled Pants, “I’m just here for my knee. That’s all.”
He rubs his kneecap in an exaggerative way in case the old man’s hard of hearing.
But Tangled Pants continues to block his way with the same join-the-club whimsy on his face. Moody wishes just once he could say one small thing about his bad knee to another person without opening Pandora’s Medicine Chest, without their words flying out to torment the world.
Words like, Tell me about it!
Or, It’s downhill from here on.
And his favorite, Be glad that’s all that’s wrong with you!
He waits for Tangled Pants to unleash his scrap of medical mayhem, and he does.
“Getting old is mandatory,” flies out Tangled Pants’s mouth.
“Maybe,” Moody mumbles.
But Tangled Pants still isn’t budging, and by now Moody’s meniscus is killing him—he’s going to show Tangled Pants what old is not. He swings around with all the youthful vigor he can muster, limp-skips to the Dutch Masters cigar box, drops in a dollar bill, and heads for the pile of swim accessories his doctor wanted him to try, which means a mountain of multi-colored foam floating noodles, canoodling with one another at random, the way a tangled wad of fossilized worms looks in an archeological concretion.
He grabs a fluorescent orange noodle, tugs it from the massive wad, then slowly steps into the hotish water, all the while scouting for a shipping lane clear enough to see him safely through the primal sea of seniors. After a time, he finds one, pushes the noodle in front of him, folded in a vee like a cow catcher, and starts marching in his lane, high-stepping, far higher than the doctor had ordered. He wants to be different than the ghost-grays drifting about him. Soon Wild Hair passes Moody, and behind him glides Violet Spine, then a newcomer comes into view, a pale woman, someone Moody guesses must be of enormous submerged proportions judging by the size of the wake she pushes at her sides, what surfers call snappers, swells that just begin to curl. Her eyes are pinpoints surrounded by a sea of wrinkled flesh, a veritable Mabel Dick chugging through an ocean of gray heads. He goosesteps right, allows extra distance between himself and Mabel in case he’s hit by the undetermined tonnage beneath the surface.
After the close encounter with Mabel Dick, he hangs on his noodle by his armpits, bicycles his legs underwater, in place, reasoning he’s less likely to stray into a crowd. Time to time, he absent-mindedly kicks with his left leg, feels a jolt of pain in his meniscus, a reminder that, because it’s a ligament, it will never heal completely. Mabel Dick passes by on her second go-around. Her wash sloshes in Moody’s mouth, water he assumes diluted with who knows how many volumes of senior pee. He spits a couple times, then gets out of the water, leaves his orange noodle poolside for later, then goes to get his stretchy thing from his locker.
Most all the seniors have noodles, but Moody’s the only one with his stretchy thing in the pool. He shows his rubber rope with a bit of flourish, untangling it from one stirrup and swinging it like an expensive pocket watch on a gold chain, then stands on the bottom step leading into the water, hooks one stirrup onto his left foot and ties the other end to the steel safety railing. He enters the water, stretches the rope taut so his left knee gets tension, then works his bad leg slowly back and forth through the water.
Soon Tangled Pants glides his way, closer, closer, so close he gets all wrapped up in Moody’s Stretchy Thing, so much so that the remaining tension in the rope drags Moody’s left leg toward the steel railing. Moody’s good leg slips beneath him, and he descends backwards into the water, gets a mouthful of the awful piss-laced liquid. He butts Tangled Pants with his bad knee and pain rockets up Moody’s leg. Tangled groans, turns his tired chin and pleading eyes to the Lifeguard, who leaps nimbly to the edge of the Ponce de León.
She says, in the weirdest kind of pubescent, matronly tone, “Sir, you’ll have to take the rope out of the pool.”
Moody’s okay with that; he doesn’t belong at the pool, anyway. Why should he expect any other treatment? But then it happens, one thing that breaks the noodle’s back. Tangled Pants gets out of the water, onto the deck, and swipes Moody’s orange noodle! He seems very smug about it, too. Tangled shuffles down the steps, back into the pool, with both his white noodle and Moody’s orange one tucked under his armpits, peddling fast away from Moody.
Moody plots his revenge, waits until Tangled Pants finds what he must feel is a safe harbor near Wild Hair and Violet Spine. Mabel Dick waddles out of the pool using the steps near both. He’s glad because his plan needs the surface of the Ponce de León to be relatively calm. He glides closer to Tangled Pants, navigates so he’s a good fifteen feet behind him, then, like a stealthy Pleisiosaur, submerges, mindful to close his mouth tight. Underwater, he kicks hard with his right leg, pulls with his arms, sees Tangled coming into murky view, his blurry Howdy Doody printed trunks, and Moody’s thinking he’ll give him a howdy-doody he won’t forget. He extends his arms, reaches for Tangled’s trunks, ready to yank them down. He figures with one more kick, he’ll make it. He kicks with all his might and realizes, too late, that he’s kicked with his bad leg, which spasms, muscles going into protect-the-joint mode, all of which causes his leg to cramp. He surfaces with a whoosh of air from his lungs, thrashes water with his arms, yelps something like, “Shit-uh!” and goes under again. Next thing he knows there’s an enormous concussion that thunders through the water, like a depth charge going off, and he feels a powerful arm about his chest and chin, his head out, taking in air and water, coughing his guts out until he’s dragged from the water and set down on the deck, lying on his back.
Overhead, Juan Ponce de León presides. At this angle, his eyes seem to gaze through the watery haze heavenward, poised to wag his conquering finger over Moody in the sign of the cross, last rites.
Someone says, “For a minute there, we thought you were about to leave us.”
Then they’re all hovering above him. Wild Hair, Violet Spine, Tangled Pants, the Lifeguard, and Moody’s savior, Mabel Dick, who cannonballed into the Ponce de León to rescue him.
“There, there, just lie still,” Mabel Dick says.
She pats his hand.
And he ought to be grateful, guesses he is, but can’t help thinking he’s heard words like theirs before, “you were about to leave us,” and “just lie still,” and then it flat-out hits him, how long, long ago he went to see the Wizard of Oz, and at the very end they’re all hovering over Dorothy’s bed, Wild Hair like the Lion, Violet Spine the Tin Man, Tangled Pants the Scarecrow, and Mabel Dick her Aunt Em, all their kind, wise old faces looking down at him—Dorothy—who has so much her elders can give her, Dorothy, their initiate, Dorothy, getting older, on the cusp of becoming what they are, only it’s the opposite—instead of learning things from them, like Dorothy, Wild Hair takes away his courage, Violet Spine his heart, Tangled Pants his brain, and Aunt Em all his remaining human sympathy.
He doesn’t know where Uncle Henry, the Professor, and Toto are, and doesn’t care.
Moody feebly flails once at Tangled Pants’s swim trunks, wants to drag them down, but the Lifeguard slaps his arm away. He reaches right, finds the orange noodle Tangled Pants has dropped, hugs it to his side. Someone, he thinks the Lifeguard, keeps asking if he wants her to call 911, but he’s thinking you don’t have 911 in dreams, and this can be no more than a dream.
“I don’t need 911!” he says, “I need—”
But he doesn’t know what he needs.
He grabs his left leg, winces with pain.
They all want to help. After a short struggle, someone tugs his noodle from his arms and puts it under his head. Another’s got his pulse. One goes for a capsule of the new super pain killer, Elysium.
“Heaven!” Moody howls when someone jams the capsule in his mouth, followed by—horrors!—more water, in a Dixie cup.
They all gather around him, draw closer, in a strange kind of twilight.
“You can’t help me,” he tells them. “It’s my fault. All my fault. Really, don’t do that. Don’t fuss. Stop touching me! I can’t stay here. I’m not one of you. I just want to go home. There’s no place like home. Please, let me go home.”
But there’s a luminous liquid night behind their ancient round faces, a feeling he’s not at the dawn of anything, not a dark warm sea where chemicals swarm in accidental creation, but some awful, intended end, a place where all is well, all forgotten, all healed.
WENDELL MAYO‘s new story collection, The Cucumber King of Kėdainiai, is winner of the 2012 Subito Press Award for Innovative Fiction sponsored by the University of Colorado at Boulder. He has three other collections: Centaur of the North, winner of the Aztlán Prize; B. Horror and Other Stories; and a novel-in-stories, In Lithuanian Wood. He’s recipient of an NEA fellowship and a Fulbright to Lithuania. His short stories have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies, including Harvard Review, Yale Review, Manoa, Missouri Review, Prism International, and others.