Swimming with Dad
Brendan’s dad glided along the bottom of the pool, a predator cutting through the cobalt water. The waves slapped the pool tiles in discordant percussions. Brendan watched his dad with his arms tightly crossed. Mole crickets and black beetles rocked along the edge. His dad grew larger, his details clearer. He crashed through the surface with a guttural roar, Brendan instinctively moving back from the edge. His dad watched him with his forward-facing eyes, treading water to keep his stocky frame above the surface.
Jump in, his dad said, with a smirk of shown teeth.
I don’t feel like swimming, Brendan said back.
Don’t be a pansy. Get your ass in the pool, boy.
His dad’s red hair and goatee dripped chlorinated water.
My stomach is hurting, Brendan said. I don’t want to swim.
He shuffled his feet to regain his lost balance. His dad said nothing, those black shark eyes tracking – following Brendan’s every motion, the way they once did with mom. Then his dad swam up to the ledge. Brendan stepped back, now ashamed of his fear. But if he went in the pool, his dad would push him under. He’d keep it going until Brendan cried and begged him to stop.
Brendan eyed the apartments as if looking for help, avoiding the wildness of his father’s eyes watching. The Pithlachascotee River was flowing past with the pull of low tide. The dark water slipped past the sailboats, seawalls, and docks.
Hey, his dad said, his hand slapping the water.
Brendan jerked, staring back at that hard, Irish face – those knuckles scarred from fist fights and factory jobs.
Okay, you pansy. So, you want a good chase?
I don’t, dad, Brendan said, with a quickness returned.
But it was too late; his dad was already climbing. Brendan shot off, now running for his life. He ran past seashells and brown anole lizards, cabbage palm trunks, and sharp-thorned robellini. He ran past the lounge chairs, his dad’s wet feet behind him.
Brendan climbed, the chain-link fencing stabbing at his stomach. Then he was over the top, his ass bounced off the grass. Brendan spun to face his pursuer. His dad slapped the fence, and Brendan’s heart was racing. He saw his dad’s callused fingers now shoved through the mesh.
Get your ass back here, his dad said, speaking low; before mom left, his dad had used that same dangerous tone.
No. I don’t want to, Brendan said, his legs shaking.
No? his dad asked, and Brendan backed down the hill.
The mangrove crabs fled. Something splashed in the water. Something fishy smelled dead from somewhere nearby. Brendan’s heels banged the planks, the tannic water below him. The Grand Boulevard bridge spanned the river to the west.
Boy! his dad shouted, making Brendan jerk.
He thought he heard concern, and he felt his dad staring. He thought of all the nights his dad spent drinking alone.
He studied the Marchman building on the opposite shore, its red bricks, barred windows, and basketball court. He thought of the kids there, their last chance before juvie, and how the place looked so much like a prison. He thought of when his dad had gone to jail for assault. He watched the black swirls breaking loose from the pilings. There were striped mullet jumping and cars out on Grand.
A black vulture circled on a thermal above – the skies so quiet as the pandemic stretched on. Brendan spun at the sound of the chain-link fence shaking. He saw his dad climbing over, so he turned, and he jumped…
…back to the surface. Bubbles fizzed. He tasted salt on his tongue. The current pulled him west, his feet kicking, limbs flailing. He fought gravity in a mess of desperate motions. Someone shouted. He heard a splash back behind him. He held his breath as he dropped below the surface…
…seawalls, pilings, and docks moving past. An old man waved his arms from a small, grassy lot. The Grand Boulevard bridge was now getting closer – cars passing. Mangroves slipped past, and his head dropped below… …was coughing and kicked even harder. He saw the boat ramp, the cars, and the small medical building. A seagull circled, and he heard his name shouted. He swallowed water again as he dropped down below…
…bridge was spanning the river ahead. Its concrete pilings were laid out in straight rows. Rusty pipes, fishing lines, lost hooks, and lures. Beneath the bridge, there was garbage, a blanket, a bike. There was splashing and bright red graffiti on steel. The shadows were growing, and the current kept pulling. Brendan tried swimming backwards, but he swallowed more water. The bridge had expanded into a monstrous thing. There was darkness, splashing, and echoes around him. There were concrete pillars, oysters, and algae. Up ahead, there were fragments of sky. A deep voice shouted his name from above.
Brendan imagined his dad transformed to save him, with fish scales, gills, and angelic fins. He saw mangroves, and his muscles were burning. He couldn’t breathe, and it was hard to keep swimming. The light was blinding on the far side of the bridge. He tried to scream when a freckled limb wrapped around him. It was strong, a lot stronger. Now he was staying afloat. He kept struggling, but he couldn’t break free.
Randy Goggin lives on the gulf coast of central Florida, where he works as a ranger on a nature preserve in north Pinellas County. His work has appeared in Fourth River, Sandhill Review, Kairos Literary Journal, and South Florida Poetry Journal. He has a daughter, two cats, and a love of wild places. He loves sushi, cephalopods, and long walks on the beach.