He was stretched out on a lounge chair, snoring, with a lit cigarette dangling over a nearby potted plant. "Daddy," I said, as I entered the indoor pool, "you're not supposed to be smoking here."
My raised voice startled my dad. He woke, pushed the stub into the plant's soil, then smiled and said, "Good morning, Princess."
I wasn't surprised to see my deceased father because on practice days I call out to him: "Please clear the lanes of swimmers." I say this before leaving my apartment; my eyes upwards. My father often boasted he swam at the Division Street Y with Johnny Weissmuller -- later known as Tarzan -- so, I've picked Dad to hear my plea.
"What persuaded you to appear this morning?" I said to the apparition, as I unpacked my mesh bag. My heart bobbing with happiness.
He laughed -- oh how I remember that smile, and those teeth, which nightly floated in a glass on our bathroom sink. "Gavalt," he said, as I dropped to the pool tile: fins, kickboard, bathing cap, goggles, and water bottle. "What's all that mishegas?"
"I use them for my drills," I said. "My teacher, Kathy, thinks this stuff aids my practice. Have you been here during my lessons? I've never felt your presence."
"No, Princess, I leave you to her when she's with you. But, I do hang around when you're alone, just to keep you safe. I'm in the whirlpool."
I turned to the tub and imagined Daddy basking in the cloud of bubbling steam. He must've been hidden by the vapors. "So, why do you appear today?"
"I just wanted to let you know how proud I am, that you're continuing to learn to swim."
I wanted to go in for a hug. But I knew better than to approach an imaginary Dad. What if I crossed some metaphysical boundary that would make him disappear? No, I thought it best to continue our conversation with him in the chair, and me in the water.
"Why are your legs dangling?" he shouted. I always start my time in the pool with some easy floating. This is what he must have been referring to.
I stood up in the water -- it's only 3'6", so not a feat -- lifted my cap from my ears, and pushed my goggles to the top of my head. "What did you say, Daddy? I couldn't hear you."
By now, Dad had risen from his lounge chair, re-buckled his belt, which in my memory was always unloosened when at home he settled in with Camels and paperback. "Your legs should be straight out," he said, demonstrating with flat hands.
"My body is too dense," I said, boasting as I flexed calf muscles. "It's okay to float in this position; it's still considered floating."
"Dense," Dad said, laughing, "that's a new one on me." He raised both arms, shot up biceps and said, "These never stopped me from floating."
I looked at his belly, still full and round, but decided not to point out this flotation aid.
"Speaking of dense," I said, "I feel dense, dumb, about you. Who were you in your youth? Why didn't I ask you about your teen years, the years before Mom, before Ronnie, and me? And you die when you're just 48? I never got a chance to fill in the blanks." "What's to tell?" he said, as he removed shoes and socks, and rolled up his pants.
As he sat on the pool's ledge, dangling his feet in the water, he continued: "I had buddies. We played baseball -- I was pretty good. You know I didn't even go to high school. I worked. I had to help support the family; we were eight kids."
"But what were your dreams, your ambitions? You ran the grocery store, butchered meat. Was that what you wanted out of life?"
He swirled his legs, making waves in the water. "I wanted to be a writer," he said. "Remember all the books I read? Mickey Spillane?"
"I'm a writer!" I said. "Ronnie's a writer! My girls write! So, that's where we get it from."
He smiled and splashed his feet, then became serious. "But, I had to make a living. The store did that for a while. I was happy; all of us together. Mom and me at the counter. You at your little sundries department, and Ronnie making deliveries. It was my new dream."
To comfort him, I paddled over and reached to touch his leg. As I feared, he disappeared. I replaced my cap, and the goggles covering my misty eyes. Then stretched out in the water, floating, with dense legs dangling.