What I Learned in Florida

CARY FAGAN

There were always things to see at the pond—tadpoles, leopard frogs, dragonflies—but that day we saw two boys, with a rifle.

I.


When I was about twelve, I gave up fishing because I had too much empathy for the fish with a hook in its cartilaginous lip. I still went along with my two older brothers to Holland Landing, some thirty miles north of the Toronto suburb where we lived. Along the river beyond the village they would cast their lines with the red plastic floaters that bobbed on the water, and I would sit under a tree and write a poem or story in a notepad, affirming my position as the artistic one.

I don’t know how we got there on this particular Saturday, since we were all too young to drive. Perhaps my Uncle Jack had driven us. He was the dedicated fisherman in the family, his mamalegge—a sticky ball of cornmeal, Tabasco sauce and other ingredients—was irresistible bait to carp. As a kid in the city, he had fished from the banks of the Don River with a homemade rod, a Jewish Huck Finn. He was different from the other men in the family, with his quick boxer jabs, his friendly headlocks, his shuffling dance steps as he sang old novelty songs like “Mairzy Doats” and “Yes! We Have No Bananas.” He shot pool and played cards and he neglected his jewellery business. But he was cheerful, a whistler, an optimist, a fisherman.

If Jack was there, then he had already picked his spot on the river and settled in. My brothers and I decided to walk along the shore of a nearby pond that was wide but stagnant, its surface a green scum with waxy, half-submerged plants. There were always things to see, like tadpoles in the pond and dragonflies in the air and insects that skittered between them. But that day what we saw were two boys, older than us, on the other side of the pond, and instinctively we crouched down so as not to be seen. The taller of the boys carried something on his shoulder; it took me a minute to make out what it was—a rifle. When he lowered it and took aim and fired, we knew, from the pfft, that it was a BB gun. We had once asked our parents for one, but our mother had said no. The boy took two more steps, aimed at something in the reeds and fired again. This action he repeated every few seconds until it was the turn of the second boy, who did the same.

In this way, the two boys walked the entire perimeter of the pond. When they came around to our side, we had to scramble back into the trees. Again we kept low, barely breathing. I was afraid they would take a shot in our direction, but they were too focused on their task to notice us. They wore jean jackets, rubber boots and baseball caps. I could hear their calm voices but not what they were saying. Finally the shooter lifted the gun and both boys stood there, surveying the pond for a few moments before taking the path that headed up to the road.

We waited until they were gone from view and then approached the pond. As soon as we got to the bulrushes we saw a leopard frog on its side in the water. My brother Mark pulled it out with a stick, and we examined the small hole in its flat head. We liked leopard frogs and had often spent time catching them, briefly keeping them in a large jar. They had sleek bodies with brilliant camouflage and silky-white bellies. Even dead, this one looked beautiful.

We began walking, finding a dead frog every two or three feet. How many were there—a hundred, two hundred? Even as we went around the pond I knew that I would write a story about what we were seeing. Back home I tried, but I couldn’t figure out how, couldn’t find its meaning or accept that it had no big meaning, that it was just a couple of kids with a gun and a bunch of dead frogs. So instead I wrote stories about spaceships and baseball and Godzilla rampaging through the streets of Tokyo, destroying the civilization that had woken him from sleep.

II.


When I was a kid in the 1960s, my parents would take me and my brothers to the Canadian National Exhibition every year. We visited all the buildings—Science, Home, Agriculture—and had lunch in the Food Building, where we lined up for a one-cent container of Lancia spaghetti covered in thin tomato sauce. We always finished off with thick wedges of vanilla ice cream melting between warm waffles.

The CNE promoted whatever was new and modern that year, but everything we liked best was old. On the midway, for example, we played Pull-a-String, which demanded no skill, other than choosing a string from the bundle and giving it a yank. My brothers and I won only cheap whistles and plastic snakes, never a giant stuffed giraffe or bear, but we wouldn’t give up. Then there was the man who demonstrated the Veg-O-Matic. We would stand and watch him for a full hour, mesmerized by his salesmanship. He joked with women in the audience or teased their husbands, his hands all the while working the machine, changing blades from thick-cut to julienne, constantly adding to the mound of vegetables on the counter. We considered him an artist.

The midway still had a sideshow, a strange Victorian holdover. Hand-painted banners offered the spectacle of oddities both animal and human, all displayed for our “amusement and education.” I didn’t really understand why, but I asked my father to take me in to see “the fat lady.” On the banner I saw a round laughing face, a mountainous bosom, a pink tutu above giant legs that ended in tiny slippered feet. There was something racy and exciting about a woman on public view. My brothers must have gone off with my mother, so my father indulged me by buying two tickets.

The bored young man who took the tickets lifted the curtain that served as an entrance to the trailer. The fat lady, sitting inside on a simple platform, was reading a paperback novel. She seemed to me a cruel distortion of the painting on the banner. I had expected a woman attractive and, without my quite understanding this, sexually alluring. I had not imagined that any person really could be so corpulent.

When about a dozen of us were crowded in the trailer, she put down her book and looked at us. She delivered her speech in a monotone; she told us how much she had weighed at various ages, what her measurements were and how a pituitary gland condition caused her brain and body to malfunction. She hauled up her skirt to show us the enormous folds of her thigh.

We remained silent. I longed for the show to be over, to get out of that dim, smelly trailer. I wanted the fat lady’s self-exposure and my own humiliation to end. My desire itself had been grotesque.

And then we were outside again, in the light and air and noise. “That poor woman,” my father said, putting his hand on my shoulder. Joining my brothers and my mother at the rides, I couldn’t get the fat lady out of my mind. Not then or later, when we finally trudged back to our car, which was parked on somebody’s front lawn, and drove home in the dark, nor after I’d had a bath and gone to bed.

Fat lady, I thought, forgive me.

III.


In the winter our street became as dreary as a Russian landscape. So one December my parents took us to Miami Beach.

The hotel was enormous, with vaulted ceilings and huge tables covered in glass bowls brimming with exotic blooms. When my brothers and I weren’t roaming the corridors we were out on the private beach of creamy sand, building complicated castles and moat systems. We took breaks only to swim, or rather play, in the ocean, diving into the oncoming waves and feeling the tug of the undertow that wanted to keep us down forever.

The hotel also had a magnificent pool and at the end of the day we would trudge up from the beach, shriek under the cold shower as we washed off the sand and salt, and then swim again. There was a thick glass window in one wall of the pool near the bottom; we would swim down and make faces at people passing by inside the hotel. I always had the urge to pull down my swim trunks and dash to the surface.

One morning, my brother Lawrence and I got up before everyone else, dressed, and took the elevator down to the coffee shop for breakfast. Between the elevator and the coffee shop was the hallway with the window looking into the pool, usually devoid of swimmers at that hour. But on this morning there was someone in the window, an adventurous early morning swimmer, and we stopped to watch.

He was holding his breath. At least, he appeared to be holding his breath. He had on a mask and snorkel and was hovering near the bottom, his arms and legs dangling beneath him.

“Boy, can he hold his breath,” my brother said.

We wondered why the snorkel wasn’t in his mouth. We supposed that he wasn’t moving in order to conserve oxygen.

Nobody, I thought, can hold his breath this long.

A flash in the water and then somebody, the lifeguard, was grabbing the man around the waist and hauling him up out of view. Lawrence and I looked at each other, eyes wide with excitement, and ran for the stairs up to the pool.

On the deck we saw the lifeguard kneeling beside the swimmer, who lay on his back. We approached silently. The swimmer had a big chest carpeted in curls. He had a big face too, the eyes closed, the skin bleached, as if from an overly long bath. His nose and ears had a lavender tinge. The lifeguard leaned down to give mouth-to-mouth, breathing into the parted lips and then turning to watch the chest deflate.

After three or four minutes the ambulance men arrived, one carrying a metal box marked with a red cross. They crossed the deck; I wanted to scream at them to run. When they reached him, the lifeguard stepped back, and one of them leaned down, placed his hands on the bare chest and pumped three times. The swimmer’s head tilted to the side, white fluid seeping from his nostrils and mouth.

The ambulance man stood up. “Well, gentlemen, we did our best.”

At breakfast, my brother Mark was disappointed to have missed a real drowning, but our parents were horrified by what we’d seen. My father made inquiries and found out that the swimmer had been attending a Shriners convention at the hotel; a heart attack had seized him in the pool. According to the clerk, there was often a death during a large convention.

My parents decided that we should be separated from the experience as quickly as possible. Back in the room, my father got on the phone and booked us into another hotel.

We moved that afternoon. The porter arrived to take our bags to the lobby. While my mother supervised the loading of the taxi, I stole away and went back through the hotel, past the underwater window and up the stairs to the pool deck. Kids were cannonballing off the diving board and being scolded by their parents; grandmothers were doing the backstroke up the length of the pool; mothers were dandling their babies on the steps at the shallow end. Along the bar, men in straw hats read newspapers or kibitzed. Others slept in the lounge chairs, little black goggles protecting their eyes from the sun. None of them knew that a man had died this morning in that very water and that his body had lain on the hard deck.

But I knew—knew that he had died and that others too must have died all around us, wherever we went. In restaurants, barber shops, on street corners, park benches. We could never escape the dead; we lived among them.

That was what I thought as I sat in the back seat of the taxi, my brothers fidgeting on either side, my mother already announcing that she had spotted the new hotel.

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CARY FAGAN

Cary Fagan is the author of four story collections, most recently The Old World (House of Anansi). His recent novel, The Student, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. He lives in Toronto.


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