He is at first a distant wave, the wake-wedge of a loon as it surfaces. The day is cold and gray as a stone. In the mid-distance the swimmer splits into parts, smoothly angled arms and a matte-black head. Twenty feet from the dock he dips below the water; a moment later he comes up at the ladder, blowing like a whale.
She sees him step onto the dock: the pronounced ribs heaving, the puckered nipples, the moustache limp with seawater. She feels herself flush, and, trembling, she smiles.
It is March 1918, and hundreds of dead jellyfish litter the beach. The newspapers this morning include a story, buried under the accounts of battles at the Western Front, about a mysterious illness striking down hale soldiers in Kansas.
The swimmer lifts his towel to gain time, wondering about the strange, expectant trio that watches him. The man in the clump is fat and bald, his chin deeply lined from mouth to jowl. His shave is close, his clothes expensive. A brunette stands beside him, the wind chucking her silk collar under her chin: the fat man’s young wife, the swimmer thinks, mistakenly.
Before them sits a girl in a wheelchair. The swimmer’s glance brushes over her, and veers away when he sees her wizened child’s face, the diluted blond of her hair, her eyes sunken in the sickly white complexion. A nothing, he thinks. That he looks past her is not his fault. He doesn’t know. And so, instead of the lightning strike and fluttering heart that should attend the moment of their meeting, all the swimmer feels is the cold whip of the wind, and the shame at his old suit, holey and stretched out, worn only on the dark days when he needs nostalgia and old glory to bring him to the water.
The swimmer is a famous man. He is an Olympian: gold medalist in the 1908 London Olympics in the 100-meter freestyle, anchor on the 4x200 relay. Triple gold in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics: 100-meter freestyle, 100-meter backstroke, anchor again on the 4x200. He was on the American Swim Association’s champion water polo team from 1898 through 1911. He is, quite simply, the World’s Best Swimmer.
His name is L. DeBard, though this was not always his name. He was born Lodovico DeBartolo, but was taken from Rome at the age of six and transplanted to New York, where the Ukrainians, the Poles, the Chinese couldn’t pronounce “Lodovico.” He reworked his last name when he discovered in himself literary agility and a love of Shakespeare.
He is a swimmer, but he is other things, too: a forty-three-year-old with a mighty set of pectorals, one chipped front tooth, and a rakish smile; a rumored Bolshevik; a poet, filler of notebooks, absinthe drinker, cavorter of the literary type. He knows a number of whores by name, though in the wider world he is thought to be a bit queer, his friendships a mite too close with the city’s more effeminate novelists and poets. He has been alone in the company of Tad Perkins, C. T. Dane, Arnold Effingham. Something is suspect about a man-poet anyway, and many of his critics ask each other, pursing their lips lewdly, why he is not in France, fighting for the Allies. The reason is that his flat feet make him unfit for battle.
And today he is one last thing: starving. Poets and swimmers are the last to be fed in these final few months of the Great War.
The fat man steps forward. “L. DeBard?” he says.
L. wraps the towel under the straps of his suit. “Yes,” he says, at last.
Then the girl in the wheelchair speaks. “We have a proposition for you,” she says. Her voice reminds the swimmer of river rock: gravelly, smooth.
The girl’s name is Aliette Huber. She is sixteen, and she is a schoolgirl, or was before her illness. She won her school’s honors for French, Composition, Rhetoric, and Recitation for three years in a row. She can read a poem once and recite it perfectly from memory years later. Before the polio, she was a fine horsewoman, a beautiful archer, the lightest dancer of any of the girls at the Children’s Balls society had delighted in staging in the heady days before the war. Her mother died when she was three, and her father is distantly doting.
She knows L. from his book of poetry, which she read when she was recuperating from her illness. She feels she knows him so intimately that now, freezing on the dock, she is startled and near tears: she has just realized that, to him, she is a stranger.
And so, Aliette does something drastic: she unveils her legs. They are small, wrinkled sticks, nearly useless. She wears a Scottish wool blanket over her lap, sinfully thick. L. thinks of his thin sheet and the dirty greatcoat he sleeps under, and envies her the blanket. Her skirt is short and her stockings silk. L. doesn’t gasp when he sees her legs, her kneecaps like dinner rolls skewered with willow switches. He just looks up at Aliette’s face, and suddenly sees that her lips are set in a perfect heart, purple with cold.
After that, the swim lessons are easily arranged. When they leave —the brunette pushing the wheelchair over the boards of the docks, her trim hips swishing —their departure thrums in L.’s heels. The wind picks up even more, and the waves make impatient sounds on the dock. L. dresses. His last nickel rolls from the pocket of his jacket as he slides it on over his yellowed shirt. The coin flashes in the water and glints, falling.
At night Aliette lies in her white starched sheets in her room on Park Avenue and listens to the Red Cross trucks grinding their gears in the streets below. She puts the thin book of poetry under the sheets when she hears footsteps coming down the hall to her door. But the book slides from her stomach and between her useless legs, and she gasps with sudden pleasure.
Her nurse, the brunette from the dock, enters with a glass of buttermilk. Rosalind is only a few years older than Aliette, but looks as hearty and innocent as Little Bo Peep, corn-fed, pink with indolence. Aliette tries not to hate her as she stands there, cross-armed, until Aliette drains the glass. The nurse’s lipstick has smeared beyond the boundaries of her lips. From the front hall, Mr. Huber’s trilling whistle resounds, then the butler says, “Good afternoon, sir,” and the door closes, and Aliette’s father returns to Wall Street. The girl hands the glass back to Rosalind, who smiles a bit too hard.
“Do you need a trip to the water closet, miss?” the nurse asks.
Aliette tells her no, she is reading, and that will be all. The nurse goes. When her footsteps have faded, Aliette retrieves the book of poetry from under the covers where it had nestled so pleasingly. Ambivalence, the title says. By L. DeBard.
While L. and Aliette wait to begin their first lesson the next day, the mysterious illness is creeping from the sleepy Spanish tourist town of San Sebastián. It will make its way into the farthest corners of the realm, until even King Alfonso XIII will lie suffering in his royal bed. French, English, and American troops scattered in France are just now becoming deathly ill, and the disease will skulk with them to England. Eventually even King George V will be afflicted.
In New York, they know nothing of this. L. eats his last can of potted meat. Aliette picks the raisins from her scones and tries to read fortunes in the dregs of her teacup.