Swimmers Club

6th February 2017


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Treading Water

Check which is the shallow end and note the point where you will be out of your depth.


Who: Judson Hamilton
Where: Wrocław, Poland
What: Writer


After contracting a nasty case of tonsillitis, I took a few days off from work and, on doctor’s orders, took it easy at home, sprawled on the couch, watching Kawamoto’s stop-motion animation. Soon after a fluid slide into the world of feudal Japan, (involving an elliptical love story featuring a woman who mutates into a sea dragon), I fell into a deep mid-winter nap filled with wandering pilgrims, pastel kimonos and heavy snowfall on Japanese temple roofs. I got up about two hours later and noticed that only half of my face moved. I couldn’t blink or grimace. I couldn’t pucker my lips. The left side of my face had completely collapsed. I called my wife but unaccustomed to my newfound predicament as I was, I couldn’t marshal my face to the task and instead ended up mumbling incomprehensibly.

These disconcerting events were followed by a crowded emergency room, where I sat in a dimly-lit hallway of cinderblock next to a man in a wheelchair who had no idea where he was, but knew he’d been there for hours, and a girl who bled from the forehead continuously. A doctor finally saw me and, without actually touching me, listened to my story as conveyed by my wife and then checked my reflexes with a neurological hammer before scheduling me for an MRI. Once there I was asked to lie down and not move. Anyone who has been in one of these machines struggles to describe it but I found it to be a bit like what I’d imagine the inner workings of a giant’s stomach to be like; one who’d fed primarily on a diet of precious metals.

The first radiologist flirted with the diagnosis of a brain tumor and that in turn was pushed aside in favor of Bell’s Palsy but, truth be told, no one really knew. Finally a clever neurologist held my x-ray up to the light and, foregoing the fancy jargon, showed me an ominous white cloud on one side of my brain. It was explained to me that this cloud would spread like cumulus on a humid day until I was fully clouded over…and then the darkening down would begin. 

At night my wife had to smear my eyeball with a thick jelly to keep it moist or else my eye’d dry out like a piece of cork and I’d go blind. Having just moved into an unfinished apartment we had no way to cook hot food. And, having no kitchen we had to wash our dishes in the bathtub. But throughout it all and despite the additional demands of a 12hr corporate day and daily battles with absentee builders she never complained; never broke. God I loved her for that. 

In order to stave off cabin fever I walked to the local bakery but listed from side to side. The listing soon worsened and I began to fall down, careen into trees, park benches and baby carriages. A quick check up revealed that my left ear canal was now overcast and I couldn’t walk anywhere alone. My wife started taking more and more time off from work (which we could ill afford and for which I felt instantly guilty knowing how much she’s sacrificed to get ahead in her career) And so we walked everywhere together - her blue knit glove, (covering her tiny strong hand), gripping me tightly, steering me with care, supporting me from place and place. On a follow up visit to the doctor, after much fretting and glaring at x rays, I was told that an atmospheric front was blowing in from my frontal cortex and that it would soon completely cloud me over. And since cases like this were highly individualized I should be ready for anything: a disruption in cognitive abilities, a shutdown in motor skills, a lapse in memory – in short I should expect the worst. The doctors gave me six months on the outside. Once outside of the hospital, my wife, who’d up until then been so stoical - sputtered into tears. We cleared off some snow and sat on a bench. (Her blue knit fingers entwined with mine). I held her close, whispering softly, while the ice cracked under our feet.

Spring was coming and in an attempt to make the best of a bad situation we decided to go to Berlin. Once we had checked into a hotel we wandered the city a bit, arm in arm, my wife correcting my leftward lean. We were becoming pros at this by now. After taking in the sites, an exceptionally hot curry and some spectacular Daniel Richter paintings we ended up seated on a bench in a park near our hotel drinking canned Jack and Cokes while watching some high school students party it up in a drained swimming pool complete with a DJ. We sat and remarked on the folly of youth, its universality; its ultimate and inevitable demise. We stumbled home - this time the alcohol causing us both to zig and zag. The next morning, while my wife slept off the previous night’s libations, I stepped out on my own, leaving behind a hastily scrawled note. During the previous day’s wanderings, while browsing in a record store, we’d come across a large handbag she liked but wouldn’t allow herself to splurge on and I thought I’d buy it and stuff it with records. She was particularly fond of early Belle and Sebastian and there was a copy of Tigermilk there in good condition. Besides, I needed to get out and feel independent again; my listing (when not alcohol induced) had subsided and it was one of those storybook spring mornings - crisp and impossibly bright. I was pretty sure I could remember where I’d seen it and I headed to the nearest intersection and turned along the main road. Most of the shops (an eclectic and often idiosyncratic mix of bars, restaurants and niche boutiques) were closed this early. But I soon found the shop and they still had the bag in the window but it didn’t open until 11am - I consulted my watch and realized that I had fifteen minutes to kill. A quick survey of my surroundings revealed a pet store. I’d always loved pet stores and had always been idly curious what they were like when no one was there on the weekends. I looked through the window at the display: a skull in an aquarium with a fish darting in and out. It reminded me of those candy skulls used to celebrate the day of the dead or Hirsh’s jeweled death dome. I was getting ready to recross the street when I caught a glimpse of something in the window pane. The record store was situated next to an alley with an intriguing stencil of what looked like a skull in profile. I checked my watch. It was 11 sharp but the store showed no signs of life and so I went over to check out the stencil. On closer inspection I could see that it was spitting some kind of projectile rendered here as sharp-cornered triangles. I stood in front of it for a full 2 minutes idly touching the ruined side of my face. There was something…mesmerizing about its gaping maul with its almost prehistoric lower jaw jutting forward; the absolute void of its eye socket. I glanced to my left - down the alley – and saw another one at the end on the opposite building I was just a few feet away from it when I caught a glimpse of a few more across the back alley (into which the former alley ‘T’ed) stretched down the length of the wall. I started at a trot then was almost sprinting. A trail of skulls. And they seemed to wink and nod at one another; I felt frantic – sure that they’d lead to something. They led me down a subway entrance, whispering to me all the while. For a moment I was unsure of what to do, standing on a crowded platform with trains coming and going. I’d lost them. Then, just as I was remounting the stairs; a U-bahn train pulled in with alternating black and white skulls on every wagon. I jumped on and - alert for clues – jumped off at the first stop that had a skull. This was a part of Berlin I was not familiar with: post-industrial, with an incongruous mix of large open concrete expanses and serpentine alleyways between buildings. After a wearying series of twists and turns, I ended up in the middle of a set of mixed-use apartment blocks. There were a bunch of shops and the clientele mostly Turkish, Moroccan, Armenian or else otherwise distinctly non-Aryan. A pair of women strolled by in burkas clutching a 64 pack of Huggies. There was an air of hostility to their looks. It wasn’t because I was foreign - these were not ambivalent looks of slight disgust. Nor were they openly malevolent, instead they were shudders of horror of an often spoken of, yet mercifully rarely met aberration. I was a garish folklore to these people. Some spit on the ground others shot up our of their chairs upsetting tea saucers and coffee cups and dashed inside, metal garage doors came crashing down in front of stores and on every one: a skull. Something wet hit the ground I reached up and touched my face. I was crying. Each tear that fell stained the pavement with a tiny grey hollow-eyed skull and then I felt a sharp pain, deep like a fault line along the left side of my face as it began to tick tick tick awake.

Judson Hamilton lives in Wrocław, Poland. He's published a couple of chapbooks with Greying Ghost Press and most recently a novella with Black Scat Books. He's a contributor at Queen Mob's Teahouse.

This story is from his book Gross in Feather, Loud in Voice forthcoming, Spring 2017 from Dostoyevsky Wannabe.