Old Man Ends Life in Lake

He hides his keys under the driver’s seat.

How long has he had this in mind? It came to him thirty years ago, while swimming in the lake as a young man in his middle forties: to end his days this way, when the time came.

The distant slate sky is barely lighter than the black lake, but in a minute, at the spot where a faint white halo now hovers, a pink blob will peek over the edge, out of the land beyond that horizon. It’s coming to collect him, calling him a quarter century earlier than he planned. They will find the car here, unlocked. They’ll find his shoes and dry towel and sweatshirt, no sign of foul play or of the owner’s intention not to return.

If he could have lived to a hundred, then swum straight out into the lake until his energy was gone … to live and swim through one’s nineties seemed to him the paradigm of a perfect life, assuming one’s brain and body were still functioning. What did the Old Testament say about Moses? “His eye was not dim nor his natural force abated.” Eli knew he wouldn’t keep up a thirty-four minute mile in old age, but he’d still be swimming.

A flaw in the plan, he saw all along, was that you might lose your mental faculties and the good sense to quit the world. Would he judge the matter clearly at eighty or ninety? If he came down with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s or crippling arthritis, would he remember that he didn’t want to live in that condition?

He made a pact with his friend Jay. If either of them became only a burden to his spouse or children, once his life lost purpose beyond staying alive, the other promised to tell him, “It’s time for you to go, buddy.” But Jay’s time came at sixty-eight, in his prime, bereaving his second wife and their young children something awful, and his adult daughters and his grandchildren, too, and there was no point telling him he was a burden as his own crazed cells consumed him. He was going as fast as he could. How long has Jay been gone, now? Eli asks himself. Five or six years?

The beach is empty this morning. Sometimes there’s a lone watcher for the sunrise, seated motionless on the beach like yesterday’s sand sculpture. At least once each summer, he arrives to find a laughing cluster of high school kids from an overnight party, the boys wading and splashing in the water naked or in their underpants, as the girls, in party dresses, only their feet bare, hang back on the rocks and casually talk of more important things. While the boys make a show of braving the cold water, Eli plunges in and swims away out of sight for half an hour or longer; invariably they’ll be gone after they return.

More often, there’s an informal pack of dog lovers, banned during the day like the beer drinkers and pot smokers, asserting their claim to freedom of the beach at dawn. It’s the dogs who cavort in the shallows like naked boys, the owners who casually talk—about their dogs. They aren’t here yet, today. He pads across the sand to the lifeguard chair as he’s done dozens of times each summer, hundreds of times in the more than thirty years he’s lived near Lighthouse Beach. He places his folded towel and sweatshirt on the guard’s platform, his canvas shoes on the step so sand won’t blow into them. He walks into the water.

This has been his custom, July, August, September mornings: get here just before sunrise and wait for it, ankle deep in the clear water, before swimming a hundred yards straight out toward the sun. Then turn north toward the Bahai Temple, whose arabesque dome would become visible above the treetops after half a mile. When he eventually turned back along the shore, he’d aim at the lifeguard’s chair, his beacon, by then no longer rose-colored but bone white against the tan dune.

The last star has gone, the lake silver now and the eastern sky already bright. No two dawnings are exactly the same. Even when there are no clouds, the waves and wind and the clarity of the air make each sunrise distinct. Some days, Apollo oozes out of the water like a glob of oil (yellow, orange or red, depending on the mood of the gods), elongates into a sausage, rises like dough, levitates as a blazing pink semicircle and then a golden disk. But on hazy days like this a narrow band of gray obscures the horizon just enough to hold back the rising sun, creating the illusion of a mountain range in Michigan. The god appears minutes late, burning away the haze like a yellow headlight through fog.

Now the whole sky is lit and the sun unrolls its shimmering carpet straight to his feet. A golden swimming lane, his private, one-lap, ninety-three million mile pool. Eli wades out to his waist, recalling, as he often does, the ritual moment as a boy when the water reached his balls and he’d cringe to impress his sister and female cousins. He scoops both hands into the water and pours it cold on his gray-haired chest, his bald head. A dollop over his shoulder trickles icily down his spine. Three steps, and the water retreats to his knees, then up to his waist again as he crosses the sand bar.

As he plunges in and begins his stroke, it occurs to him that he didn’t say good-bye to anyone or anything, even silently; not his house, not his cat, not the sister who writes once or twice a year from Oregon. It’s all about hello: to the sun, to the water, to the end of life. He likes that. Knocking twenty-five years off his dream was the right decision. Better not miss the chance to do it his way; no centenarian could pull this off. He sees himself now as if from above, perhaps from the lighthouse atop the dune. A lone, determined swimmer cutting into the vastness of the Great Lake, bisecting its surface in the cinema frame. Then, as the camera pans up to the horizon, the reflected sun blinds the film, incinerating the swimmer.

Not to dust shalt thou return, but to light. To life-giving sun.

He swims comfortably, breaking a trail through smooth water. Sixty-six degrees, he judges, on the cool side but perfect for swimming yourself to death. A degree or two warmer and he could stay in the water for hours without hypothermia. Two degrees colder would have become torture. At this temperature, he will lose as much energy through his skin as through the work of his muscles. It will be as painless as passing in his sleep, but better: in his swim. Spirit outdistancing body. Body absorbed by the lake.

Many years ago he’d read with approval this line of Joyce: “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” The distinction of living to a hundred was never crucial to the fantasy. In fact, newspaper accounts of hundredth birthdays were so pitifully condescending as to make longevity seem like purgatory. “Mabel hasn’t been able to put words together in recent years, but as each guest bent over her chair and held her hand she seemed to smile with a special warmth that told them she knew who they were and why they had come to see her today.”

That kind of birthday party didn’t interest him. Nor could he picture himself as a Mabel. Until a few years ago, he imagined himself at one hundred still able to walk, dress, and go to the bathroom unaided; to think clearly; and to swim. As he does now, stroking briskly through chilly water. Doubts about that target he’d set—living to a hundred—began to come to him, oddly enough, in the locker room of the Y, where he swam indoors nine months of the year. He’d see a contemporary doddering out to the pool and think, “That old geezer’ll turn into a vegetable before he knows it.” Increasingly, he’d try to guess the realistic odds for himself.

Then he lost his wife. Carole had fought diabetes for years, so it wasn’t a complete surprise. But her demise and the hole she left in his life accelerated his doubts about the possibility or even desirability of decades more. His kids showed more concern about him than was good for them. They had children to worry about, they didn’t need a dependent father. But he’d never lived alone, and didn’t like it. When he took an inventory of his prospects for the decades ahead, Eli saw them as unworthy of the good life behind him.

Friends called frequently in the weeks after Carole died. Then their calls tapered off because she wasn’t there to maintain the friendships. One couple, Dick and Sheryl, brought a Bible over and left it for him. He skimmed through it late one night, finding comfort in the passage on Moses’s death and in a verse from Kings where a prophet went a day’s journey into the wilderness, sat down under a broom tree, and said: “It is enough now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.”

She’s been gone, now, two years and seven months. This winter, he made the mistake of going to see a doctor. He’d dreamed he was urinating and then that he was waking up from a dream to go to the bathroom. It was the first time he’d wet the bed since childhood, and he wanted to know why. If it was an early sign of a problem, he wanted that problem fixed. He said nothing about it to his daughter or son-in-law, both physicians. He made an appointment through the HMO and, braced for the words “prostate cancer,” bravely reported his embarrassing symptom.

The young man put him at ease immediately. “If that’s never happened to you before, you’re lucky. And it hasn’t recurred in the month since? I wouldn’t give it a thought unless you start making a habit of it. But as long as you’re here, let’s check you over.” The stethoscope led to an EKG. Something puzzling on his EKG led to a cardiologist who found evidence that, maybe the night in question, maybe earlier or later, Eli’d had a mild stroke. Fortunately, it left no significant effects. He might never have another, just as he might never wet his bed again. On the other hand, stroke is the kind of lightning that does strike twice in the same place. What was his diet like? (Low in cholesterol, for he’d joined in with his wife’s health-conscious eating habits, much good they’d done her.) Was he a smoker? (No.) Did he exercise regularly? (Yes.) You could have a cardiac event if you weren’t careful; apparently you could have one even if you were careful.

That clinched it. He decided to shave twenty-five percent off his fantasy. Call it a life after seventy-five years that were one hundred percent healthy and vigorous. Invigorated is how he is at this moment, feeling the water frigid now below him, at the bottom of each stroke. He wonders whether he’ll notice the hypothermia, when it starts. He wants to die swimming, not shivering.

He spent the weeks from early May to the end of June putting his house in order. His kids thought he was cheering up, and he was, in a way, as he had the house fixed up and painted so it’ll be easy for them to put on the market. He threw out or gave to charity most of the things they’d have no use for. He organized his financial and legal papers and the reprints of his articles published many years ago in engineering journals. He put together a box of letters, photos, and press clippings about the early years of a business he started in 1948 and sold in 1978. The current CEO thanked him for the memorabilia with a personal telephone call and a graciously worded letter, which he placed among the items his children will find.

From June to mid-August, as the lake warmed up, he built up his distance. He’d need to go out a couple of miles. He started doing a half-mile routinely, and whenever the water wasn’t too cold he swam farther up the shore before turning back. Once he swam all the way to Wilmette Harbor, a mile and a half round trip, for the first time in perhaps twenty years. After resting there, watching a couple of fathers and sons fish off the end of the breakwater, he imagined their surprise as they saw him dive in and swim south, out of sight.

“Eli doesn’t fish,” his wife said once, “because he is a fish.” He’s known many kinds of pleasure in the outdoors. He has sailed for a week or two off the coast of New England, and in the Caribbean, and in British Columbia. He’s done a little mountaineering and much backpacking all over America and in the Pyrenees. He has snorkeled in Hawaii and Cancun, and twice on the Great Barrier Reef. All of those were more spectacular and more memorable, but the hundreds of hours he logged in this lake held a special sweetness for him. The fresh water, the villa-like mansions with their groomed gardens, the fact that this town was home. This was his reservoir of drinking water. Those were his neighbors’ houses, the university where he earned a Master’s degree, the harbor where he once kept a boat with a couple of crazy partners. The beach where he met his wife for picnic suppers after work and where each of his grandchildren in turn underwent the rite of passage called Peanuts Summer Fun Camp.

He’s swimming efficiently, with a rhythm that he could no more alter than he could learn a new way of walking. His kick is gentle, just enough to keep his legs up on the surface. Although he never swam competitively, he discovered on his own, as a boy, not to pull straight back through the water like a paddlewheel on a Mississippi steamboat, but instead make a swirl with the hand, catching new still water. He got that insight, he thinks, from his father showing him why the invention of the propeller made such an advance over the paddlewheel. Now he pictures his father at the pool in Washington Park where Eli and his sister show how they can swim under water. The man stands watching them at poolside in a suit, tie, and fedora.

Eli remembers a vacation in Mexico when his children were young, at a place called Zihuatanejo. Across the harbor from their hotel, under some cliffs on the tip of a cape, was a picnic spot reachable only by boat. He bought excursion tickets for his wife and the children and, showing off, swam there to meet them. The water was hot, the sun burned his back, and the salt stung his eyes (a fresh water fish, he hadn’t thought to bring goggles). But it was grand.

He can recall many special swims in Lake Michigan, too. What was the longest swim he did? In Hyde Park, many years ago, with his friend Andy. From the Point north to 51st Street, then back around the Point to the breakwater at 59th Street, and back to the Point. Two miles by the map, with the curve around the Point adding at least a half-mile more, they figured. Those were good times.

What modest aspirations he had, back then. He’d expected to be satisfied with half the success he turned out to achieve; with a tenth of the material success, in fact. Most people would have been proud to have the reputation he earned in his profession, the joy of his family and friendships. He wanted more.

His arms splash through the water. Its chill penetrates in certain places: his fingertips, his chest.

It is not quite true that he didn’t say mental goodbyes. He did so, the last time he had lunch with his lawyer and best friend, and the last time he played golf with what Carole used to call his “men’s group.” But then he shook off the thought that he was seeing them for the last time, because that thought triggered a more depressing idea: that it didn’t matter, that their rote conversations and the whole basis of their friendships had been meaningless for years anyway. Eli smiles inwardly as he scripts the men’s impending discussion of his untimely, accidental death. “He went exactly as he would have wanted to go,” they will say three thousand times. “Yep. Exactly as he would have wanted to go.”

No one will say, “He seemed depressed lately.” His outlook on life is surely as positive as it has always been; he adjusted to the loss of his wife; his health is great (the stroke remaining a secret—but it did no apparent damage, anyway). Everyone will say he enjoyed the routines of his days—his swimming, his reading, the coffee shop, the golf—as well as the non-routine travel and family events. And he did.

On the other hand, maybe he should have seen a shrink. He’s been disappointed with himself, he thinks, all his life. Carole always thought it crazy that he couldn’t be satisfied with his impact on the world. Yet he never envied the men he met whose names were household words. He knew two Senators and a Governor (all dead), several world-class architects, a famous philanthropist, without finding any of them admirable, on the whole, when you got to know them. The philanthropist was a world class philanderer, and the Governor spent his last years in a federal penitentiary. Eli wouldn’t have traded his life for anyone else’s. Yet he failed to achieve anything meaningful, beyond humdrum success as a businessman and husband and father and decent guy. He should have run for Congress or something; written a best-selling book; or made hundreds of millions and founded an institute for the betterment of the world. He was never happy, always frustrated with himself when he thought about having made no more impression on human history than he’s making now on the surface of Lake Michigan.

Yet he wasn’t willing to pay the price that he saw more successful people pay, especially those who lived in the public arena. Some of them seemed to be always at work, the rat race consuming their waking hours and probably their dreams as well. Others were phonies—the politicians, especially—even at small social gatherings, either buttering someone up or pontificating pretentiously. The famous architects he worked with were such intellectual giants that they’d outgrown their wives and children, and seemed to use contempt for people as their principal career advancement tool. What it came down to, Eli guesses, was that he wasn’t good at self-promotion but he felt superior to those who were. Nonetheless, he felt like an underachiever all his life.

So he has come to the big swim, the final lap of his life, his ultimate achievement.

He stops for a moment to get his bearings. He must be nearly a mile from shore. He relaxes his bladder, the lake absorbing his urine noiselessly. The surface is no longer smooth as the warming sun stirs a breeze, but its rolling swells don’t affect him as he resumes swimming eastward. The air and water have the same temperature; only a difference in density. Eli fully inhabits this interface between elements: the air intangible, the water tangible as the earth itself, holding him aloft. Mother earth cradling her infant, the surface of the lake gentles his mammalian body. Water is his medium, as the air is to a bird. And not all men know this experience; few have been such distance swimmers in lakes and oceans, very few keep in shape so well to the age of seventy-five, and none—in all of human history, perhaps—have wrapped up their lives with such elegance and ... what? Such rightness. The notion that he’s achieved his purpose, though no one knows it but himself, buoys him as he swims out into the Great Lake.

Nor is it a one-time achievement, an isolated remarkable act like that of the sixty-three-year old schoolmarm who was the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live to tell about it. The feat here is the lifetime of swimming that led up to this day. How many miles has he swum in his life? How many in Lake Michigan alone?

The likelihood of being found, bloated, blue and decaying, is a drawback he couldn’t resolve. He knows that most of the boaters lost in accidents turn up eventually as carcasses to ruin someone’s day on the lakeshore. He thought of towing an air mattress with sash weights taped to it, then letting the air out. But that would have robbed the event of its grace; and on the off chance that the body were found anyway and identified, there was no way it wouldn’t look like a suicide. He decided to just hope for the best: that scavenging fish and bacteria perforate his carcass enough so the weight of its bones will take it down before it washes ashore.

His mind has drifted. How many miles in this lake? He does the math. Somewhere between a thousand and fifteen hundred miles. How many strokes like this one has he taken? Easily two million. Two million and one. Two million and two.

Hearing a familiar hiss like soft rain falling in a forest, he stops at once and looks around. You can’t tell, when the motor’s sound penetrates your own splashing and blowing, whether it’s hundreds of yards away or bearing down on you, a ski boat whose beery driver is watching the friend behind rather than the water ahead. But this is a fishing boat, its big rods like a bug’s antennae, cruising along slowly between him and the shore, too distant to endanger him. Or even notice him.

There are the church spires and office buildings of downtown Evanston; due south, the Chicago skyline, shining in morning light. He reckons he’s passed a point of no return. The only recognizable lakeside features now are the lighthouse and the Bahai Temple. Their beaches are already below the horizon, even when a wave lifts him. Sitting on a boat, five or six feet higher, one has to be miles from shore to notice the earth’s curvature; but from his vantage point barely a nose length above the surface, there it is. If he had lived long ago he’d have made the discovery centuries before Columbus. Maybe the unsung swimmers of ancient times did know the world was round, it was so obvious; but no one believed them.

He is tired. Now what? Hasn’t he gone far enough? Having stopped, he feels the cold. He’s out too far, surely, to make it back to shore, and he’s too tired to keep swimming. But he isn’t dead tired. He’s far from absolutely exhausted. In fact, he feels good. He floats quietly for a minute, but that makes him colder, and anyway he wants it to be over. Should he dive down and fill his lungs with water? How awkward. The plan was to swim himself into a kind of euphoria where he’d drown as if in his sleep. He starts stroking again.

One hears voices, sometimes, when one’s swimming in the lake. Distinct voices, a name or a word, sometimes a whole sentence. It may be a calling gull, or a trick of the water burbling past the ears. It may be something the brain creates spontaneously for entertainment. Whatever the cause, it’s never happened to him in a lap pool, only in the lake. It always surprises him with its clarity. This time, it speaks his name, unmistakably. The quiet voice is neither male nor female, not a voice he can place anywhere in space or time; a gentle but insistent voice calling his name. Just once: “Eli.”

He thinks, that was no illusion. Logically it can’t have been a real voice, because there’s no one here. Yet it was, and it called his name, and he accepts that without wonder.

He stops and takes his bearings again. What is he supposed to do now? Tread water until absolutely exhausted? What if he’s still out here in the middle of the afternoon and some boater sees him and pulls him out, not yet lifeless enough for the coroner but blue enough for the Intensive Care Unit? What if no one sees him and it takes days before he weakens from hunger to the point where he slips under? No, it won’t be that long. He won’t be able to maintain his body temperature. He feels chilly now that he’s stopped swimming.

Awkward or not, he decides finally to dive for the bottom and end it quickly. By habit, he takes a deep breath before diving. Six or eight feet down, the bottom nowhere in sight, the frigid layer hits him like a January wind. He blows the air out of his lungs. The next step is to inhale water, but he can’t. Wait—stay down. No, think again. He expects to black out, but then he finds himself back on the surface gasping for breath. He laughs aloud. This isn’t easy.

He starts to try a second time, planning to go deeper this time, as deep as he can bear, before exhaling. This time he doesn’t even get all his air out. Against his will, two swipes of his arms push him back into the atmosphere. He isn’t the boss of his body.

The surface water must be ten degrees warmer than down below, practically bathlike, but only for a minute. There’s nothing to do, apparently, but keep swimming. Use up all his energy and let nature take its course as he planned to do in the first place. Eli swims parallel with the shore now, toward the north, just for a change. He’s breathing more rapidly; his heart races from the exertion of fighting him for its life.

The waves are picking up. He has to lift his head higher as he breathes, to avoid a mouthful. The sky has clouded over and the wind chills his shoulders and arms with each stroke as they leave the water. He feels dangerously cold now, and tired. Early or late in the season, he’d turn the car heater on full blast after much shorter swims than this—and he’d still shiver all the way home. The time he and Andy did two miles down in Hyde Park, how old was he? He remembers their wives waving to them as they rounded the Point the first time, then cheering their return half an hour later. For it was a big deal the men had planned and built up to; it needed spectators. Each with her firstborn in her arms (ah—so he was 29), and sweaters and a thermos of hot soup. He sees the women laughing at how his teeth chattered, notwithstanding sweater and blanket, while they perspired in the summer sun. He wonders what became of Andy and Judy—did they stay together as he and Carole managed to do? Is he a professor of music somewhere, now retired, or did he join his father-in-law’s insurance business after all? Is he still swimming?

Vaguely he notices that he’s swimming toward shore. It probably doesn’t make any difference which direction he heads; the idea is just to empty the fuel tank. He could go in circles for a while. How funny that he turned back without thinking. Force of habit, no doubt, as he’s used to starting back for the beach whenever he begins to feel tired. Maybe that’s a mistake, though, this time. What if he’s strong enough to swim another two miles? Well, if he gets close he can head away from shore again. He doesn’t know why he didn’t just continue eastward. The still, small voice distracted him. No matter.

He would normally, on the return leg, swim toward the lighthouse towering above his beach; and when closer, straight in toward the lifeguard’s chair. There’s the chair now, the top of the platform, bright white in the sun. But he’s never seen it from so far offshore before, as if swimming from across the lake. No one has. Has anyone ever swum out this far from that particular shore? Surely no one even half his age. There is something fabulous about the idea that he might be able to make it.

The wind must have come up pretty strong, because the waves have grown to two-foot swells with whitecaps. He’s going out in a glorious feat: the first septuagenarian to swim the English Channel. He should have a swimming cap, though; and a greased body. And a couple of guys in a boat alongside, struggling to keep near him but out of his way in the storm-tossed seas.

It feels different, swimming in the direction of the shore. He should turn back the other way, continue to the east where there are fifty miles, if necessary, in which to kill him. Yet the force pulling him is a strong one, toward the beach. His beach. His lighthouse. The lifeguard’s platform with his towel, his canvas shoes.

Once, he came upon two great blues. He was swimming back, and just opposite the ancient wooden piles at the north end of the beach, something caught his eye. Watching him from a perch on the tallest of those piles was a bird he’d only seen in pictures. It must have been two or three feet high. So as not to scare it, he stayed on course and didn’t stand up until he was a good thirty yards past the bird. Then a second one took flight from a drift log lying at the margin of the woods. It landed on the pile adjacent to the first. A woman was walking on the sand. He pointed up the beach as he came out of the water. “Herons, I think,” he said.

She gasped, “Oh, a pair of great blues.” As Eli dried himself, they watched the pair—a couple of tourists, really, though this remnant of a dune was their natural habitat. The woman and he stood in silence, as the herons did: two pairs of bipeds taking one another’s measure. When he left, she thanked him for pointing them out.

Is anyone on the beach now? He’s too far away to see. What does it matter? Any minute he’ll turn around and put it behind him again. Imagine if a person in one of those lakefront homes happens to be out on their patio with binoculars watching him come in, thinking someone might be drowning, maybe a boat sank. That would ruin it: The lady calls the police, who call the Coast Guard station in Wilmette, and they rescue him. (Someone did phone them, once; two towheaded recruits motored out from the station, radioed a report—just a guy swimming—and said have a nice day, sir.) Anyone gazing out from the houses, though, with the sun in their eyes, wouldn’t discern him.

He has so many other memories, from here and from other woods, other water. Diving into mountain lakes so frigid he dove out again in one continuous motion, scurrying back into his clothes. His life was sweet. He’s been an uncommonly lucky man.

What time is it? He started at 5:30; it must be nearly 8:00 now. Yet he doesn’t see many figures on the beach.

Years and years ago, when he and Carole were dating—he might have been home on leave—they bicycled to a lake near her Minnesota town. They picnicked and fooled around, and late in the afternoon they went for a swim. He wanted to go across the lake and back; she didn’t. He said he’d be back in half an hour, but by the time he reached the other side it started raining. The water was cold, too (though probably no colder than what he’s surviving today), and he decided he’d better hitch a ride back. No one picked him up. The owner of a lakeside inn loaned him a jacket, and after an hour of walking and running, when he got back around, Carole was gone. She left no note, just his clothes and his bicycle. Imagining him drowned, she’d left.

“If you thought I’d drowned, why didn’t you call the police?” he protested, good-humoredly.

“Because if you were dead, they couldn’t help you; and if you were all right, I’d have felt like a fool.” Angry, she had simply pedaled home. He told that story dozens of times in their half century together, and she always gave the same explanation; yet he never came to understand how she could have gone off like that.

If he makes it, he probably won’t have the strength to run to the car. Well, why is he thinking about that? It’s time to turn and head away from shore again. What has he proved by swimming back this close—other than that he didn’t swim far enough out in the first place? Turn around, now. Why? Is it possible this whole plan was a stupid mistake? It isn’t his time, after all? Wait a few years?

Eli keeps swimming. Now he’s in a groove he’s carved countless times. He’s exhausted beyond any experience he can remember, yet he feels strangely alive. It is a high: a great feeling about his body and his ... what? About his life, he supposes—mixed with doubt about whether he can swim another stroke. Can he? Can he make it another … what? Couple of hundred yards to the beach? He can. But if he gets to the beach, he won’t be able to stand up. Will he? It’s all right, he could expire on the edge of the sand, touching all three elements. Dying of heart failure, no suspicion of suicide. No half-decomposed cadaver. Perfect! And yet … he thinks he probably can walk. A new rush of energy. What a swim! What a guy!

People are running their dogs on the beach. They don’t notice him, let alone realize how far he’s swum. No cheering crowd. Only he himself will know what he accomplished.

He’s passed the buoy marking the swim area; soon the water will be shallow enough to see the bottom. There it is. His hand doesn’t touch it; then it does. A wave breaks over him as he crosses the sand bar. Smaller but sensible waves push him toward the beach. Now the water is deeper again for a couple of strokes, and now it’s almost too shallow to swim. Crawling, he feels himself going nowhere against the ebb of the wave, then accepting a forward push and grabbing one last stroke with his fingertips in the sand. He pulls himself to a standing position in the ankle deep water, feeling sand wash backward underfoot as the next wave ebbs. Knees wobbling, he starts to fall. But he can’t afford to lie panting on the beach, he’s too cold. He must get to the car. He grabs his towel, sweatshirt, and shoes, begins to walk, then almost run up the dune.

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