Bill Wilkinson

Lost in the Undertow

Swimmers by Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida


The night following our mother’s funeral, my brother, Chuck, and I got ripped in our childhood home. ‘We’re too young to be doing this,’ I said at some point. Chuck just shrugged. The next day, we planned to look through all the things Mom had saved. Chuck wanted to get the place sold ASAP. ‘It’s just a building.’

In the morning, Chuck was gone. The coffee was left burning on the old hotplate, and a note was taped to the fridge. ‘Had to get back to San Jose. Just throw all the crap out you don’t want. I trust you won’t let the agent screw us.’

Chuck came to the funeral alone. His wife, Elizabeth, is some techie big-wig. The kind you see pacing around dark stages preaching to the sycophantic choir about the revolutionary significance to civilization of some new gadget certain to be obsolete within the year. I’ve not seen her wear anything that wasn’t black and didn’t cover her throat. Cicero, their four-year-old, was deemed too young for his grandmother’s funeral. Nor could he afford to fall behind in coding class. Perhaps I’ll move home.

I spent days looking through the attic; paging through albums and scrapbooks; opening huge plastic containers of clothes, toys, stuffed animals. I went to church on Sunday for the first time in twenty years. Mom went every week; I fancied myself her representative. TJ was there with his wife and four kids. ‘Gosh,’ I said, shaking his hand. ‘How long’s it been?’ I was awkward. His kids were polite, in a shy manner. ‘Nice to see you,’ he said, possibly meaning it.

Later that day, I dug out the pictures from that trip we took the summer before seventh grade. Mom let me bring TJ along since Chuck wasn’t coming. Travel baseball, I think. TJ and I were inseparable pals. We stayed in a house on stilts about a block from the Atlantic. Even the pictures reek of sandalwood and damp concrete. There’s one where his arm’s around my shoulders and we both have huge, stupid smiles plastered on our pink faces. Mom took the picture just as a wave was cresting behind us. We were about to be swallowed. After that trip, TJ and I weren’t that close anymore. Could he sense disappointment through my hand?

I slept on the bottom bunk so TJ could see the ocean from the window. We talked about all the things we would do in life. First, he was going to get a bass guitar so we could start a band. I’d played guitar for a few years at that point, and we were going to write ironic alt-rock hits. We were listening to Weezer’s Blue Album a ton on that vacation. Our band was going to be called either Atomic Ninja Troubadours or Puke Gingrich. All the girls would dig us. He planned to play hockey in college, so wherever he got a scholarship I would go. TJ was athletic. I was not. He looked out for me with the other guys. He wouldn’t let them mess with me. It was the nineties, so you can guess the unwoke names a twerp like me earned.

We boogie boarded, collected shells, played arcade games, gawked at older girls, flew kites atop Kitty Hawk, and swam. TJ wasn’t the strongest of swimmers. One of the last days of the trip, I noticed quite a few people standing out on an exposed spit of sand far from shore. ‘Let’s go,’ I said. He wasn’t thrilled. ‘Come on,’ I said. ‘If all those goobers could do it, so can we!’ I shoved him playfully and took off swimming. Kids at school called me ‘gay’ since I swam on the team and needed to wear a skimpy Speedo for competition.

About halfway there, the water became too deep to see the bottom. I slowed down, turning to check on TJ. He was splashing and spluttering, trying to keep his head above water as he swam. I waited for him to catch up. ‘I don’t want to go anymore, man,’ he shouted. ‘I can’t touch the bottom!’ He was freaking out. I felt the undertow then. Terror spread on TJ’s face. ‘It’s okay,’ I shouted. ‘Just swim sideways for a sec. Don’t panic.’ He panicked. I laughed for a second until, thrashing about in his fear, TJ grabbed my shoulders. ‘Help me!’ he screamed as he forced me under. I pushed him off and resurfaced. ‘Chill, man.’ There were about twenty people fifty feet away standing in ankle-deep water on the sand.

He kept struggling against the current and lunging to grab onto any part of my body. ‘Quit it. Relax!’ I grabbed him around the waist and held him tight. Though his head was submerged, I knew it would be for just a few seconds. I made strong strokes under the surface and pulled us through the current towards shore. Back in shallow water, I let him up and wrapped his arms around my neck. With TJ on my back, I swam to shore.

We lay on the sand, gasping for breath, and I knew he was pissed. He confronted death out there. I betrayed him; forced him; laughed at his fear. When he caught his breath, he punched me hard in the shoulder. ‘That was messed up,’ he said. He never did get that bass guitar.


About the writer:
Bill Wilkinson writes fiction from his home in northwestern Pennsylvania.

Image: Swimmers by Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923). Oil on canvas. 90 x 125 cm. 1905. Public domain.