I was taking photographs of human beings because they were real life and they were there in front of me and that was the reality….
--Eudora Welty, 1989
Even before I opened the squeaky screen door, the pungent chlorine smell hit me in the face. The glass counter where we paid to get into the pool was where we also bought candy. Beyond that, the shower room had aqua plywood doors, puddles on the wavy concrete floor, single lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling. Sometimes, my friends and I stood under a hot shower until we couldn’t stand it any longer. Then we dashed outside and leapt, Tarzan-yelling, into the deep end, exhilarated by the contrast between the steaming-hot shower and the ice-cold pool water.
The jukebox played “Mony, Mony,” “Daydream Believer,” “Come on Down to My Boat, Baby,” “Venus,” “Sugar, Sugar.” And “Come Together”: “Here come old flattop he come grooving up slowly / He got joo-joo eyeball he one holy roller / He got hair down to his knees / Got to be a joker he just do what he please.” Once, Mrs. Lincoln, the owner of the pool, paused at the cash register and asked, “What on earth is that fellow saying?” Despite the humidity, she always had a perfectly molded helmet of beauty-parlor curls.
In a 1989 interview, Eudora Welty said, “Making pictures of people in all sorts of situations, I learned that every feeling waits upon its gesture; and I had to be prepared to recognize this moment when I saw it.” She also said she felt the “need to hold transient life in words.”
Yes. That’s it exactly. Waiting upon that gesture, recognizing the moment, holding transient life in words
In the shallow end, Ivy and Regina and I plunged our heads face-first into the water, then straightened up as fast as possible while tossing back our long, dripping-wet hair. The result was a goofy backwards flip on our foreheads. We thought we were hilarious.
One day, Ivy stood on the diving board, tested it, made it bounce up and down, and said, “Okay! I’ll dive in! First let me count to three!” But she didn’t dive. She walked back to the wrong end of the board. And then she went back to the business end, curled her toes around the edge, and said, “Now I’m ready! Just let me count to ten!” And then she did it again. And again. She kept trying, kept losing her nerve. Until, finally, everyone went back to what they were doing – paddling, sunbathing, horseplaying – and quit watching her.
I got a new bathing suit every summer. The flowered bikini with the ruffle-edged apron is the one I remember most vividly. Every time I dove into the pool, the bottoms slipped down, pretty much to my knees. All of my bikini bottoms, all of them, failed me like that. And every time, I stayed beneath the water long enough to cover myself up, then kicked my way to the surface, climbed out, and got back in line for the diving board.
That board, with its firm spring and its sandpaper surface, mottled with years of mold and dirt, was my favorite place, back in those summer days, days so hot and humid that waves shimmered in the air. Leaving the wet-dog heat and acrid air of that South Georgia factory town and plunging into icy-cold water: nothing will ever be more refreshing.
If my mom was there, and if I had a new trick – or even if I didn’t – I called out, “Mama! Mama! Look! Look at me!” Again and again, I tried not to arch my back too much, not to let my feet splay apart, not to make a big splash. But I also cut some mean belly-flops, complete with gigantic splashes that made bystanders gasp and retreat. Belly-busters. Those hurt like crazy, when you did them right. And the can opener. Streak down the board, leap into vacant space, grab one knee, hover like a dragonfly, then vanish into the cold blue. Or clasp both knees, fly through the air, and yell “Cannonball!” until the water swallows up your voice.
I loved that place: the jukebox, the candy counter, the coke machine with red paper cups, the popcorn popper, the sun-warmed puddles dotting the concrete, the vents where fresh water whooshed into the pool, the swaggering lifeguards showing off their authority, their tans, their whistles, their shark’s-tooth or puka-shell necklaces. I loved doing the sidestroke, floating on my back, getting pale blond sun-streaks in my hair, scoffing at the parental warnings about staying out of the water until an hour after eating. I loved hearing the giggly shrieks and squeals above the water, and I loved submerging myself and listening to nothing but quiet, swishing, keeping time with my pulse. I loved the excitement of Lightning! Get out of the pool! Now!
For me, that place was summer.
But the people swimming, the people hurling themselves off the diving board, the people smearing their bodies with Coppertone and rotating every ten minutes like chickens on a rotisserie: all of them were white. The kids splashing and squealing and dog-paddling and thwacking each other with wet towels: they were white. The parents leaping to their feet, yanking off their sunglasses, and yelling, “Be careful! Don’t run! No rough-housing! Didn’t I tell you not to do that?!” were white. The teenagers strutting the slippery concrete boardwalk and, oh God, making out beneath the surface of the water: they were white.
I never noticed that the squeaky screen door to the Port Wentworth Public Pool wasn’t open to everyone. And if I had, I wouldn’t have cared. Not then. I was, as people often say, a product of my times. And, rather than open the door to everyone, the owners of the pool closed up shop in the early 1970s. By the time someone bought the pool and reopened it, the whites with money had long since moved to the country club.
I wish I’d been one of the brave girls, the ones who counted to three or to ten and plunged into forbidden waters, the ones who marched and carried signs, the ones who insisted that all doors be flung open wide to everyone, the ones who yelled for justice and fairness until their voices were gone, the ones who kept pushing, defying the taunts, the firehoses, the attack dogs, the nightsticks.
I wish I’d been Eudora Welty. She saw. Everywhere she looked, she saw human beings. She saw all of them. They were real life and they were there in front of her and that was the reality.
But I wasn’t one of the brave girls, and I wasn’t Eudora Welty.
My memories of those summers are still there, still sparkling, still joyous. Now, though, I see: the happiness I felt back then was no more pure than the pee-tainted water where I learned to swim, where I learned to flirt, where I sang along with Tommy James & the Shondells, where I roughhoused with my friends, where I sank like a submarine and watched all the scissor-kicking legs, white-green and distorted. Where I would have drowned one afternoon if my brother hadn’t reached in and pulled me out by my ponytail.
Day after day, summer after summer, I stayed in the pool so long that, when I finally flopped out onto the concrete, picked up my soggy towel, and headed grudgingly toward the exit, my eyes were bloodshot and my fingers and toes were salty, puckered, like boiled peanuts.
I added my own pee to that already tainted water. I took that water into my mouth and spewed it out like a whale. I swallowed it.
On occasion, I breathed the pool water into my windpipe and came up gasping, coughing, sucking in air, the same air that worked its way into the factories nearby, then billowed back out through the smokestacks, drifted down, landed gently. It was there in the mornings, coating everything, like powdered sugar or tiny snowflakes. It ate the paint off cars and trucks. It was the only air I knew.
I often took a big breath, pushed off from the wall of the shallow end, and swam the entire length of the pool, underwater, without surfacing.
I’d heard horror stories about the drain. It grabbed people and pulled them down, and they stayed there, trapped, in the pulsing silence at the bottom of the pool, until they drowned. Then they lay there, undiscovered and alone, until the next morning.
Stay away from that drain, people said. It’ll suck your guts out.
I didn’t listen. Something pulled me down into that water, and I skimmed along the bottom of the pool. In my mind, I was a manta ray, sleek and strong and mysterious. Of course, I was only myself. I just didn’t know who or what I would be when I surfaced at the other end.
i Quoted in “Eudora Welty as Photographer,” by T. A. Frail. Smithsonian, April 2009. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/The-Writers-Eye.html#.
ii Quoted in “Portraits Taken by the Writer as a Young Woman (in Hard Times),” by Karen Rosenberg. New York Times, January 8, 2009.http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/09/arts/design/09welt.html.
Dr. Theresa Welford has published twenty-plus poems, two articles, and two book chapters. She has also published one edited poetry collection and has another one in press (both with Red Hen Press). She has several manuscripts under consideration by publishers right now: an essay about her relationship with her father; a poetry collection, a storybook, and the opening sections of a chapter book, all for young readers; and a book on the connections between the Movement writers in England and the New Formalists in the United States. Dr. Welford teaches in the Writing and Linguistics Department at Georgia Southern University.