By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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My six-year-old came out of his room the other morning wearing eyeglasses with no lenses. The frames were the same pillow shape as his mother’s, though hers were apricot colored, and these were a red tortoiseshell like a movie star might wear. He must have gotten them from Mrs. Dugan, who watches him during the summer while I’m at work.
I was surprised to see him still wearing the glasses at dinner. He pushed them up by the bridge after leaning in for a bite of sloppy Joe, as though he’d been wearing glasses all his life.
“They look a little big for you,” I said.
He shook his head no, and the glasses tumbled into his lap. “Zipper needs a bigger house,” he said, changing the subject to his pet fish as he put the glasses back on.
“Tetras like little houses,” I said.
“He wants a pond. Then I could swim with him.”
“What pond?” I asked.
“One we could build outside.” Charlie is a debater, and this time, as he pushed up the glasses, I saw the articulate, reasoning young man he might become.
“If you dig and dig, you hit water automatically,” he said. “We don’t even have to use the hose. It’s automatic.” Charlie loves to repeat big words.
“He’d freeze in the winter,” I said.
“No, because you heat it like a pool.”
“Are you ready for the diving board on Sunday?” I asked, changing the subject myself to one that I knew would trump any more talk of Zipper and heated ponds.
Charlie sat upright in his chair, his eyes shifting around the table, looking brave and afraid at the same time. His face turned solemn at the thought of delivering on his first important promise. Through the big, slanted rectangles of the glasses, his eyes found mine, and he said, “I’m gonna do the new record.”
It’s three days later, and Charlie hasn’t taken the glasses off except to sleep. We’re crossing the dewy lawn at the Woodbury town pool on a cool July morning, Charlie in his trunks with a Sponge Bob towel tucked cape-fashion into his t-shirt collar.
On the walkway outside the fence, an emergency hook extension pole, racked above the life preservers where it’s always been, catches Charlie’s eye. He pushes up the glasses and, still staring at the pole, walks right into an azalea bush. “Dad, quit,” he says when I start to laugh. He stomps bark mulch off his sandal, and I’m impressed by the way he forgives, or at least forgets, me in order to refocus on his mission. His gaze sails across the deep end of the pool to the diving board.
So far Charlie has jumped into five feet of water from an Oxford dictionary and into six feet from a swimmer’s starting block. Every weekend a little deeper, a little higher. He swims the breast stroke his mother taught him; Saturday mornings they had their date at the pool — summers here and winters at the Y. Today would have been Sharon’s birthday, her big thirty-five. Charlie’s jump into the deep end is his present to her.
We pass through the chain-link gate, our sandals clapping and scraping the cement. It’s 9:30, and, under the blue morning sky, webs of fog lift off the heated water.
At the steps to the shallow end he grabs on to the chrome railing, taps the water with his toe until circles form, then dips his foot in. “OK, good,” he says. A sign behind him reads, NO GLASS, NO RUNNING, NO HORSEPLAY.
I wave up to Mark in the lifeguard chair. The climbing sun is still as faint as a light bulb, and Mark wears a windbreaker he’ll shed when the first high-school girls arrive. A blue nylon rope halves the pool, its styrofoam floats riding the waves from a lone swimmer. The man, at least seventy, swims sidelong, touching the five-foot marks as if they were stop clocks in a chess game. His crown of white hair hugs his skull, and he stops only to brush sheets of water from his face, his long-fingered hand the color of an old paper bag. He notices neither my son nor me.
Charlie pushes the glasses up into his hair, and I’m suddenly relieved that there are no other kids here yet. After this jump, after Charlie has faced and overcome this last challenge at the pool, I’ll talk to him about getting rid of the glasses. Maybe I’ll bargain with him and buy him a pair of sunglasses he picks out, less-extravagant ones that might spare him some ridicule.
Charlie finds three lounge chairs away from the others at the far end of the pool. On the center chair he sits and removes his sandals, then arranges them neatly on the concrete. He peeks at his waistband, where the drawstring still holds. He stands once, sits, stands again, sits.
“There’s plenty of time,” I say. He joins me on my chair, and we lie back under the small, storybook sky. I wonder how long it will be before he outgrows the cradle between my arm and chest. A morning breeze picks up, blows his hair against my chin, and the scent takes me back to our trip to Walgreens a month ago. Charlie came over from the shampoo aisle holding a big bottle of Finesse. “I need this,” he said and dropped it in the cart.
“That’s not what you want,” I said, fishing it out, recognizing it as the kind his mother used. “For permed hair, see? Grab some Pert. You like Pert.”
“This,” he said, loud enough to draw the stares of two women in cosmetics.
I could have yelled at him, but I’d promised myself never again. Breathing through the heartache, I said, “Do you want curly hair?” It was close enough to a lie that my face warmed over with shame.
Charlie looked at the bottle and then right back at me. “I don’t care,” he said.
Now, as I run my fingers through his fine, sandy hair, I smell them both. “We’re very tired,” Charlie says, sinking back. He often says this when he lies beside me. He searches the morning sky, where high cirrus clouds pass over one another like playful angels.
Sharon and I explored religions with Charlie. The three of us attended a weekend retreat in upstate New York, where we sang chants and meditated before a Buddha statue the size of a phone booth. Sikh friends shared their faith over onion chutney. We thought we’d open all the doors for him, but when he finally needed answers, what did I do but revert to dependable, run-of-the-mill Christianity. Now Charlie imagines heaven, the dead in a fleecy white kingdom, waiting for us.
Mark the lifeguard is a family friend, paperboy, leaf raker. He turned stoner his senior year at Nonnewaug High, and I wouldn’t trust him to save Charlie if it came to it, but I’m here, and Mark means well. Seated in his white chair, he’s paging through Motor Trend, generously unaware of Charlie’s worried approach to the board, though he’ll be the first one clapping after he jumps. I remember Mark at my door the afternoon after the accident, without his ubiquitous Red Sox cap, one hand clamped on the other wrist in a show of condolence as generic as his opening sentence: “If there’s anything I can do . . .”
Mark’s old enough to mean what he says, so I held him to it. I asked for favors. He helped to sort the clothes in Sharon’s closet, picking out some for his older sister in the Czech Republic on a Fulbright, the woodsy smell of pot on him, his eyes gleaming with Visine. I sent him to Star Auto Repair and Wrecking with the signed-over title of Sharon’s Celica. He brought me the receipt and her belongings from the car — a shoe box full of her CDs, a corkscrew from our wine tour in British Columbia, small things from the glove box that smelled like burnt popcorn from his having smoked on the drive back. I was nearly compelled to ask if he had any pot to share, but instead I asked how the car had looked. As he considered this, even the suntan drained out of his face: behind his patchy goatee I could see the mortified boy. With the shoe box pulled tight to my ribs I lost my balance, backed into the nearest wall, and sank to the carpet.
“Don’t go see the car, Mr. Pierce,” Mark said.
Today his favor was coming in early to run the pool’s heater. The water is the temperature of summer rain. Treading in the deep end, I can’t tell where I end and the water begins. I move out to the center of the pool as Charlie, a few feet above me on the board, glasses propped back in his hair, stops just shy of the gritty fiberglass edge. He pumps his hands and laughs nervously. His knees knock together. “How come you don’t sink?” he asks.
I look at the still water around me as my limbs generate circles upon circles. “I’m treading water — swimming without going anywhere.”
“You look like a turtle-head,” he says, venturing a small step. The board ticks with the weight of him. Beneath it, two springs are powdered with chlorine and rust, spider nests spreading from the corners. “You look like Mr. Lizard-head,” he says.
“The first time is the hardest. You’re OK.”
Charlie looks at his feet, one hand clenched into a white fist. “You look like a dummy-dog.”
“Trust me,” I say.
“It’s so high.”
“Whenever you’re ready, buddy. I’m here. You’re safe.” And I lie back in the womblike water, watching the sky. Layers start to peel away, the daily activities I’m either doing or psyching myself up to do: Cooking. Shopping. Facing her family. Facing mine. And finally I’m floating without a thought, and something inside me unclenches. I feel as if I’m looking into a canyon, when everything clears from your mind except the sudden, alarming impulse to jump.
A wave of water catches me in the mouth, and I cough it out. I slice my arms around until I’m treading water again.
Charlie waits for me to recover and then closes his eyes. “Marco,” he says.
He opens them again. “I might land on your head.”
“Let’s see you try.”
He pulls the glasses down onto his nose. I try to think through how the smack of water might affect them, if they could hurt him, but then he draws his breath and looks as if he might do it. He’s only a brave second from stepping off when something happens in the sky. A low cloud pushes over the sun, and the temperature drops. Charlie’s chest falls, goose flesh rising on his thighs.
“It’s cold,” he says.
“Why don’t you throw me those glasses,” I say. “I’ll hang on to them until after you jump.”
“Just wait a minute,” he says. “Don’t make me.” The old man does another lap, and Charlie watches him, looking almost as if he will call out to ask him something, but what? Something Charlie doesn’t seem to trust me to answer. But then he looks at me again and stomps his foot. “I hate this.” Even as the cloud passes from the sun and the light comes back, he frowns.
“We’ll come back another day,” I say, knowing that every subsequent promise will be a little easier for him to break. But we’re still in our first year of this. We’re still very tired.
“I just wish . . . ,” he says, and then his tears erupt, urgent, grown-up tears running off his cheeks. “I just wish . . .” Those silly glasses slip off his nose and catch on his chin, and in his swift anger he pitches them down at the water.
They hardly make a splash, then start to sink, and my heart catches; I dive under. They wobble when I reach for them, and I miss and miss again, like grabbing at a butterfly. Looking up through the water I can see my blurry son on the edge of the board, and I send up a hand that just breaks the surface, signaling, Don’t jump. I go after the glasses again, but they dodge me. Suddenly everything depends on retrieving these glasses, and I howl underwater, and then I’m out of air and too far down. I feel like I don’t know how to swim anymore. I look up and wonder if I’ll see Charlie plunge over me in a storm of bubbles. But there’s only the frothy white sky getting farther away, and then snowy spots in my eyes before the hand of God-I-Don’t-Believe-In pulls me back.
I sag between the chrome rails, belching up strings of water. “You’re OK,” the old man says. Mark’s here, too. “I thought you guys were just goofing around,” he says. “Jesus.” He grips my shoulder to keep me from slipping back into the pool.
“That’s never happened before,” I say.
“You’re OK,” the old man repeats, his spongy, arthritic hand on my lower back. And then he says over my head to Mark, “He just got a swaller down the wrong pipe.”
My coughing subsides, and I drop my forehead to my folded arms, slobber and snot everywhere, and the old man stays beside me, keeps his hand where it is. My head is still bent down, and I don’t want to be let go of. And then Charlie’s cold, little hand is there with the old man’s and Mark’s, and he drops his face in close to mine. “You almost drownded,” he says. I look up at him, and his hair is still dry, which I’m glad for. He rubs his hand over my shoulders protectively and says, “It’s OK. We can go.”
And the glasses? A shivering red fleck at the bottom of the pool.
I started reading Wayne Harrison’s “The Jump” [October 2008] at home this morning. When it was time to go, I threw the magazine in my satchel and ran to catch the streetcar. By the time I got off, I was in tears. Thanks for a painful, wonderful story.