By Andrew Nicholls
You want to know the most effort you can make, the most you can exert yourself ever? It’s Balmy asking this. Gerry Balmagia, formerly from work and now from pretty much just drinking and checking to see if anyone left money in the wrinkled bill return slot of the Lotto machine, which in my experience no one anywhere has, ever.
I say, what?
You might think, he says, it was some exam you took. Some cross-country meet – he quote-marks it – in high school where it was down to you and one other guy whose guts you hated. He taps his cigarette. He can’t smoke in here but he knocks it over a bottle cap with that short-end flick that makes the long end prang like a diving board. People, women mostly, have come over before now to tell him sir you know you can’t do that in here and he shows them the unlit end not even looking up, like you’d show a game warden the license over your shoulder as you’re reeling in a trout.
Or a chick, he says, she might say childbirth. Which, all respect. But I’m here to tell you the most effort you will ever exert will be the day you fall off a rocky shore when there’s no one around, bounce once, then drop in deep black water that’s close to freezing. When that water closes over your head, he says, and you realize the place you slid in, that spot is too smooth to get a grip and climb out again? The effort which nothing else you do in your life is ever gonna exceed will be the effort you make to get out of that water.
Jesus, I say. Oh yeah he says. I leave it open for him to elaborate. Balmy’s a one for decoration. Take Titanic, he says. Bullshit. The movie? Total bullshit. Ten seconds – not even, five seconds after you go in the drink at thirty-three Fahrenheit? you can’t speak. Can’t shape your face into words. Don’t know you got a face. Tell me any race you ever run, any double, triple shift you pulled at the plant where you turned into a thing that didn’t know it had a face. I said I was unrecollecting of any time when I had turned into that. Where’d this happen, I ask. Let me just tell you this, he says. After five seconds in near-freezing water you’ve got to operate your body by remote control, like you’re sending signals to someone else’s body, to muscles you will never feel again unless you can tap every calorie from what you ate today and yesterday, every bit of fat in your body. You turn your lungs to muscle – shit, you feel yourself trying to turn your brain to muscle. He rattles the imported beer I bought him and the plastic foam widget clinks at the bottom. We started on beer because I told him I had to get back. Now we’re on Canadian Club of all things. Lynda and me are supposed to go get a new mattress. This is not a prospect that fills me with elation. I love Lynda but not because I enjoy buying large durable goods with her.
Plus of course, he says, you piss yourself.
Piss, I say.
Oh yeah. Piss, shit, relax the whole tube, send it out into the world. Lose it, man, free up every muscle, everything that ain’t helping you swim you do not need. Animal instinct. It goes like that.
So this happened to you? I cradle my glass.
Don’t even ask, Balmy says. It’s not even a theory, he says.
So, I’m not doubting you, I say, but when’d you live near freezing water? Balmy’s got a tan like a cash register meat stick. The whole time I’ve known him he’s lived smack in the middle of Texas. He took a job at the fence, rail and gate plant, gathering the needles and loops and offcuts of wire that fall off the machines and trundling them around in a bright red Galbreath heavy-duty self-dumping hopper. This is maybe four years ago. He quit after two months because he said it was adversely affecting his dreams, applied unsuccessfully for Workman’s Comp, and sat in his car in the Handicapped spot every day for a week reading a paperback and creeping everyone out.
A person can travel, he says. A person can go on say a trip when he’s younger, to Minnesota to visit a special girl. A person, he says, can love that girl so unbelievably much that when he closes his eyes he can’t see her face. You ever had that, Michael? Where you can’t imagine her face with your eyes shut, it’s so close to perfection? He closes his eyes. The jukebox changes songs. Apparently boogie fever is going around.
Wow, I say. He dive-boards his cigarette. When was this, I say. One thing I can’t picture, Balmy going silly after a girl. He has too much dignity I suppose I’d call it, self-sufficiency. What would he be, thirty-eight, nine? Dignity’s a funny thing to say about an older guy you’ve seen down on his stomach chasing nubs of metal under a stamping press with a whisk.
A person can wander to the edge of the property of the special girl’s parents’ cottage, he says, after perhaps okay a drink too many, after saying a few things to the parents and then to the girl that he might shouldn’t have said. He prances his cigarette over the bottle cap. A few things he should have known better than to say. An argument he shouldn’t have gotten into, or perhaps a tone. A tone, he says, a paternal tone to which he should have been more sensitive. From the father of the girl. And that person, he says, while trying to collect himself and decide how to fix things, how to go back a step and undo where he was let’s say a little didactic, can go ass over tit into freezing water. And not even care at first – at first, meaning like a second and a half. Not even care. Could have been longer he says, but I doubt it. He presses the wet wedge of his thumb in one eye.
I respectfully pour a short glass. Effort, he says, dismissing the word, tamping his cigarette in a circle on the bar like he’s nailing the lid on a mouse coffin. Effort to climb a freaking mountain, to submit yourself to a Higher Power. Effort to take One Day At A Time. He blows imaginary smoke down at our hands. I’ll tell you about freaking effort.
So you’re saying, I say, from now on, compared to that day everything’s easy? Nothing’ll ever be hard again? Trying to put a happy spin on it. He looks straight at me, his eyes are normal but then the air goes out of them – they collapse in toward the middle like the cutaway demonstration mattress in the showroom where the metal piston pushes down to show its ultra reboundance. What I’m saying is, he says, nothing will ever be easy again. And while I’m working on that one he up and leaves, taking his jacket, taking his cigarette, leaving me the bottle.
Lynda and me look around Ortho Mart for maybe sixty minutes. Let me tell you, an hour’s a long time looking at mattresses. Is for me, anyway. Choose carefully because you’re going to spend a third of your life on it, says a sign, which makes me irritable. Like, man, why’d you have to go remind me of that? Lynda and me lie side-by-side holding hands on a Queen near the back of the showroom where the employee bathrooms are and she says how come we never see any ducks around here. Here I thought just my mind was getting wandery with all the springiness and firmness and quilt-pattern comparing. I want this to last, her and me. I expect it to, I don’t see any reason it shouldn’t, and on my better days when I’m being honest with myself and not dreaming all over the place I truly hope it will.
You need water for ducks, I say. A body of water for them to splash around and eat and drink and procreate and whatnot in. Still looking at the ceiling. Lynda wants to get married. She hasn’t said it in so many words but I see it coming like a lone farmhouse on a straight highway. I’ve been this route, I know the turns.
She has something, some food chaff, high on her cheek near her hair; I brush it off. I look at the whitewashed ceiling W-struts a while – this space used to be a supermarket – then I ask her, what would you say’s the most effort a person can ever make, the hardest thing you can do in your whole life?
A physical effort? she asks. Any kind, I say.
She bounces a bit on her back then stops. I’d have to say, she says, that’d be holding a relationship together. From my experience, she says. Doing the work to make sure you stay committed to one person forever. That as old as they get, as withered or whatever, sick and unhappy, you know, that you hang onto them and don’t check around for a way out. Or maybe you see one, a way out, but you don’t take it. I think, she says, that’s the most effort you can make, that anyone can make.
I lie there thinking about her answer, feeling the complicated way the springs and padding and Comfort-Lux Fibrefill support my head and spine. When I close my eyes I can see Lynda’s face clearly, her short black hair, slightly sideways nose, her no-nonsense mouth, a waitress mouth. I can also see her little sister, who I only met six months ago and who’s cute and newly single and wears low pink tops and has flashing eyes and always puts her hand on my elbow when she talks to me. I don’t say anything. I keep my eyes closed and imagine water colder than I’ve ever felt rolling over my face, my arms, as my heart and lungs and brain try turning into muscle to save me.
Copyright Nicholls 2021