Swing Low

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Images © Ian Cockburn 2015

 

by Daniel Lynch December 16, 2015

My grandfather, who died from prostate cancer when I was nineteen, was pretty good with numbers. He was an accountant, and could total two running columns of numbers in his head at the same time.

     I guess I didn’t get whatever head electricity that allowed him to do that.

     In the 50s, when my grandfather was in high school, his final English exam included an essay writing portion. After the Second World War, a popular topic going around schools and universities was man’s inhumanity to man.

     And so my grandfather wrote on that topic, his central thesis being that his English teacher, by forcing him to write an essay as a way to assess the accumulative knowledge of his schooling, was being inhumane.

     

I haven’t seen a world war with my own eyes, and so can’t say whether any of my teachers were inhumane to me. I think some of them might have been.

     Richard Crinkle is a character in this story, a Health and Physical Education teacher, who was inhumane to some of his students. As best as I can figure, anyway.

     He was blind in one eye, and wore an old style eye-patch. His eyeball was still in his socket, a dull stationary globe, and sometimes, when he was trying to be intimidating, he would remove his patch and stare down the child he was talking to.

     ‘You think you’ve got it bad,’ he’d say. ‘Try looking in my mirror every day and then you can complain about having to pick up some papers.’

     That dead little ball would sit in his socket and just be. It was enough, usually, for children to get on with punishment or work.

     

At the end of term, right before holidays started, Richard would usually make a speech to his classes about being safe, and not being stupid.

     ‘Teenagers are scientifically proven to be stupid,’ he’d say. ‘Try to fight against your biology a little.’

     Then he would tell the story he had concocted about how he lost his the use of his eye.

     It was, of course, a lie, designed to teach his students a life lesson.

     He might as well have been trying to teach them to build helicopters out of paddle-pop sticks.

     ‘This here,’ he’d say, pointing to his eye, ‘is me not fighting my biology.’

I had an uncle, on my mother’s side, who lost the sight in one eye when he was a teenager. He rode his motor bike right into a barbed wire fence. It scarred his eye up bad enough that he couldn’t see out of it. Unlike Richard Crinkle, though, my uncle had his eye removed, and used a glass one.

     I didn’t find out until much later, maybe in my twenties, that his glass eye wasn’t made of actual glass. It was a surgical grade plastic that was painted to match the remaining eye on the other side of his face. He was always popping the fake one out and leaving it places to scare my sister and me when we were kids.

     His son, my cousin, taught me how to do a trampoline summersault when I was four years old. So it wasn’t all horror shows.

‘I was about your age, maybe a little older,’ Richard Crinkle said in his speech one end of term, ‘When I bunged up my eye. So what I want you to do over these holidays, or even when you  burn on out of here at seventeen, is ask yourself when you’re doing something new, what might go wrong? And if one of the things that could go wrong is you end up with half the world being dark, then reconsider.’

     Human beings, I think, have a fascination with dysfunction, and it holds true in adults as much as in children. My uncle had a joke about that:

     ‘What do you call a fly without any wings?’ he’d ask

     ‘Interesting.’ he’d say.

     Then he’d knock the back of his head so his fake eye would pop out.

patch-ian

Molly Stillwell was interested in how Richard bunged up his eye. When he gave his speech, her hands were mostly still on her desk, although occasionally she’d flip her pencil case open so she could look inside.

     And I tell you, there was a graveyard in there.   

     She kept her victims in a clear pencil sharpener. There were about seventeen of them, flies that she caught over the last few weeks, when the light in her bedroom was pale yellow, and noise from the television in the lounge room walked through the wood in her floor.    

     Their dry little black bodies were still, and it calmed Molly to look at them, to count their legs, their wings. She had two other sharpeners at home, in her jewelry case, that were full of the them.

     Her dysfunction was being shy.

‘It was a dare,’ Richard Crinkle said in his great speech about not being stupid. ‘I had a friend; his name was Brendan, but that’s not important. What’s important is we’d spend time on his parents’ property over the school holidays, and there was this creek that ran through the middle of it. Brendan had this little rowboat, you see, and we’d paddle it up and down that creek, jumping out of it when it was too hot to breath.

     ‘One day, it was a Thursday if that matters to you, we paddled further up the creek than we’d ever gone before. I reckon we were at it for an hour or so, splashing those paddles, and each other, when we came across a rope swing on one of the banks.’

Here is a truth I have learned about being alive: There are few things more enticing than the mystery of somebody else’s rope swing discovered on a deserted bank from the seat of an old rowboat on a January afternoon.

     It needs to be tested, cannot go still into the receding distance.

     I have discovered one such swing myself, and it caused in me the same biological imperative Richard Crinkle described in his great speech: ‘When we found that, we just about stopped everything, and swam for the bank, towing the boat behind us on a piece of nylon cord because that was faster than rowing.’

Nylon cord, incidentally, was the cause of Molly Stillwell’s current dysfunction of being shy.

      She found some fastened around a sturdy beam in the garage, its end clean cut from the gardening shears her mother used on it. She couldn’t touch it if she jumped. That’s why, when she untied it, she used a ladder, which was kept folded behind a work bench.

     Its weave felt plastic and thin when she unfastened it. She burned her hand pulling one end through her closed fingers.

     She took it from the garage and wrapped it around her jewelry box.

     She hadn’t seen her father since he was admitted to the Apple Burrows Psychiatric Facility.

     His dysfunction was not finding enough mysterious rope swings in his life time.

‘I didn’t want to go first, if I’m telling you the truth,’ Richard Crinkle said in his speech. ‘But Brendan wasn’t having it. “Chicken shits are worse than chickens, and they’re worse than shit,” he said to me.

     ‘So I told him, “Oh yeah? Well I dare you to go first, then,” and so he did.’

When I discovered my own rope swing on a deserted bank, I was the first to try it out. The tree it was tied to was set back from the bank a little, its branch hung over a short incline leading to the creek. There was a large knot tied into the end of it, somewhere to put your feet, and when I swung out over our little boat, and I let go, I slid down the rope like a slack fireman’s pole, and collected my testicles on the foot hold at the end.

     This is the same thing that Richard Crinkle told his class had happened to his friend, Brendan, when he swung out over their boat.

‘I heard him squeal, and then he went into the water and didn’t come up again,’ he said. ‘When the rope swung back in my direction and I grabbed it, I wasn’t thinking, I wasn’t fighting my biology, and I swung out after him.’

My grandfather, before he died from prostate cancer, liked to go fishing. His hands were callused form working with the line so much.

     He was always buying new fishing poles at garage sales, and then trying them out in his row boat, and when I was five or so, I thought that’s what his job was.

     My sister and I went with him rarely, but on one occasion, when we were both in the boat with him, and both had lines in the water, I asked him what he liked about it.

     ‘The waiting,’ he said. ‘You might end up with something, or you might not, but the waiting is the same either way, and that’s kind of nice.’   

‘I tried for the same arc as Brendan,’ Richard Crinkle said. ‘And I pretty much hit it too, except I was a bit lower than he was. When I swung out over the boat, the oar clipped me, slammed into my eye socket and just about popped my eyeball.

     ‘When I hit the water, I landed on Brendan, who was making his way to the surface, despite his aching balls.

     ‘He dragged me to the bank. Then he put me in the boat and rowed us back to the house. They called an ambulance, but it was too late to do anything useful.’

     When Richard finished his speech, Molly had one hand in her pencil case, her fingers wrapped around her plastic graveyard, and she raised other hand to ask a question.

The truth of it all is Richard Crinkle really did lose the use of his eye by being an incredibly stupid teenager. And it really was a dare, only it was his friend Brendan who dared him, and it had nothing to do with rope swings or rowboats.

     Brendan dared Richard to drink two liters of straight green cordial, one January afternoon, when they were barefoot on the cool tiles of Brendan’s kitchen.

     ‘Why?’ Richard asked

      ‘If you do it, Sherry Figturn’ll give you a blowjob,’ Brendan said.

     ‘You can’t make Sherry Figturn give out blowjobs.’

     ‘Sure I can, she owes me a favor,’ Brendan said. ‘I did her maths homework and she said so, she said I get a favour.’

     ‘So why don’t you ask for a blowjob?’

     ‘It wouldn’t be a favour if it was me.’

     And so Richard Crinkle drank two liters of straight green cordial.

Here is how Richard Crinkle was being inhumane to his students:  By making up a story where he was being heroic, if unsuccessful, he was trying to instill in them the lesson that doing the right thing is sometimes painful, not always necessary, and often self-destructive.

     He was right about that. How inhumane can you get?

     He did this by saying ‘don’t do this’, which as any adult human being knows, is exactly what to say when you want a teenage human being to do something that is painful, unnecessary, and self-destructive.

     What really happened was that he vomited green so hard he caused a hemorrhage in his eye that left it looking like a burst tomato at first, and then snow globe filled with dishwater.

‘What if you never swung out,’ Molly asked, mostly to Richard Crinkle, but of course, the whole class was there too, ‘And your friend swam out by himself. Would you have felt bad about not trying to help him?’

     Her plastic graveyard was snug in her fingers, and her voice, which was usually cotton wool, was just loud enough to be heard the back of the room.

     ‘Well,’ Richard said, ‘what it comes down to is intentions don’t mean shit.’

     

And here is what Molly Stillwell, who is much smarter than I am, took away from Richard Crinkle’s great bullshit speech: Rope swings only have mystery if they aren’t used to find some dangerous waters worthwhile enough to drown in.

     The dangerous waters my grandfather drowned in were his own fluids, as they filled up his lungs. If I could’ve asked him, if he could’ve talked, I think he would’ve said they were worthwhile enough.

 
__________
 

Daniel Lynch is a writer, living in Brisbane, Queensland. His short fiction can be found in REX, Stilts, Cow Hide Journal, SCUM, Tincture Journal, The London Journal of Fiction and Literary Orphans. He has twice been shortlisted for the QUT Postgraduate Writing Prize and is a regular speaker at Yarn Storytelling. He is currently completing a PhD because it is a qualification he can spell.

Ian Cockburn is an art dilettante: Paintings, illustration, comincs and music with the band The Seven Inches.
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