Trace Ramsey’s All I Want to Do is Live (Pioneer’s Press, 2017), personalizes common themes of survival, depression, and life in America at a time of division and upheaval. In this collection of essays, flash nonfiction, and poetry, Ramsey examines his family history and shows us how darkness can trickle through generations. He looks to people like his grandparents and his partner for hope and works to move beyond abuse and mental illness to find what is worth passing on to his children. In a unique voice of clean, deliberate prose, he relays stories about the damage of the past and recovery in the present that is both brutal and achingly pretty. As the personal often sheds light on the universal, Trace’s memories of his childhood and the scenes from his life today also give us the story of our time, our country, and a people longing to find substance, freedom, and meaning. The following excerpt is the third in a series from the chapbook “Quitter #7 (2013).” For part two, see Quitter #7: November.
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My father taught me how to swim by lobbing me into the middle of a pool. He would throw me; I would splash in, quickly return to the surface and begin to flail around.
Between spitting and gasping I would reach for the side of the pool, basically learning to swim by lunging in the direction of the closest solid object. When I reached an edge, my father would lift me out of the water by the arms, my smooth torso brushing against the hair of his shirtless chest.
I would get a whiff of his breath — a punch of pilsner, a pinch of bourbon — just before he threw me back in. Splash in, return to the surface, and seek stability; life lessons roiling and foaming in 22,000 gallons of chlorine and algaecide.
This process continued, on and on as other children played in the water and their mothers lay on the deck on their bellies, their bikini tops untied, canned beers sweating beside their browning shoulders. No matter which side of the pool I would reach, my father would be there to pluck me from the water and toss me back out to the middle.
Sometimes he would pause to jump in the pool himself, get his cut-off jean shorts soaked and later ask the sun to dry them as he went back to educating his child.
Of course nothing bad was going to happen to me. I was bounded by giggling adults and larger children, all well aware of the lesson I was receiving. This is the way my father learned. (I was told that my paternal grandfather learned by falling into an open well.) This method was apparently the only proper way for a boy my age to “understand” the nature of swimming and its physics, a way for me to conquer the water for myself and take it as dominion. I can imagine my grandfather speaking of dominion as he repeatedly tossed my father into a pond from the edges of a boat dock. Dominion then may have been in a different context, a context of control over the minds and actions of your child, rather than that of a global lesson about viscosity and drag.
I imagine that the fear my father had once clenched in his stomach had grown old and rusty if not nostalgic, a flowered, withered and decomposed bit of experience with no current equivalent in his life. His father was dead. He no longer sought out the weaknesses in their relationship or thought that his swimming education was anything more than playful fun. It was most likely an abusive lesson just as mine was, if only temporary instead of some other long-term sorts of abuses. I guess it would be much as the childhood pain of slamming your hand in a car door tends to fully dissipate by the age of twenty.
A few years after my lessons, it was time for my brother to learn. By this time I was able to participate in the instruction, but the most I could do was laugh at how foolish he looked, how his small, bright hands slapped the water all around him, the splashes jostling various inflated pool toys around on tiny bubbly waves. Gone were my own thoughts on how much pain I felt from gulping water, how embarrassed I felt for crying and screaming, how much revenge I craved as my cold-blooded brain switched on. My brother was helpless just like I was, his face contorted into a weird crying smirk.
When we were kids, all my friends and I knew when my brother had to take a shit. He got that same skewered smirk on his face, crossing his legs at his feet, arms limp at his sides as if he were sleeping upright. He would stand in that position until the waves of peristalsis ceased for a bit and he could comfortably throw the baseball or go hiking or whatever it was we were doing at the time. My brother always denied the reasons for the time-outs and glossy eyes.
But we could all take one look and know that gravity was working on his colon, the waste in his system burrowing to freedom.
When he was nineteen, my brother jumped from the roof of a four story building, breaking most of the breakable parts of his body. His bones shattered into multiple pieces, nerve endings and memories erased forever. He had shit himself, but he was salvageable. He found out that you cannot learn how to fly the same way you learn how to swim.
A person is not like a twig or an egg shell. We mostly have the ability to mend and accept that mending in a permanent way. Sometimes the need for mending is mental and hidden from the people who fix these things. In those cases we jump. In those cases we need to jump, to hide ourselves in the quickly approaching pavement, become a part of its blackness, its impervious memory.