||Walter's Heart: Chapter 4
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|In town, I turned right on Oak Street and parked my car next to King's Superette, (formerly Paulie's Sweet Shoppe). The bridge was just a few yards away. I would approach it on my terms, as it once was.
I got out and surveyed the days of a thousand steps, some filled with joy, excitement, and most of all youth; and now, with too many regrets. I walked on to the bridge and leaned against the railing, facing upstream. Further up, and out of sight, was where it'd happened.
The place is about 300 yards upstream, past the still waters and just before the flow where fly fishermen waved their rods. In a curved section that cut into the stream's granite base there are a number of pools, the deepest being at least three feet over our heads.
All summer it was daring us, ever since we'd heard that it was called "Dead Man’s Pool", because about five years earlier a body had been found near it. That knowledge tested our budding logic, and stretched its mortal curve.
It was our second summer together. Neither of us had yet learned how to swim. We were both still tube movers. Although, I’d practiced some underwater swimming in the shallow stretches with my new goggles, but Walter still had trouble with water getting in his nose. Anyway, on that particular day, Walter and I’d wandered off while Boris was busy with his friends.
We'd reached "Dead Man's Pool", still carrying our tubes as if they were a part of our wardrobe. It was deserted. We looked at each other as danger filled our senses. And with what can only be described as eight and nine year old brilliance we challenged our bravery.
Walter took off his tube and tossed it into the pool. "I'll bet you I can jump into that tube and swim back." We'd never ever tried anything like that before.
I ran the idea through my own head. Made sense to me: feet first, arms outstretched to grab the tube, float, and safe... "Yeah, I could do it too," I told him. It set us off.
Walter jumped first, holding his nose and yelling, "Bullseye!" He disappeared under the water.
His tube, he'd forgotten to grab it. It took awhile for me to understand that Walter wasn’t coming up, I could see him still on the bottom. I now had to jump in and rescue Walter. I threw my tube next to his, and changing the mission: I'd make sure that I held on to the tube with my arms, then sink a little, grab Walter, and the tube would bring me back up, with Walter in my hands.
Sure, I think back now, Robert Burns knew it all along, "...the best laid plans...." I jumped in, but my arms might as well have been greased. I sank just like Walter did.
I opened my eyes under the water, even without my goggles. I could see Walter's form curled against a nearby wall, the darkest corner of the pool. He'd bottomed, near eternity. I swam towards him and grabbed him by the arms, pulling, but going nowhere. I looked up at the blue sky's watery distortion, our tubes, like floating wreaths. My chest was exploding I had to get out.
Finally realizing that my feet were touching bottom, I had one last try left. I wrapped my arms around Walter's chest and with the strength of life pushed myself off the bottom. My head came out first. Air... then I started to sink again. I kicked my feet and surfaced once more, this time grabbing my tube.
Once secured, I raised Walter above water. "Breathe!" I yelled at him. He didn't. I made for the water's edge. I still don't know how I'd managed to pull us both out.
Walter was lying on his back. He still wasn’t breathing. His skin color had ghostly bleach to it and his lips darker than I’d ever seen them, black, and cold.
Okay, so now I panicked. Walter was dead, I thought.
I grabbed him by his shoulders and shook him. "Come on, wake up," I yelled at him. "We're out of the water, you can start breathing now." Still nothing. I grabbed his head and screamed louder into his face, "Wake up, wake up wake up." That didn't work. So I resorted to using an eight year old's frustration, hitting him: his chest, his stomach, even his face, screaming for him to get up, and crying all the time.
Then, as I let go of failure's impostors I'd figured that if I stood him up, that he might miraculously start walking. So I turned him over and lifted him by his waist, only to fall. He was too heavy to straightened. I tried again. His body bent, its life hanging on my grip. I shook him. Crying and begging this time, "Please, come on Walter, walk. Walk... and Breathe!" I pleaded.
It seemed like forever, each second became eternal. My tears stretched beyond fear and failure, and into sorrow and guilt. What would our Moms...? Suddenly, a gush of water left Walter's mouth. And more water, then lunch; he coughed, and threw up some more. I swung him towards a drier spot and let him down. "Are you all right?" I asked him, wiping away my tears with happier motions. "Can you breathe now?"
Walter opened his eyes and looked at me, and all around, lungs pumping to recapture his place. Finally, he spoke, "Wow, that was really stupid. Boy, I hate being stupid." Then as a proof of his fiber, he asked, "Did you hit the Bullseye too?"
"Yeah," an accomplishment.
He looked around, coughed into his hand and looked at the spit. "I guess I don't have to die yet,” he said, trying to lift a smile. "Thanks Danny."
I didn't know what to say.
"You know, Danny," he said still coughing, "We can't ever, ever tell anybody about this." I agreed with my own fear. We then locked pinkies and swore. By the end of that summer we'd both learned how to swim,
Yes, each summer, told a story. In our next to last summer, Walter and I'd tried out for the summer baseball team. I'd made it as an outfielder, Walter as the equipment manager. He loved it though. Our coach even let him pinch hit in some games. Struck out each time. Then, the following year, after having practiced with his brother, he'd made the team as a first baseman. Even got some clutch hits. But that was also the last summer we'd spent together. And the last time that we'd seen each other.
I know, you can ask yourself, how does that happen. Fate and Destiny are always easy excuses but the truth is that I was entering a new social phase back home, high school. And I didn't have the time to be compassionate or caring. Those years didn't allow for such frailties.
My Mother had suggested that since I was working summer jobs and couldn't visit him that maybe we should invite him here.
Naturally, I declined, with a million excuses in my head. Besides, I'd felt that I was probably doing him a favor by not exposing him to my friends. They might not understand, and we all knew how to blindly hurt each other at that age. And so time stretched each truth into whatever excuse fit. Yeah I know I could have been stronger. But at that age, it was better not to feel your heart's journey.
Through the years though, Mom had kept corresponding with Walter's mother. So I'd always been kept up to date on his life: Graduated from Cornell with a degree in Aeronautics, worked for Lockheed, numerous design awards. He'd also gotten married and had two daughters, both in college. It's amazing how far his heart had taken him.
In fact, Mom once told me that Walter'd once refused a heart transplant because, "...someone younger, more deserving should get the heart instead." I suppose that he'd gotten more out of his heart than anyone'd expected, except Walter of course. Yeah, all in all, quite a man, and I'd once known him.
Walter's Mom had asked my Mom what his last message could have meant. She'd said that she didn't know. But I think I know what he'd meant and I knew that I would have to step into their house once more, to explain it all.
They said that they'd found Walter slouched over his computer, with his finger still pressing a key. It was the message that he'd left, the last thing he'd wanted to say. It broke my heart to understand it, and then I finally smiled.
The message read: “DANNY, THANKS FOR THE TIME.............................................”
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