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Vol. 5, No. 2

Jimmy Underwater
by Julia Whitty

Time passed, critical time for Jimmy underwater. Thirty minutes. Thirty-two. The paramedics moved to the edge of the ice, peering in. The SAR captain fielded radio calls to the police. The two divers searched ever more frantically through the blinding silt, billows of it roiling to the surface and staining the slush black.
    Finally one diver burst up, regulator falling out of his mouth.
    “Got him!” he shouted.
    The other diver broke the surface, head still bowed into the water, looking under as he clawed his way to shore, hauling something that came partially out of the water, a shoulder, then an arm, followed by Jimmy’s head, the neck so limp it looked broken, the face streaky, dull blue. Water streamed off him, poured literally out of him as the paramedics raced with him up the hill.

 

~

The answer that Jimmy has waited for so long lies just beyond the cusp of consciousness. He can feel its presence, not embodied, not something you could shake hands with, but something as perfect and still as twilight, something round, quiet, lustrous, yet dark. He’s close to it now, it’s almost down his gullet and inside him.
    Simon is tugging on the tether. Ignore it. Tug. Thirty minutes, time to leave. Forget about it. Tug. It’s like the precipice of an orgasm. Tug. No. How can he? Simon. The bastard.
    Too late. The answer comes out of him on a fishhook and monofilament line. He snaps his teeth together, trying to hold it inside. No good, it’s gone.
    He wrenches the mask back down onto his face and punches the purge valve. Water gushes out, followed by air. Simon is hauling at him now. Hell. He can swim, but when he tries, his legs spasm uncontrollably.
    Dragged backward by the buckle, Jimmy bleeds some air into his dry suit but then finds himself too buoyant so that he ascends and collides with the ice above. That’s unpleasant. Simon reeling him in, a spent fish, his head and shoulders grinding against the ceiling. He tries to reorient himself in order to fend it off with his arms, and in the process finds his legs beginning to kick again, enough to keep him from bumping off the roof like a helium balloon. By the time he gets to the sealhole he’s managed to turn himself around and self-locomote.
    Popping up into the air, he can see through the water sluicing off his mask that Simon is yelling, but he can’t hear what. He fumbles to unsnap the buckle on the scuba-tank harness, wriggles out of it, and holds it at the surface for Simon to grab. But Simon is still shouting, gesturing, his eyes inside the holes of the balaclava sparking with fear. Jimmy makes a circle with his thumb and forefinger and holds it up, the universal divers’ sign for “I’m all right.” Only partially reassured, Simon nods as he reaches for the spent tank.

 

~

Jimmy knows the look; on the edge of the Minnesota lake when the siren started and the ambulance surged forward skidding and bouncing against the snowbank, he watched Simon receding behind him on the road, Simon’s face surrounded by a yellowish halo of doubt.
    Then Simon was gone, and Jimmy turned his attention to the two paramedics tending his lifeless body, one cutting the wet clothing away, hands and arms expertly weaving in and around the ministrations of the other who rhythmically administered CPR. On the third round of heart massage, Jimmy re-entered his body, slipping in through the nose, riding the breath of life down into his lungs where he once again became part of the body that had for the past thirty-eight minutes been unconscious, then dead, now unconscious again.

 

~

Jimmy’s shaking so hard with cold that twice he lurches out of his seat as Simon drives, screeching through the gears, shouting the whole way.
    “What the hell happened down there?”
    Jimmy knows that screaming is Simon’s way of showing concern.
    “Got really cold,” says Jimmy, his teeth chattering, breathless.
    “Well why the fuck didn’t you come up sooner?”
    “Didn’t realize.”
    “Christ almighty. You should’ve signaled me. I would’ve hauled you in.”
    “You did.”
    “I know I did.”
    “Thanks,” says Jimmy. “Didn’t know I needed help.”
    “You didn’t know?” says Simon. “You’re swimming and swimming and suddenly you can’t swim and you don’t know you need help?”
    Jimmy reaches to the dashboard to turn up the heater. His arms are jerking so much he can’t land his fingers on the lever.
    “Wasn’t swimming,” he says.
    “You weren’t swimming?”
    Suddenly he’s absolutely, completely spent. It’s always this way after ice diving, not a morsel of energy at the end of it. He gives up on the lever.
    Simon turns the heat up for him. “What were you doing?”
    Jimmy has never told Simon about what he does at the end of each dive. “Lying on the bottom,” he says.
    “Lying on the fucking bottom? Doing what?”
    But that’s all Jimmy can say. The rest is as painful and private as a self-inflicted wound. Simon doesn’t press, both men realizing they’ve come up against that nineteen-year-old wall, the complicated thing that both bonded them together and separated them from each other years before.
    “Well, take a shower when you get back,” says Simon. “Get warm.”
    Jimmy nods. It’s what they always do after ice diving, stand under the hot water until the extremities burn with returning life.

 

~

For four hours in the emergency room they worked on Jimmy’s core temperature before they got it close to normal. The first thing he remembered was waking up and seeing through his own eyes again, startled by the limited field of view they offered. His parents were there, crying, rubbing his hands, as Simon waited in the background.
    “Hi,” said Jimmy, his voice sounding as if it came through a hair comb.    
    “Who’s that?” asked a doctor, pointing to Jimmy’s mother.
    “Mom,” whispered Jimmy.
    “What’s your name?” said the doctor.
    “Jimmy.”
    “How old are you?”
    “Eleven.”
    “Amazing,” said the doctor.
    “What’s the password?” said Simon, stepping closer, leaning in.
    Jimmy paused, smiled. “I’m not gonna say that here.”     
    Everyone laughed in relief.

 

~

Jimmy is eating a huge steak (“6-cm’s Thick,” the mess blackboard states), a mound of french fries and coleslaw, as well as a second plate heaped with spaghetti and meatballs. He alternates monstrous bites with slugs of boiling hot coffee. It’s always like this after a dive, eat and eat and still shiver. He’s already showered and put on damn near every piece of clothing he owns. Normally Simon would be eating with him.
    He stares at his empty plates, feeling the shock in his system, the aftereffects of what he has to admit was a reckless and stupid act under the ice today. It must have been Simon’s dry suit; too big after all, too big for him to keep the volume of air inside it warm. So why does he continue to do this? Because he wants to explore those things he once briefly knew, to touch that porous world between life and death—though he’s unlikely to solve anything in this lifetime, as his own research is, in the end, puny and unquantifiable: not science at all.
    He carries his trayful of dirty plates to the stainless-steel cart outside the kitchen, the energy draining from his limbs as his feet drag across the floor. All he really wants at this moment is to sleep. But instead he pushes himself on, shrugging back into his parka, cinching the hood, donning one mitten and then the other with the help of his teeth. He crosses the compound, waving lethargically at colleagues, trudging slowly to the ice lab.
    He finds Simon standing alone by the rack of aquariums, tending their captives—the Antarctic limpets, the specimens of Serolis polita, including a pregnant one bursting with pink eggs, some krill, and a lone, prize icefish. Simon’s in the process of netting a krill, but when he realizes Jimmy has entered, he turns his back to him.
    Jimmy watches as the krill contracts violently, trying to escape the forceps as Simon plucks her from the net and drops her onto a petri dish. The beating of her heart within her translucent body is blurred with speed.
    Go in peace, is what Jimmy thinks whenever he sacrifices some living thing. Or sometimes, simply, Sorry. Simon grunts, shrugs a shoulder, and Jimmy realizes he must have said it aloud.
    Using three straight pins, Simon pegs the krill to the petri dish, then inserts a hypodermic into her heart to extract the blood. It’s clear as dew. No oxyhemoglobin here, just hemocytes, the subject of Simon’s research. Her swimming legs beat continually; it’s what she’s always done, swim and swim from the moment of her birth.
    She dies from the inside out, her clear tissues clouding up, her legs falling still.
    The next morning Simon is polite but distant, refusing to ask Jimmy for help. In his dry suit with the tool kit, hammer, stakes, and a coil of yellow nylon line, he looks like some oversized cartoon character, good or evil, Jimmy’s not sure which. He’s collected all this gear himself and dressed himself as Jimmy tries to look busy with the drill. Simon is the only diver Jimmy knows who can walk with all his ice-diving gear on. Everyone else sits on the edge of the hole and falls over. But Simon makes an elegant, nearly splashless step-entry as the water closes over him.
    Jimmy notes the time of entry into the log before tidying up inside the Cat, picking up Simon’s clothes from the floor, folding them roughly, heaping them on the crankcase, which is still warm. Then he walks out to the edge of the seal hole and retrieves the nylon tether.
    It’s overcast today. A snow thin as dandruff is falling. It’s questionable whether it’s really falling or simply being blown off the ground, swirled around, and dropped again. At any rate, it’s cold. Even with his exposure suit and polar boots Jimmy can feel it biting into his feet and knees.
    He watches a pair of emperor penguins approach, beaks bobbing left and right as they waddle. They circle the Cat once, inspecting, then flop onto their stomachs to paddle over to where Jimmy sits, rescue line draped across his lap.
    “Hello,” he says.
    In one motion they flip from the horizontal to the vertical. Standing now, they wait alongside him, peering down into the water. Seated, Jimmy’s head is not quite even with theirs. He checks his watch.
    Five minutes. He gives three tugs.
    No answer. He tugs again. A penguin bends over and pecks at the line snaking across the ground. “Simon,” he says. Three more tugs, and again. OK, shit, that’s enough. Jimmy stands, braces himself, and begins to haul. Nothing. He tries again—no good, can’t move the line, it’s like trying to tow an iceberg. For the first time panic ignites along the edges of his mind. He can feel it weakening his body and pushes it away, willing it gone with all his strength. Adrenaline rushes in and he heaves again until he believes he can actually see the line stretching. Still nothing. He runs for the cab of the Cat.
    The engine is running but the clutch is, as always, stubborn. He works the gearshift, trying to coax it into reverse. Eventually he rams it into gear and inches it backward as the line tightens slowly until a sound like a rifle report pings through the chassis. He can’t believe what he’s seeing. The line is broken. One half recoils toward him. The other slithers over the edge and down the seal hole.
    The base director, Howard, will not allow Jimmy to dive for Simon. He can’t stop him from suiting up, but he won’t give Jimmy any air. Instead he sends two rescue divers in, a pair of amphipod guys from Berkeley. It’s everyone’s nightmare, Jimmy can see it on their faces, it could have been one of them. His system is raging as he paces, working up a hellacious sweat inside the dry suit. Howard doesn’t seem to understand the urgency.
    “It’s been forty-two minutes,” says Jimmy.
    “Put on your balaclava,” says Howard.
    “You know he can be revived. I mean I was revived after thirty-eight minutes.”
    “I know,” says Howard. “Put on your balaclava.”
    Jimmy pushes back his hood, pulls down the balaclava, realizing as he looks through the eyeholes that it’s not his, but Simon’s. Somehow, like putting blinders on a horse, he feels calmer, and stands quietly across the seal hole from Howard.
    A diver rises up to the surface, lifts his mask and regulator.
    “Found him,” he splutters.
    Howard nods. “Can we bring him in?”
    “We’re ready.”
    They use a polar tow truck, winching him up, ridiculously slowly, the deliberate and lugubrious pace of everything in the Antarctic. Jimmy finds himself hating it, the ice, the cold, the slow-motion burgling of life.
    As kids, Simon always envied Jimmy’s accident scars. The missing toes. Frostbite burns. It was manly stuff. Later on Simon listened to Jimmy talk about his time under the ice, the colors, the disembodiment. Simon was the only one who ever believed Jimmy’s story.
    Now Jimmy studies the indentations on Simon’s lips where he was intubated with the respirator. He examines the holes in his arms and on the back of his hands where they inserted blood/gas monitor lines, IV saline, and who knows what else. There’s still a piece of surgical tape on Simon’s nose, which Jimmy peels off. He notices the left knee with the old crescent-shaped scar and has to think for a moment before remembering the time Simon fell off his bike along Lakeville Street, after Jimmy tossed a cherry bomb at him.
    For a while, everyone explains things to him.
    The base doctor about how children do better in cold-water submersion than adults do. The rescue divers about how they found Simon wedged behind a grounded iceberg in only four meters of water, how they had to dig the bottom away to get him free. Howard, alone with Jimmy in the bunkhouse, about the dry suit: frayed along the upper back, a small tear in the right shoulder, filled with water. Any idea how that could have happened?
    Jimmy shakes his head. But he knows it must have happened when he was dragged along the ceiling of ice the day before. And Howard wonders, didn’t Simon signal his distress? Didn’t he tug on the line? Jimmy feels incredibly dull-witted. He can’t actually think, can only remember folding Simon’s clothes.
    At 3:00 a.m. that same night, or morning, or whatever it is in this relentlessly bright realm of the polar summer, Jimmy watches the weak beam of the sun circle the horizon through a haze of snow. Already the seal hole is plugged with new ice. A line of penguins far off to the north toboggans toward the open sea. Lucky birds, he thinks, feathers fitting tightly as scales, filoplumes to trap warm air, subcutaneous pads of fat. Everything efficiently designed for the frigid air and water.
    Jimmy shifts, trying to find some comfort on the cold ice. In going, Simon has finally solved Jimmy’s problem, the one they’ve both been researching all along. Seated beside the seal hole Jimmy feels like a frozen man, a snowman collecting white flakes fluttering from the sky. Patiently he waits, hopeful that the answer he needs might still be adrift in the air, or locked into the matrix of thickening water.

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