Dive again for me, diver,” Kath said.
I always thought that she didn’t really like the gig. Kath didn’t talk much about me diving. I guess it just became something I did, sort of like a job. After all, I did make good money from it.
Thirty-odd years ago Kath said something else to me: “Use your brain, Mike. Go to college.”
Smart lady. So, I did. I got a job one day and then we bought a house with a pool. But before that I got a call from the owner of Adventureland, the local summer fairground. It was on a Sunday and I had one arm in my jacket about to go see Tony down at the pub. The Adventureland guy tells me that he wants to put on a high-diving act and heard I was educated in engineering. I was still waiting for my degree to come in the mail then. That became my first job. No, really. I built the thing for the Adventureland guy.
Here’s what it was: a tiny steel ladder, 110 feet straight into the sky, right toward the heavens where my poor Kath is now. There were these little platforms on it. One at 30 feet, another at the 65-foot mark and one more at 100 feet. Each platform was just long enough for a person to stand on above a big blue pool below.
Numbers. That’s all it took. It’s just numbers in my brain, calculating everything. I got these strong forearms and all this energy. I hate sitting still. My mind—it just runs! Kath knew that too. That’s why she told me to hit the books and get a degree. When it comes to math and calculating all this stuff, it’s like when I was wrestling in high school. The whistle would blow and boom. 8 seconds. Go! It’s like that in my head. Or maybe it’s like surfing. I always wanted to surf, but I never have. I bet it’s similar. Just flying down the wave, and the curl—what’s it called? The tube? Like that. I’m in the tube when I do this kind of thing.
So boom, boom, boom—I drafted it up in two pints of Guinness at Tony’s later that night and took it to Adventureland guy the next day. He looks it over and gives me 500 in cash. It was a total rip off, I should have asked for more. I was dumb. I mean I wasn’t dumb, people think I’m dumb. Everyone but Kath. She said I had brains.
Anyways, Adventureland guy gets the thing built that Spring and when it’s all done I came to take a look.
“I added a few feet in depth,” Adventureland guy tells me. “Just in case.”
He didn’t need to because my math was spot on, but it was okay because there it was, below the ladder, a big pool deep enough for a man who is 160 pounds of pure muscle like myself— like I was—to hop off the top platform at 100 feet, fall like a stone and hit the water without touching the bottom. The whole thing was perfect and straight from my brain! They even constructed a neon sign that read “The High Dive” out front. It lit up and changed colors. The thing could be seen from the gravel parking lot and the nearby highway as you approached the park on I-87 too. It towered above the red and white candy-cane swirls of the entrance and the line of booths with shoot-a-duck and the ring toss and the hanging stuffed animals you could win. It was even higher than the Ferris wheel with its blinking lights spelling out Adventureland and where Kath and I had our second kiss (the first was in line). It doesn’t seem like yesterday, but 30 years? That sounds too long, but then all I need to do is look in the mirror and sure enough.
A week later after getting paid, I found out there was one problem: no one wanted to jump. So, Adventureland guy called me again. It was on a Sunday, I think. I was just about to leave for Tony’s like the last time.
“Mike,” he said. “I can’t find anyone to jump.”
“Well, no one wants to be the first.”
“And?” I asked.
Adventureland guy cleared his throat a bit like he was about to get to the point, so I didn’t say anything.
“Well,” he began. “How do I know someone isn’t going to jump off the thing and . . . ?”
“Off the mark. Hits the bottom. Breaks a neck or worse.”
I laughed so hard I couldn’t catch my breath. Kath even came out of the bedroom, six months pregnant with our second child, to make sure everything was okay and that I wasn’t choking and about to kick the bucket. I don’t joke about these things anymore. Not now that Kath’s gone, but at the time I was sucking air and she sees me there laughing it up, shakes her finger at me before putting it to her lips while pointing at our first child’s room, really the only room, with her other hand.
“Don’t wake him up, Mike,” Kath said. “You’re putting him back to bed if he start crying!”
I did as I was told. I always did what Kath said. So, I covered my mouth and walked into the kitchen, stretching the telephone cord as long as it could go.
“Okay, Mike,” Adventureland guy said, real annoyed. “If it’s so funny, then you jump off of it!”
“Deal!” I said and hung up.
That was that. My brain knew it was fine. It was easy, simple stuff. Basic math for anyone who knows multiplication and some geometry. Adventureland guy didn’t know. He didn’t want a guy or gal—I know some women that did it later, crazy stuff, corkscrews and quadruple backflips, amazing—to die or break something leading to a lawsuit. I get it now. No one had jumped off what I built and so Adventureland guy got cold feet, but what could he do? He’d just spent a couple grand on building the thing, not to mention the billboard space promising a new attraction and how ever many tickets pre-sold. There was the 500 dollars in pocket change he’d given me to design the sucker too. Memorial Day was two weeks away.
I was about the lock the front door when the phone rang again. I sprinted back in.
“Thursday,” was all he said.
“Thousand bucks,” I said back.
“You’re crazy!” He yelled.
I hung up again and didn’t answer when he quickly called back a third time. Instead I unplugged the phone to make sure he didn’t wake Kath or the kid and headed to Tony’s. The next day Adventureland guy called back and said “fine.”
“Aren’t you afraid of heights?” Kath reminded me the next afternoon.
It was true. I hadn’t even thought about it. I was so excited over having the thing built and the thousand bucks, I forgot that every time I get too high off this Earth, I start sweating bullets and my stomach feels like there’s a wasp nest in it. That’s what the second kiss was for—the one on the Ferris wheel with Kath on our first date—it was so I didn’t have to look down. I just closed my eyes, squeezed Kath’s hand and met her lips until the thing started moving again.
The first time I climbed that tiny ladder to the highest platform I thought I was going to piss my trunks. Forget it, I said to myself, but then there I was, already halfway up. I counted to one-thousand for each dollar I was making the rest of the way.
Up on the top platform of the ladder, I could see clear over Jersey and even the buildings of New York City. And the wind—it was always so much stronger up there. Of course, I’d calculated all that. Never jump if the wind is over a certain mile per hour and coming in these directions and so on. All that, I knew. Conditions were fine that day, maybe not my own condition—my heart felt like the landlord’s fist pounding on the front door when the rent is due. I was sweating as well. My palms like the inside of the freezer door. My forehead like Niagara.
Now get this: I didn’t look down. I just jumped. This no-looking became a habit. Once I was up top on that final platform and all turned around, facing the pool, I’d look straight out in front of me instead. You couldn’t really see anything, just the sky clear out toward the horizon. It was beautiful, I gotta admit. And to think that only those who climbed up there had that view and that I created this thing. There weren’t that many other divers—just me and maybe a half of dozen more, give or take a few. Sometimes I miss that view and wish I could be back up there on that platform again just to see it. Maybe I’d even dive again. I’d turn around on the ladder, take one step forward, take a deep breath and look out into the clouds and the empty sky, and exhale like I did on that first jump and before every jump after it. Deep breath, exhale. On the third deep breath, I’d bend my knees, and exhale again. One more deep breath and then I jump, eyes on the horizon, reaching out towards it as if it’s a pole or a barbell that I’m trying to grab. Exhale.
Time slows at this point. I can’t explain it but it happened every time as soon as I started to fall downward. I’d move my body into the diver’s shape with my arms straight out overhead and my legs together exactly like I had learned at the community pool behind the church off the springboard as a kid. Another big inhale as I began to head down into the water, and splash, the warm silence of the pool.
“Graceful” was how Kath described it when she saw me dive again that summer.
I was surprised. No one has said that to me since.
“Okay, so it worked,” said Adventureland guy after I climbed out of the water after my first dive and was shivering poolside in a towel. “But how do I know it will work again?”
I just rolled my eyes and walked away. Another call came in that night and Adventureland guy asked me if I’d be his high diver for the season. This time I said let me ask Kath.
“Only if it’s something you want to do,” she said lying in the darkness of our bedroom with my arm around her.
I wasn’t sure what that meant. Sometimes we say things we don’t really mean or keep it vague to be safe. Maybe Kath was okay with it, but not happy about it. So, I asked her again the next morning over coffee and with our first son, Ed, bouncing on my lap.
“What about the degree?” Kath asked again with a hand over her pregnant stomach and the other around a coffee cup.
“It’s just for the summer,” I said.
“Well, as long as it pays the bills,” Kath said patting her belly to remind me of our second one on the way.
It did pay the bills. A thousand bucks a jump was a lot of money back then. But this was all before the house and the cars, when we were still back in the apartment with just the one bedroom. It was cozy, but tight. We got the place when I was still in school and Kath was putting in closing shifts down at the cafe on the weekends and being a secretary during the week for some hotshot at the hotel down near the reservation. Something about events. I liked that little apartment. Things were simple. Or maybe they weren't and they just seem that way now with so much time having passed. But it got a little cramped when Ed was born and too cramped with our second born. We were worried. The school thing looked like a gamble. A smart gamble, but nonetheless. Two kids and a one-bedroom apartment. We were sweating, but didn’t talk about it. Instead, we just cut the coupons.
Then I started diving. I did it for 9 years. Adventureland was the place in the summer back then but The High Dive became its must-see attraction. Well that, and the monthly concert. Petty even played there once and I did a special dive during “Free Fallin.’” I thought it was kind of silly. Don’t get me wrong, though, love Petty—nice guy too. Of course, the whole place is closed now. Blame it on the economic downturn a few years ago. Adventureland guy had his money on one of those schemes—not Ponzi, but another one. It’s sad, even if he did rip me off the first time and probably a whole bunch of other people along the way.
I kept diving until the last few years before it closed. Even after I started my own engineer consulting business for extra cash in the off-season, I still dove when summer came around. We were more than good, Kath and I were great—we had no idea, really. Plus, the kids liked it. I even became something of a local celeb, which isn’t much but was fun.
“Hey, it’s the Diver,” people would say at Tony’s or in the check-out line. Kath also began to say it sometimes, kind of like a nickname when she was being affectionate.
She still called me by that name even when she caught the Big C—breast cancer—and all through her chemo that didn’t work. The night before she went into the ICU, she pulled at my wrist with her thinning fingers and her brittle nails that were a bubblegum pink because she had spent all her energy that morning painting them—even the dying sometimes still want to look good—and said it one last time to me.
“Dive again for me, diver,” Kath said laying in her hospital bed.
It was just the two of us. The kids were at the grandparents. Kath was all covered in wires and with the beeps of the machines going on, she asked me to dive again.
I hadn’t answered. I was just looking at her there, my Kath, all withered away like a tree in late autumn after all the leaves have fallen off.
“Of course, Kath. Anything for you,” I answered.
She was gone less than two weeks later. My poor Kath. My whole life was because of her. Would I have gone to school? Would I have dived if she had not said, okay, do it? No. I couldn’t of. There would have been no kids, no house, pool or The Diver. I do it all again even if it ended the same way.
So, I dove. I did what she said one last time. I had stopped diving the year before so I put in a call to Adventureland guy a few days after the funeral.
“You sure?” he asked.
“Kath wanted it.”
“I see,” he said. “Okay, we’ll work something out.”
He wasn’t lying, I got to admit. Adventureland guy made a whole thing about it—not about Kath, I wouldn’t let that— but about it being my last dive ever. That’s how he billed it. Sure, he was trying to sell tickets, but that’s okay. There were posters with photos of me diving over the years. He sold t-shirts and took out ads. It’d be the first dive of the summer season.
On the actual day, it was windier than usual and we almost had to call it off. That would have been a disaster. The dive had sold out. Imagine it: the whole place smelling like cotton candy, even up on the platform, sweet and sticky. Everyone wearing sunglasses and shorts, holding ice cream cones. It was a crush of people at Adventureland. The place had to be overcapacity. It took me 20 minutes or something just to get through everyone and all of the lines for bumper cars and the swings. It was like the whole Tri-State was there. I was relieved to get out of the crowd when I started my climb, the bleachers below packed, people standing in the entrance and sitting cross-legged in rows by the pool, all of them clapping and yelling at the static announcement over the PA welcoming me back. A special dive, the man called it. A dive for Kath.
I have to confess that the dive itself was like all the others. I was still nervous going up and when I jumped, it was the same form as always—like a riding a bike as they say. There was only one difference. When I got to the top, I looked down this time. I turned around on the little platform, looked out into the horizon and said to myself, “love ya, Kath” then I began my breaths. When I took my last inhale I glanced down for a second and saw what I had never seen before.
Then I leapt.
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