an excerpt from his novel The Ice Lens
published by Onager Editions
IT IS NO surprise to me, and no one else cares, when I revert to my old pool-cleaning habits to cheer me up, or at least stabilize me when I'm in the dumps. I might be cleaning out the Augean stables, which I remember from that tattered old humanistic education--I recall the cleansing, but not Augea. Where was Augea? Simpler, always, to collect up the surface trash, mainly insects, and then swipe them far enough with a catapult action of the pole. Now they fly again, ungainly and smashed, protein for ants and spiders. Even when the surface of the water is immaculate, I cant the scoop at forty-five degrees and in a gentle sweep pick up the tiniest bits of fluff, pine needles already bleached white and the occasional human hair. Unrolled condoms appear once a week, their prospects rinsed away into the blue, while the lozenges made by the sun jostle one another on the bottom like primeval tectonic molecules bucking for dominance. It is an almost complete world, a paradise of ripple and rocking, the one motion stirred by the invisible ceaseless pump, the other by the crosswinds of midsummer. Sometimes, with permission, I perform my labors within the pool itself, sluicing my privates within the stiff sailcloth of my shorts.
All this was best done alone. It was no use with reposing, sated swimmers watching me, or even sunbathers who would never have dreamed of dipping a limb. When I was truly alone, say at a house temporarily unoccupied but with open pool against the occupants' return from Key West, I would get that cool-spined, ransomed feeling and slow all my motions out of torrid imagining. I was the last human left in the world, only to half-detect through the rear window of a cab parked thirty yards away what looked like a human head on the move. Not alone after all. It was that kind of flawed autonomy, in which I was master of all pools and all water, all pumps and heaters, all water-spiders and sombre, drowned mice. And, naturally enough, I was the only swimmer left, free to shout obscenities at the picture windows and the eaves, at withered geraniums in their tasteful tubs, and un-nourished espaliers hugging the walls like fugitives. The sun shone on most of this, giving me what I called that old Egyptian feeling, like a well-baked loaf to be installed in the royal tomb.
I never cleaned pools before the Gulag, after which of course I had that abiding horror of not knowing how or where she was. Cleaning pools was an attempt to deflect and calm my agitated mind; there was always worry behind it, gnawing and spewing. Was it then that I first allowed myself to fudge up what I called my calm sea and prosperous voyage stage of thought? It was a deliberate attempt to have wholesome thoughts, to lull and smooth myself during even the worst moments, when it was not enough to shout "Speedo!" and crack off into some jolly fit. A deep breath, the deliberate misuse of certain adverbs (radiantly, mellowly, uniquely, rewardingly) and the donning of rose glasses: that began it, and the rest of it amounted to a translation from the offensive or the baleful into the pacific. Imagine how such a practitioner fared at the Gulag, having begun as a man seeking to cheer himself up, now graduated into put-upon tadpole in a sink of putrid horrors. Sleight of hand gives way to a benign terrorism practiced upon oneself in the interests of staying sane. The combination of joyous elements and callous third-degree mixed us all up, enabling me to recall meadows, but full of blood, warm drinks at bedside (Horlicks or Ovaltine), but poisoned, and so on. Now and then, less the man I was, I recall trapping yellow jackets under the mesh of the scoop, and forcing them lower and lower into the water, watching them panic toward the rim and climb over, at which I turned the mesh upside down, trapping them again. They soon stopped panicking and did a few barrel rolls, after which they lay inert on the mesh. I never felt so godlike as then.
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PAUL WEST is the author of 50 books. He has received awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Lannan Prize for Fiction and the Halperin-Kaminsky Prize. He was named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library and a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Government. He has also been a runner-up for the National Book Circle Award and the Nobel Prize for Literature.
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