July 17: “Cramp” by Gao Xingjian

Happy Sunday, Story366! For today’s entry, I’ve decided to share with you the time I came closest to death (more on why later).

But anyway, the time I came closest to death was at the beach. In high school, along with doing the vending at Wrigley, Comiskey, and Soldier’s Field (I did all three for a while), I worked at a local pizzeria. Nice little business, about ten employees, selling a couple hundred pizzas a night. I came home stinking of cheese and flour and deliciousness. I got pretty tight with most of those ten people who worked there, people I still keep in contat with on FB, one of those pizza makers calling me out of the blue last year, telling me he was passing through Springfield and wanted to have dinner. It was a fun job, good as any for a high school kid.

Once every summer, on a Monday (the pizzeria was closed on Mondays), we’d have a “work party,” we’d all meet up somewhere like the zoo or the beach, hang out, then go out to dinner someplace nice, all on the boss. One year, between my junior and senior years of high school, we went to the beach, which where I grew up, meant the Ogden Dunes in Northwest Indiana, the southeast tip of Lake Michigan. We sea-faring pizza makers loaded ourselves into a couple of cars, packed some coolers, and bared our pizza-making bodies into bathing suits for some swimming, some Frisbee, and some sun.

At some point on this trip, I know that my coworkers buried me in the sand, leaving a straw in my mouth to breath out of, the only time in my life I’ve been buried in sand. After that, I ventured out into the water to clean/cool off, everyone else opting to stay on the shore. I went out to where I was about chest high in the water and just sort of chilled. That’s when a sudden, drastic undertow pulled me under.

I should mention at this point that I’d never been much of a swimmer. My mom’s sister had a four-foot above-ground pool, and 99 percent of my swimming experience came from wading in that pool, using a life jacket until I could stand up. My older siblings all took lessons at the city pool in Calumet City, but we moved and for whatever reason, we just never got around to getting me proper swimming lessons. Because I had a bad back in high school and wore a brace—another story for another post—I didn’t have swim in freshman P.E. like everyone else in my high school. So, I become a young adult without knowing how to swim, but swimming all the time in pools and lakes, anyway, just staying in the shallow parts where I could stand up.

The undertow negated that plan. There was me, sixteen, on a trip to a beach with my minimum-wage coworkers, and I was suddenly under the water, reaching for the surface, running out of air, my legs flailing, searching for bottom. I believe I actually opened my eyes under the water, which I never did, because, you know, I was drowning. For a good thirty seconds, the sun above the water slipping away from me, I thought I was going to die, as in, for sure. I actually started to say some of those Catholic prayers I’d recited a million times and started to relax, exhausted and out of breath, letting it happen.

Relaxing, it seemed, was what I was supposed to do. Instead of kicking my legs and grasping at the sky, my body straightened itself and I fell to the bottom, my feet flat, my head still a good three feet under the water. With my last bit of energy, I pushed myself upward and broke the plane of the water, my head above water, me gasping, etc. When I located the shore, I realized I wasn’t really any farther out than I had been, only a bit up the coast. I was breathing, but I was still in water over my head and I couldn’t swim.

As you might guess, I made it. I’d seen people swim, had been somewhat instructed as a kid, and overall, only needed to get five feet or so, where the shelf was reachable. I did my best to assimilate what I’d witnessed, flip-flopping between the freestyle and doggie paddle, and after burning several thousand calories, I was able to move myself the necessary length to catch footing and save my life. I walked to shore, shaken, exhausted, and terrified. My coworkers were frolicking or sunbathing or whatever, and I thought about telling them about it, but for whatever reason, I just didn’t.

I haven’t really thought about that day much since then, only a couple of times with friends, when discussing such things—how we almost died—probably when drunk. But I thought about it when reading today’s story, “Cramp,” by Chinese author Gao Xingjian, from his collection Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather, translated by Mabel Lee and brought to us by the good people at Perennial. Xingjian is the author of novels, plays, stories and criticism, more than enough to land him a Nobel Prize in Literature, the first such recipient in the Story366 family. More importantly (to me, anyway) is the fact that he’s the first author on Story366 to have a name beginning with X. That gives me twenty-five of twenty-six letters in my Alphabetical Archive, leaving only an author whose last name starts with Q to obsessively fill my collection. But as already said, that’s a story for another day.

“Cramp” is a bit different from my pizza place beach party experience, but not all that much. Instead of an undertow taking down a non-swimmer, the unnamed protagonist of “Cramp” gets a—you guessed it—cramp. He’s swimming out from shore, trying to see how far he can get. Then he gets said cramp. At first, he thinks it’s a stomach ache, having eaten too recently. No, it’s a stomach cramp, the water too cold, him out of shape, and it’s getting worse the longer he tries to make it go away.

Like me, the character in Xingjian’s story feels his life flashing before his eyes. He looks to the shore, a place of comfort, a goal, another world. He tries to logic his way through his predicament. He tries to rub his abdomen to make the cramp go away. The fact is, however, he’s out at sea, nobody is paying attention to him, and he’s slowly sinking, unable to keep himself afloat. He’s going to die if something doesn’t change, and like me, twenty feet from shore in Lake Michigan, he has a moment when thinks that death is the inevitable outcome.

Does he live? Does he die? Something else? I won’t reveal that, because that’s way too much. I will say that Xingjian handles this type of narration really well (Nobel Prize-winner that he is … duh), as it’s pretty hard to write any kind of action, let alone this really tight third-person story where the protagonist—about which we know nothing—is slowly and steadily dying, fighting for his life. There’s the physicality of it all, but also the description, the voice, the mood, everything that needs to be pulled off to make a story like this—only seven pages long—work. Really, describing someone as they think they’re about to die isn’t all that simple, but Xingjian’s character is vivid and sympathetic and I wanted him to make it. What else can you ask for in a story?

I read a couple of other pieces from Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather, including the title piece, which is a very touching introspection about the protagonist’s life and family history. I’d never read Gao Xingjian before today, and honestly, only discovered him when I was looking for an author whose last name started with X. Lo and behold, I came across one who won a Nobel Prize. Lucky me. Now we have to get down to finding that person with the Q name, and I’ll make the offer again: If anyone out there has a book coming out this year, a collection of stories, and is willing to change their last name to fit the bill, private message me ASAP. We can talk terms. “D’Angelo P. Quackenbush” just screams literary genius.

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