Jacob Rosenthal had been to many pools on many Sundays to watch his father’s ungainly negotiations with water. In their previous neighborhood the park schedule limited these outings to late spring and summer when weather allowed. But just blocks from their new home on Maxwell Street, Jacob was exposed to the oxymoronic novelty of a vast enclosure that brought indoors what he’d heretofore believed could only occur outside. And with this marvel came smells and sounds he would associate with this day for the remainder of his life.
It was February of 1950. They’d entered through the front door on a street turgid with blackening snow, and moved to the showers and adjacent lockers to prepare for the usual ritual of Jacob watching his father traverse the pool’s length ten times—five one way, five back—after which they’d steam, shower, and finally venture out once more, perhaps to the butcher for his mother, or to the cobbler or tailor, and then for lunch, where they’d sit in austere silence. His father was short and slender and, unlike many of the other dads, still had most of his hair, none of it yet gray. Jacob was also small and lean but didn’t yet show the tendency toward quiet rage that had transformed his father as a teen. Because of this, Jacob’s slightness of frame caused him to be considered frail, a condition manifesting psychologically as well that Isaac Rosenthal had been vowing of late to eradicate in his only son.
The locker room itself, thick with the heat of the oil-fed furnace blasting air throughout, smelled of the chlorine that permeated the place, the eucalyptus of the two steam baths, the sweat of those slumped in those baths, and the stubbornly pervasive waft of excrement—each fragrance unmistakable, the coalescence intimating to Jacob the terrible mysteries of adulthood. As for the men themselves, they were, almost to a person, with the notable exception of Jacob’s father, thick, slow moving, beleaguered. Carpeted with hair, they plodded the wood-slatted floor pallets deliberately, their morose cocks drooping from shags of haphazardly powdered curls. If there were other boys, eye contact was glancing. Nor would they exchange words, even in those rare instances when the fathers encouraged it, for here among the men, in the heavy mist of their effusions, something sacred was being exposed, and though it was surely unclear how, matriculation into this grave fraternity was certain, and only then would its secrets be known. The boys sensed that they too, like the naked figures lumbering among them, would one day be responsible for families, businesses, communities of their own.
When Jacob’s father reached into his satchel and produced not one pair of bathing trunks but two, Jacob sensed danger.
“Put these on. You’re swimming today.” “I don’t know how.”
“Which is why you’ll do it.”
The sheer illogic of the interchange, especially to a seven-year-old, epitomized the indecipherable contradictions of adulthood that caused in Jacob the meekness that so frustrated his father. It was provisioned with both ambiguity and clarity, with blatant incoherence and inevitability. He would swim because he couldn’t.
Suffused with dread, he found a set of eyes among the penises floating by. They belonged to a blond boy maybe a year younger who’d witnessed the interchange and did the rare favor of allowing Jacob’s eyes to find a sympathetic place. Such connections were almost nonexistent for Jacob. He did have a sister, undoubtedly home with his mother gathering clothes for the Sunday wash, but she was three years older. Though much was expected of her, her own experiences were of such a dramatically different sort that while there was plenty of empathy between them, she had no sense what it was like to be Isaac Rosenthal’s only son. At school Jacob performed well, but almost invisibly, his frailty so prodigious he wasn’t really worth the trouble of those boys just beginning to test the compulsion to hurt and destroy. Most of Jacob’s humiliations took place in the home or on excursions with his father where others could not witness them. Jacob had the impulse to go to the fair-haired boy, take him by the hands, and not let go.
Isaac smacked him on the pate.
“What are you doing? Get the other leg in your trunks and let’s go.”
The pool itself was not particularly big and was perpetually crowded, at least on Sundays, leading Jacob to wonder how his father navigated swimming its length. Two lap lanes had lately been cordoned off, but in these a preponderance of more agile swimmers discouraged entry. As father and son walked the vast atrium, the smell of chlorine overwhelmed all else, as did the din of male voices of every age. Isaac took Jacob by the hand and marched him directly to the pool’s edge.
“Now, I want you to listen to me. I’m going to let go of your hand and enter the water. It’s shallow enough for me to stand, which is what I’m going to do. You’re going to jump into my arms, and then I’m going to teach you to swim. Is that clear?”
Unintended hostilities encroached from all sides: the stiflingly chlorinated air, the damp and gritty cement on which he stood, the abundance of swimmers both in the pool and out oblivious to the dire narrative about to transpire. And then the water itself. Jacob had spent plenty of time in shallow ends, and had even, when younger, been held close by his mother and pulled down the slant of other pools, where she loosened her grip to evince the queer sensation of floating. But the protective warmth of being clutched by her transformed anxiety into what could even have been called delight.
He began to cry.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” His father knelt before him. “Look at me. Look.”
“Do you think there’s any possibility you’ll drown? That any harm will come to you so long as I’m in that pool to catch you?”
“Can’t we do this another time?” “We can’t.”
“Because we’re doing it today.” “But why?”
“Because you’re ready.” “I’m not.”
“You don’t decide that. I do.” “Why?”
“Because I’m your father, and I just know about shit more than you.” Jacob looked at his toes. His father was right: under no circumstance—
should the water erupt in flames, should the building collapse, the very concrete beneath them sink into the earth’s magma—would Isaac Rosenthal allow actual harm to come to his son.
“Can’t I just sit at the edge and you hold me? Carry me in?” “No.”
“If you ask me why one more time, I’m going to drown you myself.”
“But what does jumping into the water have to do with swimming?”
“I want you to prove to yourself you can do this.”
“But do what? I already know I can’t.”
“Overcome your fear of the water, because once you’ve done that, the swimming lesson part will come much easier. You get two for the price of one.” To Jacob’s right appeared another father and son. Grinning expansively, the balding man eased himself in. His tremendous girth, shared by his spawn, caused Jacob to suspect the water’s surface might rise in increments visible to the eye. The man took a few steps from the edge, then submerged his wide head, rising haughtily. Shaking what remained of his hair, he stepped forward, rowing his arms grandly in stride until he reached the lip of the pool where his son waited. Following Jacob’s gaze, Isaac too watched as the man reached with balletic care to pull his boy into the water.
“See? Like they did. Can’t you hold me?”
“I can’t, Jacob.”
“But why?” As soon as his mouth had launched the word, he knew what he’d done. No, he wasn’t going to be drowned, just as he’d never had his hands chopped off, his teeth knocked in or his skull smashed, though these and a host of other consequences had been promised for violating past injunctions.
“You want to know why?” His father’s wrathful face was now inches from his. “Because those people are fat and stupid. But if you want to be raised by that idiot and eat whatever you want and be coddled like a fucking baby until you’re useless and obese, be my guest. Do you want me to ask him, because I’m sure he’d be stupid enough to take you into his home and piss away his time and money rearing you the way he’s rearing his little pig of a boy. So, tell me now and save us all the time, Jacob: Do you want out of this arrangement? Answer me.”
“Then you’re going to stand up there at the edge of the pool, and you’re going to have the guts to jump into my arms.”
“All right.” He could barely get the words out. “What’s that?”
“And stop crying. It’s a fucking embarrassment. You’re seven, not four.” He met his father for the first time at the age of three, when the man who would raise him returned from the Pacific. A marine, he was fit and sure of himself but moved awkwardly. There was a ruggedness to him that others said preceded his time in combat, and a quickness to anger he himself would describe to Jacob and Jacob’s mother and sister as manliness.
His eyes were dark and deep-set, and his ears jutted low and perpendicular from his head like handles there for the lifting of him. His nose was enormous, his cheekbones assertive and high. In the home into which he returned he asserted authority immediately and profanely without hint of reluctance. He beat his son frequently but never, he would aver, capriciously. He didn’t speak of the war, ever, even to Jacob’s mother, other than to say that he’d wish on no one what he’d been through and seen.
“We did what we did so you’ll never have to,” he told them, and not with pride but rather as if in reference to an unspeakably costly bill that had needed to be paid the moment it was tallied.
He would say that the marine corps, far more than his parents, made him who he was, though from the beginning it had been a struggle. There was his small size, his lean frame, and of course the fact he was a Jew and, therefore, it was inferred by others, not to be trusted. The last of these concerned him least because he knew he’d refute such nonsense in an environment where actions meant something. Besides, there existed a more immediate concern, one that had special significance to the predicament in which Jacob found himself on this particular Sunday: unlike Jacob, no one had ever taught Isaac Rosenthal to swim. Making matters worse, he couldn’t very well confide this uniquely problematic ineptitude in the military’s amphibious branch to others who might reveal it at his expense. After all, when applying for the honor of attending boot camp, he’d checked the “yes” box when queried as to all relevant proficiencies.
When the day to demonstrate his abilities came, he was petrified, but he’d taken the measure of those around him and figured the skill they’d devoted months to learn as children he could acquire quickly as an adult, so long as he could study how it was done. Not having the money for lessons, for weeks before reporting he took care to observe how bodies moved in water, and what combination of movement seemed not only most effective but easiest to chance. He’d settled on the breaststroke.
Those present would remember it their entire lives: how the slight, bigeared, humorless Jew propelled himself into the water feet first and simply sank, before thrashing back into view and violently disgorging the water that had filled his lungs. A freckled recruit from Nebraska named Leland McFarland—who would become Isaac’s truest friend in the service, and whom he would see pummeled to death with the butt of an Arisaka rifle at Guadalcanal—swore afterward that it had seemed as if Isaac had eight appendages instead of four given the wrath inflicted on the water’s surface. Yet no one, not even Leland, entered the pool to save him. Instead, as if studying a drowning wasp, they gawked, paralyzed, as Isaac frantically learned enough of the physics to keep his head, now crimson with struggle, above water, where he began taking raspy, heaving breaths, terrifyingly comical in their volume and pitch.
“Are we done with this charade, Private?” shouted the drill instructor. “No, sir,” Isaac managed in a strained warble that almost killed him, thinking, correctly, that if he could simply get horizontal, where all his observations of the preceding weeks could be aped, he might sort out the challenges besieging him. The question was, how did a human actually do this? It was enough just to stay afloat without sucking in liquid with each paroxysmal gasp. No wonder people drowned with such frequency, even accomplished swimmers. Now he too would succumb, and in a pool into which he’d moronically flung himself while others watched, each too intrigued by the very ridiculousness of it to intervene.
Finally, the likelihood of an embarrassing public death enabled him to maneuver into a position that traced the water’s surface. He flailed his hands while leaning forward and kicked back frog-like with his legs. To those watching, the majority no doubt wishing him to fail, the ungainliness now exceeded comical to encroach on grotesque. And yet, though strikingly inefficient in terms of energy expended for distance traversed, Isaac Rosenthal was swimming, bobbing his head from the water every few strokes to suck air through an outrageously distended mouth. He managed the two required laps, exceeding the time limit tenfold, after which erupted unanimous applause.
“Private Rosenthal, that was the single-most fucked-up display I hope this pool ever experiences. In fact, I want to drain it for having had that and you in it. But you’re going to get a pass for guts, so long as one of these other idiots actually teaches you to swim. I don’t expect it to be pretty, but I’m not going to have any marines getting shot because they see you flouncing around in the drink instead of getting to shore. Does everyone understand me?” After a chorus of “Yes, sir,” Isaac was pulled from the pool.
“This is going to happen, Jacob. You’re going to jump to me, I’m going to catch you, and by the time we get out of this pool, you’ll be a swimmer. I don’t know what your problem is.”
“He’s scared is his problem. How old is he?” The voice came from their left, high-pitched for the large neck and body of the heavyset father still holding his son.
“He’s seven, and he can swim.”
“None of my business, pal, but it doesn’t look like it.”
“It’s okay, sir,” offered Jacob, eager to defuse a situation that would soon involve slanders his father’s oblivious interlocutor couldn’t fathom.
“Shut your mouth, Jacob.” Isaac now turned to face the man. “I’m your pal?”
“It’s a figure of speech.”
“Are you going to tell me how to raise my son?”
“Not how to raise him, no.”
“Then what is it you want to say?”
“You wonder why he’s upset is all. Like I said, he’s scared.”
“You know what it’s like to be scared, you fat son of a bitch?”
Isaac now addressed the man’s son. “Have you ever seen your fat father—my good pal there—scared?”
The boy gaped back, stunned.
“He’s not answering,” said Isaac. “So maybe my kid’s scared, and yours is a goddamn moron.”
“Come on, Ira,” said the man, his large body trembling as he retreated with his cargo of boy, headed, it would seem, for the farthest point from the Rosenthals the pool would allow.
“Now, are you finished, or do you want to call more attention to yourself, because that’s why I had to bark at that fat idiot. You know it and I know it.”
“Good, because the more time you spend standing up there, the less time you get for learning to swim.”
Jacob looked down to gauge whether any room remained between his toes and the pool’s edge. Over two inches, he estimated, having just that year begun to use a ruler at school. The class was math, and he was good at it. In fact, he was good at everything in school. The teachers adored him because he was diligent, compliant, quiet, and kind. From what he could tell, his class was about a third Jewish, a third Polish, and a third a fairly even split between Italians and Irish. The fathers mostly labored, meaning Isaac’s donning of a shirt and tie every day was something of an anomaly. Jacob’s mother lobbied for her son’s transfer, to which Isaac responded, “There are enough smart kids in that school, and he’ll learn stuff from the ones who aren’t smart that he’d never get in someplace where the kids are pampered. He’s going to be a lawyer, which means he has to be tough.”
“How do you know he’s going to be a lawyer?”
“He’s quiet, but he won’t always be. I was the same way. I can see it in his eyes. He’s going to see through people, and that’s going to terrify them.”
“You say he’s like you were,” Jacob’s mother offered, “and you didn’t become a lawyer.”
“Because I fought in a damn war. You think I was going to law school after I got back and had him to take care of, in addition to you and Rebecca? Two kids and a wife? He gets to have what I never did—like I never had to work on a killing floor like my poor dad. He’s going to law school. Even if he follows me in real estate, he’s gonna get a law degree. Listen to me, Jacob. They call this a democracy. And the economic system is capitalism. Fine and good. But both of those depend on the rule of law. You get that training, you’ll see shit for what it is, and you’ll know not only who’s out to get you but what’s possible within the rules. Anything. Anything is possible.”
“Can I make movies?”
“I don’t know why you’d want to. Unless you run a studio, from what I understand it’s a dog’s breakfast.”
“I like them.”
“Well, that doesn’t mean you should waste your life making them. But sure, make movies for all I care, so long as you do it better and smarter than everyone else.”
From City of Blows by Tim Blake Nelson. Used with permission of the publisher, Unnamed Press. Copyright © 2023 by Tim Blake Nelson.