I found an inch of time between the luscious warmth of the sun-through-glass in the library, and the calamity of after school pick-up, to visit Walden on Thursday.
Walking down the ramp to the pond was like visiting a friend I had once known well, but with whom something vital had changed.
My wetsuit remained at home in my apartment.
The breeze still whispered curly secrets around my ears. Welcoming. Comforting. A lost wallet had been carefully placed next to the corner post on the lower rail of the wooden fence. Seeing it lying there looking cared about felt good to me.
The beach was mostly deserted. To my right, a figure in the distance huddled on the stone wall where life guards would sit on a summer day. On my left at the far end of Red Cross beach I saw a figure of a woman in a wetsuit. Shoulder length white hair, flowing like a sail flat to the wind. She wiped her hands on a white towel which hung on the wire fence and then disappeared into the woods.
I waited for her to reappear. She never did.
I looked out across the pond. The white mane on her was roaring toward me, rolling relentless. I knew her well in this temperament. Getting out into her girth would have been challenging. Her bite, her lashings every time I would try to breathe air. She would beat unforgiving at the back of my skull.
I looked up through the gnarled naked tree branches into the perfect blue afternoon. Listening. The insistent presence of wind on water on sand.
I miss the community. The swimmers that keep coming after the summer season, the triathlon season closes. The community that comes because Walden is Walden.
Years ago, there was old Bill. I called him ‘Walden Bill’. He was a ‘regular’. He must have been about ninety years old. He used to drive from Arlington each day in his beat up sedan. The back seat piled to window level with an odd assortment of ‘treasures’.
He would hobble down the ramp carrying his old beaten up aluminum frame chair, his old beaten up body.
Bill knew all the ‘regulars’. He would stop, catch his breath, grin through crooked teeth, ask after you. His wiry white hair would try to escape his cap. Then it wouldn’t know what to do once it had.
Sometimes if it was early in the morning, I would see him with a plastic grocery bag picking up trash from the beach. He always carried a couple of spare bags, he told me, and a couple of spare pairs of plastic gloves, just in case the beach goers had forgotten to take their trash out with them.
‘Gotta give back,’ he would remind me.
He always asked after my kids. Bought them Christmas gifts one year. Calendars from the Boys and Girls Club in Arlington. I accepted his gifts. It seemed like I was giving to him, in receiving what he offered.
I remember how he would set up his old chair on Red Cross Beach, where it would catch the direct sun.
Sometimes when I swam by the chair would be empty. Sometimes he would be lying almost horizontal in it. Face to the sun like sunflowers do. Sometimes I would see him wading in the water. Naked waist up.
Thoreau bathed in the waters of Walden. Bill did too.
When I swam by where he was, staying in the rhythm of my stroke, I would shake my forearm, waving as I bought it forward in its black divers glove. I don’t know whether he knew I did this.
I knew he was watching over me though. He would say, ‘you were in a long time,’ if we happened to meet on the way back to the car park. I would say ‘yea’.
One summer, maybe three years ago now, a photographer friend, another of Walden’s community, told me ‘you know Bill passed away in May.’ I was stricken.
He had made it through the winter, and with summer gnawing at the seam of spring he could not hold on for that next season.
He was buried in the large cemetery in Arlington, she told me.
Sometimes when i’m swimming, I think of Bill.
One time, not even that same year, I was swimming past Red Cross beach. I rotated my head. I saw a strange windswept opaqueness in the water, of the water, about ten, perhaps twenty feet away. I was not thinking of Bill before I saw it. But when I did, I thought ‘that’s Bill.’ I didn’t miss a breath, which surprised me a bit. Instead, I felt a sort of comfort knowing he was still there.
Enjoying Walden with me.