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THE NON-SWIMMER/Marfm Cozza ROBBY TRAVERS, A BOY of fourteen, took off his T-shirt and sneakers and stuck his toe in the pond at his grandparents' farm. It was morning, and the sun was warm, but the shade of the willow tree and the water were cool. Robby hugged himself and hunched his shoulders—a reflex to cover his chest, which dipped Ui the middle like someone had taken an ice-cream scoop to it. He couldn't swim, and he had come to this pond to make himself put his head underwater. He had never done this voluntarily, though he'd been shoved under a lot of times by mean, bad-breathed kids m the swimming pool at his school. His mother had driven him out here, ten miles outside town on the Pulaski Road. She couldn't swim either, and she had never pressed him to learn. She would let him fake stomachaches to skip pool parties or trips to the lake with other kids. "Don't push yourself," she'd say. "That's how people drown. They have a stomachache and they go in the water and the next thing you know they're dead." Robby would sit at the kitchen table with her, stirring his tea, and nod until they both believed what she'd said. Sometimes he would ask her, "Mom, can I go to the lake with the Baxters? Say no," and she would smile and say no. There was a time, though, three summers ago, when some kids in his neighborhood were going to a pool and Robby had wanted to go along. He was afraid, but he went. There was a slide at the shallow end of the pool, and a person could shoot down it and land Ui the pool and not necessarily go underwater. It looked like fun. Robby climbed the ladder to the top of the slide and sat and tried to push himself down, but he could not move. A line built up behind him, and kids started knocking on the handrails and steps to try to rush him. He sat there, eight feet off the ground, and the hot sun shone on him, and the shouts of the hundred children In the pool turned meaningless, like the chatter of a flock of birds. He could not go down the slide. The kids on the ladder behind him finally had to back down the steps so he could climb off. "Little pussy," a small kid said to him. Later, when the line for the slide was gone, he went back up and it all happened again. Since then the only swimming pool he had been in was the old one with stained tile in the dank basement of his junior high, where they The Missouri Review · 115 sometimes had to go for gym class. The class was divided into Swimmers —almost everybody—and Non-Swimmers—Robby and a few others, including Walter Cearfoss, who was covered with pimples and wore, even In the pool, cat's-eye glasses like Robby's grandmother. The water was so chlorinated that it made kids' eyes sting, and sometimes it was hotter than a bath. The biggest kids—Ted Shepherd and Rocco Scungio and Ed Dottle, who had light mustaches and underarm hair—would dunk Robby and the other Non-Swimmers whenever they had a chance, sometimes holding their heads under way too long. It was terrifying. The gym teacher, Mr. Budkowski, did not try to stop them. He was a slow, rotund man, and he was afraid of them. Robby had been badly dunked at least ten times, and he had learned how to take it, holding his breath without thrashing, waiting for it to be over. He had learned to joke about it in the locker room. He knew it was important to stay on people's good sides. Then this spring he made a deal with Ed Dottle, who was always wearing ironed, preppy, pastel clothes that didn't go with his smalleyed sneer. Robby offered to help him cheat in algebra to get him to stop dunking him. During algebra tests, Robby would hold his paper...


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