A Good Swim

Sam Berman

I was living outside Chicago with a man who was dying, okay. And it was my job to take care of the man: change his catheter, his tubes, his sterile water bags that looked like they were missing the goldfish. And look, the truth is that despite all his ailments, the dying man, honestly, needed very little from me.

He spent his days catching Bluegill from the bridge that crossed over the spillway. 

So, he was gone a lot, while still being a person who was dying.


For my part: I’d take his pain pills and send them in envelopes to my friends back in Georgia. I’d send the pills one at a time to avoid suspicion, detection. Drug dogs. The DEA. I would make the letters look like birthday cards. I would. Cards with cats and lawnmowers on them. In the cards I would write funny little things: enjoy YOUR Vico-din-din, or, one of the many Percs of Being my Friend. And it wasn’t even that I liked those guys back home so much. 

It was mostly that I wanted everything to be different for me.

Beyond mailing the pills I spent time in the city because, again, the dying man didn’t need a lot from me. For fun and money I worked a lot of different jobs on the side. Some way up in the high-rises, some down where the street broke into the subway tunnels. I liked that different jobs felt different, and since my main job was keeping the dying guy happy, not even alive, just happy, it didn’t really matter if I got fired from those side jobs for being a weirdo or junky. I was on a roll with those side gigs. Rolling. Car cleaner. Bar back. Poster put-er-upper. Yes, once I cleaned a woman’s house off LaVette Street. She had a black powder rifle above her fireplace and she said I could hold it if I never told a soul.

I told my friend while we were trying on clothes at the T.J. Maxx.

I told him not to tell a soul.

See, back then I did things just to do some things.

I swam like that too.

The best swim I took back then was right when the city’s junk switched to that other junk and everyone started dropping. The mosquitos were dying mid-flight, no joke. It was summer. It was so summer, because I remember pulling into the park and my air conditioning was turned all the way up and the lanyard I had from working at The Bone Yard and that prayer card I’d taken from Jesse’s funeral at Saint Ivy were swinging up in my face from the air coming out hard from the vent.

I parked in a place I thought I could park.

And I jumped in Lake Michigan, my body pointed toward the water treatment plant that was painted like the big top at a circus.

No, it was painted like a breath mint.

A candy cane thingy.

Okay it was red and white and I was swimming toward it, but the waves were bigger than I think I thought they’d be, and also the water treatment plant was farther out than I thought it would be, but I was, well I was okay, because I swam the 400-meter in high school, so I just conserved my energy like I did back then when we’d have those extra long practices on Saturdays.

And I’ll tell you: on that swim, that day oh baby.

I was moving.

And I wasn’t cold. No, I was like a racehorse out the gate and breathing easy. Long stride, deep breath, long stride, deep breath; my swimsuit fell off at some point, I didn’t even notice. See, I was doing so good I was noticing other things; the colleges growing tiny against the coastline, airplanes and boats too. And I was in the middle of all of it–everything–and getting closer by the minute to the water treatment plant way out there. And it really felt like at any moment dolphins might start jumping out all around me like I was some war ship coming home from some hero war, so, yes of course everything had to get all jacked up. That’s how it goes. How it is. 

That’s how it always went for me.

His name was James. 

And it was Lieutenant James who had me on the back of the Coast Guard ship and was laying into me with words like “domestic,” and “terrorism,” and the words put together: “domestic terrorism.”

I told him, look, I was just seeing how far I could go. 

If I could make it all the way there and back before I had to get home and feed the dying guy dinner. And Lieutenant James asked me if I was the “dumbest motherfucker on planet Earth?”

And then he asked me again. 

But the second time it didn’t feel like a question.

Sam Berman is a short story writer who lives in Chicago and works at Lake Front Medical with Nancy, Andrew, and Reuben. They are terrific coworkers. He has had work published in Maudlin House, The Masters Review, D.F.L. Lit, Hobart, Illuminations, The Fourth River, and SmokeLong Quarterly, and recently won Forever Magazine’s Unconventional Love Stories competition. He was selected as runner-up in The Kenyon Review’s 2022 Nonfiction Competition as well as shortlisted for the 2022 Halifax Ranch prize and the ILS Fiction Prize. He has forthcoming work in Expat Press, CRAFT, and Rejection Letters, among others.