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Hal Prize for Fiction, 1st Place: Saving Stobs

Judge’s Comments

“Fierce and determined girls are not, as the media might have us believe, a recent development. I’ve known them all my life. In this original and wonderfully developed story, a sweet grandpa pushes his young granddaughter to persist in the face of difficulty. Given the chance she needs, Ruth Ann shows that all his hope for her has found a worthy recipient, and the result is a character you root for from page one, and feel vindicated for your hope in the end. I loved this story from first word to last.”

Peter Geye

by Carol Dunbar

His granddaughter Ruth Ann wasn’t the cutest or the brightest or the fastest, but hers was the only head he saw standing there below. She curled her toes over the pool’s edge and pressed the flats of her palms together just like he’d taught her, to poke up the devil. She tucked her chin and bounced her knees, the tops of her thighs speckled with welts that shone like confetti, welts that came from hitting the pink hula-hoop.

“You can do this.” Her instructor in a racerback maillot stood in the pool holding out the hoop. “Come on, Ruth Ann. Let’s see you dive. On my mark.” Her mouth on the whistle, and Sully could taste that whistle, the tang of its sweet metal end and the floating cork that vibrated his lips. Sully straightened his ball cap and whispered under his breath, “Come on, Ruth Ann. Just this one time, do it.”

She was about to do it when a blonde in a ruffled suit shouted, “She can’t do it. She doesn’t know how.”

Ruth Ann screamed and thrust off with her feet, “Yes I can too!” Her body spasmed in midair—her head went up and her hands went down—and this time it was her mouth that smacked the hoop. It flipped over her head as her body hit the water like a cupped hand. She flailed and coughed and spit out blood.

“Let’s see it,” he said to her later, standing outside the locker rooms with her mother.

Ruth Ann lifted her chin. Her bottom lip swollen and cut, the chip in her front tooth the size of a peanut’s heart.

“Aw, that’s nothing,” he said. “That’s itty bitty. Won’t hurt you none. Now go on, hit the showers.”

For 35 years Sully Stobs had served as the physical fitness officer, training the young cadets who came through Fort McCoy. He taught discipline and strategy and believed anyone could change anything if they really wanted to. On his walls hung the posters of silhouetted athletes in victorious mountaintop poses; his screensaver flashed a show of motivational quotes. “What’s wrong with her?” he said to his daughter when Ruth Ann left.

“You saw. She can’t keep her head down. Every time she tries to dive, she belly flops. I think she’s afraid of water.”

“No, that’s not what I saw.” He shook his head, “Our Ruth? She’s a scrapper, that one. She’s a fighter.”

“Well, they won’t let her pass onto the next level and I can’t keep paying for lessons. I’ve got two more to put through.”

Sully told her he would take care of it because he was retired now, what else did he have to do? Every morning he rose at first light, laced up his sneakers, and walked down to the fitness center where he didn’t have to show his military ID, but he did anyway, regulations. He ran his five miles and bench pressed two-twelve. Not bad for seventy-three.

Ruth Ann turned ten, and Sully looked up the YMCA skills requirements for the next level’s swim test.

“Are you afraid of the water?” he asked her one day after picking her up from school. “It’s okay if you are. You can tell me.”

“I’m not afraid,” she said. And he believed her.

“What do you say you and me work this out? I’ve always wanted to do a triathlon. We can train together.”

Ruth Ann thought that would be okay. He picked her up three afternoons a week and took her down to the fitness center as his guest. That summer the two of them did laps in the pool where he coached her through the front crawl and the back crawl and the breaststroke for 50 meters. In the fall Sully drove his granddaughter back to the YMCA and approached the swim instructor.

“Look here,” he said. “My granddaughter has been working hard all summer. She can do every single stroke that she needs to pass this class, and she’s taken Minnow three times. So she can’t dive through a hoop,” he shrugged, his shoulders fit under the tight weave of his shirt. “Big deal. It’s not like she’s going to drown.”

Ruth Ann Stobs was admitted to Big Fish.

During the second week of class, Sully from up in the grandstands watched as she tugged down her swimsuit and stepped up the grit pads of the ladder. The diving board rose twenty feet into the air. He sprang from his seat to let her know that he was there, but he moved too fast and something in his left knee popped. He clutched his kneecap like a football and watched from a bent position as Ruth Ann walked out to the tip. Through sun rays that lit on the water in lambent flares, the voices of her swim instructor and peers floated up to her from where they shouted below.

“Keep your head down!”

“Tuck in your chin!”

“Look at your toes!”

She swung her arms, pointed her hands, and sprang from the board. Her body curved and her head went down, and then—that something inside of her uncoiled. It happened against her will, he saw, the way it straightened her body and snapped her head up. She smacked the water flat, like a steak in a hot iron pan.

Sully Stobs rose from his seat as his granddaughter like a lead ball sank. She didn’t come back up. The lifeguard on duty dove into the deep end and towed her to the water’s edge. Ruth Ann’s skin aflame bright catsup red as all around the swimmers who were her classmates gathered and stood agog.

“You’ve done it now,” his wife Jean said at dinner. “You shouldn’t have interfered. That poor girl. She’ll never go in the water again.”

Sully couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned and his left knee throbbed. He put his mind over his body like he’d done his entire life, until one morning something in his knee blew out and against his will Sully Stobs went down. Way to go, he thought. His surgery was scheduled for a Wednesday that fall.

Ruth Ann turned 11 and did not pass her Big Fish swim test. Sully when he heard flipped over the dining room chair. Already a second surgery for his other knee had been scheduled for May.

At his physical therapy sessions they gave him a cane. He took it to poke the feet of little Stob children who talked back to their mothers. At the annual Stobs picnic at the lake that summer he sat with a blanket useless over his lap while the littlest Stobs ran around in the green grass and the older ones swam out to the large platform slides. His granddaughter eyed the water suspiciously, stayed on the beach, toed the sand.

He still got up at 5 am, hobbled over to the fitness center and read the notices hung on the walls. He went to get out of Jean’s hair and because he needed somewhere to go. He went and the clouds scudded above and the jet contrails wrote out giant Ys in the sky blue above.

That summer Ruth Ann was 12 and one year into Middle School. She still hadn’t passed Big Fish. It was a Monday night and Sully Stobs laced up his running shoes.

“Now what are you doing,” Jean wanted to know. “Why do you have that whistle around your neck?”

“I’m taking Ruth Ann to the pool.”

“Why waste your time? She’s not a swimmer. Let her be.”

“I’m not wasting my time. She can be anything that she wants to be.”

He showed up at Ruth Ann’s house and handed her the flyer. After she looked it over, he told her, “I’ll take you if you want to go, but it’s completely up to you. I won’t think less of you either way.”

The class was at the outdoor pool on the other side of the base, taught by a Marine who ran a lifeguarding skills course. A lot of youngsters showed up, all of them taller than Ruth, most of them boys. Sully waited in the car with the windows rolled down while his granddaughter stood in line outside the pool gate. The coach had a crew-cut and wore a white shirt and a whistle just like Sully had in his prime. He looked down at her military I.D.

“How old are you?”

“Twelve.”

“Sorry, kid.” He shrugged, “I can’t let you lifeguard until you’re 15. Come back in three summers.”

“No thank you.” Ruth Ann stuck out her chin. “I don’t want to be a lifeguard; I want to be a strong swimmer. Please, can you let me go through the training?”

Sully from his place in the car mouthed the words.

“Tell you what,” the coach said. “I’ll let you stay for as long as you keep up. But I can’t give you any breaks, kid.”

Almost half the swimmers dropped out after that first night. Coach made them swim a mile the short way across the pool, and each time they got to the end, they had to get out of the water. Ruth hoisted her wet body up over the ledge of that pool, stood up, and jumped back in. She was the youngest and the slowest and the last to finish her mile every night, but Ruth Ann Stobs did not quit.

The second week coach had them line up around the pool. In the clear, still twilight he bellowed the words, “Tonight, we’re going to learn The Saver’s Dive.”

From where he sat in the car, Sully’s ears pricked up and he got out to watch.

Ruth’s hands tightened into fists by her dripping sides. Coach held up his arms, made a wide sweeping motion with his hands, and showed them how to brake in the water. Then he shouted the words his granddaughter never expected to hear.

“Keep your head up! You can’t save a drowning victim unless you keep an eye on where they are.”

Ruth Ann from across the way turned and found her grandpa standing there by the gate. He nodded and touched the brim of his hat.

“I’m a genius,” he told his wife, getting in bed. That night, he made love to Jean good and proper for the first time since his surgeries.

Ruth Ann’s final test came at the end of August on a warm purple night, and Sully Stobs was in attendance. He sat with his cane in one of the lounge chairs poolside in the shadows. The candidates lined up in their Speedos. One person played victim, the other lifeguard. One by one they jumped into the pool, pretended to drown, and saved each other. Coach signed their certificates and off they went to the showers. Everybody passed. Only Ruth Ann Stobs was left.

“Looks like you’ll have to save me,” Sully threw down his cane and fell into the water. He went into the deep end, shirt, shoes, and all. Bugs bobbed through the glow of the pool lights as he hollered in a mock falsetto voice, “Help me, please, help me!” Then he realized, he couldn’t kick his legs. The new knees, they didn’t quite work like the old ones did. His muscles spasmed, he swallowed water, gurgled, sank.

Ruth Ann kept her head up and entered the pool. She saw where her grandpa went down and made her way over to his pink churning mass. He swatted her with his forearms and dunked her under just like coach said a drowning person would. Ruth Ann took the blows and went down. She curved around his whaling torso and slipped an arm across the bulkhead of his chest. Their heads popped up through the water’s surface together.

“It’s okay, Grandpa. I got you now,” she side-stroked and sputtered. “It’s going to be all right now.”

Carol Dunbar’s work has been published or is forthcoming in The South Carolina Review, Midwestern Gothic, the Midwest Review, Literary Mama, Great Lakes Review and others. Her essays about living off the grid air on Wisconsin Public Radio and she lives in the woods of northern Wisconsin.

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