The Swans in the Fountain

I was tired. We’d been driving for two days; I hadn’t slept well the night before, and the long highways and cheap quick meals had filled my body with fatigue. But we had arrived, and arriving at a hotel for an extended stay means that rest is close at hand. You park, you pick up your bags, walk into the lobby and the air-conditioning, the clean, it all says clearly that you won’t have to lift a finger, it says shh and it promises sleep.

So with my body falling quietly towards the bed I walked into the glass elevator and stood there like that as I saw them.

“Hey Dad…are those swans? Dad, those are two swans right there.”

Lo and Behold, in the atrium’s fountain-pool, abutting the two elevators, were two gigantic white birds; just swimming or sitting or floating there, I’m not sure which verb best describes it, but anyways there they were, ethereal and mundane in the same weird moment.

My dad, behind me, gave the same kind of snorting sound he always gives to that sort of ridiculousness, and I watched them as the elevator began to rise up and away and I repeated, “Swans; not ducks or geese, they’re huge, geez; they have two swans in their fountain.”

In the room I was sitting on the sofa and my dad said “Here” and I looked up and he was handing me a yellow postcard.

“Butch and Sundance” it said in a graceful, curving black font next to a nice little ink or charcoal rendition of two swans on a pond somewhere. Those were their names, explained the description that followed. They were Royal Swans; they traced their lineage (a breed, a domesticated speciation? Again, my vocabulary fails me) to swans that resided on the grounds of Buckingham Palace, or some such British and royal locale. They were mute, a fact which the postcard’s narrator suggested made them vulnerable to the trepidations of wild environs. This particular note prickled some part of my conscience, but without the right facts I was in no position to really argue; I’ve become a choose-your-battles-man, and this was clearly not one to choose.

Anyways, the postcard went on to tell me that Butch and Sundance had been named by the hotel staff, that they were brothers, and then to politely administer some guidelines for how to and how not to deal with them. An asterisked note in tiny print at the bottom advised hotel guests that thinner pillows could be found in the dresser under the TV, a note for hotel guests who picked the card up from its place on the made bed and noticed absentmindedly as they did so that the pillows were perhaps a bit thicker than they might desire.

A little while later, coming back into the hotel after my cigarette, I stopped by the swans to get a better look. Their home, as it were, was a small one by the standards of any water-based fowl, and especially so for swans. The water burbled in a short, cascading fall from the end of the pool buttressed by the twin elevators, into a square pool that fed into a rectangular channel, which in turn opened into a circular pool at the far end. The pool in its entirety was no more than forty feet from end-to-end, and no more than fifteen feet across at its widest points. It was garlanded by a variety of simple greenery, and the central channel was crossed at its midpoint by a quasi-picturesque little bridge.

It should be noted, or explained, or emphasized, that there was nothing else particularly outstanding about this particular hotel’s atrium, or in fact about any other facet of the hotel at all. It was part of a large corporate chain, and as such was given over to the bland, mainstream-consumer’s-appetite-appeasing blandishments that are the de rigeur of such an environment: clean, well-kept, a certain measure of expense clearly visible in the furnishings, but all of a kind, of the lowest common denominator (of a certain price and class) available.

Except for the swans.

At this point maybe you’re wondering, what is the point here, exactly? Where’s the connection to a larger truth, why has this person given himself and his time over to writing about this?

Well, I’m actually wondering the same thing. I don’t mean that I have a sense of redundancy here, or of wasted time. It’s just that as I feel the feeling the swans gave me, I’m trying to perceive what it is, exactly, and why it draws my attention.

As I stood there, looking at them, my clearest sense was of my fatigue, of how tired I was. I was consciously trying to perceive them; to crack their semiotic code, to generate an articulation that would enable me to see what I was seeing. But it felt heavily blanketed, the tiny pea beneath mattresses of my desire to sleep, and of fluorescent light, and of the type of corporate-controlled environment intended to dissuade you from seeking for anything.

Sleep. Sleep was calling and I knew this pea wasn’t enough to keep me from it. I bid Butch and Sundance adieu and headed for bed.

I had other things to do. Figuring out the swans wasn’t highly placed in my present needs-hierarchy. My dad and I were collaborating on this movement in my life, the alpha of a new chapter. Having been a vagabond for several years, and having reached the inherent limits of that lifestyle’s options, I’d selected this particular city as the place in which to end my vagabondage. Asking my dad to accompany me on this move had a practical rationale, to be sure. But more than that, and mostly, it was in response to an emotional need.

Chaos in my life, and some scary events which that chaos had precipitated, had driven a wedge into my relationship with my archetypally un-chaotic father. This was in the past, a way of living from which I was a few years removed by now. But it had left a gulf between us that we hadn’t quite been able to bridge.

I wanted to build that bridge. Memories that rose would throw a light, as it were, on how it had been before, and in those moments I missed my dad, actively; missed the easy intimacy of a particular relationship that I wanted, and needed, to have in my life again. It’s a cliche, but no one knows you better than your parents do. No one else has been there since the very beginning, and no one else has paid such close attention. The truest measure of my father was the wholehearted commitment he had given from the outset to the full responsibility of parenthood; I wanted with my heart to honor that commitment, and to be able to draw again from the well of all the wonderful things it offered.

Relationships. One of the ongoing questions for me in life is success: what constitutes a successful life, how do you measure it? And clearly, for me at least, one of the answers is in relationships. Because I find the work of relationships to be as complex and engaging as any other work I have discovered thus far. When I am engaged with this work, I am involved with it; it precludes spells of anxiety and doubt, of existential suffering. I forget to be afraid of the nebulous future, I forget to worry about who I am or what I’ve accomplished. Because, I’m happy; happy to be with this person, happy to be deeply involved in this rich, multi-layered experience.

But it entails work. Relationships that aren’t worked at depreciate, cast shadows and cause disruptions. I knew that this movement I was making in my life, this genesis of a new chapter, was going to require a specific energy, a clear heart and a clear head. I invited my dad to come with me because I saw the opportunity that was presenting itself; because I know that my relationship with my dad is one that I need.

So we spent four days and four nights together; two on the road, and two in the city. And, did I get what I wanted? Does this short story have a happy ending?

I’m thinking now about the swans again, about the lives of Butch and Sundance, lived out in their little hotel atrium pool. In those two days I stopped by the pool a few more times, trying to perceive them; trying to perceive their meaning, that muffled kernel of truth. I had an urge to pity them, to feel with pity the constraints on their great power and beauty. But I also felt, more intuitively, that to feel pity for them was a shallow response; that denying their autonomy was a disservice to them and to myself as well, to what they might offer.

I am not a religious person, per se. But I do believe in the order of things, in the relation of one thing to another and in that relational value. The swans in the fountain remind me of the trees that stand along city freeways. It cannot be the dream life of a tree, to stand always in that noise, the dust and hot fumes. But I am grateful to them, to the silent testimony they give, to what I see as their service to a more ultimate vision.

On our last night, after a simple and satisfying dinner on a patio as the sun set quiet fire to the western sky, we pulled into the hotel lot and parked the car one last time. Outside I lit a cigarette, and looking up into the darkness I saw the crescent moon and beneath it a single star; no other light was visible in the night sky. It was impossible, I thought, to not see it.

“Hey Dad,” I said, “Look at that,” pointing upwards.

He looked up, and smiled.

“Don’t you think,” I said, “that there must be people somewhere, now or back across time, who would see a significant omen in that?”

He nodded. “Yes, I think so,” he said.

I pulled on the cigarette as I looked up, as I thought about things.

“You know,” I said, “I don’t buy that foretelling, future-sight kind of thing. But at a certain point I realized that prophecies are self-fulfilling; that that worry or concern over a future possibility changes the way you act in the present. I think omens are something you feel, they’re just this mysterious given of human nature. And if you see something as a good omen, it’s just an indication of a positive inner quality; that you feel good about the choices you’ve made, and the choices that you’re making.”

My dad smiled and nodded again and said, “I think that sounds good to me.”

I finished my cigarette and we went inside. I watched the swans from the elevator. Before long we were both asleep in soft beds, dreaming soft and quiet dreams.

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Notes: Written in early summer 2010. I like the clean flow of the narrative. I like the emotional honesty. The quiet resonance. How the story is built around this simple conceit of the swans. For me, one of the things that I love the most about writing is how you can take a simple idea, a simple piece of material—in this case the two swans in the fountain, obviously—and you start working with it, and slowly a story emerges. It always feels to me, less like creating something and more like uncovering something; the sculpture already exists in the stone, it’s just the sculptor’s job to reveal it.

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