Every time father bathed me, my head was under water.

After blowing bubbles, he taught me the dead man’s float

in an old claw-footed bathtub, just like his father had taught him.

He showed me how his father kicked and held his breath, training

me to glide like a fish. Clinging to his father’s hairy back,

they paddled across the sapphirine-blue waters of the Danube.

Built like a bull, his father breast-stroked like a Carpathian

Mountain bear chasing Beluga sturgeon.

He dunked my head to see how long I could hold my breath,

a Lucky Strike dangling from his lips as he counted cigarettes,

a measure of my time under water that he meticulously recorded

like the way he kept track of money making bets on puts and calls.

My lung capacity kept increasing like a Polynesian pearl diver.

When I later played the trumpet with a much expanded chest,

band-mates called me “Chesty,” claiming I could hold high C

as long as Ima Sumac and had a sweeter tone than Harry James’

rendition of Chiri, Chiri Bim or Ziggy Ellman’s

And The Angels Sing.

Every summer we swam across Zach’s Bay submerged,

like a mini-school of porpoises. Father claimed sun and salt water

healed the silvery-white scales of his psoriasis. He wanted me

to become an Olympic long distance swimmer, but settled for my

qualifying as a life guard at Jones Beach. I reveled in the admiration

of bikini bathing beauties when I plunged into the water slicing

through the surf, swifter than an arrow from the Tartar’s bow to save

a swimmer in distress who would flail about in the clutches of lethal

rip-tide currents.

Father always said I could be an aquatic tzaddik, preferring saving lives

to saving money, I wonder if up in Yenemvelt he’s still counting red

and green up and down ticks on the ticker tape machine. In a quest

for equanimity I no longer hold my breath; I practice mindful

breathing—in and out, in and out, monitoring the turning point,

hoping to earn father’s continued praise even though he may

no longer be counting cigarettes.

Milton P. Ehrlich