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 Chapter 10

Bufoonery at the Finish Line

Race morning arrives, bright and clear. You have persuaded all your people to do the five-mile race, as opposed to the twenty-mile one, and you join the crowd on Shelter Island with your kayaks. There's music, happy talk, and the general atmosphere of a festival. A middle-aged man roller skates by, naked but for a captain's hat and miniature kayak paddles dangling, fore and aft, from a belt. He seems to be an institution, and someone calls out,

"There's the naked guy. It'll always be a good day when you see the naked guy in the morning."

All the kayaks, including your own, are entered in the same race, an hour hence. John and Sam go off in their category fifteen minutes later, but you go around the beach, talking with some people and making final arrangements.

You have found the start of an aquatic race to be much looser than that of a big running race. You can't crowd in as tightly, and you don't want to. It's better to start a length or two back than to get jammed between two boats and not be able to row or paddle at all. Once the gun goes off, it's more like a running race in which you zig-zag around slower runners.

In the initial confusion of flailing paddles, you realize that it will be impossible to keep track of your people. You therefore determine just to do your own race. Right at the beginning, a paddler bursts in front, one you won't be able to catch. He's young and athletic with good technique, but also looks fairly light, probably about a hundred and fifty pounds. That's an almost unbeatable combination. You, fifty pounds heavier, weigh your boat down enough to spoil its shape at the waterline. But there don't seem to be any other unbeatables.

When you get about two thirds of the way, you start to race in earnest. You don't let anyone pass you, and you keep track of people in front. When you do pass people, hopefully ones who haven't pooped out, there is an element in aquatic races not to be found in running races. One boat can get right in the wake of another, with only a foot between stern and bow, and partially coast with less effort. Through inattention, you do pass one boat too closely. You don't happen to look back for some time, but, when you do, you find the boat glued to your stern.

Why not give someone a free ride? Because he may use the energy he saves to sprint past you at the end. It takes a burst of energy you would have preferred to conserve to lose your follower, but you are satisfied to hear a soft "Oh shit" behind you.

When the finish line is in clear sight, some hundred yards away, you completely ignore everyone else. You fix your eyes on the banner. But you don't distort your form as you strive for maximum speed. You just do everything faster, and yet faster. Some people imagine sharks chasing them, but you just focus completely on the line. All this is the same in running and kayaking. You tell your students that they should be concentrating too hard to get their times on the clock.

As far as you can make out, you've finished second. It's good that you've come in ahead of your clients, but even that isn't really necessary. If a client does eventually beat you, you can let it be inferred that, while you're very good, he's deeply fabulous. That won't interfere with your coaching charisma, something which, in your country, would have involved an awed distance and a certain amount of symbolic salaaming. Here in America, your clients call you by your first name, but feel privileged to do so.

In her American way, Lydia has provided T-shirts for the group members. It's surprising that, in any kind of race, a group of people who have the same T-shirts are noticed, particularly if they stay mostly together. They may be combatting delirium tremens or trying to keep a half-way house for degenerates out of their neighborhood, but, after the race, you're likely to hear one competitor ask another, "Did you see those people with the red and purple shirts?" The answer may be, "Yeah, I passed them in the first hundred yards." There may not be much respect, but your people will be recognized at the next race.

In this vein, you've already noticed in Mariner's Basin a group of four middle-aged women rowing a shell whose T- shirts and boat proclaim them to be the "Hot Flash Four." Lydia didn't think that your group was quite ready for shirts with humorous allusions to depression, but she has had produced quite vivid ones with a red octupus on the front and a purple wolf on the back. She said,

"Since there's no writing, people will wonder what they mean. You see, I'm learning from you, Stefan."

You yourself feel unduly conspicuous in your octopus and wolf shirt, but you see the point. The group is of an "outreach" sort with a slight tendency to proselytize. Lydia, for example, is persuaded that post-partum depression is only a special case of a more general set of problems afflicting women, and that groups like your own are part of the cure. She had previously said,

"I hope our presence in the race will attract some new members. The best way to get new people is to have fun in a public sort of way."

As you slowly move back along the course, you look for these shirts.

The first one you see is Lydia herself. You are hardly surprised. She's strong, athletic, and not heavy enough to weigh down her boat. Shouting encouragement, you move further back on the course. Before long, you see all the other women in a pack within the main pack. They have decided to stay together, something women are likely to do in the interests of solidarity. Indeed, you recall that they've announced their intention of creating a spectacle at the finish line. They wouldn't tell you what it would be, but you turn around and follow them.

Lydia is waiting in her boat just past the line. When the others cross it, she rolls upside down, and, after a brief hesitation, she rolls the boat up nicely. You knew that she had been working on a roll, but hadn't realized how accomplished she had become. It helps that her husband has gotten her a nice sea kayak, but, still, you're impressed with this aquatic version of an aerial victory roll. Indeed, as far as you could see, she was the first woman in her division.

You are about to congratuate her when the other women all flip over. Since it's difficult to roll a sit-on-top kayak, they are soon swimming. The whole affair looks more like a mass suicide than a celebration, but it's certainly eye-catching. As the women happily swim their kayaks to the beach, one calls out to you,

"You can't stay dry, Stefan, while we're all wet."

You oblige with a crisp roll. The pleasantly cool water actually feels quite good.

While the cheaper sorts of T-shirts are almost transparent when wet, the ones Lydia provided are heavier and somewhat opaque. These women, after all, are far from being brazen hussies. Still, you find the ladies even more attractive than usual.

Since Sam and John started later, you have to paddle back to the three mile mark to find them in a group of four boats. One of them is a very fast Seda Tango double kayak being paddled, in zig-zags, by a woman and child. Next are John and Sam, rowing a straight course with fairly good coordination. Just behind them, a little off to the side are your young neighbors. You have to laugh inwardly. They're rowing up a storm, practically breaking their oars and leaving a huge commotion of water behind them. Indeed, the bucket they're towing is coming dangerously close to breaking the surface. When you turn to encourage Sam and John, you can see that they aren't at all likely to inspect competing boats for buckets. On the contrary, they seem totally engrossed in what may be the first real athletic competition of their lives.

Some twenty feet behind Sam and John are the young ladies in their double kayak. You didn't personally recruit these ladies, and haven't seen them before. Your neighbors, well-paid for the day's activity, assured you that they understood what was needed. Indeed they did! Not all California blondes look the same, and you are suprised only that the young men, who seem rather ordinary to you, can produce such extraordinary girl friends. The one in front, directly in Sam's line of sight, is wearing a minimal bathing suit not intended for vigorous activity, and it looks as if she may pop out of the top of it at any moment. You now realize that Sam's eyes are fixed on one spot.

Secure in the knowledge of what's going on in Sam's mind, you pull parallel to John. He is, after all, more complicated.

You first notice that he's rowing at a pace he can keep up for a couple more miles. He also seems to be holding together psychologically, and, indeed, has a serene dreamy look on his face. It's only after a minute or two that you realize that he's periodically skewing the boat so that he can see past Sam to the kayak following them.

Having left the contestants behind and paddled back to the finish line, you report that all is well with John and Sam. Some time later, when they finish victoriously, all your ladies, in their wet T-shirts, make over them considerably. You have a brief word with the young men who finish fifty feet behind them, and congratulate them on their performance. When you ask where their girl friends are, one of the men says,

"I thought they might be a distraction at the end, so they're waiting for us behind the point there."

Realizing that you had under-estimated his sagacity, you give him a handsome, if wet, tip before joining the others.

As it happens, your wet clients have been joined by two other ladies, of about the same age, in dry clothing. You are given to understand that the dry ladies came to watch their husbands finish.

As you are introduced to Joan and Janet, you realize that they are potential recruits to the group, but also that they are a little different from the others. For one thing, they're expensively, if casually, dressed. Of course, they're spectators rather than participants, but, still, Lydia wouldn't wear diamond earrings if she went to watch Rick finish a marathon. These ladies are more La Jolla than Mission Hills.

It eventually turns out that Joan and Janet are married to identical twins who operate their own bail bonding business. This is brought out a little shamefacedly. The most prominently advertized bail bondsman in the city, whose face appears on many billboards, is a gentleman named "King" Stahlman. One knows without asking that their husbands would claim to be very different from Mr. Stahlman. But. still, the business consists in chasing miscreants who have jumped bail to the ends of the earth and bringing them back in handcuffs. Of course, there is a lot of money to be made, and, judging by their wives, who are close to the trophy category, the twins have made it big. They engage in many sporting activities, always together, and Janet remarks,

"Our husbands always seem to be twenty yards upstream, and they only have ten-yard ropes."

That says it all. The ladies yearn for more interesting lives, and they jump on Lydia's suggestion that they might enjoy kayaking. Two boats are cleaned up and launched, and you are deputed to carry the ladies out to them so that they won't have to wade.

This is the sort of gallantry in which you excel, and you suspect strongly that Lydia, knowing this, is using you to help her recruit. Having the glamorous Janet comfortably in your arms, you wonder if, despite her present vivacity, she may suffer from depression. You also wonder what her bail-bonding husband might think if he should happen to be observing you.

As you wade alongside Joan and Janet, ready to steady them, they perform adequately. They are, of course, health club habitues. Their husbands may treat them as expensive dolls, but they are, in fact, fit enough to keep within twenty yards of the twins. Indeed, if they learn good technique, their husbands might find themselves twenty yards back with no tow-ropes at all to clutch at.

There is still no sign of the twins as you carry the ladies back to the beach, and, in a fine show of independence, they join the group. Prevaricating slightly, Lydia tells them that there is a group newsletter with future events and a list of members. You're sure that there will be one forthwith.

Having to wait until such time as the twins stop drinking beer with their kayak friends, Joan and Janet are unable to join you for a celebratory brunch at a place in Mission Hills. No one has showered or changed clothes beyond putting on dry shirts, and the mood seems entirely devoid of depression. At one point, during a lull, Lydia says,

"Stefan, we just realized that no one's ever paid you for being our coach. We want you to go on being our coach and philosophical advisor, and, as we're getting new members and becoming more official, we need to do something about that."

The members have obviously conferred with one another on this matter, and you are hired on at a handsome salary. Mentally deciding to throw up your tainted professorship, which will nevertheless provide retirement benefits, you annonce, amid cheering, that you are locating permanently in San Diego. A moment later, Lydia whispers to you,

"We also want to reimburse you for certain other expenses."

You nod sagely and propose a toast to the contestants, most particularly to Lydia Henderson.

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