On the third day of the fourth month of the seventh year since the wedding, the river ran warmer, and every roof lit up at the first sign of the sun’s coming. It was Sunday, the day of bells, and the courtyard of the church was clean and wrapped in morning and dew – and the yards of the houses too, the big and the small, were clean and carried the early morning like coats. Everyone was asleep, save Mr. Frank, who crossed the town towards the river wearing nothing but his wedding ring.
Mr. Frank felt like a swim. It was far too early for anyone to be about, so there was no harm in his walking to the river in the nude. This was not the first time he’d done it. It was the second. The first time he’d walked to the river for an early-morning skinny-dip was fourteen days before. And as soon as he’d finished doing it once, he wanted to do it again.
His wife, Mrs. Frank, did not ask him to explain himself. When he told her what he’d done, she nearly fell over laughing and told him that she’d rather not know what was going through his head when he did it. So he didn’t bring it up again. But every night before he went to sleep, as he lay next to his wife and listened to her read, he wanted very badly to talk about the skinny-dipping. He wanted to talk to her about it because he realized that he didn’t know why he’d done it, but he was sure, like everything else, that his wife either knew or could figure it out. And he suspected that her figuring something out was always just a polite way of saying that she already knew it, a thought comforting enough that he put aside his wanting to talk about the skinny-dipping and nestled his head against her shoulder with his hand across her stomach and drifted off to sleep.
The wedding seven years before had been a gay affair. Mr. Frank and his bride wore modest clothes, and though their clothes were much like the clothes of the others there, anyone could pick them out of a photograph as the bride and groom. Each pair of parents smiled and congratulated them. The fathers gave speeches, and the friends and siblings and cousins sang “Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer” and “Blaenwern, Love Divine” and toasted to their health: Love Divine, all loves excelling; Joy of heaven to earth come down. When they put on the rings, the eternal sat in the room with them and held their faces as they kissed, and they were elated and quiet. They walked through the church hand in hand, and from church to tree-shaded street and then to their new home on the lane, together with the eternal. When they stepped inside the house, both of them began laughing; they realized it was time to consummate the marriage but neither could think of how exactly to begin. But they did begin, and when the laughter became something else, the eternal left them alone to fill their home with bodies and sound. Fix in us Thy humble dwelling; All Thy faithful mercies crown.
On this Sunday morning, the wind was colder than on the morning of the first nude swim. Mr. Frank set out against that wind. He wanted to sink his feet into the river.
When he crept quietly from his house on the lane to cross the streets and lawns of the town, he moved quickly. When he reached the edge of the water, he slowed down. The river opened up before him. Everything was still dark. He dipped his toes in, and the cold nearly took his breath away: cold beyond cold beyond cold.
There was a time when Mr. Frank wanted nothing more than to see a room full of strangers join him in song, to lead a choir in the church that stood empty and quiet. But the singers never came. They never came, and he couldn’t bring himself to sing in there, alone with the silent, aged manager of the rectory. Such adult disappointments are born from the absence of public enthusiasm, an absence that accumulates with private obligations, the learned hatred of heritage, the association of public enthusiasm with immaturity – and so it becomes acceptable with children around but not without, save for the glorious exception of sport. And so then he found private pursuits. He decided he would build something with wood, something grand and demanding craftsmanship and vision. But other thoughts came before the first nail: thinking about the river and the baby, yet to be conceived, and the wife, yearning for the conception, and learning to recite poetry from memory and the everything-other-than-wood, and then all of these thoughts left his head the moment it went under the water and leapt back up.
In the cold water of the river and the darkness of the morning, he finally realized why his skinny-dipping had made his wife laugh so much, and so he started laughing too. Laughing hard and loud so his whole body shook with it, and he nearly swallowed a mouthful of water. His laughing woke the nearest house, the Lathams, but he couldn’t stop.
Here he was, a naked man in a river laughing at the top of his lungs, and the Lathams were awake and others sure to follow, and but so then while laughing he started thinking about how he would manage to get home in his present outfit if the Lathams and whoever else were awake.
But it didn’t matter. This thing and his finitude and the whole damn lot of it were funnier than his nakedness. He was in a river, a cold river, naked as the day he was born, save the ring, and his life had an end. He realized that the Lathams hadn’t joined his choir, nor the Georges or the Rabinowitzs or the Clovers or the Johnsons or the Welshs or the Washingtons, and so if they saw him run naked through their lawns on his way home it’s not like they would get in the way of his dreams or his reputation, which he didn’t have, or the reputation of his wife, which she didn’t have much of either. That made him laugh harder. He just wanted to build something with wood and learn some poems and swim in this river. Maybe build something with wood and float it down the river singing poems and laughing at the neighbors.
I’m the pilot of this ship
I’m heading on a trip
Hooray hip hip hooray!
I built it out of wood
My hammering is good
Hooray hip hip hooray!
The river water danced beneath him. The hairs on his back and butt and legs were drawn into the dance. And when the cold finally got to him, really got to him and sank into him and started pulling at his bones, his whole body danced in a floating shiver. But his voice rang out steady.
I’m lying on my back
The morning sky is black
Hooray hip hip hooray!
The water might be cold
But my soul is made of gold
Hooray hip hip hooray!
He forgot he’d ever been laughing. He was born to sing, born to sing loud, born to sing loud and naked and free and dancing. Mr. Frank jumped out of the water, flew through the air, and landed square on the riverbank with his feet set apart, the water erupting from his skin as he flew. The shivering stopped. The dancing stopped. He burst out with a loud yell that pushed his mouth agape and lifted his arms like rising swallows caught in an unexpected wind.
Praise the river! Praise the runner! Praise the singer! Praise the raft!
And the Lathams and the Georges and the Rabinowitzs and the Clovers and the Johnsons and the Welshs and the Washingtons watched him fly through their yards, every naked part of him glowing the radiance of the new morning, and they rubbed the sleep from their eyes and stared at him and pulled the sleep from their ears and heard the moan of his song and matched it with quiet morning prayers: good-lord-holy-lord-what-the-fuck-is-he-doing-has-he-lost-his-mind-oh-god-I-feel-bad-for-his-wife.