The Buddy System

The Buddy System

A Short Story by Thomas L. Small

Despite that I was older, I was unable to do anything as well as my brother David.

“How many times do I have to show you?” my father would shout on multiple occasions on the same Saturday morning. When he said things like this, I would try harder. Invariably, things only got worse.

“Can’t you even push the mower in a straight line? You’ve missed so much grass, it has to be done over.” My father’s distaste for my poor performance was undisguised. “David, come over here. He can’t do it right.”

Although two years younger, David and I were the same size. At ten his athletic abilities not surprisingly were measurably better, which pleased our father enormously. Fortunately, David never reminded me of that, nor did he ever gloat.

“Go inside and see if you can help your mother.”

As difficult as things like this were to hear, it was his mumbled asides that were most painful to hear. “You’ll never be of any use to me.”

I never knew if I was supposed to hear these sub rosa mutterings. So sure was I that one day I would do something that pleased him, and everything would change, I never asked that he repeat himself. Nor did I ever ask what he meant.

“Your father is a perfectionist,” my mother would say when she found me sitting alone at the kitchen table. “Things will change as you get older. You’ll see.”  She put a hand on my shoulder. “Would you like a brownie?”

On hot summer Saturdays, what followed the weekly lawn mowing and hedge trimming was a swim in the afternoon. About mid-afternoon, my father, my brother David and I got into the wood-sided station wagon for a trip to the lake at the edge of town. There people gathered on a small sandy area by the water’s edge and sat on beach towels to keep a watchful eye on children playing in the shallows.

On this particular Saturday afternoon, my father and David swam out to a wooden raft anchored offshore. There they joined other men and boys who dove, jumped or were thrown repeatedly into the warm water. Although I could swim, I never accompanied them.

I was standing in water up to my elbows watching. When I turned to move into shallower water, the sandy ledge on which I was standing gave way. Instantly, I was in water over my head.

Although I could swim, panic overwhelmed me as I slipped under the surface unable to regain my footing, floundering, thrashing, flailing and finally opening my mouth and taking in water. It filled my nose and throat, cold, viscous, and tasting coppery. From below, looking up at the surface, I could see the sky and clouds. The view became gauzy and began to dim as I stopped struggling and began to sink.

I thought I was alone where I’d been standing before I slipped into deeper water, so it seemed as though he came out of nowhere. His grip on my upper arm was fierce as he pulled me up and carried me into knee deep water.

He held me bent at the waist and whacked me repeatedly between the shoulder blades until I stopped spitting water. His face was close to mine as he watched me gulp air. My vision was blurred, but he was so close to me that I could see his hair was crew cut, and so short on the sides I could tell it had been done by a military barber.

“Can you talk? Can you tell me your name?”


A young woman in a green bathing suit, carrying an infant dressed in pink, joined us.  “Are you okay?” She reached out and put her hand on the side of my face. “Oh, my goodness!” Her touch was soft and warm. “That was so scary.”

“Okay, Barry, I want you to see you take deep breaths.” He continued to watch me as I panted like an old dog. “Slowly, can you do that for me?”

“Honey, are your mother and father here with you?” the young woman asked.

“My father brought me” I said, nodding, taking a wobbly step towards the sand.

“He’s going to be fine,” the young man said. He was down on one knee in front of me, his hand still on my shoulder.

“Are you sure?” she asked. She put her hand under my chin and looked at my face.

“He’s going to be fine. Aren’t you? What did we learn today, Barry?” His face was so close to mine, smiling, that I could see his teeth, white and straight. “We always swim with a buddy, right?” He took his hand from the back of my neck where it rested. “Okay, you go sit down for a while.”

I nodded again as I stood alone in the water.

Together they walked back to a nest of beach towels on the sand and sat down. The young woman reached into a cloth bag and withdrew a bottle and began to feed their baby. She looked over at me and smiled.

My vision continued to clear as I stood there. I saw my father standing beyond the water’s edge, David at his side. We looked at one another for a long silent moment before my father spoke.

“Get in the car,” he said. “It’s time to go home.”

Thomas L. Small has published fiction in Passages North, The Cooweescoowee and The Mangrove Review among others. His creative non- fiction has appeared in Amoskeag. His one act play Domestic Particulars was presented as part of the Orange Valley Short Play Competition. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers-Newark in 2011. He lives in northern Pennsylvania with his wife Maxine and a phalanx of Pug dogs. He is currently working on a collection of short stories.