The house where I grew up was across the street from a large park, and in the park was a fountain. My bedroom window faced the park so, when I had trouble sleeping at night, I often sat up and watched the fountain.
It was a rather odd fountain. There were four vertical dolphins, back-to-back, which shot water out of their mouths. Lower on the fountain and between the dolphins’ tails were four small naked boys, perhaps cherubs although I never saw any wings. They had quite large, erect penises out of which shot more streams of water. When I was very little, I thought it was funny. By the time I was eight, it seemed to me to be more joyful than funny.
The fountain was illuminated by floodlights which changed colors at night. The light would go from pale shades of pink to orange to yellow to green and finally to light blue. The entire cycle took about 10 minutes. At night I found the fountain and the color changes comforting, relaxing. Perhaps that was because they were both pretty and predictable.
From time-to-time petitions were circulated around the town to have the fountain removed because it was ‘vulgar’. As a result, there was usually a motion in the Town Meeting to do away with it. The motion was always defeated, often by a large margin. Even before I was eight, I knew of the petitions, because my parents thought the fountain was fun and they always voted to keep it. Knowing my love of the fountain, they reported to me every time the motion was defeated.
The year I was eight and in the third grade at our local elementary school, Mom suddenly disappeared one day. Dad said that she had an internal infection and had gone to the hospital to get better. Having great faith in hospitals and doctors, I waited patiently for her to come home.
Poor Dad did his best, taking over the laundry and feeding us. He wasn’t much of a cook, and often the eggs were overcooked, or the bacon was burned. One night he put a pot roast in the oven and forgot about it. The first we knew of it was when the living room began to fill with smoke. We ate takeout that night.
One day before I left for school in the morning, I took my entire savings, five dirty, wrinkled dollar bills, out of my dresser and stuffed them in my pocket. On the way home that afternoon I stopped at the local bank branch, put my bills on the counter, and asked to exchange them for quarters. When I put the coins in my pocket, my shorts nearly fell down with the weight.
Walking to the park, holding up my shorts with one hand, I stopped in front of the fountain and solemnly threw the coins in, one by one, each with a little incantation.
At home, when Dad returned from visiting Mom, I asked him how she was.
He looked very seriously at me, and I could see he was wondering what to say. Finally, he knelt down, held me, and told me the truth. “She’s very, very sick, William, and the doctors don’t believe they can save her.” There were tears flowing from his eyes and down his cheeks. I too cried, and supper that night was a silent meal.
I went to bed early, and after Dad had tucked me in, kissed me on the cheek, and closed my bedroom door, I quietly got up and went to the window. Over and over, as I watched the colors change, I repeated the incantation which I had said twenty times at the fountain that afternoon. When they had gone through their cycle three times, I returned to bed.
In the morning I asked if I could go to the hospital with Dad, but he told me children weren’t permitted in the hospital area where Mom was.
School dragged by that day. My teacher must have known of the situation because she let me do whatever I wanted. Occasionally she passed by me and simply patted my shoulder.
After school, I walked as usual to the fountain and sat on the ground, just staring at it.
Dad and I arrived home at the same time. He got out of the car, lifted me high in the air with a great big smile on his face, and said, “Mom’s better and she’s out of danger. The doctors don’t understand what happened, but she’s better!” He tossed me in the air and caught me three times.
I knew what had happened Of course.
The next morning before I left for school, I asked Dad if I could borrow five dollars. After school I stopped at the bank, shoved my five dollar bill up on the teller’s counter, and asked for twenty quarters.
Again I held onto my shorts as I walked to the fountain. There I tossed in the quarters, one at a time, each time whispering, “Thank you.”
At home, Dad was all smiles, and Mom came home five days later.
It was a beautiful Cape Cod beach day — the air warm but not too warm; the water cool but not too cool. I was engaging in my favorite summer activity, body surfing, riding the waves toward shore. Unless there was a storm off the coast, the waves seldom got over four or five feet high, but they were big enough for me.
Mom was on the beach, working on her tan. Occasionally she went into the water, but she wasn’t much of a swimmer, so she usually only went in to cool off.
I had been riding the waves all morning until I got hungry. Walking out of the water I went up to Mom, who was by then under a beach umbrella, and sat down on my towel in the sun. I didn’t bother to dry myself off because I knew the sun would quickly do that for me.
Sitting on my towel, I reached into the cooler and pulled out a roast beef sandwich and a can of Coke. I gazed out at the water and sighed contentedly. This is the life, I thought.
After finishing the sandwich, the drink, and a couple of cookies, I was ready to go back in, but Mom still held to the rule that you shouldn’t go in the water for an hour after eating. I pointed out to her that the American Red Cross had changed that recommendation, but I couldn’t convince her, so I moved under the umbrella and waited for the mandatory hour, dozing in the shade. I was able to set my internal alarm clock, which never failed to awaken me at the end of the hour.
As the alarm beeped in my head, I jumped up, called, “Bye Mom,” and headed again for the water. Plunging into a wave I emerged on the other side of it and swam out through the swells as far as the lifeguards would let me go. They knew me and they knew I would push it if I could. In turn I knew that they were watching.
I turned to face the shore and rode up and down on the swells until a promising one came along. As it reached me, I paddled forward on my stomach and rode it towards the beach. As it began to curl, I turned parallel to it and rode the curl as far as I could before touching the sand.
Laughing as I got up, I waved to Mom and headed back out. I must have done that for about an hour before I saw a monster wave coming towards me. I rode it towards the beach but suddenly felt something hit me hard on my left side. I bailed off the wave and looked to see what had hit me.
I couldn’t see anything at first, but then I saw a dorsal fin about fifteen feet away. Oh shit, I thought, a shark. The fin was coming towards me quickly. I tried to swim away, but I knew that was a lost cause. Nobody can outswim a hungry shark.
I panicked and thrashed hard although I knew that would just attract the shark. Again, I felt something hit me hard on my left side. It wasn’t the shark, which hadn’t reached me yet. Then something hit me on my right side, and I was sure that wasn’t the shark.
There was a sudden thrashing in the water near the shark and I knew that something was attacking it. It can’t be a seal, I thought. They don’t do that.
The bumps on my sides continued and seemed to be urging me gently towards the shore. If it wasn’t the shark — and I knew it wasn’t — then what was it? And what was attacking the shark?
I decided to help whatever it was that was pushing me and began to swim hard towards shore. When I got close enough so that my stomach was almost hitting bottom, I saw two bottlenose dolphins, one on either side of me, just resting in the water. They looked as though they were smiling.
I reached out and touched one, saying, “Thanks, guy,” and then I did the same with the other.
Slowly, I stood. The dolphins both whistled and nodded before turning and heading out towards the shark, which was clearly in trouble. There, they joined their mates in butting and harassing the shark until it finally swam away.
Looking back at the beach I saw that everybody, including the lifeguards, was watching and then clapping as I walked out of the water. A lifeguard came to be sure I was okay, and I assured her I was.
I went up to Mom, who was standing and crying. “I’m okay, Mom,” I said. “Did you see the dolphins?”
She hugged me, saying, “Yes. They saved your life.”
“I know,” I replied quietly. “They were unbelievable.”
With that we gathered our belongings and headed to the car.
Much against my mother’s wishes, I was back bodysurfing the next day. I looked for a shark fin or a dolphin fin but saw nothing, until suddenly I was nudged again. I looked to my side, and a dolphin was swimming beside me. It didn’t touch me again as I rode a wave to the beach, but every time after that, whenever I bodysurfed, there was a dolphin looking out for me. I never knew whether it was the same dolphin every time or whether they took turns.
Each day, when I finished, I patted the dolphin and it whistled at me before turning and swimming once again out to deeper water.
For the entire summer, I had my guardian dolphin. Moments with it became very special to me, and I felt as though I had a true friend.
On my last day at the beach, the dolphin seemed to know that I wouldn’t be back. When I finished my last wave and headed to shore, the dolphin swam with me until the water was too shallow. Then it rose vertically in the water like a spy-hopping whale, waved a flipper at me, and was gone.
As I walked up the beach, there were tears in my eyes. I wondered if the dolphin was sad too, but I never saw it or them again.