Thomas Denis Gibney






The Drive and the Catch


Each morning, John Dunn Jr. wakes up at 5:25. He rolls to his right side, using his abdominal muscles to leverage himself upon the fulcrum of his forearms. He perches himself on the rim of the bed and points his toes into the mattress like that. He spreads his palms flat on the floor. He goes up on his toes, declined at a 45° angle—his toes the only part of his body touching the bed. The curtains are thick like an Artemisia painting’s curtains or a brooding Caravaggio’s. He walks his hands out across the hardwood floor and the small foot rug, walks them out real far and wide to work the deltoids and the pectoralis major. He takes some deep breaths like that and lowers himself to the floor, lips right there. It is completely dark during this scene, the curtains so thick they make a cave out of the room. With the smell of the ratty rug against his nostrils, the tinge of NE winter cold sliding across his body, he begins his sixty-one pushups from the position he’s staked, moving mechanically up and down; and up and down; and up and down.

The first time John got drunk in a while, he’d set the i-Cloud up against the ash-colored curtains and into the storm-trooper white of the i-Cloud’s auxiliary speakers and let the CloudShark roll through the filtered categories of {alt, country} and he’d sat there, in his wheelchair, drinking straight bourbon whiskey and listening to all the old George Strait and Gary Allan songs of his late high school years, and got drunk and sad like that. These were songs that were commiserative in the way they made him feel. Commiserative for…? …himself? …for no one necessarily? Or for a maudlin mirror image of that no one? And empty in the way they made him feel, in an okay kind of way. In a word, they were country songs. Nashville standbys. They had the blood of Nashville running through them, and deeper beneath that, they had the blood of something more fundamental running through them. They were songs that took him back to another point in his life, a point that might have been happier than this one now. It was a time when he felt more alive than he did now, but in a way less cognizant of the things that made him alive; and perhaps precisely because of that awareness he now felt very less alive than before. This was all before he got into electronic dance music.

He does his sixty-one pushups exactly, and then he kung fus his way onto the wheelchair parked beside the bed. He rolls briskly toward the kitchen, not flipping on the lights as he goes, rolls straight past the bathroom hung with various athletic straps and jerseys, rolls past the refrigerator, the microwave, and the now-defunct coffee maker, cause he doesn’t believe in stimulants. During this time he is taking prodigious stock of what happened on the other side the night before, before it disappears. Why’d he get so morbidly shitfaced that night? He’d gone onto Facebook and seen how the girl from back then how she’d gotten a new last name and it felt only appropriate that he played Gary Allan’s “Songs About Rain.” “The other side” is John Dunn’s name for the dream world. The pushups help him assimilate the pieces, help stimulate the brainflow in order to wring the most digestible symbolism from the dream just distilled there. He’s putting on his spandex, his Ultra-Weather fitted tops, his regalia of rowing gear, whipping efficiently about the dorm in his wheelchair. _____________ was the only one who saw him for who he was. She didn’t mind that his legs were bum. She even used the word “bum”. She didn’t step around the fact like everyone else did, his parents included, the fact of his escaped-paralysis. She didn’t treat him with the same old charade that took hold whenever he met someone new: the quick glance at his handicap; the immediate withdrawal of the eyes; the intent, almost painstaking way in which you could just tell the person was trying desperately not to look down again, to hold eyes to eyes, as if by not acknowledging the handicap there could be conjured a tacit imposition of normalcy, in spite of the evident. Not with _____________; the first supposedly sober thing she said to John was, “What’d you do, fall out a plane?”, which was refreshing to John, whose family was a family of euphemisms. She was the daughter of a largely absent father who drove the Virginia – Texas interstate route for PanAmerican Foods and a codeine-frazzled mother who’d decorated the room with NASCAR posters and Walmart-brand air fresheners that smelled like turpentine, convinced it was gonna be a boy. The disappointment never attenuated. The first time John tried to impress her by playing his idea of “techno music”—some breakbeat tracks from a Vin Diesel flick—she’d laughed and called it James Bond music. John Dunn drank who knows how much bourbon the night before but here he was making his way out the door for his six-times-a-week morning ritual. _____________ was also an early-stage ecstasy addict when she met John Dunn in the parking lot of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house lying with her ear to the ground in a pile of her own vomit and drawing little star shapes in it with her finger as it oozed down the asphalt in chunky taupe ribbons.


It’s all very cinematic, the way the oar plunges into the water, the muscles taut and firming ahead of the catch. It began as rehabilitation. After the accident, there was talk of the end. There was whispered the word “paralysis”. John drifted in and out of morphine-induced sleep, never wanting to come back, because each time he came back—to that world, to the world he’d been cast out from—he was met with the horror of the truth: that he would probably never walk again, that his playing days were over, that he was lucky to be alive, and like—as if he owed someone Upstairs a fucking Thank You for sparing him the trouble of dying. Thus it was that John Dunn quit all investment in the waking world. His dreams became an alternate present, a furcated thread broken off from the narrative of his former, more sentient self. John had never much paid attention to his dreams. Here though, each time he’d wake from that limbo and find himself among the curtains and tiled floors and wallpaper screaming at him in clinical blankness all around, his chest shook with repulsion against all the blankness’ false white. He fought the steady slipping that brought him back into the waking realm: it was a dead realm to him: he preferred the strangeness of this other place. No one could figure out what snapped his limbs back from their spell. To anyone whose opinion mattered, he was paralyzed from the waist down after a death-brush of a car crash that left the other guy critical and in all likelihood vegetative, and it was only by some extremely generous contortion of fate that he’d come out of it alive as well. Then, some months later, it happened—his legs began to tingle back to life. They were unalive, alright—this would never change—but they had not, as the sullen congregation of coats had pronounced, been shuttered from life entirely, never to budge. True, he would never play basketball again. It was uncertain whether he’d ever progress enough to forsake the wheelchair entirely. But one day, out of nowhere, they began to pulse with some faint quiver of long-lost feeling. By that time, though, John no longer had the will to use them. He was an entering freshman at UPenn and every penny of the scholarship had been revoked. They switched him to a single dorm to accommodate his “disability”. He was dealing with a criminal proceeding and a Catholic portion of guilt that only the most fervent of believers could shoulder. He was starting to see a physical therapist.

“Somethin I wanna seggest to ya.”


“Plenty a folks gettin on to it. Real popular in the therapy community now.”




“easy on the joints—”


“more intrestin to you athlete types than these yoga pantomim’s they got you doin now and such.”


“…Ever thought about rowin, John?”

The oar carves its butterfly wings of wakes into the water, one oar for each side, perfect symmetry in motion. They dimple out the sides of the boat, then emanate smaller, more fragile subsets of themselves as the vessel surges on, leaving the wakes to contemplate their impermanence alone: nested rings upon the water. The Schuylkill breathes majestic at this hour. It’s the magic hour for rowers. This dark will only last for a second longer; soon the sun will come up in line with your strokes; when this happens it feels for all the world that you’re the one pulling it up on its hinges. John strains against the lock, palms pinched and calloused, his muscles ribboning like the wakes he leaves behind. He doesn’t listen to electronica when he’s out on the water. He saves that for the afternoon sessions on the erg that glistens in the flat’s frigid basement, next to the Goodwill couch and the dumbbell set. Erg as in egometer, as in the whistling, scythe-bearing machine of every rower’s nightmare. But that’s for afternoons. Right now he’s on the water, the sun breaking out through the cropping of birches receding before his vision, unable to see the bridge that looms behind him cloaked in feral, fingerling mists. Despite his not seeing it, he knows exactly where this bridge is and how he will guide the scull straight through it. As he knifes through the mist back-side first, as rowers do, he sees the trail he’s left in it and, farther down, how it slowly begins to curl back into place. The way the sun peeks through the interstices of trees and boathouses lining the docks cuts gorgeous refracted splinters of light across the mist and the water. It is utterly freezing but John’s strokes are beginning to build a steely warmth in his core. Occasionally the water off the oars leaps against the boat and onto his thickly spandexed legs. From a practical standpoint, he doesn’t listen to electronica out here because he needs to be alert to all the common dangers that attend a rowing session in the dark of the morning, on a river as heavily trafficked as the Schuylkill. Another reason being the dreams, and his wanting to merge with them, giving himself mind and body unto the practice—prying open the senses to distill some image of the dream-self hidden somewhere behind his skull, assimilating.

The legs are the most important component of the drive and the source of nearly all the power of a rower’s stroke. Big, Navy-type guys with Popeye arms and YMCA trapezii can maybe get by in crew on sheer digging out the water in a sprint, but they’ll never last the long haul. Sustained, consistent power comes from the legs; the upper body works to balance the boat and to guide the oar so that it catches and drops in the water at the same spot each time, at the same interval. This involves a whole host of minor and auxiliary muscles that stabilize the hefty oar from catch to finish, from kerplunk to stroke to sploosh out the other end, and back again. John Dunn, at twenty-three years old, has been working his damaged and brittle legs for three years plus in this exact, bone-numbingly repetitive motion. The doctors were at a loss as to how his inferiors had thawed. But it was only on that wretched seat that he could get his legs to do anything. On dry land, his amphibian dexterity failed him. He couldn’t cover blocks of cookie-cutter Philly public housing or dappled quadrangles emasculated from the cold without the aid of his wheelchair. The muscles involved in thrusting backward and locking at the knees apparently differed from those used to lift and lower one foot before the other, let alone anything resembling a jog or a run, which seemed like the ultimate slap in the face from the great magnanimous Higher Power. He could slide back and forth on a seat in the shell of a one-man scull in the nut-freezing cold but he couldn’t walk out his door to fetch the newspaper without that obscene curricle in tow. In this way, in a quiet loathing kind of way, he began to slowly fall into the sport of rowing—being the one stage on which he could still live out the petrified dreams of a former athletic self.

The sky brightening, the dark water rippling, the mist beveled in full view now on account of the growing light. There are others out on the water at this time too—diehard university crews, masochistic single-scullers like John, semi-retired types lazing along at pleasurable speeds—but mostly there is quiet and there is aloneness, and a great feeling of the world’s slow thawing into wakefulness to confront another winter’s day. The Schuylkill is a big coiling beast bounded at points by sheer hillsides robed in ivy. At the eastern bank there are the cyclists’ paths winding alongside the contours of the river and patches of evergreens with pine-needle carpets at their feet and the scarecrow forms of leafless birches. You are rowing against the river but you are really rowing against yourself. In reality there is no such thing as the river; the river only exists insofar as it mediates the internal race against self and self-image; the river is merely the field upon which the race plays out. It is possible to forget the river entirely; it is this merging of self to playing field which is the rower’s ultimate goal and his only possibility for transcendence. Only then can he forget this dualism of the self and the self-image—of the self’s constant turning inward to confront its horrific reflection—only then can John forget the limitations of the body. His breaths quicken as he ratchets up the pace to a brisk thirty-two strokes per minute. When he rolls up the slide the knees tuck under his chin, face burnished in grimace, and poise there before the catch for one fraction of a moment, the oars raised just off the water’s surface and ready to dip again. They dip; with enormous force he pushes all his weight into his toes and his body lurches backwards, propelling the seat back down the slide [rower’s slang for the dual-railed track] to which it’s clasped by means of wheeled axes; the oars carve deep rivulets into the water, moving in the opposite direction of his lurching body. This is called the drive. An ideal ratio hovers at about 1:2, the drive to the recovery, in time elapsed. At the apex of the drive, the legs lock and the body sits upright at a slightly obtuse L, quadriceps in full flare. John’s legs can do this motion over and over again, now, after three years. You have to become the river or the river will break you. It is older than you; it was here first; it has broken many down before you and you’re nothing new, what does it care? To will away the pain is to will away defeat and without this dualism of self and river there can be no such thing as triumph or defeat. You are simply here, on the water, piling the wakes upon one another, racing against yourself or otherwise racing against no one at all.


Preliminary analyses indicate that, of the three archetypes he can identify in the dream, they should be organized according the following hierarchy (organized in decreasing value of ease of disambiguation): sun (setting); seesaw; fence.


“You really need to watch your posture,” the therapist said in the dream, the voice seeming to ribbon up from her hands as they navigated the small of John’s back. It was a feature of his lucid dreams from the beginning: the dark, dark room, the hands, the disembodied voice. If the dream got ugly, if it slipped into the stuff of nightmares (as it sometimes did, to be sure, to be sure): he could go back to this space. He could will the dream-self to blink—and back he would go, teleported to the therapist’s table, face down, the hands on his back once more, reminding him they were there. He could never see the therapist his subconscious had conjured, but she was there if he needed. He just had to remind himself. Funny how hard it was to remind yourself.

Seven semesters now at Penn pursuing everything from philosophy to economics to so-called cultural studies and various –ologies. John wheeled around in that life like that was the real dream. If he met _____________ at a dire time it was because the world decided to throw him a bone. He hadn’t thought of her in a good year, except in passing. Random memories that he quickly chased away. Why had she appeared all of a sudden in the dream, when he hadn’t dreamed at all for, what, going on three weeks now? The journal beside his bed, in his ever-darkened bedroom cave, didn’t bear a single entry since December 28. Then, last night, after bourbon after bourbon, he’d found himself in that dark, dark room again, those hands at his back. He stabs at the water. His strokes are fierce and measured in the limned mist.

He couldn’t rule out the possibility that something significant was going on here, but he also knew that the world of the subconscious often presented itself as expressive of certain forms and desires on this side, when in reality these were just projections of wakefulness posing as sentient axioms, for their own self-serving ends. One reason John Dunn prefers the dream world is because he can better see the bullshit of his waking desires, from the vantage point of the other side. He knows for example that when he is wanting to see the face of the hands at his back, the face that belongs to the beautiful voice, while his head’s resting in the donut-hole of the therapist’s table and a towel is wrapped around his waist in the dream, it’s only the projection of his other, inhibited self barging in from the waking world in a jealous rage. The dream-John doesn’t have to see the face of the therapist working her hands along his back and his legs. Ever since he went lucid, he can tell between the two. And most of the times he can will the waking one at bay. Was it coincidence that _____________, whose entrance in his life opened an undiscovered vein in his dreams, releasing the flow of something previously obstructed, had now, on the other side, entered once again, to open a new knot that had strangled the flow for three weeks now? That possibility should have made him happy; as he heaves the olive-dark water out, each stroke fiercer than the one before, he realizes he doesn’t know which self has taken over this time, to assert its shadow in the realm hitherto considered by John to be the only genuine plane in which he’s gone on living, when some part of him died beneath the wreckage of a primrose Chevy pickup and a rusted Accord, close to four years ago now.

He’s threaded the several bridges on this 6k stretch baring their teeth at him in the morning. He’s got one more to go, all his strength must conspire in exasperation against this last 250 meters. Thoughts edge their way into his mind’s periphery but John can’t let them distract him. He’s rolling at thirty-six strokes per minute. His body’s a heaving, sweating mass, his lungs are burning, teeth gritted, face mashed grotesquely. 200 meters. Each morning, six times a week, John Dunn buries his oars into the water like daggers into his own gleaming, grizzled abdomen. He fights back the urge to cry out. Snarled gasps escape from the bottom of his lungs with every stroke. 100 meters. If you can’t become the river, the river will break you into a million grizzled pieces. The Schuylkill will bury you and no one will ever know, as the wakes pile up cloaked in misty morning cold. 50 meters. You have failed if you don’t spit your guts out right now. Up the slide; drop; catch; stroke; feather; drop; catch; stroke


In the dream she was there on the other side of a chain-link fence, she a little ways off, sitting on a seesaw, at the top of the seesaw. He saw her from across the therapist’s room and he moved to approach her where a wall should have been. The seesaw was seesawed such that the closest of the two seats, which was aligned directly with the dream-John’s vision, was the one resting at the bottom—though no one was seated on it. _____________ was on the other end, at the top, legs loose on the air. But there was another thing: she was turned around. She was seated the wrong way on the seesaw. She was perched at the apex of the seesaw’s arc without anything weighing her down on the other side, and she was looking into a smeared landscape off in the distance that emitted the tapering colors of sundown.



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