Lifeguarding: A Memoir of Secrets, Swimming and the South

Lifeguard candidates are taught that their first concern is the safety of others.
- American Red Cross Lifeguarding, p.3
Louisville, Kentucky stands at the edge of the dark, urgent Ohio River. In 1974, two miles from the river, the McCall family wrangles against the current of its own black tide. They are on the verge of breaking apart, of drowning once and for all-on any night their father might not come home, any day their mother might "crack up."

There are two parents, three children and five ghosts in the McCall family. At 13, Cathy is accustomed to listening to all of them from her room upstairs. The house on Napanee Road isn't so much haunted as it is crowded-Granddaddy's voice booms against the kitchen cabinets, Mama T's laughter shuffles the cards. Even the half-lidded gaze of Grandmother McCall from her spot above the mantle can make you hurry through the living room without looking up. Uncle Ches is the only ghost who keeps silent, although his presence flows as swiftly as the blood-stained Ohio River, right through the middle of the family.

The McCall kids can do nothing, really, but swim. Each has been an excellent swimmer from the time they were five years old. All those years of team practice and car pools and best times and trophies and still they might not be able to keep their parents-and the family - from drowning.

No one outside the house knows there are problems. On the surface the McCalls look like any other well-dressed country club family. In the 1960's and 70's, in the preppie world of Louisville's East End, an alcoholic is a bum living under a bridge, not a handsome, John Wayne look-alike from a respected family.

Keeping the truth at bay has always been a way of life in the McCall household. At 14, Cathy senses that deep inside something is terribly wrong with her, although she would never confess such a fear to anyone. Her parents and teachers, even the other kids at school, think she "has it all together." In her sophomore year this secret fear is confirmed when the most unacceptable, potentially disastrous thing that could ever happen happens...

Thus is born the secret that she will bury for years. She will perfect holding her breath and censoring her words. She will lie to herself and deceive others in an effort to be the daughter she and her parents need her to be.

By 22, Cathy has become dangerously tired of faking her way through life. The silence that shielded her for so long from her father's rage and her mother's questions is now what separates her from everything and everyone - including herself.

She's good at holding her breath, though, and at appearing like she has no problems or worries. The book begins when she's working as a lifeguard at the Louisville Boat Club which is located on the Ohio River. She often stays after the pool closes so she can sink to its bottom in search of something she can't quite name.

She doesn't know that the time is approaching when she will have to choose whether to break her silence or disappear completely. Nor do any of the other McCalls suspect that the family's integrity is about to be tested as never before.