Awarded the 2015 Jesse H. Jones Award for fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters
Named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Fiction Books of 2014
from Barton Spring Eternal: The Soul of a City
a collection of essays, photographs and oral histories
edited by Turk Pipkin and Marshall French
I lied once about Barton Springs, one of those perverse, instinctive lies, the kind you speak when the phone wakes you and you deny you were asleep. A stranger on an airplane asked, "Do you go swimming much at Barton Springs?" That was the question.
"Sometimes," I said, which was the lie: a bald-faced lie.
The truth was, I had never been to Barton Springs. I had not grown up in Austin, but moved here as an adult, and had a peculiar reluctance to visit its most cherished place. For me, going to Barton Springs as a newcomer would be like going late to a party, alone. It seemed like a place for insiders, not outsiders, not latecomers, the sort of place that if it had not claimed you young, it would not want you.
Barton Springs was other people's place.
Once I had stood outside the fence and not gone in. A friend had come from out of town and I had dropped him off at Barton Springs to swim. When I went back to get him he came slogging toward me from the pool in a swimsuit that I hated, and I stood looking through the fence and feeling separate from everything: the place and everyone.
After I told my lie, I had my reckoning. I was asked to write an essay about Barton Springs. I felt a sinking, not a deep one, just into the shallows, and was too embarrassed to admit that I had never been there.
As it isn't easy to write about a place you've never been, I decided I would go.
My instinct was to go when it was raining, to take with me an umbrella and all the awkward feelings of a trespasser: just the place and me and a few other outsiders all separated by a natural downpour.
Instead I waited for the sun.
Spring rains had turned the Texas prairies into hog wallows, and Barton Springs pool was swollen out of banks. The water, famed for being clear as glass, was turbid brown, and sludge eddied under empty lifeguard stands.
I was familiar with the words of doom: siltation, runoff, fecal coliform. I had come too late, I thought. The place seemed badly wounded.
There were six ducklings and a kind of mutant squirrel with mottled coloring and grackles fighting over Cheetos. The mud was everywhere.
But down beneath the muddy torrent were the springs. I could see clear water coming up. I stood there for a while, and had the feeling, the sad feeling, of someone who begins to love a person who is sick and is supposed to die, but yet may live; a feeling of holding back . . . then going on ahead . . . and crossing over.