After the Natatorium
The first time they saw the natatorium they changed into their bathing costumes, pulled their rubber caps over their heads, and rushed into the water without a thought for the ice crystals that floated, cold and perfect, on the surface. As they somersaulted, chicken-fought, and cannonballed from the edges, an Indiana marching band played the young upstart Sousa’s Liberty Bell, conducted by a gesticulating barber from Mishawaka. The pool washed their skin clean of Chicago grime—soot from the chimneys, brick dust from fingernails, mortar packed and matted in their hair—and they crawled out of the natatorium as pink and fat as they had from the baptismal font, before they could rightly remember their own names.
At night the natatorium’s locked doors and windows invited the jimmied entrance of gin-breathers and wounded boys who immersed themselves in the waters, where they bled through their bandages in a hush, leaving the pool’s liquid a clear lapping blue and their wounds salted, closed, and covered over with quick growths of scar tissue that shone whiter against the white bottom of the great basin—a basin so gigantic that none of the night gangs could have imagined it could hold them all together at once as they bobbed and spumed and sighed in the dark, the occasional laugh that bubbled up from their throats swallowed by the cavernous heights above.
As the water warmed over the course of the summer, swimmers arrived from all corners of the city: babies with cauls that clung wet in their mothers’ arms, dancers whose jewels spread from their hips in drifts of color, liberated minnows that darted in bright curtains though the depths, a dromedary with levers inside to propel its dives toward the bottom-most deeps where it dwindled smaller than the terriers that paddled belly down in the light-cracked shallows.
Soon the demand for water outpaced the supply from the spring fed aqueducts sourced in a village northwest of the city. The natatorium dried up into a hollow field of concrete that first housed an electrical exhibit, then a market, and then—before it finally fell into disrepair—a variety show. Hawkers lingered by the entrance to advertise big mamas, one-eyed dogs and penguin men, flippers downed in black and white fuzz. The waterless pool filled with a honeycomb of curtained compartments where hundreds of people disappeared, eyes open in wonder, in hopes that others might chart their futures.
JR Fenn's writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, PANK, Flash, and more. 'After the Natatorium' is reprinted from Versal. She teaches at Birkbeck College, University of London.