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The Swimmer

John Cheever

Plot Overview

Context

Character List

On a Sunday afternoon in midsummer, Neddy and Lucinda Merrill and Helen and Donald Westerhazy sit around the Westerhazys’ pool, complaining about their hangovers. They are all drinking. Neddy feels young, energetic, and happy. He decides to get home by swimming across all the pools in his county. He feels like an explorer. He dives into the Westerhazys’ pool, swims across, and gets out on the other side. He thinks about all the pools that lie ahead and the friends that await him.

He walks to the Grahams’ pool, swims across, then has a drink. He next swims across the Hammers’ pool, then several others. At the Bunkers’ pool, a party is going on. Enid Bunker greets him, telling him that she’s happy he could come to the party after all. He has a drink, then moves on. The Levys aren’t home, but Neddy swims across their pool anyway and helps himself to a drink, feeling very contented. A storm begins, and Neddy waits it out in the Levys’ gazebo. After the storm, he notices that red and yellow leaves are scattered all over the lawn.

Neddy heads toward the Welchers’ pool. On his way, he finds that the Lindleys’ horse-riding area is overgrown, and he can’t remember whether he heard that the Lindleys were going away for the summer. At the Welchers’ house, he finds that the pool is empty, which Neddy thinks is strange. There is a for-sale sign in front of their house. Neddy tries to remember when he last heard from the Welchers. He wonders whether his memory is failing him or he has just repressed unpleasant information.

Neddy waits for a long time to cross a highway, and people in the cars going by yell and throw things at him. He knows that he should head back to the Westerhazys’, but he can’t bring himself to do so. He finally manages to cross to the median and then to the other side. He walks to a public pool, showers, and swims across, disgusted by the crowds and the overly chlorinated water. Then he walks to the Hallorans’. He takes off his swim trunks because he knows the Hallorans enjoy being naked and swims across the pool. The Hallorans greet him and say that they’re sorry for all his “misfortunes,” hinting that he’s sold his house and something has happened to his family. Neddy denies that anything has happened, puts his swim trunks back on, and leaves. He feels cold and weak and smells burning wood. He wishes he could have a drink of whiskey so that he could warm up and get some energy.

Neddy asks for a drink when he gets to Helen and Eric Sachses’ pool, but Helen says they haven’t been drinking since Eric had an operation three years ago. Neddy has no recollection that Eric had been sick. He swims across their pool, then tells them he hopes to see them again soon.

He goes to the Biswangers’ house. The Biswangers regularly invite him and Lucinda to dinner, but they always refuse because the Biswangers are of a lower social standing. A party is going on, and Neddy goes to the bar. Grace Biswanger greets him coldly, and the bartender is rude to him. Neddy knows that their odd behavior means something has happened to his own social standing because caterers and bartenders always know what’s happening in his social circle. In the background, Grace says something about someone losing all their money and asking her for a loan. Neddy swims across the pool, then leaves.

He expects to get a warm welcome at Shirley Adams’s pool because Shirley had been his mistress, although he can’t remember how long ago the affair had ended. Shirley tells him she won’t give him any more money and that she won’t give him a drink because someone is in the house. Neddy swims across the pool, but he has trouble getting out and must use the ladder. As he walks away, he smells fall flowers and sees fall constellations in the sky.

Neddy starts crying for the first time since childhood, feeling cold and confused. He thinks that he has just been swimming too long and needs a drink and dry clothes. He swims weakly across a few more pools. Finally, he reaches his own house. The lights are all off, and Neddy doesn’t know where everyone could be. Every door is locked, and no one answers when he knocks. He looks in the windows and sees that his house is empty.

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