My father used to say I had him to thank for being alive, and I guess that's technically true. Secretly, though, I always thought I owed my life to a strange man who once held my mother's hand. Maybe she shouldn't have told me about him, maybe she should have kept him with the rest of the secrets she had locked under the chastity belt around her chest most of the time, but she let it crack one day when I was 7 and out came the story. After that I thought about him a lot, the strange man, in a way opposite of a nightmare but somewhat frightening nonetheless.
"What did he look like?" I'd ask my mother.
"He was very nice," was all she'd say, "and tall."
It wasn't any use trying to imagine what I'd be like if my father was not my father, because my mother was already married to him when the strange man saved her life. It's not as if she could have taken a cosmic side turn to rescue me from my present self at that point. No. She was already two kids into a bad marriage and pregnant with her third. Seven months later, she popped me out as easily as an olive pit and named me after a female character in a newspaper comic strip titled "Smilin' Jack," or that's what she said anyway. The character's name was Holly, which is similar to my name but not my name. I ended up with a man's name for some reason. A strange man's name.
"What the hell are you talking about?" my mother would say, waving the smoke of her Salem menthol away from her face to eye me sternly. "I told you, your name came from a comic strip."
At this point she would bustle me off before I asked any more questions, maybe send me to the liquor store down the street to buy another carton of cigarettes. At that time she didn't know the store had been bought by a pervert who sat with his pants unzipped behind the counter every time I showed up. She was under the impression it was still owned by the nice man missing the two middle fingers on his right hand. That man once sold me a bongo drum for 70 cents after I'd misread the price tag. The real cost was $7, not seven dimes, but he'd sold it to me anyway, holding out his chopped-up hand to take my change. But then one day he was gone and the pervert had taken his place. He kept dirty magazines by the cash register, and once showed me a picture of two people copulating. Judging by the face of the girl in the photo, the act didn't look all that fun to me. She looked like she was being stabbed to death, and maybe she was.
"Someone should save her," I remember thinking as I walked home.
And thoughts about being saved brought me back to the strange man who actually did save my mother, who even afterward never bothered to learn how to swim. I don't know what she was doing in the ocean that day, anyway, pregnant like she was, in a tatty bathing suit even she admits would have been an embarrassment to her corpse. She always emphasized that point, too, because if she had been out there as part of a plan or anything -- if she had meant to get swept under by a strong wave -- she would have worn the blue bathing suit with the ruffle and underwire, not the faded red-and-white polka-dot number that practically hung on her like a hospital gown.
But at least it made her stand out from the rest of the crowd, which is why my father, drinking beer with his work buddies in the parking lot, noticed her heading toward the surf in the distance. It was during one of his rare periods of gainful employment selling trailers for a company based in northern California, and this was a corporate-sponsored picnic. "What is she doing?" my father mused to his co-worker as he watched his wife wade into the water. "She can't swim."
And then my father laughed, because he didn't know what else to do. It was his co-worker who walked across the sand and out into the ocean and took my mother's hand. He was tall, like she remembered, and when the big wave crashed and the water tried to take her, he wouldn't let it. She remembered the powerful pull, she said, of both the sea and the strange man. She remembered she was already chiding herself for not having the foresight to die in the better bathing suit; she remembered she had already let go, but he hadn't.
After pulling her out of danger, he silently walked her back to her beach towel. Seven months after that I was born, and seven years after that I learned I had a strange man to thank for it. I would dream about him then, and in my dreams I had a happier mother, one who wouldn't let go so easily. And I still think about the strange man a lot to this day, especially on those occasions when the world weighs on me like a lead sea. He is nice and tall and his hand is outstretched. I take it and he pulls me through.
Hollis Gillespie's commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered." To hear the latest, go to Moodswing at www.hollisgillespie.com.