I Wasn’t Looking

In Arizona writer Dan Schwartz's skewed yarn, sarcastically chatty animal spirits offer no easy answers to life's existential dilemmas.

A squirrel came to me while I was sitting on a bench and said that I was no good, that I’d better stop trying and leave things to the professionals. “You’re wasting your time,” he said. “You’ll never figure it out.”

“Who are you?” I said.

“Me? I’m a squirrel. Look at me. Look at my tail. I’m awesome.”

I could see that he was.

“Give up,” he said, and he ran up the nearest tree.

I had decided that in the summer I’d make a personal goal to try to walk every inch of the city, up and down all the hills, until I had been to every corner. I wondered if I could do it.

“No,” said the squirrel.

“How do you know?”

“Because I’m looking at you.”

I told him to get lost. I didn’t see him again, but I knew that he knew his words would always stay with me.

* * *

The reason I wanted to walk to every corner was because I had exhausted all of the places I’d already been to. I wanted to be somewhere new. What if I turned down this road, or through this park?

I had the strong feeling there was something I was supposed to be doing, and the something was for a reason, but the things I ended up doing never matched up. I had the sense of purpose but not an actual purpose.

The other day a friend of mine handed me a book. “You’ll like it,” she said. “It’s good.”

I took her word for it, took the book home, and put it on a shelf. A week later I took it off the shelf and handed it back and said, “You’re right. I did like it.”

* * *

Walking through the park one night I met a dolphin. He was grey, with two big flippers, a dorsal fin, and a tail. He was lying in the fountain, eating fish. “Hey,” I said, “What are you doing here?”

“Mind your own business,” he said.

I walked around him. “Not looking for a fight,” I said.

“Fuck off.”

But for some reason I couldn’t get him out of my head, so before I came back through the park I bought some sardines. I fed them to him one at a time as he swore at me, flapping his tail. He didn’t refuse though.

A few nights later I asked him if he could teach me how to swim. “Why don’t you know how to swim?” he said. “Are you poor?”

I told him I’d just never learned. I used to go to a beach when I was younger but I never got in the water, only sitting in a folding chair and reading.

“Jesus Christ,” he said.

A week later we went out to the river. “Okay,” he said. “Don’t sink.” Then he pushed me into the water, and it was so cold that I thought I would freeze to death. But I managed to tread.

“Can I ride you?” I said.

“You can drown,” he said.

I tried to swim alongside him, halting, clumsy, figuring out slowly that maybe I should put one arm in front of another, and maybe kick my legs. “Quit splashing,” he said. “I hate that.” I wasn’t a very good swimmer. But I didn’t die, so I considered it a success.

“Do you ever sleep?” I asked him.

“Sort of,” he said. “I can kind of shut my brain off a bit. But I’m always awake. Got to keep swimming. And look out for sharks and things.”

“Have you ever met a shark?”

“Am I alive right now?”

I assumed he was alive.

Even though he never invited me back I kept hanging out with him. Eventually he showed me a few things that I could do to avoid looking like an idiot. I did my best. There wasn’t any reason for swimming. I would never do this while in a pool or at a beach. But I kept coming back.

The dolphin was eventually killed.

* * *

At the end of the summer I went into the river and swam far out until I couldn’t see the city anymore. It felt good now, knowing how to do it. I never did walk to every corner.

Why did it take me so long to learn? But there was no point in wondering, because there was nothing I could change.

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Reader Interactions


  1. Aunt Betty says

    Liked your story. Looking for a purpose, you found a challenging porpoise. Did you ever think of creating a series of children’s books? Could be similar stories with disinterested animals leading the way to accidental enlightenment. Fun for kids but funny for the adults who read them. Let me know, and send me the next one if you decide to do it.

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Dan Schwartz

Dan Schwartz

Dan Schwartz has an MFA from the University of British Columbia and has been published in Necessary Fiction and Joyland. He is originally from Washington, DC and lives in Phoenix.

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