Life Jacket

Holly walks out on the movable platform that spans the tank.

Before they were led from the staging room to the tank, the team running the research had explained the deal. The Engineering Department has a contract to test different styles of life jackets—or PFDs, as they called them—“Personal Flotation Devices.” They need people of varying sizes, weights, and body composition to complete their results. Holly can’t picture where this process might be shelved. What’s the “Safety” section?

When she told the techs she was from New Jersey, near Asbury Park, they were thrilled. It’s 1980; The River has just been released and it turns out they’re all Springsteen fans. One of them, Ned, asked her if people from Asbury Park were all really “leaving town” and she’d looked at him with confusion. “Independence Day,” he prodded. “Like, pinball, the ocean, The Stone Fucking Pony! Is it all, like, empty now?” She shook her head and looked down the hall at the wave tank, still and dark below its railing. He started singing “The Ties That Bind” as he untangled the large, colorful pile of jackets.

The platform bridges the water about two thirds of the way down from the wave generator. The tank is a long, narrow pool, about twenty feet across but fifty yards long. It is one of the oldest wave tanks in the country, was built to study naval architecture, not bodies in water. Holly had gone to school here for four years without knowing it existed. She thinks: Naval Science—V. She doesn’t recall what floor. It’s not a section that ever got shelved much.

She is paired with a body builder named Russell, who strikes Holly as not just built, but over-built. Everything about him–unhurried movement, shaved head, short sentences–signals exaggerated efficiency. Like he’s broken some code and is demonstrating his expertise. He tells Holly he is a business major. Naturally, Holly thinks. And then: HG–Finance. Somewhere in the basement.

Holly must seem totally inefficient to him. She is not overweight, precisely, but rounded. Her rust-colored hair is pulled back in a messy braid that almost reaches her waist. Wisps fly out of every link of it, like the long spiny hairs that mark the segments of a wooly caterpillar. The only thing that is similar is that she doesn’t talk much either. Russell acts like her reticence is an affront, while his is a game plan. Last year Holly would have immediately decided she didn’t like him. Today he barely registers.

So here she is on the platform, about to climb down a ladder, fully clothed, not in the best shape after a long northern winter, into the cold water. Russell of the efficient body composition stands beside her, looking like he should be posing in an ad for people who test PFDs. The air reeks of chlorine. Holly starts to doubt her decision to take this temp job. But the library hadn’t worked out, and her rent is due.

When not fanboying about Springsteen, Ned had lectured them about “Archimedes Principle” as they were getting ready in the staging room. Holly doubts that she needed to know the details of buoyancy and displacement in order to follow directions, but they’re getting paid by the hour. She learned about the forces on a body–the density of weight pulling downward, the buoyancy of fluids pushing up. It seemed simple, complete in itself. She thought Physics—QC, Floor 1A in the old building. Right by the Reference Room. No, don’t think about the Reference Room.

Holly climbs down the ladder ahead of Russell. His “ladies first” rankles her, how he covers his reluctance with feigned chivalry. The water is colder than she’d expected. She has to tread hard to stay surfaced as her clothes and shoes soak up the weight of it. Muddy April light seeps through windows high up one tiled wall of the tank. Nearer to Holly, the other wall has a slim pool deck running its length, with a metal safety railing and doors opening to the corridor. Russell descends after her and moves toward the window side. Their eyes meet, and for a second they share a nervous camaraderie at the strangeness of this—floating, fully clothed, in this cold, murky tank, like subjects in some weird science experiment, which, Holly supposes, is what this is, even if in the service of some corporation’s bottom line, not the advancement of pure knowledge.

Knowledge—wasn’t that what the grad library was all about? Holly’s first job after graduating had been shelving books there. A world-class institution, and every book was placed where it needed to be by the people in the Stacks Department—almost all women, and almost all over-educated for this job. Some had been there for five or ten years. A few were plotting their way out, but most were just glad to get the benefits and be around books, even if at something just above minimum wage. Holly had felt like she fit right in when she needed that home the most.

With no warning, the machinery switches on. Holly and Russell, following instructions, turn away from the platform to face the far end of the tank. Small parallel wedges begin to glide toward them. One of the researchers throws the first PFDs at her and Russell. She catches hers and struggles to put it on, still treading as the waves begin to reach her. It is orange and plumy with complicated white straps. Another researcher looks at his stopwatch, timing how long it takes to put them on. Russell finishes first. He says, “Hah, it’s like being on ‘Beat the Clock,’” which Holly thinks is ridiculous. It’s not a competition; there are no prizes. Then: PN Television—right in the middle of Literature. One of the highest floors in the newer wing.

So many floors in the Library, millions of books, all needing to be put into order. Order—that’s what Holly needed. Books and papers in piles all over her apartment. Her untidy braid. Food rotting in bowls at the back of her fridge. A botched post-graduation break-up. It was a job, even if an unskilled one—the only type available in this recession. Reagan has been on TV telling the rust-belt unemployed to vote with their feet. A hallmate’s family had done so—moving from Midland, Michigan, to Midland, Texas, where the jobs supposedly were. Last she heard they were living in their car. No wonder the midwestern Ned had romanticized her home by the ocean. No wonder he assumed everyone was leaving there, too, but in a Springsteen kind of way, which automatically made it cooler.

She thought she’d learn to embrace order. She thought she’d learn to figure out why she’d graduated into such a shit job. Such a pale post-college life. Walking around campus, seeing all the undergrads doing undergrad things, she felt invisible. Signing a lease to stay in town after graduation had seemed a good thing when her boyfriend Peter suggested moving in together, and then a bad thing when he’d flunked his spring classes, been suspended, and moved back to his home in the Upper Peninsula, and finally just a thing to deal with, lease in hand, rent due. One of her co-workers in the library, a wannabe law student saving for tuition, studying for the LSATs while she was supposed to be shelving books, suggested she sue him to cover his half. Mostly Holly felt like she’d dodged a bullet. And Alice the co-worker, that was something else not to think about.

Sometimes, walking through town, one of those perfect college towns that always make the top ten lists of perfect college towns, she suspected she was invisible. And there she last week, searching university kiosks for notices of temporary jobs, to replace the library job. This one paid four bucks an hour, well over minimum wage. A few days of that would help make the rent.

After getting her jacket fastened, she turns to face the lines of waves that march toward her like a procession of long glass prisms breaking against her neck and shoulders. She has been told not to lift her head or move at all—just float levelly, let the life jacket do its work. Her task is to count how many swells cover her mouth as they pass by. The techs send different level waves—six inches, one foot, one and a half—as she bobs and counts, bobs and counts.

This goes on with each device. Some aren’t like the usual life vests at all; one version is simply an inflated tube she wraps under her arms. One is a coat with flotation sleeves she labors to get her arms into. It doesn’t work at all and she’s happy to take a break after that struggle. She becomes less and less conscious of Russell floating a few yards aware from her. She has stopped noticing much of anything besides how cold she is.

After they’ve run through the drill several times, she and Russell climb up the ladder and out of the tank to the staging room filled with space heaters, hot chocolate, blankets, towels. Steam pours off her drenched clothes. She stinks of chlorine. Water puddles beneath her, squelching out of her sneakers and clothes. When they head out again for the next round, Russell is dragging and she asks him if he’s okay. “Fine,” he says, “I’m fine.”

Halfway through the first morning, everything stops. Something is drifting by as she floats—a large, dead goldfish. Its edges are frayed. Eyes smeared; tail missing. She quickly swims to the ladder and hoists herself out.

“What the hell!”

“Damn,” Ned, says, “thought we got all of those.”

“All? There are more?” Russell, still in the tank, looks positively ill but insists it’s no big deal. “It’s just dead. Heh—we’re swimming in fish stew.”

Ned tucks his longish blond hair behind his ears, nodding in appreciation.

“Oh, yeah. Sorry about that. The engineers who use this tank to test boat hulls keep goldfish. You know, like pets. When we threw in chlorine to clean the water for you testers, it killed them. Anyway, we tried to fish them all out,” he chuckles a second at his own joke, “but once or twice a day one of them floats up that we didn’t see.”

He gets a net and pulls it out. It must have been dead a few days and almost falls apart before Ned can collect it.

Biology, QH. Still in the older, north building. Is there a more precise class for “dead things”? Holly starts to feel queasy. Seasick from the waves, the idea of the dead fish, maybe. But she needs the work. She treads and counts and bobs and counts for the rest of the day.

Death. That could be shelved in so many places.

By the last break, Holly is exhausted. Russell looks worse. Huddled across from her wrapped in several blankets that hang close enough to the space heater that they, and he, would be in danger of catching fire if everything wasn’t damp, he is shivering and has taken on a blueish tinge. He pulls in breaths of air like each one is weighted with an anchor.

“Are you okay?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t feel so good.”

She offers to make him another cup of hot chocolate. It’s powdered mix in envelopes, and the water in the electric kettle the techs left with them is barely lukewarm. He shakes his head.

“This guy I roomed with,” he croaks out.


“His older brother had a heart attack. Died last year.” He stops to take a long, ragged breath. “Twenty-seven.”

“Wait. Russell, you think you’re dying?”

He shakes his head through his shivers. “I dunno. I don’t feel good.”

“Okay, Russell, you’re not going to die. It was probably the cold water, shocked you.” He’s scared and she feels bad about having judged him when they met this morning. He is shivering violently. Holly’s mind watches his symptoms and then shelves them in the medical section—the R shelves. Mentally she takes the elevator and wheels the cart of sorted books to the right floor. At the same time, she bolts to the door and calls out to the techs who have disappeared, coordinating the information from the latest set of tests in whatever room the building’s mainframe computer is housed.

Finally her calls get their attention, and when they run in and see Russell huddled over and shivering, three of them race back out to find a phone, while Ned stays in the room with them. “Stay with us, buddy,” he says to Russell, whose breathing gets more and more ragged.

While they wait for the ambulance, Russell rallies somewhat. He’s able to walk out with the medics. They say it was probably an asthma attack from the chlorine and that he’d panicked. They’ll take him to Health Services to check him out.

Holly watches from the far corner of the room, shivering.

When she began in the Stacks Department, it was deep winter. The sun would not be up yet when she got to work. The library was deserted except for the workers. She would go to the sign-up sheet to choose her location for the first hour. The early task was always the same—choose a floor or section of the library to clean up all the errant books and put them back where they belonged. She usually chose the Reference Room. She liked its empty resonance, long and cavernous as a cathedral nave, tall stained-glass windows at either end. Narrow tables crossed the room, a line of chairs on either side and banker’s lamps in the middle, their green shades adding a veneer of importance to the space. She checked them for encyclopedias, atlases, journals, and other stray books, and piled them on her cart. Then she made the rounds of the room, depositing those that belonged there back on their home shelves.

Some days she’d pause, and open the volume in her hands—The Atlas of South American Rivers, or Volume D of The Encyclopedia of Chemical History. It didn’t matter which it was, or if it was a topic that interested her. The more obscure the better. She’d read the unfamiliar place names and the tales of solutions to solutions, running her finger down the page like she was rereading facts she knew by heart, checking to make sure the book got it right.

Few of her coworkers had any sense of where to go next. They stayed where they felt safe. Where they fit. Alice the law school aspirant was the only one thinking about a future. She shelved and studied, and at night she waited tables to save for tuition. It took a while for anyone to notice that she didn’t eat.

Holly was the one who found her, passed out in a far corner of the Reference Room, slumped near her book cart as if she’d sat for a minute, then put her head down to rest. She must have come in really early to beat Holly to sign-ups. Except her name hadn’t been on the sheet; otherwise Holly would have gone somewhere else. Alice’s skin was damp, and book dust stuck to her cheek where it touched the ground. She was in a corner of generic encyclopedias—no specific topic at all. She was barely breathing. The baggy t-shirt and oversize cardigan she wore, which normally billowed around her, draped across her still body like a parachute after a bad jump, the skydiver outlined against the ground. Her thin limbs drawn starkly under the material.

And then she wasn’t breathing and Holly couldn’t make her start. She’d pumped and yelled and pumped and screamed for help. They’d worked on her in the ambulance, in the ER, not wanting to let such a young woman go. But Alice had gone.

The next morning, Holly started to enter the library, but couldn’t force herself to climb the stairs to the front doors. She tried again the day after, standing on the wide front steps, the winter-brown grass and paved plaza of the Diag spread out behind her, while a well-known local figure, the kind people find colorful or annoying or both, stood on a concrete bench at the far side, loudly intoning the Greek alphabet, as he did almost every day.

“Alpha” rang out, as it had many times when Holly had sat in classrooms in the surrounding buildings, and she put her foot on the first step. “Beta” and she paused. Another step with “Gamma” and then with “Delta.” But by “Zeta” she was frozen, and by “Epsilon” she’d turned and was on her way home.

Greek, her mind says. PA. The beginning of the Language Stacks. She never went back.

And here she has found herself, in the Engineering Building. Treading. The techs announce that they’re done for the day, with Russell gone. They’ll call for a substitute for tomorrow. Ned asks Holly if she’ll be back. She thinks about her rent. The empty shelves in her refrigerator. She thinks about Russell’s phlegmy breaths. And the oily sheen in the water around the dead fish. The space between heartbeats; the space after Alice’s last one, within which Holly is still suspended.

She thinks: the floors of the library need new names, new subjects, new areas of collected knowledge: places to shelve hunger. Pain. Anger. Incandescence. Blankness. Time. Or end of it. And maybe, also, a new physics: the mass of witness. The guilt of buoyancy. The density of loss.

She says, yes, of course she’ll be back. Knowing she’ll be floating tomorrow, and the next day if she’s lucky, if the contract money stretches that far, if there are enough jackets that need testing.

Treading and counting, as each small swell breaks across her face, the lines marching down the tank like the long tables laddering the length of the Reference Room. She’ll be watching for killed fish, poisoned so that she could play at testing survival. Struggling to keep her nose and mouth above water, as her jeans and shoes fill with water. Heavier and heavier, she’ll kick against gravity, the flawed composition of bodies.


  • Leslie Doyle's essays and fiction have appeared in Front Porch, MARY, The Fourth River, The Forge, Gigantic Sequins, Signal Mountain Review, Electric Literature, Rougerou, Tupelo Quarterly Review, The New York Times, and elsewhere. She lives in New Jersey and teaches at Montclair State University.

  • Neil Rick is a gardener and photographer in Tennessee. He grows flowers and then photographs them, overlaying the photos but doing no post-production altering. His images have won multiple prizes at American Rose Society Meetings in Tennessee and Kentucky, including Best Novice at a national ARS meeting in 2019 and "King of Photography" at a 2022 show in Bowling Green, KY.