The Drowning Spool



For Betsy, it started in January, when the Courage Center’s Olympic-size pool needed repairs. It was announced at her early-morning water aerobics class that the pool would be closed for twelve weeks, starting next week, and everyone was going to have to take a hiatus or find a new place to go during that period.

There was grumbling in the locker room after class. Twelve weeks! That was far too long to go without exercising. But where were they going to find another pool heated to ninety-three degrees? And one that offered a water aerobics class beginning at six thirty in the morning?

A woman changing for the Individual Therapy class that followed aerobics said, “I know a place that has a water aerobics class starting at seven.”

“Well . . . Heated pool?” asked Betsy.

“Around ninety degrees or a little more. The pool’s nice, although not nearly as big as this one here.”

But Betsy didn’t need a big pool to stand and do jumping jacks in. “Where is this place?”

“It’s a new addition to a senior-living complex in Hopkins. It cost them so much to add the pool that they’re offering classes to the fifty-five-plus members of the public to make some money. My mother lives at the complex—it’s called Watered Silk—and she told me about it.”

Hopkins was a suburb farther west of Minneapolis than Golden Valley, where the Courage Center was located—which put it closer to far-west Excelsior, where Betsy lived. So there would be a shorter drive to Hopkins for six weeks. Nice.

“Why is it called  ‘Watered Silk’”? asked Betsy.

“The building that houses the complex was once a silk factory, back in the eighteen-hundreds. One of the varieties they produced there is called watered silk. They actually found a piece of it inside a wall, or maybe it was under a floor, when they were remodeling. I guess they liked the term. It does have kind of a smooth, luxurious feel to it, which describes the complex itself. Everything first-class over there, the residents really like it.”

So when Betsy called their office, she should not have been surprised when she was quoted a price for three months’ worth of thrice-a-week classes that was fully half again what the Courage Center charged. Not so nice.

With some dismay over the cost, she searched on her computer for alternatives. But all the other water aerobics classes in the area were held in pools far cooler than Watered Silk’s, or were farther away, or didn’t start as early; and none were less costly. So Betsy sighed and signed up.

Around twenty to seven on the first day, Betsy was guided by her GPS to a street on the west side of downtown Hopkins. The building was big, of dark red brick, old and plain. It had obviously once been a factory, perhaps built in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Four stories tall, it took up most of a city block, with a narrow alley separating it from a smaller, newer commercial building next door.

It was set far enough back from the street to accommodate a new stone and cement portico with a curved driveway leading underneath it to the main entrance.

There was a parking ramp across the street, bi-level—the second “story” was the roof of the first—and there was no charge for parking. Betsy pulled in and found it almost empty at that hour of the morning. She parked and hurried across the street, under the cement portico, and into the broad entrance.

A pair of doors brought her out of the cold into a good-size entrance area, brightly lit and blowing hot air. She stopped in front of a pair of thick glass doors, tinted brown. But before she could press the button indicated for entry, the doors slid open.

The hall inside was tall. Really tall. Betsy’s eyes were drawn up and up to an immense, very modern chandelier of crystal and chrome. The pale walls were bare except for one small painting in an elaborate frame. It was hung too far away for her to see any details other than it was red, and probably an abstract. The low-nap carpet had a pattern of dark gray curves and angles on a light gray ground. There was a long, plain buff couch near the framed art. A matching chair stood at right angles to it, with a chromed-metal-and-glass coffee table inside the angle. The lighting was gentle but adequate, and stronger on the right, where a beautiful wooden counter was guarded by a handsome young African American man who was smiling inquiringly at her. Betsy had a feeling she’d seen him before, but she couldn’t place him.

“Betsy Devonshire,” Betsy said, approaching him. “I’m here for the water aerobics class.”

He checked for her name on a list, found it, and handed a clipboard to her to sign in. “Pool’s down the stairs and to your right,” he said, gesturing toward the back of the lobby.

It was then Betsy realized that the floor ended well short of the far wall. She walked over and saw a set of eight steps nearly the width of the lobby.

She went down to find a sitting area in front of four big windows and to one side a trio of doors—one was an elevator, one was marked private, and the third had a glass insert in its top half through which she could see exercise equipment.

Through that door she found herself in a middle-size room reeking of cement and freshly laid carpeting and canvas, and full of new-looking treadmills, Exercycles, and even a set of lightweight barbells. A machine offered to test her blood pressure, and beside it was another glassed-in door leading into a well-lit room mostly taken up by a rippling pool.

She went in. The air was heavy with moisture and the smell of chlorine. The pool was rectangular, about twenty by fifty feet in size, and surrounded by a gray-tiled apron. The pale green walls featured a row of dark green tiles, which depicted a line of ancient-Greek-style dolphins leaping in perfect order.

A slender young woman with short black hair and dark eyes greeted her with a dazzling smile from the other side of the pool. She was wearing a navy blue Speedo swimsuit, and holding what Betsy recognized as the little kit used for testing water quality.

“Good morning!” she chirped. “Dressing room over there!” She gestured toward a pair of doors near a floor-to-ceiling window partly covered with condensation. The soft murmur from a fan showed why it was clearing from the bottom up.

The narrow dressing room extended past a set of six showers, then three sinks and two toilets, then into the locker area, which had a bench down its middle. The lockers were a mix of short and tall, painted sky blue.

Four women were already there. Betsy recognized two of them from Courage Center. “Hi, Rita, hi, Barbara,” she said.

“Good morning,” said one of the others, an elderly thin woman whose swimsuit hung loosely on her. “I’m Eileen and this is Morgana.” She gestured at the fourth woman, not so old but standing with the support of a walker. “We have to take a shower before we can go in the water.”

“I’m Betsy,” Betsy said, introducing herself. “Glad to be here.”

The women wet themselves down in the showers and went into the warm and humid pool room. Two men—one of them Dave from the Courage Center—were already in the pool. There were no steps into it, only a ramp. Betsy headed down it into the water, which, she noted with pleasure, was deliciously warm. Its sloping depth ranged from just under her waist to just over her shoulders.

The instructor stooped over a big, old-fashioned boom box and within moments the music started: a sixties rock song set to a disco beat. She jumped sideways into the pool at the deep end and announced, “My name is Pam and I’ll be leading this class. Let’s begin by rolling our shoulders.” She led them through a series of stretches, and soon they were performing jumping jacks and cross-country skiing and hopping—first on one foot, then the other—while making the water boil with their hands.

They were nearly half an hour into their routine when an old woman’s shrill voice called, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, start over!”

They all stopped their movements—they were in the middle of downhill skiing—and looked around. Standing just outside the women’s locker room door was a tiny woman in an old-fashioned, bright pink two-piece bathing suit. Her gray hair was uncombed, her white limbs and torso a collection of small folds and wrinkles with here and there a bump of bone, and her expression one of righteous determination.

“We can’t start over,” Pam replied cheerfully. “You’re late.”

“So I’m late, what does that matter? I want you to start over.”

Pam said firmly, “Mrs. Carter, we are not going to start over. But come on in and join us.” She went back to twisting vigorously at the waist, lifting her feet with each twist. The others followed suit.

Mrs. Carter came wading down the ramp, taking big, noisy strides, swinging her hands through the water when she got in deep enough. But then more quietly she found a place beside Betsy and, with a wink, started dancing a clumsy twist, feet firmly on the bottom.

When the class was over, Mrs. Carter announced loudly that Pam had to stay with her while she did more exercising to make up for being late. Pam cast her eyes upward but called for jumping jacks.

Getting dressed in the locker room, Betsy asked—bravely, because she did not know these people—“Is Mrs. Carter always like that?”

“No, sometimes she’s worse,” said Eileen with a grimace, then amended, “Sometimes better. She’s got Alzheimer’s, but it hasn’t progressed far enough yet for her to get moved to the locked wing.”

Morgana, the woman with the walker, said, “I think she’s enjoying herself. Very energetic, you see her at all hours all over the complex. She really gets around.” Her tone was pensive and she looked a little downcast, envious, perhaps, of Mrs. Carter’s mobility.

As Betsy was walking through the big lobby to leave, a woman with curly red hair—more properly orange hair, a real “carrot top”—called after her. “Ms. Devonshire, can you spare a minute?”

Betsy stopped and turned. The woman was an Amazon, nearly six feet tall and strongly built, with gray eyes in a beautiful, lightly freckled face.

“May I help you?” Betsy asked.

“I sure hope so. I’m Thistle Livingstone, and I’m in charge of recreation and activities here at Watered Silk. You own a needlecraft store, right? In Excelsior?”

“Yes, that’s right.” Betsy braced herself to turn down a request for needlework materials; Crewel World, her shop, was not currently in a position to give product away.

“Do you teach classes, or know someone who does?”

Betsy nodded. “Yes, to both, for a fee. What kind of classes are you looking for?”

“Well, we have a stitchers’ group that right now is knitting and crocheting caps to donate to Children’s Hospital for preemies to wear. But they’ve been doing that for almost a year and are getting tired of it. They want something else, something new. Some of them can do counted cross-stitch, but those who don’t have voted down learning how. They’ve asked if I can find someone to teach a class on something that’s quick and easy, and a bit different, besides.”

Hmm. Something fun and easy that wasn’t counted cross-stitch. “How long a class are you thinking?” Betsy asked. “And for how many times per week? One night? Two? For how many weeks?”

“We’d prefer a daytime class, actually,” Thistle said. “Say, one afternoon a week, from one to two o’clock, for five weeks. I can offer an instructor five hundred dollars plus the cost of materials.”

A hundred dollars an hour was a lot of money. And none of it had to go to materials. Sweet! Betsy thought for a moment. “Have you heard of punch needle?” she asked.

“No. Is it difficult?”

“Not at all. Even done by beginners, the results are attractive. How many people do you think would come to the class?”

“We have over a dozen stitchers, but probably only seven or eight would take the class.”

In Betsy’s experience, an estimate of attendees at a class was generally too high, which meant probably this class would have a maximum of six students. That was a very comfortable number for a hands-on craft class. And apparently these people were experienced stitchers.

“Let me consult my calendar,” said Betsy. “Then may I call you?”

“Certainly,” Thistle said. “Thank you. Here’s my card.”

Later, over the phone, they agreed on Thursday afternoons for the class. Betsy frequently took Thursday as her day off—she normally worked Saturday, and on Sunday the shop was closed—so she was free to teach the punch needle class herself. Five women signed up for it.

On Wednesday, between customers, Betsy gathered the material for seven kits: seven copies of a simple punch needle practice pattern of a heart inside a heart; seven Charlotte Dudney patterns of a baby chick among four eggs; seven each skeins of DMC floss in purple, orange, yellow-green, blue, lavender, and red; seven glass tubes, each holding a punch embroidery needle with threader; and seven Morgan Lap Stand embroidery hoops. The lap stands were a luxury, but they made the craft much easier. She put each set into a plastic drawstring bag with the Crewel World logo on it. She drew them all shut, and put the kits into a large attaché case along with a kit of her own and an invoice for the materials.

The seventh kit was included because, almost as often as someone who signed up not appearing, someone who hadn’t signed up would decide at the last minute to come.

On Thursday, Betsy had a quick lunch at Sol’s Deli, next door to her shop, befores driving over to Watered Silk. It was a sunny day, but cold. She signed in and Thistle, who was waiting at the front desk for her, led her down a broad, well-lit corridor lined with support bars, clearly intended for use by seniors. They walked down the hall to an elevator, then up another corridor and into the building’s library, a beautiful room with a beamed ceiling, a fireplace, and two large windows.

A long table built from what looked like real mahogany stood in the middle of the room and Betsy was dismayed to see a dozen women seated at it.

Thistle noticed the expression on her face and spoke quickly. “Not all the women here want to take your class. They just moved their usual meeting day and time so they could be here now to watch what you’re doing.” She leaned in and murmured in Betsy’s ear: “They’re nosy.”

Betsy chuckled. “Which of you are here to learn punch needle?” she asked the members of the group.

“I am,” said the one near the head of the table, a heavyset woman with iron gray hair, raising her hand.

“Me, too,” said another, a sweet-faced, white-haired woman in a purple caftan with elaborate gold embroidery around the neck.

“And I,” said an emaciated woman sitting in a wheelchair. She had an austere face and enormous, sad eyes.

It turned out that Betsy’s students—there were five, as promised— all sat at one end of the table. Betsy opened her attaché case and handed out the kits. The women immediately opened their bags and sorted through the pieces. While they were occupied, Betsy got out her own kit and assembled the lap frame, made of a smaller and a larger embroidery hoop connected by three short legs, explaining as she went along how to do it. The procedure was simple enough that everyone assembled her own without a problem.

“Punch needle is more properly called Russian punch needle,” Betsy said. She held up a finished sample of the practice piece, a red heart with a white heart in its center, about four inches square. “See, on this side it looks like a miniature hooked rug.” She handed the sample to the obese woman, who fingered the pile admiringly, glanced at the back side, and handed it along. The last woman handed it back to Betsy. All were smiling in anticipation.

“The reverse looks like parallel lines of short stitches, which is what it is.” Betsy held up the back of the piece. “You work it on this side, the reverse side, the loops form on the front.

“I want you to take up the smaller piece of fabric first, the one with two hearts on it.”

Four of her students already knew how to loosen the embroidery hoop until it opened. Betsy showed them how to smooth the fabric across the bottom hoop, slide the top one over it, and tighten it again.

“Make sure your pattern is smooth and not pulled sideways or otherwise distorted.” The very thin woman made an exclamation and a noise of frustration as she loosened the top hoop and adjusted her fabric.

“Let’s start with the inner heart,” said Betsy. “Pick a color and cut off a length about two feet long. This method of stitchery goes through floss really quickly, so you’ll do it many times. This means you’ll get lots of practice in threading the needle. When you get more skilled, you can cut your floss as long as one yard—even longer. You’ll be working this with three strands of floss, and the skeins are six strands.”

Betsy showed them how to tap the cut end of the floss to make the strands separate and pull three of them from the others. Most already knew the trick. Betsy smiled. How much easier it was to teach people who already had the basics down!

“Now, take out the punch needle from the glass tube,” she instructed. The tubes had fat rubber stoppers on them. The punch needle was a little over three inches long, and consisted of a series of graduated cylinders, the last one a hollow needle with a hole in its tip.

“In the glass tube that holds the needle there’s also a threader. It’s a very fine wire, essential to punch needle but easy to lose, so keep careful track of it. If you drop it on the floor, it’s next to impossible to find again. Best to put it back in the tube every time after you use it.”

She showed them how to feed the threader loop-first through the hollow needle and up the shaft of the punch until it appeared at the other end. The floss was threaded through the loop and pulled back down and out the end of the needle. Then the blank end of the threader was poked through the hole near the tip of the needle and pulled through. Finally, the threader was removed and carefully stored in the glass tube.

Then the floss was pulled back until about a quarter inch was just visible through the hole in the end of the needle. One woman made an annoyed exclamation—she had pulled the floss completely through the hole and had to use the threader to pull it through again.

Betsy demonstrated the punching motion used to feed the floss into the fabric. Some of the women got up and came to stand behind her, watching. She kept her movements slow and deliberate, and the taut fabric made a little popping sound as the needle went through it.

“Punch through until it stops, lift the needle just barely back out of the fabric, move it a tiny way, less than an eighth of an inch, and punch down again,” she instructed them. “Go slow until you get a feel for this.”

The women began working on their practice piece. In about two minutes the room was filled with the sound of rhythmic thumping as the group’s hollow needles pierced the pieces of tightly stretched fabric. The obese woman was fastest, the others more deliberate. Some of them turned their lap frames over and exclaimed in pleasure at the raised texture formed by their needles. Others saw with dismay that they were not punching the stitches together closely enough.

“To correct an error,” Betsy said, “lift the needle up until the stitches you’ve made pull out. Then pull the floss back out through the needle until it’s short above the fabric. If you want to retrace your steps, you have to turn the hoop around. Look on the shaft for a white line. That line shows the direction you should be stitching.”

Betsy went to each woman, checking her work. She was leaning over one of her students when the door to the library slammed open.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute!” shouted the shrill voice of an old woman. “Start over!”