On one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around complaining that they drank too much the night before, Neddy Merrill sits by his neighbor’s pool. He’s described as a man in youthful middle-age who is energetic and athletic. Neddy savors the summer day, basking in the pleasures of physical exertion, water, and the sun’s warmth.
Neddy notes that his own house is eight miles away, where his four daughters will have just finished lunch, and he realizes that he might be able to return home by water. He imagines the backyard pools from here to his house as a line of uninterrupted water, a river that he names the “Lucinda River” after his wife. Imagining himself as an explorer, he congratulates himself for his creativity and sense of adventure.
Neddy dives into the water, noting that the long-distance stroke he would otherwise use is not socially appropriate in suburban pools. He thinks of the water as his natural condition, and his life outside it as an interruption. When Lucinda asks where he’s going, he tells her he’s swimming home and disappears behind a hedge.
Neddy plots his course in his mind, listing many neighbors whose pools he will soon traverse. It’s a beautiful day, which Neddy thinks of as a gift, and he starts out in a spirit of optimism. He passes into the Grahams’ backyard, where Mrs. Graham is having a party; she greets him cheerfully, but insincerely. Neddy thinks of the backyard party as being full of benevolent “natives” whose customs he must diplomatically respect as he makes his way.
Neddy swims through a few more pools until he reaches the Bunkers’ property, where Mrs. Bunker—in the midst of a party—greets him in the same insincere way that Mrs. Graham did. Neddy extricates himself from the party as quickly as possible and makes his way to the Levys’ backyard. The Levys aren’t home, which delights Neddy, and after thoughtlessly ignoring their “private property” sign, he swims the pool in their backyard. By this time, a thunderstorm is brewing, and Neddy finds this exciting. He shelters in the Levys’ gazebo until it passes.
Afterwards, the air is chilly and Neddy sees a sign of fall in a blighted tree with red and yellow leaves. Making his away across a few more yards, he notes that a few neighbors seem to have gone away. He’s surprised that the Welchers are gone for good; their house is boarded up and their pool has been drained, interrupting the Lucinda River. Bewildered by the Welchers’ absence, he notes that he’s “disciplined in the repression of unpleasant facts” and it seems to be affecting his memory.
To continue his journey, Neddy has to pass a busy, dirty road. Passing drivers mock and jeer at him, and it’s a long and arduous task to cross the road safely. He’s so unnerved by the experience that he begins to question why he set out on this quest at all, but he resolves to continue since he’s come so far.
Next, Neddy has to cross a public pool, which he finds unpleasant: the rules, the chemically treated water, the jostling swimmers, and the lifeguards inspecting him for identification bother him. He tries to imagine it as just a “stagnant stretch” of the Lucinda river.
Afterwards, Neddy crosses into a more secluded, wooded area where Mr. and Mrs. Halloran live. The Hallorans, an extremely wealthy older couple, are eccentrics: they’re rumored to have Communist politics and they spend time in their backyard completely naked. Their pool is fed by a brook, which is more to Neddy’s taste than the public pool. Seeing Neddy, Mrs. Halloran expresses her condolences that he lost his house and his daughters, but Neddy responds that he can’t remember anything at all about that. Clearly unsettled, Mrs. Halloran doesn’t pursue the subject.
After swimming the Hallorans’ pool, Neddy becomes depressed. He feels as if his strength has entirely given out, and the air is cold with an unseasonable hint of woodsmoke. He resolves to find a drink to restore him, so he walks to the house that the Hallorans’ daughter Helen shares with her husband Eric. Helen apologizes that she has nothing in the house to drink because of Eric’s operation three years ago—this is another unpleasant fact that Neddy seems to have forgotten. He’s repelled by the scar on Eric’s stomach because it hides his navel, which Neddy sees as an interruption in the chain of life.
For a drink, Helen points Neddy towards the Biswangers’ party, and Neddy heads that way after extending an insincere invitation to have Helen and Eric over sometime. He notes that the Biswangers constantly invite him and Lucinda over for dinner, but Neddy and Lucinda always refuse because the Biswangers are boring and distasteful, always discussing the “price of things.” Neddy approaches their house thinking he’ll be welcomed, but Mrs. Biswanger calls him a “gate crasher” and insults him. He continues into the party, and a bartender serves him coldly. Neddy can hear people talking behind his back about a time when he showed up drunk and asked for money.
The next pool belongs to Shirley Adams, his old mistress, and he thinks the best thing to restore his energy will be a tryst with her. He remembers that Shirley wept when he broke off their affair, but from his perspective it was casual and lighthearted. Neddy approaches Shirley in her backyard, but she’s confused and hurt to see him. When he tells her about his quest to swim across the county, she tells him to “grow up.”
Leaving Shirley’s place, Neddy is more dispirited than ever. He looks up and sees winter constellations on a summer day, and he begins to cry in despair and bewilderment. He’s wounded by his treatment at the Biswangers’ party and the feelings of pain, exhaustion, and age in his body.
Neddy swims the last pool on his way home, but he’s so tired that he can barely make it across. He hobbles up the driveway to his house like an old man, and he’s surprised to see that the house is dark; it’s locked and appears abandoned. As Neddy shouts and bangs on the doors, he looks inside and sees that it’s empty.