Neddy Merrill is a middle-aged man who has a wife named Lucinda and four daughters. At the beginning of the story, Neddy appears to be a successful man. He can afford to live with his family in an affluent suburb, has many prosperous friends, and seems to be well liked. He sees himself as the legendary figure or hero of his own life. While he and his wife are visiting friends, Neddy gets the idea of swimming home via the backyard swimming pools of his neighborhood, which he imagines as a river leading to his house. At first the excursion seems like an enjoyable adventure, as Neddy encounters friends who are happy to see him. The reader learns that Neddy sees himself as belonging to a superior class of people. Neddy's escapade, however, gradually takes on a darker aspect. Friends on his swimming route begin to treat him coldly or with anger. The reader learns that Neddy has met with financial problems and had a mistress, who now treats him as an annoyance. His daughters also have gotten into trouble, and he appears to have developed a drinking problem. In addition Neddy ages as he swims the last leg of his route. Eventually, he becomes an exhausted, older man who can barely make his way down the length of a pool. When he arrives at his home, Neddy realizes that it is empty—his wife and children have left him.
Shirley Adams was brokenhearted when Neddy ended their relationship years ago. When he shows up to swim in her pool, she's both bewildered and annoyed. She thinks Neddy's swimming escapade is a sign that he'll never grow up. Shirley refuses to give Neddy a drink, telling him she has company, and she asks him to leave.
Grace Biswanger and her husband invited Neddy's family for dinner often in the past, but Neddy snubbed them. Now, when he goes to her house in search of a drink, Grace is rude to Neddy, and she tells her guests about his financial woes.
Mrs. Halloran and her husband casually welcome Neddy to swim in their pool, but Neddy is shocked and confused when Mrs. Halloran mentions his "misfortunes."
Enid Bunker screams with delight when Neddy arrives at her pool party, calling it a "marvelous surprise," since Neddy's wife, Lucinda, had said he couldn't come. She kisses him and graciously leads him to the bar for a drink.