The Northwest Corner Pool
by Romney S. Humphrey
The Queen lay on her chaise while the three occupants of the pool splashed their way towards the center. She didn’t raise her head or lift her dark glasses but, like a silent ebony sculpture, declared her supine body a spectacular work of art.
To the pool group, she looked not to be resting on a chaise supporting by cement. Instead, she levitated, hovering several feet above them all. It was as if, in the mind of each observing resident, there was a cosmic unfolding they were witnessing: the gift of her majestic presence. Not something one admitted on Spaghetti Night if a second round of wine was consumed, but still...
A collective, unspoken thrill shimmered within the aged bodies like the rainbow orb of the sun on an overcast day. When suddenly the diver dared to splash a light spray of pool water in her direction, the group felt the insult on the Queen’s behalf. She merely turned her regal head away from the source — a royal shun.
Joe began jumping up and down, traversing the length of the pool, while the Queen’s companion, his name still elusive, initiated an underwater surge. “Want the float, Bitsy?” shouted Joe. She shook her head.
“It’s Exercise Time!” crowed Bitsy.
Betty sniffed to Sammy, “I think ‘Bitsy’ is starting a little late on her exercise program.” Betty prided herself on her small, managed frame.
“Come on, Hank!” Bitsy shouted to the Queen’s companion.
Instead, he took a vast breath, submerging himself. He had the look of a bulbous sea lion moving noiselessly underwater, passing his friends as they continued their pogo-stick motion. The combination of the up-and-down bobbing couple and their stealthy underwater companion presented itself like a Three Stooges version of water ballet.
Suddenly, Bitsy shrieked several shrill staccato bursts. The regulars, en masse, directed their attention to the outburst. George, who’d once been a lifeguard at a small local lake, stood up, theoretically at the ready. The regulars could almost discern his readerboard of panicked indecision: What do I do first? Should I dive in? No. Jump? No.
As George frantically ran through his mental checklist, Bitsy emitted a giddy gust of laughter. “Hank!” she squawked as the passing underwater presence emerged, “You nasty boy!”
Kathy One’s eyes bulged, distaste evident in the deliberate, downward slant of her mouth. Kathy Two added a quick nod of assent. The group, like a flock of geese in flight, changed visual direction — all sending an unspoken query to Sammy.
Sammy’s countenance sealed the verdict; the Queen’s companion had clearly demonstrated inappropriate pool behavior. At Sunrise Sands, crimes of this sort were rare, but when they occurred, Sammy addressed them strongly and efficiently.
Just last March, Sammy had been forced to confront Winston’s teenage grandson. That young fellow demonstrated a penchant for loud noises and blatant littering. Winston was chagrined by his grandson’s behavior and backed Sammy’s imposing a three-day suspension of privileges. Not that the ruling was spelled out in the HOA Membership rules and regulations, but Sammy had long ago been knighted with the power to declare and execute edicts on behalf of the Northwest Corner Pool.
Betty nodded a brief “go ahead” to Sammy. While she held no position of power at or around the pool grounds, the home front was a different matter. If Sammy was precipitous and overstepped the boundaries of monitoring pool behavior, Betty had a way of distancing herself for a day or two afterwards. She might forget to prepare lunch or make small but annoying adjustments to the day’s schedule.
With the Bitsy situation at hand, Sammy had to consider the loss of pleasant cocktail conversation if Betty felt he had exceeded his role. Betty knew Sammy’s self-righteousness could go quickly astray. There had been situations in the past that had marked their marriage as strongly as the quick swing of an axe on a dry, seasoned log. Those historical markers had created some shortcuts for the couple — survival techniques, if you will — and one was the quick eye-to-eye check-in.
With Betty’s sanction, Sammy lowered his body at the center point of the pool, positioning himself securely between the cackling Bitsy and the submerged mischief-maker. He placed his two stocky legs wide apart. One would assume, from an underwater perspective, those legs and trunk would form a distinctive barricade, a clear signal to cease any watery undulations.
As the swimmer neared Sammy’s stance, Betty had a horrible thought. What if Hank carried his pranks too far and swam through Sammy’s legs? Or, worse yet, what if Hank nipped Sammy’s body parts as he had Bitsy’s? Like a passerby to a possible fatal crash, she averted her gaze and wished the potential horror away.
Hank simply swam past Sammy like a rebellious merman ignoring a call home to dinner. Sammy repositioned himself. As Hank emerged and expanded his diaphragm, readying for another lap, Sammy grabbed his arm. “Now wait a second!” Sammy shouted.
Betty looked quickly at the Queen, wondering if she and Hank had their own check-in procedure, but the Queen’s singular response was to emit a light, weary sigh and shift slightly in her chaise. The problems of commoners don’t concern me, she telegraphed.
Hank pulled his arm from Sammy’s grasp, the motion causing Sammy to fall backwards into the water with an awkward flailing to prevent submersion.
“You talkin’ to me?” Hank said, miming the iconic De Niro line.
Bitsy and Joe, in one of their up-bounces, chuckled. “You talkin’ to me?” they mimicked loudly.
“Yes, sir, I’m talking to you!” Sammy countered.
Hank smiled. “What can I do you for?” he said.
Sammy took a few seconds to gather his thoughts. This, too, was a skill laboriously acquired during his long marriage.
“Well, for starters, we have a policy here at Sunrise Sands about—” he glanced at Betty for affirmation — “about inappropriate behavior.” He paused, considering the depth of the accusation. “And such things,” he continued.
“‘And such things’,” repeated Hank. “Now, this is interesting. Close to fascinating. Tell me more. What constitutes ‘inappropriate behavior’ to a young man such as yourself?”
The “young man” was the first glancing blow. Hank was a good two decades younger than Sammy and clearly didn’t regard him as a threat or candidate worthy of a serious conversation. His taunt was deliberately disrespectful.
Betty felt a flush of trepidation. If there was anything that riled Sammy, it was folks who didn’t understand just how valuable he was. She smoothed her hair twice, on the right side, a practiced warning signal she’d employed over the years, nothing Sammy ever registered or recognized but enough of a subliminal tweak to get him back on the right track.
Sammy, busy delivering a vicious glare in Hank’s direction, didn’t react to her effort. “I will state right here and now your reference to me as a ‘young man’ is disrespectful. I proudly served in the United States Army in World War Two. I’m guessing you were one of those draft burners,” Sammy said.
“‘Draft burners?’ Oh, you mean the card,” said Hank.
Sammy flushed. Betty stood up and moved within his sight line, dramatically repeating her hair tactic. Sammy dismissed the offering. Things had gone too far. Winston and the Kathys surreptitiously edged their chairs closer to the action while Alberta and George quickly gathered their belongings and began vacating the battleground. They were at risk in the group anyway, what with their Saturday nights alone. Being witness to what portended to be a wildly embarrassing defeat for Sammy wasn’t advisable.
“I’m just sayin’, you might not have an understanding of how things work here,” stated Sammy.
Hank smiled sweetly, almost kindly, at Sammy. “That’s entirely possible,” Hank said agreeably.
Sammy eyed Hank with suspicion but Hank continued to hold his benign expression. Mildly encouraged, Sammy continued. “For starters, here at Sunrise Sands, and at this pool in particular, roughhousing, loud noises, anything not respectful of others, etcetera, is not allowed,” said Sammy.
“‘Etcetera’,” mused Hank. “And what else would ‘etcetera’ include?”
By now Bitsy and Joe had boomeranged to either side of Hank. “‘Etcetera’!” Bitsy crowed. “Why, you sound just like that bald guy — shoot — what was his name? — Yul Brynner! Joe, hon, what was the name of that flick?”
“King and I,” Joe said authoritatively, head bobbing like a dashboard decoration. “That’s it!”
Bitsy agreed. “King and I! ‘Etcetera’! What a hoot!”
Sammy was flummoxed by the strange turn of the conversation. How could he not be in control of this encounter? The audience was wondering the same thing.
Betty knew Sammy’s vulnerabilities as well as she knew every measured ingredient in her highly lauded cornbread recipe.
“Sammy,” she said firmly, “I need to get to the pharmacy for that prescription. Do you think you could drive me?”
Sammy had a moment, as men do, of simultaneously loving and hating his wife. Hating, because she was witnessing, alongside his social peers and the visiting upstarts, his public failure; loving, because she was there to extricate him from the debacle. He drew a dramatic breath, shaking his head. Women, the motion intimated. Can’t they get anything right?
“Does it have to be now?” he asked, trying to project his voice in the Queen’s direction. Surely she would intercede at some point? Betty certainly knew when to take action.
“Oh, it does,” Betty replied. “I’m feeling a little shaky, the way I do sometimes.”
Sammy headed towards the pool stairs, using his arms to half-walk, half-swim, anything to propel himself away from Hank.
Joe and Bitsy followed Sammy out of the pool as Hank returned to his aqua playground. Sammy took the towel Betty had readied and moved purposefully towards the gate. There he paused, waiting until Hank emerged to take another deep breath.
“And it’s better, noise-wise, if visitors use the pool before three,” he shouted.
Hank nodded thoughtfully. “You are a font of rules and regulations. Isn’t he, sweetheart?” he directed to the silent Queen.
A collective intake of breath was actually heard around the pool, the reverberation weakening the knees of Betty and the Kathys. What would the Queen say? Would she stand, finally, glistening in the sun, facing Sammy herself? Time, which moved too quickly for the group as a whole, stilled, awaiting her response.
The Queen, however, contributed nothing beyond a glacial smile.
Hank nodded knowingly and dove again.
Sammy and Betty continued out the gate, expeditiously followed by their dazed entourage. For the first time in two decades, at four o’clock in the afternoon, the pool was inhabited not by the regulars, the owners, the active social members, but by newcomers.
* * *
There was a longer cocktail hour that night in every domicile of those who were forced to abandon their cherished ritual, beloved territory, social anchor. The Kathys invited Dorothy over for an update. After her solitary hour at home, separate from the pool group, she joined them. Not so much for the information but to be in a room with other bodies, other energy.
Winston, who couldn’t really explain why, had an unusually satisfying second helping of chocolate ice cream after his meal. Alberta and George made a phone call to George Junior, a tax attorney who patiently explained there was likely no legal recourse for the afternoon’s happenings.
And at Sammy’s and Betty’s house? The atmosphere was akin to the night Sammy had to tell Betty, forty years prior, he’d been fired for insubordination. As on that humbling day, Betty had an extra drink before dinner. Over supper, neither brought up the cause of her unusual intake. They simply and quietly ate their meal, watched Jeopardy as usual after Betty cleaned up, brushed their teeth side by side, then slowly changed into their nightclothes. They pulled back the comforter together as always, and lay next to one another.
Betty put her hand, palm open, next to Sammy on the worn flowered sheet. Sometimes Sammy, after an argument, or as he did on the night of his father’s death, would take Betty’s hand and squeeze it, the clasp an unspoken agreement: We are in this together.
But tonight there was no joining of hands. Sammy lay, eyes open, while Betty, heart heavy, wished for morning. Daybreak usually brought new solutions.
The next day at one o’clock, Sammy said, “I think I’ll check the mail. Want to go?”
Though they walked to the pool for their afternoons, Betty and Sammy always rode the golf cart though the mailboxes rested just outside the pool fence.
Betty knew what Sammy would be looking for as he put his key in the mailbox. He’d be listening for Bitsy and Joe and Hank, hoping they had heeded his advice to occupy the pool at the alternate time.
When they arrived at the mailbox Betty’s heart sank. The pool, as usual at the peak of the day, was empty outside a twenty-something girl hooked up to her listening device.
“That must be Ruth’s granddaughter from Colorado,” noted Betty.
“What?” answered Sammy.
“At the pool. Ruth’s granddaughter.”
Sammy peered at the area without interest, as if whatever or whoever occupied the space was of no concern to him.
“Maybe they’re gone,” Betty whispered.
“Who?” Sammy answered robotically.
“The people from yesterday.”
“Maybe they are,” he agreed, a gripping of his bowels striking as he spoke. He closed the mailbox, locked it, and returned to the golf cart. Betty took her seat without comment.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Romney S. Humphrey