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The Northwest Corner Pool

by Romney S. Humphrey


That afternoon the couple readied for their pool time with shared and unacknowledged trepidation. Sammy knew he had to face the group, strangers or no strangers. His status and position were at risk. The role he played each day atop the surround of the pool felt, in some ways, like the pinnacle of his career.

Though not paid, and with no official title, mayor of the Northwest Corner Pool had been the most delicious role of his life. Unlike his thirty-seven years as a light-bulb salesman — some of it in management, don’t forget — at the Northwest Corner pool Sammy had been unchallenged in rank, with a stellar, undeniably successful tenure.

He had enacted a community security check each evening at ten, always made sure repairs were completed on damaged or worn chairs and umbrellas and had helped Betty organize the morning aerobics. No one else had ever attempted such improvements.

When Sammy opened the latch on the gate of his pool, his sense of ownership, of accomplishment, always gave him a small but vibrant thrill. This kingdom was his, and all who frequented his domain euphemistically bowed to him.

Betty, of course, knew all this. Sammy’s pool reign, though not as important to her as Mah Jong on Wednesday nights or the weekly gathering of the Putters’ Club, was vital to the level of contentment, to their peace of mind at Sunrise Sands.

Betty had once laughed uproariously when her brother Bobby used the phrase “Happy Wife, Happy Life” when justifying a new piece of jewelry he’d purchased for her taciturn sister-in-law. Betty knew better. From her perspective, the saying should be, “Happy Husband, Easier Life for Wife.”

The thought of a downward shift in Sammy’s ego-gauge was a deep concern. Though not a praying woman, she had muttered her own mantra as she arranged Sammy’s breakfast dishes that morning. “Make them leave, please, make them leave.”

Later that afternoon the block-long walk to the pool was slower than usual. As they rounded the corner, Betty, a bit ahead, began another inward chant, Thank you, thank you. The regulars were all there, each in his or her spot. No one else. It was a testimonial to their regard for Sammy that no one commented on the previous day’s happenings when he and Betty settled into their usual location. Sammy, adjusting his chaise, helped Betty straighten the towel on hers.

Kathy One shouted across the pool from her favorite shady spot, “Are you going to sign up for the club tournament next week?”

“We’ll see,” said Sammy, in control of everything again.

“You might have a challenge on your hands,” Kathy One teased. “Alberta and George have been practicing with their fancy friends across town.”

Alberta and George smiled lightly, agreeable to being in on the joke, reassuring the group of their place in reinstating the afternoon flow.

Dorothy slid into the pool, beginning her laps. Winston read his newspaper as Sammy and Betty reclaimed their rightful state of mind. The visitors had taken the hint, obeyed, as it were, Sammy’s edict.

* * *

But the collective enjoyment of the beauty of the ordinary ebbed quickly with the lethal click of the pool gate. Sammy blinked, the niggling unrest in his digestive track flaring. They were back.

Betty read the rising flush on Sammy’s face, noted the inevitable tapping of his left hand on the table. She could almost feel his accelerated heartbeat.

Alberta and George, reinstating their title as The Avoiders, quickly gathered their belongings and proceeded past Sammy and Betty.

“Nail appointment,” Alberta stage-whispered to Betty.

Betty nodded coldly. She knew Alberta had her nails done Friday mornings, not Wednesday afternoons.

Sammy didn’t hear the excuse. He was trying to retrieve a familiar exercise, one that had pushed him through dark, hard times, motivated him to pay the rent, feed his family, be a man, all the while doubting he could make the next sale or keep his job. The search was fruitless; he recalled nothing.

Without that shield, his proven strategy, Sammy felt like a lowly animal cowering beneath a scraggly, inadequate bush, hiding from a younger, vicious predator. He was swept by an overwhelming sense of despondent surrender. It wasn’t right. He had fought his battle, raised his flag, but still, the enemy had returned.

As the intruders settled into empty chairs — Why didn’t we move those damn chairs, thought Betty — the Sunrise Sands tribe self-consciously resumed their activities. Kathy One and Two continued their ongoing Cribbage game, Winston returned to his newspaper.

Dorothy, though, in the pool with her kickboard, took a quick measure, considering her next action. She recalled the silence of her living room the previous day, the loneliness of being even more apart from the fray. She noiselessly left the pool and casually moved her chaise to the far corner, behind the rest room. Here, but not here.

Sammy remained still, eyes shut, as if this pretend nap was like all the others.

He heard Hank murmuring to someone, likely the Queen. Then, a loud slosh as Bitsy and Joe began their routine. Bounce, splash, giggle, bounce, splash.

Sammy tried again, picturing himself on a small boat in a placid lake, sun on his face, fishing rod in hand. Nothing. Then, he heard a shuffle, felt a body at his side.

“Hope we’re not disturbing you folks again,” Hank said, all geniality.

Sammy opened his eyes. Hank loomed above him, his belly, all oily hairs matted with sweat and a fair measure of lard, level with Sammy’s face.

Sammy considered. There were options here. Just like the pivotal moment when he’d meet a new customer and choose the best strategy. One liked the buddy approach; another, the elusive “Don’t know if we’ll have enough even if you did want to put in an order.” Sammy made his choice.

“Oh, you weren’t a bother,” he said pleasantly. “We’re just a bunch of old farts here — we like things the way they’ve always been. You stirred the pot. Good for you.”

Sammy intuited Betty’s disbelief at his tactic. But what did she know about reading a situation, the art of positioning? He felt a moment of irritation towards his wife, recalling her blank stares night after night, year after year, as he reported his battles at work, his glories. She never once indicated any appreciation or understanding of what he accomplished, what a man had to do to survive.

Right now, what was more important was how Hank would proceed. His response would tell the tale of Sammy’s last battle. Sammy couldn’t predict where the dialogue would lead, or if the choice he made, the “Aw shucks” construct, would land him his trophy, seal the deal.

Apparently Hank didn’t know either, as he took a moment, held a quick retort, made an appraisal, himself.

Sammy tried to raise his eyes to read Hank’s face, an impossible task when confronting Hank’s midsection. Sammy didn’t want to reposition himself though, that would indicate more aggression than he wanted to reveal.

Hank grinned. Well played, old man, was Sammy’s interpretation. Suddenly, Hank pulled up the empty chair behind Betty and sidled next to Sammy, who, at this point, was required to stand up and adjust his chaise so he could join in, face to face rather than face to belly, on what looked to be a life-changing conversation.

Betty cleared her throat. Tread gently, she signaled.

Hank continued. “’Cause the wife and I were saying last night...” He paused for clear effect, then continued. “Have you met my wife?” he asked.

This was a sticky gauntlet. Sammy assumed the Queen was Hank’s wife, but what if she wasn’t? What if she were his mistress and Hank was tricking him? Sammy let his eyes deliberately wander to the opposite side of the pool where the Queen lay in repose, today in shimmering silver. No affirmative response from Hank.

“I haven’t met your wife,” Sammy said, measured. He could tell, feel it without looking, that Kathy One and Two were now pretending to count points so they could hear every word of the exchange.

Winston had already lowered his newspaper, greedy for full exposure to the unfolding scenario. Sammy didn’t know where Betty was positioned and in that moment didn’t care. Not sure why, he still felt a shred of resentment for her lack of recognition of his skills in meeting life’s endless challenges.

“You haven’t met my wife?” Hank barked.

“Haven’t had the pleasure,” Sammy said slowly, strategically.

“Hm,” Hank responded. “Funny. Well, anyway, last night we were talking—”

On the phone or in person? Sammy pondered. He’s making sure I don’t know if she’s his wife.

“And I told her,” Hank continued, “’we should buy a place here, settle ourselves in every winter.”

“Oh, yes?” said Sammy.

“I said to her, kind of in a whisper, the way you do with a wife, ‘Not just anywhere in the complex, but we should be sure to buy right next to the Northwest Corner Pool. Not the South or East. Nope. We want your pool.”

At this, Sammy had Hank’s number, and Hank his. Sammy’s job was to jump; Hank’s was to say how high. It was a game Sammy had played too many times — a degrading male ritual that had never resulted in a win for Sammy; he had never developed a taste or talent for this playful, yet directed cruelty in front of Betty and his friends. Strangely, with the barb came a flood of love and appreciation for Betty.

Suddenly, Sammy understood what all her signals meant — that even if she didn’t comprehend what he did to earn a paycheck or appreciate the thrill of the big sale, she’d been as steadfast and loyal as any man could ask. Never a complaint, always a smile. Why had he spent a second resenting her? He shook his head in amazement, then looked at her awaiting, gentle face. There was nowhere to go but forward.

“Well, best of luck,” he said. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Kathy One’s jaw drop.

Winston was wildly shaking his newspaper, trying to create his own signal. Are you nuts? Back off!

Dorothy, in the distance, adjusted her chaise, moving closer to the fence.

“‘Best of luck’? Why do you say that,” asked Hank. “You’re not imagining we’d have any trouble making a purchase here in Sunrise Sands. Me and my wife.”

Oh, thought Sammy with inward heaviness, That card. He reflected, in a confabulation of feelings, memories, and a thousand moments on his twenty years in Sunrise Sands. He recalled the day he and Betty signed the papers, somehow erasing all the years of work, surviving the drudgery, bills, endless responsibilities.

It had never been easy, but he had earned them their place in the sun, just the two of them, fueled by the precious, unexpected cadence of a twilight romance. Betty with the coffee ready in the morning when he didn’t have to rush out the door, the joy and satisfaction of making new friends together, finding his way to his own little kingdom — his unofficial majesty — undeclared but glorious. And now this man, this ruffian, was letting him know it was all as fragile as the baby hummingbird wings he often found scattered in the bushes of his small, sheltered garden.

He knew he had a choice. He could take the dare, the tease. Maybe it wasn’t about the color of the Queen’s skin — he still didn’t know who or what she was to Hank. Sammy stared at Hank who looked at him with the arch superiority of a champion.

They both knew Hank had what Sammy never dared to aspire to; a stunning companion coupled with the highest level of self-regard. Men like Hank, who create a game of manipulation in a matter of seconds just because they feel like it, always revel in the rich territory of the Sammys of the world. And for some reason, in this particular week in the most precious time of his life, Hank had appeared and, for sport, dangled the loss of it all in front of him.

Hank glittered with triumph, relishing his role as bully, as hungry for this little victory as a starving barn cat for mice. That look, the declaration of a battle won, an enemy decimated, had an unexpected effect on Sammy. He felt a surge of pulsating power, as if laser beams of energy were wildly ricocheting throughout his body.

He pushed his chair back, stood up deliberately, pulling himself to full height, taller than he had been just fifteen minutes ago. He felt Betty’s hand on his back, saw Winston’s Chin up nod of encouragement, noted the Kathy’s timid, hopeful smiles.

Joe and Bitsy had bounced to the edge of the pool, their hands grasping the side, kicking their feet furiously, bodies resting atop the water like two Styrofoam whales. They were inches away from Hank and Sammy and their locked gazes.

Sammy adjusted his stance to a more solid footing. Then, suddenly, he pushed Hank in the middle of his chest with the power of fifty years worth of anger, suppressed rage, shame, capitulations. The shove carried the power of the simple truth that none of it mattered once Sammy and Betty settled into their chairs each afternoon at the Northwest Corner Pool.

Hank fell backwards, directly on top of both Joe and Bitsy’s floating backs, plunging them underwater as they yelped with surprise and a fair measure of fear. It was a lovely sound, but not as rewarding as Hank’s “Oof” as he lay belly up, legs splayed, above the flailing Bitsy and Joe, creating a maelstrom of splashes, grunts and squeals.

Hank emerged, red-faced, from beneath the two bleating, bloated bodies. His look of incredulity as he righted Bitsy and Joe with a hurried apology delivered a cacophony of victorious visions inside Sammy’s mind. The American flag raised, the national anthem sung, a thousand hands clapped.

Sammy returned to his chaise, lowered the backrest, sat, extended his body, and closed his eyes. He did not have a moment of wonder or anxiety about possible retribution from Hank. Sammy didn’t need to listen for the inevitable retreat, though he clearly heard the grumbles and whispers amongst the accosted trio wafting through the air like a passing airplane overhead.

Betty quietly placed her hand on Sammy’s arm. You were amazing, extraordinary, her touch said. And if Sammy had to die in that moment, witnessed by his beloved wife and friends, he would have happily surrendered to the task.

Instead, as the gate clicked, he opened his eyes and saw the Queen pause and turn as Hank, Joe, and Bitsy retreated down the street. She slowly removed her sunglasses, revealing a pair of golden, dark-fringed eyes, catapulting her beauty to the stratosphere. And as Sammy, transfixed, met her gaze, the Queen bequeathed him a secret, satisfied smile as the Northwest Corner Pool righted itself with the universe.

Copyright © 2013 by Romney S. Humphrey

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