By the time I pulled my car into the dirt-top parking lot outside the Fraternal Order of Eagles pool it had been one craptastic hell of a week. What had started as a seemingly minor operational headache in the Monday morning management meeting had metastasized over the course of five days into a full-blown neuroblastomic clusterfuck, with no fewer than four of my channel partners canceling or neutering their co-branding agreements and the investment firm’s line of credit being cut in half by that spineless sonofabitch George Hargrove over at the bank.
Everyone had felt it coming – we were a Real Estate Investment Trust, for Christ sake, on the bleeding edge of the biggest property bubble in history – but Moody’s flamboyant downgrade on Monday from “Hold” to “Underperform” had still smarted. Pete, my only real friend in the place and for several years now the head of Sales, went from stud to dud in the space of a single, gut-wrenching afternoon, during which the two of us watched the revenue pipeline dwindle to a trickle as his customers went running, not walking, for the exits.
We’d been hoping my own focus on signing partnership agreements might hold the business over with scraps from someone else’s table, at least until the credit freeze began to thaw. But the Moody’s move had so spooked the three musketeers – a trifecta of rock star sales guys on Pete’s team – that they’d all jumped ship to sign with our number one competitor by late Wednesday. My partners got wind of the mass exodus and followed suit the next day. When George finally called from the bank to cut our line of credit I thought Pete might blow chunks all over the Persian rug in my office.
Things got so bad by Friday that Herb Templeton, the eponymous founder of Templeton Investments, began to take an intense and unwelcome interest in my activities. I’d spent the last twelve years of my life clawing up the rungs to VP, but if Pete and I didn’t find a way to help get things back under wraps, and I mean post-Goddamned-haste, the company would have to stop paying vendors or, even worse, the staff. And if it came to that Herb would alter the trajectory of my career path in an abrupt and unpleasant manner.
But with my wife Rebecca and our two young boys Chandler and Davis out of town for just a few more days, I’d be damned if I was going to let anything intrude on my weekend plan to escape the heat and cool my heels in an outdoor swimming pool. Rebecca had taken a month-long sabbatical from her medical practice, and was now winding down the summer on a whirlwind tour of Europe with her sister Clara. We’d left the kids in the aging but still competent hands of her father Joseph out in California, who the boys simply called “Gramps.”
Pete swore on this swimming hole east of the lake, a throwback to the kind of country clubs he and I had frequented as kids growing up in the seventies. The pool was seemingly the last place in town you could buy a beer, a burger and a pack of smokes to while away the day, a freak loophole in the municipal zoning laws excluding it from the dragnet of smoking ordinances sweeping through the city. It was operated by a semi-exclusive men’s society called the Fraternal Order of Eagles, a secretive and little known organization similar to the Kiwanis Club.
“It’s the only place I can still go to swim and smoke,” Pete confided. He’d been trying to kick the habit off and on for almost five years now, but the seesawing demands of an ever-increasing quarterly sales quota continued to jettison him back off the wagon. I’d stopped smoking cigarettes over a decade ago, the jaundiced stench they left on my fingers and clothes finally pushing me over the edge one day after I’d barely touched a lunch that had gone down more like tar than chicken salad; now I found myself dutifully following the minor victories and demoralizing defeats inherent in Pete’s noble but doomed death-match with Big Tobacco.
“This pool is a treasure, Frank,” Pete had warned me yesterday, cradling the directions in his nervous little hands like he’d been tasked with preserving some rare historical document. “I mean it – it’s not just for anyone. So don’t tell anyone about it, okay?”
“So it’s like Fight Club, then?” I asked.
“You got it. Don’t talk about it.”
“Let’s head over there first thing tomorrow then.”
He grimaced. “Can’t do it,” he said. “Nancy’s making me go to her parents’ fiftieth anniversary.”
“So you’re making me fly solo?”
“I’m afraid so,” he said, handing me the directions.
I took my time with the drive over the following morning, idling past the shuttered storefronts edging the lakefront, up and over an earthen berm supporting the Trinity railroad line and deep into the unexplored hinterlands east of Dallas. I turned onto the dirt road paralleling the train tracks and rolled across a lowland flood plain dotted with abandoned and sagging houses, each struggling to stay afloat atop a sea of cloying ivy. When I finally found the weedy junkyard they called a parking lot, several hundred feet past a dented yellow sign reading “Dead End,” I’ll admit the sight of the place gave me pause.
At first glance, the Fraternal Order of Eagles pool and country club looked more like the kind of institution that was raided on weekend editions of COPS. Everything about it emanated an inspired kind of white trash elegance, from the architectural mayhem of the doublewide camper outbuildings to the feckless landscape design decorating the front walkway; it reminded me of the finer miniature golf courses I’d played in the Coors-fueled days of my youth. I pulled my car into the shady shelter offered by a stand of blackjack oak and made my way past the tinted cabs of pickup trucks and SUVs, sardined among the random foliage of trees looming up out of the sandy lot like giant cattails.
I opened the peeling red front door of the main clubhouse and stepped into the cool, dark interior, where a shrunken doorman pressed a miniature microphone to the scar above his larynx and demanded “five dollars for non-members” in mechanical monotone. I fished the wallet from my swim trunks and pulled out a warm and wrinkled twenty for the miniature bouncer. As he droned a fifteen count of singles back at me from the till with his free hand I felt like I was learning arithmetic from a talking pair of barber’s shears.
“Rules of the road,” the machine at his neck gargled flatly. He pointed a finger at the hand-painted sign, which warned in neat little rows of block letters to SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK and LIFEGUARD NOT ON DUTY: SUPERVISE YOUR CHILDREN AT ALL TIMES and GLASS CONTAINERS STRICTLY FORBIDDEN IN THE SWIMMING AREA.
I stepped down into the dubious decorum of the bar: a tidy, wood-paneled retreat from the God-awful summer heat outside. At ten in the morning it was already filling up with a handful of bar flies, aging Eagles looking as if they’d been planted here longer than the trees in the parking lot outside. Their graying heads swiveled around as one to regard me from where they sat smoking, bunched together at a line of card tables ranged in orderly formation along the length of the windowed wall at the far side of the room. The cerulean shimmy of the pool beckoned in the lazy brightness beyond.
“What’ll you have, darlin’?”
A skinny barmaid leaned stolidly into the Formica bartop from her perch upon a cracked plastic barstool. The waning hints of what had once been a beautiful face glowed arterial red in the neon glow of a sign floating in the air over her shoulder: Fraternal Order of Eagles, Aerie #3108: Liberty. Truth. Justice. Equality. Fraternity.
I bellied up to the bar like a sailor on shore leave. “One bourbon, one scotch, and one beer,” I deadpanned in a mock blues drawl, cocking my head to one side to read the name embroidered into the woman’s shirt: LIBBY.
“Let’s go rocks on the scotch, Libby,” I said.
“It’s too early in the morning for John Lee Hooker,” she swiveled around to sift through the pyramid of bottles stacked precariously against the mirror behind her, unfazed.
The assembled Eagles turned back round to their table, sensing I was at worst an impartial observer to their secretive mid-morning ruminations.
“So he was mad at his wife when they took off?” A skinny Eagle asked one of his companions, the flabby demarcation of a farmer’s tan peeking pinkly out from the legs of his too-tight swim trunks. He took a drag from the cigarette idling absently between his fingers, his cheeks caving in upon the long angles of his face as he inhaled.
“Sure was,” answered a gorilla-faced fellow in a white cotton polo shirt, the Aerie’s crest stitched in gold thread above his left breast. “That was his second mistake.”
Libby’s thin, liver-speckled hands dealt a pyramid of plastic cups before me with dispassionate expertise. “Seven big ones, honey” she said.
“Can I start a tab?” I asked. “I’m going to be here for awhile.”
She surfaced from the depths of some daydream to size me up, her eyes sharpening into bemused crow’s feet. “Whatever you want,” Libby finally said. “But we don’t take Amex.”
I handed her my plastic and downed the bourbon with a grimacing hiss. Libby dropped the card into a black tin recipe box on top of the cash register, then sat back upon the barstool, her eyes soon glazing against the hypnotic spell cast by the water past the windows.
I palmed the other two perspiring drinks in one hand and went to survey this mythic oasis of a pool I’d heard so much about from Pete. As I stepped out of the air-conditioned cocoon of the club and into the searing envelope of heat outside, the pores on my arms and face bloomed in silent, aching alarm. The pool was an Olympic-sized, indigo fjord framed by five or so yards of concrete, replete with twin multi-level diving boards and a fusilli-shaped water slide which every few minutes would hurl a slippery, screaming body splashing out into the rolling waves of the deep end. On the well-manicured lawn opposite the pool a younger Eagle was already stacking burgers and dogs in red and white checkered paper serving boats, many of them stained through with gray grease spots. Several couples had staked claim to the pockets of shade offered by the thickly growing oaks ringing the property behind the grill.
The shade held no allure for me – I was here for a belly full of booze and the insouciant regret of a peeling sunburn. I’d sleep it off tomorrow and be back in the rotation on Monday with a fresh take on Herb’s high-minded theories on risk versus reward. Flip-flopping over in my sandals to an empty deck chair, I tossed my towel, wallet and phone on the concrete then eased into the cool pool, both drinks still in hand. An almost childlike glee bubbled up from my admittedly impressive stomach.
Years ago, I’d have felt self-conscious about the formerly flat tire that had, of late, started to inflate beneath the elastic waistband of my swimming suit. But Rebecca was a plastic surgeon, handing out tummy tucks and boob jobs like Pez candy to the Dallas socialites fortunate enough to afford today’s version of the fountain of youth. After hearing her talk about the freak show of sizes and shapes who went under the knife every day in her office I felt pretty confident my girth fell within the socially acceptable range of normal. I swirled the icy warmth of the scotch around my tongue and surveyed the motley assortment of flesh that had been drawn out of the suburbs and down to the water for the day: a rough-edged mixture of men and women in their thirties and beyond, chatting and drinking and floating lazily on inner tubes and foam mattresses, their offspring chirping and splashing in the safety of the shallows.
At the investment firm you were lucky to see a person’s wrists during a typical work day. But today I was confronted with the half-naked truth that the human race, by and (increasingly) large, just isn’t all that attractive. Here was a hirsute mass of a man sitting on the concrete lip of the pool dangling his feet in the water, the hair on his chest and back growing in such thick tangles you’d have thought he was more missing link than not, a faded heart shape tattooed under the bushy growth supporting his collarbone. There was a walrus-like woman stuffed into a tight, dark singlet, which threatened to constrict the flow of blood to an overabundance of blubber hanging from her extremities. And everywhere I looked there seemed to be lean and hungry women flaunting what Rebecca referred to as “the tramp stamp” – a kind of winged tantric symbol inked into the skin of the lower back, right above the ass.
Watching the tattooed women and thinking about my wife, I felt a stirring in the nether regions of my swim suit. Even at forty three, Rebecca was still as beautiful as when we’d first met: every sultry, slinking five-foot-ten inches of her brunette and Pilates-sculpted body. After fifteen years of marriage I still harbored schoolboy fantasies about her, imagining the two of us pressed up against one another in the soapy warm rapture of our steamy marble shower. I’d told Pete as much one afternoon over lunch, then watched him stutter in shocked disbelief at my good fortune.
“That’s just wrong, Frank,” he’d argued. “Have some sympathy on the rest of us poor sods, why don’t you, and fantasize about someone other than your wife for a change.”
I dusted the scotch and crawled up out of the swimming pool to sit in a plastic lounger, dripping wet and settling now into a comfortably numb mid-morning stupor. An ancient and familiar potpourri of charcoaling meat, tobacco, chlorine and freshly cut grass wafted past my nose; I knew then I’d be parroting this place’s praises in Pete’s office come Monday lunch.
I’d lobbied hard for a pool of our own when Rebecca and I had first designed the house, almost five years back now, but she’d been pregnant with our youngest boy Chandler and, overcome by a hormone-inspired fit of maternal due diligence, had done some research on the potential hazards of pool ownership in Texas.
“Did you know,” she confronted me one evening, shaking a small stack of printouts in her clenched fist, “if we had both a LOADED GUN in the house and a POOL in the back yard, the boys would be twice as likely to die from drowning as from a gun accident?”
“But we don’t have a gun,” I said. “And even if we did, it wouldn’t be loaded. And they make those barriers now to keep the kids away from the water.”
“This says it usually happens when people are standing around the pool, just talking. Everybody thinks someone else is paying attention, and they quietly slip under the water. No splashing, no yelling. Nothing. Nobody notices until it’s too late,” her voice edged a half measure higher. “Twice as likely, Frank. AND we live in Texas. More kids drown in Texas than in any other state.”
“It’s a big state.”
“I’m talking about RPM Frank. Rates per one thousand,” she rested the crinkled sheaves of research in anxious tangent to the bulge of her pregnant belly. “I’m no idiot.”
A pregnant and well-informed plastic surgeon with an agenda isn’t one to be trifled with, so I deferred the dream of a backyard oasis of my own, at least until the boys were old enough to take care of themselves. I bartered instead for a man-cave above the garage – more a man-tree-house, really – a place where Pete and I sometimes smoked his stash of precious Cuban cigars and played cribbage into the dissociative limbo falling over the neighborhood just before dawn. It was at these times, alone with Pete in the tiki-bar kitsch of my arboreal garage apartment, when I sometimes felt as if the entire house was defined by the phantom limb of the pool that had never been.
There was a sudden vibrating movement under my deck chair; I bent down and fumbled for the cell phone, which showed Herb’s glowing face scowling up from the thing’s digital display. I let it buzz over to voicemail and angled the chair to catch the direct rays of the sun, then sat down to bake in the autoclave radiating up from the concrete around me.
Over time Rebecca and I had reached a kind of peace accord on the pool safety talks; she’d even suggested leaving the kids with Joe, who did have a pool, during her month-long sabbatical with Clara. It was true that Chandler wasn’t quite up to snuff in the water yet – but he wasn’t far off, either. I encouraged Rebecca’s newfound confidence in the kids, sensing an imminent construction project in the back yard within the next year or so, my long-anticipated aquatic retreat.
She spent weeks on the phone with her dad before pulling the trigger on the extended childcare arrangement, rehashing with PowerPoint precision the data points regarding accidental drowning she’d used against me only a few years earlier. Joe said all the right things, though, because nearly a month ago Rebecca and the boys had boarded a jet plane bound for San Francisco. After the handoff with her dad she flew on to New York to meet Clara for the long haul to Heathrow. The last postcard I’d received was sent from the Guinness factory in Dublin; Rebecca’s fastidious cursive handwriting informing me that their menstrual cycles had synched up (“I’m the alpha sister!” she crowed) and that “Guinness Is Good For You!”
The beer now nothing but a sudsy paste in the bottom of my plastic cup, I padded back into the frigid bar for another round, wrapped loosely in the sun-baked sarong of my towel. The club was filling up quickly, an animated archipelago of bald and graying heads poking up from the pall of smoke drifting about the card tables.
One of the original Eagles came up for air from behind the glowing cherry ash of his cigarette. “Tell me about this chain thing again,” he asked the gorilla-faced man.
“Every crash has one,” huffed the silverback dogmatically, his breath disturbing a hovering miasma of white fog which wisped in tendrils about the men. “It’s a series of mistakes that, taken together, start to amplify in seriousness and effect. Eventually you get a kind of death spiral. Systems fail, more bad decisions are made. Then …” he sandpapered two simian paws past one another with a slicing clap, “… you crash.”
“And all he had to do was make one right decision, at any point in the chain, and they wouldn’t have crashed?”
“It’s called breaking the chain.”
Libby slid a pair of white-capped draughts into my hands and I ambled back out to my spot, wishing I’d had the foresight to bring a cigar or two along for the trip today. In the hallucinatory six months after I’d stopped smoking, I’d found myself smoking them to scratch the nervous, itching nicotine fits tempting me to give in, just this one time, and light up. Now that I’d kicked the Camels to the curb, though, I sometimes found myself consumed by an overpowering urge for the sweet stink of a Montecristo.
The P.A. system surged to life: a high, pealing whine followed by the faint roar of classic rock music, adding another acoustic texture to the low hum of locusts and subdued conversation around me. I sat watching as two boys attempted to out-splash one another from the lower diving board, the synkinetic clatter of the plank keeping time to the two-phased kersploosh of their bodies jack-knifing haphazardly into the water. It got me to thinking about Chandler and Davis, who were both now old enough to enter elementary school; I couldn’t wait for the days when the three of us could hang out by the pool like grownups, unencumbered by the infantile weight of water wings and safety goggles.
It had been two days since I’d spoken to the boys, so I found my cell phone and dialed Joe’s number. As the phone rang I plopped heavily down onto the concrete edge of the pool to trace figure eights in the water with my big toe.
“Joseph Fuller’s residence,” answered one of the boys, I couldn’t tell which.
“Hey son,” I said tentatively. “It’s dad.” The liquor and a steadily growing heat was making me a little loopy.
“Daaaaaad!” The long yelp gave it away – it was my firstborn Davis on the other end of the line. “We’re having fun with Gramps. Can we get a pool? Chandler’s even learning to swim on his own now. Please? Gramps says they’re almost no work at all. Plus there’s health benefits to swimming. All of the Olympic swimmers had them when they were kids. What do you think? Gramps says they don’t take long at all to build.”
“Daaaaaad! Maybe means no.”
“Maybe means maybe. Where’s Chandler?”
“He’s in the pool.”
“Yep! He’s learning how to doggy paddle and everything.”
“What’s he doing inside?”
“Number two, I think. Maybe number one.”
“He’s using the bathroom.”
I’d need to tread carefully with Rebecca on this one. Joe was pretty set in his ways, having lived alone for as long as I could remember, his wife dying too-young of pancreatic cancer before Rebecca and I had first met. But Rebecca would bludgeon the man with his own cane if she found out he’d stepped away from the pool, even for a minute, with the boys still in the water.
“Alright, buddy. Keep an eye on your little brother for me, okay?”
“And tell Gramps to call me right away when he gets out of the bathroom. You got that?”
“I got that.”
“Okay. I love you. Hugs and kisses to you and Chandler.”
“Extra hugs and kisses to you, Dad.”
I heard the rustle and click of the call switching off on Davis’ end. Changing the setting from vibrate to ring tone, I maxed out the volume and set the phone back into the shade under my chair, then launched into the pool with a quick thrust of the hips for a relaxing lap across the pool’s midsection.
I pulled in a long, deep breath before submerging to push off into the muffled static under the water’s surface. The distant depth charge of divers slicing into the deep end sounded in slow motion above the high-pitched gurgle of the jets and drain working in tandem all about me. I opened my eyes, blinking against the chlorinated sting, and marveled at the graceful ballet of arms and legs pirouetting through the aquamarine haze. This was the one place on earth I wanted to be right now. I flapped my hands about like fins, turning slowly around to survey the surreal underwater moonscape, and vowed to stay down for as long as I could manage. I swallowed a mouthful of air, eyes bulging, unwilling to exhale and admit defeat, but eventually my lungs threatened to combust from the pressure and I surfaced, gasping for air in the harsh glare of the sun.
As my breathing returned to normal I saw a boisterous brouhaha of women and children setting up camp nearby, cordoning off an ambitious piece of poolside real estate with a brightly colored perimeter of beach towels. An inner fortification of coolers and floating devices provided a second line of defense against intruders, several over-engineered water toys reminding me of the futuristic space weapons I’d seen in Buck Rogers comic strips growing up as a kid.
There had been a stretch of years in my youth – maybe seven or eight blissfully ignorant summers, now long gone by – when I’d planned every waking moment around being in or around the water. I’d wake up, shovel some toast and eggs down my gullet, then ride a silver BMX dirt bike across town to meet my buddy Kurt for a few hours of ball hawking in the creeks surrounding the municipal golf course. We trolled the unkempt fringes of the otherwise well-manicured lawns hunting for lost golf balls, which sold for a dime apiece after they were polished back to their former glory in the soapy water of the ball cleaners by the first hole teeing green. Ten dimpled orbs each would fuel the next twelve hours of swimming with an oily cheeseburger and a few grape sodas; twice that and Kurt and I lived like heathens, sating ourselves on nachos and the sugary, fizzing wonder of Pop Rocks mixed with soda. After the lifeguards banished us from the water for the day, I’d pedal back home, breathing in the tight, asthmatic gasps of someone who has swallowed more than his fair share of chlorine, my skin radioactive with a beet red burn.
My daydreaming was interrupted by the cartwheeling arc of a plastic action figure careening out into the air above the pool, ejected from the boisterous campsite by a little boy who couldn’t have been more than four or five years old. It plopped with a succinct plink into the water before me; I watched as the boy’s face registered first shock, then anger, followed quickly by sadness and finally a kind of constipated horror. His chest heaved in preparation for what looked to be quite an impressive display of waterworks.
“You want me to get that for you?” I asked, pointing down at the toy, some kind of bohemian Neanderthal wielding an axe. I fished the action figure out of the drink and tried to hand it to the boy, who backed away in wide-eyed alarm, his horrified expression intensifying. I had to hand it to his folks – they’d done an admirable job driving home the whole stranger danger thing.
“He’d love that,” said a heavily tattooed woman watching us from behind a pair of oversized, mirrored sunglasses. “Bobby, why don’t you take your toy from the man.” She waved a lit cigarette in my direction, as if giving Bobby permission to come closer.
His face twisted into a tight knot and he retreated further away.
“It’s alright,” I said. “I’ll just set him here by the edge and you can come get him when you’re good and ready.” I tossed the action figure to the concrete and waded back over to my piece of the poolfront for another mouthful of beer.
The tattooed woman lay smoking in a reclining deck chair, her salmon-colored bikini having difficulty containing her cosmetically enhanced chest. A spotted panther of some sort was inked across her shoulder, its tail curving around to disappear into the freckled softness of her cleavage; I wondered briefly if Rebecca had installed her double Ds.
“You don’t come here very often,” she said. Not a question, more a statement of fact.
I was feeling good – high and light. “Then how come it feels like I’ve never left?” I said, pleased with my comeback.
She tilted her head at me, her eyes hidden behind the silver orbs obscuring her face, then reached over to drop her cigarette into an empty plastic cup, exhaling a white mushroom cloud of smoke up into the cloudless blue above. I saw the rubbery striations of silicone bulging out from the tight confines of her bikini top and doubted that this was my wife’s handiwork.
The phone rang then but I didn’t recognize the ring tone. I’d assigned Joe a jingling Jimmy Buffet song about cheeseburgers, mostly because he was a vegetarian and the cognitive dissonance washing over me when he dialed never failed to induce a chuckle as I answered his calls. I let the cell ring over to voicemail and stood up to dry off with my towel, ready for another showdown with Libby.
“I’m heading in for another round,” I said to the woman. “Do you want anything?”
She angled her mouth into a kind of sideways smile. “Jack and Coke on the rocks,” she said. “And thank you.”
An air-conditioned cold front blew over me as I stepped into the clubhouse; a wave of goose bumps washed over my limbs and my arm hairs flared out like the hackles of a dog. I sat down upon a barstool, dizzy from the constant oscillation between the tropical heat outside and the arctic air inside the bar. Libby stared blankly across the countertop at me until my wits had returned.
I ordered another round and gazed out at the fishbowl of humanity on parade past the window as she fetched the drinks. All but one of the Eagles had dispersed, abandoning the frail fellow and his too-tight trunks, who now sat nurturing the singed butt of his cigarette. He caught me watching him and sat straighter in his seat, eyeing my flower print towel and the damp and drooping curve of my shivering belly.
“So what do you think of our little getaway here?” He asked me.
“I love it,” I said. “I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to find the place.”
“That’s good,” he said, extinguishing his cigarette in the ashtray with an efficient twirl of his wrist. “For some folks it can be a bit of an acquired taste. We get a lot of parents in here complaining about the cigarettes, asking about lifeguards and such.”
“Not me,” I assured him.
Libby slid another pair of cups over at me and I headed back outside, nodding to the Eagle purposefully. After a quick detour past the grill to order a cheeseburger and fries I delivered the Jack and Coke to the tattooed stranger.
“I’m Frank,” I said, collapsing into my deck chair with a groan.
“Linda,” she replied, stirring the drink with her index finger. The bright gleaming of her nails matched the color of her suit.
“Is that your son?” I angled my chin at Bobby, who had retired to the shade of a nearby tree and was now building a sort of holding pen for his action figures with a beach towel and a yellow floatie.
“My sister’s,” Linda said, sucking the remnants of the drink from her finger before taking a long, loud sip from the brimming edge of her cup. She glanced over her shoulder at the boy and we both watched as Bobby led two plastic men across the cracked earth for a brief interrogation session, which he conducted in an emotionless voice devoid of inflection.
“He’s working out some issues over there, it looks like,” I said.
Linda’s insect-like sunglasses turned back in my direction. “Your phone rang while you were inside.”
I reached under the chair for my cell. Punching up the call log I saw it had been Pete, not Joe, who’d rung. Wondering what was taking Joe so long to get back to me, I dialed his number again, only to get the distant blare of a busy signal on the other end of the line.
“I’m expecting a call from my father-in-law,” I explained.
I saw the grillmeister lay my burger and fries onto a paper plate and went over to grab my grub, shouldering past several teenagers to slather the toasted bun with yellow mustard at the crowded concession stand, where several enormous bees circled and dove in Kamikaze-like fury to carry morsels of bun and pickled relish off buzzing into the trees. The long, whistling call of a train rose mournfully above it all in the distance.
Settling back into my seat, I focused my attention on the juicy perfection of the burger in my lap, devouring it with the intensity of a kid on furlough from fat camp.
“Wow,” said Linda. “Hungry much?”
I grunted in the affirmative, blinking back a salty rivulet of sweat streaming into my eye.
In the deep end of the pool a gaggle of teenagers were enjoying an endless summer romp away from the drudgery of homework and after-school activities, their toned and hairless recklessness unencumbered by the weight of jobs and family, each day stretching out before them like a blank canvas in need of paint. After laying the burger and fries to waste I slapped my own belly proudly; as I’d grown older, I found myself more and more comfortable with the aging bulk of my body, waking each morning to settle into semi-consciousness like I was slipping into a pair of worn slippers. I stood up, brushed some crumbs from my stomach, then hopped into the water with a splash.
“So where’s your sister then?” I asked Linda after resurfacing.
Linda reached for her pack of Marlboro Lights, flipping the top open one-handed and tapping a lone cigarette out of the box in a deft movement which must have taken years to master. As she lit the cigarette her bikini-top struggled to maintain its purchase on her chest.
“At work,” she finally answered from behind a veil of smoke.
I couldn’t take my eyes from the cigarette. “Can I have one of those?” I asked.
“Here,” she said, handing me hers, “take this. I’ll light another one.”
I struggled up out of the pool and dried my hands before taking it from her, settling back into my chair to experience the tingling rush of that first, tentative drag. I exhaled slowly, doing my best not to cough, and sensed that an illicit pact had just been sealed between the two of us.
The phone rang again under my chair but it wasn’t Joe’s Jimmy Buffet ring tone. I left it to complain noisily beneath me, savoring the peaty tobacco flavor on my tongue.
“You know, it’s been almost eleven years since I’ve had one of these,” I finally said, examining the sloughing skin of ash crumbling from the tip.
“You only live once, right?” Linda answered.
I nodded, wondering what color her eyes were behind those sunglasses.
“Hey, listen,” she said, sitting up. I struggled to keep my eyes focused on anything but the twin swaying of her breasts before me. “Can I ask you a favor?”
“Can you keep an eye on Bobby for two seconds while I go out to my car? I’ll be right back.”
In the shaded sand nearby Bobby had assembled a triangle of plastic prisoners like bowling pins. I watched as he rolled a soiled tennis ball through them all, making explosive, rumbling sound effects beneath his breath as he wrought destruction upon the group.
“Sure,” I said, my head swirling. “He seems preoccupied enough.”
Linda pointed at a hefty woman bouncing her toddler on the pool steps nearby, her skin noticeably devoid of tattoos. “That’s Diane,” she said, “my friend from work. If Bobby gets worked up about something she can probably handle it. I’ll be back in five.”
Diane and I waved at one another from across the pool as Linda snatched up her purse, skipping barefoot into the bar for the parking lot. I downed the rest of my drink and dunked myself in the shallow end, listening to Bobby slip in and out of a whole range of menacing voices as his fantastical plastic army waged war upon one another in the dirt.
Why hadn’t Joe called back? I waded over for my phone and dialed him again, the line switching directly to his voice mail after a single ring.
“Joe, this is Frank,” I said more loudly than I’d intended. “Call me on my cell right away. It’s about the boys.”
As I slapped the cell shut I saw Linda’s car keys lying on the concrete next to her deck chair, and imagined her fumbling through the bottomless pit of an empty purse out in the parking lot. I dried off and fetched the keys, intent on saving the day.
“Hey Diane,” I said to her friend, “I’m going to run out front and give these to Linda. Keep an eye on Bobby there, okay?”
Diane nodded at me and lifted the pink blob of her daughter laughing into the water. Shoving my keys and phone into the pocket of my suit I traversed the darkened bar and made my way past the mute bouncer to the parking lot, now a Technicolor horizon of automobiles parked at odd angles in the slanting light of late afternoon.
Several meters into the underbrush I spotted Linda listing serenely against a tree, the bumblebee reflection of her shades pointing skywards as she smoked. I plodded in her direction, jingling the car keys high in the air as I neared.
“You might need these to get into your car.”
At the sound of my voice she started, dropping the cigarette on the ground near her purse, which lay propped half ajar against the tree’s trunk. As she knelt to pick it up I saw that it was actually a thick marijuana joint, damp and oily green with perspiration.
“Thanks,” she said thickly. She extended a hand, offering up the roach. “Want a hit?”
I nodded, taking the joint and pulling in a long lungful; my chest filled with a warm, amber glow. When I could hold it no longer I exhaled a bluish cloud into the air, watching as it flashed in dancing chiaroscuro past the mottled rays of sunlight streaming through the canopy overhead.
“Tell me something,” I heard myself say. “What color are your eyes?”
I was stoned out of my gourd. I stepped closer to her then, understanding on some level that a line had been crossed, but unable or unwilling to turn back. She smiled, tilting her head down to stare at me over the top of her sunglasses, but before I could bring her face into focus Linda recoiled, as if stung.
“I … he’s …” I was having trouble verbalizing the pictures in my head. “He’s inside with your friend. Jane, or …”
“Diane,” she interjected. She stormed back across the lot for the pool.
Time seemed to slow. I followed her freckled back into the bar and past Libby. Once outside we found the discarded heap of Bobby’s toys lying motionless in the sand. Linda scrambled for the pool, frantically shouting the boy’s name, but thank Heavens he wasn’t in the water. Diane’s blank stare told Linda and me that something had gone wrong. Linda’s shouting intensified as she scoured the pool and bathrooms for Bobby, but he was nowhere to be seen. Soon I was yelling the kid’s name too, my voice ragged from the weed. How long had I been here? I heard Libby’s voice pleading over the P.A. system for everyone to please stop what they were doing and pitch in to look for a lost little boy.
On the shady lawn behind the grill I saw the plastic Neanderthal lying near a chain link fence containing the sand volleyball court, a curling sheet of metal folding up into itself around a kid-sized rend in the chain links. Linda and Diane squeezed through the hole and plunged into the trees looking for the boy, the tension in their voices muffled by the foliage and the approaching whistle of a freight train.
Libby called the police, and soon a squadron of tanned and uniformed officers were interviewing me over the clipped staccato of walkie-talkies and distant hollering.
“Walk me through what happened sir,” an excitable young cadet asked me, notepad in hand. I did my best to reconstruct the afternoon, ending with our discussion in the parking lot.
“Show me,” he said.
I moved in slow motion back out to the tree where Linda and I last stood, seemingly hours ago. As we neared the spot I spied her purse, and reached down to retrieve it for the policeman. As he took the purse from me a gray envelope fell drifting to the gravel at our feet. He bent down and inspected the waxy paper.
“Who owns this?” He asked, snapping the package with his index finger and standing quickly.
“I don’t know,” I said. The slow, rumbling roll and pop of railroad ties buckling beneath a moving train echoed faintly through the trees nearby.
Another officer was called over and together the two men examined the packet.
“You two were smoking heroin,” one of them said.
My phone began to ring.
“What?” I needed to sit down. “No … not at all. I mean … we …”
In my right pocket Jimmy Buffet was singing about “heaven on earth with an onion slice” and the world seemed to be bucking wildly under my feet. I stepped away from the uniformed men, desperate for air.
“I have to take this,” I said.
“Don’t move sir,” the excitable one reached down and unsnapped his holster, palming his weapon. “Put your hands up where I can see them.” He took a step in my direction.
I held my left hand up, warding him off. Everything seemed to spin; the poles had shifted and the earth was turning counter to the normal direction of things.
Why hadn’t Joe called sooner?
“I have to take this.”
There was the hue and cry of a discovery being made near the train tracks. Both men looked away.
I reached for the singing in my pocket.