Charlie Johnson stood over his swimming pool and looked past his friendly-neighbor fence at the colonial house next door. A yellow and green moving van had arrived at the Nelson's earlier that morning. Two large men in jeans and white t-shirts lumbered on the fading green lawn between house and truck with couches and chairs, an antique armoire, and the nineteenth century highboy the Nelsons had found on Cape Cod. A third guy, a shirtless teenager, danced through the clutter on the front lawn like a marine on an obstacle course. No sign of the Nelsons yet.
Charlie wore just his gray and black chef's pants and black shoes. His broad upper body was deeply tanned, especially his back and shoulders where he'd peeled and re-tanned twice already during the summer. The sound of insects in the bushes, and a lone crow in a pine tree filled the silence. Charlie now watched the reflections of sunlight jumping on the water's surface. The long-handled net he dipped into the water picked up leaves and bugs which had found their way into his pool. From every direction, he thought, neighbors' trees dropped in more dirt and filth. He looked forward to a conversation he would have with his new neighbors about this. Better to get off on the right foot.
He drove the net to the bottom of the shallow end and rubbed along the bumpy surface of the bottom. He had to call someone soon for an estimate. The vinyl surface had bunched up in places, like back-road frost heaves in the wintertime. Along the incline from the shallow to the deep end, which measured nine and a half feet exactly, the craggy bottom was at its worst. Dirt had sunk to the bottom and had been caught in the bluish liner; and Charlie felt a sudden urgency that the bottom was scarred so badly he must do something now before it was too late. From behind him the sound of child's voice approaching broke his concentration.
"Hi, Daddy." Jo Jo skipped over to him in little white shorts and red and white striped t-shirt. She dragged a small bag along the concrete. Charlie pulled the pool cleaner from the water and laid it on the concrete. He crouched down, eye level with his daughter, smiling.
"Watch your bag, honey," Sandy said, following with Erik holding her hand. "Show Daddy your new sneakers," she said smiling at Jo Jo. Sandy's dark hair was pulled back in a pony-tail, held there by a large white bow. She wore a blue cotton top and khaki shorts. Charlie looked from her back to Jo Jo.
"Wow, Jo, these are great," Charlie said, taking one out of the box. Then he stroked a bit of her soft brown hair from her eyes. "You can run fast in these. Hi, Erik."
Erik held onto his mother's hand. "Come over here, buddy," Charlie coaxed, "give Daddy a hug." Erik turned and hid his face behind his mother's leg. "Oh, come on, Erik," Charlie said, as sweetly as he could, "come help me do the pool." He tried to get hold of Erik's arm, but the boy began to cry.
"Charlie," Sandy said, "just let him alone, he hasn't had a good day."
"Okay, okay," Charlie said, turning his back and still holding onto the sneaker. "God," he said, bringing a hand through his sweaty hair.
"What are you still doing here, anyway," Sandy said to Charlie's back. "Don't you need to get back to work?"
"The restaurant can wait," Charlie said. He turned and handed the sneaker to Jo Jo. Then he looked at Sandy. "We're dead today. Everybody must be at the beach," he said. "I'll work dinner."
"Oh," she said, distracted by the activity of the moving crew. "Nelsons will be gone soon."
"Yeah, new neighbors. Maybe they'll cut their trees back so the pool won't get so dirty," Charlie said, now re-examining Jo Jo's new sneaker.
"Like the Nelsons?"
"Barb Nelson didn't care if her leaves fell into our pool."
"Maybe these new ones will be different," Charlie said, trying to ignore her sarcastic tone.
"Don't we still own a chain saw?"
"Yes, we still own a chain saw."
"Well, we could start now," she said, waving a hand at the trees. "Start cutting everything away, before the new neighbors move in. I mean, this is a perfect opportunity."
"With Barb and Ted still in there? They still live there, Sandy." Charlie placed Jo Jo's sneaker into the box and then the box into the bag. He rested it on the concrete and stood up.
"They were on sale," Sandy said.
"Oh. That's okay," Charlie said.
"Well, it's just that you told me..."
"I know what I said, it's okay. Business should pick up soon. It's the heat." He stood and lifted Jo Jo up. "Nothing's too good for my little girl, right Jo?"
"Daddy, you're all sweaty. Let me down."
"You know, Charlie," Sandy said looking at the pool, "we've got other things to worry about besides this idiotic pool. You should be at the restaurant. If that goes--well..." She shook her head and started to walk toward the house with Erik. "I've got to get them out of the sun. You should too, your skin's turning into leather. Did you eat," she said, still walking away.
"I'm all set," he said, grabbing the roll of his stomach. "I shouldn't eat. Look, I've got the body of a forty year old."
"Mommy,"Jo Jo said, "let's go swimming today!"
"No, not today, sweetie, let's go eat."
"Why don't you swim, Sandy," Charlie said. He heard the pleading tone of his voice, and it made him feel sick to his stomach.
He looked away from her to the pool. "I'm going to call the pool guy. We've got to replace this bottom."
"I know. Come on, Jo Jo." Sandy pulled the screen door shut and disappeared into the house, their daughter skipping behind.
Charlie followed."I'm calling the pool guy."
Charlie walked over to the fence along the Nelson's property. He saw the three men loading, and then through the overhanging branches he caught a glimpse of Ted Nelson walking through his front yard and into his garage. He looked like he was getting ready to play tennis--white shorts and shirt. Charlie wondered who Ted had for a tennis partner these days.
In the shade the heat was more bearable, yet the branches of the trees hanging over him made him uneasy, brushing against his suntanned shoulders, coaxing thoughts of Barb Nelson. From his perspective under the trees, he could make out most the Nelson's front yard, but very little of the house. Where was she now? Maybe packing. Maybe she was sitting in a chair near an open window facing Charlie's house. Charlie and Sandy had heard they were moving far away, that's all. Nobody in the neighborhood seemed to know where. He wanted to know what it was like for Barb and Ted. How getting out was going to make things better.
Charlie heard someone pulling into his driveway. When he got to the front of his house, he saw an old Ford F150 with four rusted out quarters ticking and creaking in the heat. On the side, printed in brand new paint was: "ARTHUR FLETCHER ~ POOLS," and a telephone number. The driver of the truck gave a friendly wave to Charlie and got out.
"Mr. Fletcher?" Charlie said, walking toward him. "Thanks for coming on such short notice."
"It's fine, I'm sure. Sounded on the phone as if you couldn't wait another day." Leaning slightly to one side, he moved slowly around his truck toward Charlie. He offered a large hand and shook. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Johnson." His dark blue t-shirt fit tightly around large biceps, and sweat stains hung beneath his arms reaching down toward his thick waistline.
"Same. Come on around back and I'll show you the patient."
"That will be fine." As he spoke, his bushy eyebrows moved up and down like the caterpillars crawling up and down the neighbors' trees. "But first, could I bother you for a refreshment? Maybe you've got some cold water or lemonade?" He wiped his brow with his forearm. "The heat."
"Okay, sure, there must be something in the fridge. Why don't you go around back, through there, and I'll meet you."
In the kitchen Sandy fed the children at the new oak table with matching chairs. They all ate tuna sandwiches, Jo Jo's with ketchup on the side.
"Guy needs a cold drink before he tells me how much he's going to take me for," Charlie said as he opened the refrigerator door.
"Put a shirt on, Charlie, the guy's going to think you spend all your time around the pool."
"Okay,seriously, I will."
"How'd you get him to come so fast?"
"I guess I convinced him that there was a real emergency."
"That will be very apparent once he sees the pool. Tell him to get a concrete truck and fill it all in."
"That's funny." With one hand on the refrigerator door, he watched her eat her sandwich. "Sandy."
She stopped eating, put the sandwich on her plate. "Just tell me you won't, Charlie. Tell me that part again."
"Say it, Charlie." As she looked at him, her pony tail fell off her shoulder and down her back. "I just want to hear you tell me again that that was the one and only time."
"Sandy, the kids!"
"Say it,Charlie," Jo Jo echoed.
"I thought we were done with this. Five minutes ago, you were fine. What gives?"
"I go in andout. Sorry," Sandy said sarcastically.
Charlie slid over to the sink and faced the window. "They're moving. Look outside. Go ahead, look," he said pointing, as if he really expected her to stand up and look out the window. "There's a moving van and three guys taking everything out of their house."
"Come on, honey," Sandy said calmly to Erik, "eat your sandwich."
"Sandy, I thought..."
"Just drop it," she said, very quietly. "There's nothing to talk about."
"Then why bring it up?" He knelt down next to her, feeling the hard floor against his knees. "I thought you said that it's over and done with. I thought that's what you wanted."
She stood and walked past him and into the dining room, and Charlie smelled her perfume as he followed. Sandy turned and faced him, looking up at him. Then she walked away and looked out a window toward the driveway and Mr. Fletcher's truck. "You have to do something, Charlie."
"Like what," he said, putting one hand on each of her shoulders as if checking the temperature of a heating element.
"Don't." Still looking out the window, she shook her head.
"Sandy," Charlie said backing away, "if you don't even know what it is, then how am I supposed to?"
"I don't know, Charlie," she said, now walking past him into the kitchen. "Figure it out."
Charlie filled a glass with ice and with water from the faucet. Then he went outside.
"Pretty bad," Mr. Fletcher said, standing next to a chaise lounge chair near the deep end of the pool. He looked around overhead at the tree branches extending from the neighbor's yard. "Seems to me your neighbors ought to cut these back," he said, pointing.
"They're moving," Charlie said approaching with the glass of water, "the neighbors. I didn't want just to cut them away without saying something. But I'll talk to the new ones." He handed Fletcher the glass.
"Thanks. I saw the truck next door." He took a long swallow. "It's a hot one, isn't it," he said with a smile. "Mind if I sit for a minute?" And then he sat on the end of the chaise, finished the glass of water and handed it to Charlie. "Thanks." He maneuvered himself all the way onto the chair and smiled.
"Are you comfortable, Mr. Fletcher?"
"How's that? Oh, sorry, I was just thinking how much I used to love sitting in the sun. But now it's just too damn hot. Summers never used to be this hot." He pulled a white handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his thick eyebrows.
Charlie stared at the old man lying on his chair. He thought Fletcher might be falling asleep. "Um, Mr. Fletcher? What do you think? How much?" he said, hands on his hips looking into the pool.
Fletcher stood up. "Yes sir, pretty bad," he said, looking at the trees and then at the house next door. "It's never a good thing when neighbors don't get along."
"I mean about the pool," Charlie said, "the liner."
"Yes, that's bad, no doubt about that," he said, turning back to the pool.
"Charlie?" Sandy called through the screen door. "How long are you going to be here? I've got to go to the market."
"Just a few minutes. I think I'll go back to work. They're probably giving food away by now."
"I thought you weren't going back till later."
"I changed my mind."
"I won't be long. Erik's down and Jo Jo's in here playing. Just be a few minutes."
"Sandy,"Charlie said, now walking toward the house.
"Just a few minutes. I've got the monitor turned up loud. Jo Jo will call you if she hears anything from Erik."
"Mommy," Jo Jo said from within the house, "can't I go swimming?"
"No,honey," she said. "The pool's broken."
Charlie stopped, looked down at his feet and then around to Mr. Fletcher who was bent over the pool with one hand in the water. He felt the sun burning through his tan.
"The water's at a good temperature here, Mr. Johnson," Fletcher said. "All we have to do is get the liner replaced, like you said on the phone."
"What's that you said?"
"The water--it's refreshing." He stood up.
"I guess it is at that, Mr. Fletcher," Charlie said, now standing beside him. "I really don't use the pool. It's for my wife and kids." Hands on hips, Charlie stared into the water. He could really use the cooling off. "I try to keep it clean. I'm out here every day cleaning the thing," he said. "But look at it. You probably think I never clean it, and I wouldn't blame you. It came with the house. I mean--you know what I mean? We've only been here for a few years. I can't understand it."
Fletcher folded his hairy arms across his chest and listened intently to Charlie.
"How much do you think this will cost me?"
"Price? Well, let's see." Arms still folded, he walked away from Charlie, past the chaise, along the pool's edge toward the deep end. He passed the diving board, and then swung around past the water slide until he was on the other side, directly across from Charlie.
"A liner like this, it can be expensive," Mr. Fletcher said, pointing to the pool. "The process isn't too difficult, it's just time consuming. Very labor intensive."
"I know about long hours, Mr. Fletcher," Charlie said, bending over with one hand in the water. He didn't look up at Fletcher. He let his fingertips cross back and forth along the water's surface.
"You sure you want to do this now," Fletcher asked. "Summer's almost over."
"Are you too busy, Mr. Fletcher? Is that what you're saying to me? Because if it is, well--maybe I should talk to someone else."
"No, no," Fletcher said, "I didn't mean that. It's just that you won't have the use of it for a week or so. And it is August." He wiped his brow with his forearm.
"I know," Charlie said, still running his hand through the water, "but would you swim in this pool, Mr. Fletcher? As it is now? Because, I have to tell you, my wife will not swim in that pool. She won't let my kids. I haven't been in there for two months, myself. No one has. It's just too dirty. Are you understanding this Mr. Fletcher? Are we clear? Nobody swims in the pool until it's fixed."
Fletcher just stared at him.
"Have I offended you, Mr. Johnson?"
"What? Oh, I'm sorry I snapped at you, Mr. Fletcher," Charlie said. "It's just been very...difficult around here lately. Business isn't going so well--hell nothing is at his point." Charlie stood, and walked slowly around the pool to where the old man stood. He wiped his forehead and face with his wet hand, and then Fletcher passed him the handkerchief. "My wife doesn't trust me anymore, Mr. Fletcher."
"Alright, Mr. Johnson, it's alright. I understand. I'm not what you'd call a particularly wise old man, but--I understand." He turned toward the Nelson's house again, raising his head a little as if spying on the men loading the truck. "No matter what I do, though, you're still going to have a problem with them."
"The neighbors?" Charlie turned away and walked toward the fence abutting the Nelson's. "But they're leaving." He crouched down behind the fence and spied through one of the slots. There was Barb Nelson now, about fifty yards away, carrying a cardboard box and putting it gently into the back of her station wagon. She wore a loose tank top with a black bikini bra underneath, and her blond hair looked combed back and wet. Ted followed. As Barb bent into the car, he came up behind her and put a hand on her back. She emerged from the car and said something to her husband, and they embraced. Then, with arms around each other's waist, Ted and Barb turned toward Charlie's house. They stood there and just looked toward him, not saying anything. Charlie felt himself involuntarily stand up so that they could see his head pop up over the fence. Summer sounds of birds and insects filled the air between him and the Nelsons with a piercing shrill. Charlie half waved to them, then ran his hand through his hair. Barb Nelson looked down at her feet at first, but then raised her head again. Ted raised his chin a little, and they both seemed to pull the other closer. Ted turned and closed the hatch to their car and got in. As he started the engine, Barb got in the passenger's side and slammed the door.
"Wait!" Charlie said. He gripped the top of the fence and climbed over, scraping his chest as he did. He slipped through a group of rhododendrons, and past an azalea, onto the front lawn, dodging the two large men lugging a floral patterned sofa. Ted and Barb pulled away now, and Charlie could see their raised windows. "Ted! Barb! Wait!" he screamed this time, and the car stopped short about twenty yards away. Charlie froze, saw Barb and Ted looking back at him, then talking to each other. He walked slowly toward them and then began to run again. Tires screeched as they pulled away. Charlie ran faster, as fast as he could, "Hey!" he said as he ran, "I just wanted to apologize. I'm sorry!" he screamed. "Ted, I'm sorry! Barb!" But they turned the corner and drove away.
Charlie stopped. He bent at the waist and took deep breaths, his lungs burning. He had only run about a half a block, but the distance back to his house now seemed interminable, so he sat down on the curb to catch his breath. "I'm so sorry," he said.
"What are you doing?" Sandy had pulled up. She sat in the car looking down at him quizzically. "Are you all right?"
"Yes,"Charlie said. Then, "I don't know."
"I just saw the Nelsons leaving. Did you talk to them?"
Charlie didn't say anything.
"Charlie, did you say something? Tell me!"
"I just wanted to tell them--to tell you--how terribly sorry I am." He bowed his head between his legs, thinking about what he'd done to his family. Then he stood up quickly. "The kids!" He sprinted away from Sandy, past the moving van and up his own driveway. As Fletcher opened the door to his truck, Charlie raced by him, hurdled a bush and sprang into the house. Jo Jo and Erik sat quietly in front of the television. Charlie lay down behind them on his side, catching his breath, and watched them. Sandy arrived a moment later.
"Hi. Didn't we say no TV until four o'clock?"
"Oh,Mom," Jo Jo said.
"Come on," Sandy said, turning off the set. "Charlie, could you get the bags from the car?"
When Charlie came back inside with the bags, he placed them on the counter in the kitchen. He took a carton of eggs and a half gallon of milk and put them in the refrigerator. He placed some Delicious apples in a bowl on the table. He put away several cans in a cabinet, and a box of cereal and some cookies in another. He folded the bags and shoved them under the sink. He found Sandy and the kids spread out on the floor of the family room amongst a clutter of toys.
"When are you going back to work?" Sandy asked. She was helping Erik and Jo Jo with a puzzle.
"Later," Charlie said, kneeling on the floor next to her.
"Really,"she said, looking up at him from the puzzle.
"What about the pool guy?"
"Well, I told him that I'd get back to him. The liner's bad, but--it's August. It can wait till fall. Meantime, I'm going into the garage and see if I can get that chain saw running."
"Good idea," Sandy said. "Good idea." Then she handed a piece of the puzzle to Jo Jo, and pointed.