“Rifkin’s characters are ruined, desperate creatures, comic and soulful, perpetually in line for a ladle full of redemption.” —Hammer Museum
“Rifkin is what might have happened had Nathanael West lived on and been even more talented . . . . Exquisite.” —Kirkus Reviews
A generation of Southern Californians built their backyard oases to outlive them.
A generation of pool men is watching it happen.
By Alan Rifkin
Every March is free hot dog month at Superior Pool Supply - an early sign of summer, at least to pool men in Norwalk.
"You're about out of relish," John
the pool man said, finishing his second hot dog.
Someone said, "You know, hot dogs didn't used to come with relish."
The Latinos at the counter smiled at each other without smiling, the way everybody does in trades without women.
Thirty or 40 years ago there may actually have been more women in the pool business. But the rows of industrial products looked the same, timeless in white/orange packaging, along with the ancient elements of chlorine cakes and bottles of Solar Blanket. Outside, the parking lot was blazing and still, and it was easy to imagine forward or back to the part of middle-late summer when it's so horror-movie hot that no one can hear you scream.
Then we drove back to Seal Beach across prairies studded with oil wells, and the very best thing about driving to other people's pools in midday traffic might be that you get to feel connected in some semi-official way to the debut of Summer, while not so connected as to live and die by the events of a particular back yard. As anyone who grew up here knows, there's as much ache as joy around man-made reservoirs ("Out back was an empty swimming pool, and nothing is emptier than an empty swimming pool" -Raymond Chandler); for every memory of diving and splashing to exhaustion in my Valley childhood I've got another one of nursing wounds, numbing out and all the fatal, carnal pleasure of doing that - simultaneously intoxicated, dazzled and victimized by water and light. Just the sight of an unused pool in summer still brings up afternoons in socks and shoes on restriction. And I might never get over a July when I was nine, pissed-off child of a divorce, right arm in a blinding white cast that I suspended bitterly above the tile coping in order to wade.
Back then there were four archetypes of pool design, like the great faiths of the world: Each seemed to have missed, by the narrowest, most tragic margin, the paradise it was meant for. (1) 1950s ones, Spartan as biscuits; these belonged to the poorer, happier families in the neighborhood and their surfboarding dogs. (2) Reedy Xanadus, like the pool in the Twilight Zone episode where the brokenhearted children swam away to caring families through a warp in the deep end. (3) Turquoise feminized kidney shapes of the 1960s. (4) Cantilevered Greco-Spanish altars. Since the '70s, though, relatively few pools have been built for the middle class, which is why so many customers today are getting old, while the pools themselves exist like gorgeous crypts, in a suspended animation of maintenance.
Hence, pool men - who are serfs, obviously, but also independent, unbeholden, Chandleresque. They're ghosts of the jingle-jangle morning, whistling arrival with a wood gate slamming behind them. To my childhood self, their comings and goings looked like the height of Pied Piper detachment. So much so that decades later, blocked and confused, when The Artist's Way prescribed making list after list of alternative careers, I'd invariably write down: Pool Man.
AS FOR JOHN, he was someone from church - I'd chosen a respectable, slightly geeky pool guy. Although he had fingers as thick as an outfielder's mitt, and could probably tear off a frozen gas valve at the stem, he was trim and bespectacled, and his idea of cursing was to gasp: "My word!" He had a sandy red business-major's beard trimmed close, and it dropped with his jaw whenever he listened or thought hard on a subject.
Nor was he much of an escapist, but as with a lot of pool men, there'd been a former life (his was in Oil), followed by a moral turning point: He'd sued his uncle and grandfather for defrauding the family business, and won. He did that for his mom, and because the older men in the family didn't believe him when he said that he would.
How John got his pool route was by buying someone else's, for the going rate of six to nine times a month's revenue. To John's mind that was robbery. But the failure rate was low, and if you lost a client, you didn't lose much: $40 to $80 a month, which is both too little to charge and too much to spend. (You can get a xenophobic lecture on immigration and deflated service fees by asking around any pool cleaners’ association meeting.) Happily, the learning curve was almost nonexistent - "any monkey with a cleaning pole can do it," insiders said - although the repair side required training and talent. It took less than three days for John to grasp that he could do pools more efficiently and profitably than the mentor he bought the route from, a onetime attorney who, inaugurating his own quest for invincible summer, had apparently been disbarred for drinking.
John's wife, Barbara, might have had the tougher adjustment. Everything she thought was great about John in laboratory form - an unpretentious guy, impervious to status, distracted by anyone who wanted to converse - had become the dominant gene now, calling her bluff. Once, Forbes magazine dismissed a new, affordable cologne with a sentence: "Your pool man could wear it." A 1998 FedEx commercial defined for all time the vicissitudes of snail mail, placing a decades-old acceptance letter to Harvard in the hands of a bombed-out man with a skimmer net. Video porn comprised a genre all its own. Right off, Barbara worried about housewives that John might see sunbathing in Palos Verdes. They went back and forth a while before he told her, "Get over that, and look at who I am."
Lately, she'd been focusing her energies on upgrading his act with professional touches. She recommended coupon books for monthly billing, polo shirts with logos, and magnetic signs for the doors of the truck. To John these were great ideas, but almost heat-stroke tiring to think about after a long day, as one summer followed another.
What he liked best about having a pool route was that he was outdoors, and that there were repair problems just tricky enough to challenge him but not defeat him. What I liked best about riding with John was seeing summer arrive one day at a time and watching him listen to the customers about their lives - like Highway to Heaven, a show I'd never actually seen. Plus it reminded me of the consolation I used to feel working in restaurants on New Year's Eve, to be one of the servers instead of the lonelies at the banquet, with all their good-life expectations.
THE LONELIEST OF JOHN'S LONELY CUSTOMERS was an old woman named Mrs. Wadsworth, whom even John had begun to avoid. She had a two-story lanai house with mint-greensiding, and in her driveway sat an oxidized Ford Tempo with one flat tire. We waited there a few minutes watching a van drive slowly up the street twirling newspapers out of both side windows.
"She's always got a question about her bill," John whispered. "And she's having health problems. You can tell she might have been really pretty once. But she's one of these people who takes a breath in the middle of a sentence, so you can't get a word in to help." Recently she was given to suspicions that someone - maybe a gardener, maybe John? - had stolen her pole skimmer.
On the floor of the pool moved a vacuum pump in the shape of a giant breathing flower. John starting trailing his net along the surface, capturing a lot of wet leaves. In a couple of minutes the pool looked happily used, as if it had been swum in. With a net stuffed with chemical test kits and chlorine tabs, John started back toward the gate, but he would not get there. Mrs. Wadsworth had opened the sliding glass door and stood gathering herself to speak with her head lowered as if she were trying first to swallow.
"I don't know who took my net,"
she said at last. "Who would do something like that, John?"
There was no way to answer. In any event, John had brought along a replacement, spending all of ten dollars. "I'm only charging you a thousand," he said, winking. After an apparently conflicted pause, he asked her how she felt today.
She said, "I feel awful. My house is no longer my own, John, and when you've lived as long as I have - never did I have a dirty house, and I raised three children here, and they all learned to swim, at McGaugh Elementary."
"What year was the pool built?" I asked.
"February 1969", she said, which meant that Mrs. Wadsworth had been young with the Beatles.
Afterwards I asked John if he felt any desire to stop humoring this woman - to break through to her, take a risk for love and concern - and he seemed to actually brighten up thinking about it. "You might be right. What would I have to lose? I'd almost gain if I lost her as a customer."
We were getting to very few homes. A wicked Santa Ana over the weekend had turned the pools into twiggy marshes ("For seven years, I hated wind," a former pool man told me, closing that chapter of his life). The benefit of this was that the day broke amazingly clear, an expectant, fragrant-desert morning. In the older neighborhoods, the blue-trimmed craftsman houses looked like sailor shirts, and you could hear the chink of a tetherball chain from a nearby schoolyard. But along the route, residents stood outside as if there'd been an accident. "Nothing's working," said a woman in her back yard beside an overwhelmed filter pump.
The other reason John was behind was that he'd spent Monday attending a memorial service - and it was a brutal one, for the week-old baby of a certain young couple. The mother, maybe not surprisingly, was having nobody's formulaic compassion; in fact, her eulogy accused the gatherers of taking life for granted - of not deserving life, of being deader than her baby. "We are the dead ones!" she yelled. Then, at a critical moment, she opened the casket in order to pray - i.e., why pray for a resurrection if you didn't have faith enough to look? - which gesture had been too much for some people to bear. The baby did not resurrect, but everyone left knowing what a memorial was supposed to be about.
We weren't long done with this discussion when we visited Mrs. Stewart, a fortyish woman with a cigarette in a filter holder who announced that her husband's lung cancer had returned.
John stood with his head tortoised forward
and his hands on his hips. "Oh, my word. I am sorry to hear that."
She took an impatient drag on the cigarette, half-turning toward the house; she was not going to go too deeply into this.
"This is a writer," John announced, sensing some confusion. "He's actually writing about me. The Life of a Pool Man."
"You know, when I saw him with you, I thought: Don't you leave me now, John. I thought you were giving your route to someone!" She looked at me. "John's the best there is. I'd give up Poopsie before I gave up John."
The late afternoon was starting to turn cold, which on top of a sunburn felt like missing the last bus of the day. At Bixby Hill in Long Beach, nicknamed "Pill Hill" because a lot of doctors live there, a former actor named Mr. Dorsett tried to explain the solar panels up on the roof. Wind was murking up the water, and you could hear neighbors making their dinner and John's knuckles banging around to get the truck properly loaded.
"Have a good evening," John said,
"Well," Mr. Dorsett said, turning the word toward a Ronald Reagan moment, "having a chat with you fellows is part of having a good evening. I thank you for coming!" Then he was hustling indoors too, as if he realized all at once that this was only March, false summer having made fools of everyone.
AN AERIAL VIEW OF CALIFORNIA today would show more than a million pools in the ground, as many pools as there are residents of Nevada - evidence of an overpowering instinct either to lay down our burdens by water, or never leave the suburbs, or be gorgeously dead for a summer, like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate - the grandest postwar version of that daydream having been that of the Anthony Brothers, whose business began when they dug their own pool by hand out in Hawthorne, and the neighbor over the backyard fence asked for one of the same. Nowadays, Anthony-Sylvan, which earned 38 percent less in 2001 than in 2000, has diversified into typewriters and fishing supplies, and you get the impression that the business has had to do some growing up. At the service level, fees are pinched to the point of near humiliation. You can make $40,000 or $50,000 a year if you never stop for air, just for a customer to decide he wants you summers only, when your chemical costs quadruple. John complains too about pool supply stores that offer cleaning service directly to the public, often underbidding him. At night, pool men grouse about such subjects over the Internet.
They also talk shop about everything from parts per million of dissolved solids to solutions for cracked, winter hands (Vitamin E lotion, not oil, under disposable latex gloves). And they network for things like sick route coverage and liability insurance: Gone are the metal ring-toss games of my childhood. In the swimming pool business, fantasies of paradise are often giving way to the realities of accident and aging. Robert Altman's Short Cuts famously depicted a pool man's disillusion at the end of a workday: a two-income apartment, and a wife who sells phone sex.
What donut shops are to police, Ecco's Pizza is to pool cleaners, several of whose associations convene there one night a month. ("Wayne's going to explain the new life insurance card," announced a United Pool Association secretary, upon which Wayne stood up and said, "Real quick, I don't know if everybody knows this, but you receive 100 percent coverage for the following: loss of both hands or both feet, loss of entire sight of both eyes, loss of one hand and one foot, loss of one hand and entire sight in one eye, loss of one foot and the entire sight of one eye, loss of speech and hearing in both ears. A hundred percent.") There, I picked up a few tales about dogbites and pratfalls and novice pool men who flooded a home by running a drainage line from a pool to a toilet, or who overchlorinated the hair off a rich man's shins. John said that he himself once fell into a pool - in winter, off an unhinged diving board that he'd bellied onto to fix a light beneath. There'd been a group of kids watching, and according to Barbara, John went home shook up, and a little upset at himself.
In most pool man stories the subtext is status, with a note of social commentary: the pool man in the role of itinerant conscience, the vicar at the fringe of a hedonist wedding. Delivered by life to two very divergent realities are, say, Keith Moon - who got drunk and drove a luxury gas guzzler into the pool of a Holiday Inn on his 21st birthday - and the figure who greeted him afterwards. "I figured they'd be so grateful I was alive, they'd overlook the Lincoln Continental. But no," Moon told Rolling Stone. "There's only one person standing there, and 'e's the pool cleaner. And 'e's furious."
YOU COULD LEARN John's routine in a jiffy. Enter a neighborhood, often past a checkpoint or a sign (WINDWARD POINTE, EST. 2000). Dash surfactant from a squeeze bottle across the water, brush tiles like they're oversized molars. Sometimes break down a filter system composed of Diatemaceous Earth (pool water is purified, all too poetically, by microscopic sea fossils). Chemicals mixed and shaken in their plastic jiggers to the right pH, a sunrise pink.
Almost all John's pools were white, with a very occasional clove-gum gray, for the illusion of a shady lagoon. In one back yard, a hand-painted sign with a singing lovebird read: Come into my garden and dream your cares away.
Mrs. Wadsworth had a few cares still to dream away. This week she spent four or five minutes explaining that she would be sending in her February check ahead of John's bill because she wanted the amount on her March statement, did he understand? Also she spoke about the missing pole skimmer, which John on a lucky hunch bent over and found behind a heater shed.
She didn't seem that excited. Anyway, the
net had been torn through. "The gardeners must have stuck it
back there," John said.
"My husband built that shed," Mrs. Wadsworth remarked as a point of pride. "All nuts and bolts. He didn't use a single nail."
We asked how she was doing.
"Ha!" Mrs. Wadsworth blurted, almost rejuvenated by her vehemence. "I think I should just roll over. Do you know why, John? I want to do all the things I'm no longer able to do."
John said, "You should come out maybe, and enjoy the day."
Mrs. Wadsworth just lowered her head, until it was touching the inside of the screen door.
In the presence of a matriarch (in the presence of lots of customers, actually, but especially older women), John comes across as half minister, half inadequate son, solicitous to a level that a more ambitious pool man - a pool man with a magnetic car sign! - might not be. The thought of disrespecting a customer seemed to offend his sense of chivalry more than servitude could. Once, to fix a leak for a housewife in Lakewood, John phoned up a certain legendary repair artist - a frogman, someone the UPA members stood in stark awe of - a man who, as it turned out, lost patience with the customer's ignorant hovering. "Would you explain the problem once more to my husband?" she said, handing the frogman a phone. And he replied, "I don't have time to talk to your husband." Then he passed the phone to John (who ultimately took the fall, getting fired for the whole fiasco) and walked off the job in his wet suit.
That made John indignant. Not the loss of the $50 a month, but the principle. And he should never have recommended a contractor he didn't know anything about. Feeling guilty, he spoke out at the next UPA meeting, letting everyone know how the frogman behaved. "Could you imagine doing that to a client?" he raved. "It would be like disrespecting Mrs. Wadsworth."
One thing John respected about his own parents was that he always knew where they stood. His father liked arguing so much he kept an abacus behind his wet bar to keep track of trivial bets. John himself often didn't realize that an argument had gone past casual until it was too late.
The upside to strong opinions was that he wasn't afraid to sound presumptuous, if he just happened to be standing outside someone's sliding glass door with an answer to their problem. One time, to help resolve a customer's family squabble (two brothers-in-law at war over some work done to the house), John said he barely hesitated before introducing a game of Conflict Resolution, which resembled hopskotch. (We got out of the truck and stepped over to the sidewalk; it was demonstration time.) First, you stand dead center and state your ISSUE. Then hop to three lateral declarations, ends first,
I FEEL_____ I WANT _____ I THINK_____
ending with two mighty hops forward:
I'M COMMITTED TO_____.
Landing with both feet to demonstrate, John was still plainly moved by the power of this final sacrificial step.
He didn't tell me specifically how the parties came to terms - only that they did, and the family thanked him.
A COUPLE OF TIMES I THOUGHT: I've got the wrong guy. I'm on the wrong pool route. When I started out riding with John I was looking for things like (1) the way summer used to look, (2) a cush job, (3) an alternate reality, the kind in which my Mom and her friends used to work and play in the sun, seemingly free from cares and cancers, (4) I wanted my Mom back (who died in winter 1996), plus my Dad (winter 1991) and my oldest sister (winter 1999), (5) not to die the way my Mom did, too ashamed to let herself be seen in a bathing suit, and obsessed with objects breaking down in the house.
The pool guy who said that for seven years he hated the wind - Steve Schmidt, a local fine artist - brought a genuine, dropout spirit to the job. All he'd ever wanted was "a steady route of pools with good suction." (Windless heat, concrete permanence, the unrent waterline - this was a Nirvana I understood.) He considered the aesthetic of light and surfaces to be "meditative" (the sound alone, "all silent but for the motor," could induce a post-hypnotic state), and he wanted that influence in some paintings he was doing at the time.
So for the first few years he drove around in the conceptual installation that was the Inland Empire, shirtless, not only basking in my dream job but rubbing it in. So streamlined was his routine that he jumped into each pool after cleaning it, lit a cigarette walking back to the truck, and pulled up dry at the next house in time with his last puff.
True, the long-range picture was terrifying. All the men who grew roots in the business struck him as lizardly mechanics. And he was so bad at repairs that whenever he flicked on a pool light he was surprised if it worked. On the other hand, he could eat mushrooms and sit on somebody's dirty diving board for hours with his Walkman on, just vacuuming the deep end with an extension pole that swore to him it was part of his arm. And he got invited to big, drunken-sheriff parties. "Just bring yourself and a bottle of chlorine," the owners joked.
Once, there was a pretty girl naked on top of a patio awning, which may have seemed for a moment a good place not to be seen. He ignored the girl and finished cleaning.
But the aunt, who lived next door, caught him smiling. "You look like the cat who ate the canary," she said. He ignored that too.
Now, what is it, anyway, about exhibitionists and pool men? My last girlfriend before I got married bared herself freely in a University Estate backyard while her grandfather, the only dad she'd known, lay dying inside the house - her youthful privilege while it lasted, but I used to wonder how the pool man read her message. Look at me (but don't)? Pretend I'm in the Garden (but I'm not)? Save me from this body of death? You can practically see the crone within the maiden, the aging romantics gazing at their pools from the other end of years; you can practically hear them say, "What went wrong?" For thinking there was still enough summer left to be healed by a swim in his pool, Jay Gatsby got shot on a raft, an outcome we now have to wonder if he wanted: The convergence of Death Wish with Backyard California is a motif worthy of Melville. "Have you seen the movie Gods and Monsters?" Steve asked me when we first sat down to talk. More than Prince of Bel Air or Earth Girls are Easy, this is the movie that, according to the veteran pool cleaner, had it about right. In it, a man tries to provoke his gardener to kill him.
Indeed, one of Steve own customers, a "frail professor who raised pugs" (the dogs kept sinking, Steve kept saving them), spent a season drinking White Russians in his boxer shorts by the pool, and then shot himself. But lived. As soon as he got better, he passed himself off as a cuckold to the biker next door, who crushed his head with a hammer.
Sometimes, when pool men are asked about their naked housewife encounters, they're embarrassed to tell - knowing deep down, as every Casanova does, that the privilege they've been granted by these women hasn't done them any honor. "Most of the time," one pool man told me, "it's lonely old women with hair where there shouldn't be hair who want to chase you around the pool." One customer had offered her body in exchange for a false report to a heater warranty company. Another beckoned him to join her in the hot tub. ("Mind if I just sit here and watch you?") This isn't the subject he hoped we would talk about - being a repair enthusiast himself. His goal was to "work till his eyes bled and make money" - to which end he had cleaned pools in Los Angeles, Apple Valley, Victorville (where the young families with children had gone), Las Vegas (where you could jump across most of the pools and where "carbon filters are immensely popular," he doesn't know why), La Habra, San Bernardino, Diamond Bar. He used to drive from Palm Springs to Anaheim and then to Redding in a single day, and he carries in his wallet a photo of his parents, c. 1967, manning their first store, an Anthony Service Center.
His ambition had cost him, however. When he transferred to Las Vegas, his own wife and children refused to go, voting family values. He lasted there a year before missing the family and moving home, and things are better today but he never finds time to join them in the pool.
For the record, I know a few things about fathers and lost chances, my own dad having swum in our new Anthony pool less than a handful of times before he divorced from my mom in 1961 - the ground no sooner dug than a disappointment. Except there was this one afternoon, when I climbed up his knee, stomach, chest, to be tossed in the shallow end - over and over, as often as I asked, filling a need the size of a pool.
Contrast John, neither the escapist pool man nor the ambitious pool man so much as the pool man in the battle of life, going from one strange setting to the next, offering his vagabond take on whatever was put before him. One day we got news of an actual death. Having lost her husband two years ago - pneumonia had set in after a dental infection - Evelyn Katzaroff, a 62-year-old schoolteacher, had now lost her husband's brother, Al.
In portraits around the house, Pete Katzaroff smiled a big Ed McMahon smile, sometimes over the neck of a guitar. He'd designed their pool, too, which included a fountain in the mouth of a lion. A son - onetime Florida Marlin Robbie Katzaroff, whose photos have a room of their own - still holds the UCLA record for career triples.
Mrs. Katzaroff said she figured she'd retire
"That might be a good decision," John said. His eyes warmed and he nodded relief, as if he were seeing a good end to what started off bad. "Maybe, you know, you've been using work in a way just to cope. Now your grandkids will get you."
She agreed with that. "I just always felt that Pete was going to make it."
John said, "That dentist should have given antibiotics."
"He's with Al now. I wanted to tell you," Mrs. Katzaroff said. "Al sat up from his hospital bed, with his family around him, and he told his wife, 'I want to go to Pete's mansion. And I want the living waters.'"
THE WORST SECTION of John's route in Long Beach resembled the Deep South. There were powerline towers, dead lawns, a cracked plastic Aquaslide stamped BROWNVILLE, TX. At a public housing pool, John's net scooped up AA batteries, a Brass Eagle air-gun cartridge, a rock, a coat hanger, a Reebok, a Kit Kat wrapper, several cigarette butts and numerous plastic train tracks.
The wealthiest section, which was practically next door, had plantation-style balconies, gabled fences, pine trees, London lampposts, a languid beach towel, a bottle of serious suntan lotion: the land of SPF-4. In his garage, a customer in pleated shorts and spotless tennis shoes with clean stretch socks waved, chomping an invisible cigar. He was stacking some things, and he had a rich man's way of getting it done, as if three or four unmarked boxes on the clean garage floor had drawn him into a challenging but not unpleasant game of "work."
It was in this neighborhood that we ran into a Nigerian prince. We were driving at a gawker's pace, grabbing real-estate handouts as souvenirs, and a single small car bore down the road the other way, as if in a very low-speed game of chicken. The driver parked and got out with the key alert chiming. It was a white-haired African in vague ceremonial attire - black robe with gilded lions, which I managed to ask about.
"Why, I'm from a royal family in Nigeria,"
he began. "I'm worth -" His tongue tricked out the figures
in a sharp cadence: "one hundred and twenty five million dollars.
I'm going to be establishing a ministry around here. I have a crown,
too. Would you like to see it?"
"That's all right . . . ," I said, as he steered me toward his rented Chevy. "Sure, okay!"
He placed it in my hands, a stiff braided skullcap studded with gems.
"My friend John over there," I remarked confidingly, attempting to impress the prince, "is a very serious Christian."
"That right? You fellows looking for a home, too?"
"I clean some pools around here," John said.
"Oh - well, maybe I'll use you one day!" The prince's teeth were tusky yellow. And now there was a pause. "Shall we pray?"
So we seemed now to be joining hands in the middle of the road, a bristle-bearded pool man and an African prince, and me, Krusty the reporter, looking over my shoulder to see who might be watching through parted curtains while dialing the police.
The prayer began with strands of psalms and scriptures ("wherever two or more are gathered . . . the wisdom of the Lord is perfect . . . he who dwells in the secret place of the most high . . ."). Then it lifted up into a trembling, pitch-pipe kind of song ("I - love - the Lord - He's - so - good - to - me") that settled back down at last into dry silence on the old man's tongue. Afterwards, he got our addresses and gave us both high-fives. "It's all God's money," the prince said.
Only John heard him differently. John distinctly
heard him say, "I'm going to buy you guys a home."
"A home . . . each?" I said.
"I don't know! I just heard, 'you guys a home.'"
"I didn't hear that at all," I said.
But I imagined us moving to the neighborhood, separately or together, and swimming in our pools all day and night (while the regular residents disappeared, a sort of rapture in reverse): Pool Man Heaven.
THROUGH ALL THIS, THOUGH, John's customers were dying in earnest. After Al Katzaroff it was Jim Stewart, the husband who couldn't stop smoking. We watched him helped to the passenger seat of a car, heading to Kaiser. "Don't just pray for him to hang around," said his wife. And when he died, she told John, "Don't you leave me now."
The same day, we drove to see Mrs. Wadsworth, who not only hadn't died, but she'd let me talk her into an interview.
"I've got history, baby," she told me on the phone. "I'm a survivor. But I'm not surviving now. Listen to me. I'm a doer, a shaker, a rattler and a roller. I taught my kids to flutter-kick in that pool. I bet you never heard that word either. But for two years I haven't been able to do the things I want to do. I can't get on with my life," she explained, "until these neighbors cut back these trees out of there! And they're both mad at me now, and it's breaking my heart - I've never had a neighbor mad at me!"
My fantasy was that in her living room Mrs. Wadsworth would warm to the subject of her life after all. But when we got there, she changed her mind about the visit. Her daughter had been in a fender-bender - no injuries, Mrs. Wadsworth said, but dealing with insurance companies was a nightmare. It would be simply unthinkable to let us see her house in such disarray, nor could she seem to open the screen door and step out, not if the house was burning. Which from my view and John's, it essentially was. It wasn't hard to imagine that Mrs. Wadsworth would never use her swimming pool again.
Whereas both John and I felt a fair amount of pressure just now to stay young. Having raised four children nearly to adulthood, he and Barbara were assuming custody of two more, from an overwhelmed, schizophrenic friend. Having managed to keep three kids fed, my wife and I were expecting a fourth child by summer - an unbeatable way to stay young, if you overlooked the fact that you were exhausted already. A joyous chance to set the boulder of your life's work back at the base of the mountain, where Sisyphus was young. The truth was that I was depressed, and had been since I thought up the idea of riding with a pool man. My work was in a drought, and I lacked even the poolside memory of how to revel in shutting down, let alone recapture a child's sense of joy.
At one point, a career coach asked me how
things were at home.
"I've been difficult to be around," I said.
He said, "When you have been successful in your work, have you been nicer to be around?"
"Actually, yes," I said. I felt myself sit forward. "When I'm getting stroked at work, I think I'm much nicer overall."
He looked sad and confident at the same time. "God can't let that attitude continue, Alan." His tone seemed to say we weren't leaving the room until I stopped misdiagnosing my problem.
Then he hugged me and prayed for me (what kind of day would it be if I didn't get prayed over by two guys in an afternoon?), and I drove home thinking the time has come, this could be the day I receive the truth, that my ability to love and be loved does not depend on how I'm doing in the world. And spent two or three more days sitting around like a yogi, practicing feeling loved, practicing not frowning, feeling like a member of my family and a success and a child.
The next time I saw John, he was talking to another guy, who John didn't know, which was funny, because he turned out to be a pool man too. And they stood around talking spiritual things, one pool man to another, except the first pool guy looked strung out and ashen. He said he'd just driven back from Joshua Tree, where he always used to feel all spiritually connected, only this time a voice said, "I'm not here." Which was not the reassurance he wanted.
"Oh, my word," John said, his mouth dropping. And he went on to explain that of course, if you were seeking Life in an experience of the past, a voice would say, "I'm not here." John's eyebrows were jumping. "Don't you see?"
So let's just say that my time with the pool
man has been an off-season Christmas Carol. The ghost of poolside
future is death. And the ghost of poolside past is nothing but a pretty
Whereas the ghost of Summer 2002 arrives at a 12-year-old's birthday party in Mission Viejo in the middle of May. The pool is a brand new tank above the ground. The chemicals are balanced. The living water is butt cold, freaking out the children. I have a stupid knee brace from an old injury, and thinning hair, and my trunks fit too tightly around my wintery stomach, but I can't afford more worry. Both the baby on the way and the baby in the casket say that this is my time.
And I plunge in. (Thank you, Mr. Pool Man!) I will never be younger.