Beyond The Pool
Most days my life is simple. I sit at a desk crammed with papers, scribbled Post-it notes and bills, staring out the window toward the communal pool to watch the play of light on water and see what’s been magnetized into its cool depths. My wife and I are in our mid-fifties now; I can hardly remember being young. Married thirty years ago, we drove west from Kansas City toward the edge of the continent, seeking the beach and ocean. A decent plan.
Unfortunately, we broke down in Arizona, got delayed in Las Vegas, and stayed two years near Temecula. Carolyn seemed happy enough just reaching California.
That was twenty years back.
I drifted through various jobs. I bet you saw me, not really clear, but in the periphery of your vision. The blur of people keeping the basic structure of this world fused together. I fixed roofs under the scorch of inland sun until the tar smell and the heat fried me. Worked at Carrows Restaurant for a piece. Fired after a drunken scuffle with some rude customers. Down on my luck, I applied for a job picking vegetables north of King City. The head honcho said he only hired Mexicans. Claimed I would drop dead doing the backbreaking labor they did for five bucks an hour. I left feeling sad over how weak we’d become. Hell, I was a big lug, descended from Kansan farmers, dust bowl dreamers who made their way west in the young end of the past century, happy to do that exact work.
A lot of jobs get mixed up in my brain, and I help the confusion with alcohol. I didn’t plan to become the resident manager of a twenty-unit apartment complex in Palm Desert. Nobody does. It’s something you tumble downhill past and reach your arms up to grab so you don’t slide further to the bottom. Because you can always sink farther.
In exchange, we live rent-free in a ground floor apartment, and I receive a stipend. A crazy word that seemed outdated when I first heard it as a teenager. A word that sort of sounds like what it is. Not very impressive. Between that and Carolyn working at department stores, we get by.
Our dreams shrank in scope from seeing the Pacific Ocean to me observing a pool encircled by two floors of apartments outside my window. The San Jacinto Range rises to the east. Just below, the Indio Hills look like dried brown clay, and windstorms cause fine particles to coat your clothes. I try to avoid dwelling on things I’ve seen.
“Rob, can we go to the coast this year?” Carolyn asked yesterday, rubbing my shoulder.
“Yeah, definitely.” I nodded, my elbows propped on the desk.
“We could buy an RV, park by the beach. Move whenever we want to.”
Carolyn has asked that same question for the fifteen years we’ve been at Cactus Gardens Apartments. A running joke we used to chuckle over. “Sure, one of these days . . .”
This time she uttered it as a simple plea, pitched between a whisper and a whimper.
Neither of us laughed.
I started a journal years back. Figured various incidents I witnessed might make for a good book. However, repercussions would occur if certain details were revealed. Maybe I’m stockpiling secrets to be made public after I no longer exist.
Earlier, the landline phone rang on my desk.
“Hey, Bobby. Everything good today?”
“Yes, Mr. Z.” His name was Anthony Zanetti, boss of the management company that owned the Cactus Gardens, but he preferred Mr. Z.
“How’s your back?” he asked. “Those pills I gave you working?”
“Thanks, they helped.”
“Good, good. I can always get more. Bought a surplus from a . . . Canadian pharmacy.” He paused, breathing heavily. “Anyhoo, is apartment #206 ready to rent?”
“I saw your men repainted and re-carpeted it overnight.” I wasn’t sure how to phrase what I wanted to communicate. “So I guess that young woman has gone. Moved on.”
“You don’t notice her car in the parking lot, do you?” he said. “You don’t see her suitcases or clothes, so I’d say you guessed right. Most likely Phoenix or Vegas.”
“Really? That’s where she is now?”
Mr. Z laughed. “Well, there’s a lot of desert to cross to reach either one, so who can really say. But she’s definitely in transit.” A silence lingered on the line. “You kind of liked Debbie, didn’t you, Bobby?”
“She was nice, but I never get attached to tenants.” I sighed, very quiet.
I get up just before dawn, before Carolyn and the rest of the world. At my desk sipping from a steaming mug of coffee, I watch the dark sky lighten, then illuminate with the colors of sunrise. As the red, orange, and yellow reflects across the surface of the pool, I squint and picture a mild ocean lapping against the California coastline. I can imagine birdcalls outside as seagull shrieks, so for that magical time until the sun appears and the vagueness of dawn is dispelled by another bright hot day, I’m happy.
Of late, I find myself weighed down at the bottom of the deep end, holding my breath and staring up toward the sunlit opaque portal to reality. Just as my mouth bursts open to choke on chlorinated water, I gasp awake in bed.
Mr. Z’s company took over the Cactus Gardens eleven years ago. Right away things changed. Before, people committed to a year lease, but Mr. Z allowed short-term rentals. I recognized long-termers like me, the Native Americans who worked as bartenders or security at casinos, and two Middle Eastern families, the women in hijabs. However, newer tenants appeared and disappeared fast. Former showgirls rented one-bedrooms. They had bodies that defied logic and tough cement faces, the kind that only look good onstage spackled with makeup.
Hard-faced men in casual suits visited the women. They showed the dead eyes of bail bondsmen, collection agents, and professional gamblers. I’d hear their cars arriving late at night or screeching away before dawn.
“The girls pay off gambling debts by entertaining special friends of Mr. Z,” Mel the handyman told me, smirking.
I knew exactly what “entertaining” meant.
Mr. Z worked out of an office in Palm Springs and my tiny universe existed fifteen miles south. It wasn’t Vegas, baby, but Aqua Caliente, Fantasy Springs, and Morongo Casino held enough temptations to lure the inland California crowd, and those who’d fallen out of favor in Nevada.
Mr. Z’s primary rule was, if anyone got injured or anything suspicious occurred, I would report to him. Not call the police or an ambulance. Mr. Z had his own private security team that carried bags of first-aid supplies.
Roughly ten years ago, I woke an hour before dawn. In retrospect I like to think a psychic sense alerted me. I shuffled from the tomb of our bedroom in my slippers and bathrobe to hunker down at my desk. I kept staring outside in a trance, still groggy, and even though I was forty-five back then, I already had that sense of lurching rapidly toward the more difficult half of life. Instead of sitting, I slumped; instead of dreaming of the future, I thought of absolutely nothing.
Something seemed weird about the pool. Looked like a tarp or a tablecloth had blown onto the water, but I was still too anchored to my chair to give a shit. As my fuzzy eyes focused, the thing resembled an overcoat. Not much reason for a coat in Palm Desert.
Carolyn kept snoring up a storm in the bedroom. I made sure my boxers weren’t giving a peep show and cinched my bathrobe belt tight, then carefully twisted open the front door and padded outside to the lip of the pool.
Oh, there was a coat all right—attached to a man’s body. I didn’t know much, but could tell he wasn’t treading water. My first instinct to contact the cops got quashed by fear of losing my job. Inside, I pulled the landline into the bathroom and phoned: “Mr. Zanetti?” A whisper. Then louder. “Mr. Z?”
“Bobby?” he said in a feral snarl. “Do you know what time it is?” I heard him struggle to dig his voice out of his throat. “What is it? This better be important.”
“There’s a man floating,” I said, “in your pool. What should I do? I think he’s . . .”
Rustling sounded across the line. “Don’t panic, I’m on it.” He spat. “My guys will be over right away to take him to Kaiser Permanente. Don’t tell anyone. Your wife?”
“Is there blood in the water?”
“No, not that I could see.”
“Lucky break. One of our renters came home drunk as a skunk, toppled into the pool. Horrible, but accidents happen. Understood?”
“Whatever you say is good enough for me.”
Two large guys showed twenty minutes later, fished the corpse over with a skimmer net before lifting it into a body bag. Neither spoke. One man kept checking the sky and approaching dawn, while the other scanned the shuttered apartments. They carried the bag toward the parking lot. I followed along to watch them bend the figure into the trunk of a big Lincoln.
“Need any help?” I asked.
“No,” said the Latino guy with a pocked face. “We are driving to the hospital right away.”
“Go back to sleep,” said the white dude. “We’ve got this.” Their car rumbled to life and sped off, though not north to Palm Springs and Kaiser Permanente, but rather south toward the desert.
Since the floater wasn’t a Cactus Gardens tenant, neighbors never mentioned him. Read something about Buddy Vernon, a lounge singer who ran out on his casino contract and disappeared. Coincidence? Don’t know.
Sometimes I wondered if it actually happened, hoped it was a dream, but knew deep down it wasn’t. I’ve learned there are things you can’t even confide to your wife, and that became one. Certain mornings afterwards I awoke drenched in sweat. I’d shamble over to the window but see nothing in the water. Years passed and thanks to alcohol and pain pills, my memory got hazier, the incident pushed to remote regions of my brain. Then one random day, I’d see a shirt or dark towel bobbing on the pool’s surface and remember everything. My knees would wobble and metallic gears started grinding in my guts.
Recently, Carolyn hovered nearby as I sat hunched over my journal. “Honey, is everything alright?” She wiped sweat off of my neck with a wash towel.
“Sure. I was trying to think of something.”
“I hope we stay together forever,” she said.
Dazed in the lingering night heat, I replied, “Why?”
“So we can die together . . .”
I took her hand and pumped it, but didn’t turn to look at her face. Or maybe I didn’t want her to see mine.
Later on, after the house went quiet, I crept inside our dark bedroom, the worn air conditioner struggling against nature, and tucked in next to Carolyn. Like every other night I can recall, we died together for six or seven hours until I woke, an unthinking zombie at dawn.
Two months ago, Debbie moved her dark hair and olive skin into the Cactus Gardens. Rumor had it she was a showgirl who also worked casino card tables. She often lay by the pool in a black bikini, and I struggled not to notice her. Debbie looked natural: slim with a nice figure, though without the augmentations of Vegas strippers.
Every morning, I skimmed bugs, leaves, Band-Aids and sometimes fronds from our three palm trees off the pool’s surface. Sunbathers generally ignored my presence, but she spoke to me on her first day out.
“You’re Rob the manager, right?” She lowered her sunglasses, appraising me. “I’m Debbie.”
“You seem young for that name.”
“Yeah, I took my mother’s name.” She winced. “Margaret never suited me, never worked for this.” She gestured toward her body as if a separate commodity—a flashy car or expensive jewelry.
The next week, I noticed Debbie smoking while sunning. Cigarettes would eventually wrinkle her face, and the dry heat in Palm Desert had already baked countless casino girls into dried leathery husks. But I knew young women smoked because it calmed their nerves and killed their appetite, and they needed to keep thin to stay employed. Bulimia, smoking, or drugs. And sometimes all three.
I pointed at the prominently displayed No Smoking sign and flexed a sad smile.
“Sure, sure.” She stubbed the butt out on the cement by her portable radio. “I was just a little wound-up. I’m thirty-four. I mean, I know I look twenty-nine, but . . .”
I kept silent. I’ve never met any woman from Palm Springs or Vegas who looked younger than her age. While wearing feathers and a skimpy costume with face-paint glowing beneath colored track lights, they are the perfect age—whatever age that may be. But due to late nights, their diet, and the stiff drinks, when you see them off-duty in broad daylight, every one appears gray and blurry, like they’re riding the express train to middle age with no stops in sight.
Debbie flipped over on her stomach in the folding chaise lounge chair. “I know thirty-four doesn’t seem old to . . .” She stopped before insulting me. “Most people wouldn’t consider me old,” Debbie continued. “But at the casinos, younger girls are always clawing for your job.” She angled her face to make eye contact. “Anyway, I’m glad my boss offered me time here to rest and get healthy. Then I’ll give it five more years, try to find a high roller to marry before it’s too late.” She laughed like a surfacing swimmer’s gasp for breath.
“Your boss? Mr. Z?”
Debbie didn’t answer me. Instead, she sat up and peeled down her top an inch to compare her tan with the paler flesh.
I pivoted toward the pool—fast.
“So what about you, and your wife?” Debbie asked in a low conspiratorial voice. “Are you happy? I envy people in a long marriage.” She spread tanning lotion over herself so I concentrated on the pudgy kid floating inside an inflatable plastic unicorn. Probably pissing in the pool. I studied every detail of that damn unicorn.
“Do you still get along? Does she still . . . Sorry, I’m being nosy.”
“We’re friends, companions. After thirty years, that’s what’s important.”
“You’re a decent guy, Rob.” With that, Debbie reclined and closed her eyes, switching me off like a TV set.
Two weeks later, Mr. Z made the rounds. If certain occupants refused to tender their rent, management paid a friendly visit to remind them to meet their obligations. The Cactus Gardens office didn’t do background or credit checks, but they were extremely stringent about prompt rent payment.
Mr. Z stopped by on his way out. “Bobby, good to see you, my man. How’s the back pain?”
“Not so bad today.”
“Great.” He flashed a crooked smile under his creepy mustache. “I can get you whatever pills you need, cheap.” He peered into the bedroom to make sure Carolyn wasn’t around. “Pills that can make you fuck like a horse.” He made a fist and crooked his elbow.
“Thanks, but I don’t want to, uh, like a horse . . .”
Mr. Z’s face sank, as if I’d said I hated beer, sports, pizza, and women. “Yeah, well, you know where to reach me.” He palmed his shiny dark hair back and headed for the parking lot.
I didn’t see Debbie sprawled by the pool the next morning. Several days later and I began to wonder. So I checked the railings skirting the access balcony on the second floor. Someone could plunge and injure themselves if they weren’t secure. No, I didn’t linger outside Debbie’s apartment. Just doing my job.
Her door creaked open, and even at noon. all I could see was darkness.
“Rob, please come in, will you?”
I glanced behind me, but the nine to five people had gone to work and the casino types were still sleeping it off.
Debbie looked shrunken and fragile inside, the blinds and curtains drawn. She wore a short gauzy bathrobe that showed a lot of leg with a V-neck collar pointing toward trouble. One of her eyes appeared weird and swollen, and she had pancaked a lot of makeup around it.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said. “I drank too much last night, stumbled into the bathtub when I got home.”
“Did Mr. Z do that?”
“No, no. I fell.”
Debbie was a terrible liar. Though I smelled whiskey perfuming her as she pressed close.
“You’re a—” she rested her forehead against my shoulder. “—a big, solid guy.” Her features raced through a series of calculations. “I can’t go back to Vegas and the casinos. Don’t you want to leave here someday, find out what’s beyond that pool?”
“Look, if you’d help me get free, we could move up north. There’s work in Reno and we could find a small cabin on the east side of Lake Tahoe. It’s beautiful in those mountains.”
“We?” I asked. “Free from who?”
She staggered back a bit and her bathrobe opened just enough to dazzle me. Debbie giggled, still buzzed, then tightened the belt on her robe. “I know you’d have to leave your wife, but I could take care—”
“I’m twenty years older than you.”
“I don’t judge faces or ages anymore. Just character.”
“I have to go.” She’d gotten me all riled up, and I didn’t want her noticing the effects: complexion flushing, heart pumping, blood flowing.
“Give me your answer soon, please.” Her voice sounded like the plea of a lost little girl.
A raucous party happened in Debbie’s apartment four days later. I wasn’t invited, but I understood, being married and all. Someone complained to the cops who shut the whole fracas down after one am. I didn’t see Debbie the next morning, though Mr. Z showed and marched around like he had a ruler rammed up his ass. For once he didn’t offer to sell me pills.
A constant grind of car engines sounded throughout that night but I ignored it, blanketed by the aural wash of our air conditioner. At dawn, I hiked the outer stairway to stroll by Debbie’s window. I needed to know if she was for real about me, about us. The curtains lay wide open and as the rays of sunrise illuminated the world, it became clear her apartment was empty. All signs of Debbie were gone.
A Mexican woman peeked from next door with a sleep-deprived face that told its own story. Children clutched at her legs. She didn’t speak any English. “Cuidado,” she said, pointing.
Debbie’s beat-up Toyota Camry had vanished from the parking lot too. I felt gears churning inside, but as usual, let nothing show through my expression or in my eyes.
Was I that guy floating on the pool’s surface, or had I reached a later stage, sodden and submerged at the bottom?
A week later, Carolyn found me staring at the blinds at midnight, not writing or reading.
“You miss that woman, right?” She tousled my hair. “You had a little crush on her.” She laughed, but in a sympathetic way. “It’s alright.” Carolyn knelt down trying to gauge my poker face. “We’re past those things, Rob. Part of God’s plan now.” She kissed my cheek before shuffling toward the bedroom in her pink bathrobe and fuzzy slippers. “Come to sleep soon.”
An hour passes. I switch off the lights and huddle against Carolyn’s slumbering form. I consider my detailed journal. Maybe I’ll visit Mr. Z’s office tomorrow to show my hand.
Closing my eyes, I sink deep into oblivion, ocean waves lapping the shore. I’m dying together with my wife—as we’ve rehearsed for years. One of these nights it won’t be a rehearsal, and afterwards I’ll no longer wonder about the authorities and newspapers getting mailed copies of my journal. I won’t care whether Debbie’s alive or has become another of Mr. Z’s dirty secrets discarded out in the desert. I just know at a certain point we either go by our own free will or a stranger’s hand tugs us along. And then we find out exactly what lies beyond the pool.