16 February 2007 | Vol. 6, No. 4
No More Alligator Feet
Admittedly, the soles of my feet were pretty callous—thick, like tire tread—but when you're a professional pool cleaner thick's a good thing. It helps me walk around a pool deck at a relaxed speed, which means I do a better job skimming junk from the surface and brushing submerged walls; plus, with thick soles I can—well, could—fetch my girlfriend's morning paper from the one hundred-plus degree pavement without burning my feet. It's an adaptation, I told her. Sue didn't think so.
"It's gross. Your feet look like an alligator's. Why don't you just work in sandals?"
"Because," I said, "that's one of the joys of my profession. If you knew how good if feels to have your feet in green grass and a breeze blowing between your toes, you'd be shoeless too."
"It's kind of unprofessional, don't you think? I'm sure your customers think so."
"I don't know; I don't ask. I just clean their pool." I kneeled before Sue and, with the vested interest of a department store salesman, undid her laces and slid off her heels. A cool breeze blew in through the small, screened window. Golden shards of light fell across the couch. "Come feel for yourself."
I led her into our apartment building's courtyard, where, after glancing around to see if any neighbors were looking, she curled her toes into the cool, moist lawn and smiled. "It's evolution, honey. Get on the Darwin train; it's moving fast."
That was a year ago, right after we'd moved in together. She's been sleeping at Terry and Jeff's for the last six days, though, trying to figure out her next move. I've been here in limbo. One-bedroom apartments feel unnecessarily large with just one person in them. Who knows, I may be renting my own studio soon, or staying in this big apartment by myself 'til the lease runs out. But I doubt, despite what Sue may want, that I'll be getting a new job anytime soon.
You don't really choose pool cleaning as a living; it kind of chooses you. My father was a subcontractor until his knees gave out during a particularly grueling sheetrock job, leaving him on the couch on permanent disability the rest of his short life. But before he passed, he always said there was enough pool water in this city to fill an ocean, and someone had to clean it. Three years working construction for some of Dad's old employers and one unfinished business degree later, here I am.
The sight of blue water from an airplane or high ridge makes my stomach tingle: there's my handiwork, I think, cool and clear, like a good man's conscious. And here in Phoenix they need us pool cleaners year-round. People may not be swimming much from October to March, but neglect doesn't keep water clean; you should see the amount of palm fronds and mulberry leaves that end up under the protective blue tarps, looks like duckweed in a Southern swamp. Problem is, cleaning doesn't pay so great; your knees and neck and back constantly ache; you handle lots of chemicals; and even armed with sunscreen, sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats, some guys get melanoma. Every time I see a doctor I expect him to tell me that that purple mole on my shoulder, the one Sue kept poking at, is the lethal proof that I am not proactive. A lot goes into keeping all this water crystal blue, and very little thanks comes from it, so you make a bad thing good: you take off your shoes, breath in the fresh air, read a book in the sun with a nice cold soda on your lunch break, maybe nap in the back seat of your truck. The job may not be something to brag about—which Sue reminds me of constantly at parties and bars—but Sue does like my muscular arms and shapely calves, what she calls the body of a Greek athlete. Still, I feel like I'm drowning here.
Against the momentum of a thirty year habit, I've been trying to dress more my age, wear things like blazers and button up shirts that Sue finds sexy. The night of Terry and Jeff's Christmas party I put on a collared white linen shirt and my best khakis—clothes Sue'd bought me for a friend's wedding—plus these leather open-toed sandals that in the shop window I thought looked too yuppie but that I hoped might be a great compromise between my easy informality and Sue's reserve.
"Like the pants," Sue told me as I modeled the outfit. "But the white is too springy. And the shoes are too, I don't know, informal."
At first I thought, "Springy?" White is white. But, as irritating as it is to always have your wardrobe picked apart, that knowledge is also what I love about Sue: she knows etiquette and fashion and that kind of thing, and she's a go-getter. She has a career path, a vision, and she's chasing it like Blueticks after a scared raccoon.
Still, another part of me just wished she'd let me wear the damn sandals without comment. Not just that night, but always. I'm sorry, I've done a lot of things over the last two years to make the love of my life happy: agreeing to wash glasses as soon as I've used them (they sometimes piled up in my old apartment); not scraping the bottom of my dinner plate or cereal bowls in public because it reeks of classless desperation; letting her decorate the entire apartment—paintings, color schemes, four-hundred thread-count sheets, whatever she wanted. But she's just very concerned with appearing poor or cheap or weird—anything but perfect—to other people.
"Hey," I said one night after her hand had brushed the rough bottom of my feet, "at least I'm not like my dad: he ran around his hometown of Florence, Arizona sliding cardboard under his feet when it got too hot because his folks couldn't afford new shoes."
She laughed and said we'd both be single right now if I did that. She grew up poor and has been trying for something great, who knows what, ever since. Still, sophisticated or not, lovely or not, no one is going to spoil one of the few joys of my job. I'm an Arizonan. Shorts are a way of life here. Plus, the shoes come off in April and don't go back on until first frost in November.
It's not love me or leave me, but I do have to be me. Anyway, that night I swapped the sandals for some, I don't know, fancier leather shoes, loafers, whatever you call them. I should have just worn the sandals, for once stayed with what I thought looked good. I mean, shit, they cost ninety bucks, but, as usual, Sue was worried what her friends would think.
"I don't want them to see your calluses," she told me, which made my eyes roll and brow buckle. These are people we've been joining for a monthly Sunday dinner for a whole year, and she's known Terry since age sixteen. Weren't we past the impression stage and into the maintenance stage? Didn't Terry and Jeff already have an idea of what kind of person I was? Sue was?
Plus, I didn't tell Sue what to wear. Maybe I should have: Less slacks, more skirts, and make 'em short. See how horrible that sounds? You can't see my calluses from up top anyway.
The Christmas party was fun, if you consider fun hearing Terry and Jeff's coworkers, complete strangers, complain about the work and hygiene habits of other complete strangers. I told Sue and our hosts that it was a great party. Actually, the word I used was 'wonderful.' Sue likes when I use more imaginative, expressive words. Words like 'stuff' and 'thing' and 'good' are cop-outs, she says, the default setting for people who don't take the time to scoop deep into the well of the English language and find the word that precisely expresses the nuances in what they're saying. There's a word for everything, a college professor once told her, and our minds dull every time we don't use them.
Oh, and no cursing in public; it sounds too gruff. To that I say: fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. Shit shit shit shit shit.
Sometimes I mutter profanities under the rush of the shower where no one can hear. Sometimes there's no better word for the situation than 'fuck,' no more perfect word to express your emotion than one that amounts to a grunt, and the only way to get out my emotion is to do it by myself. I swear sometimes I think I suffer from a dangerous linguistic back-up, and that when I empty my mind of all the backed up profanity, my shoulders stop hurting and I can stand straighter than I could before. If anything, I'm going to develop high blood pressure before skin cancer.
Cursing alone in the shower is like dumping a bucket of stabilized chlorine into a filthy pool: a quick swoosh and it's just like new. Which is another irritation: we can't afford to have our own pool. We swim laps at 24-Fitness and sometimes, in a pinch, at our apartment complex's pool. But that one is too small to park a Beetle in and so green that a kid wouldn't even want to climb in to pee in it. Trust me, I know.
Anyway, I've been steadily putting money aside for a big purchase like a house—I always envisioned it being a down payment after I got married—and one day, I swear to God, I'm going to save up enough to buy a two-bedroom or bungalow complete with fireplace and garden and a big beautiful blue pool. Actually, if Sue and I had our own house we could have one of those nice aboveground pools with the plastic siding and little stepladder, which is far cheaper than a custom pool and requires a bit less upkeep. One day. (Damn, I sound like my mother who's always saying, "One day, when I win the lottery, I'll split it with you." She's been playing for forty-something years.) Until then, it's just 24-Fitness and this nasty apartment puddle, which I recently had the balls to clean myself—just in and out one night, commando style, when no one was looking.
It's been a long week. Before she left, I showed Sue a trick my parents showed me as a kid: park in the Palms Resort lot, walk through the side gate and treat yourself to hours of play in their legendary 1960's era pool. All for free. My mother always said, "You don't need to be rich to enjoy most of life's pleasures." But Sue was nervous about getting caught. "Will they arrest us?" she said as we sat in her car applying sunscreen. "Charge us for a room or something?"
I assured her that, when some friends and I got caught swimming there in high school, staff simply asked us to leave. She shook her head and looked like she was about to restart the car.
"We'd look like such idiots."
"No one is going to notice us anyway," I told her. "Trust me."
She thought we'd look less suspicious if we drove her new, charcoal gray
Nissan sedan, not my pickup, which was smart because that's the trick: look like a guest, blend in. I brought white towels that I'd stolen from the Palms years back—the same fluffy feel, same enormous dimensions, as swimmers would have. We parked among the Benzes in the large, sweltering lot—black asphalt gummy from the summer heat. High palm fronds rustled in the breeze. White light blinded us despite our sunglasses as it shone off the resort's thick clean stucco.
In the background stood the smooth red sandstone of Camelback Mountain, the city's most prominent geographic feature. Sue always found it beautiful, and she wrapped her thin lotioned arm around mine and gave me a kiss, shooting goose bumps all the way down to my ankles. We didn't kiss as much as we used to, didn't have sex that much either; I kissed her back and smiled. "Wait 'til you see the pool."
Absolute work of art. One of a kind. Occupying twice the area of a three-bedroom house, the pool stretches like a giant amoeba around a twenty-foot tall pile of artificial sandstone meant to resemble Camelback. Swimmers can wade into the rock, and once you pass through the cool wall of rushing water pouring down on either side, you enter a moist, dark cavern with a wet bar and Jacuzzi inside.
Vacationers from as far as Germany and Japan cover the deck every summer like beached driftwood. As strange as it was to be mixing with people who made as much money in three months as I did in a year, the anonymity was thrilling, that invigorating satisfaction of being mistaken for someone of means and class. Even dressed in bathing suits from TJ Maxx, we blended right in.
We swam up to the bar and ordered two strawberry daiquiris; they didn't sell margaritas. For three hours we floated and splashed, chased each other and laughed. I dunked her head in one of the waterfalls; she jumped on my back and dragged me underwater. When we first met, Sue frequently said she liked how much fun I always seemed to be having. Said I was always smiling, wore my tan as naturally as a Jamaican wore dreads, and loved how willing I always was to veer off scheduled course in pursuit of some spontaneous pleasures like a picnic of Budweiser and fried chicken or sex in our favorite desert park. She'd wished she was more relaxed back then; now she seems to have conceded to a restless ambition.
We sprawled on two chaise lounges and ordered a plate of broiled chipotle chicken. The pool was more of a paradise than something man-made. It was the kind of pool where I'd love to work, to sculpt the hedges and scrub the deck, because it makes people happy. I know it sounds cheesy, but you should see the people at this pool: leather-skinned ladies lounging with their closed eyes shielded behind dark pointed lenses, fat men reading men's magazines and The Wall Street Journal, squeezed into European cut bathing suits or bikinis or whatever those disturbing banana-hammocks are called, all so relaxed, all sipping spring water and mimosas, speaking different languages but united in the common pursuit of absolute delight.
Sue said, "You really should apply here."
"You know," I said, "I really should. That's a great idea."
It was things like that that upset Sue: that I didn't see the world as a series of better opportunities, that my sights weren't forever set on bigger and better things; I had what she called a "lack of initiative;" what I called "being happy where I was."
It didn't matter. Even if I had brought my résumé to the resort, I know they wouldn't have had any openings; that's the kind of gig where people stay forever, that pool geeks like me cling to if they're lucky enough to land it in the first place, which I am not. I pictured the head technician driving a shiny new green Jeep and flashing a bright Jack Nicholson smile, plump and tan from twenty years of service. To Sue, though, this sounded more like an excuse, like I didn't want the job or didn't sufficiently sell myself. She'd prefer I get out of pool cleaning entirely and think about designing them. Or better yet, go back to school and finish my undergrad degree and go into a real business like real estate or buying McDonald's franchises, something more lucrative, but I told her, sorry, I'm thirty years old, the cement on my career path has long since dried. She never saw the security in pools that I see.
Strange as it is, there are silent moments in the apartment where I'm actually glad she's gone. She's been on this you-need-to-find-a-better-paying-job kick for months and it was driving me nuts.
"We'll never be able to afford a house on our combined pay," she said one Sunday, alone in Jeff and Terry's kitchen. Sue's a dental assistant, not exactly a high roller, but she also doesn't know about the money I have saved up; she knows I have some, just not how much. Frankly, at this rate, she may never know.
Sure, cleaning pools may not be filling my savings account quickly, and it may be nothing to brag about, but it is honest work, which, as my dad always said, is something to be proud of. At least I'm not chugging beer or getting stoned all day like some of the roughnecks I've worked pools with over the years. Guys with no education, guys who couldn't seem to find jeans that fit. I mean, Christ, eyes as red as ASU Sun Devils' helmets, breath as boozy as a frat party—have some self-respect. You can alter the chemical composition of pool water, but you can't add an ounce of dignity to someone that's one big shallow end.
Sue acts like all poolies are alike, which only feeds the stereotype that we're all high school dropouts and trailer trash. Like the way she lied to Terry and Jeff when we first started dating, telling them I was a "supervisor at a glass company." Glass, like I know anything about that. I fumbled to come up with believable things—I mean items—to say about the glass industry: production methods, how it was more than just heated sand nowadays, real high tech. They fell for it, barely, but I was so ashamed. I wanted to slide like a wet noodle out of my chair and coil under the table. I wanted to break up.
I don't have hobbies like Sue and her friends. I don't knit like Terry or cook Cuban like Jeff. I failed out of community college, couldn't pass Spanish. But I'm good with my hands, good with people, and I like being outside. Sue doesn't seem to understand that. I don't think she ever will, and I wonder if it's worth trying for someone who isn't trying for you.
Anyway, I could bad mouth Sue's gig—wow, you stick your hands in dirty mouths all day, woo-hoo—but I'm proud of her: she's been at the same dentist's office for six years working her way up. Answering phones at the desk inspired her to return to school and to become a dental assistant; now she wants to get her PhD. She thinks that if she stays there long enough, proving her drive and abilities, they'll hire her on as medical staff with her name on the callbox and glass front door and everything. She's probably right. She's really smart and strategic that way. Long-range plans like that aren't my thing.
Along with the job stuff, what really caused some static was her insistence that I schedule a doctor's appointment for that mole on my back that she thinks is cancerous. "You have to follow up on these things, honey," she used to say. "Parking tickets, collection agency letters—ignoring them isn't going to make them go away."
She thought the same thing about my unwillingness to find another job, that it was lack of initiative, that I didn't have follow-through. "BS," I told her, "you're wrong," and I'd go on like I just did about how I just liked working outside and blah blah blah. Fine, I'm a wimp. I could never tell her the truth, that deep down, that so called "happy with where I am" thing was, or is, a sort of languishing resignation, the prisoner rationalizing his entrapment. Really I just know I'm not good enough for anything other than what destiny has already handed over. I'm not that great with people. Not good with numbers. Could never design a house of cards let alone a pool. That's just beyond my ability. Like my dad used to say about his bum knees: some things are just what they are, and that's the way it is.
Sometimes, after a fight, I'd fall asleep thinking, "This could be the last time we ever share a bed." Other days I'd be driving home from work smelling of chlorine, with this nervous flutter in my stomach, wondering if her little gray four-door would be parked in our apartment's lot or if there'd be a big moving van instead—maybe today was the day she decided she'd had enough of my poor, pool scum ass.
Living in wait for the ball to drop is like every day pushing a splinter deeper into your toe, and I've always feared Sue would leave me for some executive type or young up-and-comer. The longer we've shared this apartment, the more like a loser I feel, and I see, have almost come to expect, that the older she got and the more she schmoozed with her boss Dr. Barnes's big wig muckety-muck clients, she'd see the sparkly lure of the other side of the tracks, that greener grass, and that some suit friend of the doc would come in for a cleaning and sweep her off her feet. I mean really, how long can a classy woman like that, with all her shit together, run around with a dirty-finger-nailed tile-scraper in a beat up truck? Maybe I'm just her exotic experience, what she'll look back on and see was her walk on the wild side. She's probably better of with someone else anyway, someone with smooth feet and a retirement package.
Some comic once said: you can take the trash out of the yard, but you can't take the trash out of the owner, or something like that. The way he said it was hilarious, my paraphrase doesn't do it justice, but the point is clear: I am not a yard.
There are silent moments in the apartment when I miss Sue so much veins I didn't know I had in my face swell and my breathing gets shallow. Maybe part of me always hoped her sophistication and career ambition would rub off on me. I know that toward the end, I really was set on proving that I had way more initiative than she gave me credit for. Like when last month I cleaned our complex's damned dirty pool. Hindsight isn't always twenty-twenty; sometimes it's just blurry. Either way, I snuck out at 4:30 in the morning, tiptoeing across the carpet so not to wake her, and got caught shoeless shocking the pool. It's possible that it was just a dumb idea; I like to think that I just went too early. The landlord is a constant smoker with the ears of an antelope and a poolside apartment, and once he heard the three gallons of liquid chlorine hitting the pool, I swear he materialized in a puff of Marlboro smoke right beside me.
"What the hell is this?" he yelled.
"Just, uh." I failed to sweep all the testing tools back into my kit and instead sent them clattering across the deck. "The pH seemed too high, water was cloudy, so I was testing –"
"I'm calling the police."
That got me angry. Never mind that I'd just scooped out a small grocery bag's worth of debris and scrubbed scum off the underwater lights and was about to change the filters. No, he didn't see all that, didn't see the hundreds of dollars saved; he was just going to treat me like some asshole when I am a paying resident and a licensed professional. His behavior felt like so many of the yuppies' that never thank me or even offer a simple compliment after years of regular service. Sue never recognized the initiative and commitment involved in my clandestine cleaning, never swam in this pool afterwards. Hell, she's probably swam in Terry and Jeff's goddamm pool six times already though, stupid thing.
Once I explained to the landlord what I was doing, he stormed off and came by the apartment later that morning to apologize for being rude and to explain the rules of the lease and the possible legal action he could take were Sue and I not some of his favorite tenants. "I thought you was a terrorist putting some crazy new virus or bird flu in the water," he said.
No, I thought, my life is toxic enough. Sue, who was buzzing around the apartment getting ready for work, overheard the conversation and shot me a look cold enough to conjure snow in downtown Phoenix. "You did what?" she said after the landlord left. "And got caught?"
A dozen red roses didn't quell her anger. After that she couldn't look the landlord in the face anymore and made me take the rent to the office, which, admittedly, I was happy to do. Stuff like that just doesn't bother me like it does her. Did her.
After these six days of not speaking I'm beginning to fall deeper into the past tense. Bothers her or bothered her? Which is it? Are we over? It's all so up in the damn air. I wonder if I'll ever hold her again, ever kiss her soft insistent lips. The pool incident upset her. My refusal to have a doctor look at my mole pushed her over the edge.
"It may be pre-cancer," she said.
"It's always been there."
Her soft hands passed over the curve of my back. "But has it always been purple and funky?"
I looked back at her over my shoulder. "All moles are purple and funky." She threw my shirt atop my head. "You're the most stubborn person I've ever met." Her jogging shoes squeaked as they twisted on the linoleum floor. "Do you want to die young from sun and chemical exposure for so little money or what?"
The words 'fuck' and 'shit' were echoing in my mind constantly that week—fuck, shit, fuck, shit—and at that moment the echoing expletives rose to a painful pitch. I didn't want her to move out, I just wanted her to leave the subject alone.
"Oh, you want the sun to turn your skin to saddle leather and speckle you with melanomas." She paused to gauge her words' sting before going on. "And what insurance is going to pay for that? Your non-existent Arizona pool cleaners union?"
"It's not cancer," I said. "It's just a mole."
"Maybe when that mole has turned bright red and spread across your whole back you'll realize what's wrong."
"Not cancer. Just a mole."
"Uch." She leapt from the couch and started shoving shirts and dresses and panties into a backpack.
"Where are you going?"
"I don't know, I'm just going." She flung open the door. "Feel like I'm drowning in here." After ten minutes of whispering into her cell phone on the porch, she grabbed her keys and said she was staying with Terry and Jeff.
"For how long?"
Like I said, that was six days ago. If and when she'll come back I don't know. When she does return home though, she'll be happy to see that I've gotten a pedicure. No more calluses. No more alligator feet. Plus, the apartment's as clean as it's ever been. Glasses are arranged in the cupboard by size and color; all of Sue's fashion magazines and novels arranged alphabetically by title on a new solid oak bookshelf that Sue had been talking about ever since we saw it at this antique store last month and that yesterday I bought; of course, the pool's also clean. All she needs to do is come home. But she hasn't.
Time passes at the expense of sanity in situations like this. Alone, on the couch, I kept thinking how, before he died, my dad had said he was proud of me, which I was thankful for. He may have been a great father, but he was a mediocre husband. My mom left him after he repeatedly refused to turn his post-disability time into something more productive than a TV-watching opportunity. She thought his days would be better spent running a small online business or doing minor home repairs, something to supplement their income; even visiting the two brothers in Tucson he never spoke to was preferable. He preferred sleeping late and watching game shows. He was just stubborn that way: wouldn't go to the doctor for regular check-ups, refused to see the dentist until something hurt, blaming his apathy on health insurance with too high a co-pay. So, instead of waiting forever for him to change, Mom left, got remarried, moved to the other side of town. He died from colon cancer five years later.
After a few more lonely days of deliberation, I called Sue. Terry answered without a hello and handed the phone right over—damn caller i.d.
"So," Sue said, "scheduled a doctor's appointment yet?" I lied and told her yes, and she laughed. "I don't believe you."
She didn't answer, only said, "Looks like I'll be staying here indefinitely I guess," and paused for so long that I thought she hung up.
"I'll pay half this month's rent, and if I need any of my stuff, I'll get it during the day while you're scooping shit out of fucking pools."
Instead of saying how much I missed her and begging her to come home, all I said was, "See? 'Fuck' and 'shit,' sometimes there's no better words."
That night I drank a few beers too many and fell asleep on the couch wearing my mildewed work shorts, letting my buffed and filed toes stick out from beneath the blankets. If getting older means getting more confident about who you are and what you do, then bring on the years. I figure at this rate, I'll slide comfortably into middle age and never miss the discomfort and uncertainty of my late twenties. Hopefully by then I'll be married, have that house, my own thriving pool cleaning business and my shoes still off. For now, I just hope Sue comes and gets all her crap out of here soon so I can get a smaller apartment. And I hope my calluses come back in time for summer because these big flat feet are going to be out in full force.
About the author:
Aaron Gilbreath's fiction and nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, the Portland Review, Hobart, the South Carolina Review, Sacramento News & Review, High Country News, Opium, NewPages, Storyglossia, and Word Riot. A native Arizonan, his newest fiction can be found regularly in a New York City trash can at the corner of Park and 29th.