When I was a boy, we didn’t have a swimming pool in our backyard. They were commonplace among a lot of the cookie-cutter tract homes in California, but not everyone had one. That’s why the public pool down at Buchanan Park was so popular when it finally opened.
It wasn’t too far from where we lived at the time. I couldn’t have been more than 14, maybe not even. The hot California valley summers sweltered our little hemmed-in town, surrounded by a river delta and the hills of the Diablo Range, cooking in its little pocket of high temperatures. The concrete and asphalt writhed in anguish under the bright angry sun, twisting the air into little shimmering mirages just over the streets and sidewalks as they begged for mercy beneath the searing rays.
That day, Bill and I decided we’d go to Buchanan Park pool and cool off. Ryan would be left behind with my mother in the safety of the central air conditioning in our new house up on the hill in a recent subdivision by the monopolistic land developer who seemed to have built everything in the city. A rare treat, we even were provided the $2 entrance fee so that it didn’t have to come out of our summer Bill visit allotment of funds.
The walk downhill toward the park took us through an older neighborhood, after passing over the dirt-clod riddled streets of our new area. The stick frames and sapling trees sizzling under the bright yellow orb of the sun gave way to mature manicured lawns, cracked driveways and large, shading trees as we made the walk down the rolling avenues to the small dish of grass and playground on the corner of Buchanan Road and Harbor Street. We joked and laughed, carrying our towels over our heads to shield out some of the heat, passing beneath the few trees in the park to get to the pool facility.
Once inside, we were greeted with a rote overview of the rules, given through wagging jowls and jiggling second chin by a blob of a woman that looked like a lump of mayonnaise had been plopped onto a creaking, straining stool that fought with its very life to keep her up there. No spitting, no running poolside, no pushing, no diving unless it’s from the board, no shoes or shirts or cut-off shorts in the pool, and no urinating. I stopped on that last one, but the plump, meaty hand whisked my $2 away and buzzed us through a heavy fake wood door that felt like it was bound and determined to keep kids out.
Bill paid and joined me at the door. His bulkier, muscular body — nearly 15 by then — pushed the door aside easily and he held it so I could scoot under his arm into the pool area. We passed through a squealing metal turnstile and around a section of cyclone fence about 4 feet high, where a wading pool for washing your feet before putting on your shoes was provided. An older lady and a couple of kids were arguing there, the old lady trying to pull on her protesting shoes while the kids laughed maniacally and splashed her from the clear, chlorine-scented water.
We deposited our shoes in a couple of open lockers and held the keys to our trunks with the safety-pins attached to them. The pins had a number that looked like it’d been melted in with a soldering iron in some guy’s garage marking the locker numbers. I shyly dropped in my T-shirt; Bill didn’t wear one. We jotted into the main pool area at last.
The voices slapped uselessly off the foaming, churning water and died in the air, dampening the noise of the screaming, laughing and playing kids that literally crowded every corner of the pool on one side of a mark that went up the lip of the pool then down into the water and out the opposite side. On the shallow side of that line, the water was packed with people, under water, above the water, beside the water. On the deep side was the diving area, and a line of older kids waited to scale the 13 feet to the platform and dive off.
“Hey, are you going to –” I spoke to empty space beside me. I was going to ask Bill if he was going to dive off the platform, but I didn’t really need to ask … he was already in line.
I found an open spot by the lip of the pool and stared at the light playing off the surface, mist from splashing kids occasionally cascading down my body and raising gooseflesh. It felt good against the burning heat of the scorching sun, high in the crystalline blue sky, but for some reason I was hesitant to go in. I looked around through the cyclone fence and saw the contrast of colors from the deep, rich green from the well-water grass of the park, to the grayish white concrete surrounding the pool, to the crisp, clear blue of the sky, and felt another splash on me. It was cool, but … not cold.
Something that big lump of a woman said was troubling me, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.
Bill was about three kids back from the ladder now, arms folded across his chest. He caught my gaze and just shook his head in disgust. The kid at the top of the ladder was making a huge production, wailing and crying, too scared to jump and too scared to back down the ladder. A parent was trying to talk to the kid, but he was having none of it, his beet-red face contorted into an ugly mask as tears streamed down his freckled, sun-burned cheeks. Or maybe it wasn’t a mask and he was just ugly.
I looked back down at that water, and it was clear and blue; it didn’t look weird. All I could smell was chlorine. I watched as Bill waited patiently while the dork dad climbed the ladder and took his wailing kid’s hand, pulling him into his arms so they could waddle back down the ladder. Red faced, the dad whispered something to the kid, who wailed even louder while the dad carried him like a bag of potatoes under one arm toward the exit. The next kid in line darted up the ladder, and started out on the diving board, but the springy plastic plank quivered more than he thought, and with a loud cry of surprise he went off the side of the board. All I saw was flailing arms and legs, and then a brief grunt as his body landed broadside onto the water with a thunderous slap. Mist sprayed over me again, and the water was cool. But it wasn’t cold.
I looked up, shielding my eyes under my soda-bottle glasses, staring up at the rays flashing down from that hot yellow dot in the sky. It must’ve been close to 100 degrees, and my body was beaded with sweat. But there was no shock from the water, even though there should have been.
That lady … something she said about no urinating. She just spat it out like it was just another rule, but she’d made a point to say it. Everybody knew you don’t pee in a pool; it’s not a toilet. Why did she mention it specifically?
Bill was behind one final kid, but that kid had seen what’d happened to the belly flopper, and he ducked and darted off away from the ladder. Bill grinned at me and started up quick as a wink.
I looked down at that water, the myriad sounds of shouting kids, splashing water and yelling adults all mixed and tied together in a sound knot, bouncing off the water and concrete to vaporize in the summer air. I felt my skin with my fingertips and it was hot to the touch. A kid kicked the surface of the water frantically trying to escape someone chasing him, and I felt the spray on my chest.
It wasn’t cold.
Bill was at the top of the platform, about to make his way out to the end of the diving board.
I realized what was bugging me.
I waved in a panic, trying to shout and get Bill’s attention. From the top of the platform, he was focusing on the dive, trying to decide whether to cannon ball or do some real dive. I jumped up and down, trying to get his attention. I yelled, cupping my hand around my mouth, and for a moment, he glanced at me, brows knit over his concentrated face.
He froze, looked quizzically at me with his head cocked to one side like a bird studying a seed. I jump
ed like a frog in a frying pan, waving my arms over my head. I pointed at the pool, then shook my head violently.
He cupped a hand over his ear and turned to hear me.
“Don’t jump!” I shouted. “It’s warm water!!”
He shook his head, indicating with his screwed up face that he couldn’t hear me.
“DON’T JUMP!” I screamed, trying to be louder. “THE WATER’S ALL WARM!!”
The next kid behind Bill had climbed up the ladder and was standing on it with his chin resting on the platform. I saw the kid speak to Bill, and Bill looked back sort of irritated, then held up a finger to let me know he’d be just one second.
“NO!!” I screamed, “DON’T!!”
Bill jounced on the board once, and the mechanical springing sound it made drowned out my voice even further. He bounced once more, and I waved again desperately, trying to get him to stop, but it was too late. He was in space, tucking his knees to his chest as he sailed out from the board and in a graceful arc toward the water. For a split second he saw the look on my face, the horror as I mouthed the word “pee”, and realization dawned on him. He tried to clutch the board behind him as he dropped, but it was too far behind him and he twisted, his body going from a graceful ball into a frenzied gyrating caricature, hands clawing in space, legs bicycling wildly. He fell, and finally had to sink back to a ball to keep from belly flopping like the idiot before him.
I couldn’t do anything to help my friend, standing there frozen, watching the nightmare unfold as Bill’s body hit the water, sending it crashing in a huge geyser rush out from his point of contact. It shot out and sent a solid sheet onto the concrete, melting over a couple of adults sunbathing beside the pool. They shot up with their arms held out away from them like they were trying to keep them dry for some reason, mouths gaping open as they gasped beneath their Jacqueline Onassis sunglasses and broad-rimmed shade hats. The water pounded the rest of the pool, splashing over the heads of screaming little kids and momentarily silencing them. I saw him under the water for a moment, then he flashed free of the surface, and his hands landed palms-down on the edge of the pool. In one continuous motion he hefted his body out of the water, spitting and wiping his face furiously, shaking his head to get the water out of his hair. He looked ticked.
He rounded the corner and came to me, snatching the towel I held out to him and frantically wiping his face and arms, his legs and chest.
“Ugh!” he moaned, “oh God, oh GOD, that’s so disgusting!”
“I’m sorry, man, I tried to tell you,” I said apologetically.
“I know,” he said, “I couldn’t hear you. By the time I figured out what you were saying I couldn’t get back on the board.”
“How … how bad was it?” I said gingerly.
“God,” he spat, “it was nasty. It was like jumping in a bowl of spit.”
He didn’t say anything else; he was headed for the exit. As we passed through the heavy, fake wood door, he turned and looked at me, still clearly shaken.
“I guess now I know what it’s like to be a turd,” he said heavily.
I never went in the pool, but I did wonder how much pee it would take to warm that many gallons of water.
We never went back to the pool. The following year, my parents installed a pool in their backyard.