The Shallow End
The first time he saw the eye in the back fence, he thought it was just a peculiarity of paint swirled on a knot. The fence was dimpled and pitted, with multiple coats of paint peeling independently, an abstract canvas across which images often appeared transiently, morphing or disappearing when Ludlow looked too closely or away. The eye, though, winked. That was a first.
He winked back.
After a week or so of this, as can happen, the strange became the ordinary. He and the eye would acknowledge each other and go about their business, Ludlow scraping out songs on his half-tuned Yamaha or just watching the sky drag past above the pecan tree. The eye observed, or pulled away and left a hole behind, with sometimes a pair of legs scissoring up toward the back door of the house he could see just the corner of.
It was always gone by lunch time when Ludlow sat down at the little living room table across from the picture of his daughter propped up in its silver frame with a seashell in each corner.
"I suspect someone's attached to it," he said.
He knew the picture couldn't talk back, but it didn't hurt anyone to pretend, to try to imagine what Jeannie might say in a given situation.
"A child's my guess," for instance.
"A girl, I think."
"Does she say anything?"
"No. Not a thing."
"Shyness can be overpowering."
He smiled at the picture. The young often had a wisdom we'd long let go of.
In the afternoon, he generally fed the fish. Sitting on the diving board, he'd dribble a handful of pellets into the deep end. Sometimes he'd see the fish's back, mottled white and orange like a burn victim, but generally all that showed was a ring spreading out where its mouth broke the surface and sucked the food in.
"You can feed it if you want," he said to the eye.
Jeannie was right; it blinked once and vanished. He heard the screen door squeak open and glide quietly closed. Unlike his, which always slapped loudly, banging twice before settling uneasily into its warped frame.
"The bottom of the sea is so near," he sang, "your face I can see so clear."
The fish rose with a slurping sound, rippling the carpet of algae.
He never drank on open mic night, even though the drinks and beers were half-price for performers. He'd seen people fall off their stools on stage and launch into obscene tirades; he needed his wits about him. He lost his place so easily as it was—even though they were his own songs—when he looked out and saw all those faces looking up at him.
People had started recording him lately on their phones, so he was making an impression. The applause had gotten more raucous too—and the laughter, but that was just the liquor. The feeling that he was finally connecting was deeply satisfying. He found it hard to wipe the smile off his face when he was up there.
"What are you playing tonight?" somebody asked while he was waiting to go on.
"Something new," he said.
He half-recognized him; a poet, he thought. He wore a wool scarf wrapped twice around his neck even though outside the last of the sun was glaring off the blacktop and a little twister of dust was whirling by.
"If it's anything like 'Sobbing for Apples,'" the poet said, "it'll be a hit."
Ludlow smiled and thanked him. He didn't really like talking before a show, it broke his concentration. But mutual support was the thing here. Everybody leaned on everybody else, like trees in a forest. He took out his notebook, jotted that down.
During the chorus of "Friday Night Fights", he dropped his pick, which broke the mood a little. He could hear it rattling around inside, sliding from side to side as he tilted the body and shook it. They cut him short after that, which was a little disappointing. But he got a big hand anyway.
The sun dragged him out of bed the next day, too warm and too bright. He ate breakfast with sunglasses on, going through two bowls of cereal, three fried eggs, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There was a strange kind of void down around his stomach—like hunger but not quite—that skittered out of the way whenever he tried to pinpoint it. He swallowed, tried to force a burp, but nothing came up. He squeezed his arms around his chest and felt a little quiver just under the skin; like a squirrel inside the walls—sprinting around and over studs, clawing up the insulation.
He looked for the eye in the fence, but it wasn’t there. He put his own eye to the hole after thrashing through a dead wild rose bush and a tangle of blackberry vines that left his forearms peppered with drops of blood. He wasn't prepared for the order on the other side. The trim edges of the lawn, the precise lines of the grass as if Euclid himself had been pushing the mower. The two bistro tables, the chairs and chaises and cantilevered umbrella, all arranged in perfect balance. It was remarkable.
Looking back at his own yard—the dandelions blitzing across the lawn, the humps thrust up by ground squirrels, the pool empty except for the opaque puddle by the drain—he thought about something someone had said, that a man’s mind is reflected in his surroundings. Meaning, of course, that a tidy home denotes a tidy mind. But it could be just as true, couldn’t it, that a fully occupied mind has no time for the mundane chores of cleaning and scrubbing, for the idle worry of other people’s opinions? An orderly world, it might be, is the sure sign of an empty head.
And anyway, the dandelions added some color to the yard—the foot soldiers of summer, he liked to call them—and the squirrel burrows gave it character, a little contour in the unbroken flatness. As for the pool, there was a kind of sludgy comfort about it. At night the hose dripping into the deep end lulled him to sleep, and in the morning the sun glanced from its algaed surface with a soft, muted glow.
Back up on his patio, beneath the crooked shade of his sagging eaves, he watched a light breeze work through the razor straight tops of the oleanders on the other side of the fence. He sipped his warm beer, in which he could taste a faint must from the pool. A blend of decay and renewal, muck and fish. He dozed, dodging troubling dreams that came hurtling toward him like pinballs. In the midst of them, the harsh scrape of metal across cement— a chair or a table wrenched across the neighbor’s patio—yanked him awake.
The back door snapped open. Ludlow saw a man’s head, round and slightly balding.
"Cin?" it called, the name whistling from between clamped teeth. "Cin!"
The girl—Cin, apparently—whose shadow Ludlow could see against the fence beneath the whorls of wisteria along the garage wall (the only unruly thing on the property), didn’t answer. The head moved down the steps, crossed the patio and straightened whatever had been displaced. Ludlow thought he could hear breathing, slightly ragged, as if this little movement had required a disproportionate effort. After a minute, the head climbed the steps again and went back inside, and the shadow in the corner slid slowly down the fence.
"It's short for Cindy, which you probably guessed."
"I thought maybe."
"I wish he wouldn't do that, shorten it like that. Cin. I mean, if that doesn't give you a complex."
"It's a pretty short name already."
They were attaching a new hinge to the gate he hadn’t even remembered was there, behind a wall of blackberry and pyracantha, until she’d wriggled through and popped her head out like a gopher. She could help, she’d said, looking around, clicking her tongue. Tidy things up, knock some of the brush back. Ludlow had reluctantly consented, and together they’d pulled the vines down and pried the gate free. He suspected it was the fish she was interested in.
"You're not a pedophile or anything are you?"
"Cross my heart. I have a daughter myself."
"Where is she?"
"Oh, you know," he said, testing the swing of the gate.
"How would I know?"
"No, right." The pneumatic shock eased it back into place silently. "She's up north somewhere."
"Somewhere? I wish my dad was that laid back. I can't go down the street."
"Well, he cares about you."
"I'm sure you care about your daughter."
"Of course, yes. But it's how you measure these things that gets tricky. I mean, how you feel against what you do. Living up to your feelings."
"Are you like a psychologist or something?"
"You sound like one. My mom's one."
"You don't say."
"Is she any good?"
"I wouldn't be surprised. She's been in bed a few months now though, so she's probably a little rusty." Behind them, the fish slurped a stray pellet from the surface. "Is that him?"
Ludlow didn’t know whether the fish was male or female. He decided it probably didn't matter.
Cindy crouched and waddled slowly toward the edge of the pool, peered over the side into the murk.
"I wasn't sure what you were doing out here at first. Sitting on the diving board all the time."
"Now you know."
"Does he have a name?"
He had had one once, but Ludlow couldn’t remember it.
Cindy grinned. "How about A. Diem?"
"I kind of saw that coming, to tell you the truth."
"No you didn't."
"I don't believe you."
"All the same."
She pulled a loose strand of hair into her mouth and chewed it thoughtfully.
"Anyway, I'm not sure it's a carp," Ludlow said.
"Okay. How about Byron then?"
"Like the poet?"
"No, like the kid in my class. He looks like him. Around the mouth especially. And the eyes."
"Too bad for him."
"Tell me about it."
The surface of the pool rippled, and a dorsal fin sliced through the algae. Byron flicked his tail, clearing a short-lived hole in the muck, then sank out of sight again.
"Are you coming to my graduation?"
Jeannie's voice had lost some of its childish warble, and her lisp was nearly gone.
"You'll need tickets. And my signature, of course."
“And can you talk to mother?"
"Is she there?"
"Well, I haven't seen her—"
"You don't know where she is?"
"I have an idea."
A drawn-out sigh from Jeannie's end, the same sigh she'd used so effectively when petitioning for emancipation. Thirteen years old and outgrown her parents. But hasn't everybody by then?
"Well, if you do hear from her, tell her about graduation."
"I sure will, honey."
Jeannie laughed. "Honey," and hung up.
The fish had been hers, three years old already when she’d left it behind as easily as she had them. Well past any goldfish lifespan Ludlow had anticipated. He wondered if it missed her, if it even remembered her. The man at the aquarium had said goldfish forgot everything they'd known after a single lap around the bowl. Everything fresh and new each time around. What a wonderful place! Look at that pirate’s chest! Nice touch!
The man had also explained why the fish was no bigger after three years than it had been on its little stand at the fair when he'd won it for her, licking a dime on the sly to make it stick.
"They grow to the size of their containers."
A practical adaptation that didn’t, unfortunately, apply to children. Jeannie had outgrown her container way ahead of time.
He turned the picture on the table toward him.
“This is better, isn’t it honey?”
“I love you, Dad.”
"I'd always thought I'd be a good father, before Jeannie was born. Even for a while after. It was quite a shock to hear I wasn't."
Cindy was lying on the diving board, her head hanging over the end.
"What did you do, hit her or something?"
"I don't know. It must have been something bad."
"She had a list of our failings. Reasons she wasn't the person she thought she should be by then."
"Can I get her lawyer's name?"
"You've got it all right over there. Give your folks a break."
She shrugged and tapped the canister of fish food, sprinkling a fine dust onto the water. The sound he'd been hearing for a couple of weeks now started again across the fence, and he saw Cindy flinch. He'd taken it at first for an animal—a raccoon caught in the barbed wire at the rail yard, or a cat eating a castoff fish hook—but he knew now that wasn't it. He wished it was.
"That's not much of a life, is it? Swimming in circles."
"I don't know. What else is he going to do?"
"Learn to play the piano."
She let a little dribble of spit fall into the pool.
"Maybe we could clean it up some."
"You think he'd like that?"
Cindy thought about it.
"I could get in there with him. Swim around with him."
"I don't know."
"I'll do all the work."
"It's not that."
"What is it?"
Ludlow couldn’t answer that one.
Byron went belly-up when they dropped him into the kiddie pool, one fin sticking up through the mat of algae they’d carried over with him.
Cindy danced from foot to foot, her breath whistling through her nose.
"What's going on?"
"I don't know."
"Well do something!"
That was the problem right there. You were always expected to do something, to know what needed to be done. But what if you didn't? What if you had no idea in the world what was called for?
He poked the fish with the handle of the rake, and Byron slowly righted himself. He flicked his tail and ducked under the algae.
"Just resting, I guess," Ludlow said.
Cindy turned away from him, sniffling. Ludlow looked at her back, the little hunched shoulders that weren’t nearly up to what was being asked of them. Something was called for, he knew; another solution to another problem that was beyond him. He tapped the rake handle against his forehead. It never ended.
While Cindy worked the skimmer, scooping clots of algae and leaves from the pool, Ludlow sat in the shade and picked his guitar. Some time around lunch, her father came out into their yard and started up his string trimmer. They could hear him working his way around the perimeter of the patio, then along the fence line. Cindy stood with the skimmer resting on the pool bottom, following her father’s movements with a barely perceptible pivot of her head. When he was done with the trimmer, he went after the stray blades with hand shears. Snip snip snip, regular as a bomb ticking.
Ludlow stumbled his way through "Folsom Prison Blues," muting the strings too heavily. Thuds like cardboard whacked with a spoon. He jumbled the words too, inserting pieces of "Ring of Fire" and "Jackson" without knowing it.
In the middle of the last verse, Cindy’s father stopped beside the gate. On this side, Cindy stopped cleaning and waited. Ludlow expected the gate to open and the man to step through. He’d want to know why his daughter kept disappearing through it, wouldn’t he? There was a pull between them even he could feel. But neither of them said anything, and after a minute her father moved on again.
Ludlow hit the last chord and listened to it die out in the clematis at the far corner of the yard. He frowned slightly. The same something stirred again down around his stomach, scratched against his duodenum like a cat wanting in.
"What did you think?" he called.
Cindy smiled and went back to cleaning.
By the next day, there was just a brown pool of water in the deep end, all the solid matter had been scooped out by Cindy and deposited in a pile behind the broken bird feeder.
"You could use that for compost," she said.
"If I had a garden."
She looked at the sweet peas scrambling across a tangled nest of bamboo poles.
"Brown thumb," he said.
Somewhere underneath were a pair of tomato plants that Jeannie had planted years earlier, which continued to deliver a half-dozen misshapen tomatoes every summer without him lifting a finger—appropriately, she might say. Such a diligent little girl. Kneeling in her little apron, carefully setting the plants in the hollows she’d dug out. Her rubber bumblebee boots clicking their heels behind her, while he did....what?
"We'd better knock off for today," he said.
Cindy dragged her arm across her forehead.
"I've got to be somewhere."
"Tomorrow, then? We can fill it up?"
He did two quick songs, then walked hurriedly offstage and out of the coffee shop. He sounded like shit. His voice was raw and harsh, his fat fingers refused to stay where he put them. And all through it, and after, the crowd behaved the same as always. Cheers, whoops, pats on the back. "Nice set, Lud." "Classic, as usual." Big smiles and laughs.
He had a few extra beers on the back patio. The night was warm and clear, and the moon, almost full, poured down on the yard, reaching into every bare patch on the lawn. A few mosquitoes circled over the pile of muck and around the kiddie pool. No lights blinking on and off like when he was a kid, fireflies floating over the grass. Jeannie had never seen a firefly, as far as he knew. He wondered if Cindy had. Probably not, not out here, on this far side of the mountains they’d somehow never managed to cross.
What did you chase after then? Mosquitoes and flies? Nothing to clap your hands around, to watch vanish and reappear in front of you. How are you supposed to live like that?
He looked at the pool, pictured it full—as it would be soon—of water like blown glass. Not a ripple on it, there was never any wind this time of year. The hose stuck in the shallow end gurgling, swiping back and forth like a water snake. He watched the water rise up to the lip of the tiles, past the line of caulk, saw the concrete darken as it washed over the cracked deck onto the edge of the lawn. It swelled up like a bubble, up and up, pushing back the limbs of the pecan tree and showing him reflected in his chair, small and insignificant, dirty, his guitar out of tune, the loose frets buzzing. A convex, funhouse mirror of water in which he saw too the ratty house and yard, the smudged sky, saw time itself in all its folly and puniness.
He threw a bottle into the air—toward a point he guessed to be the apartment he lived in when he was twenty-six—watched it flash in the moonlight. He half expected it to bounce back, but of course it sailed right over the fence into Cindy’s yard. His guitar’s flight was shorter and even more disappointing, lumbering like an obese swan before it cracked against the pool deck and the G string popped loose. He swung it by the broken string in a wide arc, putting his back into it this time. The wind hummed across the sound hole. This was his kind of music. He’d been chasing the wrong thing all along, it turned out.
Cindy found him the next morning lying at the base of the steps in the shallow end, curled between a broken lawn chair and a bleached-out Big Wheels. A drift of broken toys and tools and furniture was fanned around him as if they'd all washed up together on some foul tide. She climbed up on the diving board and waited there until he woke up, dangling her feet over what should have been a clear, rippling paradise of water.
"My mom's in the hospital."
His mouth, when he swallowed, tasted like onions and blood.
"Or a hospice, whatever they call it. Are they the same thing?"
"No, not quite."
"Because you don't come out, right?"
He tried to pull himself up into the lawn chair, but it was bent too far out of whack and threw him out again.
"They're just different."
Cindy nodded and pulled her towel around her shoulders. She was in her bathing suit, a pair of goggles clamped on her head.
"I thought maybe me and Byron could swim today."
Ludlow picked up the chair and a broken shovel and climbed with some difficulty over the debris and up the steps.
"The drain's still clogged."
"Maybe when you get back."
"I'm not going there."
She shook her head.
"It'll be worse even than our house. Everything just so."
"They need it that way."
He brought out two cups of day-old coffee and handed one to her. How old were you supposed to be for coffee? He couldn't remember. She sniffed it and took a careful sip.
"Do you want sugar?"
"I've got some Halloween candy if you're hungry."
"I thought you weren't a perv? Besides, it's nine in the morning. And June, so..."
He sat on the diving board and felt the pain slosh from one side of his head to the other, slamming against his temple.
"I'm not sure what happened here."
Cindy kept her eyes down, studying the oily surface of the coffee.
"I mean, I know...but."
"Whatever. It's your house."
"We can haul it out of there, it won't take that long."
"It doesn't matter."
"Sure it does."
Cindy stood up and tried to smile.
"I'm not mad or anything. Really."
Ludlow didn’t believe her.
"C'est la vie, right?"
He nodded again, but he wasn’t at all sure.
He didn't remember the cold hurting like this when he was a kid, water hurting. But nothing had, really; not for long anyway.
Byron floated aimlessly nearby, his fins paddling without much effect. Ludlow gave him a little push, and he drifted for a second before fanning his tail and darting back into the shadows by the steps.
"Where's your gumption, Byron?"
Ludlow did a slow lap, the water crisp and clear as he’d pictured it. It wouldn’t stay this way long—chlorine, he figured, was out of the question—but for now it was ok. They could float like this, in their element, him and Byron. Effortlessly.
Later, after the shade had moved in, he dragged his mower and hand edger through the gate. It took him two passes to knock down the grass that had grown wild and unruly over the past couple of weeks. They'd get a good price, he was sure. It was an attractive, welcoming house. The kind of place you imagined happy families lived. Through the open gate, his own looked shabbier than ever in comparison—except for the pool, gleaming bright as a new tooth in a wrecked smile. He trimmed along the edge of the patio and down the fence line, then swept and hauled the clippings to the curb. It was a good job, professional, and he liked to think he would have done it even if they weren’t paying him.
When he'd finished, it was almost three o'clock. Jeannie would be walking into the auditorium about now. Maybe looking around for her mother and father, maybe knowing better. If things were as they should be, he would have been sitting in the audience with his wife, beaming as people were said to do. He took his shoes off and stepped onto the diving board. Jeannie had done well enough on her own these past years, he was sure she'd be fine without him. And if not...
Byron hung close to the wall in the shallow end, slipping along the tiles, hesitant to come out into open water. You couldn't blame him, really. He hadn’t asked for this. The sun must have seemed impossibly bright, and the transparent world rippling out around him strange and new and unnatural.
The board creaked under Ludlow and the anchor bolts popped as he sprang up and hung in the air for just a second. At the top, he could see over the fence into the empty yard, into the rooms with their curtains gone. The view came and went as he bounced—the not quite spotless patio, the scuff marks where the furniture had been, the wisteria working its way up the roof of the garage. Here and gone, here and gone, a familiar enough sensation.