The San Fernando sun is a hot bleach stain in the sky, unforgiving over the apartment complex pool. Joe sits under the shadow of an umbrella, having thoroughly slathered a coat of sunscreen onto Rosie, Franklin, and the neighbor’s kid, Sonny. His damp white chest sags like a limp plastic bag and black hairs sprout between his pecs and along the edge of his nipples. He wears faded navy blue trunks, which expose the narrow line of his butt crack whenever he bends over. Hunched and miserably bored in the slick metal seat, Joe stares into the pool as his children, and that punk Sonny, scream “Marco Polo” at the tops of their tiny lungs.
Franklin, Rosie, and Sonny splash each other, their laughter bouncing off the ceramic tile, reminding Joe of the annoying squeaky sounds dolphins make. The children wear goggles glued tightly to their faces—Joe made sure of that. He isn’t jumping in after those things if they sink to the bottom. Rosie resisted because hers get caught in her tangle of brown hair and this prompts Sonny to snap the straps of his goggles against Franklin’s arms as he waits his turn. Now the kids swim as clumsily as dying goldfish, their mouths gaping open and shut like those guppies you see at the pet store, helplessly pecking at the aquarium glass.
Joe didn’t chose to bring Sonny along, but Veronica insisted. Sonny, the oldest of the bunch, claims the position of leader and typically is the one who gets the ranks into trouble. Little jerk, Joe thinks. Never listening to me, but always the convenient angel when Veronica is around. A year ago, Rosie broke her arm after jumping off the top of the minivan, and Joe is convinced Sonny made her do it.
Sonny plays Marco but instead of closing his eyes, he screams “Marco” and swims frantically towards Franklin and Rosie, his arms wild propellers as he tries to drag them underwater.
“None of that, Sonny!” Joe calls to him, as Sonny proceeds to tackle Franklin while yelling “Marco! Marco!” His laughter is cruel and choppy, like some aquatic mad hatter.
“Sonny!” Joe yells. A few seconds pass before Sonny finally releases Franklin, who floats breathlessly over to the shallow end. Sonny drifts innocently, a triumphant smile tweaking the corners of his lips. God, I hate that kid, Joe thinks.
“You okay, Franklin?” Joe asks from his post under the umbrella, reluctant to drag himself into direct sunlight.
“I’m okay,” says Franklin, now buzzing around like a submarine, lips vibrating against the water.
The slam of the gate jars Joe from his gaze of the pool, where he sees one blonde and one brunette walking in. Ohhh my god, he thinks.
They could be Maxim models—not that he really knows, Veronica doesn’t let him buy that magazine—but he is sure they look like this. The blonde wears a sheer white shift dress and yellow plastic sandals that slap her feet as she walks. Her lips are full and puckered. The brunette wears a midriff tee and tiny black shorts, the pink tails of her bikini peeking out the back of her top, her long dark hair in a high ponytail. The way they walk over to the reclined patio chairs makes Joe think of Barbies, breasts violently protruding over tiny waists and long slim legs. Watching from behind his sunglasses, Joe tries to casually straighten in his seat, vividly aware of the flap of flesh that hangs over the edge of his trunks.
Claiming a couple of chairs, the girls set down their magazines and keys and begin to strip. Joe feels himself get hard as he watches them peel off their clothes and lie down. This is more than I get at home, he thinks. Veronica never changes in front of me anymore and all her bras are a dingy nude color. No pink straps or frills. The brunette has some big ones too, he thinks. Stacked like a pile of pancakes, his father used to say.
A shriek from the water draws Joe out of his ogling and back to the pool where Franklin is riding on Rosie’s back in the shallow end. Rosie’s mouth sputters like a tugboat under the waterline as Franklin yells, “You’re my horsey! You’re my horsey!”
“Get off!” she screams, arms paddling helplessly.
“Hey, hey,” Joe calls over to them, unsure of what else to say without claiming these children as his own. He eyes the girls’ round bottoms, reminded of bubble wrap. He has the same urge the children get when Veronica’s grandmother sends packages with enchilada sauce from Houston. Pop, pop, pop goes the plastic and he imagines that same sound, visualizing his thumbs pressing into their smooth skin.
He thinks, maybe if I ignore the kids, the girls won’t think they’re mine. Except of course, I’m the only other adult in the pool area and then I’m just some sweaty creep watching half-naked children.
Twenty minutes pass and only a couple particularly loud splashes and plunks draw Joe’s attention to the pool. He can’t extract his eyes from the girls. The blonde turns over and shifts her arms above her head and Joe keeps imagining what it’d be like to have her underneath him.
A pang of guilt strikes him at the thought—well, at all the thoughts he is conjuring—so he deliberately goes about unfolding and refolding the children’s Disney theme towels. On one of them, Belle smiles with a twinkle in her eye, but the candlestick guy seems to sneer at him. Joe feels oddly judged and puts that one aside. After a couple rounds of folding, he isn’t sure what to do with himself. He realizes he’s stopped sucking in his stomach and gulps a loud breath of air in embarrassment, flashing a look at the girls. The act is so sudden that he chokes on the pool of salvia collecting in his mouth and starts to shake with coughs. They sound gargled and phlegmy and he notices the two girls lift their heads at the sound. Shit! he thinks, attempting to keep his belly in and clear his throat simultaneously.
Burning with shame, he stands up and brushes off his trunks. What he is brushing off he isn’t sure, but the act feels official to him. This type of thing never happened to him back in the day. He was quite the charmer in junior college. Joe recalls a few runs in the laboratory supply closet, knocking bottles filled with stuff like alkaline and fermenting fluid from the shelves. Of course, none of those girls compare to these two. Peering from the corner of his eye, he sees the brunette untie the straps of her pink bikini, baring the long slope of her back.
It’ll never happen, Joe, he thinks, the voice is his head reluctant but firm. It’ll never happen. The disappointment settles hot and sticky on his chest. Anyway, it isn’t right to be staring at these girls—not with Veronica at home. Veronica! he thinks sharply. Maybe I can convince her to keep the lights on and the blankets off tonight. Maybe she’d even feel like it right now. Veronica isn’t so spontaneous after eleven years of marriage.
That’s it, he thinks. Clapping his hands together and taking a step towards the pool, Joe calls to the kids.
“Come on. Time to go home. Head on in.”
The children split up, jerkily swimming to opposite ends of the bean shaped pool. All pretend not to have heard him, continuing to swim and staying clear of the edge.
“Let’s go! Dock the boat,” Joe says, and by boat he means the neon green caterpillar floatie. He thinks it might sound strange to say what he usually said, “Bring in Mr. Wiggles!” and dock the boat is more formal and authoritative. Something a captain might say.
Rosie heads straight for the caterpillar floatie, then dives under and pops into one of the donut sections of its body. Bouncing back and forth, she tries to steer it towards the shallow end.
“Dock the boat, Rosie. Come on, Franklin, get in the boat,” Joe says, waving his arms over the pool like a magician, as if it will somehow corral them.
“It’s a caterpillar, Daddy! It’s Mr. Wiggles!” says Rosie, tugging the floatie closer and closer to the edge at an impossibly slow speed. Glancing over, Joe sees the blonde sitting up and the brunette twisting to look behind her. His gut heaves with embarrassment. I have to get these kids out of here, Joe thinks.
Franklin, pretending to adjust his goggles, lingers too close to the edge of the pool. Taking his chance, Joe kneels and bends over the edge, his butt crack gliding into sight. Latching his hands onto Franklin’s forearms, he awkwardly drags the boy up and out of the water. Franklin doesn’t make things easy and dangles corpselike. Grunting, trying to set Franklin on his feet, Joe gives up and lays the boy on the hot ground like a piece of wet laundry.
Scorched, Franklin yells, “Ow! Daddy!”
“Come on, Sonny,” Joe says, ignoring Franklin all together. At least my two are out of the pool, Joe thinks. If Sonny doesn’t make it in five seconds, I am abandoning him. Joe takes another look at the girls and notices they are smiling at each other, glancing over at the scene.
Sonny slowly swims his way in, taking time to pause every couple of strokes and look down at his feet shimmering in the water.
“Sonny, Sonny. Sonny. Look at me. Sonny,” Joe says, huffing as he jerks his trunks up. Sonny peers up at Joe, smiling.
Giving himself a minute, Joe walks over to the pile of towels where Rosie stands waiting, playing with one of Mr. Wiggles’s antennae. Whipping a towel out of its fold, Joe wraps Rosie in a cocoon. Turning around to do the same to Franklin, Joe sees that his boy is back in the water, standing on the shallow steps, picking his nails. Charging over, his mouth set in fury, Joe snaps out another towel and wraps Franklin in a viselike trap while simultaneously lifting him out of the water. The maneuver manages to plunk half the towel in the pool.
“Sonny! In. Now!”
It is too late; he has already thoroughly humiliated himself. Not waiting for Sonny’s response, Joe splashes down the shallow steps. Slipping on the tiled edge, his body slams into the boy and they make a slow motion smack on the bottom. There is a dull thud as they hit the pool floor and Joe, both arms wrapped around Sonny, struggles to get up. Their bodies roll like eels to the surface. Taking in a large gasp of air when he reaches the top, Joe trudges through the water as if it is mud, Sonny locked to his chest. His sunglasses are askew and even with the blurred vision, he can see the girls watching him, mouths hanging open. A split-second blip in his brain tells him that they look just like guppies too.
Having finally climbed up the steps and out of the water, Joe tries to plop Sonny on his feet. But instead of standing, the limp body slides to the ground. Sonny’s head rolls loosely before it smacks on the orange tile. His tiny body lies completely still and Joe looks down, frozen.
His ears clogged and head dazed, Joe hears one of the girls scream.
Jennifer Eneriz is a reader, editor, and writer living in Santa Ana, California. Black Hill Press novellas edited by Jennifer include: The Memory Thieves by J.T. Robertson and Renaissance Spook by Jason L. Pyrz. A former camp counselor (you can call her Sequoia), Jennifer has always felt a special kinship with children and frequently finds them in her writing. She appreciates their unshakeable honesty and strives to communicate that sort of truth in her work. Jennifer enjoys evening walks with her dog, Bandit, babysitting her niece and nephew, and experimenting with new recipes. Her family is loud, eccentric, and wonderful, and she attributes all her strength and strangeness to them. “Poolside” is dedicated to LeeAnn A. Dowd, forever roommate and friend.