The Child in the Pool
The child in the pool was wearing jeans, a red t-shirt and black sneakers with green squiggles that, although indecipherable and perplexing to those who were unaware of trends, signified that the shoes were both popular and expensive. The jeans were not ones that he was expected to grow into, so they had not been cuffed or hemmed, and did not have extra fabric bunched up under a belt that had been cinched too tightly at the waist. But they were fashionably baggy, and the water had spread the denim out around the child making him seem disproportionate, making his legs seem too short and his hips too wide for his narrow shoulders and waist.
If someone had walked into the backyard and had seen the child floating in the blue, translucent water, he or she could have reasonably and wrongly concluded that this was a child with the physical abnormalities that often accompany mental shortcomings, and anyone who knew the neighborhood, might have thought that the child in the pool had wandered away from the school nearby that catered to such children, a place where teachers hold the hands of students almost as big as they are and speak to them in patient and soothing tones. If someone had stood at the edge of the pool and seen the child's curved and wrinkled fingers, the muscles contracted until hands had begun to resemble claws, he or she could have imagined that this was a child who, when his teachers talked to him, could not understand the kindness in their voices, could not understand that their smiles indicated that they genuinely adored the child and wished nothing more than to know what he wanted so that they might give it to him. For such a child, one who would stand alone at the edge of the playground for hours if the teachers would let him, the sounds of a flock of wintering sandhill cranes circling and calling to each other in the clear, Floridian sky, could have come through clearly and beautifully, the only respite for a brain so besieged by the details of sensations that it was unable to assemble them into meaningful thought. The sounds of the birds could have made sense, though, and the child might have followed their calls as they drifted away on the thermals. He might have moved away from the playground and across the field where he could have slipped through a break in the fence that had gone unnoticed by the teachers. As the child wandered through the neighborhood, trying to follow the sounds that were growing fainter and the shapes that were getting smaller and farther away, he might have walked through a gate that had been carelessly left open, and with his head turned up to look for the birds that he could hear but no longer see, he could have fallen into the pool. A reasonable person could have imagined such a scenario and would have wanted to believe it because, although no one would ever admit it, such a loss would have seemed manageable, a relief even, the laying down of burdens carried for far too long.
But the child in the pool had not accidentally wandered into the yard. The gates were locked as they should have been, and the child was a perfectly normal one. He was physically fit, and after being discovered and taken by ambulance from the house, stripped of his clothes and placed on the coroner's stainless steel table, he will reveal himself to be beautiful in a way that boys not yet teenagers can sometimes be, rangy and lanky but not awkwardly so, the muscles in his chest and stomach as clear and defined as those drawn in medical textbooks, the hairless arms and legs seemingly still capable of shimmying up a ladder or a tree.
But none of this was evident as the child floated in the pool. His pale bloodless arms gently undulated beneath the shimmering surface of the water as his legs drifted from side to side, seemingly unconnected to the rest of his body. His head was not visible, which contributed to the illusion that he was deformed. The child's hair was long, nearly shoulder length, and had been caught in the drain at the edge of the pool that filters out floating leaves and insects and other debris. The top of his head was wedged into the opening that led to the drain, and the bottom of his head was covered by the loose, floating fabric of his t-shirt, the overall effect being that he looked as if he had been decapitated. When the police and firefighters and paramedics arrive, there will be many people in uniform with no emergency to tend to, nothing that requires their immediate attention, so they will stand around in clumps and relate third and fourth hand accounts of people being sucked to the bottom of hot tubs and drowning inches below the surface. They will describe in gruesome and invented detail what such suction could do to a person's insides if he or she were unfortunate enough to position him or herself over the drain in just the right way. All of this discussion will serve as proof of their belief that the pump was the primary culprit in the child's death. But after a detailed examination of the ruptured blood vessels in the child's scalp, the coroner will estimate that the child had been pushed from one end of the pool to the other by the wind and the circulating waters for four hours before he came close enough to be sucked into the drain and held fast until he was discovered by the owner of the house that afternoon.
Fisher Evans first saw the body from the kitchen window. He was not usually at home in the middle of the day, but he had not been chosen for a new project at work, and he had left the office early to run errands and think about the best way to explain to his wife that he was relieved. The company was expanding, and if Fisher had been chosen, he would have had to travel to newly opened offices around the country and lead seminars designed to instruct recently hired engineers about the company's preferred methods of going about their tasks. Beyond the unease he felt at the prospect of having to be away from home so much, Fisher felt that he was unqualified for the position. Although he was often praised as a solid and effective engineer himself, he lived with the constant fear of running afoul of his managers, so he dreaded the idea of being responsible for how others would do their jobs, and he imagined his own small mistakes infecting every office and throwing the entire company into disarray.
His wife worked an erratic schedule, and Fisher stood in the kitchen, looking for any evidence that might suggest her recent presence in the househalf a cup of coffee, a missing piece of fruitanything that would give him a sense of how long he might have the house to himself. He looked out of the kitchen window to see if maybe she had broken her promise to herself and begun smoking again, possibly leaving a dirty ashtray on the patio table as proof. It was then that Fisher saw something floating at the edge of the pool.
At first he thought that his wife must have bought a new raft, and after trying it out, had left it to float in the water until it was caught by the suction of the drain. He was, however, somewhat perplexed by his own conclusion because it was December and cool enough that Fisher had found it possible to wear a sweater for the entire day without too much discomfort. There were people who would swim in such weather, but Fisher's wife was not one of them. She loved having a pool, but would only get in when it was so hot that even from inside the house, Fisher could see the sweat beading on her top lip. Mostly she sat beside the pool and smoked while she read magazines filled with true and lurid stories about husbands with secret families or violent criminal histories, magazines that she would have Fisher buy for her because she was too ashamed to be seen with them. Fisher had once told her that if she ever really wanted to quit smoking, all she needed to do was stop telling him to buy her magazines. She had frowned at him and told him to stop being passive-aggressive, a label that she applied to him in such varied situations that Fisher had no idea what she meant by it despite having looked it up more than once.
"It was only a joke," he told her.
"Not really," she had said.
Fisher ignored his doubts about the object being a raft even after he noticed that it was split in two for half of its length. He thought that this was a new style of raft, one that was shaped like the body that was supposed to lie on it, and Fisher became annoyed, thinking that it was just like his wife to buy something she would hardly ever use simply because it was unusual. She was always buying chairs that looked nothing like chairs, corkscrews that he could not figure out how to use, and toothbrushes whose handles, instead of being long and slender, were fat ovals, too big for him to wrap his hand around, with indentations where each finger was supposed to go. She would look at him with impatience and pity when he grew frustrated by these new products.
"You're such an old man," she would tell him.
"I just want my old toothbrush back?"
"Anything you say, old man."
Fisher could see one arm of the body-shaped raft, could see a small space between it and the rest of the torso, but he couldn't see the other arm. He thought that maybe the arms could be moved into any position one desired, next to the body or jutting away from it at right angles. It was only after he had considered the gruesomeness of a pool full of such rafts, with their limbs placed in tortured configurations, that he realized he was seeing an actual human body. At first he believed that it was his wife's since she was the only other person besides him who had access to the house. He also believed that she had tried to kill herself. For years after he would wonder how he could have come to such a conclusion when his wife's dominant characteristic was her imperious stubbornness, her refusal to back down or give in to anything. But as he fumbled with the sliding glass door and ran across the patio, he didn't think about that, didn't think either about how she could have gotten home without her car or why his wife, who always managed to look feminine, even while hiking or working in the yard, would be wearing such obviously boyish clothes. It was only when he grabbed the shoulders and tried to pull the head from the water that he knew it was not her. He could not tell exactly what was different. The body was both larger and smaller than his wife's, more muscular in some places, thinner in others, the bones evident where they should not have been. Fisher felt both relieved and burdened by this realization. He did not know anymore what part he was supposed to play, did not understand the extent of his responsibility, and so for a short moment he froze, feeling as if he were violating someone's privacy, and it was only when he realized that the narrow shoulders belonged to a child that he slid his hands up under the arms and pulled as hard as he could.
But the body did not move. The suction was too strong and the head wedged too far into the narrow run of the drain. Fisher grabbed at the ears and at the loose bits of hair that floated in the water. He reached under the chin, and with the child's bottom lip touching the palm of Fisher's hand, pulled with as much force as he dared, but everything slipped through his fingers. He had no choice but to turn the pump off. He hesitated a moment before rising to do so. It seemed to Fisher that he would be abandoning the victim. He felt that leaving the edge of the pool would be an act of betrayal, and it was only when his hesitation seemed to be an even greater betrayal that Fisher rose and ran to the side of the house.
He would realize later that while he was running, he had felt a kind of focus that made him feel strangely at peace. He weaved through the patio furniture without tripping, his shins brushing lightly against a lounge chair on a particularly tight turn, thinking of nothing except for the box that held the switch. He did not fumble with the door of the box, did not even remember seeing the switch because his hand moved towards it as if every time he had turned the pump on and off had been in preparation for that moment.
As soon as the switch had been flipped, he was already making his way back to the edge of the pool, his leg brushing against the same lounge chair, proof that he had made that turn as tightly as he could without tripping. Fisher would, during his last attempt to seduce his wife, replay every detail of his dash to switch off the pump and make it back to the body as quickly as possible. For weeks after the incident, during which time they endured innumerable visits from the police and long, frightening discussions with lawyers and insurance companies, Fisher and his wife touched only accidentally. They would brush up against each other in the kitchen or wake up in the middle of the night to find that they had both migrated to the center of the bed, both on their sides, their knees touching and their noses perilously close, his wife's lips parting slightly, so that Fisher could only imagine her dry, sour breath. He would want to roll on top of her then, kiss her until, despite her reservations, she would open her mouth wide and he could taste it, as stale and as secret as an Egyptian tomb. Instead they would both roll away from each other, would close their eyes and try to go back to sleep. After weeks of this, Fisher was so embarrassed by their lack of sex that one evening, while watching TV, he leaned down and kissed her exposed knee, feeling so clumsy and awkward as he moved up her thigh that he regretted ever beginning because, having started, he felt that it would have been impolite of him to stop. He lingered at mid-thigh, thinking about running across the patio. While he brushed his nose and lips across her skin and rubbed her knee with his thumb, he thought about leaning into the turn around the chair, about the forces needed to keep him upright. He was pondering the distances he had had to judge and the innumerable calculations he had had to make when his wife pushed him away with both hands.
After he turned off the pump and returned to the edge of the pool, Fisher lifted the child's head from the water. The instant he saw the child's face, he knew that there was nothing to be done, that the time for heroic action had passed long before Fisher had come home. The child's head rested heavily on one shoulder, his mouth wide open, his tongue just visible behind his teeth. There was nothing that Fisher could have pointed to that clearly indicated death instead of unconsciousness, but there was no question in his mind that the child was dead. Fisher had always believed that faces and bodies sent all manner of subtle signals that he himself couldn't read but that others could. If he were more aware, he often thought, then he would have been able to look into the faces of everyone he saw and know if they had recently been arguing with someone or if they were waiting on the results of important medical tests. He would often stare at people when he was waiting in line or at a stop light, trying unsuccessfully to discern something about their lives from the creases beneath their eyes or the way in which they pressed their lips tightly together. But Fisher was so certain that the child was dead that he did not check for any signs of life. He held the child and studied his face. He could imagine this child dribbling a basketball as if it were an extension of his hand, walking as if he could lay claim not only to the sidewalk but to the four lanes of road next to it and to every house that he passed if he so desired. Fisher could see this child loitering outside of a store with his friends, all of them with sodas and bags of chips, the boys laughing and pushing each other, oblivious to the shoppers trying to navigate around them. He could imagine the child in the pool placing his thumb over the end of his soda bottle and shaking it vigorously so that he could spray three of four of his friends. One or two of the boys would have chased him, not because they were angry and wanted revenge, but as a formality, because that was part of the game and they had to obey the rules. Fisher could see the child in the pool running down the walkway in front of the store, looking over his shoulder at his friends, knowing that they could not catch him even if they wanted to, and it seemed to Fisher that if the child kept running, into the parking lot and through the adjacent neighborhood, that he would get to someplace that only he could find and that could only be gotten to by running. It was while he was holding the child's face just above the water, imagining him moving swiftly through the underbrush and leaving the store and his friends far behind, that his wife came home.
Fisher felt someone's presence, and when he looked up and saw her standing in the open sliding glass door, wearing a coat that was much too heavy for the weather, her purse dangling from her fingers, he was overwhelmed by guilt and shame, knowing that he had done all he could, but feeling that it was still not enough.
She walked towards him, her head shaking slightly, her mouth open as if she were about to speak even though she said nothing, and Fisher knew then that she would leave him over this. It would be the mystery surrounding the child's death that would make it impossible for her to stay. If the tragedy had been one that made some kind of sense to her, then she could have been comforted by his presence in the house. If, for example, the child had wandered away from the special school around the corner, then she might have been able to continue living with him even though she no longer loved him and was not sure anymore if she ever really had. Or if the police had discovered that the child had skipped school with a group of friends, that he had dared the other boys to follow him over the fence and into the backyard where he surprised them by cannonballing into the cold water with all of his clothes on, she might have been able to stay. The other boys would have been ashamed not to follow him into the pool, and so they would have jumped in as well, all of them competing to see who could make the biggest splash. One of the boys might have attempted to bring some small humiliation onto the child in the pool by sneaking up behind him to push him into the water, but because of the child's position near the corner of the pool and because of the angle from which he was pushed, his head would have slammed into the concrete, killing him instantly. If the child had died that way and his friends had cried through police interviews in which they admitted to leaving the body in order to avoid trouble beyond anything they could imagine, then Fisher's wife could have stayed married to him.
But there was no clear explanation for the child in the pool, and her only memory of the incident was coming home to find Fisher holding the child under the arms and seeing him cry harder the closer she came to him, his breathing growing so choked and labored that just hearing it began to make her physically ill. She turned and went back into the house to call the police, and so did not see when Fisher, his hands beginning to cramp from holding the child for so long, took the body from the water, the child's stomach and legs scraping against the side of the pool as Fisher fell backwards onto the concrete, pulling the small body on top of him. She did not see Fisher lying there, with the cold water soaking into his clothes and pooling onto the deck around him, did not hear him whispering, "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry," into the child's ear, over and over like a chant.