The Northwest Corner Pool
by Romney S. Humphrey
Three-thirty in the afternoon. The quick, quiet moment when the heat of day begins its subtle shift. Nothing measured by thermometer or sun against skin, but a transference of time — a signal.
The marking of this wink of time is noted at an agate-shaped pool placed unimaginatively in a rectangle of cement. Pockets of budget flowers accent the awkward geometry. In this transitional apex, at this point of the day, there occurs a choreography of sorts. It’s the movements and machinations of the gathering crowd — the select residents of Sunrise Sands.
In the modest gated community of Sunrise Sands, the Northwest Corner pool is its own universe fueled by ritual and protocol. Here, a collection of senior citizens — looking not unlike a stack of discarded dolls thrown into a corner by a cranky child — does a fine job of forgetting their rapidly approaching demise, the inescapable statistic haunting the seventy-five to eighty-five demographic.
For this small crew, the pool is the heartbeat, barometer, and pulse of their section of homes clustered around its perimeters. To these folks, the Northwest Corner pool is neighborhood, community, family, and, most importantly, an undeclared private club.
Here, everything is unhurried, deliberate. At a certain time of day the clan always migrates to specific tables or chairs as if name tags were embossed. There’s a flow to the assemblage. It’s not quick, but it is efficient. Accurate.
Dorothy Campbell is always first. At eighty-two, she is startlingly vibrant. When she summers in Maine, she faces the cold and bracing salt water at six a.m. At Sunrise Sands, she’s the only woman to arrive at the pool without a bathing suit cover-up, her still-evident muscles trumpeting beneath bronze wrinkles. No hat. No sunscreen. Gold bracelets she’s worn since her husband Art made his first money fifty years ago. She claims one of three newly cushioned chaise lounges — the one in the relentlessly brilliant sun.
The other regulars follow. Arriving at predictable intervals, claiming their territory, speaking only with other habitual users. There’s a way of doing things here. The residents know the code, the rules, the unspoken hierarchy. Visitors do not. It’s an ongoing issue and topic of conversation — the regulars versus the visitors, at the local coffee shop, the Putters’ gathering, Monday night spaghetti dinners at the Clubhouse.
* * *
The crux of the problem is, of course, the interlopers. Sunrise Sands does allow renters, and when these strangers arrive at the pool week after week, month after month, there is always, from the established regulars already seated and positioned, an initial silence — like a suggestion.
Still, the visitors don’t honor the unspoken rules or use appropriate voice level. They don’t understand who has a rightful place at which end of the pool at three, or four, or five o’clock. It’s up to Sammy to set things right. If there were a declared mayor of the Northwest Corner pool, it would be Sammy.
Sammy Caspar walks a mile every morning around the compound. Each day, after pool time, he lumbers home, favoring his right hip, with his red, white and blue striped towel wrapped at the waist, sagging chest bright reddish brown. Sammy doesn’t believe in sunscreen either: “It ain’t killed me yet!”
He opens the side door, gives his wife Betty a quick nod, then heads toward the bathroom. He’ll take a quick shower, don a fresh shirt (Betty irons on Thursdays; eight shirts for seven days) then join Betty on their modest patio, sipping the first of his two daily martinis.
Betty likes scotch, but only one. While Sammy nurses his second drink, Betty returns to the kitchen for final dinner preparations. It has worked this way for sixty years. Sammy and Betty know well the true value of a pattern, a tempo.
Unofficial king and queen of the Northwest Corner pool — there are three other pools in the complex, but those are other galaxies — Sammy and Betty have a way of organizing their days around the pool.
Mornings, the “girls” have their own version of water aerobics. At the Northwest Corner pool, aerobics is defined by a holding on to a version of a floating device and walking continually in circles for an hour. If someone walks a little faster — in truth, a relative term — and begins a new conversation, that’s acceptable; they all know one another. Most were together last Saturday night for Mah Jong and meet Monday evenings for dinner at the Clubhouse.
As far as Betty is concerned, water aerobics is the perfect beginning to a day. It’s the low, humming jump-start — the signal to their pool — saying, “We’re here! Your companions for the day — your protectors — your stewards!” Betty is in charge of the morning session, and if someone doesn’t show up, she calls to make sure they don’t need a ride to the doctor or have groceries delivered. It’s her domain, hers and Sammy’s, and they rule with benign yet purposeful largesse.
* * *
When the sun is highest and hottest, from twelve to three, the pool is quiet. Betty and Sammy and their cronies feel that’s when visitors should use the pool. When those unspoken preferences, with their slight physical hints and intimations are ignored, Sammy has a way of letting strangers know how their presence impacts the greater good.
If an intruder arrives at four in the afternoon, Sammy has his routine, his strategy, the proven approach. He waits until the visitor enters the pool — Sammy is always in the water, ready — then begins.
“Where’re you from?” he’ll bark. Seattle, Vancouver, Michigan — never New York, never California. Those folks enjoy a more expensive brand of retirement; they own their own pool perhaps, or if the pool is shared, it’s bigger, quieter, with three upgrades worth of furniture and a more sophisticated floral motif.
After this first foray, Sammy establishes dominance with a litany of statistics: how long he’s lived there, what he paid twenty years before, when brilliant prescience led him to a blissful retirement; the HOA dues; the value per household compared to the poorly-run competitor down the street.
If he ascertains the renter is kicking tires, Sammy recommends the East and South avenues of the complex, the best buys. He whispers the name of a hard-working realtor, “a close pal, a real winner.”
If the visitor thinks to himself that perspicaciousness didn’t buy Sammy much, they don’t say. It wouldn’t occur to Sammy that Sunrise Sands might not be everyone’s ultimate choice for a final destination. That’s why he’s king.
At the end of the ten-minute interaction, Sammy slowly, dramatically, moves his head from side to side as if surveying a vast estate, taking it all in: the chairs, the visitors, the regulars. “It’s much quieter around here between twelve and three,” he notes. “More relaxing. You have the whole place to yourself.” He smiles. And usually the visitor/renter gets the hint.
The next day, Sammy and Betty stroll by at one o’clock and give a friendly grin and nod of approval to the rule-obeying intruders forced to seek shade under the umbrellas in the heat of the day. For some unexplained reason, that sanction seems to matter to the recipients, as if the coach had finally seen progress and deigned to recognize the hard work of a lowly freshman player.
* * *
But on the April day the four new renters arrived, Sammy and Betty felt immediately there would be trouble. The unofficial court could see it too: Alberta and George, like a salt and pepper set with their matching straw hats and footwear, peered over their books with looks of bemusement. Already the rebels of the group — they preferred their Saturday night alone or with guests from outside the complex — the couple read the situation quickly and with some measure of relish. Sammy’s reign was self-declared, not the result of a majority vote, and they quietly enjoyed his infrequent bouts of comeuppance.
Winston, the widower, whose claim to fame within the group was a third nipple and a new girlfriend every month, noted the four arrivals with equal enthusiasm. He would have liked to be in charge, but Winston didn’t have a Betty or an equally powerful partner; he had to be content with secondary status — an occasional conference with Sammy if his first broad hints fell flat. Winston was happy to see a challenge in the air. He liked that form of entertainment.
Dorothy, more withdrawn since Art died, read the situation immediately but spent no time pondering it. At heart she was still a Maine woman and did not waste time on petty matters.
Kathy One and Kathy Two, sisters-in-law who had lived together for ten years after the deaths of their spouses — no one had ever seen or known their husbands, but that question mark was never addressed — exchanged quick, birdlike glances.
It wasn’t just the renters’ looks that were startling; the manner of their entrance heralded trouble. The first couple, large people uncomfortably broad and layered, came in first, toting two enormous floats. Now, everyone around the pool knows that floats aren’t allowed. The rule is not posted, but you put a float in and there’s no room for conversation groups. You put two floats in and you might as well go home, which no one does until 4:45 pm. That’s the time to go home.
One of the floats had a cartoonish palm tree sprouting four feet in height. “A goddamn palm tree, for Chrissake,” hissed Sammy to Betty.
The other couple was also problematic. The man was white, his companion, black. Now, the regular pool group wasn’t without their worldview; no, sir. Why, Sammy had fought side by side with Negroes during the war. And his barber was African-American, for God’s sake; he’d even invited the fellow to lunch one time. He knows to call him not black but African-American, and he likes to mention his relationship, for effect.
“My buddy Herb, he’s African-American, you know, a great guy,” he’ll crow upon occasion. Sammy hadn’t taken Herb to his usual hangout, of course, but to a nice restaurant, where the fellow would feel comfortable. But this woman was outside the confines of Sammy’s liberal sophistication.
For starters, she was young, at least twenty years younger than her companion, who in turn looked to be Sammy’s junior by another twenty. And she was proud; the gang could read it on her aquiline face and sinewy body. She held her head so high it seemed the rest of her obeyed and followed the straight fine angle of her neck rather than relying upon bones and muscles below. She wore a bright orange diaphanous cover over her bathing suit which her partner (Husband? Boss?) gently removed and placed on the back of a lounge chair.
“Is that woman his wife?” murmured Winston to himself. She wasn’t like any wife he’d ever seen. She seemed even to Winston to be wearing an invisible crown. The sisters-in-law saw it too. They felt it. The woman, with her regal carriage, was otherworldly, outside any category of visitor ever observed at the Northwest Corner pool.
The fat couple plopped their clownish bodies onto a pair of solid chairs under a table umbrella.
“Thank God they left the chaises alone,” tittered Betty to Sammy.
But Sammy’s eyes were on the Queen; that was how they all referred to her in their living rooms that night. She slowly lowered herself onto a chaise, large dark glasses covering half her face, not gathering book or drink as if, with her simple, languid movements, she was declaring silence.
Her companion was more sports-minded, entreating the heavy couple to join him in the pool. He knew better, apparently, than to invite the Queen. He climbed confidently onto the diving board and executed a well-practiced, elegant dive despite his mid-belly girth. It was the first dive the Northwest Corner pool group had ever witnessed other than the haphazard demonstrations from visiting grandchildren.
“The water’s perfect, Joe!” he shouted. “Come on!”
The group watched as Joe and his wife — if stature and breadth were any indication — waddled down the stairs.
“Praise God they don’t dive too,” whispered Alberta to George.
As the duo assaulted the water, Dorothy silently exited the pool, picked up her towel and chose to return to her empty home. Studying Art’s portrait atop the television set was preferable to the approaching drama.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Romney S. Humphrey