by GRANT FARLEY
s Ed stood with his hand gripping the rail, staring down into the dimly lit courtyard of the Tropical Gardens Apartments, the green assaulted him. It was not the green of fresh spring. Not the green of new growth. Not the green of promise. Of course, maybe in daylight it would feel different. Who was he kidding? The yellow stucco walls had faded to a pea green. The doors fairly oozed that avocado so popular now. The hemp green odor of pot drifted from unit six. Fat green leaves of some tropical tree grew up from the first level, brushing his feet. Even the lit pool had green scum crawling across the tile and sliding beneath the surface. It made him sick to look into that water, as if all the corruption of this green emanated from that pool, casting a reflection of despair over all.
He shifted the grocery bag to his left arm and reached into his pocket for the key to number eight. He had waited several months for this unit to become vacant, but what if it hadn’t? Would he have taken another apartment? Would that have changed things, did he suppose? Things can change in an instant, can’t they?
A young man swayed toward him in tight bell bottom jeans, a silky blouse and an Afro. A white kid with an Afro. The world was going to Hell.
“Hey, man. Moving in?” The kid asked.
“Yeah.” Ed looked him in the eye and stuck out his hand, his father’s voice rattling somewhere in his head. Give ‘em a firm grip, child, and look ‘em straight in the eye. When a man sells his soul, the grasp will be as sinuous as an eel.
“Not like that, bro.” The kid reached out and curled a soft hand around Ed’s wrist and then slid it into his palm and then raised it over his head and Ed recognized this part and lifted his own hand, keys dangling, and let the kid slap it with a high five.
Ed wasn’t a novice at this. How many meetings had he attended where men in their forties and fifties gyrated in their leisure suits with gold chains flopping against hairy chests. He had blown more than one deal by staring a man in the eye and holding his hand straight out until the exec relented or ignored it. “Why ya gotta be so self-destructive?” Laz would demand afterwards.
“Far out. You moving in?” The kid nodded at the grocery bag and Ed noticed him staring at the top of his Ancient Age. The smile slid off just a little. “Well, it’s all good,” he said. “Whatever turns you on.” The kid nodded toward Six. “Whatever gets you high. I’m finishing up at Northridge. Looking at me and all you’d think I was a theatre major or something?”
Ed put the key in the lock, but then turned back politely.
“Nope,” the kid continued. “Accounting. My old lady’s a theatre major, though. She’s playing the nurse in Romeo and Juliet. Guess who’s the director?”
Why did everyone out here refer to their girlfriend or even wife as their old lady? Where he had come from, your old lady had meant your mother. This ambiguity disturbed him. And what, then, did you call an ex-wife?
“I asked, guess who’s the director?”
“John Houston,” Ed said.
“Ha, that’s a good one. You’re not that far off, though. Jon Voight. No kidding. He’s keeping it real. You should see all those geeks hoping to get some kind of in, some leverage like they say, out of it. Me, I’m going to be an accountant to the stars. I’ll have a place south of the boulevard, Studio City, maybe. Though that’s getting pretty gay, not that I’m prejudiced. I’ll have a pool with a patio overlooking the valley and all those starving actors living at the Tropical Gardens Apartments. Who knows, maybe I’ll even become a producer. Speaking of pools, don’t go in that one down there.”
“It doesn’t look too healthy,” Ed conceded.
“Oh, yeah, but not just because of the algae. Once in awhile Julio has it in better shape. Though he’s not exactly motivated since no one swims in it anymore. Just keeping up appearances. No, the reason you don’t want to take the plunge is that it’s haunted.”
“No shit. Some boy drowned in it. Sure, look at me that way. I don’t blame you. But it’s true. It was maybe four, five years ago. If someone swims in there he can like, feel this little hand grab him? Big Will, the biker in seven, him and his old lady were balling in there late one night---well, there’s your reason right there never to go in that water---and he felt this little hand tugging at his, and he thought it was Irma’s, but then you know he felt her hands other places and…” The kid laughed. “What I’d have given to see that fat biker flying out of that pool. Anyway, catch you later.”
The kid was gliding down the stairs before Ed realized his monologue had ended. We live in a city where the accountants perform like actors and the actors calculate like accountants. Had he heard that somewhere or just now made it up? At what point had he lost the ability to discern between the two?
Ed turned and reached in his pocket for the key before seeing it already dangling in the lock. He twisted it, shouldered the door open, and stepped inside. The carpet was the same, except it was now slick and faded. The sofa and coffee table were unfamiliar, but as beat up as the carpet. Partially furnished, the landlord had said. More like partially unfurnished. He closed the door behind him and walked across the room and placed the bag on the Formica dining table and sat down on the orange chair. He did not want to live in a world where these would someday be the treasured antiques.
He lifted his Ancient Age from the bag, ran his thumbnail over the seal and twisted off the lid. Did partially furnished include any glasses? He found a single plastic cup in the cupboard with a Los Angeles Rams logo on one side and the Fearsome Foursome on the other. He used to get these at the gas station for a fill up. He had nearly collected the entire set. Was this one of them? He took it back to the table and poured in some bourbon. He left the beef jerky and peanuts in the bag. Why had he even bothered with them? Because there was something sleazy about buying booze and nothing else. He had his demons, but sleaze wasn’t one of them. He took the prescription bottle out of his pocket and placed it neatly next to the cup.
A real glass would have been nice. And ice. He wanted to swirl the bourbon and hear the ice and inhale the mellow scent. Stupid. He was beyond that now. He took one pill and placed it on his tongue and washed it down with a straight shot. Neat, the bartenders called it. Well, he planned to make this as neat as he could. He placed the glass back down. He would have to do this slowly. Too fast and he’d vomit it all back up. But not too slowly or he’d just drift off to sleep, leaving the job not quite done.
A pink phone sat in the built-in nook next to him. One of those cradle phones. A Princess, it was called. He had left that square black one behind. He had made a point of that. Now there was this thing. He lifted the receiver and listened for the dial tone he knew would not be there, yet the conversation crackled through as if straight from Hell.
“It didn’t make it to development, Ed. Look, I liked the writing as well as the next guy. They said it was well written. Part of the problem. Too well written. All those camera angles and pans and fades, and that description of the family’s living room. Clever stuff, but kind of insulting, really. The creatives, they don’t need someone telling them how to do their job. They loved the title, though. “Get a Grip, George.” Genius, that, the way the mother delivers that line at just the cleverest times. If they try and use it, I’ll make sure we get something out of it. Maybe even a ‘created by.’ “
Ed should have said right then, “I got to go. Call you back.” He should have hurried downstairs to the pool. But he didn’t. Now he took a second pill and washed it down and put the receiver back to his ear. He had been going to ask…what…he couldn’t remember…but he was afraid now that he might hear the answer.
Billy dashes along the edge of the shallow end of the pool, goose bumps flicking his skin. He reaches the deep end and flings himself high, sucking air just before the warmth envelopes him. He closes his eyes even though he tries not to and he drifts down until he toes the bottom and then he opens his eyes and squints up at the skin of water and the blurred world beyond and finally kicks upward.
He lets himself bob up into the air and gasps and doggy paddles to the side.
Dad is clapping and shouting in that funny movie voice: “Well done, lad. Well done.”
Billy rests his cheek against the warm tile. He has been at this all morning, ever since he became brave enough to jump without dad’s arms to grab him and cradle him. His own arms are so tired that they wobble. He wriggles, crab-like, out of the pool, all by himself. He stands, rubbing the stinging water from his eyes, then hugs himself as he shakes against the cold, already planning his next leap.
“You are beautiful!” Dad says.
“Dad, I’m a boy.”
“Boys can be beautiful. My God, if only I could hold this moment forever.”
Billy races around the edge of the pool.
“Slow down. I mean it.”
He doesn’t want to slow down. He wants to race ahead forever. Not just to this next jump. By next summer he will be swimming, real swimming with breaths and kicking. Why can’t it just be next summer now? He leaps high and hugs his legs into a cannonball and lets himself drop down, down to the bottom.
Then he hears it faintly, almost like a heartbeat. He kicks off hard, rising into the air as that jangling ring calls down from their apartment and echoes through the courtyard. Billy doesn’t want to get out.
“What’s the matter with you? You know I have to take these calls.” No funny movie voice now.
Billy reaches up and feels Dad’s grip on his wrist and his arm hurts as he is lifted out.
Ed poured another shot and downed it with another pill without pulling the phone away from his ear.
“Personally, I liked the idea of the father as the asshole,” Laz had rambled. “Great reversal from the Brady/Harriet thing. The kid as the smart one, though…Well, it might have worked if he wasn’t such a…such a hippy. Iowa isn’t ready to accept a hippy as their son-in-law. Ya got talent, but prime time ain’t ready for all this.”
“Look, Mr. Lazar…Laz… I got to go,” Ed said into the empty phone. “My boy is sitting by the pool. I’ll call you back.”
Ed placed the phone back in that Princess cradle. He was almost certain he had never said those last lines. He sat still. It was very dark inside. He took another pill and washed it down. Should he take the pills and booze downstairs with him? His mind spun and it was hard to think. He filled the cup. He’d take that just in case. And the pills, he fumbled some into his pocket.
He had learned from watching his father how to walk with dignity no matter how drunk. He stepped slowly to the door, opened it and carefully closed it behind him. He resisted the urge to stare over the rail at the pool. He prayed not to hear a voice calling up to him. He had not returned to relive the moment. He had returned to end it.
Although he was aware that it took a long time to negotiate the stairs, he had managed them with aplomb. It was very late. The lights were off in the pool and it was a green void. He fumbled until he found a chaise and dropped into it. Some bourbon sloshed out as he placed the cup on the table. Lines from a recent Chicago tune drifted down from the top floor: “Saturday in the park, I think it was the Fourth of July.” Not the background theme he would have chosen.
What had that kid said about the pool being haunted? Might he see his son one last time? He hadn’t thought it possible to add a heavier burden of guilt. Perhaps he could still save his son. God, that didn’t make sense. Ed popped another pill and washed it down. He floated outside his body and watched himself as if in some surreal sit-com:
Scene: Swimming pool. Night.
(Ed takes a pill and washes it down with booze. He is crying.)
Mother (just behind him): “Get a grip, Ed.” Audience laughs.
Fade to black.
As Ed sat on the chaise there seemed to be a slight glow from the deep end.
Billy shakes against the cold as Dad wraps the towel around him. The phone keeps ringing.
“Come on,” Dad says.
Billy sits on the edge of the chaise and refuses to move.
“I don’t want to. I want mama to watch me.”
“She’s waitressing at Sambo’s, you know that. I’ll take you later, you can have one of those Mickey shaped pancakes for dinner!”
The phone keeps ringing. Billy doesn’t want Dad to see his tears and pretends he’s rubbing the pool water from his eyes.
“Dammit, get a grip,” Dad says. “Okay…okay… just sit here. I’ll wrap this other towel around you. Just don’t move. I’ll come back after I take this call and we can go back in. I’ll be right back.”
But to Dad, ‘right back’ could mean forever. Billy shakes from the cold. He imagines the water washing warmly over him when he jumps back in. Funny how that works. Sometimes he just likes to get out and run along the side, getting cold, so he can jump in and feel the warmth overflow him. He could just take a quick jump to get warm now. He would be able to hear his dad’s heavy steps on the concrete landing and then Billy could pop out before Dad was even on the stairs and could see him. And he is old enough to swim. Well, doggy paddle. He can doggy paddle the whole length of the pool. And he can crab walk around the edge.
He sheds the towels, stands and walks to the edge, so close his toes curl over the tiles. Then he backs up, backs up more and then pushes off, racing for the edge, flinging himself high into the air.
Ed stood and staggered to the edge. Had he taken enough? He saw it clearly now, that faint glow at the bottom of the pool. Some flood light on an automatic timer, maybe. No. This was smaller, more of a natural glimmer.
Ed did not believe in souls or even ghosts. He laughed. That nihilism had never been a comfort until now. He realized he still held the cup. He took another pill from his pocket and swallowed it with the last of the booze and knelt by the side of the pool. He found himself sitting on the edge with his feet dangling in the water. Dampness oozed through his socks and into his suede Hush Puppies, but it was oddly warm when he thought it should be very cold. How long did he sit here? Time meant nothing. The light slid about in the deep end, far deeper than he remembered for this pool. Once again, he slipped out of his body and glimpsed this pathetic man who just couldn’t get a grip, and the heartbreaking light in the depths of the pool.
Why couldn’t he have just frozen that moment, held it forever? He slid into the water and heard the thunk at the back of his head against the concrete and then he was under and sinking.
Ed opened his eyes and stared down into the deepest darkest green toward that glint of light. His son was reaching up toward him. Was this his chance to save him? Or was his son the savior? Ed reached down, but the light seemed forever just beyond his reach. His lungs burned. He had to go up for air. But he might lose his son if he did.
Billy was reaching toward him.
Ed made one final lunge and fingered something like a tiny glacier bobbing in the water. Then he felt the grip and he squeezed back, refusing to let go.
Grant Farley lives and writes along the edge of LA. Grant’s story, "Grip", is from the collection: LAmental.
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