Every Friday morning between 10 and 11:30 am, our pool man comes. As most pool men do, he drives a small truck and works alone, wearing faded shorts, a t-shirt, and if he feels like it, a baseball cap to protect his crown. The most extravagant thing about his ensemble is perhaps the pair of Oakley sunglasses he is never without and which protect his fifty-something year old eyes from the glare of pool water. I know they are Oakley because once on a particularly hot day, I walked outside to say hello and stood less than two feet away from him.
Mostly though, I see him through our kitchen window – our kitchen is bright in the mornings, but compared to our backyard, it seems almost cavern-like and I feel like a goblin lurking and leering at a nameless, sun-kissed king.
It’s true, I don’t know his name. He is the second pool man we’ve had since moving here, the first being Frank something-or-other. Frank was tall, lean, lanky and sixty-something, with a boyish gait and fine blond hairs running down his arms and legs that disappeared into socks white as alabaster and tennis shoes to match. One got the impression that after cleaning all those pools, he drove down to the country club and played a few sets. His car was a gleaming fire-red pick-up with a license plate that said “ZPoolMan,” which taught me at a young age that to take pride in one’s profession is one of the most attractive things a person can do.
Many times, I imagined a conversation between me and Frank where I asked him why he became a pool man. Had he always been one? Did he go to college? If so, what did he major in? Did he struggle to support his family? Did his wife work too? Where did he live? Did he have a pool?
My parents, when they first moved here, were perhaps unaccustomed to seeing a tall white man in their backyard. They would stop just as I did by the window and marvel at this man at work. Frank, sometimes looking up from the water, would see us smiling at him. He’d give a little wave, and that was the extent of our interaction, except for once a month when a small white envelope would come in the mail – Frank’s invoice. On Christmas, the invoice would be accompanied by a Christmas card, signed by Frank in an elegant hand, as though all the years of wielding a pool net had also improved his penmanship – or perhaps it was the other way around. The week before Christmas my father would wrap a bottle of wine and a box of chocolates and have me bring it to Frank. The gift was always the same, and his reaction was always the same.
“Well isn’t that nice,” he would say, “Thank you very much.” He would put the bag down by his dolly and go back to whatever he was doing, not languidly, but slowly and methodically as though our pool was the only one he had to clean that day.
He came and left quietly through the side yard, each time reaching over with his long arms to unlock the door, striding in with his supplies in tow on a white dolly. He didn’t need much: a plastic bucket or two filled with strange, neon-colored liquids which he emptied by the gallon into our pool; a long plastic tube; a wide-mouthed net and some chemical indicators that he kept in his pocket. All these things loaded neatly onto the dolly and the dolly loaded neatly into the bed of his truck. Our pool was never very dirty unless the Santa Ana winds came, but after he left the water seemed to sparkle as though it were crystal, like he’d polished it with some magic wave of his hands.
I trusted Frank to keep the water friendly and safe. It never stung my eyes, never smelled like those public pools, more chlorine than water and though I knew he had no control over the temperature, I always attributed the summer water – perfectly cool, perfectly warm – to him. His art. He cleaned quickly and quietly, even more so because I was inside with the door closed. Through the window I felt as though I were watching an old film, restored. Occasionally I saw an earphone peaking out from his ears, and he’d lightly bob his head to some tune, coming from the Walkman clipped to his waistband. If I wasn’t paying attention, I would look up a few moments later and find the backyard empty except for the swaying trees and soft ripples of clean pool water. Frank slipped in and out like a kind-hearted burglar, the only thing he would take were the floating dead leaves, leaving behind clear sparkling water that beckoned living, swimming bodies.
Sometime after high school Frank stopped coming. The red truck was replaced by a shiny blue one, the license plate of which I never bothered to read. At first I did not notice it was not Frank, for this new pool man’s silhouette was so much like his predecessor’s, until one morning I noticed the truck and said to my father, “Did Frank get a new truck?”
My father gave me a strange look. “Frank’s retired. This is a new guy.”
I squinted out the window. It wasn’t Frank. This man was just as tall and lean, and though he moved more hurriedly than Frank did, there was something familiar about his gait; the flow with which he worked, I had seen it before.
“No,” my dad said, “Too old to be his son. Just a friend, I guess. Frank referred him.”
Z Pool Men, I thought, all of one breed. Lanky guys who could have been athletes – and maybe had been, when they were younger – but who had discovered a singular secret to life. The meditative art of pool cleaning. I wondered where Frank was then. Perhaps lounging by his own pool, drinking a beer and listening to his music, flowing freely from an old stereo while some younger man cleaned his pool.