A View of the Pool From the Sliding Glass Door -- by Jane Nightshade
Mrs. Stanley loved her house. She’d lived there for almost twenty years, and yet she still felt a rush of admiration and affection for the house and its gardens at some hour of the day, nearly every day of her life. She loved the sunny yellow breakfast room with the big picture window that looked out onto the orange tree in the back yard; she loved the pink dogwood in the far left corner of the front yard; she loved the fireplace in the living room with the white painted brick surround and the large, slick wedding photo of her and Mrs. Stanley that hung over the mantelpiece.
But best of all, her very favorite thing, the most special thing, was the view of the pool through the sliding glass door of the family room. The wide, polished expanse of glass, the intriguing section of the flat, turquoise-colored water that one could see through the glass, the pool skimmer chug-chug-chugging into view all, filtering stray dirt and debris away, and squirting its long spray of cleaned water back into the pool, then chug-chug-chugging out of view again, around and across the kidney-shaped patch of bright turquoise blue, trailing it’s reticulated hose like a long plastic water python.
“It’s so…so California,” she’d told Mr. Stanley — Gordon — when they’d first moved into their house, so many years ago.
“Really the classic California view, isn’t it? It talks to me somehow, it’s like how I feel about a David Hockney lithograph. Clean, bright and blank, as if anything could happen, if you dived into one of those strangely compelling Hockney pools.”
Gordon didn’t know what she meant by that, and he’d never heard of David Hockney before that very conversation, but he’d bought her a small one of the pool lithographs for their tenth anniversary years later, before signed Hockney prints had become so ridiculously expensive. The picture was hanging in the family room next to one side of the sliding glass door. As if Mrs. Stanley had willed it, it did look very much like the exact composition of her own pool as viewed through that door. .The Hockney had an actual title, but Mrs. Stanley didn’t like the title at all; she always thought of it as A View of the Pool From the Sliding Glass Door – “a much better title, don’t you think?” she’d always ask visitors, when showing the picture off.
It was Monday today; she was sure of it. Sometimes it was hard for her to keep track of time nowadays, especially when Gordon wasn’t in town. He’d left early in the morning for a business trip to Tokyo – or was it Singapore? – and Mondays were always normally her big cleaning days, when Gordon went off to work and Katelyn went off to school, after the family together-time of the weekend. She would start in the kitchen and do the breakfast dishes and the floors and a couple of loads of laundry; someone came in to do heavy cleaning on alternate Fridays, but she did the rest. Then the breakfast room, the bathrooms and bedrooms, and a quick, light once-over in the dining room, which was hardly ever used.
She would always save the best cleaning chore for last – the family room with its thick carpet and plain, stolid furniture, the Hockney lithograph and the beloved view of the pool from the sliding glass door. She always wiped and polished the glass of the door until it was spotless, just to make sure she would have a clean, unmarred view of the pool.
Yes, it was Monday, she was sure of it. But Gordon had left his briefcase behind on the table in the breakfast room, next to his leftover half-piece of toast; the butter was starting to congeal on its cold surface. Surely, he would call soon and ask if he’d left his briefcase behind and then he’d be upset when she said yes, and she would feel helpless to do anything about it. It wasn’t like him to leave anything behind; he was always so solid and organized, something must have really rattled him at breakfast, but she was damned if she knew what it was.
“It can’t be helped,” she finally said aloud. “I do the best I can.”
When she got to Katelyn’s room and started to run the sweeper over the wooden floors, she had to stop and think for a moment about why the room looked so empty and none of her daughter’s things were there, except high school and childhood things Katelyn didn’t need or want in her dorm room, like the tassel from her graduation cap, with its golden charm reading Class of 2016. Mrs. Stanley paused and stared at the tassel and the charm, and then realized, “Oh yes, she’s gone – she’s been gone for what? — more than a year now.” Away to school in faraway Boston, where no one had sliding glass doors or kidney-shaped swimming pools that sparkled bright turquoise blue in nearly endless sunshine.
“I think I’m becoming an East Coaster,” Katelyn had texted her a few days ago, and Mrs. Stanley had been appalled; there were few things, to her way of thinking, that were worse than a person becoming an East Coaster if they’d had the luck of being born in California. Katelyn also texted that she might not even come home next summer; she had a chance at a summer internship that other college girls would die for, and Mrs. Stanley had felt a sharp stab of pain in her lungs when she’d read that, the same horrible and insistent pain she’d felt the night of Katelyn’s graduation – what? A year and a half-ago? It was so hard to keep track. Gone forever, the thirteen years she had spent driving Katelyn to school and picking her up afterward; gone too, the friends who would come over and spread their books and papers on the under-used dining room table, and do their homework in between their girlish giggles and secrets. Mrs. Stanley always made sure they had home- muffins or ginger cookies to munch on, with flavored iced tea or bottles of the fancy Italian soda that Katelyn liked so much. .
Mrs. Stanley was feeling anxious, something was wrong now, she definitely knew it, but couldn’t put her finger on what it was. The left-behind briefcase and the half-eaten toast and the way she kept forgetting things, important things.
But then Katelyn’s room was finished – there wasn’t much to do but sweep the floors and do light dusting over the furniture – and at last, Mrs. Stanley realized it was time to clean the family room. She would feel better then, she was sure, once she could stare out onto the flagstone patio and the pool that abutted it, through the sliding glass door, and look at the Hockney lithograph and imagine herself diving into the enigmatic, blank and half-seen pool, so much like her own, where anything could happen.
At first, she did feel so much better, as she vacuumed the carpet and sprayed Pledge on the coffee table and the end tables and wiped them down, and dusted the lampshades. She started when she realized that Gordon had left his best suit jacket draped over the back of his favorite easy chair; charcoal gray with thin chalk stipes in ivory and rust.
“Why did he leave that behind?” she thought anxiously. He needed his suit jacket; businessmen in Singapore – or was it Tokyo? – were so much more formal than their California counterparts, with their pleated khaki pants and their pastel pink or mint green Ralph Lauren Polo shirts. Poor Gordon, he must be under so much stress.
Maybe there was a new contract at work and he was having trouble getting it fulfilled. She’d have to be extra-nice to him when he came back home. They hardly ever fought, in fact the last time they’d had a serious row was eight years ago, but she seemed to remember there was something recently that had resulted in unaccustomed yelling and screaming. What was it though? She couldn’t remember. All she could recall was Gordon in his blue-and-white-striped Oxford shirt yelling something like, Get over it, Mavis – children grow up, children grow up!
She put the jacket away, giving it a good brush with her hand before hanging it in the front hall closet, and then she went back to the family room, Windex and fresh cloth in hand, to clean the sliding glass door. She sprayed and scrubbed the glass, as always feeling a lift in her spirits when she looked out at the pool.
“It’s a fine pool, isn’t it?” she thought. “So bright, so inviting, so California.” She looked at the Hockney on the wall next to the sliding glass door, and for once, the picture didn’t make her happy, it didn’t seem all that cheerful or bright or filled with possibilities.
“Why, I never noticed it before – it’s lonely – Mr. Hockney’s pool is so lonely!” she told herself. “No one swims in it!” Maybe she would find a new place for the Hockney, or maybe she would feel better about it tomorrow, and leave it be.
There were five chaise lounges on the patio outside the sliding glass door. She noticed for the first time that someone had left an unfamiliar beach towel on one of them, carefully draped and spread out over the reclining back.
“Whose beach towel is that?” she asked herself. It was blue-and white-striped with a pattern of large, splotchy red flowers printed over the stripes. It looked a little bit like her own blue-and-white towels (striped like Gordon’s Oxford dress shirt), except that her own towels didn’t have the splotchy red flowers, which frankly she thought looked rather showy and vulgar.
It must have been left behind by one of Katelyn’s friends. Emily, or Madison, or Ashley or Chloe. She’d have to call around to the other mothers to see who was missing a beach towel. But then she remembered, they were all gone, too – same as Katelyn. All the girls who used to cluster around the dining room table eating her ginger cookies while studying; who came over for swimming in the late spring and summer and sunned themselves on the chaise lounges or the flagstone patio.
She’d watched most of them grow up since kindergarten, but they never came around anymore of course, they were spread out all over the country at colleges and universities of their own. Katelyn was gone and she had taken all of that with her when she went – the track meets and the soccer practices, the school dances, the PTA fundraisers, the Friday night football games, the Girl Scout cookie drives – so many years of it, and then one day, the day of Katelyn’s high school graduation – all of it was just gone, gone, gone.
They'd had a barbecue the summer of their graduation, at the end of the season, just before the first week of September. A barbecue with burgers and hot dogs smoking and sizzling on Gordon’s gas grill, and a marshmallow roast on the little hibachi near the diving board, and a long splashy swim in the pool. It was their last hurrah, Katelyn had joked, the last time they would all be together as children – or at least, as semi-children -- before they all went off into the great wide world. Katelyn and Emily and Madison and Ashley and Chloe, and the boys, Dylan, Jake and Cole.
Mrs. Stanley had taken a picture of them, seated shoulder-to-shoulder in a row on one side of the pool, feet trailing into the water, bright smiles flashing in the sun. She’d had the photo enlarged and framed, and it occupied a prominent shelf in the family room.
They’d sworn that day that they'd all stay together forever, like all teen-agers, but Mrs. Stanley knew it wouldn't last. They'd all grow up and become different people and take different paths through life, and they'd grow apart, like everyone does, even families, even mothers and daughters. She could have told them it really was their last hurrah, the last time they would really all be friends in their sweet little high school posse together. She could have told them that!
But then there was the beach towel—the beach towel!! Where did it come from? Maybe her housekeeper had left it there last Friday and she'd just never noticed beforehand. Maybe her housekeeper had taken a dip in the pool when she was shopping? She would have to talk to the woman about it, this coming Friday. She hated having to criticize Luz, but really, taking a swim in the pool without asking, during work hours, and leaving behind a tacky garish beach towel to boot – that was really too much. Gordon would, of course, fully agree, once he got back from Singapore or Shanghai or wherever he was. Poor Gordon, he’d taken one of his old college barbells out of the garage and left it on the patio after working out with it yesterday or the day before, and it was so old, the weight at one end was covered with dirty, brick-colored rust.
“Poor man’s got a mid-life crisis, trying to recapture his youth,” she thought pityingly. “I should buy him some new barbells; that old thing belongs in the town dump.”
She stood looking out of the sliding door, scrubbed and gleaming, trying to find the calm and happiness that always surfaced when looking at the pool, and she waited for the pool skimmer to come around, with its comforting chug-chug-chug, squirt-squirt-squirt sounds, and then it did come into view but there was something odd caught on it, something lumpy and red and blue-and-white-striped, the hose wrapped around the lump like a python, trailing crimson dye into the pristine turquoise water, and the poor skimmer was struggling to move ahead, like a drowning snail caught in a puddle of rain.
"Another one of those tacky towels, bunched up and tossed into the pool, and so cheaply made, the dye isn't even permanent – is that what it is? Is that really what it is?”
Mrs. Stanley suddenly dropped her cleaning cloth and the bottle of Windex and sat down with a thud, her back leaning against the sliding glass door, hugging her knees to herself, and began to breathe heavily, a strangled cry escaping from her diaphragm, which felt like it had been crushed by an anvil. Because she'd just remembered, oh how she remembered now, why it was that Gordon had left his briefcase and suit jacket behind…
Copyright Jane Nightshade, all rights reserved. First published in DaCunha Press's Anthology 2 (2018).
Jane Nightshade is the author of The Drowning Game, a novella of the supernatural, available in e-book form on Amazon.