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Renovation


ISSUE:  Winter 2016

Illustration by Anna Schuleit Haber For as long as I can remember, my father was a water man. When I was born he was making a living in the irrigation business, installing sprinkler systems to help keep the manicured lawns of greater Orlando lush and bright. At our house, we didn’t pour a lot of money into the landscape. My mother attended to porch ferns with a watering can and relied on the rain to soak the yard, which contained very little except for a grapefruit tree my father had high hopes would someday yield a crop. He sprinkled tablespoons of nitrogen around the trunk and joked that the tree deserved “a better life,” which in his line of work meant lateral pipes, timers, and moisture sensors. It’s probably only natural that, over time, I grew to associate dripping shrubs with lots of money, despite the fact that we lived in Florida and rain was almost constant. Water, I learned, was the most abundant element in nature whose only value came from controlled and measured distribution. Our lives invariably revolved around its input and output, and the same rules which governed the natural world were also true for our family’s own ecosystem.

When I was four, my sister, Stephanie, was born and my father grew ambitious. We moved to the northern part of the state where he expanded his business to include pool and spa installation, perfecting his knowledge of pumps and pipes well past what would be expected of any pool man worth his salt. It was his pride to do this; if he could not be a college man, he’d be a superior tradesman, and he enjoyed reading manuals on the subject of waterworks and analyzing the topic at length. “Water is the most important thing in the world,” he’d say, and then he’d go on a tear about the extinction of civilization in the event of a superdrought. Though he didn’t come out and say it, I gathered our location over the Florida Aquifer was something he took personally, as if the entire system of underground caves, sinkholes, and springs existed as his own private reservoir to be accessed in case of emergency.

I am sorry to say I never paid much attention to my father’s lectures on hydraulics. I do, however, remember something remarkable that happened when I accompanied him to a job site once, when I was eight. It’s less remarkable now, having more knowledge of the world and having cracked a few of its mysteries, but at the time I considered my father’s actions to be nothing short of genius.

A customer’s neglected Jacuzzi had been overtaken by algal bloom and required draining, and my father, unable to yank out the bottom plug, used a hose to siphon it dry. “Watch this,” he said, submerging half the hose in the water.

He put his mouth to the dry end and sucked out the leftover air. Once the swill reached his lips he set the hose on the ground and went about other pump-related business, turning dials and knocking on the timer’s glass face, leaving me in awe of the putrid water pouring forth with no further manipulation or machinery. For all I knew, he’d invented the trick, and it instilled in me not only the belief that my father was the keeper of rare and valuable secrets, but that the very laws of nature bent to his will.

This prejudice gave way to other biases, each of them steeped in some vague notion of filial loyalty. I stopped visiting the city pool after deciding its concrete finish was inferior to that of vinyl liner membranes with plastic steps; my father had extolled the virtues of the latter (pliable, easy to clean, soft underfoot), and so I, too, shunned the alternatives. Even to this day the smell of polyvinyl chloride speaks to me like cornstalks call to the midwestern farm girl. Recently I’ve heard that it’s a noxious gas, a chemical bouquet that causes brain damage, and sometimes I wonder how my father was able to keep his wits about him with such an occupational hazard. As Conrad noted in Heart of Darkness, “You can’t breathe dead hippo waking, sleeping, and eating, and at the same time keep your precarious grip on existence.” I think the same might be said for traveling the tri-county area in a van teeming with PVC fumes. Of course my mother might argue my father did not keep his wits, and that this is what led to his later troubles—his drinking, his erratic behavior, his general plummet to rock bottom. Nevermind that his own father had been an addict, and his father before him, and so on and so on, all the way back to the Welsh ditches out of which our people crawled. Comb hospital records for evidence; see the trail of injuries: a grandmother who passed out against a red-hot radiator, a grandfather who careened off the causeway into Sarasota Bay. In our family, to drink is an heirloom craving. 

In any event, my parents eventually separated and my father took up residence across town. He slept for a time on the couch of a friend, a bartender named Glenda, whose husband drove a truck for Roadway. When that arrangement deteriorated, he moved into the Southern Arms, a motel populated by other down-on-their-luck types: battered women, ex-cons, transexuals estranged from their fundie relations. The first time my sister and I visited the Southern Arms, Stephanie spent almost an hour in the bathroom, admiring the red walls and theatrical vanity lights. In the living area, the decor was decidedly coastal, with framed posters of seascapes and a repeating shell motif on the bedspread. We watched Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and drank thirty-two-ounce Mountain Dews while our father chain-smoked and explained evapotranspiration. 

“How long before a pool evaporates?” I asked.

He coughed and the rattle was deep, phlegmy. “That wouldn’t happen here. There’s too much rain and humidity.”

“But it could dry out if there was no rain and humidity?”

He thought about it. “It would have to be really dry. Like desert dry.”

When our mother picked us up, she asked if our father had been drinking.

“Just beer,” I told her.

“How many beers?”

“I don’t know.”

“Think.”

“Five?”

Several months passed before we saw him again. A number of unfortunate events occurred during this time, many of which could be scenes from the life of any man who has swamped his bloodstream with liquor and wakes up one morning in the midst of a dark, waterlogged forest. Alcoholics are amazingly similar. There is, on that predictable downward spiral one takes when a bottle of bourbon is tippled from morning till night, a bit of infidelity. There might be an incident of incoherent swearing and slurring at a well-meaning friend of the family, perhaps while bracing oneself against a doorframe and waving—for no discernible reason—a stringless tennis racket. There is the complete denial that anything out of the ordinary is happening, as if urinating behind a Winn-Dixie in the early morning hours, unsure of one’s exact location, is as routine as standing in the checkout lane with a carton of milk. In my father’s case, there was the additional burden of seizures and other neurological complaints, which made even brief withdrawals from his poison a nasty business. Considering all this, his and my mother’s union came to an end, and by the time of my twelfth birthday my mother was remarried to a retired electrician named Mr. Willett.

We moved immediately to Mr. Willett’s house on Old Granger Road, ten miles off from the Gulf of Mexico. There were no children on Old Granger, only undeveloped land riddled with sandspurs and cows meandering through the pines. We lived on several acres of cleared land where the vegetation had been stripped in favor of open space, and our house was at the center of a tiny plain bordered by woods. To step into the forest and venture onward was to find oneself surrounded by wildlife: palmetto thickets and beehives, wax myrtle and maiden cane, poison ivy and Virginia willow, and closer to the Gulf, salt marshes full of smooth cordgrass and black needle rush, seashore dropseed and Olney’s bulrush. Such scenery makes for picturesque postcards but is less practical underfoot. My sister and I attempted to explore the wilderness but were stopped short by digger wasps and water moccasins, not to mention the unnerving far-off grunting of feral pigs and alligators.

My mother moved quickly to usher in a new lifestyle for us, but first there was the necessity of clearing the house of a former woman’s taste. The first Mrs. Willett had died of cancer some eight years earlier, leaving behind a legacy of yellow-and-brown decor my mother covered with white paint and floral patterns. She reupholstered chairs, hung new draperies, and removed old pictures from the walls. She left no surface untouched, including the house’s exterior, which workers fitted with blue-gray siding to complete the transformation. Mr. Willett’s children, well into their thirties with families of their own, came down only a handful of times to witness their mother’s erasure. During these renovations I remember wondering why, if my mother was so offended by the decorative sensibilities of her predecessor, we didn’t just sell the house and move into one with no ghosts in the dated linoleum. I suspect she only gradually realized how hard it would be to rid the house of the dead woman—no sooner would she change the layout of the living room than she would discover that the low kitchen counters had been custom-built for a woman of smaller stature. Of course it didn’t help that the first Mrs. Willett had been everything my mother was not: petite, Southern by birth, an upstanding member of the local Church of Christ. The woman had been a pillar of the community, a saint in the eyes of her grown children, and now here we were sleeping in her air-conditioning, and only because she’d had the decency to die.

Despite my mother’s best efforts to whitewash our collective pasts, artifacts from the old life crept into the new. A set of ceramic dogs bearing the first Mrs. Willett’s initials was found at the back of a closet. A shoe box full of long-expired coupons, neatly clipped, appeared on a shelf in the office. On another occasion, to my mother’s particular horror, she arrived home from shopping one afternoon to find her daughters taking turns with a set of prosthetic silicone breasts—a remnant of the first Mrs. Willett’s battle with breast cancer. We’d found them tucked under the bed in the master bedroom, encased in silk like holy relics, leaky but convincingly real when placed in a satin brassiere.

Whatever coals still simmered in my stepfather’s heart for his first wife, he was complicit in the changing of the familial guard. I now think he must have been desperate for company. He was not a rich man, but he was older and better established, and so there was enough money to make over the place. After the carpets had been pulled up and replaced, he put in a small deck. Next came a carport. Around this time, my sister began referring to Mr. Willett as “Daddy Walt,” which fueled my mother’s feverish desire for change, and the conversation turned to building a pool. The pool would be, she said, a reward for how far we’d come.

By this time my sister and I were seeing very little of our father. His health had been deteriorating and a physical metamorphosis had begun. Nature had given him a small, lean figure that his job helped keep in shape, but since the split with my mother he’d been working less, losing muscle, and growing his fluffy brown hair long behind the ears. He took on the unsettling look of a vagrant. He grew a beard and mustache—not entirely deliberately—and they came in almost solid gray. Why it didn’t match the hair on his head, I have no idea, I can only remember the shock of seeing it when he arrived one day to measure our backyard for the digging crew. By this time I was thirteen, and his appearance struck me somewhere high up in my body—all the breath and expectation rushed out of me at once. The magic I knew to exist within him had been drowned in vice and defeat: The demands of drink, smoke, and court fees bullied his pocketbook, and he was living in a run-down trailer on the edge of town, one with an exposed septic tank and no mailbox.

To feel sorry for one’s father is a terrible thing, but even worse is to live day in, day out, with the woman you suspect to be responsible for his decline. I had come to believe that however bad my father’s habits were, didn’t people drink for a reason? And shouldn’t we help them instead of abandon them? Now and then while tiffing with my mother I’d float this idea and threaten to leave. She wouldn’t object. “Why don’t you go live with your father?” she’d ask, knowing perfectly well the impossibility of her suggestion. His domestic situation offered little in the way of basic hygiene, let alone the stability required for child-rearing, and for this reason our recent visits had been limited to dinner at Reggie’s Oysters, a seafood eatery with bottomless mullet baskets and a jukebox full of Credence Clearwater. So we remained on our side of town and he remained on his, the space between us growing wider every day.


I think back on the spring of my thirteenth year, the year my father—who’d once strapped Christmas trees to the roof of our rusted Bon-neville and regaled us with bedtime stories of his youth in the slums of Miami—found himself hired by his former family. I don’t know how the decision was reached to hire him, but I suspect it was done out of some vague gesture of goodwill. He may have been a failed husband and a worsening alcoholic, but he was also the most skilled pool man in town. As for why he accepted the job, I imagine his financial straits were just that dire; his living arrangements were evidence enough he was in no position to turn down work. And maybe when he wasn’t brooding over the irony of his situation—here was a man who built luxuries he himself could not afford to own; here was a man gifting his children with something he couldn’t have offered them as a full-fledged leader of their clan—he kept himself going on alternating notions of charity and guilt.

On the day he arrived to take measurements for the pool, my sister and I waited for him on the front steps with brushed hair and clean clothes. We readied ourselves in our own ways: I applied what I expected to be an adult amount of aerosol deodorant to my underarms, and my sister used a little stick to clear the dirt from her fingernails. Behind us lounged a small congregation of cats to bulk the size of our welcoming committee. Shortly after ten in the morning, our father’s old blue work van turned down our long dirt driveway, its back rumbling with loose plywood, PVC pipe, buckets of bicarbonate, and the usual assortment of liquid and granular chlorines. The van stopped at the end of the drive and idled, and my sister and I could see our father looking at us through the windshield. Maybe he was noticing how grown-up we looked, or perhaps he was considering shifting into reverse and speeding back to town. In any case, we stared back. Eventually he cut the engine and opened the door. After a quiet round of hellos and embraces, my sister accompanied him to the backyard to measure the perimeter and note the power lines, and I went indoors. I tried to practice piano—another one of my mother’s gentrifying schemes had been to push her children toward music—but I couldn’t concentrate. I watched my father and sister through the window, my armpits reeking of something powder-fresh.

The moment I’d seen my father step into the sunlight with his graying beard and sagging flannel, the perversity of our disparate circumstances became clear. I realized how impossible it was to have him there, in back of the home where his children slept but where he did not, all the while doing something that seemed to savor of debasement. 

The digging in our backyard began three weeks later, when my father arrived with a small crew of men bearing shovels. They dug for days, stopping only to guzzle Gatorade or lean on their shovels for cigarette breaks. They grunted and sweated. They swore when it rained. They ate ham sandwiches under the carport, silently staring at the cats. They dug until the hole was big enough to bury a herd of cattle, and after that there were three who remained: my father and his two best men. These were men I’d met before, who’d worked with my father for years. Dale was blond and well built like the Viking Prince, and had been incarcerated more than once for possession of cocaine. Ronnie was stout, Cuban, and lived in a pink house with three daughters. This was all I knew of them, except that my father trusted them and paid them under the table.

Work continued for another week. My father, Ronnie, and Dale shaped the walls of the great hole and packed the dirt tightly. They arranged the pump, drain, and filter. They unrolled the liner, warmed it to a pliable state in the sun, and stretched it across the void. They hooked vacuums to the sides to suck out excess air and to secure the liner to the soil, and then set white fiberglass steps into place. On most days, I watched my father from the window as he worked to transform the backyard into a pristine lagoon. Sometimes I’d go to the piano and bang out arpeggios to see if anyone was listening, but the men kept on laboring until at last they brought out hoses to fill the pool with water. The following day, the concrete truck came and poured its chunky soup of gravel into careful sections around the pool’s edge, and from there my father and his men smoothed the surface with aluminum planks, leaving just enough tooth for a bare foot to grip. Soon the men would be packing up their equipment and leaving, an event that meant something different for each of us. For my father and his men, it meant money in their pockets. For my mother and Mr. Willett, it meant the end of any awkwardness at having my father shirtless in the backyard. For me, it meant my father’s disappearance again, paired with the nagging suspicion that we’d see even less of him than we had before.

The morning after the job was finished and the last of the job litter had been removed, my mother woke up at seven, put on her swimsuit and a silk sarong, and made her family a large breakfast. We sat around the table, groggy at having been pulled from bed so early. But this was a special day, she said, the first day of owning our very own pool. She told us to join her once we’d finished eating, then slipped outside to test the waters. After a moment she reappeared at the sliding-glass door. 

“Walt!” she shouted.

A piece of scrambled egg fell from Mr. Willett’s mouth. He jumped to his feet and ran outside, and I followed with my sister. We rushed to the pool and noticed in the deep end a cinder block resting at the bottom, next to the drain. Large and dark gray, the block was the kind typically seen holding up a hot-dog stand or trailer home. My mother, furious, whipped her silk wrap and declared that none of us would be swimming until the block was removed. Furthermore, she’d discover and punish the guilty party. Mr. Willett was confused. He kept asking, over and over, “But how would a cinder block fall in the pool?” until my mother yelled back, “Because somebody put it there.”

She called my father on the phone and questioned him. He drove out right away, arriving with a perplexed, weary expression and wearing the same clothes we’d seen him in the day before. My mother turned to my sister and me and asked whether we’d done anything we regretted. She called Dale and Ronnie at home to interrogate them, too, but they had no idea how a block might have arrived at the bottom of our pool. Once every option had been explored—did the neighbors sleepwalk? Had there been tornados in the night? Were there other “attacks” on local pools?—my father offered to swim to the bottom to remove the block and haul it away. A puncture in the liner was likely, he said, but nothing that couldn’t be easily fixed. My mother was disappointed at finding no one to blame. 

“Just get it out of there,” she told him.

We watched in silence as my father removed his shirt and flip-flops. He dove into the water and swam to the pool’s bottom, and with a little help from Mr. Willett at the edge, they hoisted the heavy block out of the water. My father swam back to the bottom and, predictably, discovered a plum-sized tear in the smooth new liner. He and Mr. Willett went to the van for a patch and some glue while the rest of us sat glumly on the diving board. My mother was in the middle of asking us, once again, if we had anything to confess when my sister pointed in the direction of the deep end. 

“Look,” she said, her nose scrunching.

We looked, but we did not believe it. The tear, which had been insignificant moments earlier, now ripped wider, and something strange was happening to the dirt beneath. We backed away. The ground gurgled and the mud sucked down and spat back up in a rush. We stared at the sinkhole, a massive cavity opening before our eyes—one that must have been forming for some time but which now gave way with the help of 20,000 gallons. It’s a terrifying thing to see the ground roar like that, churning and abscessing all on its own, a reminder that the earth beneath our feet isn’t necessarily a permanent arrangement. My mother screamed for the men to come back, but there was nothing to be done. We could only scramble away as the hole widened and the water disappeared. Later, we’d come back and peer over the side, wondering if there was even a bottom. 

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