Filling Pools by Lincoln Michel

Sally Mann, The Ditch

Sally Mann, The Ditch, 1987. Gelatin silver print 65.2 × 75.4 cm.

People say I have a baby face. You can look at me and pretend I’m drowning; I do this watery thing with my eyes. How you work the face is important in this line of work.

“Your child’s childhood ain’t your daddy’s childhood,” I tell the woman at the door. “Nostalgia can’t get in the way of safety.”

She has a six-year-old wrapped around her leg and a baby hooked into her arm. I can tell this lady is one who craves the visuals.

“One moment you are sipping ice tea on your lawn chair,” I say, rubbing my boot across the welcome mat. “The next moment your little girl has bonked open her head on the bottom, chlorine washing her brain.”

The mom gets a twitch in her eye when I say that.

I fill in the deep ends of pools door to door. Make them all an even shallow. It’s a better business than you might think. All I have is a sump pump, a cement mixer, and some cans of blue paint. I had some other things like a back hoe and a minivan before the divorce. Now Sarah, my ex-wife, has those things. Well, not the backhoe. The city repossessed that and then gave me a nice big fine.

The cement truck is mine and custom-made. A business-size cement mixer hooked up to the back of an ‘82 Ford.

“Is that thing to regulation,” the woman at the door says.

“Fuck the regulations,” I tell her. “We are talking about children’s lives.”

I study faces a lot. I used to be a painter. I even sold a few portraits to Sarah’s family, before the divorce. The woman in the doorway has a trustworthy face, soft and fuzzy like a TV interview lady.

“Is the mister around?” I say.

“I’m afraid the mister isn’t ever around,” the lady says, looking down at the little girl. “He is, uh, on a long vacation.”

I nod my head sympathetically, offer a discounted rate and hand over my card.

It all started when this showboat was doing backflips at night in the community pool. Apparently he had the deep end mixed up with the shallow. His lady friend ran screaming down the street buck naked.

I was there when they fished him out. If you wanted to see a good face, you should’ve seen his. All pop-eyed and head flopping around like a live fish. It was disquieting.

The community was in an uproar on account of both this and the toddler who’d drowned last year during swim class, but City Hall wasn’t doing anything. I knew a business opportunity when I saw one. Sarah was walking out the door for girls’ night and gave me a face like, Boy, I hope you know what you are doing.

My first job, so it was kinda lumpy. But there were a few people who might have said I was a hero. One newspaper did and I carry a clipping around to show the customers.

I think my favorite faces are the faces of children. Like the next day, when I’m back at the lady’s house lowering a sump pump into the deep, and the little six-year-old is smushing her pudgy face right into the chain link fence.

“What’s your name?”

“Petunia,” she says.

“Oh,” I say, “like the flower.”

“No!” she shouts.

I hook the hose up to the pump and turn that sucker on. The girl’s face gets all white and she runs inside.

It’s a hot day and I sit on a deck chair under a faded blue umbrella. Watching all that water being sucked into the sewer makes me wish I had a beer. I don’t get one, but a few minutes later Petunia is back outside stuffing fish sticks in her face. She hands me one through the fence. It’s still a bit frozen on the inside, but I swallow anyway.

“Thanks,” I say. I can see her mother watching behind the glass door. I give a little wave, flash my kindly neighbor face.

“Come around if you’d like,” I say and I lie down in one of the pool chairs, listen to the sump pump churn. The sound reminds me that I need to call my ex-wife. Straight to voicemail.

“It’s good to hear your voice, Sarah,” I say. “Still wondering if you can give me Bob’s number.”

Bob is our old plumber. I’ve got a burst seal in my basement. I pump it out every morning, but there’s a new pool each night.

“Let’s let bygones be bygones. Also, let me know if you want to get coffee sometime.”

While I’m on the phone, Petunia opens the gate and sits down on a fun noodle near the pool’s edge. I click the cell shut, stuff it in my pocket.

“Why are you filling in my pool?” she says with an angry face.

“Just the deep end, baby-doll.”

“Why are you filling in my deep end?”

“So you don’t die.”

She frowns and eats another fish stick. She walks over and kicks a floaty duck into the pool, watches it lower inch by inch.

Backyard deep ends can go up to ten feet deep, which I level out to five. That’s a lot of cement. Sometimes I toss little things down as it dries. A plastic truck or some coins, whatever is around. They get covered up and left where no one will ever find them. You could fold a few bodies into that goop before it hardens.

After a day’s work, I like to just drive around looking for splashes of blue over the fences. I keep a map of potential clients. What’s funny about these neighborhoods is you drive around them enough and they start to feel like a giant maze. You can’t remember where anything is supposed to be. The faces of each house look the same as the last.

I give Sarah another call and she doesn’t pick up again.

How much of this is a man supposed to take? I say. This is my fucking basement we are talking about!

I pull into my driveway, go inside and flip on the TV.

I’m back over the next day, mixing up the cement. Petunia is squatting on the noodle singing a song and the mother gives us glasses of lemonade.

I’m watching the gray bits swirl together and thinking about Sarah, the way she thinks she can treat me, when Petunia pulls on my wallet chain.

“Why are you sad?” she says.

“What?” I say.

I make my face look confused for a while. Then the mother comes sprinting up with the cordless still in her hand. She is holding the baby tight in the other.

“Oh my god,” the lady says to me. “I’ve got an emergency I have to take care of.”

I give her a nonchalant wave, tell her I’ll be okay. She puts her arm around Petunia, smothers her against her knees.

“It’s her father”, she mouths. “She can’t see him”.

“Can you keep an eye on Petunia?” she says out loud.

“Sure,” I say, “protecting children is my job.” I give her an all-business smile and Petunia the silly-clown smile. Petunia winces a bit, but her mother pulls her inside and gives me a string of thank yous and curses.

The cement takes quite some time to dry after you’ve flattened it out, so I go inside to wash the gunk off my hands, maybe find the little girl a pack of fruit snacks or a stack of crackers.

The house isn’t that large, but it feels comfortable and calm. The walls are decorated with framed family photos and paintings of running dogs. It feels like the place Sarah and I always thought we’d have, although Sarah was a calico cat girl. I didn’t like having to clean up after one, but liked the look of their furry turtle-shell faces. When she left she took the cat too.

Petunia is at a desk playing with cartoon hippos on the computer.

“Is that educational?” I ruffle her hair a little, give her a pinch on the cheek.

“Can I get a juice box?” she says.

“Sure thing, sweetie.”

It feels good helping out a family in need. I walk to the fridge and fish out a grape juice for Petunia, then search around until I find some whisky. I pour a little in the mug and walk around the house checking out the different rooms.

Something about the blue mug with its comical phrase printed on the front makes me feel like a father as I stroll through the rooms. Like this could have been the castle I was king of if things had happened a little different. And who knows, maybe I could have something like this someday?

I decide to try Sarah again.

“Hi Sarah,” I say. “You’d never believe where I am right now!”

I’d thought it was the voicemail again, but it was her actual voice.

“What the fuck do you think you are doing, Burt?” she screams. “I don’t have any goddamn number of any goddamn plumber. Call me one more time, though, and I’ll use the number of the goddamn police.”

“Now hold on,” I say, but she has already hung up.

I walk back to the kitchen, pour myself some more whisky. I go to the couch and sit and stew. Then, I don’t know why, I just start to cry.

Petunia comes over and I cover my eyes, pretend I’m laughing at something on TV.

“I knew you were sad,” she says. She puts her little hands on my shoulder.

“It’s nothing.”

“Tell me about it,” she says. She gives me a serious look, like a cartoon psychologist.

“It’s just my ex,” I say. “She twisted my heart like a bendy straw.”

“My mommy always says you have to stand up for yourself,” she says. “That is the only way people will respect you.”

I take another gulp of whisky, shrug my shoulders. She keeps asking me questions, but all I can say is that I don’t know how things ended up like this. I get a refill of whisky and offer Petunia another juice box.

“You need to tell her how you feel, right now!” she says suddenly.

“We should wait here while the cement dries,” I say, waving my hand towards the window.

“No!” Petunia shouts. “Right now, mister.”

She gives me this face that just makes me think, Out of the mouth of babes, you know?

I scribble a note for the mother on the door with the relevant details.

“Road trip!” Petunia says, her little hands filled with plastic-wrapped snacks.

I check on the cement. I’d forgotten to take out the floaty duck and its yellow butt is popping right out of the goo.

We peel on out of the drive way in my truck. I turn on a little rock ‘n roll on the radio.

“This okay? I don’t know what the Barney station is.”

Petunia is opening a pack of Oreos. I can feel the whisky working in me and I roll down the windows, let the summer air in. I take a left at the light and then a right at the children crossing sign.

“How much further?” Petunia says.

“Not much,” I say, but after we are driving a while I realize I can’t remember the way. I know Sarah now lives on a road named after a kind of tree. Is it Sycamore or Sugar Maple?

We keep driving through the flat suburban grid. I try to sneak a look over the fences for possible clients.

“I’m tired,” Petunia says.

“Did we already pass this place?” I say. I stick my head out the window, try to remember if I’ve seen that color fence already. The phone starts ringing in the loose change pit of my car.

“Hello, Sarah. Speak of the devil.”

“Sarah? This is Cynthia Hartman,” a female voice says. “Is this Burt the cement man?”

I say, “The very same,” and the voice gets louder.

“Where the hell are you? And where is my daughter!?”

“Don’t worry, we’ll be back in a jiffy,” I say. “We are just finishing a little errand. Can’t talk now.”

I keep turning the wheel this way and that. We drive past dogs and children running around well-trimmed yards. The phone keeps jiggling around in the dish.

“I want to go back,” Petunia says. All her snack wrappers are empty and shining on her lap.

“Come on, Petunia,” I say. “It’s right around the corner, I’m sure of it.”

We turn on Spruce Street. I’m drumming on the steering wheel in anticipation. We can’t go back now. I’ve got things I need to say to Sarah, things that need to be said right now.

“I want mommy. I want to go home,” she says.

“It has got to be right around here,” I say.

Petunia’s face is getting red and starting to crinkle.

“It’s gonna be great, Petunia,” I say. “Don’t you worry. The two of us will let Sarah know what’s what,” I say. “You and I will show her she needs to reconsider things. And if she doesn’t answer the door, we’ll use the mixer and pour it right onto the doorstep. Cement her right in!” I give a little laugh. “Can you imagine? I can’t wait to see the look on her face!”

Lincoln Michel’s work appears in Tin House, The Believer, Oxford American, NOON, and elsewhere. He is a coeditor of Gigantic and the books editor of The Faster Times. You can find him online at