To Live Like This Is to Be Happy Forever

Illustration by Lauren Nassef

Seventeen Thousand Gallons Will Find Its Way Out

In the heat of a Carolina summer, nothing’s better than a nice swim, assuming the pool doesn’t explode.

Sloat Tatum and I were seated in Harkey’s Restaurant, enlivening our soft drinks with Ten High bourbon when two feet of twisted plumbing smacked down on the table between us. It was nothing but PVC elbows and couplings, covered with primer stains and drips of glue.

Landon Hodges towered over us, his sunburned cheeks purpling with rage. “Jesus H. Christ, Sloat,” he sputtered, pointing at that absurd sequence of pipe fittings. “This plumbing of yours spreads more water than a goddamn lawn sprinkler!”

Heads turned. The shock on the patrons’ faces morphed into amusement when they saw our table’s ridiculous centerpiece—a grotesque monstrosity that looked as if it might slither away at any moment. I turned to Landon, smiled weakly. We had no business building above-ground swimming pools with Sloat Tatum.

“We didn’t have no more straight pipe,” Sloat pleaded. “We used what we had.”

“Now hold on a minute,” I said to Sloat. “There was plenty of PVC in the warehouse. We just forgot to take it with us.”

I handed Landon my drink. He drained it. Mr. Harkey wandered over, told us to settle down. It’s a good thing Sloat had hidden the flask. If Mr. Harkey had a notion we’d been drinking, he would’ve called our parents on the spot. As he ambled back to the cash register, Sloat turned up the flask and chugged what remained of our bourbon.

“I was stuck in Belhaven all goddamn day,” Landon wheezed through cracked lips. “Before I could replace that pipe, I had to cut the customer’s garden hose and drain out two feet of water. I must have swallowed a gallon trying to get that siphon to work, then sat on my ass in 90-degree heat waiting for all that water to trickle out.”

“Landon,” Sloat drawled. “When I was asked if I knew a good handyman, I recommended you. If you don’t want the work, then why don’t you quit?”

Landon sucked air. “I want the work,” he seethed. “But I’ve got more maintenance calls than I can handle. Sometimes it’s a three-hour drive between jobs.” He glared at Sloat. “Seems like you motherfuckers can’t build a pool that’ll hold any water.”


* * *

It’s true that Sloat and I weren’t the best plumbers. But nothing could have prepared us for what happened a few weeks later—on my next day off. My mom woke me at eight in the morning. Sloat was on the phone.

“It’s bad,” he said. “Looks like a twister set down and blew the thing apart. Mr. Brundage, the customer, said his kid was swimming when it happened. The boy wasn’t hurt, just shit himself is all.”

Sloat drove up in the company stake bed. In the back were several boxes containing a Vogue 27-foot round, the type of pool he called a “can.” I expected the job to move quickly. We had already done the grading, so we could start the assembly soon as we arrived at the site. Sloat leaned out the driver’s-side window and spat a coppery stream on the driveway.

Bodie gave the family $1,000 in compensatory gifts—floats, chemicals, even a new pair of swim trunks to replace the ones the kid had soiled.“Get in,” he said. “Bodie wants this one up by sundown.”

Bodie owned Nebula Pools. Bodie had ridden out with Sloat that morning and lied about what went wrong. “Freak accident, the liner blew a seam,” he had said. “Your freak accident caused my boy to empty his bowels,” Mr. Brundage replied. “He’s so embarrassed he won’t come out his bedroom.” Bodie gave the family $1,000 in compensatory gifts—floats, chemicals, even a new pair of swim trunks to replace the ones the kid had soiled. Then he and Sloat whisked away the wreckage before the rush hour traffic began.

As we drove down Respess Road toward the Brundage house, we spotted Jarvis Bowaller standing in the doorway of his trailer. Sloat honked the horn, and Jarvis hoisted his can of Black Label in salute.

“I can’t figure this out,” I said. “How does a pool explode?”

Sloat pondered the question. “Remember when we couldn’t interlock the wall and decided to overlap it instead?”

I turned to him, flabbergasted. “We?” I gasped. “You said we could do that. You said there wouldn’t be problems.”

“And I was sorta right,” Sloat continued. “You can overlap a wall, but only on an oval pool where the water pressure gets absorbed by the straight sides. On a can, you’ve got equal pressure from the center. Seventeen thousand gallons will find its way out.”

He tilted his head to one side. “I can just see those wall bolts popping out one by one,” he chuckled. “Kind of like a giant zipper. Like the devil undid his fly and pissed on three backyards.”


* * *

Aubrey Brundage wore a grim expression. His next-door neighbor couldn’t stop smiling as he sipped lemonade on a floating lounge in his 18-foot Olympia pool.

“The English instructions were missing. Only the French ones were in the box.”“Hey, Aubrey!” the neighbor shouted. “Come over here and cool off a bit. Let the boys concentrate, and maybe they’ll get it right this time!”

Mr. Brundage forced a laugh.

“Cocksucker,” he muttered, shuffling toward the house.

Last time we were here, Mr. Brundage had offered the neighbor a chance to swim in a “real pool” when our work was finished. “I won’t get no wetter in yours than in mine,” the flustered neighbor had retorted.

That was last week. Now we were back, rebuilding the damn thing. A lot can happen in a week.

I unpacked boxes while Sloat sat and watched. When I shot him a stern look, he wandered over and pretended to help me.

“Our boy Landon built his first pool a few days ago,” Sloat snickered. “From the way he described things, the result sounds much worse than what we did here. We’re gonna ride out there with him tomorrow and take a look. Maybe we can help.”


* * *

Landon’s pool was supposed to be a flat-bottomed oval. Instead, it had an amoebic shape and a deep end because his crew hadn’t bothered to grade the area. To accommodate the slanted ground, they had shortened some of the side supports with a hacksaw. When nothing fit, they cut top rails and drilled in self-tapping screws to hold the abomination together.

Landon gestured at the pitiful product of his labor. “I figured she’d settle down once we got some water in,” he said.

Sloat’s face twisted with confusion. “How did you guys fuck up a pre-fab?”

Landon shrugged. “The English instructions were missing. Only the French ones were in the box.”

He pointed at a nearby tool shed. “So, I hid behind that thing and read what I could, trying real hard to remember what Mrs. Alligood had taught us in class. When something seemed to make sense, I’d holler it out to the crew.”

Sloat guffawed. “You’re some interpreter,” he chortled, nodding at the atrocity that had ruined the backyard. “You should work for the State Department.”

Landon hung his head, kicked at the ground.

“Where’s the customer?” Sloat asked.

“Vacationing in Europe,” Landon muttered. “They were brushing up on their French the day they left. I could’ve used their help.”

Sloat removed a rag from his pocket and wiped his face. Landon strolled over to the pool and patted one of the top rails. “At least mine didn’t blow up,” he said.

“Would’ve been better for you if it had,” Sloat replied. “Then we could’ve carted away this jackleg piece of shit and replaced it with a real swimming pool.”


* * *

I’m not sure why Sloat and I put our hooks in the water that first Sunday in August. It was 95 degrees in the shade, and fish don’t usually bite in that weather. I suppose we were just bored. Pool-building season was over.

More than two weeks had passed since we had seen or heard from Landon—until that day, when his hulking frame lumbered through the brambles toward the dock where we had set up camp.

He set down his tackle box, cracked open a fifth of Ten High and took a deep pull. He handed the bottle to Sloat. “Remember that latrine me and those boys threw together a few weeks ago?”

“Your French project?” Sloat inquired.

Landon grunted. “Anyway, Bodie told me to go out and fix it. But by then, the customer had returned from vacation, and that feller was a real gun nut, real proud of his assault rifles. I wasn’t going back out to that job. I’ve already been shot at once this year.”

He grabbed a beer from the cooler. “I told Bodie that the pool couldn’t be fixed,” he continued. “I suggested he write that couple a check for five grand and apologize for fucking up their yard. Bodie fired me on the spot.”

“We’re done with pools, Landon,” Sloat said. “We gotta start thinking football. You better savor this peaceful moment because tomorrow morning, Coach Farnsworth is gonna have his foot up your ass.”

Landon chuckled. “A fifth of Everclear says he homes in on you first.”

“You’re on,” Sloat said, clasping his buddy’s hand.

The thing is, Coach Farnsworth would have a foot in each of their asses for fouling up the same play. And then I’d be called in to decide whose ass his foot entered first.

It was a thankless position to be in.