by Colleen Sutherland
The old woman toddled out of the woman's locker room to stand beside the arthritis pool waiting for a lifeguard to come and watch over her. She couldn't go in until somebody was there to watch. That was one of the posted rules.
In the pool office, Troy, Savannah and Brittany knew that one of them had to go out do their lifeguard duty. It was their job.
“I had her yesterday.”
“Yeah, but I had to guard the old hag three times this week.”
“You know she'll hang around for an hour so we'll all have to listen to her. What difference does it make?”
“So you go.”
“Wait a minute, if she stays over an hour, the first to go would get her twice.”
In the end, they rock, paper, scissored and Savannah had to go.
The Glen Valley Fitness and Aquatic Center was open seven days a week. When the city fathers wrote the federal grant to build it, they said it would encourage people to move to Glen Valley, bring in new business and help the citizens with health issues. In fact it was seldom used except for occasional students who came over from the high school and the toddler swimming lessons held in the evenings. After five years, the center was still new and shiny, white tiles shining from the sun that shone down from the overhead windows. To keep costs down, the lifeguards served as janitors to keep the floors spotless.
There was an eight lane Olympic pool that sometimes was used by the swim teams from other towns. The small shallow pool for arthritis patients heated to 90 degrees. That was where Gladys waited.
Gladys used the pool every day not only for her arthritis, but also because she was trying to lose weight. It wasn't working.She waddled into the building every day in sweat suits that strained to keep up with the folds of fat that encased her tall skeleton. At the front desk, she signed in, never bothering to show her pool card. She had bought a life time pass when the pool opened which had seemed silly to some, but five years later, it had proved a wise investment. She came to use the pool five or six times a week. The guards never even knew she had arrived until she showed up at the arthritis pool draped in a suit Savannah claimed a tent company had manufactured for her.
Gladys came at various times during the day. She selected her times from the pool schedule she picked up each month. She wanted times when she could be alone in the pool. If it was busy with children and their mothers she would have to sit in a corner doing leg exercises, always avoiding the splashes to keep her permed hair away from the chlorinated water.
When she was alone, she could talk to the guards. They were hostages to their jobs.
When he first began working as a guard, Troy said, “She's just an old woman. We're probably the only company she has.” That was the first week. By the middle of the second week, he had learned that listening to Gladys was the worst part of his job.
Savannah and Brittany were there until they could go off to cosmetology college or get married, whichever came first, but Troy was a boy with ambition. He wanted above all to become a doctor. He was well on his way to becoming the valedictorian at the high school. The pool job was perfect because he could go there at odd times when he was free from classes. Because the pool wasn't used that much, he could study at the front desk when he wasn't watching the pool or scrubbing the tiles. Most days, he figured on getting his homework done while he was being paid.
Even if the center was busy, he would have twenty minutes free during the rotation time the pool required. It was twenty minutes at the big pool, twenty minutes at the arthritis pool, then twenty minutes at the desk.The idea was to help the guards keep their minds fresh and on their charges.
Yes, Troy was a boy on the move. Even when he wasn't busy with school and the pool, he found time to take Emergency Medical Training at the technical school over at Boleyn. He figured when he was certified he could earn money that way when he was in college and it wouldn't hurt when he applied to medical school.
It was all perfect, except for Gladys. As she did her knee bends, as she waved her arms through the water in a pretend sort of swimming, she talked to the guards. And talked. And talked.
Topic one was her grandchildren, who were the best, the brightest, the prettiest ever. She brought photos in her swim bag to prove how attractive they were. Never mind that the lifeguards saw plenty of rug rats during the week, her grandchildren were better. One day, Savannah accidentally dropped the latest photos in the pool. The next day, Gladys was back with more and this time, they were laminated.
Then there were “The Travels of Gladys”. Whenever Gladys went off on a tour, the guards celebrated the respite, but then she came back with photos and long descriptions of places she had seen. Nothing much had happened on the tours, but she told them all the history she had gleaned from tour guides who catered to right-wing sensibilities. Troy sometimes checked her facts and they were all wrong and usually Eurocentric. The Battle of Big Horn came out as “those dreadful Indians” massacring Custer. The Alamo was about freedom, not the right to own slaves. Never mind, she droned on and on.
Her various ailments had to be discussed, from high blood pressure to diabetes, from arthritis to hot flashes. She said she had a dry esophagus though it didn't stop her from talking. She never included flatulence in her litany of ailments, but evil-smelling bubbles erupted whenever she did one of her leg exercises.
There was her youth, which it seemed had been more exciting than theirs. She even went into descriptions of her sex life back then as the guards struggled with images of her thrashing her oversized body in a bed from the 1960s. She was working on a memoir she said.
“You should take a writing class,” Troy suggested. “They have them at the technical school at Boleyn.”
Then he bit his tongue. She might show up there during one of his EMT classes, shouting at him and telling all the professors about their “friendship”.
“Too expensive,” she told him. “Besides, my old car isn't up to driving to Boleyn for classes.” Because her life stories would never make print, she told the lifeguards instead, repeating the same tales over and over.
There didn't seem to be a Mr. Gladys in her life. She lived alone. Her children's homes were on far ends of the country. They came home only for funerals but they sent e-mails with the hated photos attached. She no longer attended church since the pastor had given a sermon on homosexuality and hadn't sent the gays directly to hell. Her only attachment to the human race seemed to be the lifeguards.
“It's a swimming pool,” Savannah said. “We could drown her.”
“The arthritis pool is too shallow,” Brittany said. She apparently had given it some thought.
“We'd lose our jobs if we let that happen,” Troy said.
“Maybe we could slip something in her water bottle.”
“Maybe we could run over her in the parking lot.”
“No, too close.”
“Right, downtown when she goes to pick up her blood pressure meds at the drug store.”
“Hit man would be better.”
Troy said nothing and went back to his books.
Of course, the girls never did anything. They were letting off steam.
That morning, Gladys was there almost an hour when a couple of eight year old girls came to play in the shallow pool giggling as they tossed beach balls into the basketball hoops. One splashed near Gladys giving her permed hair a few drops of chlorinated water. Gladys gave them a look of annoyance and waded out. “I'll be back tomorrow,” she called.
The children finally left, using the girls' locker room. Troy sighed and settled in to read his English assignment.
“Sir.” One of the pre-teens was at the desk.
“The water is still running in the women's room. Is there anyone in there? My mom always says not to waste water.”
“I'll check it out. Thanks.”
Troy sent Brittany in to turn off the water. She rushed out shrieking.
“Oh my God, oh my God! It's Gladys!”
Savannah ran in, too. Gladys was on her back in the shower room, the water running all over her wrinkled body.
She was naked.
Conclusion next week.