A Carnival Atmosphere
It’s the summer after the Summer of Love. I’ve taken to riding my bike up the long hills to Brookdale Park, where a woody area has been cleared and a pool dug just a year before. For my tenth birthday, I receive a transistor radio and spend afternoons at the community pool dozing with my head pressed close to the soft leather case of this exotic invention. I wake up with the sun half gone and a grid of dots printed on my cheek.
“Crimson and Clover,” “Band of Gold”—I’m attracted to the veiled but undeniable sexual charge of these pop songs. The most riveting is “Young Girl” by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. Gary has fuzzy hair and wears a brigadier general’s jacket with big, shiny buttons. He sings, “Young girl/Get outta my mind/My love for you is way out of line/Better run, girl/You’re much too young, girl.” What is too young, I wonder. Thirteen? Ten? It’s exciting that a man like Gary Puckett could actually be interested in a girl like me. These half-thoughts work my brain as I lay in a terry-cloth two-piece tanning my un-tannable skin, drifting in and out of consciousness on a towel on the cement at the head of the adult pool.
Early one Saturday morning, my father plans to bring my little sister, Maud, and me to the pool. This is threatening to become an undesirable routine. My mother will be going shopping with a friend again. So my father packs a bag with playing cards, a chess set, a few large beach towels, a thermos of orange juice and a thermos of vodka, and we set out.
To my eye, my father is a funny-looking guy, not off-putting exactly, but not handsome like, say, Robert Wagner, or even his brother, George, who looks like Paul Newman. Dad is tall and thin and has bad posture. A lip of belly protrudes from over the top of his swim trunks. Everything about him is gangly, nearly goofy, from the big space between his two front teeth to his long, freckled fingers and veiny hands and feet. His fine brown hair is cut short and parted on the side, and his nose is fleshy and porous. Jowls escape from his cheeks on either side of his mouth. He has a high forehead and a weak chin. The way he holds his head, the way he speaks: He’s like an aristocratic bird.
Suffused with the bewitching odors of chlorine and hotdogs, Maud and I take turns sliding in and out of the shallow end of the pool. When my father hits the water, Maud joins me on a metal bench that’s bolted into the concrete. Her dark brown hair hangs in wet pieces around her China doll face with its sharp eyebrows; my short blond hair sticks out around my head like a blown-out dandelion. We’re both pale as moths. Shivering in the late morning shadow, we wrap ourselves tightly in our towels. Dad comes back dripping and pulls another towel from the bag, then gives himself a good work-over as a wet dog would. “Give me your towels, girls.” We comply, and he shakes them out long, and flips each of them up and over the chain-link fence around the picnic area. Then he does the same with his towel, sits down, opens the top of one thermos, then the other, and takes a long draught from each.
“Who wants to try to beat me in chess?”
A minute later, a tall lifeguard swaggers over with his whistle swinging and orders my father to take down the towels—the pool’s new rules clearly specify no clothing or towels can hang on the fence. Another, younger lifeguard, probably just out of high school, hovers uneasily behind him. My father squints his best Clint squint in their general direction and, summoning his arch-New-York-inflected-with-British tone of voice, inquires, “Why can’t one have towels on the fence?!”
No functionary is going to talk to my father this way: my father a pillar, a crusader for social justice, maybe even a genius. Above all, an advocate for the underdog. He’s worked on the local campaigns of Adlai Stevenson and Eugene McCarthy. He cried when the Kennedys died, and when Martin Luther King was shot he simply shook his head grimly on the landing of our split-level home and walked back into his bedroom and shut the door. My father of the tin ear, the Christmas carol whistler, the Fifties rebel threatened by rock and roll. Bob Die-lan, Mick Jay-ger, he’d purposefully mispronounce my idols’ names and smile a shit-eating grin, happy to get a rise out of me. Dirty long-hairs, he’d call the Woodstock hippies, and the guys who hung out till all hours on the steps of the VFW on Main Street, but he often said it looking half at me, daring me to object.
He hates the cops more. He’s forever breaking rules, arguing logic, speeding, driving while intoxicated, going his own way every day as much as he can, considering he commutes on the suburban train into Manhattan five days a week. He despises cops as he despises all authority figures other than himself. So he hates reflexively, instinctively, with full-bore passion, the new director of the community pool and his functionaries, who he imagines goose-stepping their way around the pool as plainly as he sees Maud and me prodding the cement with our flip-flops.
My father raises his voice. “The towels are wet. I am drying the towels. How is one supposed to dry one’s towels?”
“Towels on the fence create a carnival atmosphere,” the tall, groomed lifeguard responds, as if reading from a pamphlet.
“Ha! That’s a good one!” my father screams in an unnatural voice. He picks up another towel, soaking in water at his feet, and defiantly tries to fling it over the fence behind him. It thuds dully about a foot away.
“Sir, we cannot have towels on the fence.”
“What are you talking about? Who’s the idiot who makes these rules?”
The lifeguard makes a move forward as if to claim the towel that’s now coiled in a small puddle on the cement.
My father tries to beat him to it. He puts one foot in front of the other, and sways, his storklike legs shakily supporting his agitated frame. A crowd forms. As my father bends down to snag the towel, the younger lifeguard lunges for it, too. For a moment, the boy looms over my father, who then kicks a bony leg at him.
“Get off me, fucker!”
I look down and notice my sister clinging to my right thigh. The director moves inside his glassed-in office and gets on the telephone. Everything freezes. Then the police arrive. My father starts desperately punching the air. The lifeguards try to corral the crowd back away from the area of the patio. Two overfed young cops burst out of the men’s changing room and immediately join the lifeguards in their advance on my father while the director stays barricaded inside his office.
My father throws himself at the door of the office and starts pounding. The officers leap on him, pull him away, and attempt to bring him down to the cement. His jaw is clenched and his eyes are wild, his hair sticks up in thatches around his head. I briefly wonder if he will lose some teeth or if they will break his arms. He fights them with his fists balled and little punches, stiff thrusts, and then begins wriggling and jostling, trying to shake off their uniformed grip. Their official navy blue looks strange against my father’s white skin and red paisley trunks. Finally, they pull his arms behind his back so that his palms touch, and cuff him. Then they knock him to his knees. Maud and I and about 200 other citizens watch as the cops flip my father onto his back and pull him into the men’s locker room. I imagine him skidding over the wet tile floor, a human mop collecting loose hair and stray toilet paper against his skin. We lose him as he’s dragged through the building—and then they all emerge and he’s hustled down the gravel path.
Maud and I drift to the fence and press up against it, our fingers entwining with the chain links. We watch as he gets socked in the stomach and pushed into the patrol car; later, they say that forcing him to double over was the only way to get him into the backseat. (A week later, he brings a lawsuit for assault against the local police department, eventually leading to both sides dropping all charges.)
Maud and I end up with the mother of a girl I go to school with and who I’ve never much liked. She takes us to her home down the hill and we sit quietly for hours at the family’s dining room table, as the woman calls my mother over and over and we wait for her to answer the phone. My father sits in a town jail cell. Eventually, my mother dispatches a friend to pick us up and bring us home, while she goes down to the station and bails out my father. A backyard barbeque is quickly arranged, and as the night darkens, my father, chastened, tells his story in both defiant and sheepish tones. My sister and I listen quietly as we stick our marshmallows in the burning coals of the grill and munch their charcoal shells, impatient to get to their runny centers.
The local paper will report on the mishap. In the upper right-hand column of the Stratford News runs the story, “Stratford Man Arrested at Brookdale Pool.” Then, a week later, “Lifeguard Tells Story of Arrest.” Following that, “Stratford Man Drops Lawsuit Against Police Force.” They never mention that my father was pissed drunk and belligerent, vulnerable and unfit, as wrung out as one of those wet towels lying on the cement. Nor do they mention the presence of Maud and me.
It’s only after a move to another town, and a divorce a decade later that my mother confesses to an affair that summer—that she’d been seeing a cop in town, a dark-haired, dark-eyed guy who’d painted our house that spring.
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Barbara O’Dair has held a wide variety of jobs in magazine publishing, including editor-in-chief of Teen People and Us magazines and executive editor of Harper’s Bazaar, Details, and More. She is currently the executive editor of Reader’s Digest. Her poems, stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines, and literary journals, including the New York Times and Rolling Stone. She is the editor of Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock, and co-editor of Caught Looking: Women, Pornography and Censorship. She holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina, and a B.A. in American Studies from Barnard College. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, two daughters, stepson and stepdaughter.
This story was originally published in Issue 4 of The Literarian.