“The Fair Spinner,” oil on canvas, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1874.

by Mary Liza Hartong

My father would always play with other children at the pool. Not in a disturbing way, but just enough to make me jealous. He’d toss a beach ball to anyone’s eight-year-old or fetch a wayward pool noodle for a set of twins. He was always encouraging scaredy cats down the slide. As in, There you go! That wasn’t so bad, was it? As he played Daddy Warbucks to every floatie-armed, not-so-orphaned child in Nashville, I waved from the shallow end, my braid soaking water down my back. It was thick and long, that hair. I’d gotten it from his side of the family.

“Dad!” I called out, panting. “Dad!”

I had the hair, but I wanted the father. When he wasn’t submerged in water, he gave me all the attention I could ask for, ferrying me to Dairy Queen and letting me ride down our street with the better half of my body hanging out of the sun roof. He told stories by my bed and fell asleep telling them. My mother would call, “John!” up the stairs and he’d jostle awake. Then, I’d persuade him to tell another story and the process would repeat. An hour later, my mother would call, “John!” again. We had the calling thing in common, my mother and me.

My father was best friends with a boy named Clay, who had Down’s Syndrome and seemed to live at the pool. While Clay’s mother waved gratefully from a folding chair, my father lobbed Nerf Balls across the deep end and taught Clay to say, “Wassup!” All summer it was wassup this and wassup that. When it was finally time to go home I’d seethe in my towel, dripping with chlorine and anger all the way to the car.

“Why can’t you just play with me?” I’d beg from the back seat.

“Because,” my father would reply, “some children have parents who never play with them.”


“So, it’s important to include people.”

“Next time, include me.”

Hot and tired, I did my best to rot the car with anger. I wanted to be like the tomato that had rolled under the seat on the way home from the grocery store. I wanted to stink.

The era of sunscreen and post-pool hair detangling was also marked by the passing of the red brick mansion in the woods. I’d beg for the long route just to see it, this Xanadu-esque estate that boasted not just a pool or a trampoline, but a trampoline in the pool. The girl who lived there was in my sister Graham’s grade.

“Graham says she has a hundred Beanie Babies,” I gushed to my dad one day as we drove by. Beanie Babies were a metric. If you were really spoiled, you’d get them from the tooth fairy. If you were regular, you’d get them from your grandparents. I remember having around ten, including the two Graham had bought me on a whim with her babysitting money.

“I bet that girl’s parents are never home,” my father mused.

“Probably not.”

“Would you rather have a hundred Beanie Babies or parents like us who are always home?” he asked.

I did not pause. I did not ponder. “I’d rather have a hundred Beanie Babies,” I replied, the tip of my braid leaving a dark, wet stain on the back of the seat.

Best-friend-Clay swam at both the outdoor pool and the YMCA pool. I’d try to guess which one he’d pick and then suggest the opposite. It was like flipping a coin. The outdoor pool offered the snack bar, where I’d order scalding hot chicken tenders and scam as much candy as I could off the bored teenagers working the sweets counter. I didn’t understand how the system worked. You uttered your last name and someone would hand you a Nutty Buddy until one day, they wouldn’t. It engendered a real scarcity mindset. As in, You better eat this sugar cone down to the tip because it may be the last one you ever lick. If I chose the wrong pool, I’d set myself up with some crayons and a snack. There, on the crisscross wrought iron table, I doodled away my frustration and waited for lightning to chase everyone, including my father, out of the pool.

One day, we drove home and never came back. Perhaps the ice cream budget had run out or, more likely, the pool budget. If I had known it was the last day, I would have ransacked the lost and found. It was a soggy, toy-filled junk closet with a rainforest of forgotten pool noodles and lock on the door. You couldn’t just mosey in. No, if you wanted a peek you had to bark up the tower and ask the lifeguard to open it for you. Then, as soon as he opened the door, you had to thrust your hand in and choose something immediately, lest it become clear that you were browsing. I could have won Oscars for my performances in that closet.

“There you are!” I fawned over Barbies I’d never seen before, or, “Hey, that’s my beach ball!”

If somebody had only clued me into our impending departure, I could have made off like a bandit. But that’s the thing about childhood. You have no clue when things are ending or that it’s even possible for them to end. Your institutions—your pool, your parents’ marriage, your love of waterlogged Barbies—can only be measured in forevers.

A few months ago my cousin came to visit for her thirtieth birthday and asked, in all earnestness, “Can we go to the pool?”

We hadn’t belonged to the pool since 2006. That’s how we’d say it as kids: What pool do you belong to? There was Hillwood and Belle Meade, Seven Hills and Sequoia. We’d ask our friends on the last day of school, in the middle of signing yearbooks, just as we were starting to realize we’d miss each other. Where do you belong? we asked urgently, assuming everyone belonged somewhere.

“We’re not members anymore,” I told my cousin.

“But we had so much fun there!” she protested, as if I’d been the one to nix the membership. “How much do you think it would cost to re-join?”

“I’m not sure.”

She looked it up on the website. “Look! It says here it’s only one hundred dollars!”

I took the phone. “I think that’s the application fee. It’s probably a few thousand dollars to join.”

“Oh,” she said, sinking.

My cousin had been one of those kids my dad played with instead of me. Every summer she’d waddle up to the chain-link fence with her Mickey Mouse t-shirt and her Coke bottle glasses. I don’t remember my aunt or uncle ever joining her in the pool. I don’t think they were even on the property. If she wanted a Nutty Buddy, she had to go through me.

Maybe growing up is just the realization that despite the slights and scrapes, you might have been holding the long end of the stick. I had a pool to wade in, after all. And parents who bothered to apply sunscreen. When I was on the swim team, my mother would spend hours after the meets untangling my hair. I’d sit on the closed toilet seat—blue Speedo, stolen Barbie—and wince as she pulled out the knots. She tried No More Tears shampoo, the kind that looked like a fish, and the pear-scented detangling spray that came with it. She dabbled in swim caps. Finally, she gave up and started coating my head with shampoo before meets, hoping this would protect the strands against the chlorine. The shampoo failed miserably, but it did make me easy to spot from the sidelines. While the other kids breast stroked without fanfare, I left a glittering trail of bubbles in my wake. Across the pool, my father waited under the slide where someone, he believed, would need catching.

Mary Liza Hartong lives and writes in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Nashville Scene, and StyleBlueprint, among other outlets. Mary Liza’s first novel, Love and Hot Chicken, is now available from William Morrow.