We cut our summer vacation short since a boy drowned in our pool while we were down in Miami swimming in my in-laws’ pool. Life can be a real motherfucker dot com.

The kid was just some kid that lived in our neighborhood. My wife had seen him around, riding his bicycle, dirty face, hair in his eyes. We didn’t know his name or where he lived or who his parents were. The police report said he was nine and lived six blocks over on Henderson Street, next to the railroad tracks.

Witnesses that day saw him zipping through the alley, hat on backwards, wearing camo shorts and a ragged Spiderman t-shirt. When he didn’t make it home for dinner, his parents ate without him. They didn’t bother to call the cops until the next day. The cops found his beat-up little mountain bike leaning against our backyard fence. They found his shoes on a lounge chair, his shirt in a pile on the diving board. A beach ball buoyed the bloody scene. At the shallow end of the pool, a flamboyance of plastic flamingos floated over the dead boy’s shadowy corpse.

We skipped the funeral service amid rumors of a lawsuit against us. I thought we should have attended anyway, but my wife won that argument. The morning of the burial, I peeked through the living room curtains and watched a small procession of cars pass our house on the way to the cemetery. It was a cloudy day, but you could tell the sun wanted to come out.

In time, the police ended their investigation and the insurance company cleared us of responsibility for the accident. My wife was elated. There was still some summer left, so she invited some friends of ours over for a pool party the next weekend. It was a perfect day, the sky a shocking blue.The wives drank Cosmopolitans and lounged poolside under the beach umbrellas like movie stars.

I tried to enjoy myself that weekend, but mostly I stayed quiet and watched everyone else have a good time. When one of our friends proposed a toast, I went along with it even though I didn’t feel much cause for celebration.

I spent all week getting ready for that party. Draining the pool. Power spraying every inch of it. Cursing this life and how easily everything can be taken from us. Scrubbing and scrubbing that goddamn pool as if I thought I could scrub the death out of it if I scrubbed hard enough.

My drunk wife was laughing with her friends. I thought about those plastic flamingos. In the pool, my kids were playing Marco Polo. Their shouts joined those forever echoing in my head.

12 Comments

  1. David O'Connor

    Todd, wow, this really captures America–reminds me of Robert Altman’s Shortcuts–the two sides of tragedy, one so tradgic, the other worried about being sued. The plastic flamingos are an excellent title and image to act as totem. Ah Miami. I think a few sentences could be tightened, maybe use in-laws pool in the first, instead of repeating the phrase, other than that, it is a solid stand alone slice that says much about the whole apple pie. I love the voice too, especially at the beginning, good storytelling here, well done.

  2. Len Kuntz

    Hi Todd,

    I love the voice in this. The title, too, is perfect and fantastic. There are so many wonderful, cryptic dashes throughout…When he didn’t make it home for dinner, his parents ate without him… There was still some summer left,,,
    The way you described the boy with a few simple details, and him being 9 (!) was spectacular, if not also heartbreaking. The gaiety and celebration juxtaposed with the pool cleaning at the end really cemented this for me.
    Such a haunting and amazing piece.

  3. Francine Witte

    This is fantastic. Great action throughout that tells the story very economically. One suggestion – the sentence – scrubbing and scrubbing … could end with as if I thought i could scrub the death out of it. The scrubbed hard enough tends to soften the power of that image.

    But really a great story.

  4. Al Kratz

    Totally agree with what everyone has said. This also reminds me of like 2022 updated Cheever. It’s one that will definitely linger with the readers. I’ve got no changes to suggest but would love to see any of these someday in the New Flash Fiction Review queue if that was somewhere they wanted to be.

    • Todd Clay Stuart

      Al, thank you! I just may do that. I’ve been wanting to submit to NFFW and was excited when they opened back up for submissions not long ago. Thanks for the nudge!

  5. Jonathan Cardew

    Todd!

    ” At the shallow end of the pool, a flamboyance of plastic flamingos floated over the dead boy’s shadowy corpse.”

    I wanted to start with this quote because I think you do something very special with this story. There is the lovely pool, the blue sky, the ridiculous flamingoes, the movie star glasses, the cosmopolitans–and the dead boy in the water. Beauty and darkness rubbing shoulders. What a fantastic idea for a story!

    It reminded me a little of J. G. Ballard’s Cocaine Nights in which a beautiful gated community near Nice, France hides a terrible secret and unseemly underbelly. A lot of swimming pools, reflections, water, and sun in this book, which works perfectly as a foil to the darkness underneath. You’re doing this here so well.

    And what a voice in this piece! I love the immediate “jump in” to voice with “a real motherfucker dot com.” Right from the beginning, we get a sense of character. And this continues throughout with the brilliant climax at the end: “their shouts joined those forever echoing in my head.” You slip us enough about character, but not too much, like: “…I thought we should have attended anyway, but my wife won that argument.”

    And I love the sentence structure rhythm. Especially this bit, where you put in a comma to create a faster pace: “They found his shoes on a lounge chair, his shirt in a pile on the diving board.” Great use of short sentences–very punchy and rhythmic, a pleasure to read.

    HOW ABOUTS:

    Like your other pieces, what you have here is so well-crafted that I think you could really just do a few nips and tucks and it’s ready. I would publish this, if I received it in my queue. That being said, I think there is more scope to play here, if you wanted to:

    1. Only just water? I love LOVE the part where the boy is floating in the water. Could you write the piece centered on this moment, drip feeding other narrative elements into this moment?

    2. Longer? Could you extrapolate this? Soak in a bit more? This would be a fabulous short story!

    If you haven’t checked out J. G. Ballard’s work, I think you would get a real kick out of his prose. Definitely see some similarities with your own.

    This has HOBART or wigleaf written all over it.

    Cheers,

    Jonathan

  6. Benjamin Niespodziany

    Holy smokes. This one is crystalline. Such a good story and storytelling voice. I was hooked from start to finish. This one feels done. I could see it in X-R-A-Y or Hobart or something!

  7. Kristin Bonilla

    Perfect American story. There is SO much tension in this story–between the husband and wife, the two families (who don’t know each other), the narrator and the world. And I love that there isn’t really a resolution to that tension. The wife is determined to create a happy ending out of this misfortune but narrator knows there’s no way to put a good shine on this. No amount of scrubbing will do it. Just great work!

  8. Robert Vaughan

    Hi Todd, this is pitch perfect in tone, arch, details, tension. The death of a 9 year old is enough to add melancholy to any story, and I love the white space so effectively used about it (accident? foul play?) etc.

    Also, like Al, I feel that this would have a longer lasting effect on the reader. It’s a dazzling slice of Americana, what haunts beneath the veneer, underneath the smoothed surfaces of polished American life. You’ve nailed a beauty here.

  9. Wilson Koewing

    Todd,

    Really accomplished story here. Great details about the kid. Loved the plastic flamingos. The thing about them possibly being sued. There always seems to be weird laws around swimming pools don’t there? For some reason when I started reading the piece I thought it was being told by another kid. I mean it’s obviously right there in the beginning about the inlaws, but for whatever reason I thought that. A useless note, I’m aware. That’s all I’ve got. This seems pretty ready to go!

    Wilson

  10. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    Todd, Haunting details in this story that depict us in American right now, as David pointed out. The narrator feels like the haunted voice of the only decent character in this tragedy. This story reminds me of the Auden poem, Musée de Beaux Arts, if you don’t know it, it’s an ekphrastic on the fall of Isaac–– who is falling from the sky as the rest of life goes on, ships at see, farmers on the land, sunny day, no one looking up to notice. Well done.

  11. Georgiana Nelsen

    They’ve really said it all Todd, but I’ll just add three small comments. 1, the way you describe the boy, who is dead and so really not a character, is so specific and tender that I feel we’ve missed something with his death. Dirty face, hat backwards Superman t… and thos shoes on the lounge chair (what kind?). … to me, a normal little boy.

    2.A beach ball buoyed the bloody scene. Was there blood? was it a drowning? No foul play?

    3. At the shallow end of the pool, a flamboyance of plastic flamingos floated over the dead boy’s shadowy corpse. I will forever think the collective noun for plastic flamingos is a flamboyance. Great word choices… eager to see where it lands!
    G

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