Short Story

There Was a Difference

Spencer O’Malley figured he was most likely the only thirteen year-old guy in the city of Des Moines, probably in the whole state of Iowa, who had complete responsibility for the upkeep of a Holiday Inn swimming pool. 

His family had moved to the city the previous summer. Until then, he, his mother and father, and his younger sister had lived in Coreyville, a town anchored by a huge grain elevator which served the three-thousand-odd inhabitants of the area. Now they were living in an apartment in the center of Des Moines. Spencer’s father, a dentist, had accepted a partnership with a former dental school associate.

Spencer had a job, his first real job, not counting cutting grass or shoveling snow. There was a difference. This was an adult kind of job, he thought, with a paycheck that had his name on it.

On this July Tuesday, Spencer pedaled his red Schwinn east on Fourteenth Street. The seven a.m. corn-yellow sun ladled early heat across his face. He decided to get a donut at Jimmy’s Treats, the bakery at the corner of Fourteenth and Markland. He braked to a stop at the side of the building and dropped the kickstand with the toe of his sneaker.

“Morning, young man. What can I do for you today?” Jimmy was dressed all in white, except where small smears of red Bismark jelly streaked his uniform.

The glass cases were crammed with all varieties and sizes of donuts. “Well, I was just on my way to my job, at the Holiday Inn. I’m the pool maintenance man, and I thought I might stop in and get a donut, you know, so I can eat it on the way and get right to work when I get there.”

“I see. Good idea. And what kind of donut, exactly, are you interested in?”

His left forefinger clamped between his teeth, Spencer studied the selection. “How about one of those?” He pointed a wet fingertip at the tray of oversized glazed donuts.

“Good choice. I pulled them out of the fryer only ten minutes ago. You want coffee with that?” Jimmy smiled and started toward the chrome Bunn-o-Matic.

“No, no, I don’t think so. Tough on the old stomach.” Spencer liked the sound of these words; he had heard his father say them. “Better make it a milk this morning.”

“Milk it is then. And you said you wanted it to go, am I right?”

“Please.” Reaching into his back pocket, he slid out his wallet. He looked at Jimmy, who was handing him a white paper bag. “How much?” he asked.

“That’ll be fifty-three cents, with tax.”

Opening the currency compartment of the wallet, Spencer pulled out a five from behind four singles. “Sorry. Smallest I’ve got.”

The motel swimming pool had been poured in the shape of a kidney, and the plumbing serving it hummed in a compact, cement-walled room which faced the rear parking lot. Inside was a two-hundred gallon filter tank with domed, welded ends. A high-pressure pipe sucked drain-water from the bottom of the pool into the filter room, where it went through a strainer assembly designed to snag large objects before they reached the pump. Inside the metal skin of the main filter tank was a series of baffles and chambers filled with a chalky-white powder which trapped the dirt which ended up in the pool.

The brass pressure gauge on the main tank was calibrated from zero to ninety pounds-per-square-inch, and a red crescent bordered the face of the gauge above the fifty PSI mark. The normal operating pressure of the system was twenty PSI. When the needle on the gauge reached forty PSI the tank had to be backwashed, a noisy operation which blew all the sludge out of the tank and into a three-feet-deep pit in the corner of the room.

The red fifty-horse pump was whining as Spencer unlocked the louvered door. He parked his bike in the corner, next to the white plastic bottles holding chlorine and soda ash and muriatic acid. He checked the tank pressure. Thirty-four PSI, a little bit high, he thought.

Closing the door to the filter room, Spencer pulled off his clothes, folding them in a stack on the seat of his bike. This year his body had begun the achingly slow climb into puberty, and he smiled as his fingers combed through the expanding thatch of light brown hair surrounding the base of his penis. He lifted his trunks from a hook on the wall and pulled them on.

From a shelf near the door he picked up a black plastic pail, an industrial-size cardboard jar of Ajax cleanser, and a big sponge. On his way to the central courtyard, he grabbed a couple of towels from the laundry room.

Spencer slipped quietly through the still surface of the water. Shaking a cone of cleanser onto the sponge, he began to scrub the jellied suntan lotion and dirt caking the green tiles lining the sides of the pool. The smell of the chlorinated water was pleasant, and it mixed with the odor of bacon; the greasy vapors were rolling out from the nearby exhaust fans of the restaurant kitchen. In thirty minutes he had completed a circuit of the pool, his sponge grinding away at the tile.

The sun had risen high enough so that oes, and when one of the waves rolled into a skimmer opening, the trapdoor inside rocked back and forth with a soft rubber thunk. He lifted the round steel plate covering the first skimmer cage, set it down quietly, and reached into the opening, drawing up a metal basket. 

Inside were a few leaves from the small oaks that had been planted on the lawn around the pool, a huge dead cricket, and some bits of a styrofoam cup, all knitted together with a tangle of hair. Spencer dropped the mess into the pail and replaced the cover. In the second skimmer, he found pretty much the same stuff, without the cricket.

The hotel was near the interstate, and in the early-morning quiet Spencer heard the buzz of truck tires. Nearer the pool, the scream of a jay brought Spencer’s attention to the roof of the west wing. The crested blue bird seemed to be observing Spencer as he worked.

In the third skimmer basket there were more leaves, two soggy honeybees, and a dead mouse with eyes like black glass beads. Spencer picked up the mouse by its tail and dangled it close to his face. Two tiny reflections of his face sparkled on the convex surfaces of the eyes. Then he saw another face appear alongside his own.

“Who’s your friend?”

Spencer lowered the mouse into the pail and turned around. “Oh, hi, Ossie. It’s a dead mouse. Guess he didn’t know how to swim, huh?”

Ossie wore a dark green bellman’s jacket with a Holiday Inn badge pinned over his heart. The badge was white, with ‘Ossie’ punched out on a green strip. Below his name was the slogan ‘Your Host from Coast to Coast.’

“He knew how to swim. Mice can swim real well, “ Ossie said. “He just didn’t keep swimming long enough to keep from drowning.”

Spencer thought about this for a few seconds. “You ever pull any mice out of here?”

“Sure. Plenty. When I was doing maintenance I one time netted me a whole family of ‘em out of the deep end. Momma, daddy, and four little baby mice.” Ossie’s fingers were the color of cigars. He reached down and picked a long white piece of thread from the crease of his left trouser leg. “Took ‘em out back and let ‘em go in the field.” He balled up the thread between his thumb and index finger and slipped it into the side pocket of his jacket.

“Another time I pulled up a skimmer basket and inside there was a black racer, all four feet of him coiled up in there cozy as you please.”

“Sure did.” Ossie sneaked a look over both of his shoulders. “But I had to be tricky about it, because one of the guests saw me pull it out of the skimmer, and she called the front office, and the manager, he come out and told me to kill that snake so the lady wouldn’t be afraid of it coming back to the pool.”

“So then–”

“Well, I took him around back and set him free out in the field. Then I cut me a piece of black hose, about as long as that old racer, and I grabbed a hammer and carried ‘em both back out here near the pool where I knew that silly woman could see me, but not too close so she could see the difference between a snake and a hunk of hose. I was wiggling that hose and holding it out away from me like I was afraid of it, too.”

Ossie stepped back from the edge of the pool, hiked up his trouser legs, and sat down on the end of a pool chair. He rested his elbows on his knees. “And then I commenced to hammering on that hose, giving it some mighty licks and carrying on like that racr was trying to eat me up. I held the hose up for the lady to see, and carried it back, quick, to the shop, so no one would get too good a look.”

Spencer sat down on the cement near the rim of the pool, dipped his hands into the water, and watched as the drops fell from his fingertips. The sun was higher now, and had warmed the cement. The fallen water dried quickly.

“Did anybody figure out your trick?”

Ossie smiled. “If they did, they never said nothing. That poor old hose wasn’t much use to me after that beating, though.”

Spencer peered into Ossie’s eyes. The brown irises were surrounded by whites that had, over the years, tinted themselves a warm custard-yellow.

“Why didn’t you want to kill the snake, Ossie?”

Ossie stood, slowly, and looked down into Spencer’s face. “Son, I never killed a living creature in my life, leastwise not on purpose, and I wasn’t about to start just because some crazy woman didn’t like sharing a swimming pool with a snake.”

Ossie turned and walked a few steps, then stopped. “I strolled by the filter room before I came out here. That pump’s humming a little too high-pitched. What’s the gauge setting at—thirty-five or thereabouts?”


“About time to backwash.”

Spencer sat in the noon sun drinking a Coke he’d bought from the restaurant at a ten-percent employee discount. He’d finished his morning’s work, and had gone for a swim, trying out the new diving mask and fins he’d picked up at K-Mart two days before. He heard a man’s voice near him.

“Hey, boy. C’mere.” Then a pause, and, “Yeah, you. I need some service over here.”

Spencer cracked open his left eye and saw a large man, sunburned and overflowing the waist of his trunks. He was waving a plastic cup in the air and motioning to where Ossie was carrying a pair of matching brown suitcases. A woman in a plaid jumpsuit and a sun hat followed him. Ossie stopped at room 140, carefully set down the suitcases, and opened the door. He put the suitcases in the room and handed the key to the woman. Then he walked to the gesturing man.

“Sir, were you calling to me?”

“Yeah, you bet. I need a refresher on my gin and tonic here. Howsabout you head up to the bar and fetch me a double G’n’T? Tell ‘em to charge it to room 256. I’m Mr. Parker.” Mr. Parker’s gaze hadn’t lifted from the magazine which was tented across his belly.

“I’m awful sorry, sir,” Ossie said. “That’s against the rules of the establishment.”

Mr. Parker looked up from his magazine and stared into the face of Ossie. “What rules are those, boy?”

“The Holiday Inn management forbids service personnel like myself to provide poolside guests with liquor from the bar.”

“That’s one stupid goddamn rule.” Mr. Parker brought his glass to his mouth and began to chew on an ice cube. The sun reflected off the man’s right eye in a way that reminded Spencer of the drowned mouse.

“What’s your name, bellboy?”

‘”Ossie, sir.”


“That’s right, sir. Ossie.”

“Well, look here, Ossie. You think maybe you can just bend that rule a bit if I promise you a two-dollar tip?” The man smiled.

“No, sir. I don’t think I can bend that rule for any money you got. I’m truly sorry.” Ossie turned and walked toward the front office.

Grunting, Mr. Parker sat up in his chair. In the pool, some children were playing ‘Marco Polo’, where one kid closes his eyes and says ‘Marco’, and the other kids answer ‘Polo’, and the closed-eye ‘Marco’ kid tries to catch one of the open-eyed ‘Polo’ kids.

“Hey, kid.”

Turning sideways in his lounge chair, Spencer shielded his eyes from the sun with his hand. “Yeah?”

“I got a joke for you.” He scratched under his arms with thick fingers. “You know the difference between a dead skunk on the road and a dead Negro on the road?”

Spencer’s throat tightened. “I give.”

Huffing out of his chair, Mr. Parker yanked up the top of his bathing suit. “The difference between a dead skunk in the road and a dead Negro on the road is skid marks.” Spencer didn’t laugh, and Mr. Parker took that to mean he hadn’t understood the joke.

“There’s skid marks in front of the dead skunk, but there aren’t any in front of the dead Negro.” Laughing, he chugged to the edge of the pool and cannonballed in.

Spencer watched for the man’s head to break the surface of the pool, but for a long time it didn’t. After about fifteen seconds, Mr. Parker reappeared, and he swam to the side of the pool, kicking hard, splashing and scattering the ‘Marco’ kids and the ‘Polo’ kids.

Hauling himself up the ladder, Mr. Parker held his hand over the right side of his face. He hurried back to his chair, reached into a white beach bag, and pulled on a pair of dark sunglasses.

“Hey, kid.”

“What?” The jay was squawking again, louder and closer than it had been earlier in the day.

“Look here, kid. I got me a little problem. When I jumped into the pool there, I took a funny blast of water in the face.”

“You hurt? You need a doctor?”

“No, I don’t need no doctor. I need a diver. I lost my two-hundred dollar glass eye down there in the deep end of this piss-pot of a swimming pool.” The man’s face twisted into the same smile he had used on Ossie. “I’ll give you a crispy new twenty-dollar bill if you go down there with your flippers and skin-diving mask and get the eye out for me.”

Spencer said nothing.

“What do you say, Kid? Twenty bucks. That’s a heap for a little guy.”

On the surface of the pool, the light from the afternoon sun was shattered into crescents. Spencer thought of the money, of what he could do with twenty dollars. He thought about Ossie, and his story about the snake.

“Sure. You got a deal, mister.” Sliding out of the lounge chair, Spencer lifted his new mask and fins from under his towel and walked across the rough cement to the edge of the pool. He sat, dangling his legs in the water. A shadow passed over his lap and Spencer turned to watch as the jay flew toward the back of the motel.

The Marco Polo game had ended, and the kids were out of the pool. It was empty, except for the eye.

Spencer rinsed his mask and then spat in it, rubbing the saliva around the glass to prevent fogging. He snapped a fin onto each foot. Stretching the rubber strap of the mask over the back of his head, he snugged the faceplate over his nose and eyes, and dropped into the blue.

Spencer was weightless, buoyant. Arms loose at his sides, he kicked hard twice. He swam in slow circles around the rim of the bowl that deepened and curved down to the bottom of the pool. He could hear the whine of the pump, transmitted through the pipes.

He ran out of breath and surfaced. Mr. Parker was sitting on the edge of his chair, his arms folded and resting on the mound of his gut. Spencer drew a full breath and dove again.

His body felt at home in the water, his motions effortless. He glided to the bottom, and there, about four feet from the main drain, was the blind blue eye. Spencer let out some air to decrease 

He laid the eye on the bottom of the pool, a few inches from the sucking pipe of the main drain, and watched as it bobbled nearer the hole. Finally, with an acceleration that pleased Spencer, the eye disappeared into the dark.

Surfacing again, Spencer swam with easy strokes to the edge of the pool. Grime was already accumulating on the tiles. He yanked off his fins and mask and returned to his chair.

Standing in front of the seated man, Spencer saw a white and pink pucker of skin where the eye used to be.

“Well, where is it?”

“Couldn’t find it.”

“What do you mean, you couldn’t find it? Where the hell is it?” A strand of spit connected the man’s lips, and it thickened and thinned as his lips moved.

“Sorry, mister. I just couldn’t find it.” He handed his mask to the man. “I have to get home now. You can borrow my mask if you want to look for yourself.”

The man threw the mask to the cement and a long thin crack appeared on the faceplate. “I don’t want to look for myself, you little asshole. We had a deal. Twenty bucks, that was the deal, remember?”

“That’s all right. You can keep the money.” Spencer gathered his towels, mask, and fins and started toward the filter room.

Mr. Parker sat motionless in his chair, staring at Spencer. “Son of a bitch, goddamn kid, how the hell am I supposed to get my goddamn eye back?”

“The bird ruffled his wings and flapped into the sky, out over the field, over the black racers and the families of mice, over the crickets and bees. Spencer watched the bird until it was out of sight.”

As Spencer rounded the corner, the man’s voice cross-faded with the scream of the jay, perched now on one of the top limbs of a mulberry tree growing on the edge of the rear parking lot.

Opening the door to the filter room, Spencer glanced at the pressure gauge. Forty-three PSI. The pump was wailing. He walked over to the power box and pulled the main switch. Silence flooded the room. He reached inside the strainer assemble and plucked out the eye from an oily nest of hair. A large chip was missing from the iris.

Spencer slipped out the door. The jay was still in the tree, but was silent now. Spencer whipped the glass eye across the parking lot. It landed at the base of the mulberry tree, and the jay fluttered down and picked it up in his beak. The bird ruffled his wings and flapped into the sky, out over the field, over the black racers and the families of mice, over the crickets and bees. Spencer watched the bird until it was out of sight.

In the filter room was a set of valves that re-routed the flow of water back through the tank for the backwash operation. Spencer turned them; the blue-handled one first, then the green, He pushed the power switch on the pump, and the red motor thrummed to life.

He sat on the edge of the drain pit as the contents of the main filter tank spewed and hissed in a dirty grey froth. When the water was clear again, he shut down the pump and returned the valves to their normal position. He restarted the pump.

His work done, Spencer dressed, rolled his bike onto the sidewalk, and locked the door. He rode home.

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