A Pool in February

by Tiff Holland

“From this angle it appears absolutely dead,” said Levon. He was looking at the legs, the cow stiff in the water as if it were doing the dead man’s float. He walked around the body slowly. Steam still rose from it. It hadn’t been dead long.

“I thought you were putting the fence back up,” I said. Water from the spa cascaded down into the pool. The water was cold, the heater not yet activated.

“Today, I was going to do it today.” He put his hands in his pockets and shrugged the way he often did. This project had gone on too long. No pool in November. No pool in December. No pool in January and then, finally a hole and a few weeks later a pool. It was three quarters full. It had been filling all night. This morning he was supposed to give me the demonstration: how to work the remote, to calculate the pH levels, to rub the concrete down with a hard brush so the bottom and sides of the pool would feel smooth.

“You’re sure it’s dead?” I asked. For once he was silent, his mouth a straight line. I walked over to the spigot and gave a hard turn. It broke off in my hand.

“Shit.” I tried to put the pieces back together. Levon walked over, took my hand gently and then slipped the piece away.

“Now what?” I asked. “Has this ever happened before?”

Every time he came to the house he had stories, stories to fill the time in which the yard sat empty of pool.

“No, I can honestly say it has not.” He took the skimmer I had bought the night before and headed back toward the cow. What is it that makes a man want to poke what’s dead?

“Don’t,” I said, walking around to the head. A square yellow tag, plastic, marked it as number twenty-six. I looked at it closely. I liked to watch the cows through the knotholes in the fencing. Had I seen this one before? Had I heard number twenty-six lowing just out of sight? Had the dogs barked at it in the darkness when the fence was still whole?

“Hon,” he said, and that felt serious. Usually he called me “girl.” Usually, we flirted; we joked; we exchanged crazy-mother stories.

I had a weird feeling in my chest, a tingling sensation in my shoulders. I felt like I was made of rain. Ray had told me that the cows on the ranch were cattle, but this one, singular, floating bloated before me was a cow.

“I’ll take care of it,” Levon said. “I’ll bring that backhoe back out.”

I pictured the stiff black body in the yaw of the machinery. The image conjured thoughts of mass graves, genocide, but there was no other way, no way to remove it intact.

“Now,” I said.

“Now,” he answered, reaching up to turn on the headset to his phone, moving toward me to put his other arm around my shoulder.

I moved away and he turned into his call, making arrangements. I pulled the hose from the pool and dropped it on the ground. The water muddied the yard, filled the grooves the machinery had made, flowed toward the gap in the fence where three or four more cows had gathered, their heads filling the crooked space, looking right at us until they lowered their heads to drink.

Tiff Holland is the winner of the fifth annual Rose Metal Press competition. She authored the poetry chapbook Bone In a Tin Funnel. She has received three Pushcart nominations and the 2011 Upstreet Scholarship to attend the Post Graduate Writers Conference in Vermont. Her poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction regularly appear in literary magazines, e-zines and anthologies.

How does the idea of compression affect the decision-making process for you as a writer, both in general and in this piece specifically? I think it largely stems from the fact that I’m a straight-forward person. I’m naturally rather quiet. When I speak, I only say what needs to be said, and I think that carries over to my writing. Also, the fact that I started off writing poetry has an effect on my desire to compress writing. Most of my poems are narrative, they’re entire stories, but, well, compressed, usually to one page. Finally, I pay a lot of attention to the sounds of words, to the breaths between them, and that also leads to compression. I want every syllable to count. So, as hackneyed as it sounds: less is more and keep it simple stupid.

In terms of this piece, a lot of the compression is due to the fact that the story came to me all of a sudden. It arrived whole, and I had to type fast to keep up with its unfolding. That kept me from meandering. I think the story deserved compression. I didn’t want to interfere with the images or the language.

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