Bert delivered the bad news after lunch. He handed everyone on day shift a pink slip of paper informing them that they’d be laid off from the factory. They were not fired, not exactly, the paper assured them. They could be called back to work at any time.
“What’s this all about?” Daniel demanded of Bert.
“Just read the paper,” Bert said, scratching his stomach.
“I’ve read the damn paper,” Daniel said. ”I want to know what the hell this is all about.”
“I feel like shit, you know I do,” Bert said, still scratching. “Look at the bright side. At least you’re not fired.”
Daniel’s shift didn’t end until the evening, but he went home immediately after his conversation with Bert. He did not punch out at the time clock.
“What the hell’s the point?” he muttered as he slammed shut his car door and gunned the engine. Anyway he hated the job. The boredom. The mind-numbing tedium. But he knew he needed the paychecks.
Hours later he sat on the couch in his apartment, TV remote in hand, flipping from news network to news network. None of them said anything worth hearing. Now that he’d lost his job, he no longer felt the news applied to his life. Already he felt disconnected.
His wife Betty was surprised to see him when she arrived from her job at the restaurant. She walked in on him watching TV in the dark. In her greasy waitress apron she smelled of cigarettes and red meat.
“The factory laid us off. All of us, the whole shift,” he said before she could ask. It was easier to talk about if he dragged his coworkers into it.
“What will we do?” Betty said, her face ashen, her eyes huge. “How will we make rent?”
“Relax,” Daniel said. “I’ll find something in no time.”
And that’s how it went all night, with Betty in a mild panic and Daniel gently consoling her, reasoning with her. He told her they would be fine. They’d tighten their belts, stop eating out so much, maybe cancel cable TV until things turned around. They would be fine, he said, just fine.
The next day at breakfast he read the help wanted ads in his newspaper’s classifieds. Then he drove all over town to fill out applications. He felt like he wrote his name, address and phone number at least a thousand times. Back at home, he washed the dishes and swept the kitchen. He didn’t want Betty to think he was lazy.
That’s what his days were like. He busted his ass all afternoon to fill out applications at any place that needed labor. Then he came home and cleaned up. Betty acted fine at first. Supportive, even, for a while. But as the days turned to weeks she became increasingly distant, irritable. She wouldn’t let him touch her at night. She didn’t say much, but when she did she lost her temper. She accused him of not doing enough around the house. He’d made a good start, she said, but he did less and less every day.
This was true, he admitted, but he was her husband, after all, not her butler. And he’d had a run of bad luck, and couldn’t she cut him some slack?
One morning, instead of going out to put in applications he sat at his computer and searched for jobs online. Then he spent the afternoon watching TV. The next day he skipped the computer and just watched TV. And he would have done the same the next day except he felt like if he spent another second in the apartment he would lose his goddamned mind.
The apartment complex had a pool. He had never used it because he hadn’t ever had the time, but now time was all he had.
At midday during the week the pool was nearly empty. Some kids splashed around in the shallow end, their parents nowhere to be found. Daniel dove into the deep end. The water felt cold, but he got used to it quickly. He hadn’t gone swimming in years, not since he was a child. He had forgotten how much he enjoyed it. Best of all he liked swimming underwater. It was like flying, only in slow motion. He could fly for as long as he held his breath.
Later, exhausted, he floated on his back. Waves rocked him gently. Chlorine stung his eyes, but it didn’t bother him much. In the midday sun the water looked impossibly blue, the poolside stark white. Overhead the contrail of a plane split the sky into hemispheres. As he floated between the water and August sunlight, Daniel felt like he was living at the end of time.
It wasn’t long before the blonde in the stars and stripes bikini showed up. She carried an inflatable raft under her arm. It was mostly blown up but not all the way. She kicked off her flip-flops, sat poolside with her long legs in the water and inflated it.
Daniel watched her from the deep end. He leaned back against the poolside, his arms outstretched on sun-warmed concrete, supporting his weight in the water. He watched her blow into a small plastic nozzle. He swam laps back and forth across the deep end, hoping he cut a fine figure.
The girl put the raft in the water and climbed aboard. She started out in the shallow end, but momentum carried her to deeper waters. As she came close, Daniel stopped swimming and rested against the side of the pool.
“I hope I’m not in your way,” the girl said from behind a large pair of sunglasses.
“You’re fine,” Daniel said, out of breath from swimming.
“If I’m in your way just tell me,” she said.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ll swim underneath you.”
“Will you?” she asked, and even from behind the sunglasses he saw her arch an eyebrow.
“I’m working on my tan,” she said.
“I never tan. I can’t,” he said. He felt her eyes sweep over him, over his chest, ghost-white from days spent beneath the factory roof.
“You just need to work on it,” she said. “Come back tomorrow. Spend an hour or two out here everyday. You’ll get your tan. Anyone can do it. You’ll see.”
They talked awhile longer. He learned her name was Tanya and she attended college, a marketing major. She was recently single after escaping a relationship that should have ended in high school. When he told her he was laid off from work she appeared quite sympathetic–more so, he noted, than anyone else he’d confided in. When he said he was married she nodded and seemed disinterested. She didn’t ask about his wife.
He swam some more laps after that, diving underneath when she floated across his path. And wherever the raft carried her, he was aware of her eyes on him.
That night at dinner he stifled the urge to tell his wife about Tanya. She was all he wanted to talk about, all he could think of. But he knew better than to mention her.
“Laundry’s piling up in the hallway,” his wife said, sighing.
“I’ll get to it tomorrow,” he said.
“Did you put in any applications today?”
“Sure,” he lied. “Plenty.”
He spent the next day at the pool. He hadn’t been there long before Tanya showed up, lugging her raft. He waved, and when she stepped into the water he swam over, challenged her to a race.
Daniel and Tanya spent the day together, waging splash fights, practicing handstands on the bottom of the pool, playing in the sun and water like neither of them had since they were children. Daniel realized he had forgotten how to play. With Tanya’s help he remembered.
At dinner his wife remarked on his tan. Daniel admitted he’d spent some time at the pool.
“Must be nice,” she said.
“Losing a job is no picnic,” he said through a mouthful of meatloaf.
“Oh, I don’t know. It sounds okay to me. I wait tables all day. You hang out at the pool. You watch TV. It sounds pretty goddamned okay to me.”
“It’s not like that,” he said.
“Did you apply anywhere today?”
“Look, I’ve applied all over the city. Something is bound to turn up. It just takes time, is all.”
“I thought you said you’d take care of the laundry.”
“Tomorrow,” he said. “I’ll do the laundry tomorrow.”
The sun was shining when he arrived at the pool. Tanya was already there, floating on her raft. Quietly, he slipped into the water and swam to her beneath the surface, holding his breath until he burst out and dunked her. She squealed as she went under, then resurfaced in a tangle of wet hair.
“You bitch,” she said, laughing and gasping for air. She slugged him playfully on the shoulder. “I’ll get you for that.”
She lunged at him, and he dove out of the way, took off swimming. When he let her catch him, the contact of her skin thrilled him as she pulled him down.
They played in the pool for hours until they were exhausted. They floated in the sun, she on her raft, he on his back.
“What do you want out of life?” he asked, staring up at the empty sky.
“What do you mean?”
“Why are you majoring in marketing? What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t care. I just want a job that pays decent. Something that isn’t miserable, you know?”
She rolled off the raft, her thin body making hardly a splash. She swam to him. They regarded each other, face to face. A wet lock of hair curled down her forehead. Her eyes were so blue they glowed.
“Let’s race,” she said.
Daniel reached for her, placed a hand on the curve of her back, tugged her close. The kiss was electric and made Daniel feel something leap inside his chest. Her lips moved in time with his as he and Tanya treaded water, their legs churning through the cool, blue expanse.
Tanya pulled away.
“I should go,” she said, swimming for the ladder.
“I’m sorry.” Daniel paddled slowly behind her. He clung to the ladder after she climbed out, all strength fled from his body.
Tanya toweled herself dry, then walked back to the edge of the pool. She towered over him, cloaked him in her shadow.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
She knelt by the ladder and kissed him quickly and lightly on his lips. After that she fished her raft out of the pool and walked away.
“Will I see you tomorrow?” he called out to her.
“Take a wild guess,” she said.
That night in the apartment he could hardly sit still. He swallowed dinner without tasting it. He flipped TV channels haphazardly, didn’t take anything in.
“You didn’t wash the clothes today,” Betty said, arms folded, sitting away from him in the recliner in the corner.
“Fuck,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re always sorry,” she said. “You don’t work. You don’t help around the house. I can’t take much more of you being sorry.”
“We already had this argument.”
“Then get a job.”
“I’m trying,” he said.
“Try harder. Take a job at a gas station, a grocery store, a fast-food place. Do something. Do anything.”
“I can’t live like that,” he said.
“Well I can’t live like this,” she said, standing up and storming out, maneuvering around piles of unwashed laundry in the hallway before slamming the bedroom door behind her.
Daniel slept on the couch that night. He considered doing the laundry, then he just didn’t. He dreamed about his old job at the factory, the gray walls, the noise from the conveyor belt, the boredom. In the morning he was awoken by the sound of his wife getting ready for work. After she left he fell asleep again. A few hours later the phone rang. He answered it, groggily, while lying on the couch. Immediately he recognized Bert’s voice.
“Good news, boy-o,” Bert said. “The layoff is over.”
Daniel sat up.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you’re going back to work. The factory took an order, a big one. Everybody’s being recalled.”
“That’s … that’s great,” Daniel said.
“I need you back on Monday,” Bert said. “Can I count on you?”
“Sure,” Daniel said. “I guess … I mean … sure. Sure you can count on me.”
Daniel hung up the phone. He sat on the couch for a time, staring at nothing. The news would make Betty happy, of course. It had been hard, recently, between them. The news would make it easier.
Daniel thought about the factory, about the long gray walls. He lay down again and tried to sleep.
Alex Miller edits newspapers in Hawaii. He wonders why people live anywhere else. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Dogzplot, Thunderclap and The Dead Mule.