The Purple Hippopotamus Wading Pool

By Joanne Merriam

The purple hippopotamus wading pool was stored in the women's washroom between acts. Leonard said it didn't matter because they had so few female customers. It leaked water onto the floor, which trickled down the brass-colored drain. Whenever she used the washroom, she stopped to touch it.

Angela had come up with the idea of soaking their feet in it. She was the smart one, everybody agreed, even though she was blonde and small. She was working her way through community college. The girls put it on the floor and filled it with hot water from the tap and sat around on the floor with their feet in, soaking, their long legs bare to their thongs, looking like the stamens of some strange flower. Angela had these little bags of salt that she'd dump into the barely steaming water, which were supposed to help, and didn't.

"Somebody's going to slip on that water someday and sue us," Leonard said in his mild way, pulling beers without watching, letting the Heineken build up a good head of foam. Leonard was forty and watchful and closeted.

"I don't think so. It's just the stage. Steven always mops up good."

"One of the girls will fall, then."

A customer came up to the bar and asked for a beer. Sherrie looked at him critically: dark hair, thin, tall, wedding band, nice suit. It was three o'clock in the afternoon on a Wednesday, and this was his fourth beer. Angela was sitting at his table, looking affordable. Leonard handed him a bottle and took his money without saying anything. He went back to his table and put his hand on Angela's knee. Sherrie turned her back on them.

"The girls love you. They wouldn't sue you for a broken ankle."

"They'd step over their own mothers if they thought it'd earn them a buck."

That was true, but she wasn't about to admit it. "Well, they don't have the money to sue."

Leonard left that alone, smiling professionally at the men on their stools watching the new girl do pole work with a bored air. They ignored him, fumbled for their beers. The music jangled, the broken speakers shrill with damaged parts Leonard couldn't be bothered to replace. "They don't come for the music," he always said.

Cara had been on a nonstop Fantasia kick for almost a week, and Frank had insisted they buy the purple hippopotamus wading pool when they'd seen it at the home hardware store, where they'd stopped for a drill bit and left with over a hundred dollars worth of stuff, stuff he'd probably never use. At the time, she'd said, teasing, "Everybody gets a toy but me," and he'd made a face at her. It was still wedged into the trunk of the car.

He was waiting for Cara's birthday. He'd said, "If we hide it in the house, she'll find it and ruin the surprise," so Sherrie let him leave it there. She piled the groceries on top of it—several cans of tomatoes, six ears of corn, a loaf of bread—and went to the park to get Cara.

"Her dad picked her up," said Heather. The girl was employed by Parks & Rec to provide educational nature programming for children ages four and under, which meant they ate ice cream and played on the beach. She was round with baby fat and had long brown hair, was probably starting college next year, was probably still a virgin. Her cherry red tank top showed an inch of tanned belly.

"Oh, thanks." Sherrie pulled out her cell phone and dialed as she headed back to the car. "Frank? I'm at the park. I just wanted to check and . . . oh, you did. Okay." Inspired, she added, "I'll just pick up some groceries on the way home." That was good for an entire half hour alone. She turned around and walked down a path at random, heading for the beach.

Summer in that town was like this: ant mounds that surprised you standing on them when talking to the neighbours, the thirsty earth, Kool-Aid in glasses with daisies on the outsides, the patterned dresses all the wives wore.

A cormorant sat on a rock jutting up above the water, surveying the shore calmly, as God might survey creation. Its narrow, improbably small head twisted this way and that. Waves moved against the rocks at her feet with a quiet gulping noise. The rocks glistened, their dull gray transformed by the water and sun.

Behind her, the sound of footsteps. She turned, expecting a tourist attracted by the swooping gulls, who would maybe ask for directions to the canteen, or somebody walking their dog. Instead it was Dave, looming over her in jeans and a checked shirt in Oxford red.

"What the hell are you doing here?"

"Same thing as you," he said: casual, friendly like, easy, as though they hardly knew each other, and sat on a big rock to her left. "Relaxing." He was taller than Frank and a little overweight, but could have passed for his brother: same soft cheeks, same blond hair thinning at the temples, same fake helpfulness whenever she started talking about her future. She kept him in her peripheral vision.

The cormorant lifted its wings and flapped them once, settling them against its back again with much ruffling, and then leaned into the wind and let loose with a quick, thin stream of white into the waves.

Sherrie took that as her cue to go. "Well, have fun," she said, and turned to leave.

"Sherrie." He was staring at her. It changed his face somehow, made him look more . . . something. Grown-up or something. The planes of his face looked starker. His eyes looked darker. "We have to talk," he said.

Sherrie smiled. They never talked, even though he always said that. He said it because he wasn't honest enough to ask for sex, even though that was what was always on his mind. He stepped toward her, and she knew she should step away, and didn't. His hands took hold of her shoulders, propelling her into his arms, and she didn't fight him. She didn't do anything.

"I shouldn't do this," she said, and they both ignored it. She'd said it each of the last two times, too. If anybody had asked, she would have said she loved her husband, and she'd have meant it. Frank was a good man. She had no reason to be unhappy with him. She wouldn't have been able to explain David. He was just something that had happened to her.

Her body was pressed against his now. Flushed and stupid. The muscles in her torso all seemed to be singing. In these moments, she felt on the verge of something, as though if she just knew how she could step out of her body and into his, or out of the world and into something else entirely. She chalked the feeling up to the thrill of the forbidden. His hand tightened into a fist, twisting her hair painfully, turning her face up towards him. The pain was good: it brought her back to herself. His other hand was hot on the small of her back. She licked her lips. Anybody could come along and see them together, and she could hardly interest herself in the consequences. He kissed her, slick and demanding, and she kissed him back.

His eyes were closed. His eyelids were made from a million tiny planes, each of them its own reality. She was close to something, she could feel it, and then he opened his eyes and the feeling was gone. She twisted away from him and ran for her car.

The sky overhead was that deeper blue you only see near an ocean. The cormorant twisted its head this way.

Frank gave Cara the purple hippopotamus wading pool a few weeks later. The slide into the pool was the hippo's nose, and its bulging eyes made excellent footrests. Cara loved it, playing in it every day she wasn't at the park, and every evening, all summer long. It was all Sherrie could do to keep sunscreen on her. Her blonde hair turned almost white under the relentless sun. Sherrie taught Cara to paddle, to blow bubbles under water, and to hold her breath, and they played a game of Cara's devising called Eat the Hippo.

That was her last birthday. It happened like this. One moment, everything was fine: Cara humming "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" off-key and off-beat in her pink bathing suit from the back seat, the rain pattering on the roof, the radio talking about the benefits of electric scissors; and then in the next moment the tires lost their traction, and Sherrie panicked, twisting the wheel frantically. The wheels made a high-pitched noise on the pavement. The car fishtailed across two lanes of traffic, narrowly missing several cars, and pirouetted, throwing them into the median. The metal passenger side of the car made a horrible sound. The windshield exploded into glass confetti.

When she remembered it, it was in this dreamy slow-motion—red brake lights of the other cars twinkling in the dots of water on the windshield, the darkness of the road only yielding its yellow markings a few carlengths away, a smear of water left by the wipers in an arc along their edges, the feeling of flight as the tires lost the road, her stomach jumping as she spun, the dumb slow dawning of comprehension—but of course the whole thing couldn't have taken more than twenty seconds.

"Are you okay, baby?" she remembered saying, and there was this awful silence.

Then there's a blank in her memory—she must have gotten out of the car, and gotten Cara out of the car, and she must have called an ambulance on her cell (later she'd see 911 listed in her call history) but her mind recorded nothing.

Then: Cara's eyes are unfocused. She is already dead. She is laid out on the pavement. She must be cold in just her bathing suit. Sherrie puts her jacket over her. Her head is at a funny angle. Sherrie can't get it to lie straight. Her eyes are open. They are pale green, like new leaves. The ambulance arrives. They are too stupid to realize she's already dead. They move the jacket and push on her little chest. Sherrie watches them. She can hear Cara humming Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. How I wonder where you are. Her skin is ghastly in the lights from the ambulance.

Sherrie walks right through the paramedics, her body made of smoke, and holds Cara's hand. "It's okay, baby," she says, knowing it's a lie. Cara sits up, a smoke figure like Sherrie, her body intersecting the thing with the pale skin lying on the road, and puts her arms around Sherrie's neck and squeezes hard, crying, and Sherrie watches her hands sink into Cara's back as she pats it, the impression of her daughter's warmth already fading, and repeats, "It's okay, baby," and Cara says, "Don't leave me," through her tears and of course Sherrie says, "I won't," and then she's back in her body watching the paramedics push on her daughter's chest, her eyes blinking away some kind of fogginess.

Frank arrives. He talks to her. She tells him Cara is dead. She tells him twice. The rain keeps falling. Frank tries to tell her it's not her fault. Of course it's her fault. She was late because of David, and the rain only just started, and if she'd gotten there earlier, the driving would have been fine, the roads dry, and what's worse, she let her go, just now, she promised not to leave her but she couldn't hold on, and Cara is alone.

He is crying. He doesn't ask who is David. She is not crying. He tries to hug her, and she pushes him away. She tells him to close Cara's eyes. She tells him Cara shouldn't have to see her parents fighting. Cars slow down to stare. She gives somebody the finger. The man from the ambulance gives her a needle. She wakes up in the hospital the next morning and Cara is still dead.

Frank spent months trying to argue with her about the correct apportioning of blame—"I killed our daughter," she'd say, and he'd say, "It was an accident," and she wouldn't reply because she couldn't bring herself to say, "I should have gone with her," he'd think she was crazy if he didn't already—before he finally left, on a Sunday morning, early, before it was light. Sherrie lay in bed listening to him tiptoe around, knowing what he was doing and wondering if she should stop him, pretending to be asleep so she could think for once, and then he was gone before she could come up with a reason for him to stay.

Next to her on her bedside table was the picture of Cara that her friend Sandy had taken at a picnic the summer before. Sandy read a lot of women's magazines, and had packed a hamper with the frilly little sandwiches and pricey juices one of them featured in their June issue that year, and Cara had loved it. A butterfly—a blue one with black markings—had fluttered around her head, sending her into the kind of frenzied excitement only a toddler could maintain, and she'd squeaked over and over, "Butt-fly! Butt-fly!" Sandy had thought that was hilarious, and had given Sherrie the framed photo last Christmas. In it, the two-year-old Cara was eating a cucumber sandwich with ferocious concentration, still undecided about this weird food.

"I'm sorry," she said to the photo, and Cara raised her head and said, "This is gross," which is what she'd said in real life just after the photo was taken.

"You don't have to eat it," Sherrie whispered, and she stroked Cara's head. The picture rippled, and she snatched back her hand in alarm. "Cara?"

Nothing happened. "Cara?" Sherrie said louder. Nothing. She picked up the photo. "Cara?" This time when she touched the photo, her finger went into the scene, and she felt it slide against wet grass before pulling it back out. "You promised you wouldn't leave me," Cara said then, her voice's three-year-old fuzziness burned away by death, so Sherrie concentrated hard, staring at the photo until it was there on the backs of her eyelids when she blinked, and then pushed her way into the picture. "Mom!" Cara yelled, dropping her sandwich and scrambling to be picked up.

"I'll never leave you again," Sherrie whispered into her hair, which smelled like grass and baby shampoo, but when the alarm went off a moment later, she found herself back in bed. Her pillow was wet. She sat on the mattress for two hours more, but the picture wouldn't yield to her will. (It never did again, though she tried for weeks, and with every photo in the house. "It wasn't a dream," she insisted to Sandy later, and Sandy nodded at her sadly, stroking her back.)

Eventually she got out of bed. She walked naked into the kitchen, and ate a bowl of Cara's sugary cereal, pushed to the back of the shelf and gone stale now, and guzzled a glass of whiskey, and vomited.

Time passed like it does: the phone was turned off and she didn't bother to get it reconnected, and the credit card company sent her to collections so she got the job at the club, and autumn turned into winter into summer into winter again. She remembered to eat and sleep at the appropriate times. More like the memory of hearing something than the moment of hearing it, Cara's voice sounded at intervals, always in another room or through a wall, faintly. Sandy brought her movies and popcorn and denied hearing anything, a line between her eyebrows.

When Sherrie woke at night to Cara's crying, she couldn't convince herself her crazy mind was just tricking her and tried again to get to her, burying her face in the clothes in her daughter's untouched closet, running her fingers over the faces of the cartoon characters on her walls and the plastic building blocks in the chest in the corner, watching always for that tell-tale ripple signalling an entrance, but, nothing.

In the women's washroom at work, she stroked the dry bulge of the hippo's head. She had crammed the whole thing into a stall in case someone came in, balanced diagonally over the bowl of the toilet. She'd been trying the pool all month, it seemed such a sure bet, but she hadn't figured out a way in yet. Maybe she was trying too hard. She closed her eyes and stepped forward, bashing her calf against the toilet. She stepped back, keeping her eyes closed. She could feel something on the periphery of awareness. Cara was there somewhere, sitting on the grass. Her hand groped in the air, trying to find it. There. No, there. She stepped into the marshland, warm mud slipping between her bare toes. To her right, a hippopotamus trumpeted, its song like the opening flourish of a symphony. She looked down at the mud closing over the tops of her feet. She'd done it. It had almost been easy.

Her ankles warmed. The hippo watched her impassively, only its eyes, ears, and nostrils visible above the water line, and then it lifted its bright purple mouth again to sing a few lines from Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours," Cara's favorite part. Its ivory tusks were an outline of pure light.

The herd returned the calls. They lay on the edges of the river, pulling up grass with their lips. Sherrie sat, feeling the mud slide over the thin fabric of her shorts. She couldn't see Cara anywhere. One or two of the herd of hippos rolled away from her, making a show of how unconcerned they were while creating the distance, their hides glinting violet in the soft light drifting through the trees and the harsher light from their leader's tusks. A wet breeze tangled itself in her hair. She drew in a shuddery breath and almost choked on the thick air. As she realized how warm she was, she sank backwards into the ground.

She hadn't made it. This was somewhere else. It had been a year and a half since the photo, eighteen months of daily trying new props, and this was only the second time she'd gotten anywhere, and it was the wrong place. She started to cry.

Overhead, giant leaves as big as a man's torso dipped to cover her, a blanket of greenery, smooth as an infant's skin and as soft. She was so warm. One of the leaves caressed the soles of her feet, cleaning off the mud and massaging her sore muscles, while another slid under the edge of her t-shirt to flatten itself against her ribcage, rising and falling with her breath, gently pumping her lungs until she breathed in its rhythm, a rhythm that encompassed the calls of the hippos and the quiet slap of displaced water against the shore as the herd slid back into the river. One of the leaves folded over her mouth and molded itself to her nostrils and eyelids. It didn't occur to her to struggle. The music moved farther away with the herd until all she heard was the rustle of leaf against leaf as they cupped her body and her heartbeat slowing as she let the air slip away from her lungs. Her arms were lifted from where she'd left them, outflung against the mud, and cleaned by the edges of waxy leaves and held down over her head by thick vines. She could feel new buds opening against the soles of her feet and into the palms of her hands and tangling in her hair, each whisper of movement tracing the outlines of her nervous system, stroking her all over, smoothing away all her tension, slippery against her skin, loving her the way Frank used to, before—don't think about it—

"Sherrie!" It was Angela. "You in here?"

Startled, she forgot what she was doing, and opened her eyes. The purple hippopotamus wading pool had slid off the toilet onto the floor. She opened the door and pulled it out after her. "I was just trying to see if it would fit in a stall," she lied.

"You're on in fifteen," Angela said, and Sherrie nodded at her retreating back as she wrestled with the pool. Dry, it wasn't heavy, just awkward. She slung it over one shoulder, carrying it as a turtle carries its shell, hoping none of the customers would see her in this pose. At least she didn't have any mud on her behind. Fifteen minutes: she had to hurry.

When she dropped the pool backstage for one of the bouncers to set up while she changed into her outfit, she couldn't resist peeking through the curtain. As usual, David was in the audience. He'd taken to coming here every day after work, watching, his total lack of reaction worse than any name he could have called her. He hadn't said anything to her yet, but she knew he'd have to, eventually, and wondered if he'd try to save her or just to take her home. She crushed the curtain in her hand, half-hoping the velvet would rip.

The purple hippopotamus wading pool was Sherrie's best prop. That must be why it wouldn't work: she wasn't good enough for Cara anymore. The curtain was still closed. She placed four jugs of water on the checked picnic cloth spread out next to the pool. Angela brought out the hamper, wicker like it was the 1890s on the banks of the Thames, and put it next to the last jug of water. It was full of leather cat-o'-nines. Later Angela would interrupt Sherrie's act with a little discipline.

The summer fantasy felt out of place. Outside, customers could see their breath hang in the air. They knocked the snow off their boots at the door, leaving squared-off chunks of packed snow in the patterns of their treads. Dakotas. Kodiaks. Dr. Martens with the steel toes. Leonard bitched about keeping the stairs ice-free.

Winter in that town was like this: thin stalks of yellowing grass sticking through insufficient white snow, moonlight on the harbour cold and not romantic at all but lonely, hot chocolate in red thermoses, the parkas all the husbands wore to warm up the car with their fringe of fluffy navy fur, the sand on the beaches frozen into a crust you break through, again and again, leaving holes the waves will obscure at the next tide.

Static made the briefest of blue sparks around Angela's head as she brushed her hair, as though revealing the halo hidden there. She melted away into the background.

When the faded velvet curtains were swept open and the lights came up, Sherrie danced into the wading pool, keeping her movements a little clumsy, a parody of innocence. The music squealed from the broken speakers, just shy of painful. Sherrie began dousing herself with water as though she'd been dying for a shower for weeks. Such a dirty, dirty girl. Let it drip off her hair onto her cheeks. Rubbed it into her white T-shirt, her cut-off jean shorts, and then slowly peeled them off. Somebody held the door open for their friend. The sun's red light sloped into the lobby. Goose pimples sprang up along the length of her body, and she suppressed a shiver.

David was somewhere out there, watching, and she thought tonight was the night she'd let him talk her into whatever it was he had in mind.

Sherrie picked up the jug—a yellow plastic one with daisies edged in red, bright and perky like a summer picnic—and upended it as though in slow motion, letting it splash onto her forehead, into her mouth, down her long body. The men loved it. The tips were always good on a pool night, even though Leonard complained about the way the water got everywhere. She knelt in the wading pool, rocking her hips to the beat, glad that Angela would be coming out any second to punish her.

Joanne Merriam is a Canadian writer living in Murfreesboro, TN, former home of the world's largest red cedar bucket. Her fiction has appeared in The Fiddlehead, On Spec, Southern Gothic, and our archives. You can find her at