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How Soft the Night How Clear the Song

Photo by Terrye Turpin

Tom Kelly pushed aside the drape covering his hotel room window and gazed out at the dark courtyard below. The underwater lights in the pool cast a wavy blue-green glow across the edges of the landscaping. Thin wisps of white mist rose from the surface of the water as though it were warmer than the cool night air. As he stared out the window, his eye caught a flicker of movement, a dark shape floating across the bottom of pool. His own reflection stared back at him in the glass, the shape resembling a shadow crossing his face. He let the curtain drop.

Tom was a man in his late fifties, wearing a suit coat that was five years out of date and a button-down oxford shirt too tight across a rounded gut. At least the whole ensemble was clean, thanks to the hotel’s laundry and dry cleaning service. His face had the florid flush and reddened nose associated with a man who liked his alcohol neat. He took off the jacket and folded it across the chair next to the bed as he sank down onto the mattress. He had trouble sleeping, but the bottle of rye whiskey on the night stand should help with that.

The buzz of his mobile phone woke him the next day as it rattled across the nightstand.

“When will the car be ready?” Tom’s wife, Carol spoke in clipped tones.

“Next week sometime, they said parts are on order.” The car in question, a late model Ford sedan, was in the shop after Tom slammed it into a tree half a mile from their house at the tail end of a white rock road. He woke up to bruised ribs and a blinding headache the next day after walking home from the wreck. It was the last night he spent in their house, the last straw, according to Carol.

“You could have killed someone, or yourself,” she said.

He wasn’t a drunk, an alcoholic like those folks at the meetings. The woman in too tight stretch pants and flip flops who had her toddler blow into the breathalyzer so she could drive home from a party, or the rheumy eyed old man celebrating his first year of sobriety. He was a social drinker. The mixed drinks at lunch with clients, the beer on the golf course, and the shot on the way home from work, he just needed to cut back.

The next night, back in his hotel room after work and a fast food dinner, Tom paced the five feet from the end of the queen sized bed to the window looking out over the hotel pool, and back again to the bedside table. A faint sound of music, a pleasant, lilting tune, filtered in from the courtyard. He should remember the song, it reminded him of the chime of an ice cream truck. He tilted the whiskey bottle from the night before up to his mouth, and drained the last swallow, not bothering with a glass. Glancing at his phone, he walked over to the window and drew back the heavy insulated drape to peer out while he scrolled through his recent calls. He stopped on Carol’s number from the day before and tapped the screen.

As he listened to the phone as it rang through the call, Tom noticed a figure rise from the shallow end of the pool. A woman stood at the steps, slender with black sleek hair that trailed down her back, stopping shy of her hips. She grasped the shiny rails to haul herself from the water, and turned to stare over her shoulder, up at his room, as though she sensed someone watching her. He leaned closer to the window and swiped at the circle of fog his breath left on the glass, trying to get a better look at the swimmer. At first glance she appeared to be naked. The woman walked off into the dark, leaving damp footprints to mark her passage. The music faded before it stopped as though someone had cut off a radio mid song.

Tom dropped the curtain as Carol’s voice sounded through the phone. He realized he was listening to her voicemail. Standing there, taking in the familiar rhythm of her speech, he imagined her impatience as she recorded the message. He disconnected saying nothing before the phone could capture his sigh. She would realize he called.

He dropped the empty bottle into the trash can beside the bed. His hand trembled, he needed more, enough to settle things down before he turned in. At the bar he ordered a shot and watched as the bartender poured two fingers of dark caramel colored alcohol into a glass tumbler and pushed it toward him. He tossed down the first shot. The second drink he savored, enjoying the spicy burn that filled his nose and the back of his throat as he sipped.

The bartender, a tall man with heavy hands, tilted his head toward Tom and lifted an eyebrow as he pointed to the empty glass. Tom shook his head no, he would stop at that last drink. He was on a first name basis with the bartender, Cory, but their conversation stayed to the type and amount of alcohol Tom ordered. This bartender did not inspire his patrons to share confidences. A bushy mustache hid most of his mouth, the ends curling up in a fashion popular in the 1800s.

“There was someone out there, in the pool,” Tom said as Cory picked up his glass.

“No.” The bartender shook his head as he set the glass in the sink below the bar. “The pool is closed, too cold to swim,” he said.

“But I saw…,” Tom began.

“Go look for yourself.” Cory waved a hand turned the door that led from the lounge to the courtyard.

Tom gazed at the blue mesh cover that hid the pool from sight. The tarp stretched tight across the surface and secured with straps looped to bolts on the deck. There were no lights, only the full moon illuminated the courtyard. He knelt at the side of the pool and reached out to touch the cover. It gave slightly and bounced back. Maybe the swimmer removed the cover, he thought, but discarded that idea. He looked up toward the windows stacked along the sides of the hotel and shook his head, accepting that the pool was closed without giving up what he’d seen from his room.


“Hey, Tom. There was a fellow in here earlier, looking for you.” The bartender leaned across the bar as he set down the glass he was polishing. He propped his elbows on the wooden surface and moved closer, so near that Tom could almost feel the brush of his handlebar mustache on his cheek. He nodded toward a booth along the back wall of the lounge where a lone drinker sat sipping a bottle of soda.

Tom glanced back at the man in the booth. He was clean shaven with close cropped hair. His tucked in polo shirt and knife creased khakis were neutral, like a uniform. As Tom turned back to the bartender Cory made eye contact with the stranger and gave a little nod. The man eased out of the booth and walked over to the bar. He carried a sheaf of paper in his hand.

“Tom Kelly?” the stranger asked.

“Yeah,” Tom answered, swiveling the bar stool to face the man.

“You’ve been served, sir.” The man set the papers down on the bar top, next to Tom.

“What?” Tom pulled the stack toward him, dragging it through the rings of water left by his beer mug.

“Divorce filing, sir, you can read the details there,” the man answered. He turned and walked out of the lounge.

“Bad luck, that,” Cory said as he picked up a glass and moved away.

Tom took the papers back to his room. He sat on the bed and picked up the phone, but set it down again, on top of the stack. He couldn’t face the legal language that spelled out the end of his marriage. A thought nagged at him, a cross between anger and shame that the stranger had known his best chance at meeting up with him had been at the lounge. Cory would close up soon, but he couldn’t bring himself to go back there. He went to the window and looked out at the pool. The music was back, and the water sparkled and shimmered under the night sky, the blue cover gone. He would sit in a chair by the water, unwind a little.

As he pushed open the glass door that led from the hotel corridor and out to the pool deck, Tom saw the woman. She had the same long dark hair, this time it flowed behind her as she stroked across the pool surface. Her arms lifted in a graceful arc, in and out of the water as she kicked, barely breaking the surface. He stared at her as she met the far wall, disappearing underwater as she flipped and turned pushing off against the side of the pool. He realized she was naked.

The song sounded both ancient and familiar. There were no words, not at first. The melody put him in mind of summers at the lake with Carol. He remembered that little red bikini she had, how the sweat pooled in the small of her back while she lay out on the deck of their boat, the air around her heavy with the tropical sweetness of coconut suntan lotion. How the sand from the shore clung in between their toes and left tracks in the carpet. How they flung off their lake water wet clothes in a trail to the bedroom.

He stepped into the pool when the woman began singing. Her voice was high, like bells. He barely noticed the chill of the water as it soaked through his pants and he waded in deeper, toward where the woman sat on the steps at the opposite end of the pool. She held her arms out as she moved toward him, her bare breasts white as marble above the water’s surface. She sang a song so clear, so old, he must have been born yearning for her voice. The taste of rye whiskey, smoke and spice, rose in his throat as her hands closed around his neck and she drew him to her breast. The sharp tang of chlorine replaced by the odor of salt and decay, of things washed up and left to die on the shore. He held no fear until the water closed over his head.

The bartender, Cory, was the first to discover the scene. As he walked through the courtyard after locking up the lounge he spied what he first took to be a late night swimmer. The pool’s closed, he thought, but when he stepped closer, intending to order the man out, he saw the stillness of the form tangled in the mesh cover. The bartender crossed himself and sighed. Poor man, Tom Kelly, eyes closed in that final sleep and rocked in the water as on dreams by the sea.

©2018 Terrye Turpin