The Swear Jar

The Swear Jar

The Swear Jar 1920 1440 Mario Aliberto III

The girl in the pool was perfectly safe.

Greg knew that.

But his heart. His stupid, anxious heart.

From behind the snack counter at Spring Hill Public Pool, Greg used his apron to fan away an apparition of meatsmoke wafting from the grill. The Saturday prelunch crowd lounged around the water as children splashed about, the sun shining generously upon shoulders pink as raw burger patties. He watched the blond girl wearing arm floaties toddle around the shallow end. She had to be about two, maybe three. Same age as his baby sister, Grace.

That wasn’t right. The age Grace was.

No. The age Grace would always be.

blue sky           barbecue         aunt and uncle coming over     plastic kiddie pool in the shape of a turtle in the backyard     they use the pool for the dog     Greg fills the pool with water from the garden hose     little Grace loves the pool     she loves strawberries and Sesame Street and him

she     loves     him

He found an area on his apron not stained with grease and mopped sweat from his eyes. The tiny girl began to shimmy along the side of the pool away from the shallow end. Two lifeguards from Greg’s high school who were a grade above him sat beneath the umbrella shade of their opposing lifeguard chairs with noses buried in their phones. Greg studied the girl’s progress.

Where were her parents?

DeAnna, the snack counter manager—a stoner college dropout whose idea of managing consisted of freezing burgers and hot dogs left over at the end of shift to be reheated the next day—finished ringing up a Gatorade and Skittles for a dripping wet boy holding the waistband of his oversized board shorts in a death grip.

Greg pointed at the girl in the pool with his spatula. “Fucking lifeguards need to get off their phones.”

“How about you worry about the burgers?” DeAnna picked up the plastic gallon jug with a blue lid near the grill and shook it. A few coins rattled. In its former life, the jug had been an economy-sized mayonnaise container, but the label had been scraped off and replaced with a taped-on yellow paper proclaiming it The Mother F’n Swear Jar. “Pay up.”

“Seriously?”

DeAnna playfully shook the jar in Greg’s face. “F-bomb costs two bucks.”

Greg flipped a couple of burgers, removed a few that looked done, and set his spatula aside. He took out his wallet and sorted a twenty, a five, and a couple of singles. DeAnna presented the jar and he dropped the singles in.

He checked on the blond girl. She clung desperately to the side of the pool. What if he was the only one watching her?

DeAnna thanked him for his “charitable donation.” She lifted the jar overhead and sang a high-pitched note as if the swear jar were something to be exalted. Greg suspected she spent the money on her vape. He didn’t mind. At least she shared. At the counter, a mother with green eyeshadow and salon-styled hair coughed, and four boys pawed through the candy rack. DeAnna apologized and took their order. Greg searched the pool for the girl.

blue sky           barbecue         parents inside with his aunt and uncle watching the Florida game            Grace splashes in the pool      the dog barks and chases a squirrel     the dog hops the fence         he has to get the dog out of the street    he tells Grace not to move    why does he tell her not to move

Greg stood on his toes to look over the head of the lady at the counter. A pair of arm floaties bobbed solemnly in the water like dead fish where he last spotted the blond girl.

blue sky           barbecue         he saves the dog          the damn dog

He put his palms flat on the counter to boost himself up. The mother stepped back and pinched her sundress closed over her bikini top.

“Move,” he said. He vaulted the counter, caught the candy rack with his foot, and sent bags of Skittles flying. The boys gathered candy to their sticky, wet chests as he ran past.

Greg pushed through the crowd. He started with the deep end. Nothing but splashing and squealing kids. He tottered on the pool’s edge, frantically scanning the water. He stripped his apron and threw it behind him.

“Grace…” He bent his knees to leap when he saw the little girl’s blond hair —

blue sky          barbecue         blond hair fans out in the water like a plucked sunflower

—and her mother holding her afloat and telling her to use “big scoops” with her hands and kick her legs.

People gave him space. His face wet. Tears and sweat. Breathing but no air. Their whispers might as well have been shouts: His sister. So young. The poor baby. How deep? Oh my God. That’s horrible. Last year. His sister. So young. A few inches of water. Terrible. His sister. Have to watch them. His sister.

DeAnna appeared next to him, took him by the shoulders, and pulled him away from the pool. She walked him behind the snack counter. The burgers were burned. He couldn’t find his apron to wipe his sopping face.

“You need to find a new job, dude. You can’t keep doing this to yourself.” DeAnna held out her vape pen. “What if I wasn’t here to save you?”

Greg picked up the swear jar. He twisted the lid off, letting it skitter on the counter. He removed the twenty and the five from his wallet. He stuffed the money inside the jar and then pressed his face to the jar’s opening. A curse ripped from his throat, without a beginning, without an end.

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