Duke Park Bath House
“Men,” my mama would say, shaking her head as my daddy showed off his swan dive at the Duke Park pool.
“You’re just jealous you can’t swan dive,” my friend Tom said, but mama just said, “Where’s your mother?” and suggested he go and find her. To me she said, “And don’t pout or I’ll swan dive the both of us right out the gate and back home.” Instead of telling her this made no sense, I took a deep breath and ducked under the water, pushing up with my palms to keep from rising to the surface. When I came back up, mama was sipping from her Sweet Tea Plus and seemed to have forgotten about me. I pushed off and swam for the deep end.
The Plus in mama’s Sweet Tea Plus was a spiced rum daddy brought back from Cuba with her name on it: Ruby Rum. Daddy thought it was a fine gift and mama said he damn well better give her liquor if he’s going to be leaving her alone for weeks at a time with his three hellion children and what else did he have for her. But all he had was that liquor.
Well, it was fine to be called Ruby if you lived in Hollywood or New York City. Or Miami or Havana or Buenos Aires. But in Durham, North Carolina the only thing Ruby called to mind was the lit tip of a Lucky Strike cigarette.
“And there’s nothing lucky about ‘em,” mama used to say as she put them out in the glass ashtrays they kept along the edges of the pool, under the lawn chairs where the moms could reach them while they sunbathed.
It was a long time before I realized the other neighborhood moms didn’t particularly like my mother. I suppose I always knew mama was different, born in New York City, loud and full-hipped, with thick dark eyebrows that pushed down against her even darker eyes when she was angry, which was often. Compared to mama, all the other moms seemed whitewashed and blonde, even the brunette ones. Mama told me to never, ever trust someone who smiled too much and this ruled out most of the ladies in the neighborhood and also my own grandmother on my father’s side who was fair and petite and always asking my mama to join the Junior League or at least a church for heaven’s sake. It didn’t bother me so much, mama being different, until she stopped going to the pool and said I couldn’t go either.
When I told her it wasn’t fair, she told me to go tell that to the kids who weren’t allowed to swim on account of the color of their skin, and that shut me up, mostly because it wasn’t something I’d thought about before, and I was ashamed of that. Still, mama pretending her pool boycott had more to do with equality than with her own neighborhood grudges seemed like the worst kind of lie.
I planned to defy her and told her so. But I was thirteen that summer and absolutely terrified of mama, who was not above asking me, in line at the Red & White, if I was all stocked up on sanitary napkins. Besides, it was hot, and mama hated the heat. She spent most of that summer sitting on our wide side porch, staring out across the tops of the oaks and sipping from her Sweet Tea Plus, talking to herself about how she was moving back to Queens just as soon as she saved up the money.
You couldn’t see the pool from our house, but you could see the bath house. You could hear the screams of kids, the thwack and splatter of people diving into what I imagined was deep, cool water, even though by mid-August it would have been bathtub-warm. When Labor Day came and the pool closed for the winter, mama and I both breathed a sigh of relief. During my summers home from college, years later, the pool was open but mostly quiet, and I’d sit in the meadow and watch its glittering surface, the way the sun reflected off its surface and lit up the underside of the trees. When I asked mama why no one swam there anymore she said, “I guess that’s what happens when they decide to let everyone in.”
I was in my forties and four states away when the city announced they were going to close that pool. Mama called to say, “They’re filling it in tomorrow.” She said she thought I’d like to know. I arrived at noon, just as front loaders were starting their work, dumping one load after another into the gaping hole, the machines turning this way and that in what seemed like slow motion. I made a pitcher of Sweet Tea Plus and mama and I walked down to the park in our bare feet, glasses clinking. We sat in the grass as they filled up the pool and then tamped down the earth that covered it. At dusk, the men went home, the shadows of the machines they left behind growing longer and darker as night fell. Mama and I drank our tea down to the bottom of our glasses and sucked on the cubes.
“What was it about that pool, anyways?” I asked mama.
Mama spit an ice cube back into her glass. “I don’t know,” she said. “Everyone there just seemed so damned happy.”
Then she stood, and we walked across the earth where the pool used to be, the boarded up bath house staring down at us, the earth soft and sinking beneath our feet. “Feels like a grave,” I told mama. And she nodded. “Well,” she said, looking down at her bare feet on the wet dirt. “I suppose it is.”