It is the last house on your route. It is also vacant. You won’t have to interact with customers, nor have the end of your work day delayed. The pool is always a mess, but you know and accept this, and you’ve learned ways to handle the mess in a timely fashion. You bring a jug of chlorine with you because the reading is always low and you don’t want to have to walk back to the truck. You also bring a pole, a brush, and a net, knowing that vacuuming all the dirt and leaves will only clog the filter, so you don’t bother lugging the coiled snake of a hose or the unassumingly heavy vacuum head. There are no surprises here, which is why you don’t mind the mess. If the pool was only messy sometimes, it would annoy you, as you would never know what to expect and the end of your work day and the start of your weekend would be anybody’s guess.
You go through the side gate and place your materials on the pool deck. The pool is messy, as expected. Two mango trees hang over it, and it does not have a screen. Softball-sized mangos and feather-shaped leaves surround both main drains, along with small piles of dirt and bugs. All of it can be removed using a net, no problem. The walls of the pools are streaked with patches of yellow but you brought treatment and chlorine. All good. You pull the floater out of the pool, unscrew the top, drop the chlorine tab in, screw the top back on and toss it back in the water. You walk over to the skimmer to empty the basket. When you open it, all you see is black. As the water moves, what looks like hair sways back and forth like seaweed. And then you see the paws.
It is a kitten, roughly the size of a rabbit, and you are unsure how to proceed. You cannot reach the handle of the basket, as the kitten is in the way, and you do not have gloves to grab and move it. You also do not want to touch the kitten, as you are not sure how long it has been in the water or if it will fall apart when you grab it. The thought of the kitten drowning with no one around to hear or see it sends a shooting pain from sternum to abdomen, and you pause and take a breath before proceeding. You remove the brush head from your pole and gently lower the pole into the skimmer, nudging the kitten out of the basket and through the opening and into the pool.
You attach your net to the pole and carefully scoop up the kitten. It folds into itself as if attempting to take shelter, and you feel the weight of the carcass, oddly similar to a net full of mangos, as you lift the net out of the water and onto the pool deck. You are torn as to whether you should toss it over the side like everything else, or bury it. You feel an odd sense of sadness and responsibility. Though no one would know if you dumped it off to the side behind the mango trees, the scratchy sensation at the pit of your stomach tells you that you would feel too guilty. Which only leaves the burial. But you do not have a shovel. More importantly, a burial would extend the work day and exude more energy than is typically required. The yard is mostly dirt, dry and grainy, but shovel work is never easy. You look at the kitten, curled up in your net, blending in with the black threads, and walk to the house across the street.
You do not know who lives here, but what looks like a work truck is parked in the driveway, and you assume the owner most likely keeps a shovel around. You knock three times, solidly, and are greeted with multiple dog barks, deep and throaty, and you immediately picture them bolting out the door and sniffing out the kitten and ripping it to pieces. You consider heading back and shutting the gate behind you and just digging with your hands. A skinny, scraggly white kid answers the door, seemingly half-asleep, struggling to keep the dogs back as he closes the door behind him and steps outside. He asks if he can help you. You feel the need to provide context before asking for the shovel, so you explain the situation as he squints at you, battling the glare of the sun and the feeling that you are working your way up to sell him something. You finish what will eventually be an anecdote about a dead kitten and reluctantly ask if he has a shovel you can borrow. Before you can attempt to downplay what has slowly become a rather somber and confusing experience out of fear that he thinks you are being silly, or some kind of pussy, for putting so much effort into burying a stray cat, he closes his eyes and silently nods, grimacing as if to express some sort of sympathy, and walks past you toward his truck. He opens the tailgate and slides a shovel out and hands it to you without saying a word. You accept the shovel and thank him twice, showing a little too much gratitude, and he nods again before heading back into his house and disappearing into the incessant barking.
You find a spot a few feet away from the pool. As you stomp on the shovel you are surprised at how sad you feel, but a momentary lapse causes you to consider rushing the burial so you can get back to the pool and go home, which only replaces the original sadness with an agonizing guilt. Because of this, you dig the hole much deeper than necessary, the mound of dirt next to the hole now two feet high. Your palms are calloused, fingers and wrists tender and stiff, and your forearms and hands are slick with sweat and caked with dirt. You grab your pole and hold it up toward the net for leverage and consider how best to put the animal in its resting place. Dumping it like you do leaves would be too violent. You squat down and position the net right next to the hole and turn it, lifting the bottom of the net up with the end of your shovel, and guide the carcass along, watching as it rolls into place and your net turns inside out. The sand sticks to the wet fur, the grey color aging the kitten, and, as you look down, it appears to be sleeping. Its eyes shut and mouth closed with a slight pout. Its back legs perfectly straight and front legs crossed at the wrists. You notice a glimmer coming from around the neck, more reflective than the wet fur, and you see a heart-shaped charm, no bigger than a dime, attached to a jet-black collar, all of which was virtually invisible until now.
This is not a stray cat. It belongs to someone. These two things echo in your head as you kneel next to the hole in the dense Florida heat. You hesitate, unsure if you want to read the inscription, knowing you will have to call the number and break the news and most likely have to wait for the owners to come and pick it up, doubling your sense of sadness and responsibility and further delaying the end of your workday and also forcing you to interrupt another stranger’s life, just as you did the neighbor’s. You decide against checking the collar and toss the first clump of dirt into the hole. As the tail disappears under the brown earth, the sense of guilt returns and you plant the shovel back into the ground, this time in anger, and reluctantly pull out your box cutter and extend its blade. You reach into the hole and place the tip of the blade under the charm and turn it around. “Buster,” it reads.
“Buster,” you mutter to no one. You let it drop and place the blade back under it, turning over the opposite side. Nothing. It is blank. No address. No phone number. You let out a sigh, your cheeks expanding and retracting, and grab the shovel.
You bury the kitten and flatten the dirt with the back of the shovel. You walk over to the hose on the side of the house and wash the dirt off your hands and wrists. Then, you decide to unravel the hose and walk over to the spot and place your thumb over the nozzle and water the mound. Before heading back to the pool, you contemplate finding two sticks to tie into a makeshift cross to mark the grave and are immediately embarrassed at the thought, imagining when you tell people about the experience this very idea will be comic relief, the place where everyone is allowed to laugh at you, not the situation, and capture the absurdity of it all. You wonder why the thought even exists, as you’ve only seen that happen in Westerns, and, even then, it’s to mark human graves.
You wrap the hose up and head back to the pool. You dump the remains of the skimmer, its whiteness seeming much brighter now, and net the pool. After you clear out the mangos, the leaves, and the dirt, you brush the algae off the pool walls. The water turns a cloudy light green. You check the chemicals and pour algae treatment and the entire jug of chlorine in the pool. You collect your materials, along with the neighbor’s shovel, and walk to your truck, taking one last glance at the dark circle in the midst of the sugar sand.
You walk across the street and lean the shovel up against the side of the house and return to your truck. You start the engine and check the clock. It is an hour past your usual finishing time. You accept this and are reassured by the fact that next week things will go back to normal. The pool will still be messy, but the shovel will be gone and the mound will blend in with the rest of the dirt and you will approach the pool the same way you always have: in anticipation of met expectations and with an understanding of the job that needs to be done.