The Plecostomus and the Pool: (or, What Lies Below)

Eventually I got the courage to venture into my back yard. Yard is probably a misnomer; the area behind my house is more akin to a wilderness use area, but with walnut trees, an olive, fig, a grapefruit, and a multitude of towering Scotch thistles (Onopordum acanthiumI looked them up) and oddly, a patch of immense cacti in the very back.

At present the cacti are covered with plump fruit, which someone suitably desperate, and knowledgeable in emergency desert survival, might recognize as edible. I regard them with a faintly avaricious but distrustful eye. Even if I could somehow get them off the enormous plant with its cushion-like spine-encrusted lobes towering over my head, and somehow pluck off the three inch needles without requiring stitches in my hands, I would be at a loss as to how to eat one of them. Is it a vegetable? Sliced and sprinkled with sugar for a delicious desert? Well, maybe the raccoons will eat them.

Actually, I rarely get all the way to the back of my property. Like today, I pause at the threshold of the sliding glass doors, feeling the usual descent of my internal organs to the pit of my stomach or somewhere lower. A sense of anxiety wells up from the same general location. It’s not the cacti or the triffids, not the crows diligently prying the walnuts open, not the buzzards sunning themselves in the eucalyptus.

It’s just a pool I tell myself. Lots of people have them. Summer fun, inner tubes, swim fins, drowning bumble bees rescued, the splashing laugher of happy children. Right. I have a faint memory of swimming on some hot summer nights, eons ago, but the reality before me dilutes this memory to a mocking mirage of past happiness.

When I was a child, my parents decided to keep tropical fish. The angel fish were my favorite. Their triangular silver bodies and fancy black stripes were the epitome of elegance as they glided through the water like aristocrats, ignoring the tacky aquarium decorations and fake seaweed. They were perfection itself. The neon tetras and other denizens of the tank were all lovely in their own way, and I loved watching them. But not all the creatures in the tank were so nice. We had a Plecostomus, (Hypostomus plecostomusI looked it up) a brown speckled slug of a fish which generally lurked at the bottom or attached itself, with a disgustingly muscular sucker mouth, to a dark strip on the side of the tank. At night it would busy itself wriggling around the bottom or up and down the sides eating algae and growing disturbingly large.

Fish aficionados describe these fish affectionately as Plecos, and describe them as “a friendly and useful fish,” adding alarmingly that in the right circumstances they can grow to almost two feet long and can survive out of the water--if necessary--for 30 hours. All this I looked up after I talked my father into flushing our Pleco down the toilet. The story was this. One morning, passing the tank, I noticed to my dismay that one of my cherished angel fish had either died, or was having a bad allergy day, and was lying at an uncharacteristic angle at the bottom of the tank, right in front of the tacky plastic treasure chest by the fake seaweed. Sad, but my real horror came when our friendly Pleco sidled over and attached itself to the side of the dead or sick angel. I backed away from the tank, hands over my mouth, swallowing a scream of revulsion and ran from the room. Later, I reasoned that the disgusting fellow was just doing his job, keeping the tank clean. As long as I didn’t have to watch, it was probably alright. Later that week, however, I saw the foul creature swim up from the bottom and attach itself to a perfectly healthy and unsuspecting, “Hey what the hell buddy”, angel. This time my shrieks of horror brought my father running into the room, and the culprit was flushed while I fluttered about in helpless disgust, watching the incensed angel slowly right itself and swim with a difficult dignity to the top of the tank, where it trod water in outraged shock.

Later, I read that such behavior indicated that our Pleco, having consumed all the algae, was starving, and was trying to subsist on the “slime coat” of the other fish. As you may imagine, this did not exactly endear the creature to me, but it did make me feel guilty. If only I had known to throw some lettuce, peas and fruit into the tank, all beloved by our friendly Pleco, I might have saved my angel friend from a humiliating and demeaning experience. I reassured myself that it was probably perfectly happy living down in the sewer with all the algae it could suck up and had grown fat and content. Unhappy thought! Lying in bed in the evenings, I envisioned our embittered and revenge-bent Pleco, now grown to dimensions akin to a salt water crocodile, lurking below ground, perhaps using its night-adapted eyes to make its way to a sewage treatment plant, rising occasionally to treat itself to an occasional plant worker. God help us if it meets another of its kind and breeds. Thirty hours out of the water? It could be anywhere. I left the night light on and avoided drains of all kinds.

Of course, I know there are no Plecostomi in my backyard pool. How could there be? That’s stupid. There are no treatment plants nearby—and then there’s that wall of cacti. But as I stand near the deep end and gaze into the murky depths I am reminded of my old nemesis. The truth is, anything could be down there.

I should never have removed the cover. Let well enough alone, that’s my motto. The pool pump is broken and various flora and fauna have colonized the green water. Things wiggle or swim into view then descend out of sight. The water sample I took to my local pool supply house caused the clerk to blanch and surreptitiously wipe his hands on a stack of brochures advertising floating candles in the shape of lotus flowers. The candles are waxy and green, almost the same shade of my pool water, but I shudder to think of putting a source of ignition so close to the water. I ask him about pool covers. He brightens and shows me an array of canvas, plastic and electronic covers. One is advertised as being strong enough for an elephant to walk upon. Seems like overkill. I imagine the handlers trying to coax some reluctant pachyderm, Dumbo or Stomper maybe, to walk on the pool cover. “Go on,” they say, “it’s strong enough to hold an elephant.” How do they know, wonders Stomper? Was it tested to destruction? How many elephants plunged into the deep end before the desired thickness was obtained? How did they get out of the pool? The little steps set into the side under the metal hand rail hardly seem useful under the circumstances.

I order the deluxe canvas cover that bolts to the concrete on all sides. It’s strong enough to hold an elephant and nothing can creep in, or out, of the pool. Best of all, it comes in a cerulean blue, the color of summer skies or clear tropical water. From Google Earth, it almost looks like I have a pool full of clean blue water. I might set a few lotus candles on it for effect. I imagine my neighbors will be pleased, but actually, they never open their blinds on that side of the house. Oh well.

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