The sun-blasted school teacher with the grizzled goatee and almost shoulder-length hair rises from the plastic webbing of his pool chair and saunters to the water's edge. It's late afternoon on Labor Day, a hot but clear and slightly breezy beautiful summer afternoon, the blue sky complementing the blue pool bottom.
The swimming pool at this apartment complex has only about two hours left in the season, the shadows from the white high-rise buildings creeping closer and closer. The sullen teen lifeguards are beyond bored, ready to go home, but the school teacher, my daughter and I, and my friend and his daughter who we are visiting, continue to linger, hanging on to summer as long as we can.
The school teacher stares at the water's surface and then dives - not a proper dive, but a sort of falling forward - and begins lazily swimming a lap, invoking a style somewhere between a breaststroke and a dog paddle. I watch his slow progress. He kicks his legs laconically and pulls himself forward through the water, moving at a speed I guess to be about one mile per five hours. It would take him a week to swim the English Channel at this pace. I don't know what he's thinking, but I imagine him bemoaning the end of the season and the resumption of long school days.
He might be thinking about something else entirely, but my thoughts and his motions are in sync: I have a serious Labor Day lament on my mind. It is the day that crisply marks the end of summer by a decisive act: The closing of the swimming pools.
Labor Day hurts. The perfect weather of this September afternoon makes the parting even more painful.
Even though I've had a skin cancer removed near my eyebrow and am forced to cover myself in heavy sunscreen and wear a semi-ridiculous protective fishing hat, I love a swimming pool in the summertime. There's something magically easy about the pointless splashing and lounging and melding of children's voices squealing in delight that I find immensely relaxing. Where else can you toss your child into the air as high as possible and let her come splashing down? Where else can you sit in clothes little more than underwear and read a book? Where else can you sleep in public sprawled on a chaise lounge? I cherish the almost everything goes and nothing matters vibe of swimming pools. Even though I know the chlorinated water contains the urine of many children and probably a few adults, I miss that water when the pools close.
And Labor Day, a holiday's name that implies get back to work, signals the passing of time like an iron gate slamming shut. Every year it comes quicker. There is one theory of why time seems to pass faster as you get older that I believe: It states that when you are young, say, for example, 5 years old, like my daughter, a year of your life is 20 percent of your time on Earth. A year at that age seems to last forever. But when you are 50, the age I'm approaching, a year is only 2 percent of your life. That small portion of your existence zips by like a cat.
And that's what I feel like on this last pool day, knowing that time is slipping away from me. Tomorrow labor will resume and school will begin and the pool will drain and the tarp will cover it. Padlocks will go up on the gates, not to be removed until next summer.
For now, however, we have another hour left, and we relish the last moments of pool time. The free-spirit school teacher continues to swim, moving at the speed of an abandoned inner tube. My friend and I and our daughters splash and laugh in the shallow end, putting off the inevitable as long as the clock on the pool house permits.
Joe Samuel Starnes is a novelist in Haddon Township, N.J. He works in the administration and teaches at Widener University. He wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer.