At the side of a hotel pool, a father gives his young son drill instructions.
Ten years later, a writer, Douglas, is traveling by train and orders two martinis. He comments to the train waiter that he always orders two because he doesn't know who will be joining him. A young man comes into the train car and takes the empty seat across from Douglas, and Douglas offers him the martini. When the young man wonders why Douglas would offer a drink to a stranger, Douglas says that they met before, ten years earlier, at a hotel pool in Malibu, and remembers...
Ten years earlier, Douglas' friend Sid brought him to the pool and explained that he would have the chance to see a murder before it happens. He directs Douglas' attention to the pool. They watch as a father, Sgt. Cress, orders his son out onto the deck and gives him drill orders. The father then tells the boy to perform a towel check, by the numbers. Douglas watches on as the boy cleans and tidies everything around the pool, opens the gate, and allows the guests in. Finally the father orders his son to stand at attention on the edge of the pool... and wait. Sid explains that the boy's father will leave the son standing there for hours.
When Douglas objects, Sid points out that the boy is smiling in satisfaction. Douglas protests to the father, who comes over and tells Douglas to stay out of it. The hotel has granted him full authority over the pool area and he'll toss out anyone who interferes. He then tells his son to swim 40 laps and explains that he seeks perfection through discipline. Douglas dives into the pool and swims with the boy. However, he soon falls behind while the boy continues... and continues. Sid whispers that someday the boy will kill his father, but Douglas isn't convinced. The boy continues to swim throughout the day and serve drinks as his father times him constantly. Douglas writes about the incident, wondering whether the boy will run away some day, and raise his sons the same way. Or beat up his father, or kill himself or his father with a gun.
The son finally completes his duties and his father smiles briefly in praise. He then sends his son to tell the men that the pool is closed. Douglas dives into the water in defiance, swims briefly, and then gets out. He wishes the boy good luck and walks away, The father tells his son to stand stock still for the next 60 minutes while he fulfills his duties, and leaves his watch to time the boy in his place. The boy stands at attention into the night while his father cleans up. He then tosses the watch into the pool and walks away. The boy swims down to get it and bring it back. However, his father says it was waterproof, slaps him, gives him demerits, and orders him back to attention.
In the present, Douglas finishes his retelling and asks what happens to the young man's father. The young man wonders if Douglas would ever believe it, and wonders why the writer wonders. Douglas says that he was there, and admits that he wanted to help then, and insists on listening now. The young man wonders how it could help and Douglas rattles off Cress' commands. The young man explains that his father left him standing in the hot sun, hour after hour with no one there...
Ten years ago, the boy is standing at attention when his father finds a discarded towel out of place. Cress hands out more demerits and tells his son to stand there without moving for an hour. As he walks away, he trips and falls into the pool. The father calls out to his son to throw him a life preserver. The boy refuses to respond, remembering that his father ordered him to stand unresponsive. Suspecting another trap, he wishes that his father will give him the order to relax, but Cress is unable to gasp out anything. Finally a waiter found the boy and tells him "at ease."
The young man explains to Douglas that his father never learned how to swim, and never told his son. He insists that his father was the one who killed himself, always pretending to trick his son into giving himself away somehow. The young man notes that he's never cried over his father's death, chuckles, shakes Douglas' hand, and walks to the bar. He notices that the towels, like the ones at the pool sheds a single tear, and walks away, still laughing.
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