Ten Years Ago
At a hotel pool, ten years in the past, an overbearing father tells his son to snap to attention.
In the present, Douglas, a writer, is traveling by train. When he orders two martinis despite the fact he's alone, he explains to the waiter that he never knows who will be joining him. A young man enters the dining car and sits near Douglas, and the writer offers him a martini. The young man wonders why and Douglas explains that they met once, ten years earlier, at a hotel pool in Malibu.
Ten Years Ago
Douglas and his friend Sid are staying at the hotel and Sid takes the writer to a pool to see what he claims is the lead-in to a murder. They watch as Sgt. Cress, the pool maintenance man, orders his son about, having him perform towel checks and calling off numbers of the procedure. The boy runs everywhere, cleaning and tidying, opening the gate, and letting in the guests. Cress orders his son to then stand at attention and the boy obeys, and Sid explains that Cress will keep the boy there for hours, standing stock still. When Douglas objects, Sid notes that the boy is smiling, happy to please his father.
Douglas objects to Cress, who tells him to stay out of it. He explains that the hotel staff has granted him complete autonomy over the pool area, and he's fully entitled to kick out anyone who disobeys his orders. Cress then tells his son to swim 40 laps, insisting that he can use discipline to obtain perfection. Douglas dives in and swims with the boy, but is unable to continue. When he gets out, Sid warns him that someday the son will kill his father. The two men watch as Cress times his son and orders him about, and Douglas speculates that the boy might treat his own sons the same, or finally turn on his father, or kill himself or his father or each other.
When the son finally finishes his day of duties, Cress gives him a brief smile of praise and then tells his son to close the pool. Douglas defiantly dives into the water for one last swim and then gets out and wishes the boy good luck before leaving. Disgusted, Cress takes out his anger on his son by ordering to attention for 60 minutes. As the father leaves, he puts down his watch to time him. After Cress is finished, he throws his watch into the pool. His son dives in and presents it to his father, but Cress slaps him for disobeying, gives him demerits, and orders him back at attention.
Douglas asks the boy, now grown to adulthood, whatever happened to his father. The young man admits that Douglas wouldn't believe it and wonders why the writer is so curious. Douglas admits that he wanted to help but didn't have the courage to do anything, and asks for the rest of the story. When the young man hesitates, Douglas snaps out Cress' orders, provoking his guest.
Ten Years Ago
Cress has his son at attention and finds a discarded towel. He orders the boy to stand there without moving for an hour and turns to walk away. Cress trips and falls into the pool, and yells for help. The boy remains at attention, figuring it's another trap like the watch. All he can do is silently hope that his father will give him the at ease order. However, his father is unable to do anything but gasp for breath before he finally goes underwater. His son remains at attention until a waiter comes out, finds the dead man in the pool, and, realizing what has happened, tells the boy "at ease."
The young man explains that his father never learned how to swim, and was too proud to admit it. Cress has no one to blame but himself for his death, since he was the one who trained the boy to never respond without orders. When Douglas studies him, the young man admits that he never cried or expressed any grief at his father's death. However, as he shakes the writer's hand and leaves, the young man notices the bar towels, just slightly askew, and sheds a single tear. He adjusts them and walks away, laughing quietly.