Fiction

Lifeguard

by John Gorman

I was ten when my parents decided to let the Doyles raise me. Mom and Dad weren’t throwing in the towel, but preparing themselves. God forbid, they both died together.

We saw the Doyles a few times each summer. Their place was in Breezy Point, a blue-collar Irish and Italian-American community. There were plenty of boys my age to play with, but I liked spending time with the Doyles because, for the most part, they treated me like a grown-up.

Phil was painting the coffee table when we arrived, a newspaper tucked under his knees as he added the last brush strokes. He waved a big hello. He’d held me in greater deference since I caught him smoking an American Spirit last summer after his wife Maggie had yammered on and on about his willpower. I got ten bucks for discovering the bitter truth.

I knew him as the happy-go-lucky handyman, the king of gutter-stripping, refrigeration, and Chinese Checkers. If you cropped his image at the chin, had no inkling of the tool clutched in his hand, then you’d suspect a philosopher hidden within his pensive nut brown eyes, grappling for the critical thread to save the universe from sputtering into chaos.

Maggie thrust the screen door open with her elbow and greeted us, her silvery hair poking through the sides of her navy bandana. The table had already been set with white ceramic bowls and red paper napkins choked through blue wooden holders. A tray of finger sandwiches sat in the middle next to a jar of Gulden’s mustard and a small dish of chopped tomato and cucumber.

Maggie gave me a firm handshake. She excused herself and went back into the kitchen to fetch a pitcher of lemonade. Dad eyed the chairs to see which one had the most shade and frowned when he noticed the director’s chair by the head of the table. The tree threw off a Brobdingnagian shadow, but Dad’s back wouldn’t last pressed up to stretchy fabric. He plopped into the wicker seat nearest the screen door.

Even while we lounged on the deck sipping lemonade and breezing through the cursory formalities of catch-up, Phil tended to chores, a pair of pliers dangling from the belt loop of his denim shorts. He sat for a minute then jumped up to open the screen door so Maggie could set down a piping hot pan of quiche surprise.

“Look what the chef of the future whipped up,” Phil said.

I helped myself to two heaping wedges. Of course, I burned my tongue. I let the quiche cool on my plate and attacked the potato chips.

“Looks like feeding time at the zoo,” Dad said.

“Who wants to adopt this kid?” Mom said.

Maggie smiled, pouring me a tall one. Ice-cubes with lemon pulp floated to the top of my glass. “Sure, we’ll take him for a month,” Maggie said.

I didn’t think anything of it then. Mom joshed. She had that way about her. After lunch, I excused myself to change into my swim trunks. Maggie got up and walked me inside. She wiped her feet before entering and I did the same. She pointed to Phil’s room and I grabbed my swim trunks out of Mom’s tote bag. The window was opened a crack and a warm breeze rustled in, spreading the smell of fresh-washed sheets and ocean mist. I tweaked the blinds until the room faded into a charcoal gray. When my eyes adjusted to the grainy darkness, I caught a glimpse of Rocky Marciano’s boxing gloves pinched within their eight-by-ten frame. A while back, Phil had told me he got the champ’s autograph when he was waiting in line for his meatball hero at a Hell’s Kitchen pizzeria.

I heard Maggie and Mom talking by the back porch. I moved to the corner to hear them clearer.

“Oh my God,” Maggie said. “You weren’t kidding.”

“I know it’s a huge responsibility. But you like Dennis,” Mom said.

“Sure we do, but there’s so much to consider. What about your sister?”

“She’s got three kids. Where’s Dennis going to fit in?”

“They’re family though.”

“We want Dennis to get all the attention he deserves.”

“Phil never wanted to have a baby.”

“He’s practically a teenager.”

“That’s when the shit hits the fan.”

I then had the fierce desire to steal a glimpse of Maggie’s face. I wanted to see the rejection. I slipped out the side door. Mom stood with her back to the house, both elbows propped by the wooden rail, peering off to the bay. Maggie faced away, her fingers twitching for a cigarette— a taste of her past, but her youth had blown away like so much sand in the wind and when I’ d crept up on her she grinned like a toothless fortune teller.

“That’s some bathing suit,” Maggie said.

“Swim trunks,” I said.

I’d been dying to go for a dip the whole muggy ride over. I stood there instead as if waiting for a beating. I heard footsteps clopping around the bend.

“Aren’t you coming?” Phil said, cracking open a fresh Coors.

Some of the foam sprayed onto his knuckles and he licked it clean.

He led me to the front deck where Dad was rubbing suntan lotion on his face. He left two dabs on either side of his nose and let his towel hang off his shoulders like Superman. Phil downed the last of his beer and parked it on the table. He snapped his fingers and we followed him out the gate. We didn’t take the concrete walkway on Kildare, but Juno’s sandy path to the ocean where the houses gave way to huts. He waved to a dozen or so residents camped on their decks sipping beers, chatting with friends. I tapped a wind chime made of mussel shells and watched it rattle in a creepy hula dance.

By the tail end of the beach, we cut through the dunes swaying with wild, wiry strands of grass. Pipers prowled for coffee crumbs and other goodies left behind by day-trippers. The sun hid behind a gauzy veil of clouds as if it hadn’t made its mind whether or not to show its face on Breezy Point’s listless shore. Two teenage girls lay facedown on their royal blue beach towel. The skinnier one dipped her feet to her butt and gazed into a thick paperback the cover of which was chewed off. Her friend twisted to snag a bunch of grapes from a grocery bag. I turned my head afraid she might catch me staring.

Phil and I were already topless and in our swim gear while Dad was still wearing his khakis. He shed them on the beach revealing his white, almost albino legs. They were hairless too, though he didn’t shave them.

“You could win a beauty pageant with those babies,” Phil said.

I laughed, but really it bothered me. Mainly, I was angry with my dad for not landing his own jab. He smiled wanly and brushed it off. It must have upset him because he went to such great lengths to hide his legs. The only time I saw them exposed were those few fleeting moments in the summer before he dipped into the cold shimmering mouth of the ocean. Dad tossed his towel on the sand, sat, and then oiled his legs.

Phil pulled the beak of my baseball cap over my eyes momentarily blinding me.

“How about a quick run?” he asked.

“Think you can take me?” I said, in a cocky voice.

Phil turned the knob on his radio then clamped his headset to his ears. I gave him a thumbs’ up. Where the tide’s creamy foam swished onto the shore we broke into trot. Seagulls scattered. I dashed into an early lead, pumping my arms into a metronome. Every so often I turned to see Phil’s progression, but he hung back a good twenty yards. I felt invincible, my lungs lighter than clouds. A soft breeze filtered through the back of my fishnet cap.

By the time I reached the first red flag and an empty lifeguard’s chair, my calves had gotten tight. Blood rushed into my neck. I spit to the side and the salty seawater sprayed my lips. The moist sand clumps left under my toes packed into their own islands.

Phil faded to a dream. I couldn’t tell if he’d given up or if he’d slowed into a stroll. I stayed my course. Coney Island’s Cyclone grew with each step. I’d heard you could wrap around the Rockaways and into Brooklyn’s great beach. The crisp tingle of rollercoaster metal lured me on and when a warm gust of wind tossed my cap into the sea I staggered toward it. The beaming sun toyed with me. I retrieved my cap two-handed and put it on backwards with the adjustable flap pulled to its last snap.

Twenty some-odd yards later, I crossed a patch of sun-baked kelp and my legs almost buckled. I eased into a walk. Nothing brisk about it. I wanted to tumble into the sand and cover myself ankle to nose.

When Phil finally cruised past me, I kicked sand at him as if I were Billy Martin soiling an umpire. He didn’t even turn his head and kept his same stupid old man’s pace. Before his stride fused to a blur my stomach began to swirl. The bitter taste of acid rising up my throat till something like spoiled pineapple chunks slithered down my chin. I pushed my knuckles to my mouth and added sand to my mess. Then I rinsed off in the ocean. The sharp chill sent a jagged arc of goose pimples across my pinkish arms.

I walked it off.

Dad swam in the distance, drifting with the speedboats, and I followed his path. I stayed close to the water, letting it splash over my ankles. Tiny bubbles swilled into the mud when the tide washed back out. Dad swam facedown, his kicks perfectly synchronized with his rising and splashing arms. He dove down for awhile, never for too long, and he rose like Poseidon, his wet stringy hair dripping onto the skin of the sea.

This time he stayed under for too long and I worried. Not a single lifeguard in sight. I ran again toward where I had last seen him surface. A bright ray beamed off the water making it shine like a sea of jewels. A clam shell crunched underfoot. “Dad,” I yelled. “Dad.” The waves rose into a higher shelf and roared when they crashed. I treaded currents waist high. Then put my arms into it. My kicking sucked and I had to set my mouth to the side to breathe. I’d swallow if I put my head under.

“Where’s your pop?” Phil shouted, startling me.

He came in at the knees and clapped his hands into the water.

“He must have been a dolphin in his past life,” Phil said.

“Shut up,” I said.

“What’s the matter with you?”

I bit my lip. I wouldn’t let him see me crying, but he trailed me out. So there was no other choice, but to go under. I threw my arms wildly. One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand then I slid my ear to the surface and listened for Dad’s heartbeat. I heard the drone of a million conch shells and saw the papery sway of seaweed. A huge green wave smashed over me, spun me around, and plunged to floor. Then I saw Phil’s hairy legs dithering in the currents. I lost my orientation, but floundered to the green glow, hoping to escape. I kicked and flailed until I touched bottom and then I rose from the knee-high water. My right ear still clogged and my feet sank into the mushy sand. My nerves soared.

From my helpless vantage point, I watched the maddening swill of water spit up an arm. I couldn’t tell who it belonged to and then I saw that Phil had wrapped his arms around my dad like he was hanging onto a life preserver except it was Phil who was making sure my dad stayed fastened to him. They carried on this drunken dance, Phil hauling my dad to the shore and dumped him onto the shell-crushed sand. He didn’t need CPR or anything like that. My dad, beached on his back, was already spitting up seawater and I felt my stomach churning again. I kept a horse fly’s distance, my head buzzing, and a malicious wind whipped behind my ears. The weird thing about seeing somebody you love so close to death is in that splintering instance everything pulls into focus— watertight— infinity squeezed into a single drop.

I couldn’t help being a little angry at Phil for jumping in and grabbing my dad. He didn’t give him a chance to surface on his own. I wanted to believe he would’ve made it up just fine, didn’t want to consider for a moment that my dad could ever depend on somebody else the way I depended on him.

When my dad had seemed to have shaken off this terrible thing, he turned to me with will-o’-wispy eyes and said, “Don’t you never go into those riptides.”

I nodded and wiped the snot from my nose.

We loped back, not together, but as a discombobulated crew. The beads of sea had completely dried on my back. My hair was still dripping. When we hit the walkway, I still couldn’t shake the jittery pulse of emotions that made me feel both bolder and more brittle.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Before his stories made it into print John Gorman snapped the Eyesore of the week for the Queens Ledger. Now he spits wine for a living. He also enjoys a goof game of Mancala (preferably in the sand). His fiction and essays have appeared in Monkeybicycle, Apt, Hunger Mountain, The Summerset Review and Writer’s Digest. His debut novel Shades of Luz is published by All Things That Matter Press. He earned my MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University. He blogs @ http://jgpapercut.blogspot.com/

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Kreso2

painting by Kreso Cavlovic

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