The Lifeguard

The Lifeguard

by Rick Oliver

“Back in the day I was a lifeguard, if you can believe that.”

After a hesitant pause, she said, “Not as easy as it looks, is it?”

He shrugged to himself. His eyes drifted up and as they did the phone slid down his chin a bit. He could have heard her if she were talking. But she wasn’t; she was waiting for him. He took a deep breath and gently probed the darkness. It was too complete to discern the shapes on the wall, but he wasn’t scared. It was his office, after all; had been for the last twenty years. He could smell his smell in it. Everything he touched was warm and familiar. He could move confidently in the darkness without offending a shin. This place symbolized his place in the world. Every stick and scrap was evidence of or a testament to the career he’d conjured virtually out of nothing. Still, he knew, pride isn’t enough to light what’s dark.

His was the same sort of crap you see adorning the walls of nearly every defense attorney’s office. Certificates of accomplishment, laurels earned and laurels bought, tokens of appreciation, historical hubris, and the scalps of fallen enemies. He knew what they were. He knew they were there. He’d spent what felt like a lifetime among these baubles. He knew he would recognize them immediately, if only the lights were on. He sighed and mumbled, “I can only see it when I close my eyes.”

Gently, she said, “What was that, John?”

He shook his head like he was warding off a fly, readjusted the phone and said, “Nothing.”

“Did you ever save anyone?”

John’s eyes were drawn to the black corner where the inky dark loomed heavy and substantial. His filing cabinets were a mausoleum of old voices and the stories that had brought them here. Of course he had saved some of them. Some he saved from themselves. Others he plucked from circumstance and the conclusion it suggested. For those victimized at the altar of leverage he had found the fulcrum and turned the tide. Too many had been spared the wrath of political guile masquerading as adversarial zeal. Of course, some of them were just as guilty as Hell. He saved some of them, too. But, he hadn’t been able to save them all. There were just too many.

“When you were a lifeguard, I mean.”

John chuckled quietly and said, “Once. But mostly, I worked on my tan. I remember by the end of that summer the sun had bleached the hair on my arms and legs white.” Instinctively, he reached for his forearm and could remember the soft blonde fuzz of that summer despite the coarse salt and pepper of this winter. “My Mother used to boast that the contrast of those tiny white hairs against golden skin made me seem almost angelic.”

“I’m sure it was just a trick of the light.”

His laugh was almost a foreign sound. He said, “No doubt.”

“Tell me about the one you saved.”

He took a deep breath and leaned his chair back, anticipating the soft nasally squeal of rusty spring. He pressed his head into the rough leather and felt the cold knot of tension that always seemed to play at the base of his skull.

“You ever notice how so much of life is metaphor?”

“I have to be honest,” she said. “More often I find it to be allegorical.”

John cleared his throat and said, “I suspect secular dogma is mostly to blame, for that.”

“How do you figure,” she asked.

“You want to talk about that or you want to talk about the pool?”

“Good point,” she said. “Let’s talk about John the Life-Saver.”

“That’s probably a bit ambitious, but I’ll tell you anyway. I was in my stand, rigidly observing that 10/20 principle they drilled into your head back then.”

“Ten seconds to scan your area; twenty seconds to get to and rescue anyone in it?”

“Very good,” John said. “She was across the pool from me.”

“Tell me about her, if you remember.”

“She was Hispanic. She was there with a few other women and a gaggle of kids who all bore at least the slightest resemblance to her. At the time she seemed old, to me. Looking back, I assume she was in her mid-thirties; a baby. Her hair was twisted with one of those thick green rubber bands they use to package broccoli at the grocery store. It didn’t matter, though. She had the kind of hair whose vibrant simplicity makes other women jealous.”

“The rubber band is kind of an obscure thing to remember. Why do you think you focused on that?”

“I was scanning my area when she eased into the pool. You could tell right away the water made her nervous. The kids all hollered and cajoled and the adults even clapped as she went in. The kind of thing that would piss you off, if they weren’t her family. Some of the kids splashed her and you could tell she didn’t like that; not because of what the water could do, but because of what it was. I don’t think any of those kids could understand her fear. I know I didn’t, then. Anyway, she put on a brave face and started bouncing up and down a little. But, she was careful not to let her head go under. She was white-knuckling the concrete with one hand and waving the other around in circles under the surface—a pitiful attempt to float. That was the start of it. She would bounce a few times and then float into deeper water, all the time testing her footing. Bounce and float, bounce and float. Check for ground. Deeper and deeper. By then no one was paying attention to her anymore.”

“Except for you,” she said.

In the dark, John shook his head. He looked up at the ceiling and slowly exhaled a shuddering breath. “Not me either,” he said.

“What happened?”

“On my next pass I got to the spot I’d last seen her but she was gone. It took me a second or two to realize she’d gone under. Got too deep and lost her grip on the firmament, I suppose. I hadn’t realized how short she was until she went under. All I could see were two little hands reaching heavenward, either side of that beautiful brown hair.”

“She didn’t panic when she went under?”

“Maybe that’s why I didn’t keep as good an eye on her as I maybe should have. I figured if she got into trouble she’d start thrashing about and get everybody’s attention. Surely, I thought, her family would go in after her and she’d be out of the pool before I could get out of my stand. But, that’s not how it happened. I guess not everybody drowns the same way.”

“Would it be easier if everyone did?”

“I think you’re asking a tougher question than you realize.”

After a pause she asked, “Did she make it?”

“I don’t remember blowing my whistle but I can still feel those three sharp blasts in my chest and in my bones, silencing the din like gunshots as I fell from the stand like a stone in to water. I hunched over my rescue tube and swam to her as fast as my arms would carry me. When I got there I jabbed an arm in the water and grabbed ahold of her just above the spot where that thick rubber band was binding her hair.”

“So,” she asked.

“I pulled her up and she coughed a gout of urine-laced pool water, but the important thing is she was coughing. Anyone with kids will tell you that’s a good sign.”

“So, you pulled her up by her hair and saved her?”

“I did.”

“Ouch.”

“My Father always told me to never confuse safety and comfort. I figure she learned that lesson the hard way, that day.”

When she didn’t respond John stood up with the phone. He stepped around the open desk drawer and walked to where he knew the sideboard was. He jiggled the stopper and set it next to the decanter. It rolled on its side and settled with a pleasant clink. He groped for a high ball and when he got it added three fingers of Scotch. It was reduced to a bony finger by the time he regained his seat.

“Can I ask you something, John?”

“Please, do.”

“What was it that reminded you of your lifeguarding days?”

John set the high ball atop his desk and leaned his chair back again. Slowly, he let his head roll forward and loll side to side, trying to work out a kink. He said, “Before you could get hired as a lifeguard you had to pass a couple tests; prove you were a strong enough swimmer for the job. The first was easy enough. It was a timed five hundred meter swim. I hadn’t yet learned how to swim with my head under water, but they gave us plenty of time to finish and I did it without too much trouble.”

“What was the other?”

John leaned forward and put his elbow on the desk. He exhaled a breath that came out in a dry fetid rush. He swallowed the last of his drink. He said, “There was a separate pool by the diving boards where the water was deepest; so deep you couldn’t make out the bottom. They took us over there and we saw something odd. Cinder blocks were spaced out along the edge of the pool; one for every applicant. They didn’t mention the blocks and we didn’t ask. We got in the water and they told us all they wanted us to do was tread water. We started and did that for what seemed like forever. It wasn’t a problem for any one of us and I think that made us all a bit cocky. I remember a joke or two coming at the expense of the strength of the application process.”

“You forgot about the blocks.”

“We did. After a while we thought surely they must be satisfied. They told us to swim to the side of the pool. We thought it was over and we’d passed their test. It wasn’t and we hadn’t. They told us to each grab a cinder block and wade back out to the center. Once we were out there a stop watch was produced. They told us to hold the cinder blocks above our heads and tread water until they told us to stop. If we dropped the block we were out.”

“You passed the test.”

John nodded and in his solace a single tear tracked his cheek and settled with a mournful tickle along the base of his jaw. “I was a young man, then. The cinder block weighed fifteen, maybe twenty pounds at the most. At the start, I held it up in one hand and with a smirk on my face. Obviously, I was showing my ass. But, pretty soon it felt as though I was holding a goddamn elephant above my head and I wasn’t smirking anymore. My arms and legs and lungs were burning like fire, but I was determined not to let that cinder block beat me. I wanted to impress the ones who were there who’d already passed the test. And I wanted to wipe the smug look of satisfaction off the face of the man holding that stupid stop watch, too. Pretty soon two of my fellow applicants dropped their blocks and kicked for the side where they clung to it, defeated. Still, I kept kicking and thrashing. In the beginning I was high and strong and able to keep my chin clear of the water. As time passed I could feel myself beginning to sink. It was such an odd sensation feeling your strength flag in such tiny but meaningful increments.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was drowning; that’s what I mean. I was just doing it slowly and against my will. I realized it when I felt the water on my cheeks. It tickled a little and forced me to blow air out my nose so I could breath. I had to kick hard every so often to get clear of the water so I could take a full breath. The water didn’t care. It was ready to accept me dead or alive; docile or thrashing. And then it was tickling my earlobes. I could barely force a kick hard enough to clear the water for air. Still, I kept kicking and sinking. When it started to sting my eyes I cried out of frustration. I set my jaw and stared blurry lasers at the man counting the time. I believe I would have gone right down to the bottom holding that block over my head, if it had come to that.”

“But it didn’t.”

“Fortunately, no.”

“What do you think gave you the strength to endure?”

“I knew I could drop the block.”

“What’s so different now, John?”

John lowered his head until it was touching the desktop. He whispered, “I can’t drop the block. Not anymore. No matter how heavy it gets or how far under I go. There’s no rest and no break. No stop watch and no end. I can only see one way to get out from under it, anymore.” He started to cry; silent and wracking sobs. Blindly, he reached inside the open desk drawer and gripped his pistol. Like everything else in his office it felt comfortable and familiar. It felt easy and light, and with it the promise of a dream. With his eyes closed, he could see it perfectly.

“John?”

He clamped his mouth shut to stifle a sob and didn’t trust himself to speak. He thought about ending the call. He wondered whether it had been a mistake to begin with.

“John? Are you still with me?”

John was able to manage a confirmatory squawk.

“Get up and turn on the lights, John.” The hardened edge to her palliative tone caught him off guard. He looked up and wondered through tears how she knew he was sitting in darkness.

“How did you know the lights were off?”

“Turn them on, John.”

Confused, but obedient, John pushed himself back from his desk and went to the wall switch. Light bathed his office and he winced. As his eyes adjusted the frames on the walls returned slowly to focus.

“John?”

“I’m here.”

“The block is your life and it’s heavy because it’s meaningful. You don’t have to drop it, John. You don’t have to drop the block and you don’t have to carry it alone. Are the lights on?”

“Yes.”

“Look around.”

Tetchily, John said, “It’s my office. I know what’s here.”

“I think you’ve forgotten, John. Look around. Look around and remember what all you’ve accomplished; who all you’ve helped. Take things down or pick them up and dust them off; examine the details. Re-experience them, John. Those things add weight to the block, too. And those are things you shouldn’t want to let go of. You’re lonely; not alone. When you lose contact with the faces and the places and the love, of course it’s just you holding a cinder block overhead in a big dirty pool of hungry water. Once you realize that, the block will start to feel lighter and lighter. You may even feel strong enough to show your ass, a little.”

He hung on every word, trying not to fall victim to what he so often accused others of: not listening. He wanted her help. That’s why he had called. He breathed deep and steadying breaths. He looked around his office. Somehow, it felt both familiar and new. He saw faces and could hear their voices. It wasn’t all laughter. There was pain, too. But it filled him up and for the first time he began to feel grounded and whole. Emotion welled up and he wondered how he could have ever considered escape. He moved from picture to picture; bauble to bauble. He had no idea how much time had passed; another welcome feeling. He realized she was still on the other end, waiting for him to come back.

For the first time in as long a time as he could remember, he smiled a smile of genuine appreciation. Not just for her voice, but for the voices she helped awaken. “Thank you, Hope.”

“I’m glad you called, John.”

John started to drop the phone but stopped. “Hope?”

“I’m still here, John.”

“That’s not your real name, is it?”

He smiled as she giggled from the other end. “Have a good night, John.”

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