October 16, 2017

Lifeguard
by Ralph Bland (short, PG-13)
Cover image.
Image credit: Sand Pilarski. More info.

~~~

Now you'd think there'd be a bunch of people out here at the pool this afternoon, what with the fact it's Labor Day and the temperature in the mid-nineties, but that's not the case. I'd bet there aren't more than a hundred people who've paid to get inside today, and here it is way past lunchtime and there aren't even enough bodies in the water to warrant us using more than two lifeguards at a time. There are six of us on duty today, but only two of us are manning the chairs, while everybody else is up at the front desk shooting the shit for lack of anything better to do.

It seems to me that people gave up on summer earlier than usual this year. It's either that or they're all twenty miles down the interstate at Sun Fun Park, where there are about a thousand huge water slides and paddle boats and miniature golf and five or six pools to swim in if you don't want to use the beach and go into the actual lake surrounding it. Most people won't swim in a real lake, you know. They think it's dirty and nasty and bad shit is floating around in it, so they flock to good old antiseptic concrete and hang out in droves there, like bugs don't land in the chlorine they're swallowing and little kids don't piss in their trunks in the shallow end just to feel the water turn warm around their legs.

I can tell you just about anything you'd ever want to know about swimming pools and the stupid ass way people act when they get near one. See, I've been a lifeguard going on seven years now. I've seen people act like scumbuckets more times than I care to think about, but I'm cool with it. I've got this thing about being around water and I've never worked much of anywhere else but here at Green Meadow. I started with the State Parks just before I turned seventeen and kept coming back every summer instead of going somewhere and getting a real job. I guess I could have gone into town and hooked on at one of the private pools there -- probably got paid a whole hell of a lot better -- but my heart wasn't in it. I was too comfortable here. I knew I'd never feel that laid back in town with a bunch of pushy pricks around everywhere watching my every move and trying to get away with breaking rules just because maybe at one time they went to school with me or something. I don't need crap like that. I never have been one to boss people around or spout off a bunch of rules and threaten anybody if they don't follow them, but I will blow my whistle and tell somebody not to run or dive from the side of the pool. That's about as far as I've ever gone, though. Some guys get off on it, the whole power trip, but not me. I'd rather sit up in the chair beneath the umbrella and watch folks without a whole lot of drama going on, just try to make sure nobody drowns while I'm on duty and nobody busts their frigging skull open on the diving board, and so long as nobody gets wasted in some way or another it's a good day for me. But after today, I don't have to worry about it anymore. See, this is it for me. I'm hanging this whole lifeguard thing up after today. Seven years is enough.

After a half hour Amanda walks down from the locker rooms to relieve me from my spot in the chair on the deep end. We rotate like that so nobody gets settled in and stops paying attention. Amanda's tan all over, and when she walks by it's like she's the girl from Ipanema and every guy in the pool and in the ten mile radius around has to stop and look at her, but nobody ever sees too much at all. Amanda makes you use your imagination. She's not about to wear anything too awfully suggestive -- not while she's working -- because she certainly doesn't want to sit around seven or eight hours a day with tourists and campers gawking at her or Aaron or Michael or Lance or even yours truly looking her over up and down and maybe even starting to get a few funny ideas. As for me, I don't worry about stuff like that too much, because the way I see it Amanda's too young for me. She's fixing to be a sophomore at MTSU, and I graduated two years ago already. Amanda might as well be jailbait as far as that goes. Outside of the pool and both of us being lifeguards at the same place we wouldn't have the first thing to talk about. It would be like that Steely Dan song. We can't dance together and all that.

"Four more hours," she says as I climb down from the chair. "Then we can close this place down and sleep all day tomorrow."

"I thought you started classes tomorrow. You better not start using up your cuts first thing. Later on you'll be wishing you had some left."

"Classes don't start till Thursday. That gives me two whole days to snore."

"Heck, you aren't going to sleep. I know you better than that. You'll be partying down the minute you're out of here."

"Well, I may celebrate just a little."

I walk down to the shallow end and take over for Michael, who heads up to the shelter by the concession stand to get out of the sun. After an hour in the chairs we each get a fifteen minute break, then we watch the gate and man the snack bar, but since this is the end of the season and the park is close to empty we've closed the snack bar down these last few days and are letting people fend for themselves.

I don't mind manning the shallow end chair one tiny bit. You don't have to worry about people drowning much or doing goofy stuff to endanger themselves, so you can mostly lean back and check out the women sunbathing, a lot of mothers grabbing rays while their children swim. Most are fat and white as Moby Dick with veins showing in their legs and crap like that, but every now and then there'll be some dish who'll just knock your frigging eyes out. Every once in a while there'll be some woman I can't take my eyes off.

That's the mode of operation I'm into right now. I've spotted this blonde down by the kiddy pool in a yellow two-piece, and from where I'm sitting she looks worthy of further study. She's just come in and is still taking stuff out of her bag and laying it out on the concrete around her -- sunglasses, paperback book, lotion, a towel. I can't determine if she's alone or what, if there's a kid somewhere or a husband on the way to join her. After all, if this woman was single and available then why in god's name would she have any desire to be here? She'd be somewhere else where there's a lot more action. And probably, though, she's not as wonderful as I'm thinking she is. For one thing, she's fifty yards away, a distance that can disguise an awful lot of flaws on a summer day with the sun in your eyes. Another reason I'm checking her out so much is right this minute there's nothing else going on to vie for my attention. That much I've learned over the years out here in the boonies -- if a woman's the least bit decent you can take a minute and give her some attention.

I'm lost in this particular reverie when I hear loud voices at the admission window up the hill. At first I think it's just a bunch of kids fooling around and yelling and all, but when the cursing starts in I know something funny is going on. Even though I'm leaving the pool area with only Amanda on duty there still seems to be more of a need for me to be up at the gate than here at the pool. I'm down from the chair and heading up the stairs just like that, not at a full run where people are going to notice and start craning their necks to see what's going on, but fast enough to get to the scene before anything bad has a chance to happen.

At the admission window two black guys and a sister the size of an Oldsmobile are arguing with Tracy and Aaron. One dude takes his fist and bangs on the plexiglass window, tells Aaron he'd be a wise motherfucker to keep his white ass locked up in that room if he knows what's good for him, if he goddamn likes the idea of living through the rest of the afternoon, and Aaron, being the fool he is, is mouthing off right back, though I can see he's making no effort to come out from behind the locked door. Tracy is right there beside him, backed up against the wall, wide-eyed and wondering if she's going to live through this and make it back to Knoxville for her junior year.

Look, I'm not Mr. Macho. I'm not going to jump into some situation like this and get my ass whipped if I can help it, but I'm no chicken-shit either. I'm not going to stand by and let a couple of clowns waltz in here and do exactly what they please and what they want. I've been lifeguarding here seven summers, and a guy has to be in shape to do everything I do around here, so believe me, I can hold my own when it comes down to brass tacks.

"Everybody calm down," I say. "What's going on?"

Me and the first guy, looks like he ought to be a linebacker for the Bears, stare long and hard at each other. His buddy beside him isn't nearly as big, has him on a beach shirt with the front open and a gold necklace hanging down his chest that must have cost a pretty damn penny. He's the one doing all the talking and window banging. He's wearing big sunglasses like he's Stevie Privileged Wonder or somebody, but I got news for him -- he's not. His arm's around the mama who must weigh in at about two-fifty or so. She and the first guy could team up and form a pretty good defensive front, be hard as hell to run through.

"This fellow wants to bring his beer inside," says Aaron. "I told him not only could he not bring it in, but he'd have to leave the area too. You can't have beer in a state park."

"Ask me polite, mother fucker, and maybe I'll get rid of the beer," says Mr. Gold Chain. "After I finish it, that is. And I ain't about to be leaving until I'm good and ready." He bangs his fist against the ticket window again. "Show me much more of your ass and I'll stick your face somewhere you won't like."

"Buddy, you're leaving whether you like it or not," I say. "You're not coming in here and you're turning around right now and getting in your car and driving away and there ain't nothing else for us to talk about."

I realize what I've got on my hands here is a collision of two assholes, this guy and Aaron, and I'm the one caught in the middle who gets to solve it. If I'd been the one at the window when this got started all this crap could have been avoided, because I've been around a while and I know how to talk to people. But damn Aaron's got this ball rolling and I'm the one who has to handle it. I've got to do my job. From somewhere I feel myself puff up and the muscles in my neck start tightening. I'm trying to recall how long it's been since I've been in a fight and I'm damned if I can remember. But I'll fight if I have to. It's like these guys have crossed a line here and that's it for me. I don't think anybody could burn down my apartment or steal my Jeep and I could be any more pissed off than I am now.

"We ain't going nowhere," Gold Chain tells me.

"Call the cops," I tell Tracy. "Call the ranger's office. Call an ambulance too while you're at it, because the odds are good somebody's fixing to get hurt."

I grab the big guy by his shoulder and give him a push toward the outside sidewalk. He thinks about coming back at me but decides against it -- maybe it's something he sees in my eyes. Maybe he figures a crazy man like me who's willing to fight three people by himself is nuts enough to be totally dangerous. Maybe I might have a gun. Maybe I'm one of those cowboy rednecks who shoot first and ask questions later. I get the feeling he doesn't really want to find out.

He laughs to show he's cool. "Easy, brother," he tells me.

By this time there's people behind me and a crowd milling on the sidewalk waiting to get in. It's a youth group from a church down the road that comes here every Sunday afternoon after services during the summer, here today for one last swim. That's what everybody wants, I think, all these folks, one last summer fling, and it's up to me to give it to them. It's what I'm here for. I'm the lifeguard.

Maybe at another time in another place this situation might have turned into big trouble, but today these guys turn sane enough to realize there's no use in going any farther with this mess now. For one thing they're outnumbered. They're out here in the sticks with rubes everywhere they look, so maybe the idea of swimming isn't such a great idea anymore. The only way they are going to come out on top in this scenario is to go to the car and get a pistol and come back and teach all these crackers a lesson. But this isn't the hood. This is the country. These people might start shooting back. Better, they reason, to go somewhere else this time.

I watch the three exit down the walk while everyone's looking at me like I'm some sort of hero or something. Aaron stays inside the booth, making certain the three are down the road and gone for good before he comes out. Michael and Lance stand behind me like they were all prepared to go to war too but just happened to come in a little too late. The truth is if anything had gone down it would have been just me. It was me against the world there for a minute, a scary damn thought if I let it sink in. It comes to me how I don't like the world very much sometimes because it generally finds a way to make me queasy. That's why I've always liked to be out here in the woods, keeping the crazy world back in the city and me in the park where things are quiet and normal. There are kids looking at me like I'm the bee's knees as I head inside the locker room, where, when I do get inside, I'm glad to be alone with no one around so I can take a big breath and have a mini-nervous breakdown and take a good long piss that feels like it's never going to end. Adrenaline can do strange damn things to you. So can brushes with imminent death. Makes you goddamn old, you know, before your time.

The first thing I do when I walk back to the pool is look for the potentially-hot blonde in the yellow two-piece. By this time she's moved in closer to the chair, which I'm now sorry about, because she looked a whole hell of a lot better from far off. Like I say, that's the way it is out here. The best things that happen generally go on in your head and nowhere else.

In another hour the big incident has faded from reality and become an item of folklore. After I'm convinced the deposed aren't going to return and gun me down on my last day here I relax and allow myself to sink into the first stages of nostalgia. I do things like look at the clock and consider how closing time is only sixty minutes away, and when closing time arrives the summer is officially done for and so am I. Seven years, and I'm what you'd call long in the tooth if nothing else. It's time for me to say goodbye to sunshine and music and water and blowing this whistle hanging around my neck. It's time to go out into that world down I-40 and see what I can do about finding myself a real job.

A real life.

I'm finding myself subject to falling into a deep depression pondering all this heavy shit. I'm sitting in the deep end chair blowing my whistle and pointing at a group of boys wrestling and trying to mangle themselves jumping off the diving board when Amanda gets on the P.A. and starts talking.

"Ladies and gentlemen, if I can have your attention, we'd like for everyone to take a moment and direct your eyes to the lifeguard chair at the deep end of the pool. A few seconds ago you witnessed history, ladies and gentlemen. You heard Shane Lancaster blow his whistle for maybe the last time in his career. Shane has been a lifeguard here for the past seven years, but today is his last day. After closing time that very whistle he's wearing around his neck will be shipped off to the Lifeguard Hall of Fame in Malibu, California."

Everybody was quiet and listening, even the kids I'd just got through tweeting at. For a few seconds it was like I'd entered some eerie church in mid-service and the congregation had stopped taking communion just to look at me. I sat in my chair grinning, the center of attention, wishing there was something I could do about it. I wondered if I'd ever have a moment when I'd receive such scrutiny again, later on in my life when my lifeguard days are gone.

"If you were present earlier this afternoon you would have witnessed our hero Shane there throwing some very bad people off the premises -- another historic moment! And if someone chooses to drown in the next few minutes we'll be able to see Shane save another life for the last time."

A few people clapped their hands and chuckled. It wasn't exactly a stirring emotional moment. Time wasn't standing still.

"By the way, ladies," Amanda continued, "Shane is twenty-four and a bachelor, so he is available, just in case you were wondering."

With fifteen minutes left until closing the pool starts emptying out. No one's in the water anymore, so I walk around the pool's edge and move chairs into the storage house and look for left-behind treasures the departed swimmers have forgotten. I find an ankle bracelet and some goggles and add them to the collection of lost items I started back on Memorial Day. I'll take everything to the park office when I leave so if anybody comes back they can claim their stuff there. No need keeping it here. Nobody will be here tomorrow.

Everyone's through teasing me now. Amanda and Tracy come up and hug me and say how much they're going to miss me. Aaron tells me to hang in there, that I can always come back next summer if I want. We'll all probably be back too, he tells me. We can pick up where we're leaving off. Besides, it beats the hell out of working.

After I drop off the keys at the office I can't stop myself from driving back by the pool. The sun shines on the water and colors it the richest shade of blue, but in a few weeks night and darkness will come quicker and faster and the only illumination will come from the streetlights in the parking lot and along the road. The color of blue won't matter much by then. The pool will be covered up and empty and all the water will be gone.

Not just the pool and the summer.

I'll be long gone too.







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Article © Ralph Bland. All rights reserved.


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By Ralph Bland:

In This Week's Press:

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Lifeguard -- Ralph Bland
~