It had been an idyllic summer.
Scarlet sunsets and pearly dawns. Orange soda and campfires. Counting waves to see if every seventh one was the largest, and sometimes it was, mysteriously and unaccountably, abundant.
Occasionally, we would arrive at the beach first, and the sand would be rippled with infinite undulations as far as we could see, down to the edge of the ocean where the verge was swept smooth. We’d stand in the surf, letting the frothy water tickle our toes while seaweed tangled around our ankles.
On that day, the beach was awash with umbrellas, blankets, and laughter. Families with children, groups of older teens, and girls our age had come to spend the afternoon swimming and tanning.
“Oil my back?” Marilyn handed the baby oil to Sue. I spread my blanket.
Fragrant aromas wafted down from the concession stand: chili dogs, french fries, popcorn. I turned over to tan my other side, and as I did, I saw Norm, the lifeguard, park his bike. Snickers and titters rose in a quiet chorus as he headed down to his chair. I nudged Marilyn.
“Look. It’s Gormless Norm.”
“Be nice, Lydia.”
Norm probably weighed all of ninety-eight pounds. There wasn’t a single hair on his pale, concave chest. I watched as he climbed up into the lifeguard’s chair, his spindly legs straining up each rung of the ladder. Heaven forbid that he should have to save me. He couldn’t save a gnat.
“I’m getting a soda,” I said. “Either of you want one?”
“Grape for me,” replied Sue.
“Cream soda, please.”
Weaving my way through children, beach balls, and wet towels, I reflected on my words and thoughts. I’d been wrong, and now I’d feel like a dolt all afternoon.
I walked back through the parking lot, not thinking about the ice-cold drinks that were getting warm. A car pulled up, a red ‘53 Cadillac two door, and out stepped the golden god, Tom Wray.
Before I could answer him, he was surrounded by a flock of cooing girls who stroked his muscular arms and ran fingers through his hair. He was dragged away without a backward glance at me, a kid who reeked of baby oil.
Condensation from the soda dripped on my foot.
Marilyn, Sue, and I observed the spectacle. Clearly besotted, the older girls gazed into Tom’s blue eyes and hung on every word. The guys were no less impressed, several going to admire the Caddy.
Amid cheers and whistles, Tom removed his shirt and flexed his biceps, posing and strutting. Finally, he suggested going for a swim, and his adoring entourage headed for the shore.
Norm shielded his lashless eyes against the glare, and he calculated how many people were dipping into the sea. Uncharitably again, I compared the two men. Tom was as bronzed as Norm was colourless, as brawny as Norm was thin.
The girls waded near the beach, not wanting to wet their hair, while the guys raced to the buoys. But not Tom. Tom arrogantly swam beyond the buoys.
How did Gormless Norm know that Tom’s flailing arm was a signal of distress and not a gesture of triumph? He looked through his binoculars, then blew shrilly on his whistle. He leaped from his perch, his scrawny legs pumping as he hit the sand, and he plunged into the water, stroking, stroking toward the bobbing head.
We rimmed the shoreline in silence, watching those thin arms disappearing beneath the waves and rising again. Norm finally reached Tom, and they began the arduous return trip.
Something wasn’t right.
It was Tom who waded back through the surf, and he carried Norm’s limp body in his arms. He laid him on the sand.
“Anyone know ‘mouth-to-mouth’?”
In response, several people knelt by Norm’s waxen body.
“He saved me. I was caught in seaweed.” Tom explained. “He got a cramp.”
I willed Norm to breathe, to move, to stand on his spindly legs. But Norm remained still and white, his heart hushed. I got my blanket, and Norm’s lifeless form was wrapped in it.
The sun shone, but the crowd was shivering in a shadow of disbelief and shock.
Later, Tom became a lifeguard, maybe in acknowledgment of the privilege of receiving his life twice and accepting a life given for him. Or maybe he’d seen in Norm a heart more golden than his own, a life that had been mysteriously and unaccountably abundant.
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