I needed a reprieve from the smell of piss and ammonia, so I peeled the latex gloves off my sweaty hands and stepped outside into the heat and gazed at the beach, at the bodies strewn about, bodies that were lissome and corpulent, young and old, tan and pale, women in two-pieces and children in tank-tops and men whose spindly hairless legs protruded from baggy board shorts, all those sunglasses gazing at the ocean that undulated and glistened under the jaundiced sun, gazing at the silhouettes of boats gliding across the horizon, gazing at each other. Everywhere, eyes agaze. The din of summer, the smell of salt water. Corrugated waves furled like beckoning fingers and ruptured into froth at the shoreline. A young girl in a polka dot bathing suit threw herself into the fulmination, her little body disappearing briefly in the roil before emerging, arms held up triumphantly. A lymphatic man whose chest was covered with curlicues of jet-black hair stood defiantly against the encroaching waves, remaining as staid and steady as a bulwark, the bulk of his body unmoving as the waves crashed into him. Couples walked with fingers laced along the shore and tanned, toned lifeguards sat with languor atop their wooden towers and fishermen cast off from the pier and insolent children climbed on the jetty that stuck out of the shore like a limb.
The firmament glowed above me—the sand, the sea, it all glowed. A Melvillian whiteness enfolded me. The waves bent like the bodies of dancers.
I grew up on the beach, felt comfort in the familiar sting of the summer breeze blowing its salty mist across the shore, across the wiry, winding streets scrawled along the Sound, and the ashen parking lots etched with cracks and weeds sprouting like those black hairs on someone’s shoulders and back. Fat cotton swab clouds drifting lazily, unyielding sunlight, the occasional plane passing like a rock skipped across the sky, dragging messages that would prompt me to ask my grandpa to borrow the binoculars so I could read an aerial advertisement for a used car lot. I remembered how the old man used to excavate from the sand these wine-red rocks, which he called Indian rocks, and how he would spit on the pad of his thumb and rock it into the Indian rock and then use the red that came off the rock like a dye to draw designs on my arms, my back. At his funeral, I remember standing there and thinking about the taste of the sweet iced tea poured from that big old cooler and burying peach pits in the sand.
The sea was a writhing contradiction, more ancient than anything yet always youthful, always changing; it was freighted with the memories of time. Portentous, without pity, subtle and savage… I loved it and I loathed it, felt in its familiarity a sense of home, yet remained beholden to it, tethered like a water skier being dragged behind a boat. It was so serene, so docile, yet beneath its calm tint of azure was treachery—rocks waiting to cut small feet, jellyfish waiting to leave their singe, a bastion of cannibalism.
And now the shrill sound of a whistle pierced the air. Now there were shouts, beach goers bellowing, the clamor of their voices riding the breeze. With a hand held over my eyes I watched a gaggle of people standing at the shoreline pointing and waving their arms and the nearest lifeguard jumped off his tower, a spume of sand spraying as he landed and broke into a sprint towards the water with one of those orange flotation devices slung around his shoulder, the muscles on his back contracting as he ran into the water with arms ahead in an inverted V. For a few long moments he was lost in the murk, but then he surfaced and returned to shore, dragging behind him the vague shape of a man whom he laid on the sand, this portly, pale, middle-aged man, whey-faced, the great girth of his stomach not moving.
The cheery melodies of an ice cream truck, one of those silly songs with the honking sound effects and artificial chortles, began to play as the truck pulled into the parking lot and idled by the curb.
Beach goers flocked towards the body in droves, redolent of seagulls descending upon a piece of discarded bread. They encircled the man. All of the people in the water now stood still. The children stopped playing and hollering, the couples on their walks turned and watched. The waves kept crashing.
“Hey,” said my boss, who now appeared behind me. “We aren’t done with the women’s room yet. Come on.”
His green tank top was sodden with sweat. In one hand he held a plunger; in the other, a spray bottle adorned with a strip of tape on which was written, in blocky capitals, BLEACH.
“Ok,” I said.
I tugged on a new pair of latex gloves and got back to work.
Greg Cwik has written for The Believer, The Village Voice, Vulture, Slant, Mubi, Reverse Shot, Playboy, and elsewhere.