The Lifeguard of the Party (short story)

I held the torso in my hands, propped the neck up to straighten the windpipe. I bent down, fit my lips around the mouth, and I felt the lifelessness. With all my mental energy, I tried to make the situation real. I blew in, but the lungs didn’t expand. I blew harder. Nothing. My pulse didn’t race, like it should have in a life-or-death situation. I was calm, even though a person’s life was at stake. Well, sort of.

“Arch the neck,” said the acne-riddled instructor with a whistle hanging from a lanyard around his neck. “I told you, you have to arch the neck more. The victim can’t get any air.”

I sat up, gave the schmuck instructor a look, and I pulled the neck up more. It felt like I was going to break the damn thing. But it was just a torso, a plastic torso with a blank-faced plastic head and what looked like old grocery bags for lungs protruding out. I blew again, and the bags inflated.

“There you go,” the instructor said, and motioned the next lifeguard, my partner in the class, Chester.


That was the beginning of the summer. I didn’t save anyone’s life that summer. In fact, none of the lifeguards saved any lives. Shane saved a dog which had snuck through the fence of the Harkvale Community Pool, but it wasn’t drowning or anything. It just got in the pool, and he got it out. Everyone acted like he was some sort of hero, though some were sarcastic in their congratulations.

The party at the end of the year was just a luck occurrence, like a football team squeaking its way through a championship season, catching the other teams on just the right days.

The Mayor was at the party, and he cornered me. There were lifeguards in every direction at the pool for the occasion.

“Great job…” He shook my hand.

“Earl,” I said, feeling strange wearing swimming trunks and no shirt as I shook the squat, bald politician’s hand.

“Earl,” he repeated. “Great job this summer. A major accomplishment for all of us.”

“Yes. It is something.” I didn’t know what to say. That was dumb, but I really didn’t care for the guy. He looked like Danny DeVito, but uglier. He owned several of the car dealerships in the town, and I didn’t care for the too-big-for-my-britches types of people, the so-called pillars of the community.

He said something else, and I couldn’t hear. I nodded. He gave me a puzzled look. There was a group of lifeguards right behind me making a commotion. We each said goodbye, and he congratulated me again on the summer.

I didn’t see what there was to celebrate. Okay, so it was the first year in something like fifty years in which no one drowned at the public pool. It just didn’t sit well. Sure, no one died, and that’s great, but was it cause for a big celebration?

Being a lifeguard at the pool was a lot like being back in high school. Most of the lifeguards were just out of high school or working the summer between taking the minimum number of credit hours at Harkvale Community College. All wanting to remain in that high school frame of mind for as long as possible.

Then there was Chester. I saw him earlier at the party, the only lifeguard who came to the party fully clothed. He wore khakis and a blue polo shirt a size too big for him. How he was convinced to become a lifeguard, I can’t fathom. I heard his mom made him do it, trying to get the introvert to make some friends.

The other lifeguards played football and basketball in high school, spent the weekends drinking cheap beer in the woods, and never got in trouble for the sake of possible state championships on the field. I knew this, because I was one of those people. But as the summer after my graduation grew on, and the day I was supposed to begin work at the box factory, I grew to hate the high school social system.

I hadn’t worked with Chester all summer. The training week was the only time I’d really been around him. He was a dork, no doubt about it, but he just needed to break out of his shell. I decided to find him at the party.

As I navigated the throngs of scantily-clad late teen bodies, I noticed no one was in the pool. There were lifeguards on duty at both of the posts, sitting high above the crowd, but they weren’t doing anything. Shane was at one end, and Stacy was on his lap. He watched Stacy over the top of his sunglasses, like all cool guys do, and she was cracking up. His seventh-grade jokes must have been charming.

On the lifeguard chair at the other side of the pool sat Charlie. He was another of the high school athletes, but he was a strange mixture of jock and stoner. I’d never met the kid when he didn’t smell like a Phish concert. Fun guy, just a stoner. He hung off the side of the chair, pretending he was falling. He laughed, and the group of girls and guys below laughed. I hoped he would fall.

It didn’t matter that neither on-duty lifeguard paid no mind to the pool. I hadn’t seen anyone get into the pool. No one wanted to be in the pool. Maybe a summer of working at a pool made a person averse to the notion of swimming for recreation.

I pushed my way between Carl and Steve.

“Did you see what Chester is wearing?” Carl asked, laughing the whole time. “What a fucking nerd.”

Steve shook his head as he laughed. “Did you hear he spilled that drink on Stacy earlier?”

“Yeah, wanted to offer her a drink. You believe that? Chester thinking he can get with Stacy.”

I shrugged my shoulders and made my way forward, and found myself between Tish and Melanie.

“You girls seen Chester?” I asked.

“Chester? Why are you looking for him?” Melanie asked. She looked as orange as ever. I called her Melanoma in my mind.

I opened my mouth, but Tish cut me off, “Oh my God, did you hear what Chester did last week? He dropped the keys inside the pool, and they got sucked into the pipes going to the filter. It took like three hours to get them out. Amy was stuck here for three hours after her shift with that loser.”

“What a dumbass, ” Melanoma replied.

“Amy told me he cried,” Tish said.

Melanoma sighed and rolled her eyes.

Okay, so maybe Chester was a little clumsy.

I moved past the girls and found myself in the middle of a coed group of about ten bodies, which drinking and time and kids and life hadn’t yet caught up to. They were talking about Chester, his clothes, and they were laughing.

“Khakis? Fucking khakis?” Matt said. He was the big football star who had a scholarship to a Division I school, but got thrown out for drinking and poor grades. His dad was the car dealership Mayor. He had his arm around Ashley.

“What an asshole,” she said and her and Matt’s lips met for a quick kiss, one of those just-for-show kisses.

“I was working with that douche last month, and he kept trying to talk to me about some nerdy video game,” said Owen, another former football player, a big guy, played offensive line. “And get this: we go to leave, we’re helping carry in the order for the concession stand at the end of the day, and he’s got a few cases of soda. I think he was trying to show that he could carry more, trying to fit in or some shit. He drops both cases, the drinks go spraying all over the place. We’re there for like an extra hour cleaning up after that dumbass.”

Everyone in the group groaned.

I circled around the other end. It couldn’t be difficult to find the only fully clothed non-Mayor at the party. After more pushing and shoving, I reached the opposite end of the pool, under Charlie’s chair, where he now sat, holding his phone at arm’s length and smiling with Sam leaning next to him, smiling just as big.

I tried to stand on my toes to see over the crowd, but I caught no sight of Chester. I started back around the other end of the pool when the music stopped and Steve, the twenty-something pool manager stood up on a supply box near the concession stand. He held a mic up to his face, and started to talk, but the feedback made everyone in the crowd cringe.

He stepped back from the portable PA system speaker.

“I want to thank you all for coming here today,” he said. “It’s been a historic season here at the Harkvale Community Pool, and I’m very proud of each and every one of you. To most of you, this is just a summer job,” he paused. “But it’s so much more than that.” Another pause. “You are responsible for thousands of lives this summer. Everyone who came to enjoy this community pool in what was one of the hottest summers in recent memory owes you a debt of gratitude.

“This pool was constructed in 1951 as part of a recreation development in Harkvale. In over six decades, there has never been a summer without a swimmer lost to drowning. That doesn’t just go for Harkvale. An average of two drownings happen per public pool in the state each summer. We are the first, the only pool, to ever break that tradition. Let’s keep it up, and let’s start a new tradition. A tradition in which…”

He paused, furrowed his brow, and cocked his head slightly, looking over the crowd of people.

“What the fuck?!” he said before recognizing the mic was still in his hand.

Everyone turned. There, floating face down in the middle of the pool, was a motionless body wearing a blue polo shirt and khaki pants.

“Oh, damn it, Chester!” Shane yelled.


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