The Lifeguard

The Lifeguard

©2022 R.G. Ryan

Recently widowed, he sat at a corner table in St. Arbuck’s—a good-looking man of middle age with thin hair running to gray, wire-framed glasses, and a neatly trimmed beard.

Dressed in Dockers, polo shirt and stylish shoes, to glance at him you’d think he was stopping in for a coffee before heading out to the golf links.

But he’s there every morning.

Same table.

Brings his own mug.

Two days before Christmas, and sorrow clouds his face the way the morning marine layer obscures the local landscape, only by noon the marine layer will have been burned away by a welcome sun while his sorrow looked to be firmly entrenched.

He has no children having agreed with his wife early on in their marriage that neither of them was well-suited to child rearing. Now his only real family consists of a sister in Baton Rouge, who is on a rocky fourth marriage with enough problems of her own, let alone having to provide consolation to a brother she never really liked. 

I gave him a friendly wave while waiting in line to order and then sat at an adjacent table after doctoring my brew at the condiment station.

“Good morning,” he said weakly as I spread the local paper across the tabletop.

“How are you doing today?” I replied.

He paused and scrunched up his face. “Not so good.”

I nodded silently and waited, for I knew there was more to come.

“It’s the nights.” His shoulders drooped as if suddenly too heavy for his frame to support. “I wake up at two, three a.m. and automatically reach over to where she used to…” his voice broke and a tear cascaded past his glasses, “…where she used to lay. And I feel that empty space and realize that she’s really gone, you know? She’s really gone, and I’ll never see her again.”

The statement hung suspended between us, jarring in its contrast to the hustle and bustle of last-minute holiday shoppers rushing in for a quick cuppa Joe.

He continued, “The whole time she was sick I kept telling myself that this day was going to come, and I needed to, you know, prepare myself emotionally. But I didn’t, mainly because I really didn’t know how. I mean how do you prepare yourself for the death of the only person you ever loved?”

I sighed deeply, scooted over into the vacant chair at his table. “What can I do to help?” 

He waved his hand weakly, dismissively while wiping away the tears as if suddenly aware he’d been crying.

“Thanks for asking, but it’s something I really have to learn how to accept. I mean it’s been close to a year.” He was silent for a few heartbeats and then muttered almost apologetically, “I started seeing a psychologist.”

“How’s that going?”

“Oh, I don’t know. He’s a nice enough guy and all, but I somehow get the feeling that the questions he asks and the things he tells me are all straight out of a book I could probably buy online for twenty bucks!”

I smiled at the irony and asked, “You a religious person?”

He started to answer but then seemed to think better of it and paused, his eyes staring past me. “I started to say no, but lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about things like that.”

“Coming to any conclusions?”

Laughing humorlessly, he said, “Not really. You see, I spent most of my life as an agnostic, at least I think that’s what you call people who don’t really know for sure what they believe. So, to now hold open the possibility that God is real and could possibly be a source of consolation feels a little bit like cheating.”

“How’s that?”

“If my wife hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be paying any attention at all to God. But she’s dead…and I hurt. And I’m grasping for anything that will make me feel better, that will somehow pull me out of this, this emotional bog I’ve fallen into.”  

“Are you saying that it’s ‘cheating’ for a drowning man to reach out for help when he’s going under?”

“Of course not,” he replied quickly and then smiled as understanding dawned. “So, you’re saying that even though I didn’t believe in the, uh, lifeguard it’s still okay to reach out?”

“Something like that.”

A strikingly attractive blonde woman who looked to be in her late forties walked in and glanced around the room as if searching for someone. Her eyes briefly came to rest on my friend—who literally seemed to stagger under her gaze—before moving on.

I’d seen her at St. Arbuck’s before.

In fact, I was pretty sure she was a late morning regular.

He looked at her left hand.

It was missing a ring.

He looked at me as a medley of expressions fought for dominance on his face.

He looked back at the woman who now stood in line, and then back at me.

She got her coffee and walked in our direction.

Stopping by the table she looked questioningly at my friend. “Your name wouldn’t happen to be Bill would it?”

He surprised me by saying, “No, but it could be.”

They both laughed.

I moved back to my table.

The “lifeguard” was on the job.

Merry Christmas my friends.

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