by Steve Gaines

He came up like a blue rag
from fifteen feet of cold water
like a diver in reverse
unaware of the faults in his form
draped in lake weeds
and no longer
among the living

the day stopped in the eye of that tragedy
my mind going into slow motion
remembering the careful lessons
I had attended two summers before
each step in its order
like a pop quiz out of time

somehow things did not happen like in the book
like in the clever movies we were shown
where the sun tanned blond
plied his miracles
for a smiling
and appreciative crowd of extras
and the anxious movie mother
came from camera left
with everlasting thanks
and remembering all her lines

in real life death hung in the difference
and his frail young body
would not play by those rules
he was unresisting
a limp doll of a boy
unable to tell me anything about why he
posed so pliant between my knees in the sand
why he chose not to cooperate
why he would not take his role seriously

in July of 1955 they called
the current state of life saving art “back
pressure arm lift!”
defined by its curious practice
press down on the lower back and lift the arms

but he would not stay where I put him
and he offered no help
he just laid there in a clutter of human destruction
while I “invented” something that might work
pushing down on his tiny spine
pulling his thin arms from both shoulders
till they met in the middle
trying to answer questions
never asked in my lessons

not thinking
not praying
just trying to move his tiny frame
onto the breathing side of life
trying to bring back the light to his eyes

there was a crowd of course
drawn to the scene
hoping for what?
the best I hoped
but caught up in the struggle
of an innocent nineteen year old life guard
playing God with an eight year old boy’s life

all on a beautiful day
while I was going forward in a promising life
sure of myself and in full bloom
and the young boy in blue
about to
let go all future
about to
leave and never come back
the beautiful Nebraska day
about to
disintegrate around my failure

but then like the bad script it was
at the proverbial last moment
everything came together
like something in a movie
no one would believe
he coughed suddenly
the entire lake came pouring up
from his body
he choked out a sigh or a cry
took the world’s largest breath
for such a small young boy
and gave up his blueness

on my first opportunity
I had found the correct answers to the ultimate test
had worked no small miracle outside the
accepted book of instructions
had defined my position precisely

had saved a life!

there was no thankful mother of course
having dropped her son at the gate
and gone shopping
and the crowd left quickly back
to their beach towels
and what fun there was left to spend
on a hot July afternoon
the excitement of our silent struggle
no longer so compelling
giving up on the predictable story

the fire department showed up
I breathed my own first desperate breath
and just as quickly as the crowd
went back to my own life
death in abeyance
and my afternoon shift
finished at 3:30