Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal is excited to feature Barbara Gruska’s debut short story, “The Sunstick.” It was another unanimous pick. We felt it was a pleasure to read, very well executed, with clear characterization and great dramatic tension. A perfect pick for a summer featured debut.
It was still early enough that the hot sand wouldn’t blister his tender feet. Henry knelt down on the edge of the cement bike path, pulled off his yellow Velcro sandals, held one in each hand, and set out across the overcast beach to the rocks. The coarse sand compacted and crunched in sections under his feet like his father’s stress ball; as a child, he had bitten into it, popped the balloon casing, and spewed a mouthful of sand onto the Persian rug in his father’s study. Henry plowed the hundred foot stretch of sand, leaving a swath of already windswept footprints behind him. Half way to the base of the black volcanic rocks, he passed the beige lifeguard bungalow fifty feet to his left. He scraped away a crust of sand from the face of his waterproof watch with his thumbnail. It was 9:32 am. Only twenty-eight more minutes, Henry thought. He had committed the lifeguard’s shift schedule to memory by the second week of vacation.
Just before reaching the rocks, he slapped the crooked, flapping yellow flag with the sandal in his right hand, and climbed the black ridge. It jutted out twenty feet into the ocean, splitting the water like a giant chisel. As he had done every morning for the past four weeks, Henry stopped ten feet from the edge at the level rock, the single smooth refuge amidst a snarling heap of jagged neighbors. Before he sat down, he drew a slow, meticulous breath, making sure each nook of his narrow lungs filled up with salty air and held it in. It was his last Friday; he and his parents had to leave early Sunday morning to get him back home in time for the first day of 10th grade. He broke the seal at the top of his throat and let his chest deflate abruptly through his nose.
He set down his sandals, removed the Snickers bar from the back pocket of his bright yellow trunks, and sat down cross-legged, facing the lifeguard tower. The beach was lifeless. It looked sickly and pale, Henry thought, like a giant siphon had sucked away its color and then belched it back out into some black, desolate corner of the universe. He drew his knees up from their butterfly position and hugged them tightly to his chest with folded arms, clutching his elbows. He checked his watch again. 9:35.
He leaned his head on his right shoulder and centered his gaze on the lifeguard bungalow, relaxing his vision so he could focus on the periphery rather than on a single point. The lifeguard appeared out of an alley beyond the bike path, his red shorts funneling into Henry’s focus like a bull’s eye. He followed the lifeguard as he strode easily through the sand. When he reached the base of the ramp that leads up to the platform, he paused with his back toward the ocean and flicked his head up to his left, stopping on Henry, who even from the top of the rocks could see the neon pink zinc stripe that accented the lifeguard’s nose.
Though Henry had never actually spoken to the lifeguard, he felt that they were intimately connected by an ongoing exchange of subtle messages. He deeply believed- acutely aware that the rest of the world would never believe him- that everything the lifeguard did had a hidden meaning, encoded in a secret physical language, that was only meant for Henry to decipher. To Henry, the pink zinc stripe on the lifeguard’s nose was a spiritual branding: a mark of acknowledgment of their secret devotion to one another. The lifeguard slowly re-aligned his neck, and climbed the ramp before disappearing into the cabin.
Henry shook and hunched over, his eyes remaining fixed on the lifeguard structure. He expelled the hot breath he’d been holding in and heard the crashing waves for the first time that morning.
Since Henry had memorized the lifeguard’s schedule, every morning that he had the first shift, the day started out like this. He would wake up at 8am in his parent’s two bedroom beach apartment and crawl to the front of his fold-out couch bed that faced a full length, sliding closet door mirror. He’d sit on his knees and brush his thick, shoulder-length black hair while maintaining a piercing eye contact with his green saucer eyes in the mirror. He’d slip his slender limbs into his yellow trunks, a baby blue V-neck shirt, and his yellow Velcro sandals. Then he’d grab a Snickers bar from his stash under the bed and made sure to leave the apartment by 8:30 am, before his parents would awake. Interacting with them had long since become unbearable and pointless for all parties; they couldn’t understand him and he understood their incapacity all too well. The walk to the beach took about ten minutes; then he would sit on the sandy grass under a palm tree by the bike path until 9:30 am. He would then walk to the rocks and wait for the blonde lifeguard.
The sun was now directly overhead, and the beach was bustling with vacationing families and honeymooners. Henry had not moved from the level rock. A sharp discomfort, ignorable at first, like the drone of a distant highway, had elevated to the grating roar of punctured a muffler; he was hungry. He felt a mixture of annoyance and disgust that his body required basic, human maintenance. To take his focus off of the lifeguard was to sever the gravitational cord that tied him to his primary body, his sun. Without this focal point around which to orbit, he would be flung back out to the infinite vacuum of normal, empty life. He fumbled for his candy bar, ripped it open and ate half of it in two quick bites, never taking his eyes off of the lifeguard bungalow. He folded the excess wrapper over the top and laid it down, for easy access later.
Something was different about the day. A vague tension that suggested some unknown, but imminent future motion, like the slow compression of a spring, had built up inside of Henry. He rocked from side to side, trying to release the pressure. The lifeguard, who had been casually leaning over the banister, slowly oscillating his gaze from left to right over the beach, pushed himself off the rail and luxuriously arched his back and stretched his arms over his head. Henry watched each defined muscle in the lifeguard’s abdomen as they lengthened and contracted back into their rippled, robust structure. The spring compressed harder in Henry’s stomach, and he remembered the Introduction to Physics course he’d taken this past year in 9th grade. Potential Energy. That was what he was feeling. Every day this summer, one notch of a spring mechanism that lived inside him was torqued. Today it clicked, torqued to its max. He remembered Joules, the unit of measurement for energy. The day he’d learned that term in class, he imagined a giant catapult filled with rubies and emeralds. He pulled his hair back into a ponytail and wound it tightly into a bun.
A woman who looked like she was in her early twenties in a red bikini had been sunbathing on a yellow towel halfway between the ramp of the lifeguard bungalow and the water. She rolled over onto her stomach and propped her head up on her hands, facing the lifeguard. Henry noticed the lifeguard’s glance repeatedly pause on something directly in front of him. He scanned his eyes to the right and stopped on the woman, slowly waving her legs back and forth in the air behind her as she lay on her stomach. The tops of her breasts bulged out over her bikini top like two taught, overfilled water balloons. Henry dug his nails into his clenched fist.
He scrambled barefoot down the rocks and propelled himself through the hot sand toward the lifeguard, leaning so far forward that if he had stopped moving, he would have fallen flat. All he could hear was his jerky breathing, cutting in and out in unison with his agitated gait. It was amplified in his ears as if his head was encased in glass; the crashing waves, the squealing children splashing in the water, and the back and forth tapping of paddle balls all receded into a muffled rumble. The lifeguard, who was trained to sense even the slightest erratic movement in his periphery, quickly turned his head and met Henry’s unbridled, gaping glare. Seeing the lifeguard’s eyes so close up, focused on him, knocked Henry out from the grasp of the tractor beam that seemed to have been dragging him across the sand; the sound of waves and children crashed back into his ears. He slowed his pace and straightened his posture, trying to simulate nonchalance, and turned back toward the rocks. The back of his neck tingled with the belief that it still belonged to the lifeguard’s gaze. He glanced over his shoulder to see if he was still watching him. The lifeguard was already turned away and giving the thumbs up to a group of little girls building a sand castle. The warmth at the base of Henry’s throat extinguished.
His legs trembled as he climbed back up to the level rock; his muscles felt hollow and emptied of their energy. The catapult had flung its emeralds and rubies into the sand. He stood on the rock facing the ocean and expelled a sharp, involuntary wheeze, as if from a sock in the stomach. His throat swelled, hinting at tears, but nothing happened. He heard a large wave crash at the base of the rocks and felt the cold spray that immediately followed; the spatter darkened his light blue shirt. He faced the ten foot stretch of rock that lay between him and the crashing waves and stepped forward.
He’ll see me, Henry thought. I’ll walk to the edge. He can’t let me go out this far, he repeated to himself, clenching his jaw. He had never gone further than the level rock. He winced as the unfamiliar, sharp rocks dug into the soft bottoms of his feet. He reached the last rock, looked down, and reassured himself, he sees me. He’ll come. I’m too close.
A large wave crashed and completely drenched his shirt. He kept his balance though he began to distrust his knees; they felt wild and apart from him, as though they were capable of independent decision making. He braced himself against another crashing wave. Through the spray, Henry heard a loud whistle blow. He’s coming, he silently rejoiced. He didn’t want to turn his head and look. He wanted to wait to feel the lifeguards hands on his shoulders, gently asking him to step away; but he wouldn’t budge, he would have to be picked up and carried away. He held his breath and balance, and through the crash of another wave, he heard a commotion on the shore to his left. He turned his head and saw the lifeguard running through the water, not toward him, but toward a young girl whose arms were thrashing at the surface. The lifeguard dove toward her, and in a few strokes, he had her in his arms. Henry watched as the lifeguard returned her to the sand, motioned for her to be careful, smiled, and returned to the lifeguard bungalow. Henry turned around, climbed down the rocks, and walked home barefoot across the burning sand, leaving his sandals and candy bar behind.
That night Henry snuck out to the lifeguard tower at 10 pm. He reached its base and scanned the beach to see if anyone else was there. About fifty feet away, every few seconds, three figures would faintly materialize in a red glow. They looked like two girls and one boy about Henry’s age. Each time the glowing orb of red light expanded, one of their faces would be brighter than the others; they must be passing around a joint, Henry thought. He had seen Tim Young pass a joint around with his senior water polo friends behind the gym last year.
Though they were best friends in elementary school, Tim had started ignoring Henry at the beginning of seventh grade. When Henry passed Tim and his group leaning against the wall and passing the joint, he tried to rush by without them noticing. The moment he quickened his pace, he knew he’d made a mistake: it reeked of fear. A senior jock’s acuteness in detecting freshmen fear and his subsequent pursuit of whoever is spilling it rivals that of a shark for even the faintest traces of blood in the water. “Hey Tim!” the senior chuckled, slapping Tim’s back. “Isn’t that your boyfriend?” They all exploded in raspy, stoned laughter, including Tim, who began grotesquely miming oral sex while staring tauntingly at Henry.
Once Henry was sure that the three figures were the only beach inhabitants, he reached his hands up, jumped up to grab the edge of the bungalow’s main platform, and let his lanky body hang, suspended in the cool night air. He did not want to risk being spotted by the smokers or beach police by using the front ramp, so he braced himself for exertion with a quick exhale, and pulled himself up with shaking muscles. Once he’d made it up, to stay discreet, he rolled his body toward the opening and crawled into the lifeguard bungalow.
Henry was grateful that the moon was low and over the ocean. It beamed a soft silver spotlight through the front opening of the structure and illuminated the interior just enough that he could make out its contents: rescue tubes, an oxygen tank, a megaphone, first aid kits, a radio, and a red backpack in the corner. Henry knelt down to the backpack and rubbed the “hang loose” keychain on the main zipper between his thumb and index finger like a rabbit foot.
He had seen the lifeguard with this bag slung over one broad bare shoulder on his way to and from work. Henry picked it up and let it hang from one shoulder. He sat back down on his knees, brushed away some sand from the knotted wood planked floor in front of him, unzipped the backpack, and gently emptied out its contents. There was a worn magazine, its pages warped and salt crusted, with two giant bare breasts on the cover: “A Tale of Two Titties.” Henry winced and tossed it aside along with an unopened condom box, a large empty tube of Coppertone tanning oil, and a Ziplock bag with crushed Saltines lining the bottom. He patted the backpack to check if there was anything else inside and felt a hard tube in the front pocket: the pink zinc sunstick that the lifeguard applied to his nose every day.
Henry quickly pocketed the sunstick, shoved everything else back into the backpack, zipped it closed, and placed it exactly as it had been in the corner. He stood up and walked through the front opening of the bungalow to the rail, right where the lifeguard stood for most of his shift. He looked over to the rocks. He couldn’t make out the level rock, either because the tide too was high, or it was too dark to see. He thought of his yellow sandals and pictured them floating in the middle of the ocean. It made his stomach hurt to think about how they would float and not sink to the bottom.
Facing the ocean, he heard the group of teenagers laugh in the distance. He dropped down to the sandpaper floor of the deck, scraping his palms and knees, and rolled to the edge, twice over the sunstick, bruising his right hip. He jumped off the ledge into the sand and walked home barefoot, clutching the sunstick in his pocket the whole way.
The next morning, Henry left the apartment at 7 am, still barefoot and wearing the same clothes from the previous day. He did not take a candy bar from under his bed. He walked the ten minutes to the tree by the bike path, feeling the sunstick sway in his pocket with each step and bump against the place where it had bruised him the night before. The marine layer was almost nonexistent that morning. He already felt the sun tingle against his skin. He reached the tree, faced the ocean and lowered his body slowly into a cross-legged position. His movements were easy and automatic, as though he was somehow controlling himself from a remote location. He took the sunstick from out of his pocket, uncapped it, and applied a slow and careful pink line down his nose. He put the cap back on and held the tube firmly in his fist as he sat motionless for two and a half hours.
Just before 10 am, the blonde lifeguard and a brunette female lifeguard, who usually worked Monday through Wednesday, crossed the bike path and made their way to the bungalow. Henry sat still and watched them as they laughed and walked side by side through the warm sand. Henry remembered that on yellow flag Saturdays, because of the riptide, the beach required double lifeguard duty; the weekends were crowded not only with vacationers but with locals as well. He slipped the sunstick back into his pocket and waited another two hours for the noon crowd to roll in.
The sun was directly overhead, and since there was barely any fog that morning, the sand was already hot. Henry stood up and crossed the bike path. He walked calmly, bearing the burn of the sand, toward the lifeguard station. He glided through a maze of running children, whizzing Frisbees, and prostrate sunbathers as though he were on a conveyor belt. Once he reached the lifeguard station he stood underneath its base in the shade. He looked up to the right at the black rocks. For the first time in the whole month he’d been at the beach, other people were sitting on them. A young couple in their late teens were sitting side by side, lip locked with cocked heads and tangled limbs on the level rock. Henry’s right eye twitched. Usually, when he saw people engaging in physical affection, he felt as though his skin moistened and shriveled into that of a worm. Usually, he would whip his head away from the sight of lovers, but this time, for the first time, he felt and did nothing. His gaze lingered blankly on the couple for a few seconds before returning calmly back to the ocean.
The lifeguard was perched on the platform just above and to the left of Henry, who was still standing underneath the bungalow. Henry was close enough to him that he could hear his red trunks rustling in the breeze. He took a few steps forward out of the shade and looked up. The lifeguard’s head was twisted far in the opposite direction of the rocks. He waited as the lifeguard slowly turned his head back forward. Once he had just enough of his profile, he saw his tanned face, for the first time, without the pink stripe on his nose. Henry thought he looked naked and vulnerable. He must feel incomplete, he thought. He reached his hand into his pocket to touch the sunstick. It felt bigger and heavier in his hand. He held on to the tube while keeping it in his pocket, looked out to the ocean and stepped forward.
He walked slowly with his eyes fixed on the horizon. He sensed his surroundings without having to look; the woman in the red bikini was just to his left, a child would run in front of him now, and a football would whirl over his head now. The sand went from hot to warm to wet, and once he felt the chilly water rush over his ankles, he stopped. He stood there, feeling the wind mat his light blue cotton V-neck against his chest and abdomen. He removed the sunstick from his pocket and squeezed it firmly in his right hand. A medium sized wave crashed at his knees. He walked forward, past the waders and boogie boarders, and pushed through two swells until the water was above his shoulders, lapping at his chin. He stopped again and turned around to face the beach.
The lifeguard was still at his position, looking to his right toward the rocks. He turned his head slowly back to dead center. Once Henry felt his gaze, he a wave swelled against his neck. He flung up his arms and breached backward into the oncoming wave. There was no longer earth under his feet, so he fluttered his legs unevenly, trying to keep his head above water. He flipped his body around, so his stomach faced the ocean floor. He windmilled his right arm over his head and kicked spastically. He had never been able to execute a proper freestyle stroke. Tim Young had tried to teach him during the summer before seventh grade Water Polo tryouts but quit trying after a few sessions. “You just don’t have a swimmer’s build,” he would tell Henry.
He kicked and clawed at the water until his entire body burned. Salt water shot up his nose on three consecutive breaths, and he started coughing violently. On an inhale between coughs, a small wave slapped him in the face and forced him to swallow a mouthful of ocean water. He could no longer hear kids laughing; both of his ears were clogged. He stopped swimming and kept himself afloat by treading water. He knew it would be easier if he had both palms open but dropping the zinc was not an option. He turned around to see how far he’d gotten from the shore, and to his surprise, he had not covered much distance. People were still playing catch and splashing around. He could see that the lifeguard was still standing on the deck of the bungalow in his red shorts with the brunette female lifeguard standing next to him. He couldn’t make out which direction they were looking.
Henry flipped around to find the horizon again and kicked and pulled at the water, harder than before. The burning feeling in his muscles seeped into his lungs. On every breath now he coughed up salt water which caused him to inhale sharply and involuntarily with his head partly submerged. He thought of his high school gymnasium floor, lined with CPR dummies. He remembered the smell of antiseptics on the dummy’s mouth as he tilted its head back, pinched its nose, and covered its mouth with his mouth. He kicked harder. He no longer had the strength to raise his arms out of the water, so he hoofed through it like a dog with one closed fist.
The water darkened, and he heard a faint high pitch ring in his ears. The sound cut in and out at irregular intervals. Henry stopped and turned around to face the shore. He was again surprised, but this time, because he was much further away than he expected. The rip tide, he thought. He could still make out all the figures on the beach. They were all standing erect and still, pointing out toward him. The high frequency kept stopping and starting like Morse code, and he realized it was a whistle.
Between submergences, Henry made out a splashing red figure between him and the waders. It was advancing slowly toward him. Henry’s eyes, burning and blurred by salt, turned up toward the sun. Finally, he thought. He looked out toward the shore again and saw the lifeguard’s blonde hair splashing in the distance beside a red buoy. He came for me, Henry thought, the words pulsing in his head like a mantra. His muscles relaxed one by one, his right fist the last to disengage, as he slipped beneath the surface; and for the first time, drawing in a lungful of seawater, he felt apart of life. He looked up, smiling through the shimmer, and watched the outline of the floating pink sunstick, framed by the water warped yellow sun behind it, recede into darkness.