A Death in Venice [story] by Jon Sindell

The first part of summer we three males of three generations spent solely on the sand, for the churning white surf was straight out of Scrap’s nightmares. In its own way, the sand was out of his real nightmares, for quicksand was one of many natural terrors that still haunted the mother-abandoned seven-year-old’s dreams—along with tornadoes, dark caves, hurricanes, and tsunamis. I allayed Scrap’s fear of quicksand by jumping heavily onto every patch of sand he might visit, but his fear of the surf was harder to resolve. Thus Scrap camped a few feet from the water, sculpting fleets of subs from saturated sand, using bottle caps for portholes. These subs lay embedded in the bottom of a shallow pool of seawater that Scrap populated with hermit crabs that obstinately disobeyed his commands to “Attack!” the Ninja Turtle action figures he tossed into the drink with a madman cackle. My locus was the towel, where I bared my twenty–one–year–old body.

A few weeks into the summer, Scrap having watched kids his age and younger shrieking and freaking in the foamy surf, I tapped him on the shoulder and grinned “Race you!” and took off running, knowing he’d follow. Scrap stumbled into the surf with a mighty howl of liberation, then surfaced as wet and slick as a seal with a jubilant look back at his graybeard dad, who shot me a look suggesting jealousy. Every day thereafter we’d enter the water the same rambunctious way, Scrap stumbling in with wild marionette limbs as I dove beneath the onrushing breakers. Head, a Brooklynite fish out of water in a straw fedora and white tee, with white smudges of sunscreen on his nose and cheeks, stood at the edge of the surf watching Scrap and I gambol in the breakers in order to serve as lifeguard, though he could not swim. There was a sourness in his gaze that could not be explained by the sun’s glare alone. It was a look that had invaded his wizened, merry visage in recent months when I’d shared news of my modest successes in freelance journalism, successes which, although modest, nevertheless surpassed those of a one-time Beat icon of fifty who found his notoriety receding as inexorably as a cargo ship on the horizon. After a few days Head acknowledged the pointlessness of standing lifeguard and returned to his beach chair.

“Freakin’ Daisy,” Head muttered when Scrap and I returned to the towel after one wild romp. Only after he doled out the story in fragments over the next several weeks did I learn that Head alluded to his mother, who had been The Little Daisy Of Delancey Street as a child. As a mother, The Little Daisy tethered her precious little Hillel by a clothesline around the waist when they strolled the sand on their obligatory once yearly visit to Coney Island when Hillel was three and four, then forbade the boy when he was five, six, and seven from going in the water on the ground that he had not learned to swim—an impediment which she shrewdly maintained by denying Mordechai money for swim lessons (Papa himself was a confirmed non-swimmer). When the seven-year-old cawed like a bird that he was, too, going to swim, and scampered off towards the whipped-cream surf, Mama clutched her heart and ordered Papa after the boy. The spindly tailor hopped across the sand like a living stick–figure, scooped his son up beneath one arm and carried the wriggling package only a few feet before buckling his knees and dropping his load—which rocketed off once again for the surf, where he pistoned his legs knee-deep in the water, only to be corralled once again by his dad, who carried him again and dropped him again, this farce repeating as Mama’s face drained of color. By the fifth time, Mordechai dripped hot sweat from both his exertion and his shame at being watched by guffawing Gentiles who, he believed, guffawed at the sight of a milky-white, sunken-chested, spindly-legged, yarmulke-wearing Jew trying in vain to rope his disobedient calf. It was then that he twisted his son’s ear, hard; then that his son jerked his head free and bit his dad’s arm; then that his father knocked his son’s mouth with the flat of his hand—excusing the act that night, as his son buried his face in the pillow, as “a potchka, no more,” though the boy’s lips had bled—; and then that the boy ventured deeper into the breakers, this time to his waist, while Mama clutched her heart with one hand and dug the long nails of the other into her husband’s skinny arm while commanding him to rush in and rescue their child. “Serfs him right iff he drowns,” sneered the man, breaking the Little Daisy’s grasp and glaring out to sea to ensure that the boy would not dare venture out. “Just my luck,” Head observed in the telling, “to get the one abusive Jewish dad in Flatbush.” He drew a swirl in the sand, addressed his feet in a shrinking voice. “Never did learn to swim.”

Head spent his final beach days planted in his folding chair, puzzling through books in bits and pieces, his lips moving as if in silent prayer, his thick finger poking the words on the page: Accounting For Dummies, which he read with a poker face that equally suggested that he had mastered it all—or none at all … bios of Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Abe Lincoln—who, Head maintained, was a closet Jew … The UpanishadsI, The Jury … Whitman, Poe, Bukowski … a book about art therapy for kids; a book about kids with ADD; a book about raising vegetarian children. The Beach-Head took to wearing dark shades like me, and with his tattered fedora pulled down over his brow, and his face white with sunscreen, I took to calling him The Invisible Man, a name he accepted on careful contemplation.

But when mid-July’s blaze made him rise from his seat to peel off his shirt for the first time all summer, exposing his gorilla paunch and matted back and chest to the teen girls stretching their waxed legs across the next beach towel over, and their queen called Head “The Missing Link,” and the princesses tittered—which Head heard—and I smiled back at the girls, which he saw—Head stomped away without one word to Scrapple or me, and never again returned to the sand.


Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This story refers to David Simpson’s poem “Life Guard.”]

Jon Sindell is a humanities tutor and a writing coach for business professionals. His flash fiction collection, The Roadkill Collection, is scheduled to be released by Big Table Publishing in late 2014. Sindell’s short fiction has appeared in over sixty publications. He curates the Rolling Writers reading series in San Francisco.

Image by David Saddler