The Rip

by N. Marc Mullin

Jimmy Spins couldn’t spin a bowling ball to save his life and had nothing to do with the spinning of yarns or any such thing. Jimmy Pots had no potbelly, didn’t pot plants, and never smoked a joint as far as I knew. But I, Mighty Dog, once had curls like the poodle on a can of pet food by that name. So Jimmy Spins, our namer of names, got one right.

Spins nicknamed himself and Pots when we were little, and the titles stuck, never sounding as dopey as they seem now. We grew up spending summers at our fathers’ fishing shacks on Pig Bog, off the causeway to Lenape Island, New Jersey. Like our dads and uncles, we became tin knockers, sheet metal workers, monkeying on scaffolds and A-ladders, stringing ductwork through the towers of Manhattan. Spins named me while we worked the World Trade Center. I can still see him writing it in red marker on my hard hat.

On small pensions, we retired to the Pig Bog shacks and helped each other with additions, windows, roofs, and doors. Through it all, we swam Songport Beach, named after a dancehall that in our grandpas’ day sat among the dunes and doubled as a brothel. Gamblers from Atlantic City would take a ferry along the leeward side of the islands and hop off for a quickie. Dory’s Diner, our local breakfast joint in Sumner Point, hung old black-and-whites of the place: a man with an eye patch playing piano. A lady on horseback in fluffy bloomers twirling a parasol.

Lifeguards changed over the years, but most came to know us, three guys who jumped in no matter how rough the breakers or cold the ocean. Because of construction work, in our sixties we still had the shoulders, legs, and lungs for long swims and had the feel for body surfing, never breaking through the front of waves and face-planting like Philadelphia kids with fat houses at the sand’s edge.

All those years, we’d yak, arms folded and often facing the Atlantic, the way men speak to mirrors in barbershops and bars. We kept up with the Phillies and Eagles, talked tackle for bluefish and stripers, reminisced about tough, twisted bosses on the sites we’d worked. When the ocean roared, we dared each other to go in, and we took that challenge many a spring, summer, or fall. It kept us young.

Two years ago, Jimmy Pots caught a virus that went to his heart, and he died New Year’s week. This was a few days after he called me and told me a nor’easter had blown in my window. My wife, Lydia, and I were delayed after a wedding in Chicago. In the middle of that storm, Pots climbed a ladder to nail plywood for us.

A few months after that, Jimmy Spins took a spill off his bike on the boardwalk—he never wore a helmet—and after that, he began losing words. I noticed Spins’ condition at Dory’s. He joked about my paper thingy, meaning my napkin. He said that Jimmy Pots and I should try to do hard things against each other. Meaning compete, I guess. Jimmy Pots was dead; I chose not to remind him. His wife, Angel, told me that his concussion didn’t cause his memory problem—he fell off his bike because Alzheimer’s had already set in, compromising his ability to steer through traffic.

Still we swam, Spins and I. Whatever was happening to his mind, his thick hands had great purchase on the water and his kick drove him hard and fast. He still jogged up and down the beach and dropped for push-ups. He spoke less and less. No matter how much I fed him names as people approached us, he didn’t use them. A simple hi and smile were all he had to give.

One morning, Lydia found me lying in my dinghy, moored at the pier behind our houses. I thought you went fishing with Spins, she said. I did, I told her. Nothing biting, so we came back early. Well, she said, the washer-dryer’s dead and I don’t know where we’ll get money for a new one. She went on about taking the wet clothes to a Laundromat, but I couldn’t focus on her words or find the will to climb out of that boat. Truth was, Spins kept casting his line without bait and mentioned getting Dairy Queen ice cream for his daughter, Laura, though she passed from leukemia as a toddler. While he sat there, dragging his fingers in the bay, I took his rod and set it right, the way I would for a child. In the middle of tying a lure on for him, I said, Spins, what’s my name? He stuck out his hand, smiled, and said hi. And I didn’t have Jimmy Spins. Or Jimmy Pots. And if so, I wasn’t Mighty Dog.

*

Last July, a red flag fluttered at the lifeguard stands. A tropical storm far offshore buried the sun and left the ocean in a nasty mood. A wind from the wetlands pushed warm surface water out, and an icy upwelling from the deep kept the few beachgoers on their chairs and blankets. We could tell by looking at the water. She’s awful murky, I said to Jimmy Spins.

Ned, the guard on our beach, wore a hoodie and dark shades and listened to music through earbuds. He might have been taking a nap. No need to watch us. And by the time he curled up on his high perch, no one else was swimming.

Outside of his zone, a girl with sun-bleached hair, sixteen at most, came out of a pink stucco mansion near the seawall dragging an ocean kayak. No way, I said to Spins, not with these swells. Got to be seven or eight feet, I added, conducting both sides of our conversation.
But she launched that hard plastic boat and timed her rows perfectly for the beats between waves. Leaning forward, she used her abs to gut her way up and over the crests. That’s a sight to see, I said, and got a nod from Jimmy Spins.

By this time, we stood in shallow water, taking our passage from pain to numb to swimming. We could feel the tide in our old knees and hips, pulling hard north, toward the basalt jetty and the inlet to Medville Bay. That’s a serious rip, I said. Spins didn’t answer but pointed to the girl as she rode a wave in, leaning way back in her boat, paddle victoriously above her head, keeping upright through the crashing wave. Near us, she turned back out to sea, and Jimmy gave her a thumbs-up. I don’t believe she saw him.

Isn’t that the one whose daddy called the cops on Pots? I said. For pissing on the seawall near his house, I recalled. And that time the cops led Jimmy Pots away in handcuffs, because, truth be told, they don’t like our kind in Songport. We’d fished and swam here long before the Philadelphian lawyers, doctors, and hedge funders came and tore down perfectly good huts and cabins to build their palaces. They made it hard for us to park on the street or to urinate in the municipal building. While Mercedes and BMWs raced down the beach drive, they issued us speeding tickets if we took Pots’ pickup or my Harley a hair over the limit. They charged for beach tags and seemed to check only us for compliance. This sand wasn’t for men with tattoos and Budweiser in plastic cups. For a long while after Jimmy Pots’ arrest, Jimmy Spins, namer of names, called the place Wrongport.

She tipped over, I said. Jimmy Spins shaded his eyes and pointed to her in the water about a hundred yards from shore. No problem, I said—she’ll climb in. “Nah, the rip,” said Jimmy, three of his few words that week. And we watched her. Though stroking and kicking hard, the gap between her and the boat widened and her oar drifted away. She’s a strong kid, I said. She’ll close on it. She’s not even screaming, I said. Jimmy Spins shook his head in the negative. And I took his meaning—that girl was too cold to scream.

I yelled for Ned, but he didn’t budge in his lifeguard seat. And Spins had already started rolling the surfboat, nearly running me down with the tall bow. He hopped in, falling onto its bench while the surf nearly bucked it out of my grip. But I held the transom with both hands and pushed us out. Jimmy Spins got the oars in the locks, grabbed my arm, and yanked me in. We set out in the direction of the kayak because now we couldn’t see the girl.

Out where she flipped, a sand bar breaks the waves. At low tide, you can stand there, but this was high tide, and as we approached the empty kayak, Spins had a hard time keeping our boat nosed out. For all my warnings, he came sideways and waves swamped and capsized us. And now, ducking that heavy wooden boat, gagging salt water, and flopping around in the freezing waves, I found that girl, lips blue, exhausted, and in deep trouble. I had her float on her back and holding her loosely around the neck started doing a scissor kick. Jimmy Spins swam close by.

Try as we did, the riptide pulled us from shore, moved us toward the inlet and whitewater pounding the jetty’s rocks. At one point, Jimmy Spins barked high-pitched, like a seal—his way, I guess, of calling for help. And I struggled to keep that girl’s head above water, sure that she was near gone from hypothermia.

We couldn’t see over the swells between us and the land. We didn’t know if Ned or someone else had risen to the occasion. The guards’ Jet Ski sat at a station a few hundred yards from Ned, and I hoped he’d called for it or was rushing out with his torpedo float.

My arms were going stiff, I was running out of breath, and I could barely keep that girl in tow. As the thunder of crashing surf at the jetty grew louder, I lost sight of Jimmy Spins. I began kicking as hard as I could, aiming toward the tip of the jetty, hoping we might get free of that pull and squeak around into the inlet. There might be a skiff out there. And where in hell was Spins? How could a swimmer strong as him go under? He’d never leave me in a jam like this. Never.

Spins rose from below like a breaching whale. To reach us without my seeing him, he must’ve swum a good distance underwater. And there he was, bloodred with cold, sucking air. Jesus Christ, Spins, I yelled, and told him to grab her other side and kick with me, thinking that with two engines we might get away.  Mighty Dog, he bellowed from the bottom of his lungs. Mighty Fuckin’ Dog.

Mighty Dog, he bellowed from the bottom of his lungs. Mighty Fuckin’ Dog.

He took the girl from my dead arms and started kicking full steam toward the jetty. I screamed for him to stop. His jumbled mind, I thought, had pushed him in a direction like drinking seawater to kill thirst. Yes, the jetty was close and we only had a few minutes left on our clocks, but those jagged boulders guaranteed death. I had nothing left. I flipped onto my back and stopped kicking. Let the rip take me to Paris or hell.

As it turned out, a trawler fished me from the inlet. A human chain of fishermen and lifeguards got that girl off the rocks with nothing more than a gash on her forehead. She lived because Jimmy didn’t, because he hugged her to his chest and wrapped his legs round hers like a starfish on a rock. He took the jetty’s blows on his back, neck, and head.

*

The girl’s father sent me a thank-you note and a check for five hundred dollars, and I heard he sent more to Angel, though he and his daughter didn’t show up at the funeral or pay respects at Jimmy’s house.

I carried the money around for the longest time, thinking how miserable that hot, crowded Laundromat was getting. And I spent a lot of time that summer lying in my moored dinghy, rocking, picturing all the dumb-eyed flounder and bass darting around under me with no place to go, nothing to do. I imagined ways I could have saved Spins, how we could have powered out of that rip.

*

Labor Day weekend, I took myself for a walk down the beach. It was my first day back since Spins died. To get away from the last crowd of summer, I went out to the end of the jetty. A couple of gulls floated on the wind, and I took note of how calm the water was, how gently it brushed those rocks. Like nothing happened there. I thought for the longest time of tearing that check to shreds, feeding it to the wind, and watching the pieces drift until they fell where Jimmy Spins last swam.

On my way back, I saw the girl, kneeling on the sand, helping a little guy dig a hole near the water’s edge, a kiddy pool. I almost walked by, thinking why dredge up what can’t be fixed? But I stopped in the shade of a lifeguard stand and watched without them seeing me. I saw where stitches had run through an eyebrow all the way to her hairline, leaving a pink squiggle, a memorial to Jimmy Spins if it didn’t fade. Finally, I walked over and asked if the boy was her brother. Hardly turning, she told the child—in a big sister command voice—to “tell the man your name.” Josh, he said without missing a beat, busy clawing that wet sand with his hands. I asked her name, and now she did turn to me and raised her sunglasses. Oh god, she said, and jumped to her feet. She wrapped her sandy arms round me, shivering as she hugged me, telling me how she was sorry for what happened to my friend and apologizing for missing Jimmy’s funeral. That’s all right, I told her, it wasn’t her fault.

I know we said more, but I can’t recall it now. I didn’t want to stay long, I’m sure about that. She was just a kid at the beach on a pretty summer day, and I didn’t want to place more burdens on her.

*

I still come to the beach, but swim only where I can stand. If the red flag’s out, I don’t go in. The lifeguards don’t seem to know me anymore, and I hardly know myself. I haven’t seen the girl since that day. Funny thing is, I don’t believe she ever asked me my name or told me hers. Jimmy would’ve spun one for her.

 

N. Marc Mullin drove a taxi and spent years as a sheet metal worker before he became an attorney specializing in civil rights and employment law. His short stories have been published in Storyscape Journal and are forthcoming in the Willow Review and Superstition Review. He is published as a finalist in the Middlesex University (UK) International short story contest and he has published nonfiction, including an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times.

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