At Phil’s small memorial—we took his ashes home to the ocean—a man I didn’t know who patronized Phil’s beach asked about his drinking.
Early in high school, Phil and I would drink beers while our parents swilled martinis in the paneled basement. On Jersey Shore Friday nights, sparks would pop from Phil’s eyes as he lit candles in old Boones Farm bottles and worked the stereo like an FM deejay from Hendrix to the Doors for our neighborhood bunch. Before we’d head to the boardwalk, Phil would swirl cans, plucking leftover beers like daisies and chugging them down.
We life guarded on the same beach—it’s a heady brotherhood. We’d show off on that tall, white wooden stand perched over giggling girls and young mommas in sunshine, twirling the radio dial, our favorite songs dovetailing the breaking surf. Come five o’clock we’d bar hop then hit a diner for pork roll sandwiches. Driving home, our cigarette smoke sucking out open windows, those same songs blared from the cheesy dashboard speaker of my Country Squire.
Our lives knifed through the years. I moved fifty-two Garden State Parkway miles south. Phil met a lady. He quit guarding and booze. At his wedding, as best man I toasted him and his bride with Gatorade. The couple took work as caretakers on a large estate. Phil’s outdoor responsibilities kept him bored and riding a John Deere.
On the phone he snickered, “I keep a flask in a tree stump.”
As my best man, he was back on the beach, his wife in the rear-view. He couldn’t work the button to switch on the microphone for his toast.
Arms losing muscle tone and a bare spot on his crown, he guarded on the same beach for over a decade. Knowing bottom and currents, he spotted troubled swimmers before the young studs alongside. After work, a spread-armed ape lumbered over to greet you with a kiss on the cheek and a Brooklyn accent you couldn’t cut with a hacksaw. Nobody was safe from sudden whispers and cigarette smoke when the crook of his elbow found your neck. An oldie would come on the radio and he’d name the year the song came out while forgetting where he’d left his drink.
In time he took a job as a boardwalk gate guard. By afternoons, his thermos drained, he’d close his eyes, and with his beachfront cap turned backwards, swivel his face to the sun as the sea’s sparkles danced in front of him.
I’d visit, we’d hug—he always squeezed me harder. He’d lay a claw on my shoulder and twist his mouth into a smile.
“What the hell kept ya?” Entwining arms, we’d lift glasses. “So few times,” he would toast.
I started to hear things. He ignored his taxes, had his driver’s license suspended. He got himself an apartment and stopped returning my calls. It wasn’t a shock when paramedics found him days after the fact in his recliner, a blanket pulled up to his chin, the TV on. I didn’t leave the couch for a week.
The patron from Phil’s beach—I didn’t give the bastard the time of day.
All I know is when the downstairs clock chimes three, and I’m in bed wide awake, I’m remembering Phil’s room, candle wax dripping down the front of his dresser, his mother giving him hell. After the beach, shooting kamikazes and knocking over mugs of draft beer, bills swimming in puddles on the bar top. Outside a summer rental, plastic porch chairs breaking as we flopped into them. All the times we toasted ourselves, our arms tangling, glasses tipping, and spills slapping the floor while the two of us drank and laughed, ignoring the mess we made.