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Circles

by
Harry Buschman


With nothing to do but stare at the sea, the life guards at Coogan’s Beach separated the week end families from the singles who came week days -- the “regulars’ they called them. The families arrived on Saturdays and Sundays with umbrellas, chairs, hampers of food and hordes of children, they lathered each other with sun block at regular intervals. They shouted a lot, threw frisbees and ate constantly. The singles came with a minimum of equipment and they came alone. They tended to be brown and leathery and sat well back of the water where the sun was hottest.

That summer, two of the singles stood out because of their fish belly whiteness, even though they came every day, the sun seemed to have no effect on them. They were a broad headed hairless man the guards called “Bullethead” and a frizzy yellow haired woman in her forties who dressed in a black cocktail gown and spent the day writing.

“Bullethead” appeared to be unemployed -- or at the very least a man of independent means who could spend his weekdays at the beach. He was shortish, somewhere between a fire hydrant and a mailbox in height. In spite of that there was something monumental about him, not in his size but in his bearing. He seemed to be as rigid and unbendable as a toy soldier. He basked in the sun unprotected from the moment he arrived until he left -- he never sought shade in the heat of the day, yet he was as pale as a painted fence post. It was an indication of his refusal to bow to the will of nature. No one who saw him in the water that summer would forget the brave but futile battle he fought with the sea. Unlike other people who ran from the heavy surf or saved themselves by diving beneath the curl of the breakers, Bullethead stood hip high in their path -- immobile -- hands on hips and tried to stare them down.

Time and again he would be crushed and tumbled like wet wash in a drier. When the surf retreated he would pick himself up, somewhat confused and looking for all the world like a prizefighter trying to collect his thoughts after having been floored in the first exchange of round one. He would turn quickly to the beach to see if anyone had witnessed his knockdown, then he would hitch up his trunks and face the sea once more. Down he would go again, and again.

He would tire of the contest in time and in a stiff martial cadence he would make his way to the safety of dry land. There were times when the sea would catch up with him before he got away and give him a good one in parting. His knees would buckle and down he’d go with an expression on his face of someone who has been unfairly attacked from the rear.

Having been defeated in his battle with the sea, he would stand in front of the blond woman in the cocktail dress and flex his muscles, which did not appear to grow larger for all his flexing. He would then take classic body-building poses that were designed to impress her. In turn she gave him no sign of interest or recognition and her heart shaped sun glasses remained focused on her writing. Although they couldn’t hear him, it seemed to the life guards on the stand that he spoke to her in conversational tones smiling in a neighborly way.

Her ice remained unmelted. With a sigh of resignation, Bullethead would return to his towel and sit cross-legged staring alternately at the blond woman and the sea, pondering, perhaps, which of them was the harder nut to crack. He seemed to have no other interests.

An hour would pass and the process would begin all over again with identical results and by late afternoon Bullethead, whose shoulders and knees were by now red and abraded, was looking a little the worse for wear.

Some time in July, as the weather grew warm and the beach more crowded, the blond and Bullethead were lost in the press of people. The guards on the stand had their hands full and the one-sided romance passed unnoticed. Had they been watching, they might have witnessed a climax on the boil, for Bullethead had pulled out all the stops. Given the rigidity of his stocky frame, he displayed a similar rigidity of mind. He had made the decision that the enigmatic blond was the one for him and he advanced upon her using the same technique he used in the surf.

Hoping to interest her, he redoubled his calisthenic routine after leaving the surf, executing karate like chops and leg kicks, throwing up sand in all directions. He drew quite a crowd of curious children but made no impression on the blond who continued writing furiously in her notebook. Red in the face and breathing heavily he looked about him sheepishly and plodded up the soft hot sand to the refreshment kiosk and bought a frankfurter and a coke. He plodded back again and offered them to her as a token of his devotion. He held them out to her and when she made no effort to accept them he placed them on her tarpaulin. He might just as well have dumped them in the trash.

Her response was to stand and replace her stenographer’s pad and pen, and thermos in the wicker basket. Then she kicked the frankfurter and coke to one side, folded her tarpaulin and put that in the wicker basket also. She then carefully covered the hole in the sand next to her into which she had deposited her cigarette butts and rolled her black stockings back up under the hem of her multi-layered dress. She retied the sash under her broad black hat, turned her back on him and slowly walked up the beach to the parking lot.

He was left standing in the company of thousands of people. What emotions seethed within him? Rejection! Impotency! Incompetence! An ultimate awareness of his failure as a swimmer and a suitor! Was it any or all of these. He displayed his feelings to no one, he was as stoic as ever, just as stoic as he was in his losing battle in the surf. He had been belittled again and again by forces far greater than his own -- the blond’s rejection was no less powerful than that of the mighty sea.

He looked down at the frankfurter and coke lying in the sand, picked them up and deposited them in a nearby waste basket, all the while staring at the dwindling form of the strange blond woman as she made her way unhurriedly to the parking lot. Under her broad brimmed hat the mystery of this unresponsive female remained unsolved, hidden behind her black glasses, her black dress and her black stockings, the cruel enigma continued. The writing -- what was the secret concealed in her writing? A memoir perhaps -- a chaste remembrance of a lost and gentle love -- a lurid recollection of a checkered past.

Bullethead covered his ears with his hands, there were noises in his head, strange whistlings and an occasional grinding sound that reminded him somehow of the IRT subway train he used to ride to the 50th Street station. He could no longer hear the beach sounds -- and yet he heard them only a moment before. Sea gulls, children, parents, and the recurrent crash of the surf -- all were quiet now and in their place was a noise in his head and a fuzziness in his vision that blurred the image of a tiny figure in black walking through the sand. She reminded him of someone. Oh yes, that’s right -- it was the mysterious blond woman who rejected him, but it reminded him of someone
else too -- someone a long time ago. She was dressed in black also, wrote constantly, drank heavily and never had time to talk to him. There was so much of life he wanted to know and yet she would tell him not to bother her -- “Get lost! Can’t you see I’m writing!”

He wanted to show her his homework -- the area of a circle! With no help from anyone he had figured out the magic formula for discovering the area of a circle. He could march into school tomorrow with his head held high, confidant that when Mrs. Davis asked him to describe to the class how to compute the area of a circle he would step up to the blackboard -- and .... “Ma, look .... all by myself. It’s so simple once you know how .... let me show you.”

But she wouldn’t listen. She turned her back on him and brought her left hand up to her face so she couldn’t see him. With her pen gripped tightly in her right hand she continued writing. He remembered her knuckles, white from her grip on the pen and the words appearing tortuously slow on the paper in front of her. He danced a nervous jiggle at her side -- “Won’t you let me show you, just once Ma -- please?”

If his father had been there, he would have listened. He would have been proud. He would have shaken his head in wonder and said what a brilliant son he had -- he would be a scientist some day. But he was gone now and he wasn’t coming back his mother said -- she also said, “Good riddance.” There were times he wished his father had taken him with him, then his mother could write all day with no one to bother her.

The grinding noise in his head grew louder, and by now the blond woman in black had disappeared. He wondered if he should have followed her, found out where she lived. If he knew her address he could write her a letter and explain, assure her that he meant her no harm -- just wanted her to listen. If he knew her address he might knock on her door and come face to face with her, maybe even explain the mathematical principle that yields the area of a circle. But no. She was a woman and she had no interest in such things as the square of the radius. Like his mother and like every woman he met since her, she would find other things to do -- she would close the door firmly and leave him standing there.

He turned abruptly and faced the sea. There, at least was a worthy antagonist, one that would never ignore him. It was ready to take all he had and give him more than he could handle in return. The grinding noise in his head was reinforced now by the sound of something like the shrieking of the wheels on the train on the curve just as it leaves 42nd street. He couldn’t hear the sound of the sea any longer, but he thought that, given half a chance, if the sea were to close in all around him he might drown out the noise in his head. It would be like cuddling in his mother’s arms -- all quiet -- all soft -- all warm, and she would listen to him as he explained the process by which one might find the area of a circle.

©Harry Buschman
(1900)

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