Fabio sat on his beach towel and gawked at the form bobbing on the flat blue surface of the water. He rested his chin on his spindly knees, his bony arms wrapped around bronzed legs. Despite the warmth of the late August sun, a shiver snaked down his spine making the downy blond hair stand at attention over the goose flesh of his sinewy forearms. He stole a look around him. No one had noticed yet.
To his left, on the half-moon terrace overlooking the gulf, a plump lady in the one-piece canary swimsuit lay in her cloth recliner, eyes half-opened. Her round chin sunk, then jolted upright, yet she somehow managed to clutch onto her glossy magazine plastered with blown up photos of celebrities’ legs pocked by cellulite. Just in front of him, a scrawny teenager with dark peach-fuzz over his lip drew a finger down the calf of an aloof, olive-skinned beauty who lay prone on a bamboo mat, her fire-engine red bikini flaunting her precocious shape. Even the lone seagull overhead seemed intent on expending the least effort as it drifted in the lazy breeze, adjusting the pitch of its wings just enough to keep its body fixed in the same patch of sky.
It seemed too late to say anything now. People would wonder why he hadn’t spoken up earlier. They would blame him.
When he first saw the white sphere emerge from the deep blue, he thought it was a jelly fish. But it was too white – not translucent at all. Perhaps it was a lost soccer ball. That got his attention, made him focus. Then he realized there was something attached to the ball, partly submerged: a ghostly shape just discernible under the surface of the water. It was a body, still as a mannequin. The sphere was its head, covered in a white swim-cap. He recognized it as one belonging to a lady who had scolded him that very morning for dripping water as he leaped over her towel. She was “La Madama”. At least that’s what Fabio’s mom called her sometimes, miming her peacock swagger and pompous elocution for her son’s delight.
Fabio bit his lower lip and tried to appear nonchalant. Surely, someone would notice her. Behind him two retired gentlemen with bathing trunks pulled over their navels leaned on the narrow granite counter of an aluminum framed concession stand and sipped white wine spritzers.
“I bought a loaf of bread the other day,” one told the other. “Three Euros! The next day it was hard as the sole of my boot.”
The taller man rubbed his white-haired chest and smirked. “It’s the sawdust. They add it to the flour to reap a bigger profit. It’s all a farce.”
His shorter companion nodded with satisfaction. If the act of complaining was a form of reassurance for the city’s elders, evoking conspiracies was a downright comfort, especially in the languid days of summer.
“And the tomatoes nowadays… They have no flavor at all.”
The tall man took a deep drag from his cigarette and exhaled through his nostrils. “It’s all the chemicals and pesticides they inject. To kill us off, so they can stop paying our pensions.”
Maybe he could tell them. They were the closest thing to men on this part of the waterfront. They would know what to do. But the short man had seen him drip water on La Madama’s towel. What if they blamed him, accused him of drowning her as an act of revenge?
Oh, why did I wait so long? Sure, at first he thought La Madama was just drifting the way he liked to do with his goggles and snorkel, counting sea urchins on the rocky seabed until his lips and fingers pruned up. But she had no snorkel… and she just wouldn’t come up for air.
He should have stood up and yelled something. Alarm, alarm! Drowning woman! But if he was wrong, he’d have looked like a fool. La Madama would have probably scolded him again, maybe even tugged him by the ear. He just hoped someone else would notice. Why did no one notice?
The seagull alighted on the aluminum ladder on the side of the seawall, just a few feet from the floating body. If the bird only squawked it would surely draw someone’s notice. The boy glared at the bird, tried to will it to make a noise. Instead, it just preened its wing feathers with its jaundiced beak.
Fabio surveyed his surroundings. The woman in the yellow swimsuit snored softly. The peach-fuzzed teenager bent down to whisper in red bikini’s ear. The short man at the concession stand yawned and rubbed his round belly while his tall companion craned his neck to inspect a mole on his shoulder. Fabio picked up a pebble and launched it at the perched bird. There was no squawk but enough of a flutter of wings as the bird took flight to catch the attention of peach-fuzz mustache who peered at the water with narrowed eyes and wrinkled his brow. A moment later his eyes widened and he jumped to his feet.
“Help! Someone help!” he shouted. He waved his arms over his head in a way that struck Fabio as comical – a cartoon character signaling at a locomotive just before it leveled him.
All around, people sat up, and turned with drunken, plodding movements, the heat having dried their muscles into hardened dough. They appeared confused, unable to make sense of the situation as they awakened from their dizzying slumber. A few people finally made their way to the water’s edge. Murmurs turned into frantic shouts.
Fabio breathed a sigh of relief.
It took several men to hoist the body out of the water and lay it on the seawall. It was bloated and pasty like a giant squid. The olive-skinned beauty sat up, trembling, wrapped a towel around her chest and let out a strange whimper. Fabio rested his chin back on his knees and tightened his lips to suppress a laugh. The legs of a bystander blocked the boy’s view of La Madama’s face. Then the legs moved and Fabio saw her. Her mouth was open like that of a hooked fish, and a milky froth oozed over lips the color of an eggplant’s skin.
A man pressed his ear on the woman’s chest, put a finger on her neck, turned to the others and shook his head. There was a collective shrug.
But her eyes! Couldn’t anybody see? Were they all so blind? Had no one noticed how those marbled eyes glared at Fabio knowingly, unrelentingly, inquiring, Why did you wait so long, my boy?