It was the sound, and not the fire, that prompted an initial call to 9-1-1. That sound indicated a chain reaction – ba-Boom! followed by a car alarm from up the street. The boardwalk shook. Any hanging plant life rattled. A woman at the Monaco Motel reported hearing an explosion. A series of blinds were being undrawn.
Four minutes later, at 1:49 AM, a hook and ladder responded. There were flames at this point, clearly visible and spreading low across one roof. There was smolder filtering out from an accompanying stock area below. The hook and ladder stopped just short of the Wildwood promenade, the southern pine of which could not accommodate any vehicle of that scope. The source of the fire was inside a T-shirt shop. For the better part of an hour, that shop had
A trio of firemen forced their way in through a back-door entrance. Inside, the T-shirt shop was dark and hot and it was full of smoke. The firemen retreated. They shut off nearby gas lines. They evacuated a couple who were living in a studio along that row. Up on the boardwalk, 25 members of a youth ministry group began emerging from a chapel. These members were greeted by a police officer with police tape who was sectioning off the promenade between Baker and Montgomery Avenues. There were tourists now, and they were wearing pajamas. There were wide-eyed drunks, and they were wearing well-pressed clothes. There was an older man who stood craning his neck up toward an Angelo’s Pizza marquee. Angelo’s Pizza was located 40 meters south of where the fire continued to burn.
Down on Baker Avenue, turntable ladders were being extended; 50-ft. hoses were being unfurled. White men with white hair and white shirts were giving orders, while burly men in bulky gear were pointing nozzles up and through the t-shirt shop’s back door.
The Made In The USA T-Shirt Shop was one of three businesses that were all housed within the same building. That building, erected in 1940, lacked the benefit of any steel partitions (later known as firewalls). Worse yet, that building’s owner had been cited – and then re-cited – for more than 15 code violations between July and August of 2000. Among the more egregious violations were failing to maintain any operational alarm system, combined with failing to repair several gaping holes along the ceilings and walls. The Made In The USA T-Shirt Shop, in particular, had been cited for excessive bulk throughout its storage area. Cardboard boxes littered the floors like flaccid pillars. Bundles of stock congested the stairs in haphazard rows.
The fire spread quickly. Flames ascended up and through the t-shirt’s shop’s attic, cascading down into a dollar store which was connected via the south. Along the promenade, embroidered patches read North Wildwood and Erma and West Wildwood and Stone Harbor and Anglesea and Wildwood Crest. A pair of firefighters used an axe to remove a padlock from the t-shirt shop’s front entrance. They rolled a shutter back, then ran a chainsaw through a clearance in the shop’s main floor. The ensuing hole created ample space to spray a hose into the storage area. That area, which had been constructed like a bunker, appeared to be supplying tinder for the fire’s real cause.
Fog was rolling in now, and 11-mile winds continued eddying the coast. Intense heat had weakened the t-shirt shop’s roof to an extent that – just before 3 AM – the northern end of it began to implode. Kilocalories of combustion burst from the Dollar Store into an adjoining gift shop. That shop was separated from the Boardwalk Chapel by a 3-ft. alley made of wood. The strategy became containment. And it remained that way until three hours later, when the fire was officially deemed to be under control.
As of daylight, the remainder of the 4300 Building’s roof had collapsed, decimating all three businesses underneath it. The Boardwalk Chapel had survived thanks to a liquid curtain that had been set up along the alley. There was smoke now, forever billowing, as investigators crept into the t-shirt shop’s storage area, where a Sheriff’s K9 detected the presence of acetone – an accelerant – beneath several piles of debris. Up on street level, officials confirmed that the 4300 Building’s owner had been served with a $9,600 fine for failing to rectify a series of code violations. Officials further confirmed that said fine had been levied less than 24 hours before.
In the hours after midday, investigators acknowledged that the fire might have been an act of arson. Arson, which had become an epidemic throughout the Wildwoods to an extent that of the 16 major boardwalk blazes between 1980 and 2000, nine had been adjudicated as if someone had set them. Nine fires, 100% of which had been consolidated to an 11-block stretch between Montgomery and Pine Avenues. Nine fires, 100% of which had taken place between the final week in August and the third week in December. Nine fires, 100% of which had occurred during a four-month span when the promenade was either shutting down or completely empty.
Wildwood’s three most recent boardwalk fires – including the one inside the 4300 Building – had occurred within a three-block strain over the course of five years. Two of those fires shared indeterminate origins, rendering it difficult for insurance companies to deny any of the claims. There was a pattern emerging, and it was so exact as to be insulting. As a case in point, consider a boardwalk fire that had ripped through an entire block between Spicer and Spencer Avenues during 1988. That fire, which was ultimately ruled suspicious (yet indeterminate), resulted in $2.5 million worth of damages, while simultaneously causing 13 injuries due to a combination of smoke inhalation and people escaping by way of several second-story windows. Said fire was initially reported at 3:55 AM on August 28th. The 4300 Building’s fire was initially reported at 1:45 AM
on August 29th.
Two fires, straddling a 12-year period, with a 250-meter distance in between.
Fires were a drag, particularly for any unsuspecting storeowners who had slaved throughout the summer in the hopes of turning a profit come September. Three months of work had just gone down the drain. Meanwhile, the odds seemed long against pinning the crime on any suspect. There were no cameras along the promenade at 4300, and it appeared unlikely that any reliable eyewitnesses would step forward. Add to that the fact that raging fires wielded the potential to destroy forensic evidence, and it became reasonable to assume that no errant firebug would be apprehended. The summer would end, and the postseason would move forward, and the owner of the 4300 Building, who lived in Coral Gables, Florida, would have nine months to sell his lot
or build anew.
On August 8th I suffer what can best be described as a complete physiological break. Among my peers, I am eager to write this off as a hangover – the ill effects of an 18-hour binge that included one bottle of Black Haus, imbibed against a running backdrop of whiskey and beer. Internally, however, I recognize this as being the culmination of 14 days’ worth of excess. I have been going to the bars without anyone. I have been drinking at the apartment by myself. My fingers tremble as I struggle through an average workday. I have attempted – and failed – to go 24 hours without ingesting a belt.
On that Tuesday, the 8th, I call out of work. I feel weak, and dehydrated. I have laryngitis. I throw up after eating a bowl of Trix. I keep attempting to ferret together the previous evening’s proceedings. I can picture a barbecue, and then getting thrown out of The Fairview. I can picture myself arguing with a bartender, even though I wasn’t able to talk. And then there was the water park. I was with that girl, and it was 3 AM. We were in the hot tub. We got kicked out
by the police.
I call out sick a second time on August 9th. My mother picks me up. She drives me to my parents’ house in Delaware County. Once there, I take a bath; I get some sleep. Whatever I am experiencing, it extends beyond the routine physical. I want to drink, and yet I am afraid of getting sicker. I want to return to Wildwood, and yet I am afraid of being alone. I feel unhinged, surreptitiously convinced that I have been exposed to something chemical, perhaps even toxic, inside of my apartment. I have a newfound fear of fainting. I think about it all day long.
I return to work on August 12th. I lie to my employers, maintaining that I have been to a doctor, and that he has written me a script for several antibiotics. I suffer through the afternoon. During my dinner break I watch an annual procession – The Blessing of the Ocean. Said procession culminates with an abbreviated ceremony along the beach. As we enter the responsorial, I turn and I notice that I have been boxed in by a bevy of tourists. This jars me. Lord, have mercy. I take a knee. Christ, have mercy. I cannot find an available pathway to breathe. Lord, have mercy.
I remain humbled until the congregation disperses. My lungs feel like a pair of bellows. I walk to Pine Avenue, where I am scheduled to work on a microphone from 8 – 11. I defer, delegating the responsibility to one of my employees instead. This is a breach, egregiously so given that the second Saturday in August is traditionally associated with being one the biggest money nights of the season. My refusal to emcee winds up costing The Doughertys a little over $700 during that 180-minute period alone.
I close the stand just after 1 AM. I beat a path to the Hill 16 where I order my first beer in several days. That first beer leads to a second, and then that second beer leads to a third. That third beer leads to me approaching a brown-haired British girl who is waving a $10 bill over her head. “Yoo-hoo,” that brown-haired British girl keeps saying. “Yooooo-hooooo.” She is draping her chest
over the bar.
“What are y’drinking?” My voice projects above the music.
“What’s that?” the British girl responds.
“What are y’drink-ing?”
The British girl steps back. She soaks me in. She corrals a friend who is standing next to her along the bar.
“That old guy’s trying to hit on me,” I overhear the British girl explain.
Her friend measures me, and then grimaces. She makes a joke about me being on my own.
I stare onto the dancefloor, and then my eyes breeze up the wall. There, illuminated by a kaleidoscope of colors, reside the shadows – a sea of bobbing heads and string-bean arms. It occurs to me that from a distance those fleeting shadows could belong to anyone, from any time; that those shadows could belong to all the bearded rockers who hung out here when this building housed The Playpen; that those shadows could belong to all the post-war brats who took their business way uptown. It occurs to me that those shadows could belong to all the pleated plaids who yucked it up with Cozy Morley; that those shadows could belong to all the social debs who danced the foxtrot to a four-four sound. It occurs to me that those shadows marked the passage from Benny Goodman into Chubby Checker, from New York Folk into the British Sound. It occurs to me that those shadows kept the pace from Punk & Disco into Mainstream Pop; from Thrash & Grunge into the Underground. It occurs to me that those shadows have remained ambivalent; that they have not changed despite the integration of east-coast Blacks, and then Latinos; of the British and the Irish, the J-1 Spanish and Chinese. It occurs to me that those shadows are both passé and urgent relevance, that they are both the 1990s and the now. The now. So much of what I have known is past. The first building I ever lived in on this island is being converted into a boarding house. The Maple Deli across the street has closed. A lot of the boardwalk games have begun transitioning from giving out stuffed animals into giving out cheap gadgetry. The Dime Pitch has been succeeded by a water-gun game. That game has 16 seats and rising poles. On a busy night that 16-seat behemoth can generate upwards of $1,000 an hour. And yet in reality, it doesn’t even come close. The boardwalk features far too many race games. The boardwalk features far too many swindlers selling sweet songs for a buck. The boardwalk features far too many price hikes. The boardwalk features far too many soft drinks costing 2 – or even $3 – a cup. My place amidst this madness keeps on shifting. I work as a barker in a 14-player water-gun game. I report to an ice cream parlor six days out of every week. That ice cream parlor occupies the exact location where I once worked as a barker in a seven-player water-gun game. I was poor and I was alone then. I was living out of a bag at the age of 18. 1992. Bill Clinton had just secured the Democratic nomination for President. Clinton was campaigning against George H.W. Bush, an incumbent who held a significant lead. 2000. Al Gore has just secured the Democratic nomination for President. Gore is campaigning against George W. Bush, a second-generation legacy who holds an insignificant lead. Eight years. I have gained and lost three waves of friends. I have become sick, nostalgically ill for the past. And it occurs to me that all of this nostalgia, all of this deep longing for being young and for falling in love and for being single and for getting drunk and for getting high and for getting laid and for breaking laws and for being tan, well, it occurs to me that mine is only one of a thousand driftwood stories, embowered by these streets of sand. There are nights – albeit few of them – when I still walk home past Meghan’s father’s house. I tend to do this when I am alone and I am intoxicated. I’ll turn the corner, and I will stare up at that gable in the dark. And I will do this not because I miss Meghan, but because that tiny one-story gable represents a time and a place where everything seemed at its start. I am 26 now, and I am drinking at a bar known as the Hill 16. I am by myself, and I am staring at a shadow in the dark.
It is around this time – the second week in June – that the Irish begin arriving for the season. One can see them along the promenade, wandering 12 people deep, as if in a scrum. The females have fair skin, and the males wear clashing shirts and socks. The Irish are reliable, and they are eager for hard work. The Doughertys hire the Irish en masse. The Doughertys hire the Irish to staff their kiosks, their boardwalk games, and an ice cream parlor, which is located on 24th Street, along a northwest corner of the walk. The girls who work that parlor (Grandma Edie’s) have names like Mairead and Sinead and Fiona and Cliona. Sinead, who hails from County Derry, has taken to teasing me about my dialect. When I tease her back, she purses her lips before giving me a once-over.
“What are you like?” Sinead will say.
My girlfriend, Talia, is managing a french-fry joint which is located at Poplar and the promenade. Our schedules are such that Talia accompanies me to work in the morning, and she accompanies me on my return-walk home at the end of every night. The two of us share the same meal breaks. We share the same shower schedules. We share the same snooze alarms and the same days off. We share so much that by the end of June I have taken to working late, and by myself. I have taken to clocking out, and then heading to the bar. I have taken to spending my dinner breaks behind a cast-metal table along the back of Grandma Edie’s. The dinner hours are slow. I get to communicate with Sinead, one-on-one.
The season has reached full-tilt now, and the Doughertys throw a company party a few days after the 4th of July. This is an intimate affair that takes place inside of Grandma Edie’s. I arrive with Talia, who has one drink before she departs. Ninety minutes later I am sitting with my back against the outside of the building.
“What are y’up to?” Sinead asks. She has taken a seat just to my right.
“I was waiting for you,” I say. This is not a joke, and it is not a lie.
“Hmm,” Sinead says. She is squeezing a lock of hair between crossed fingers.
“Five-ten, blonde hair, tan skin,” I say. “You sure you’re from Northern Ireland?”
“Sometimes I wonder,” Sinead says, and she watches as several strands cascade her side.
“C’mon,” I say. I begin hobbling to my feet. “N’grab your cup.”
“Where are we headed?” Sinead says.
“We’re going for a walk.”
It is 3 AM, and the entire promenade runs empty. I lead Sinead past Surfside Pier, relating the story of how I once got fired. I lead Sinead across the jagged crook that separates North Wildwood from Wildwood. I lead her past the boot-heeled plates, the strewn and pancaked cartons. I lead her down and right along a ramp that empties out beside a vacant lot. Beneath the light, I turn and kiss Sinead. Sinead kisses me back, albeit only for a moment. After that, she swivels her head,
as if to demur.
“No, no,” Sinead whispers. “No, this is not right.”
“What?” I say.
“What? This,” Sinead says. “This is not right.”
“What are you talkin’ about?” I say.
“You’re seeing somebody,” Sinead says. “And I’m seeing somebody at home, as well.”
“I’m breaking up with Talia,” I say.
“Because of me?” Sinead says.
“No,” I say. “Because it makes sense.”
“Oh, I’m sure,” Sinead says. The kelly in her eyes is gleaming.
“You’ll see,” I say. The two of start back.
I broach the subject a few nights after the party, while Talia and I are sitting in our kitchen. “This isn’t working,” I say. “I think we need to break up.” Talia appears shell-shocked, particularly when I go on to suggest – without insisting – that it might make sense for her to move out. There is no reason for Talia to pay me any of her back rent, I explain. If she needs to shuttle her belongings, I will lend her full use of my car. I remain gracious, despite burying the dagger. Talia’s eyes have drawn narrow. She is questioning the why.
I excuse myself. I wash my face and I head to the bar. When I return Talia is asleep, but she has written me a letter. It is positioned on the table, next to a candle in the dark. Dear Bob, Talia’s message begins, I believe that we can do better. The letter’s tone is optimistic. It is written in the first-person plural throughout. Upon finishing, I reread it. I experience guilt over not
Talia is gone when I awake the following morning. I shower and I put on my clothes. I hurry to the boardwalk, where I locate Talia around the back of the fry joint. She is folding cardboard boxes on her own.
“Hey, there,” I say. Talia is wearing a pair of imitation Diors. “I just wanted to apologize for walking out on you last night.”
“It’s OK,” Talia exhales. “I suppose that we both needed a little bit of time to cool off.”
“We needed a what?”
“I said that I suppose we both needed a little bit of time to cool off. Anyway, we can talk about it over dinner. I assume that you’ll be going on your break around 6?”
“Hold on,” I say. “I feel like I need to be clear about something. I mean, I’m sorry if I upset you, and I really appreciated the letter. But I stand by what I said about us breaking things off.”
Talia stares at me before making a stack out of the boxes.
“Please leave,” Talia says. She enters the fry joint, pulling the back door until it’s closed.
Talia quits the fry joint. She packs what little she has, and she enlists her brother to give her a ride back to their parents’ house in Philadelphia. There is no mourning period. I ask Sinead to take a midnight stroll with me a dozen hours after Talia has departed. Sinead agrees, and we set out north along the beach via Wild Wheels Pier. I ask Sinead about her family; Sinead asks me about my goals. I tell Sinead that I would like to become a writer someday, and Sinead tells me that she would like to become a New York City cop. The night is clear, and the breeze, it feels perfect. We circle back upon reaching the lifeguard station at 15th Street. An hour later, we say goodnight a half-a-block from Sinead’s front door.
The two of us schedule a day off together. I invite Sinead to my apartment, where I have cooked breaded chicken and mashed potatoes, creamed corn, and fresh rolls. I stock the fridge. I present Sinead with a flower. After dinner, the two of us sit in the living room, where the sun is streaking low and through the blinds. I take Sinead’s hand, and I lean in to kiss her. Sinead kisses me back. Everything about her seems warm.
It is nightfall, and Sinead meanders back to her apartment. The two of us make plans to reconvene at the Hill 16 around 1. Sinead arrives at the bar with several of her roommates, while I, in turn, arrive with several of my friends who are already drunk. The club is loud, and the dancefloor keeps thumping. I lead Sinead out through a side door. We take a taxi to West 24th.
Once at my place, Sinead and I retire to my bedroom. The kitchen phone rings. I fumble to grab it in the dark.
“Hello,” I say (a botched attempt at cancelling the ringer).
“Did you just get in?” Talia wonders. Her voice strikes me as tart.
“Umm, yeah,” I say. Sinead turns on a light.
“Are you alone?” Talia asks.
“Look, I am not going to get int–”
“I know that you were with her,” Talia continues. “The Irish girl. Is she there, at the apartment?”
“I told you, I am not–”
“Is she there?”
I do not answer.
“Don’t you let that bitch sleep in our bed,” Talia commands me.
“This is not the time,” I say. “I’ll see if I can give you a call tomorrow.”
“If you hang up,” Talia raises, “then this’ll be the last time that we talk.”
“G’night,” I say. I place one thumb over the receiver. The mood is ruined. I pull the cord
out of the wall.
Sinead and I keep each other company – a short walk home, some small talk on a park bench after the end of a long night. True to her word, Talia is no longer calling me. And Sinead, for her part, has put her relationship on a temporary shelf. As pertains to matters physical, Sinead and I both veer toward the conservative. The two of us kiss, but only as a courting ritual. The two of us have slept in the same bed, despite not having sex. When I am with Sinead, I feel rejuvenated. Sinead represents the girl gone on a journey. She represents the stranger who has swept in like a swell.
Our day-to-day is unremarkable, and it proceeds in a similar fashion until the last week of July. It is at this point Sinead informs me that she is needed back in Ireland. The details are scant, but Sinead alludes to the possibility that her father has taken sick. Sinead quits her job, and she books herself upon a one-way flight that is departing out of Newark. I drive Sinead to the airport. I keep struggling to strike a balance between what is – and isn’t – appropriate to be said.
Outside the flight gate, Sinead begins crying. I exhale deeply. I clutch my leg.
“The two of us will talk … and I will write you letters … I am coming to the UK … and you can visit me in Florida.”
And then the flight boards. And then Sinead has vanished. And then I am in Wildwood, where the twilight streaks a barstool, which is situated next to a jukebox that just keeps playing without end.
Talia’s eyes are closed, but she is not asleep. I am seated along the edge of the mattress, where I will remain until this beer is done. I will sleep then, waking in the afternoon. We will leave then. I will request that Talia drive my car. I will sleep a second time along the parkway; I will wake once more along Route 322. I will take a shower, and I will eat some food. During the evening I will assure Talia that I love her, and that I need her, and that I am sorry for an entire litany of things (but not the truth). I will begin to drift while Talia is applying her astringent. I will make a play for sex, the end results of which will be surprisingly good.
As of now, I feel sedated. There is a moondust glow throughout the room. I close my eyes. A full week passes. The following Saturday my parents throw me a graduation party, which filters into Christmas, and – six days later – the millennial turn. In early January, I use the gift money from my graduation to finance an impromptu trip to Tampa. Ed and his girlfriend have taken care of the arrangements. Talia and I need only to pay for our travel, beer and food.
The trip passes uneventfully. I am given a message to contact one of the Dougherty brothers upon our return. The Doughertys are a trio of business owners. They have operated along the Wildwood boardwalk for years. During the late nineties The Doughertys negotiated a revenue-sharing deal to open several race games inside of the Old Town section of Kissimmee, Florida. I know Old Town. That is to say that I am familiar with the area. Meghan and I stayed there during a week-long visit to Disney World in early June of ’95.
I return the Doughertys’ call, at which point they offer me a position – $30K plus benefits, with the possibility of earning an additional $2,500 in bonuses. Between October and May I am to be stationed inside Old Town. Between Memorial Day and the end of September, I am to be stationed along the Wildwood boards. Assuming I accept, the Doughertys would allot me a temporary room inside of their Orlando condominium. As a tenant, I would be granted access to an indoor gym, and an outdoor pool. My rent would start at $75 a week. All of my utilities would be included.
There is little for me to consider, and I accept the Doughertys’ offer. E.J. Dougherty books me on a flight to Orlando that is scheduled to depart the following afternoon. I pack my bags, and I arrange to visit with Talia at her parents’ house in Northeast Philadelphia. Talia’s expression turns gaunt when I confront her with the news. Time is short, I equivocate, and the two of us need to settle in upon some terms. We will stay together – that much is a given – and I will pay for Talia to spend her spring break with me in Central Florida. In addition, we will live in North Wildwood throughout the upcoming summer. I will involve Talia in any major life decisions going forward. Regarding the day-to-day, I am to call Talia at least two times during each week. We will correspond, exchanging letters, back and forth. I am to attend Talia’s graduation ceremony from West Chester University in mid-May, and the two of us will make definitive plans to celebrate our two-year anniversary in mid-June.
It is late now, and the two of us are exhausted. We say goodnight, and Talia watches from a screen door as I pull away along the curb.
Upon my arrival in Orlando, the living becomes easy. It is the off-season, which means I only work six-hour shifts during the week. I live in a gated community located in a tony suburb known as Hunter’s Creek. I spend my afternoons at the gym, or by the pool. The mid-days get arid, and they are policed by 15-minute downpours. I have access to a company vehicle. My gas and tolls are reimbursed.
I pick up Talia at the airport the second week in March. The two of us seem unfamiliar, a dynamic we attempt to bridge by having sex. I take Talia out to dinner, where I enjoy my first alcoholic beverage in over a month. The following day Talia accompanies me to Old Town, where we motor around the venue in a cart. On Wednesday, we head to Universal; on Thursday, we hit all four of the Disney parks. On Friday, we experience our only disagreement of the visit. It arises after Talia offers to facilitate the manufacture of a fake ID for an 18-year-old employee of the Docs. “This is out of line,” I say to Talia. The employee, who appears to be defending Talia’s honor, responds by inviting me to piss off.
The horse is out of the gate now. And, as such, it no longer matters that Talia lives a thousand miles away, or that – so far as I know – she has no go-to source for procuring fake IDs. I am on the clock, and I am this kid’s supervisor. I hold no stock in entertaining Talia’s “side.”
I drive Talia to the airport on Saturday. Our relationship is disintegrating, and the two of us begin to have at it over the phone. I am suspicious, and jealous, particularly on evenings when I leave a message and Talia fails to call me back until the following afternoon. One night in April Talia answers the phone around 2 AM. She is drunk, and maybe high, and she explains that she is in her bedroom at West Chester University, alone. We talk, and at a certain point I can hear a man’s voice entering the room. The voice stops short, and I ask Talia who that was. After denying that there was any voice, Talia hangs up the phone. When I call back, the line is busy. Ten hours later, Talia admits that the voice belonged to a male friend. He was stopping by to say hello.
I am drinking on a regular basis. I get excessively drunk during the first week in May. I have taken a night off to watch Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. That game stretches to five overtimes (approximately seven hours). I am 14 Molsons deep by the time Keith Primeau evens the series at two. A few nights later I get hard-liquor drunk with a pair of sisters who are visiting from Wildwood. That outing ends with me in the backseat of a sedan, where I am making out with the younger sister – an 18-year-old who works for the Doughertys, as well.
I take a flight to Atlantic City, and I return to Wildwood less than a week before Memorial Day. Talia arrives to join me on our two-year anniversary in June. We have rented an apartment on West 24th Street, and I have decorated the place with more than a hundred purple and gold balloons. There is an ice cream cake in the kitchen, and there are two dozen roses in a vase. I cue up “God Only Knows” so that it is commencing at the exact moment when Talia makes her way in through the front door.
The phone rings.
“Hello,” I say. I have no Caller ID.
“Whoa,” my friend Dave says. “He answers.”
“Look, dude, I’m a little bit busy right now,” I say. “Talia just got here. We’re celebrating a two-year anniversary.”
“Two years?” Dave says. “It sounds like it might be time to get down on one knee.”
“That’s more like the seven-year anniversary,” I say. “Listen, man, I have to go.”
I hang up the phone.
“Who was that?” Talia says. She is carrying her luggage into the bedroom.
“Dave,” I say. I notice that the volume on the stereo has been turned low.
“And what was that you were saying about a seven-year anniversary?” Talia asks.
“Nothing,” I say. “Dave was just wondering whether I was going to propose.”
“So, what, you think it’s gonna be another five years before the two of us get engaged?”
“It’s Dave,” I say.
“Yeah, well, I don’t understand why getting married should have to seem like such a joke.”
“It’s not,” I say. “I mean, it doesn’t. Besides, you just graduated, and I have student loans.”
“That’s not the point,” Talia says. She is speaking to me over her shoulder. “The point is that we have never even talked about it. The point is that I’ve spent the past four months living up here
on my own.”
“The two of us are together now,” I say.
“That’s good,” Talia says. She is putting her clothes into a drawer. “I’ll keep that in mind when I’m peeling potato skins up on the boardwalk.”
The tenor of our conversation does not change for close to an hour. The afternoon is over, and so we drive to The Wharf hoping to enjoy an early dinner. It is quiet there, along the water, and a bearded man is playing Cat Stevens as we raise our glasses in a toast. Voilà pour toi, I smile at Talia. Et voilà pour moi, aussi bien.
“Raphael was right to destroy all the evidence of who he was as a little kid. Nobody wants to be reminded of what they could have been. If there was a time machine invented and we could all travel back in time to see ourselves as children, we would never recover.”
“Good morning. My name is Bob Hill, and, if I could, I’d like to say a few words.”
I am standing toward the front of an assembly, 100 people, semi-formally clothed. We are gathered along a breezeway in the Penn State Delaware County Campus Library. I am wearing an Oxford cap and a polyester gown. My father has lent me a pair of leather wingtips for the occasion, along with a pair of khaki trousers and a paisley-patterned tie.
Of the 18 students who are graduating, four have elected to take part in a massive ceremony at State College on December 19th. The remaining 14 range in age from 22 to 63. None of this morning’s 14 graduates are exceptional. We have arrived here because we have transferred credits, or spent four years commuting daily to this three-building campus. A few of us have returned here from State College, or scurried back after burning out on our own. The common denominator being, we are not world-beaters. And there is no valedictorian. Every graduate has been approved to deliver his or her own remarks.
I have been rambling for six minutes now, acknowledging my girlfriend, my mother and father, a veteran administrator who secured me a work-study job at the campus counseling center. I am uncoiling the microphone wire. I am wandering out onto the floor. Somewhere just beyond my sightline, I can hear a woman sniffling. I can see a bald man along the aisle who’s peeling a scab off of his arm.
“It’s nice to know you’re getting a little use out of that speech communications degree,” the graduate after me guffaws. And why not? My entire address was meant to celebrate the fact that – at the age of 26 – I have ostensibly matured. To that end, I have whitewashed any mentions of my academic probation(s), of my $38,000 student loan, of the medical records I initially forged to gain admission, of the sign language instructor who once threatened to take me in front of the university board, of the countless essays I have written for other university students, of an audio/visual room where I’d get drunk and sleep during the afternoons. I have put all of those distractions to pasture. Today I am being indoctrinated under a new rule.
We adjust our tassels. We march outside and toss our mortarboards. There is a reception in the lounge area downstairs where I pose for pictures. A favorite aunt compliments my hair “now that [I am] wearing it short.” Talia is here, and she remains beside me. Over the past 18 months I have come to rely on her a great deal more than at first. The two of us have even lived together, albeit briefly, sharing a one-story house in Sea Isle during the summer of 1999.
My parents seem so proud, and they have agreed to throw me a party … for relatives only. Talia, for her part, has agreed to do whatever I might like immediately following this morning’s ceremony. I have decided that we should go to Wildwood, where we can meet with old friends and revel in the cold. The two of us set out around 2:30. I am driving a Plymouth Sundance that has been handed down to me from my mother. Talia is napping in the passenger seat as I make the turn onto
I am listening to the Magnolia Soundtrack, considering why it is that the future looks so dark. I dare not admit that I have completed college for lack of anything better to do; that once a year I have been reenrolling to keep my student loans from lapsing (seven spring semesters bookended by a pair of falls). The problem – as I see it – is that I am running out of excuses. I have been on Monster.com. I have seen the caliber of positions that are available to a candidate like me. All of the descriptions read like gibberish, the type of language somebody uses when he is attempting to camouflage huge faults.
“We should pick up food,” Talia informs me. She is awake now, and I stop at Bubba’s Liquor in North Wildwood, completely missing the point. We have been invited to spend the night at my friend Ed’s family condo, which is located less than a half-block from the beach. Ed and I have known each other since the mid-nineties, a period during which we were both employed on Surfside Pier. Ed is tall (6’4), and he is constructed like a linebacker. He and his girlfriend are on-hand to greet us as we arrive at the front door.
We settle in. Ed orders cheesesteaks. Around 9 we take a taxi to The Shamrock, one of the only open bars in town. Upon our entry, a line of stools sits empty. There is a strand of garland hanging low across one wall. My friends are here – Brian Smith and his girlfriend, Kate (who happens to be Meghan’s sister); Mike D. and Gerry Vessels. There is a blonde from Bill’s Concessions here, a girl I messed around with back in 1997. I have invited her, unbeknownst to Talia, and this is the first of many issues that will affect the evening’s mood.
By 11 I am drinking whiskey. An hour later, Mike dumps his cup of beer over Talia’s head. Talia departs, and she is accompanied by Ed’s girlfriend. Shortly after, Mike and Gerry decide to pack it in for the evening, as well. We are five now: Kate and Brian, Ed, The Blonde and me. We ditch the bar and pile into Kate’s Pathfinder – the very SUV that Meghan’s father used to teach me how to drive. We chart a course for Surfside Pier, where there is nary a sign of life during the winter. We hop a chain, and we are meandering throughout Kiddieland when Brian hears an EZ-Go approaching via the garage.
There is a glint of light and everybody scatters. I corral The Blonde and lead her racing along the south side of the pier. We pass The Condor and The Sea Dragon. We pass The Amazing Maze, and then The Great Noreaster. We are negotiating a gangplank when The Blonde notices a squad car running parallel to us along the beach. “C’mon,” I say, and the two of us hop a gate into the water park. Once inside, we slink down low into The Lazy River, a 4-ft. waterway that has been drained. We follow it, eventually taking cover beneath the shadows of a footbridge. A second squad car comes to a halt along an upper-concrete landing. That car sits with its lights off as a swinging flood lamp sweeps the shore.
“What?” The Blonde looks over.
“You don’t think this is amusing?” I whisper. “The two of us getting stuck down here like this?”
The Blonde stands tall (5’9), and skinny, with rounded cheeks and clamshell eyes. She is from Connecticut, the only woman I have ever met who has actual money in her voice. The Blonde is wearing blue jeans, along with a denim jacket and a long-sleeve shirt. When I mention that the Lazy River still smells like chlorine, she places a middle finger across her forehead and sighs.
We wait until the police have vanished, after which we jump a metal rail out of the park. We high-step through wet sand beneath the pier, and then the promenade, before ascending a set of stairs at Seaport Village. We find a bench and dust ourselves off.
“What are you doing?” The Blonde asks. I have taken her left hand and I am blanketing it between mine.
“I don’t know,” I say. “This kinda seems like old times.”
The Blonde makes it clear that there was never an “old time” when the two of us held hands. And she is correct. Throughout the three-week period when the two of us were canoodling, matters would inevitably escalate toward the end of an evening, with The Blonde disappearing from my apartment somewhere in the hours before dawn.
I walk The Blonde back to her family’s house on East 6th Street. She runs inside and grabs some beer. When she emerges, we repair to a vacant apartment in the rental house next door. Once there, we sit and we drink. Around 4 AM the two of us lie down along a living room couch. I am spooning The Blonde now, and I pin her hair back; I kiss her neck. The Blonde ignores me before acquiescing. She leads me without words into a bedroom down the hall. We engage in light foreplay. We fall asleep until the break of day. The Blonde gives me a ride back to the condo on East 12th Street, where my thoughts deviate to finishing whatever beer’s left in the fridge.