On April 5th of this year I received an email from one of my employers. This email stated that – effectively immediately – I was being let go. Budget cuts, the employer explained. And just like that, 90% of my income was gone. Worse yet, I had nothing in the coffers. For months, I had been skating on cobwebs. I had been dodging final notices; sweeping out mist from the sepulcher. I was cashed out, maxed out, pursuing offers for a stimulus. When my father became aware of this situation, he issued me a loan.
I am 43 now, and I have become a different person than my father. My father is a provider, and I am a rogue. Throughout my adolescence, my father and I argued. We argued so frequently that I eventually relocated, first to Wildwood, and then State College, and then Sea Isle, and then Orlando, and then Philadelphia, and, eventually, New York. My parents, on the other hand, have remained in the same house for the better part of five decades. My parents are retired. They enjoy stability. They spend their summers along the Chesapeake. They lease a slip. They own a boat.
I am intimidated by my father, and it is for this reason that I had initially neglected to inform him about his inclusion via Moving On. During June of 2013, my father made it clear that he did not appreciate the way my fledgling series had been portraying him. Since then my father and I have made amends, and it is in preserving said amends that I spoke to my father a little over a week ago. I wanted to explain to my father why I had intended on mentioning him during the sendoff of my series, and I wanted to apologize to my father for not having conferred with him before.
It is a tricky business, being so transparent about one’s affairs. In December of 2015, by way of example, I was selling Christmas trees on 39th and 2nd, and I met a woman who would bring me fruit and coffee, and who would chat with me toward the end of every shift. The more I got to know this woman, the more I began to consider when – or even if – I should tell her about my website. On January 1st, I sent this woman a URL to ifearbrooklyn.com. “I think it’s great that you write about your past,” this woman responded, “and I hope the writing helps to heal hurts and demons. I am at a point where I am not capable of handling your history, but I wish you every success in your work and in your life.”
Oh, well. The trials of commitment. In the end, the meat outweighs the bone.
I have been asked how I plan to proceed now that the writing phase of Moving On is over. I could reedit the first two seasons, which are lacking, but my inclination is to let the series function as a real-time dossier of my progression as a writer. This is a rough sell in that commercial publishing is an industry, and a lot of its proxies evaluate a book’s worth based on mathematics. Once, I emailed a book proposal to an agent who, in turn, refused to consider my query unless I resubmitted it in a format known as “the hook, the book, and the cook.” I would never entrust Moving On to a careerist like that. Then again, what careerist would want it? Moving On has only generated 42,000 hits as of this post.
But enough. The hour is late, and the brief period for 1990s nostalgia has come and gone. I need to rest up. I need to catch up. I need to pay off debts and spend time with old friends. I’d like to join a scene and I’d like to solve a mystery. I’d like to write a movie script, and I’d like to be interviewed for a podcast. I’d like to visit Italy. I’d like to move to Venice Beach, and, once there, I’d like to own a dog. But more than anything else, I would like for my writing to sustain me. And I would like for my writing – and this series – to endure.
Onward. Upward. We still have mountains left to scale.
It is 1 PM and I am lying in bed. The windows are open and the curtains are breathing. I can hear a lawn mower, the sound of one last trim before October. I stand up and I head into the bathroom, where I pass a mirror, and I notice a green smear of ink across my face. Last night I slept with an Irish girl who had orange hair and a shamrock decaled on her cheek. That girl is gone now. She left around daylight. I drink some water from the spigot. The spigot’s water tastes so cold.
I walk into the kitchen where I consider phoning Talia. I decide against it. I look out the window. Too brisk for the beach. The beach is empty and the surf is low; the flies are biting and the sun looks bleak. I put on a T-shirt, and I order a cheesesteak and cheese fries from Mr. D’s. The food arrives and I eat it in the living room. I begin re-watching Summer of Sam on VHS. Once I finish eating, I toss the refuse into a foil plate. I lie back and I fall asleep. When I come to, the daylight is fading. I feel weak. I drink a beer.
I am off today, the final Monday in September. I am scheduled to leave for Orlando around 10 PM tomorrow night. As a matter of course, I have been informed that the Dougherty’s Orlando condominium will no longer be available, which means that I will need to find an apartment of my own. Finding an apartment will require me submitting to a credit check, which I have never done. For nine years I have been renting by way of a gentleman’s agreement. I will fail a credit check, and I know it.
I drive to Woody’s on 18th Street and I buy a 12-pack. Upon returning home I take a shower. I debate whether to go out for Monday Night Football (The Jaguars vs. The Colts), but no one comes to mind that I should call. The Irish Fall Festival took place this past weekend, but all of that is over now. I put on 18 Tracks by Bruce Springsteen and I begin to pack my clothes. A few beers deep, I sit at the kitchen table, where I am listening to “The Promise”: Got a job down in Darlington/Some nights I don’t go/Some nights I go to the drive-in/Some nights I stay home. I continue drinking and just before daybreak I pocket two beers and I wander east on 24th Street toward the beach. The sky is gray, and the sun is peeking through in glimpses. Amidst the cloud cover I am reflecting on a string of family vacations that I spent here as a child. I am reflecting on the lead-up, along with the enthusiasm that surrounded an upcoming week at the shore. I am reflecting on that first day, on my parents picking up the keys from a rental office, on rushing in and choosing a room. I am reflecting on fresh clothes and folded bathing suits. I am reflecting on the idea that I was happy here, whenever visiting Cape May County. I am reflecting on the finite nature of vacations: There are still a few days left to go. Only then it was Friday, and then it was sundown, and then I was washing the sand off my fingers an hour after the lifeguards had abandoned their posts.
I meander back to the apartment where I proceed to drink until I fall asleep. I wake up at 6 PM, after which I begin to shuttle all of my belongings into my car. I am still driving a Plymouth Sundance with 110,000 miles on it, and it is for this reason that I plan on taking the Amtrak auto train from Virginia all the way to Orlando tomorrow. I will drive to Alexandria this evening, concluding the final stretch to Lorton Station after dawn.
I leave the apartment on 24th Street filthy. I do not clean, nor do I take out the garbage. I run into Sean Dougherty, who is my co-landlord and my boss, as I am completing one last trek from the apartment to my car.
“Need help?” Sean asks. Sean stands 5’6 with black hair and blue eyes. Sean appears to be walking toward his parents’ house, which is located a dozen feet from where we are.
“Nope. This is the last of it,” I say. I am carrying a plastic tub, and I am clasping an envelope between my teeth. I slide the tub into my trunk. “I am glad I ran into you, though. I wanted to give somebody the keys.”
I remove the envelope from my mouth. I ferret out a set of keys, and I softball them to Sean.
“I suppose that I’ll be seeing you in Florida,” Sean says.
“I suppose you will,” I respond.
Sean thanks me for my hard work. He shakes my hand and then he gives me a half-hug. I feel anxious and awkward and I am somewhere between still drunk and withdrawing. Sean and I part ways along the sidewalk. I slam the trunk and then I’m gone.
I have a bag of cassettes in the passenger seat, and I sift through it, eventually deciding on Tom Waits’ Closing Time to sustain me until I merge onto 95. The night and the road strip away all the hassle, and they leave me free and easy, stuffed with junk food and caffeine. I want to drive, and just keep driving until the sun comes up and the FM band goes blank. I want to drive west and I want to be anonymous. I want to find a cause and plant my stake into the ground. Only I am limited by my resources, and so I pull into a Denny’s a few miles north of Virginia. My fingers are shaking, and yet I feel calm.
I eat an omelet while reading subtitles on CNN (USA Basketball to play Slovakia in a quarterfinal round at the Sydney Olympics). Around 4 AM I read The Washington Post (Gore and Bush are preparing for a debate), and then USA Today (Research reveals that half of Americans are still afraid to get online). I wait until the darkness lifts, and then I continue south to Lorton Station, where the parking lot is empty and the office doors are closed.
Three hours pass and I am on the train and my Sundance has been loaded, and I am reclining in a shiftback seat with miles and miles of legroom. The train starts and I fall asleep and I am having a dream about watching a matinee at the Beach Theatre in Cape May. I can hear the PA. I am aware of sliding doors. I am aware of shuffling hips and nearby conversations. A train speeds by along the opposite rails. RRRRRRVVVVVVVVVVV, I hear that train go.
My mind returns to a familiar theme: I am a nomad. I own $40,000 worth of debt. I remain at a remove from my family; I remain at a remove from my friends. I believe in nothing. I am not healthy. I am on a trajectory to repeat bad jokes across an open bar at weddings. I want a drink. I feel exhausted. I imagine being stuck between these rails as an opposing train speeds by. RRRRRRVVVVVVVVVVV, I hear that train go.
I make it two days in Orlando. I have little money and 75% of the one-bedrooms that are listed in the Sentinel require first month and last month and security and a fee. I remain sober, and I report to work, where almost nobody acknowledges that I have departed. At the end of my first shift, I contact EJ Dougherty, who informs me that – upon inspecting my recently-vacated apartment – his mother has discovered set-in stains along the carpet, specks of mildew throughout the bathroom, a viscous film on top of the oven, a cloud of fruit flies above the trash, a pair of underwear, a pungent odor, some syrupy bananas, and a loaf of bread gone green with mold. “We needed to gut the place,” is the last thing EJ tells me. I cannot sleep. I go to a diner. I quit my job. I hit the road.
It is midnight when I reach I-95. I am scared, but I feel exhilarated. I am no longer concerned about putting miles on my car. I will drive north until I reach Swarthmore, where I will stay with my parents until I can afford a place of my own. I think about Talia. I think about us reconciling. I think about fixed meals and old friends and watching TV in a reclining chair. I pass a billboard that reads, “South of The Border,” and it makes me think of Meghan, of the two of us crammed into her metallic-black Fiero throughout the long ride back from Disney. Meghan has graduated. She might be living in Pennsylvania. I lower a window. I am still riffing on the idea of Meghan, of mothers, of needing somebody else to make me whole.
One afternoon this past summer I was working on a microphone when a cluster of people halted to watch me. These people stood at a remove, dressed in collared shirts and white-creased pants. I drew a crowd, and I worked that crowd, and as the crowd dispersed, a woman from that cluster approached me. This woman had bronze skin and polished teeth, and her hair fell thin and gold like straw. This woman, whose name was Jackie Lyons-Robinson, explained that she had never seen anyone massage a crowd like I did. “I host a home show in Atlanta,” Mrs. Robinson explained, “and I think that you would be outstanding in front of a camera.” I balked. I avoided eye contact. I made a joke about how I didn’t tickle a lens. I had a chipped tooth. I had a coarse complexion. And Mrs. Robinson could see all of this, up-close. “We’ll take care of that,” is what she’d told me. Mrs. Robinson gave me her business card and I gave her my address. Only I never contacted Mrs. Robinson, not even after she had sent me a letter, reiterating that I should. And all of this confronts me amidst the morning lights of eastern Georgia. The interstate appears damp, as if someone has sprayed it with a hose.
I listen to the radio, and by noon I have reached Virginia, a state of southern endless sprawl. My car is a mess, and there is a Pepsi bottle full of Listerine cartwheeling bottom-heavy across the floor. I hit traffic – the tolls in Delaware. I enter Pennsylvania, where I exit 95. MacDade Boulevard, and then a quick left onto Fairview. The drapes are open as I pull up to my parents’ house, but the curtains in the living room are drawn.
I park on the street. I knock on my parents’ front door (I am already opening it). “Look what the wind blew in,” my father feigns. My mother hugs me, after which I launch into a speech regarding why I could not stay in Florida. “I haven’t showered in four days,” I glower. “So what are you gonna do now?” my father asks. “Oh, c’mon, he just got in,” my mother offers. I take a shower. My mother cooks me dinner. I fall asleep in the basement. When I come to, I can hear my father’s voice upstairs.
It is Sunday. Sunday morning. And the kitchen smells of scrapple. I wind my way into the living room. “Take a seat,” my father says.
My mother smiles. The three of us appear sparse with me on a love seat, my mother in an armchair, and my father on a couch.
“Your mother and I have been talking,” my father says, “and we’d like to know whether you intend on moving back into this house.”
“I’m not sure,” I say. “I mean, I know there’s nothing left for me in Wildwood. And, obviously, I need to get a job. I have a little bit of money, but it’s not enough to pay for an apa–”
“So you do intend on living here,” my father says.
“If it’s OK.” I look toward my mother.
“It’s not a problem,” my father assures me. “And we’re not going to charge you any rent. But you are going to respect some basic ground rules.”
“OK,” I say.
My father’s brow is growing tense.
“First, there will not be any drinking in this house,” he says. “Second, we want to see proof that you are out there looking for a job.”
“Yeah, I had kind of planned on that–”
“You are welcomed to use my computer,” my father continues, “assuming I’m not on it. And you can borrow a suit – if you need to – for interviews. But as long as you are in this house, you are going to work, full-time.”
“OK,” I say.
“You are also going to be doing some chores. You are going to be carrying laundry for your mother, and you are going to be taking out the trash.”
“As far as your friends are concerned, they are not to call here after 10 o’clock at night. If one of your friends needs to pick you up, he can honk out on the driveway, but he is not to knock on this door, and under no circumstances are your friends to be inside this house.”
“Wait a minute,” my mother interrupts, “I think you should clarify that what we’re talking about here is a very specific element.”
“No, Pat,” my father insists, “I’m talking about all of his friends. Y’know, some of these kids have made us the butt of their jokes for years now. And, meanwhile, we’ve reached a point where all of our other children have grown up and moved out of the house. We’ve built a decent home here, and I am not going to see any of that set back.” My father returns his attention to me. “Do I make myself clear?” he says.
“Yes,” I say.
“That’s it,” my father says. He dismisses me with a wave of his hand.
I stand up and I walk back to the basement. I feel dizzy and I lie on a couch. I stare at the ceiling, at which point I can hear my father’s footsteps lumbering through the dining room above me. I can always tell my father’s footsteps. They fall like cloudbursts on the floorboards of this house.
These are my people. Without them, Moving On would not be the series that I had set out to write. I owe each of them. Group hug:
Sean Baker, Mike Beck, Megan Jordan Bennetta, Joe Boylan, Dave Brown, Jenny Chang, Ray DiClaudio, EJ Dougherty, Sean Dougherty, Therese Eiben, Dave Fox, Kevin Franchville, Mark Havens, Bobbi Jean Race-Heil, Pat Hill, Sam Hill, John Higgins, Mike Higgins, Stacy Gonzalez-Higgins, Jack Huff, Dave Imbrogno, Joe Kennedy, Lori Lane, Sara Lippmann, Jesse Lundy, Marci MacRone, John Manion, Joanna Martin, Alex Kinnear-McClure, Kerry McElrone, Ed McNamara, Tara Murtha, Jason Palombaro, Stacey Loke-Pelle, Bill Salerno, Trish Sammer, Michelle Sergio, Nick Sittineri, Brian Smith, Melanie Audette-Smith, Jim Stewart, Mike Strickler, Vesna Sukalo, Joey Sweeney, Gerry Vessels, Donna White, and Jen Zawacki.
The final two installments of Moving On will be posted on December 14th & 15th.
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 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.