Eric left his towel back at the house. It was early afternoon and the sand on the beach was directly under the sun; he could not take off his sandals or sit. He slept in and his friends left earlier without him. By the time he got there they had all gone into the water to body surf. Standing closer to the shore and peering out into the waves he could just make out their heads bobbing up and down in the water like bath toys.
He looked around the beach and saw a preponderance of flat, gleaming bodies; flesh sloping downward, almost lifeless. They looked like slabs of back bacon on a buttered stovetop. Any moment now the special badge-wearers would come out with their large coolers, sticking the tanners and loungers with their knives and prongs, placing the cutlets between buns, and washing them down with Natty Light; or mead, maybe.
There should be far more exciting wastes of a day pass, Eric thought to himself as he strolled north on the boardwalk. The boardwalk was long, extending 18 blocks of the beach town. Looking straight ahead from the middle position where he walked, the path narrowed violently as if it had no end, as if he was on a public treadmill where everyone could move at their own speed. Eric kept looking back to make sure he was not obstructing the joggers, but every time he did there was always one right behind him, glaring sourly as they moved to either side of his lumbering frame. Eric tried to be as courteous as things went but was always mystified by the deference expected of him by the quick-footed.
The end of the boardwalk was marked by a 15-foot replica of a lighthouse, one of two holding up a sign over the adjacent road reading SORRY TO SEE YOU LEAVE! between two smiling suns in heart-shaped sunglasses. The fake lighthouse on his side was defaced with a frowning face in dripping red spray paint.
Eric had no memory of the boardwalk having such charm, or being this hot. Of course the only other time he’d been there was 20 years before, when he was around 11 or 12. He, his mother, his younger brother, an aunt, an uncle, and three older cousins (the oldest a boy followed by two girls) had cramped into a two-bedroom beach house, for which the adults pooled near-equal chunks of their savings to rent for a four-day getaway. It rained for all but one and a half of those days; much of it was spent trying to quell confined boredom. Eric remembered a great deal of noise that his mother and aunt tried to placate with delights not afforded him back home. He drank as many as four Cokes during the day paired with a slice of white bread slathered with chunky peanut butter, which he gagged with every bite before washing it down with an ice pop that turned his mouth either red, blue, purple, or green.
During the day, the older cousins would sit in the living room watching Jerry Springer try and fail to convince lesbian strippers, runaway punks, black nationalists, and Klan members to “have a conversation,” or whatever. Eric asked his mother, often sitting in the kitchen with her sister swirling a glass of wine and staring out into the rain, if he could go watch with them, and she waved him off. But every time he tried to join, the cousins would turn off the TV and glare at him until he left. At night they would gather at the table and play the available board games: Monopoly, Parcheesi, Sorry, Connect Four, Candy Land, and Stratego. On the drive down, Eric’s uncle regaled everyone in the car with his ambitions to have a cookout every night with different meats: chicken cutlet on Thursday, bratwurst and burgers on Friday, pork chops on Saturday, and Taylor ham pork roll sandwiches throughout the days. But his uncle, younger than his sisters and not tied by parentage, was seldom in the house.
Eventually the rain did give way on Saturday afternoon, and they had all gone outside for the first time. The clouds did not clear, leaving the beach sand claylike and the water colder than usual. Eric’s mother and aunt sat on beach chairs on either side of the cooler containing mostly Cokes and the least-favored green apple-flavored ice pops. The children played at the edge of the water, dodging the waves and chasing each other around to no exact purpose. Eric’s brother took out a Sailor Moon Frisbee, actually from the family sitting next to them, and threw it into the ocean. The owner of the Frisbee, a girl about his age, was crying incessantly, and Eric’s brother started crying incessantly. Each faced each other beside their respective parents, with Eric’s mother apologizing to the girl’s nonplussed father who nonetheless took her apologetic offer of 10 dollars.
“Tell her you’re sorry,” Eric’s mother said to his brother. Which he did, garbled as it was by his sobs. The girl wiped her nose on her father’s bathing suit and looked away.
Summers like this were supposed to be summers of “firsts” for his generation. For his cousins this would have given them opportunity, presumably, to share a beer with and steal a kiss from another same-aged vacationer, on the beach at night or under the boardwalk, whom they would never see again. As the day went on the cousins’ style of play grew rougher and surlier with the understanding that these opportunities would be denied them until next year. Eric, at least, would have his own “first” when he witnessed what would later be described as “public drunkenness.”
That night, Eric’s uncle came back to the house holding a bagged beverage and in the company of a man of similar comportment whom no one knew. At his repeat and somewhat frenzied urging, he led us all to the boardwalk which, because everyone else was beset with the rain, was bustling. The ground was dry but air was chilly. The cousins were in sweatshirts bearing emblems of colleges none of them could ever hope for admission. Eric and his brother wore sweatshirts with Looney Tunes characters.
Eric had not been conscious that his mother had any anxiety about crowds, but felt it in her grip on his arm.
“Mom, you’re hurting me!” Eric’s brother yelled.
“Just hold your horses, you two,” she replied abruptly.
The boardwalk was teeming with carnival-like commotion as they made their way south on the boardwalk. They kept falling behind his aunt who in turn was trying to keep up with his uncle and the strange companion, who seemed to have a separate agenda. As they rushed past the businesses, Eric heard a patterned soundtrack. “Glory Days” in a bar, “Livin’ on a Prayer” in a t-shirt shop, “Born to Run” in an ice cream parlor, “Runaway” from a motel balcony.
At a lull in the crowd they finally caught up with his aunt and cousins who were at once drained and frazzled looking around for the uncle and his sidekick, who were now out of sight. Eric’s mother and aunt had a tense exchange that the children could not hear save Eric’s mom saying, “There’s an ice cream place back that way.”
“It’s freezing and the line was out the door when we passed it,” his aunt said.
Eric’s mother shrugged; then his aunt shrugged. The kids cheered and led the way back.
They were the last in line at the ice cream parlor and the crowd on the boardwalk began to thin out. Eric’s cousins had their own conversation as they stood around a figurine of a cone of soft serve with a smiling face only slightly taller than Eric. Eric listened in, again with their speech coming out in fractures. The girls were chirping and wide-eyed over the singer of Silverchair. The boy rolled his eyes imploring that “Silverchair bites,” much to his sisters’ displeasure. When they noticed Eric was eavesdropping, however poorly, the boy turned to him with a smirk and asked, “Can you get us some cigarettes?” Eric froze and nervously shook his head no. The three of them laughed.
The surrounding boardwalk suddenly looked darker as businesses began to close. Coming south out of the darkness was a group of older people, five men and two women. The men were wearing either denim jackets or Baja ponchos and cargo shorts. The two women were in oversized sweatshirts and cutoffs with exposed pockets. All of them had Slurpees in their hands, either Coke or Cherry-flavored. As they walked they passed around a bottle of clear liquid, pouring the contents into their Slurpees. When it came to one of the men it had only a few drops.
“Real classy, guys” the man said, shaking the bottle over his drink.
The group laughed as they came to pass Eric.
“Fuck it,” the man said, and launched the empty bottle at the base of the soft serve figurine, shattering it to pieces. Eric’s cousins froze.
“Randy!” cried the nasal voice of a female.
“Watch it, man,” said a rougher male voice.
Randy appeared unfazed, turning a wide grin at Eric that looked completely black, like a void waiting to obliterate him. As the rest of the group passed him, the two women waved and smiled sheepishly. They took cover behind the men once they saw the mutually hard glares of Eric’s mother and aunt burning holes into their foreheads.
Eric’s mother flagged a nearby man in tight black shorts and a yellow shirt that read BEACH PATROL. In his arms was a bicycle helmet but he had no bicycle, keys were hanging around his neck. Eric looked up as his mother sternly but methodically laid out what had happened, or so Eric could glean. The patrolman looked out into the darkness of the southward direction the group were walking and listened placidly to her complaint. The patrolman shook his head from side to side and said things Eric could not hear; though he caught several instances of “miss.” Eric’s mother looked less and less assured.
“These are violent men, miss,” Eric heard the patrolman say gravely. “And you should know better.”
The patrolman turned quickly to Eric and flashed a grin no less black than Randy’s. Indeed, more than half of his face was shrouded.
“Have a good night, miss.” He twirled his keys like a bored gym teacher and walked lazily in the same direction as the group. Eric couldn’t tell what was down that way. It appeared far blacker than anything else he saw, yet the people who remained on the boardwalk all appeared to be going in that direction, and at the same slow and listless speed, as if it was calling them. When they disappeared into the dark, Eric imagined they were absorbed by it and made part of it.
Eric’s cousin handed him a cone of chocolate and vanilla soft serve with rainbow-colored sprinkles jimmies. He was led away from the darkness at the end of the boardwalk by his mother’s marginally more relaxed hand. He felt that he’d been spared for whatever reason and was free to go home, though maybe he would not be so lucky next time.
“Well that guy was fucking helpful,” his mother muttered to herself.
Eric looked up at her and she looked back embarrassed. It was also the first time he’d heard his mother swear.