I had quit my job in a moment of pique. It wasn't a very good job, but I had been glad to get it six months earlier. It was a clerk's job in a children's book store called Tiny Tales, located on the Upper East Side in New York City. It paid just enough to live on if I confined myself to Salvation Army fashions and a diet of Campbell's soup, instant oatmeal, and peanut butter sandwiches.
But I quit, surprising myself at least as much as the owner of Tiny Tales. He was a man in his fifties with all the normal bad habits who fancied himself a debonair collector of first editions. My second day on the job he showed me Polaroid snapshots of the glass-front bookcase in his home where he kept the prized volumes. He had photographed the case from all conceivable angles, but in every instance the camera flash had reflected off the glass, rendering the spines of the books themselves invisible behind the soapy glare of light.
“You can’t really see too clearly in this one,” he said, several times. And, “This one didn’t come out too well, but....”
At first I felt kind of sorry for him. His book store was doing all right, but not well enough to last for long, and the bungling of the first edition photographs made him seem hapless. He smoked outside the store, which affronted the wealthy, healthy women who shopped there, drank coffee from the next door deli all day, ate too much and slept too little. He said he lived in White Plains. He and his wife fought on the phone most afternoons. All in all, a guy worth feeling a little sorry for.
Slowly, though, my feelings changed. He boasted too frequently, gave bad advice to his customers about the books in the store, was rude to the West Indian nannies, and sent me to the deli to buy his coffee once too often. I decided that he was, after all, conceited, ineffectual, narrow-minded and rude.
I quit on a Thursday afternoon in early August when he smiled ingratiatingly at a woman whose little boy had missed the blue toilet and peed all over the floor of the staff bathroom. “No, no. Don’t worry about it. Stella will clean it up. Stella?”
After exiting Tiny Tales without a word to anyone, leaving a silent, three-figured tableau transfixed behind me, I headed downtown. I walked in a sort of trance for a while. As I passed windows full of shoes and pastry and artwork I kept thinking about the owner having to bend down himself, get on his knees by the cold blue porcelain and clean up the mess, then straighten up again and reassert his dignity behind the cash register. Would he be able to do it? Or would he just pull the grate down and go home early, as he had done on several mysterious occasions during the last several months I had worked for him. “I’m gonna close up,” he’d said abruptly, on these afternoons. “You can have the rest of the day off. Don’t worry, I’ll pay you. I’m not as much of a skinflint as my wife thinks.”
By the time I was skirting Grand Central Station’s romantic bulk, I had started to feel the first pricks of fear. I was not exactly sorry that I’d walked out, but I was very sorry that I would now have to deal with the repercussions. On impulse, I entered the railway terminal and stood looking up at the aquamarine vault of the great starry ceiling. All around me was the pleasant five o’clock rush of people going places, everyone, seemingly, with a destination except me.
Perhaps the air of transit in Grand Central was what gave me the idea to go to the beach the next day. What I had really wanted to do was get on a train going somewhere far away, a night train, and wake up the next morning half way to Mexico, or Canada, away from my problems and away from myself. That being impossible, or, as I told myself, totally impractical, the next morning I took the F train to Coney Island instead. Although I had lived in New York for eight years already, it was my first time there. I had thought that it would be crowded because it was summertime, but in fact it was not. As I learned, over the next several weeks of faithful beach going, it was only crowded on the weekends. During the week, aside from the occasional groups of antic and voluble day camp kids, the beach at Coney Island tended to be a fairly peaceful place. I found, after the first few days, that I preferred a spot called “Bay 10.” For unknown reasons, this stretch of sand and ocean was less populated than any of its neighbors, even the directly adjacent “Bay 9” and “Bay 11.” I also found that the same people tended to turn up at Bay 10, and that many of them had fallen into an easy companionship with one another. In the same way that wealthier people who have summer houses talk about their home friends and their summer friends, by the beginning of August, these Bay 10 people appeared to have formed a loose coalition of beach relationships. Pleasant, reassuring, and always short-lived.
I entered the small world of Bay 10 with relief that August. In the evenings, in my airless studio apartment in the East Village, I looked at the Help Wanted’s until the pages were smeared and limp with my sweat. I circled ads and copied telephone numbers. I made no calls. Instead, I lay on a rag rug on the old red linoleum floor of the studio; I listened to the radio on my headphones; I ate peanut butter toast and drank Gordon’s gin from the freezer. I tried to think straight. I tried to think about what I wanted to make of my life. I could not think of anything but sand. Sand that shifted and moved beneath me, hot to the touch, cool beneath, composed of as many dark grains as light when I looked closely--so mysterious, then, why it was white white white when I saw it as a whole. A whole white beach curtailed by the green and black ocean. When I got too hot to stand it one more second I raced into the shallow Brooklyn waves and dived headfirst into the cold salt water. “Look how easy she does it,” the old Polish women said, nodding their bathing-capped heads in approval. “That is the way.”
Look how easy she does it.
Easy does it. Easy does it, my father used to say, when I was a child in Wisconsin. He worked in a bank and he liked everything to move slowly. Easy does it. Speed makes your money disappear. Or your life. My mother died in a car crash the summer before I went to college. My father told me to go anyway. So I did. I went to Columbia University. And I never went back, except to visit. And whenever I did go back, my father was still moving slowly. His slow cup of coffee in the morning, his slow drive to the bank downtown, his long, slow day accounting for the town people’s money. The slow slow drift of evening as it drew shadows like fine blue fabric across the top of the weeping willow tree, into our yard, onto the shallow porch, through the disappearing mesh of the screen door and, finally, imperceptibly, into the already darkened living room where my father sat, reading, slowly, the county paper. Slowly, my father was enfolded in the fine blue fabric of Wisconsin nights until eventually he felt invisible to me no more than a shadowy part of my memory of those blue nights.
Each morning during the month after I quit the book store I would arise, hot and addled from gin, take a cold shower in the tiny aluminum stall next to the refrigerator, devour two pieces of toast, pack a bottle of water and a light lunch that might extend to bologna or a cold knish, and depart for the beach wearing my swimsuit beneath baggy shorts and a tank top. I thought briefly, sometimes, about staying in Manhattan to inquire about jobs. I never did.
In lieu of Tiny Tales, Bay 10 had become my serious, daily destination. I reported there every morning with the promptness of a first-rate employee and stayed until five or six o’ clock. A few times I stayed later than that and felt somehow meritorious, as though I had indeed put in overtime. The first person to address me directly was a life guard. He had an accent and after a moment I realized that he was Russian.
“The water is nice today, no?”
“Yes. Very nice.”
“I did not get to swim today. We were supposed to have a drill, before work, but it lost time.”
“Yes. I love to swim.”
“I just like to get wet.”
After a few more days I had identified other regulars: The thin, long-haired woman who lay flat as a pancake on a sheet all day while her thin, long-haired daughter ranged around Bay 10, edging politely in on other kids’ games and paddling through the surf like a tiny seal; the older woman with gray curls who showed up early to sit beneath an umbrella made to look like a slice of watermelon and the short, pot-bellied man who joined her in the afternoons to fly his myriad kites. He seemed to be a real specialist, arriving burdened with multiple black zipper bags containing all kinds of fancy kites: square kites and dragon kites, rainbow kites, metal kites that burned in the sky and kites with holes in them that hung as motionless as tiny, colorful moons high above us all. He was generous with them, too. He let eager kids hold them sometimes, but the kids were never skillful enough and inevitably the kites would come tumbling down to many childish shouts of, “Pull on the string, dummy!” And, “Pump it, pump it!” There were the four old Polish ladies in bathing caps who were there every day by the time I arrived, sitting contentedly in the morning sun, wrapped in voluminous floral print suits that barely covered their immense proportions. Their Polish talk always sounded indignant and wise to me. But they knew some English, too, and would occasionally call things out to me. “Beautiful day we have, no?” And, “You get good tan today!” And, “Look how easy she does it.” Look how easy she does it.
There was a gay couple who came every day, two men in their sixties, both glamorous in gold chains, medallions, and wide swimming trunks with waistbands that made them look like a pair of aging prize fighters. One had a Panama hat and the other a funny old fishing cap, which ruined the glamour a bit. They kept up a constant gentle patter of conversation, and although they had sturdy beach chairs they spent a great deal of time standing at water’s edge, falling into dialogues with people passing by. There was one life guard they had a crush on in particular, a tall black man with exquisitely carved musculature, and all of Bay 10 watched the attempted courtship with a sense of partisan hopefulness.
There was a deeply tanned Asian man with one long braid whose age I could not begin to guess at--he looked youthful, but there was a certain worn quality to his skin that made me think he was older than he appeared. He seemed totally self-sufficient, arriving with his beach rug and water and food in a small red knapsack, spending the days with his eyes closed, listening to something on his headphones, eating and bathing periodically, and looking satisfied, always--as though he were enjoying his dream day over and over again.
I identified the most with him. I suppose because he came to the beach alone. But I never exchanged words with him as I did, eventually, with all the others. I don’t even know what language he spoke.
During the time I was going to Bay 10 every day I did not ask myself why. My mind circled around and away from that question like a hawk avoiding some overlarge prey. I had no reason to regret the book store job in particular; since getting out of Columbia I had taken and lost or given up or worn out too many jobs to remember. My reason for taking the jobs had always been to stay in New York; my reason for staying in New York had never been established. And New York being New York, I had never needed to establish any reason for staying. New York has always been full of people who have wanted to stay, fiercely, blindly, for no reason they could ever articulate. I was one among millions.
And I felt like one among millions. As the years slipped by, and my college friends began to have careers and get married--establish what are commonly thought of as “lives”--I drifted away from them. I made less and less sense to them, as time went by. Or maybe less and less sense to myself. At any rate, slowly, taking it slowly, as my father would have advised, I drew apart from my more immediate past as well as my Wisconsin past, and began to live life in a month-to-month way. I met people in the places I worked--book stores, restaurants, the kinds of small, nondescript offices in which the city abounds--and found enough companionship to suffice. The rent on my Avenue C studio was low enough that I could always make ends meet one way or another. Sometimes my father would send me a train ticket to come home for Christmas or Thanksgiving. “Sorry it’s not an airplane ticket,” he’d write neatly across the Amtrak ticket folder. “I wouldn’t want to have to think of you up there. Love, your father.”
By the August day on which I walked out of Tiny Tales, leaving the owner to clean up the bathroom, I had more or less lost track of time. Moved into a way of life that by its very nature repelled the notion of time. There was no ladder for me to climb. No row for me to hoe. No mythical point of stability and comfort in the future for which to aim. Without goals of this sort, one’s life undergoes a subtle but enormous change. One finds oneself living, as the rest of the animal kingdom, for the season.
I was twenty-six. I was on the beach. Bay 10. Every day I laid out my domain anew. My faded Mexican rug, discarded clothes piled here, food there, shoes at the bottom to hold the rug down against the shore wind. Every day, every thing in the same place. My tiny world. By night, fears of placelessness and purposelessness might swoop at me, illuminated briefly like sharp black bats in the porch light, but by day all was bright and safe.
I had always felt secure at a pool or a beach. Where I grew up there was both a large outdoor municipal pool that stayed open from seven in the morning until nine at night in the summers, and a man-made beach by the river where it widened to create a pleasant shallows. Both were well-staffed by tan young life guards, ringed with concession stands, and filled with people, young and old, who were intent upon putting off the unpleasant things of life. Kids played Marco Polo, bought pop and cheese popcorn, and swore they’d stay up all night. Adults blew smoke rings, filched treats from the kids, and told themselves and each other that everything would work out, somehow. The shrill, incessant whistles of the life guards, the hollow, merry bobbling of the red and white pool dividers, the splashes and giddy shrieks, or at the river the cry of, “Big fish!”--all combined to create a safe place under the sun, a place where indeed it seemed that nothing bad or sad could ever befall one.
At Bay 10 I splurged with my small cash fund and bought things from the vendors who traversed the length of the beach. I bought luke warm beer from the men who lugged grocery sacks at the end of either arm, calling over and over, “Ice cold beer. Budweiser. Heineken. Cerveza. Cold beer, here.” From the heavily dressed Guatemalan women pushing laundry carts with giant bakery trays balanced across the tops, I bought crunchy sticks of dough coated in sugar and cinnamon and sand. I bought skinned papayas on sticks dipped in lemon juice. I bought a bright, hand-woven ankle bracelet from a man who said he was from Tibet.
“Very pretty,” crooned the Polish women.
“Now you get a date,” they laughed.
I did not really want a date. That was one of the reasons I liked Bay 10. Unlike some of the other, more popular beach spots, it seemed to host a collection of beach lovers, not a collection of individuals wanting dates. I considered the possibility of attempting to explain this to the Polish women, but in the end just shook my head and smiled, leaving them to interpret that as they might. “Now you will see,” they said.
Each day the sand was hotter and more familiar. I would close my eyes and fall asleep to the sound of the oncoming waves. When I was there the tide was always coming in. I would wake to one or another of the beer men, standing nearby, crooning, “Ice cold beer, here. Never fear, it’s cold and clear....” My Mexican rug was stiff with sand and salt water. My skin was as brown as it had been since I was twelve years old and my hair was turning sun white on top.
“You have pretty hair,” the thin, long-haired little girl said one day, stopping in front of me with the air of a diminutive inspector. “I have pretty hair, too. But mine is dark. And long.”
“You have beautiful hair,” I replied. “So does your mother.”
“Yes. We look just alike.”
“You certainly do.”
“When I get a little older, we’ll look just like sisters. That’s what my Uncle Tim says.”
“I bet that’s true.”
“I never saw you before and now I see you every day.”
“Yeah. I was working before. Now I’m not, so I can come to the beach.”
“We don’t work,” she laughed and, as if this announcement made her very happy, bounded away from me and into the water, turning a cartwheel at its edge.
I wondered how the long-haired woman
supported herself. She and her daughter did not have the air of being
wealthy and their beach furnishings were nothing fancy.
One bright Monday, I was dozing with an ear cocked to overhear the conversation of the gay couple. They were talking about someone in their building who had died unexpectedly.
“What do you want?” asked Panama hat. “People die. Death is not like a wedding. You don’t get time to send invitations.” He rustled his Wall Street Journal authoritatively.
“God forbid,” replied fishing cap, in softer tones. “Can you imagine? How gruesome. But still, with medical science being what it is today, a person should have a little warning. To go like that, waiting for the elevator.... It seems like the Dark Ages.”
“Oh, that’s baloney....”
Their voices were drowned out by the intrusive memory of my father’s voice on my answering machine the night before: Beep. “Hello. It’s your father. Well, I sure have trouble getting used to these things. I guess I’m as old fashioned as they come. Always seems like you won’t get the message. I guess you do. Well, I was thinking about your mother. That’s why I called. In August it just seems to come back harder. That’s when it happened, in August. I guess you remember that as much as I do. Well, I won’t keep you. I know you’re busy. How’s business at the book store? Well, okay, over and out, then, as they say. Good-bye.” Beep.
I hated his sad, slow messages. I wished there were a redirect button on my phone so that I could send them back to him and not have to be responsible for erasing that sadness into thin air. I felt bad, but there was nowhere for me to house his sadness. Every time he asked me, wordlessly, to take it in, I rejected it like a hopeless stray, or the fallen baby birds my mother would refuse to have in the house. “Stella, no,” she would say firmly, the day after a storm. “That bird will not live without its parents. It’s too weak. Throw it in the river. That’s the kindest thing you can do.” Even now, my mother still tutored me. Stella, no. Even now, I found myself listening. Keep yourself to yourself, her message had always been. Admit no attachments. Let no one in. Settle for nothing.
From the sky above the beach came the gradual keen of a small airplane. On the weekends, numerous aircraft flew back and forth along the coast line trailing enormous advertising banners. Dial 1-800 for this or that. WHTP 84.5--Get the Groove! When the Budweiser banner went by, the beer men would drop their bags to gesture pointedly. The one who spoke in rhyme would call out, “Ice cold Bud is coming by; it’s down below and in the sky! Get it folks, before you fry!” But on the week days, advertising planes were rare. Clearly, Madison Avenue had done its homework and knew that on Monday through Friday the audience would not justify the expense. Still, on this Monday, the keen turned into a buzz and soon on the horizon appeared a small, dark spot. As the plane drew near, its staccato trail revealed it to be a sky-writer.
“Oh, I love these,” said fishing cap.
“You can never read ‘em,” replied Panama hat, addressing himself more firmly to the newspaper.
The thin, long-haired woman scooped herself off her sheet and held a hand out to her dancing daughter.
The short, pot-bellied man, having just arrived and begun his kite selection, ceased operations and stood gazing upwards with a hand shielding his eyes. He turned to the woman beneath the watermelon umbrella.
“I wish I had time to get my sentence kite up before he passes. But I don’t.” He shook his head regretfully.
“You could try.”
“No. It’s too long. It takes forever. It’s got clauses in it.”
“I’ve never seen that one.”
"Yeah, I know. I’ve been saving it for a special occasion.”
Even the Russian life guard stood up in his elevated chair, taking off his official orange cap so that the brim would not intrude on his sight line.
He looked over in my direction and called, “Girl, these sky spellers are something else, eh?”
“Yeah,” I called back.
I had tried, over the weeks, to maintain a courteous but distant demeanor where the Russian life guard was concerned. He was like an overenthusiastic puppy and I was sure he did not realize that I was probably at least five or six years his senior. So far I had managed to avert any invitations or declarations, but he gave me the impression that he was always on the verge of some such thing. His job looked very boring. To be at the beach for money rather than as an escape was a whole different prospect.
The sky writer came closer and closer, trailing intermittent white puffs that looked, at a distance, more like Braille than anything else. I sat on my rug, hugging my knees, looking up at intervals and then having to look down and close my eyes in order to disperse the red and orange flares in my vision. It was about five o’clock and the sun was already hanging half way down the western side of the sky, though higher, still, than the top of the abandoned parachute ride in the amusement park on the boardwalk. But it diffused, nevertheless, a fierce brightness throughout the air, glinted off the ocean in a million places, caught the mica and glass in the sand and threw up tiny, burning spots, sought out even the red eyes of the ubiquitous sea gulls who stood in broken, bickering ranks near the garbage baskets, and suffused my body, sinking hotly through my skin as no barrier at all, coalescing and burying itself like a blue-white coal in my heart.
“A,” called out the girl, insistently. “It’s an A!”
“N. A-N,” said fishing cap. “See? You can read it perfectly.”
“A-N-I,” the woman beneath the watermelon umbrella said, alone among us in not needing to shade her eyes. “Anisette? Animosity?”
“Hardly likely,” replied the kite man, fiddling with a large green box kite.
“A-N-I-M - ANIMAL!” The girl broke from her mother’s hand and ran among us, shouting, “ANIMAL! ANIMAL! I know that’s what it’s going to say!”
And she was right. As the plane crossed the sky, it spelled out the word ANIMAL, and then began another word. A word beginning with the letter C.
“C-R-A,” Panama hat had finally lowered his paper to watch and bellowed, “C-R-A. CRAZY! You’re crazy up there! Who’s watching you?”
“I am, for one,” said fishing cap.
“I am not so good yet with the American alphabet,” mourned one of the Polish women.
“Yah, but you can speak, you can speak. That is the important thing.”
“C-R-A-C-K,” called the girl in her high, thin voice.
There was a dense silence across Bay 10. Crack? For animals? What was this?
“E-E-E! There’s another letter!”
“Oh, my god!” Fishing cap laughed in relief. “E! Crackers! Animal crackers! Remember that song?”
Turning to Panama hat, he began to
sing, in what was clearly his best little-girl show tune voice, a song
I had not heard in some twenty-odd years:
“Animal crackers in my soup,
My mother was wearing a red pants suit with a perky blue bandanna sticking out of the breast pocket and my father one of his interchangeable brown suits. In my memory, she is laughing self-consciously and holding my hands and my father is dancing and pretending to be a monkey at the same time, bouncing awkwardly around us until we relent and open our hands to him. I must have been about five years old and as I danced with them, the three of us forming, for once, a closed circle, I thought--even then--that I had better remember the moment because it might not come again.
I hugged my knees, staring at the sky as one by one the frail white letters seemed to quaver, question their own meaning, and then slowly, as if by consent, break apart in the gentle wind, leaving behind a blank blue place strewn with the nonsensical refuse of attempted communication.
I was right, too, in my premonition. I can't think of another time in my life, after the Animal Crackers Dance, when I experienced my family as a whole, connected unit. After that and before, perhaps--for how would I otherwise have known to mark the moment--we were always separate.
I looked out across the heaving Atlantic ocean, with the hum of the receding sky-writer in my ears like an insistent mosquito, and felt a great weight of sadness in my chest. I could feel my skin hot to the touch as I hugged myself into a knot, and inside, I could feel my heart burn. Sadness is hot, not cold, I thought. It’s not fair, I thought. It’s not fair. Not here. I wanted to scream at the sky. Remember? Remember? I wanted to scream at the sky--remember? I’m safe here. Home Base!
The cries of, “Home free,” and, “You’re it!” Childish assurances volleying amongst the two-story houses and tall elm trees along my street now came back to me in droves, like flights of disturbed sparrows roused from their resting place by a carelessly thrown ball. Whatever had been wrong, back then, there had always seemed to be the possibility that one day it would be right. With a child’s lack of curiosity, I had accepted my parents for what they were and not bothered to wonder what the effect of what they were would be on me. Ours had not been a happy house, but neither had it been outwardly violent or bad. Even when my mother was killed.... Even that, strange to say, seemed not powerful enough to affect my father or I with violent feelings. He told me to go to college and I went. Look how easy she does it.
Easy does it. Easy does it, I murmured soundlessly into the niche formed by my body. Was this my life, then? Finding jobs and quitting jobs and lulling myself to sleep every night with the best gin I could afford to keep the terror at bay? My studio too hot in summer, too cold in winter, my answering machine collecting those sad, slow messages from home, my youth disappearing like so much bright sand through my fingers? Was this how my parents had felt during all the immeasurable time in which they were not dancing with me?
I stared into the damp cavern between my stomach and knees. I thought about everything I did not know. I thought about not wanting Golden Mushroom soup for supper and about how it was all I had at the moment. In the background, I could hear the laughs of the little girl and the kite man. He was showing her how to hold the green box kite steady. “No, don’t jerk. That doesn’t actually help.”
I thought about the word home. H-O-M-E.
The Asian man, who had lain as though asleep during both the sky writing and fishing hat’s Shirley Temple imitation, got up, brushed himself off, removed his headphones, and walked calmly into the surf, lifting his arms delicately as the water rose against his body, breasting the white-fringed darkness like some exotic brown heron with raised wings.
“I thought that was you,” said the owner of Tiny Tales.
There he stood beside me, wearing a pair of pink and blue swimming trunks that were too tight around the waist, sunglasses, and a pork pie hat. His nose was entirely covered with a thick layer of white sunscreen--a tactic which when adopted by life guards always contrives to look efficient and businesslike, but which on him looked merely as though he had gotten distracted and forgotten to rub it in. His chest was matted with dark hair. He had the remains of a sunburn on his shoulders. He carried a folded beach chair and a canvas bag.
“Do you mind?” He opened his chair and set it down beside me.
I searched my mind for a response and could not seem to latch onto any words.
“I’m glad I ran into you like this. I felt bad about what happened.” He seated himself ponderously in the green plastic chair and lowered his bag onto the sand. “Quite a coincidence, but then I always tell people that New York City is a very small place, in fact. Stuff like this happens all the time. You think you’ll never see someone again and then BAM—you’re behind them in the check-out line at the supermarket the very next day.”
He took cigarettes out of his bag and lit one. “Smoke?”
I shook my head.
“Bad habit. It’s the stress, though. The business is killing me. I’ve been thinking about selling and getting out. Spending more time with the first editions. They’re my real love, anyway. Kids’ books, they just pay the mortgage, you know?”
I looked up at him from my position on the sand. I said nothing.
“So, do you come here a lot? Coney Island? Personally, I prefer this Bay right here. Bay 10. When I come, this is where I come. Quiet, you know?”
“Yeah.” I stared at my toes, caked with sand.
His feet were pink and unhealthy looking, with untended toe nails.
“I thought about leaving you a message at home, a while back. Telling you no hard feelings. I mean, I can be an asshole sometimes, I know that. Just listen to my wife on the subject. But then I figured the way you walked out, so angry and all, well, you probably wouldn’t care if I called or not. Probably didn’t need the job. Whatever. Easy come, easy go.”
He seemed to look at me from behind his sunglasses.
“You taking a vacation?”
I didn’t really owe him an answer. I didn’t owe him anything. He was no one special. But I found myself answering anyway.
“No. Not a vacation.”
“Just here for a day? That’s the ticket. I bet you wondered those times why I’d be so nuts as to close up early on a business day. Well, here’s the answer right here. Coney Island. When she calls, I answer, picture books be damned. The Very Hungry Caterpillar can stay hungry. Good night, Moon can turn in early. Who cares? The only reason I went into kids books anyway is profit margin. It’s a little higher, you know. People will spend anything on kids. Whatever damned thing it is, scratch this, smell that--those pop-up books make me laugh. Give a kid two minutes with one of those and what’ve you got? Shredded paper, that’s what. Totally impractical. So how come you walked out on me?”
His monologue had given me a chance to rehearse the details of my departure from Tiny Tales.
“How come you told me to do that?”
“Clean up after that kid. You’re the one who said he could use the bathroom in the first place. You told me the bathroom was off limits to customers.”
“Oh, yeah. Right.” He laughed and coughed simultaneously, flicking his cigarette butt onto the ground, where it continued to burn.
I got up and heaped sand over it, creating a small mountain to emphasize my point. He watched me with detached interest.
“They have these machines, you know. Every night they comb the beach for trash and stuff with these machines look like big waffle irons. My advice is, don’t bother yourself.”
“It’s not like I didn’t need the job, you know.” I returned to my rug and sat down. “I did.”
“Well you can have it back, as far as I’m concerned.” He lit up another cigarette. “I hired someone else but she didn’t really work out. I mean, no hard feelings. You did a good job. I’ll give you the same money you were getting. Despite what my wife might tell you, I’m not stingy. I might be a pain in the ass, but I’m not stingy.”
He inhaled and exhaled smoke thoughtfully, his sunglasses trained on the waves. The white waves came breaking in and their dark, liquid ruins were pulled back, still embellished with traces of foam. Breaking in, pulling back. I didn’t know how to feel about his offer. It was a generous one, probably, but to go back was something I had never done.
As we sat, momentarily silent, I heard the distant buzz of the returning sky writer.
“Here it comes again,” I said to the owner. “This funny sky writer. On a Monday.”
The Asian man, emerging from the water, stopped to look over his shoulder as the plane drew near and began to form its message once more: A-N-I-.
“It’s sort of a strange one,” I said.
“What’s it say?” the owner asked, only marginally interested.
“You’re kidding. What’d I just tell you?” He slapped his large, pale leg, suddenly intent. “They’ll spend anything. Not just the consumers, I mean. The publishers, too. I wouldn’t mind a piece of the advertising budget for that book. Harper Collins has got people dressed up like animals going to book stores all over the country, puffing this thing off. I heard they already set up to have a line of Halloween costumes next month. I’m tempted to stock some myself, to tell you the truth. I’ve always stuck to books, but lately I’ve been thinking of expanding my line, so to speak. What do you think? Think the clientele would go for it? Get a few toys in there, some puzzles and what not....”
I watched the letters in the sky. “It’s for a children’s book?”
“Yeah, yeah. After you left this book is the hottest thing since Polar Express. I can’t keep it in stock. It’s about these animal crackers come to life. Sorta bizarre, actually, if you stop to think about it. But that’s kids. What do you want? They like to make everything alive. Even their food.”
“What happens in the end?”
The owner shifted in his chair to look down at me, tossed another cigarette away, and snorted. “Well, they don’t get eaten, surprise, surprise.” After a hesitation, he continued. “I don’t know. I don’t read the things, I just sell them. It’s some cute little happy ending. What—“
A firm, childish voice interrupted the owner. The long-haired girl advanced toward us.
“What happens is,” her voice was pitched admonishingly, “that it turns out they were real animals who got a spell put on them by a witch, and they had to live as crackers until someone found out how to take the spell off. I am too old for picture books, but the little girl who lives next door has it and I read it to her sometimes. It’s a very nice book. In the end there is a boy who does figure out how to break the spell and they all go back home to the woods where they used to live. The pictures are very artistic.”
“Well, thanks for the information,” said the owner, peering into his cigarette pack for the last cigarette.
“You’re welcome.” The girl walked away.
It seemed cool, all of a sudden. The sun was about even with the crown of the parachute ride. Although there were still three hours of light left, the air along the shore took on a sinking quality, as if gravity were working to pull down the night. So it had been in Wisconsin, in the summer. For a minute I let myself imagine how it would feel if I were there on the front porch. At six o'clock, everyone would be inside eating supper. The streets and the yards would be quiet, somnolent, bright as day still but heavy with the idea of evening because evening was taking so long to arrive. The last few hours of reprieve are always those most etched with the image of what’s to come, and to sit on the porch of my father’s house at the supper hour was to see things in duplicate--the weeping willow tree with daylight running like bright water over its swathes of green and yellow boughs, and the ponderous shape of the weeping willow tree draped in night’s blue, its slender leaves indistinguishable and full of whispers; the white paint of the wooden porch swing, and its faintly shivering, colorless presence in the dark; the intricate ash gray layers of the wasp’s nest in the corner, and the invisible aura of its casual malignancy at midnight; my father standing at the screen door with his blond hair fading to neutral, white at the temples, saying, “What do you say we go on down to the drive-in for supper--save on dishes?”
My father standing in darkness saying, “What do you say you come on home?”
I stood up and brushed the sand off my legs and arms. I looked around myself, at the now familiar faces, the tall white legs of the lifeguard chair, the dancing ocean, the uneven line of the tide separating light from dark sand. What I saw was already tinged with distance.
“I guess I’ll take off,” I said to the owner. “I’ve been here all day long.”
“Think about it,” he said. “I meant what I said about the job. One thing about me, I don’t hold a grudge. My wife--well--forget my wife. Anyway.” He paused and smoked. “Funny I ran into you, huh? The way you walked out of there that day I figured I’d never see you again.” He shook his head and seemed to chuckle at the memory. “Stupid kid.”
I pulled on my clothing and packed
up my things quickly. Then, holding them in my arms like a child’s
talismans I trudged across the hot, shifting sand of Bay 10 toward the
boardwalk and the elevated subway station. As I left I heard the
disconsolate cries of the gulls, the break of the waves, and fishing cap’s
reedy voice lifted in song:
“Animal crackers in my soup,