The End of Summer at Wildwood Beach New Jersey 1998

Ryan Row

Like exposed skin, the beach has a nakedness to it. The water retreats into itself and the spreading baldness of the sand is freckled with gray from the blowing ash of illegal pit fires and barbecues. The sky is a scribbled gray, too, with the topography of an earthquake, and he’s ten, maybe, or around there, some little age on the cusp of the world. His head sticks out of the sand, and nothing else of him is visible. The head seems too narrow to hold all those teeth, and definitely too narrow to hold all that’s coming, and his hair has dried flat and coarse on his unlined brow. There’s a little sand under his tongue, surprisingly hard little stones like strange bodies, and a pasty dryness in his throat, but he’s trying not to ruin the picture, trying to stay toothy and light. His smile feels thick and delicate, like the white porcelain of a toilet bowl.

With the sun gone, everything cools, and he looks like he’s been buried standing with his neck stretched up high above the ground as if he’s afraid of burning his chin on the still hot sand. Really he’s sitting with his skinny legs held tight to his chest like they’re his only friends. It’s easier this way. The hole can be shallow, just a little deeper than him.

He’s got big brown eyes like holes, and his dad is snapping photos and saying, Perfect! Perfect! while in the parking lot, in the car, in his mind, his mother is smoking American Spirit Reds, because they are all natural and not addictive, and she is pressing her toes into the brown plastic of the dashboard and seeing how long she can hold them there before the burn forces her to slide them away. She runs the engine and the air and behind the silver mirrors of her sunglasses, there is a whole universe she thinks of as impenetrable, but that the boy can guess at with startling accuracy. Of course, he tells no one. 

Who would he tell? His dad’s breath smells like Bud and, being a lightweight, light as the white tears of seagull down coming apart in the wind right in front of his eyes, that’s all he needs. It gets him all the way there, and as he circles and circles and the camera runs out of film, he keeps on as if he’s still capturing these moments, moments that are gone forever anyway, no matter what, even from his memory. And the pictures, when he develops them, are covered in thumbs that cast fleshy halos over the scene, but most still show the boy’s face in spinning angles. He will never tell the mother about them. One he will fold into a white square the size of a cracker. And he chews it to mush and swallows it.

It’s not the ocean behind the boy, but a giant lake with an inexplicable tide all its own. It’s got crashing waves, and he’s faced away from it so little flecks of water hit the back of his neck. He starts to anticipate it based on the sound of the crash. When the wave falls over itself and curls in like a closing hand.

“You want me to dig you out, kiddo?”

“I’ll be fine,” he says. “I like it in here.”

So Dad falls asleep on his towel, snoring wet and limp as soaked rags, and dreaming of having sex with his wife except both of them are younger and smoother and more excitable. And in the car, Mom holds a lit cigarette over her wrist and twists the coal into her green vein, imagining she is sixteen again, soft and pale and still hidden from her future deep in the snowy northwest. Lands as still and peaceful (and desperate) as silver moonlight breaking through the heavy branches of Christmas pines and shining on the new snow, so perfect in her memory that she thinks through the pain, which is a great blank in her, that it could not, really, have existed. Could it? She feels as if she was nowhere at all before this very moment. It’s the pain that makes her feel this way.

And what had they even been fighting about? He drank too much? Though he’d been making an effort to pace himself, storing the jingling bottle caps (two then, now all six) in the pocket of his bathing suit to remind him. The pointed edges sticking into his hip. She could get a job? Now that the boy was in school? She could help out, true, but also not. She had no skills and was too old to bag groceries with their pimply neighbor who was always staring at her tits and licking his braces.

How boring. How pedestrian. Better to talk about the rain. How the fat drops of it are like crystal on his tongue, delicious and painfully hard. How the sight of them makes him laugh, and the bars of dirty sun breaking over the parking lot cast tiny, broken rainbows, like flitting insects, over everything. And his dad raises his head, heavy with dreams, then crawls under the beach umbrella and pulls the towel over himself like a blanket.

The lightning is blue and gorgeous, a many branched, jigsaw of light, and the boy drinks it in. Its many branches like the many possible branches of his life. Hot. Wild as a network of roots. He feels irrationally free, even as he begins to feel dizzy from the lack of breath and the pressure on his lungs. That head can only hold so much, after all, and it’s already filled to breaking with uneven rows of square teeth and organic cigarette smoke and the sound of his father’s heavy breathing. With the way he can bellow, trapped inside his own lungs, in such an exact way that no one else can hear him. With the way he is starting to imagine, drifting to sleep most nights on a slim thought with the sounds of a breaking glass jangling in his ears, a mug his mother had thrown, a window his father had put his fist through, what it might be like if he were the only person in the world. He holds his mother’s hand, sometimes, when they are out, though less and less, and he imagines it disintegrating. Imagines his father, slouched into a chair like a discarded coat, evaporating into the blue light of the television.

He feels himself breaking like the shell of an egg.

Shake that off. Better, much better, to talk about how the rain soaks into the sand and makes it heavier and heavier and darker, like it’s burning. How all the sun is gone now and all the light is jagged and infrequent and loud. How breathing, now, is like screaming without sound. He can’t speak. His open mouth grasping for air like a hand. And how, oh how, when he tries to stand, he finds that escape is already beyond him.


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