They look over their shoulders before they take to their boards. Watch for the girls huddled in Juicyfruit gum popping reverie; the kids beating sandcastles into corn mush, the butt-cheek flashing old-timers settling down for a flame-broiled snooze under big yellow umbrellas. They steady themselves then take flight, working the waves into submission, salt clogging their noses, mouths, eyes; salt thrusting them into blindness, into the watery graves they’d been dreaming of, been memorizing from the first time they learned to surf as small boys enraptured with the rip curl gods.
They watch for cues from Jake, rising imperially from the water in a Neptune arc. Suction cup feet steadied on the board like some kind of evolutionary marvel, like some kind of special dispensation from the Lord. Our Jake held the record for staying up the longest before the waves smacked him down on his ass. A lecher exhibitionist toying with each little ripple in the ocean divinely served up to him in a neat little bow. Lucky fuck had never had his neck twisted and wrung out trying to execute. Lucky fuck delivered into this world by a midwife with a fistful of Mr. Zogs easing him out the womb. His bull-necked royal highness, all bee-stung lips and hot ‘roid lust. We creamed to see him sucking his stomach in concave in the weight room mirror when he thought no one was looking. Smacking fair Wilson on the ass with a wet towel.
They watch for the shoreline audience. Male surf groupies arriving on foot, spilling from the streetcars that dammed up at the beach terminus every hour, leaning out of cars idling for someplace decent to park. Wolf packs dodging the bruised roller skating legions of little girls chopping through the dregs of June gloom on this first day of summer.
And Jake’s crew liked that stretch of beach because the wave span was neatest, the elemental Milky Way glide of paranormal orbit in the split-second suspension between air and water. The sandcastle mushers keeping score with their shovels. The flame-broiled snoozers shaking up their domino bags for the next game. The sweet sixteens talking mad shit about the crews’ bodies in lip-smacking 3-D detail.
They could stay out all summer, basking in 24-7 wall-to-wall seaweed funk. None of them had jobs except for Wilson; that white trash fucker bussing tables like a “fucking Mexican,” Jake snickered. He was the newly minted breadwinner for his mother, laid off from her nursing job as his father rode off into the Akron sunset for fresh pipefitter leads. Only Wilson had regular money in his pocket. The crew bumming it off him for cigarettes and rubbers and all-you-can-eat hoagies dripping with cheese from the boardwalk stand. It was the last teenaged summer when they could do that shit and have it still be considered cool, shuffling between bouts of community college, applications to Del Taco. The last gasp of the day was hanging around Jiffy Lube for the chance of an opening if ambition hit them. June, July, August were theirs to waste with grand abandon, spreading the seed of the crew all over town, tagging their handle in the beach bathroom, the basketball court, the trash barrels in the sand, staging sloppy drunk pantomimes over the mugs of the surfers’ pantheon painted on the Laundromat wall.
It was Wilson who noticed it first. The shoreline inched up to the street. The arcade, pub, and the laundromat whited out. All of the buildings of his teen dreams swallowed up now in a slow procession of open-top cars. Toy Model As honked, strung together by a child’s hand. Wannabe flapper girls with their whiter than white-skinned arms peeking out of full-body swimsuits and bullet caps. Big band swing blaring from the sludge of black vinyl. Passengers spilling out of the red cars in ant streams. A new revelation from between the waves, rising and falling as he adjusted his goggles, the other boys having swum ahead to catch the twin terrors, the warm smack of mega surf that came in late afternoon on the night of a full moon.
He paddled, coasted, paddled, coasted. Ignoring their sass about how much of a pussy he was for hanging back, neutered and spineless, lacking proper reverence for the occasion of the full moon. He’d begun to drift eastward to the section of beach near the dividing line of the next community, the snootier, ritzier, heavily refinanced side dominated by salmon-toned McMansions and trust fund babies reeking pot. He tried to paddle back but his board resisted, lifting him off and into the water headfirst. His goggles slid down to his nose and he gagged, snorting salt water, the shore dipping from view. He reached out for the board and came up empty, blearily watching it float ahead of him. The crew just ribald specks of vertiginous light, ducking and twisting with each wave.
Top of his swim classes, kindergarten to senior year, when he bested the Swiss boarding school wunderkind in the 100, his gills getting stronger with each meet. Imbibing the family legacy of being able to hold their breath underwater for death-defying lengths. It was their only distinguishing feature, both sides of his clan stamped 3/4s white trash with a little “Cherokee” composted in. Or so one version went. He basked in the glow of dusk to dawn access to the city pools, to the beach, to the water parks whenever he could scrounge up the ten-dollar admission fee.
The board was almost a yard away. He could feel everybody on the beach watching him. Wasn’t his imagination, but damned if the flapper girls weren’t jockeying for a better view, calling him Romeo. His chest swelled like a red robin’s. If only the crew could hear.
He saw a hand grip the board. Then a girl’s head rise slowly up from the water. She hoisted herself up, lying on her stomach as the waves washed over her. She paddled expertly with both hands, ignoring him as he struggled to get a clearer view. The waves calmed and she kneeled, bracing herself, listening, rigid with the same watchful posture that he’d assumed a thousand times waiting for the right moment to stand up on the board.
The crowd roared and she stood up. She was taller than him by a few inches. Black. Body like it was all spine, arms folded across her chest. She slid into the snaking furl unfurl motion of fresh surf, trying to establish her center of gravity before the next torrent hit.
He could read novices right off; smell their eager beaver first-hand-up-in-chem-class zealotry, their spanking new assembly-line liberated boards stinking up the ozone. The kind of punks the crew would chew up and spit out in one barnstorming orgy in the locker room, their balls contorted in trash-talking, swaggering over who had the shiniest designer gear. He’d been with the crew for five months. Watched them shyly from afar as he sucked down a coke and a slice at the boardwalk pizza joint. Fantasizing that they all had their asses wiped and shellacked with one hundred dollar bills. Burning to be one of them. He plotted his initiation every time he stepped around his grandpa, glued to the game shows and crime lab serials from dusk to dawn in their triplex apartment. He dreamed of making elaborate rescues. Swooping in during a showdown between the crew and the Huntington Beach boys, heimliching Jake from drowning in his own drool. All these micro-moments when he could have proven himself, and here he was stuck sweeping up his grandpa’s toenails from the bathroom floor, parceling out his pressure medicine, his Vicodin. The horror of being a Rip Van Winkle, waking up five decades later, just like him. Shitting when he was told to, laughing on cue at the laugh tracks, hoarding his Social Security checks for the latest soul-saving scam in Africa.
For now, the crew was the ticket, the sliver of salvation that he nursed in bed at night as the walls pulsed with the Lotto results. Yeah he had a raggedy board, but he was prime. Shit, they had called him Romeo. Had cum in babbling brooks saying his name. Had said you’ll never have to duck and hide taking the family’s clothes to the Laundromat. Never have to gag again on the five-night a week pork n’ bean dinners, never get shit on again about your Pee Wee Herman high water pants, passed down from eldest to middle to youngest brother.
With the right clothes, the right hair, the right cadence of speech he could pass for one of them, perfecting his Richie Rich sneer with a hand mirror under the covers, willing himself to be the Swiss boarding school refugee of his dreams.
She looked out into the swamp of white faces and calculated how long it would take her to get to the other side of the beach. The façade of the new Negro resort rippled like a desert mirage in the west. The waiters would be serving lunch right about now. In spotless white uniforms. Napkins draped meticulously over their arms, fresh-cut flowers at the ready on each table. They would give the diners a choice of chicken or roast beef, ice tea or lemonade. Lilting on the smell of King Crab specials whipped up for the VIPs at the grand opening.
In 1911 a parcel of beachfront land had been set aside for Negroes. With little fanfare, back-patting or congratulation, 40 acres were designated by the city father for an enterprising buyer. Only a handful stepped forward, a speculator fraud in black face wanting to open up a chain of naturopath spas for consumptives. An heiress seeking West Coast investment property using stock from her share in American Telegraph. Then the Bruce woman made us a legitimate offer, and permits were filed for the groundbreaking.
They trickled in from the South, the Midwest, the East, small tumbleweed towns and big cities, schoolteachers, clerks, stenographers, the almost black bourgeoisie scrimping for their first real vacation, for a taste of Pacific splendor beyond the bullwhip gaze of white people. For a honeymoon suite with a view, the snap of gray waves, the night sky bleeding into the ocean.
Opening day she had twenty reservations. After dinner they queued up for needlepoint, bid whist, politicking, a quick hand of gin or blackjack dealt by Bruce herself. She wouldn’t have gambling on the premises. So the closet addicts hunkered down past midnight, anxious to raise the stakes to something more dangerous, rubbing their bets together like firewood under the table, settling instead upon a wager about the number of survivors from a sunken British ship in the Atlantic. Raise you one scullery maid for three bankers.
Over one thousand feared dead. God be with the rescuers in that witch’s tit cold of a mess. It’s just a bunch of rich Brits and their hired help gone down with their loot. Better them than us. They burned us out of Springfield, lynched us like dogs in Atlanta, and where was the world then?
Their voices ran a tape loop from the last quarter of REM sleep, the second before her 9 a.m. alarm and the cascade of breaking news dribbled into her cortex. She counted the crowd’s hundred blinking eyes and turned her back, coasting while she still could, her arms mottled with goosebumps, barnacles snapping at her toes, sending her the Flying Dutchman salvos of a cannibal ravaged crew.
He was starting to get tired and panicked. He floated for a few seconds then began stroking again, yelling weakly for her to give him back the board, invisible to her, the crowd noise growing more faint as the surf pulled him out farther.
Mrs. Bruce’s kitchen served the best hot fudge sundaes for miles around. The perfect ratio of vanilla ice cream, to hot fudge, to whipped cream, to nuts. Impeccably layered in chilled metal dishes set out in little forts on the counter. Marshaled as tooth-despoiling inducement to bad children, a time killer for white building inspectors come to assess code violations, a unifier of squabbling lovers locked in mortal combat about which route to take home, their fingers intertwining in the sickly sweet surrender of the chocolate.
The sundae was an urban beach legend that she’d inhaled riding the bus to school in the 90-degree blur of August. The summer she willed a swimming pool to appear in the middle of the street, to swallow the lurching roach motel of the city bus, the guys staring at her ass, the girls rolling their eyes at the New Wave buttons on her jean vest. Like who the fuck does that weird ass stuck up bitch think she is? All proper and shit. All wannabe white.
She stayed at the front of the bus, counting the razor nicks on the driver’s neck, pustules singing from Aqua Velva skin. Plopping down in an empty seat when someone got up, she’d daydream about dunking her stepfather in formaldehyde, his frog legs wriggling in a hot sizzling vat, landing Kentucky fried under all-you-can-eat buffet lights.
When she died, there had been no flashing revelation, no cherubs singing, no beating of black wings. She was alone with the others, the white boys on their surfboards, stunted in the grandness of their tiny sand grain of being, their teenage life’s obsessions and preoccupations. She watched them wobble and take flight in their new ghost bodies. Their Olympian drive to catch the bitchen-est wave, strutting hard and ripped for the next boy haplessly suspended over their shoulder.
As she got closer to the resort she could just make out a group of kids playing on the beach. They snapped up seashells, running from the surf as it crashed back onto shore, squealing with their hands cupped to their mouths at the strange new sight of crabs burrowing inexorably into the sand.
No trumpets or dark tunnels, or fire and brimstone, or consumptive ferry men taking her over to the other side. No clap of thunder or molten breath of God. Just her usual ramped up craving for greasy potato chips, ranch dip, anything she could get her hands on that was salty and easy to bust open, that surfed her back to six years old in the middle of the dodge ball circle, catching the eye of skinny-bone-Jones Melanie, popping mad wheelies on the dirt bike she stole from her cousin. Damned if one of the girls didn’t look like Melanie’s separated-at-birth umbilical twin, the one and only secret crush she could remember from second grade.
The resort kids took turns doing sand angels, some seeing how fast they could jump up before the tide came in, others seeing how long they could stay lying down on a double or triple dare. They rallied around the victor in a fiefdom of shovels and pails, snapping their beach towels at the boys’ butt cleavage, ignoring the waiters’ call for curfew, the adults swaying boozily with their drinks on the back balcony.
True, there had been no signs that morning. She’d gotten up, dressed, poured a bowl of Cheerios, waited five minutes for it to get soggy, read over the cribbed book report she’d cut and pasted together off the Web for English Comp, slurped down some mouthwash, strained to hear the argument raging between the fat chinless upstairs neighbors. Went out into the gloom with her skateboard. Sat at the bus stop and read the graffiti, took a tab from a make $2000 a week working from home flyer, finished a Hershey’s kiss stuck to the bottom of her bag, watched a homeless man get dragged off by the cops. Just as the bus crossed the intersection she remembered she’d left the iron plugged in. Debating for a second whether she should let the house fry or go back. Fuck the little urchins in their bathing suits staring at her pop-eyed waiting in line for the bus with their mother, giving her uncombed hair the once-over like the first act in a three-ring circus.
His goal was to move up to one of the oil change jobs at the Lube place. Your candy ass should at least know how to change oil in a car, his uncle told him. He was planning everything out by year. The program was to have his own apartment by 21, get his girlfriend a ring, buy his own wheels and pay his own car insurance, settle into a good rhythm for the next six years. He broke things down into even increments, methodical since his first glimpse of daylight, his first taste of power, collecting pennies from the kitchen floor and storing them in his mouth to make his mother crazy. Liked to believe he was more than average, had done things according to plan, not jerked off, not smoked pot, not violated curfew, not let himself be led by the nose by temptation; resisted, so strongly, the urge to bang his little cousin, to peel him with a paring knife and see whether his mixed-breed blood was the same as pure blood. These goblin creepings that overcame him when he was waiting in line, washing the dishes, watering the lawn, muting the volume on one of his father’s tantrums to a simian mumble. The bargaining beginning in his head, as he dropped the seeds of repentance for every mental transgression that he could remember. Not fucking now, when he had just begun to get shit organized, just formed a sense of personal mission. Not fucking now, he whispered, the anvil weights on his shoulders sinking him, his forearms burning from trying to stay afloat. He could just make out his car in the parking lot from the water, the vinyl top gleaming with cum shine. He’d spent his last two dollars on the parking fee. Jake and the crew insisting that he park in the lot cuz it was easier for them to bring their boards down to the beach.
Back in the day we could lay out right up on here, the old scraggly man with the razor blade voice said, pointing to the blacktop. He hung out all day reading the newspaper at the Laundromat. Always handy with some instruction about what the crew was fucking up. How they could make their boards obey their every whim like he had. How a few strands of hair combed upward a little like this could throw off the way you’re flexing your whole solar plexus. How he took the title last minute in some Podunk tournament off the coast of Long Island juiced on malt liquor and airplane peanuts. Right around then when I brought my trophy back the city cleared this space for a parking lot. Just moved around a bunch of sand like fucking chess. Charged thousands of dollars per square foot for it, then some casino millionaire from Reno came in and built this lot for a thousand cars. Once upon a time there was some kind of palace for coloreds on this very spot. The lady who owned it paid like $1200 pre-Prohibition and the city came and took the land and just wiped all of that shit out.
She got onto the bus, sucked into the infomercials on the video monitor, installed at the front and midsection like sentinels. The weather report, a miracle wrinkle cream pitch, vocational classes at the local trade tech college. A confrontation brewed between a white woman banging her head to metal on her earphones and an elderly woman teetering in front of her with a cane. The line to the back of the bus bottlenecked with the hold-up. People waved bus passes impatiently in the driver’s face. They grumbled as they spilled onto the stairs, camp-bound kids swinging their lunch boxes like bludgeons as the bus lurched out into traffic. Just get up and give her the fucking seat dumb motherfucker, all kinds of room in the back of the bus if we could just get there, somebody said. The sound of the dispatcher bleated into the air from the radio, warning the driver about a traffic detour by the freeway.
Because of this cracker disrespecting old people she’d roll into class CP time. Late, always late again, probably rack up another flag, probably be short the credits she needed to get her associate’s degree that semester. Inciting the full knuckle-popping wrath of the chemistry instructor, as he marinated in the jigaboo stereotypes from his native country. You were born here goddammit and you squander all the opportunities this country gives you. A fucking shame. To pass time she’d rehearse his inner litany, the jigsaw morph of his expression, the tilt of his budding sneer, his grudging deferment of condemnation feeding the ulcer he was always complaining about.
–C’mon show some respect! She yelled at the head-banging woman, watching her face and the chemistry instructor’s fuse into a dead-eyed hydra. She grabbed her skateboard from the floor to let people get by, trying to guide the elderly woman toward a seat that opened up, her cane poking into the gut of a man with hospital scrubs.
The bus driver swerved, tipping the bus to the right. Passengers slammed into the windshield, sending Syl into the lap of the woman who wouldn’t give up her seat, her head burrowing into the gastric heat of her growling stomach.
That and the bell going off for a stop at Sixth Street were the last sounds she heard before the feathery calm of the paramedic pulling the sheet over her face, her breath hanging in the air like a gift of white Christmas.
We are 20. And when we were born, reports of nuclear winter jammed the airwaves, were all the rage, apocalypse-mongers spinning elaborate treatises on the colonies of cockroaches that would thrive in the void, carrion slurpers plotting in the shadows of blasted cities, the meek inheriting the earth. All the ages that I wished for and imagined I would reach behind me now, sifted in the wet sand between their waiting fingers. The trail they made walking barefoot on the beach house veranda, watching her go aerial with the purloined board from the drowned white boy. Glub, glub.
She watched 21, 40, 50 years pass from surfer boy’s board, mourning each decade, charting the progress of the new sandcastle legions in their quest to build the tallest strongest fortress, lullabying the generations of seven-year-olds who pulled the covers over their heads when the lights went out in their rooms, pinching themselves awake to stave off nightmares of marauding model citizens hungry for dark meat, as they listened to the beach pulse outside the window. Just when she thought she’d reached them, freshly asleep in their beds, she began again, spitting out saltwater, rising up to the surface of the ocean covetous of the surfer boy’s board, his quarter horse legs pumping futilely for the last time.
The last resort kids to sleep there without fear, without knowing the odor of threat. Safe in the belief that they would wake up in the morning and the surf would still be there, beckoning as it did to them and them only them the day before when they saw it from the backseat of their parents’ cars or gawking from the aisle of the streetcar. The ads and brochures not quite doing it justice, stoking their childlike anticipation to the nth. By the 20s the well-kept secret among Negro families from across the nation had been exposed. The resort house booked up months before the unbearable twitter of summer in the South and Midwest. And Mrs. B was swamped with letters begging to know if there were cancellations. Fielding inquiries from wait-listed guests about whether there were other forms of hospitality nearby, the one or two westward motels that would put up Negro families for a night.
We were 20 and in the hot bloom of youth. The time of recklessness and waiting, of raging full-throttle toward discovery, of licking and sucking and tasting and dabbling; becoming objects of fugitive envy or sneering pity from every past-prime voyeur looking down from atop their neighborhood sugar mountain. On Saturday nights her voice was swallowed up in the drone of the boardwalk speakers blasting California Dreamin, djs laying yesteryear beats for the mating dance of teen revelers, the newly christened stoner hoards sprung from high school grad nite, the crew trawling for fake ids and cheap beer and parties to crash and bodies to rape.
But the resort kids just lay there. Besotted, bewitched by the sky, its enormity, its protean scowl strangely passive in comparison to the barreling wide open spaces of Illinois or Missouri or Kansas or Iowa. Lay there and asked, ‘can we stay here forever?’ Burying each other in the sand, lolling in the water, eating whatever kind of candy we want, burnt up in the sun, safe from the scolding of our grandmothers about getting too dark, their negrophobia run ingloriously amok in the junebug mosquito flea chomping haze of another ground to the bone summer? Can we stay here, call dibs on the stars, give them the countrified names we were picked on in school about, make them beholden to us, sing camp songs around bonfires we made without the sear of melting ancestral flesh intruding on us. Or can we take this place home with us? Hide it under our pillows for safekeeping, cross our hearts and hope to die we’ll never give away the secret key to the shoreline.
By the time she had mastered the board she was starting over again, learning a new detail about surfer boy, his hair brown instead of blond, his last words running from ‘help’ to ‘Rosebud’. By the time she had mastered the board, the beach was empty save for the awe-struck resort kids dawdling over their new creations, resisting the call to bedtime, oblivious to the howling white wave on the horizon, ripping them from the sand, pulling them out to sea like so many figurines on the bottom of a toy chest.