Ocean City 06/15/2017tg


 Davis Palmer 2,414 words

N Carrywood Dr Fiction

Tucson, AZ  

wilcoxgay@gmail.com                                                                                                        North Am FSR





by Davis Palmer




Wes sat in the van's other bucket seat, the engine hump between us.  He wore wire frame aviator goggles, mirror shades, though I'm not sure he understood the concept of a mirror.  Wes was blind.  He said he was born blind.  That meant I drove, though sometimes I was tempted to give him the wheel.  He had a much better sense of direction.  He kept us pointed east, due east, through Harrisburg, through Philadelphia.  I was perfectly capable of losing the Atlantic coast.

Wes insisted his childhood had been normal.  I couldn't see how, but he insisted he was just another suburban kid who got drunk with his friends and was good with his fists.  He'd moved after his best friend hung himself.  He only told me the story once, when we were both drunk.  He didn't tell me the guy's name.

I never fathomed his mind's eye.  We could not communicate vision to each other.  Wes said he could see bursts of light, but described light as a bird's song, the end of a summer shower, Vaughn Williams' "The Lark Ascending."  His image of the world was an optical soundtrack.  He belonged in the golden age of radio.

I think Wes enjoyed my fumbled attempts at description.  I told him he was handsome.  I was sure he had a sense of what he looked like.  I told him his hair was the color of Penny, Mrs. Olson's cocker spaniel.  He'd call the dog and she'd jump on him, wag her whole body for his attention.  He'd rub the thick fur, which really was the color of his too short hair, but he'd sense motion and smell and energy.

"I do not resemble a cocker spaniel," he'd say.

His unshaded eyes were robin's egg blue, the blue of the sky, the blue of cold lake water.  On picnics, I'd try to stroll the trail.  He always ran into Koozer Lake, undeterred by the icy water.

"Doesn't the cold bother you?" I'd ask.

"This isn't cold," he'd say.  "Cold is your idea of a hot meal, the ice cubes you always spill, the howl of the wind when you insist it's a lovely day for a walk."

When I'd try to drag him out, he'd dunk me.  Sometimes, I thought we were a pair of college kids who hadn't grown up, but we didn't meet till adulthood.

Wes was a medical transcriptionist at Allegheny General.  I was a computer operator, a mainframe man, 368 and 3033.  We were friends and passable housemates.  He'd answered my ad.  People thought we'd known each other for years.

I bought the van for weekend trips, long weekends, Friday morning through Monday afternoon.  I hadn't been to the Jersey shore since I was ten years old and Wes said he'd never seen an ocean.  He called Triple A and ordered maps, said he wanted the route that would have been used in 1959.  Wes was big on authenticity, but I had to navigate less traveled roads while he lit my cigarettes, poured coffee from the thermos, and doled out quarters for the endless toll bridges.

The first hint of the ocean came in mid afternoon.  Another hour and we were surrounded by marsh grass on flat land.  The cry of gulls was almost audible over the van's engine.  Small stucco houses sat on gravel lawns painted green, the poor end of town, the part that wasn't for the tourists.  Huge signs proclaimed the new Atlantic City.  Tour busses passed in clouds of diesel smoke.  Atlantic City rose in the distance, the Emerald City turned junk pile.  I veered away.  It was my memory we'd come to feed, and my memory was Ocean City, broad boardwalks for older tourists, bicycle driven tram cars, old fashioned arcades with real penny operated Kinetoscopes and Mutoscopes.

I wanted a room in a wooden, gingerbread guesthouse.  I remembered blocks of them, but times had changed.  Streets were lined with failing early sixties motels, and the first two guest houses I saw had No Vacancy notices, one in neon.

"They aren't what you want," Wes said and passed me a fresh cigarette.

"What do I want?"

"I'll know when I see it.  Next left."

I turned up a side street and heard the crash of the waves.  The sound was different, as if salt air conducted sound waves at a lower speed, as if the atmosphere had become an echo chamber.  The street dead-ended into the boardwalk.  At the very end, sat a gingerbread house.

"Are we on the boardwalk?" Wes asked.

"Right beside it."

"I think this is it.  This house is blue, deep blue, right?"

"How do you know?"

"I can hear it."

"You turning psychic?"


I parked the van by the white fence.  Wes opened the gate and led us up the walk, up three wooden steps to the porch.  He moved with the ease he reserved for familiar places.  By the door was a white painted sign, Guest Rooms.  I pressed a button and heard the imperfect buzz of an aged electric bell, a sound from my childhood.

The house seemed dark and empty, but the main door was open and only a wooden screen door with no keyhole kept us outside.  I pushed the button again and waited.  From the end of the dark hall, I heard the steady strokes of a kitchen knife against a board.  I rang a third time while Wes ran his fingers across the mesh of the screen.

The knife chops stopped.

"Just a minute," a woman called.

Doors swung on unoiled hinges and heavy steps came closer, closer, welcome to the Inner Sanctum.

The woman at the door was large and plain, middle aged.  She wore a shapeless dress of indeterminate color.  She pushed open the screen, tears in her eyes.  It hadn't been locked.  Her hands emitted a strange perfume.

"I was chopping onions for stew," she said.  "You boys want a room?  I got one left."

The wood floors were polished, the furniture like my grandmother's, eerily familiar.  At the top of the stairs, the room's main features were a full-length mirror, a wardrobe, a bank of windows, and a double bed.  There was plenty of room for a cot or a rollaway.  The four poster was not quite what I'd had in mind.

"We'll take it," Wes said as he ran his hand along the footboard.  "Just the way it is," he added and smiled at me.  The woman, convinced she understood, handed him a key and left.

"It's a double bed," I said.

Wes kicked off his shoes, climbed on, stretched out, and patted the bed beside him.  I sat very gingerly on the opposite edge.  He was my best friend.  I was afraid to get too close.  Wes grabbed me, pulled me flat, and laughed.




We ate a late supper in a restaurant over the water, deviled crab the way I remembered it, white and soft.  I tried to describe the ambiance of the boardwalk, the giant glass globes that gave off a soft yellow glow.  Wes was more interested in the beach, the sound of the waves.  We listened to the shouts of the brave and foolish from the water.

"I could hop down to the sand and run in," Wes said.

"This isn't a little lake.  Don't."

Wes lit a cigarette.

There wasn't much on our end of the boardwalk, a Western Union office that might have been the one I remembered from childhood, a bicycle rental shop closed for the day, a building for sale.  I leaned against the rail and gazed out at the water.  Wes stood beside me.  The wind whipped us with a salt spray.

Wes led us back to the guesthouse with his sixth sense.  In the living room, the landlady half watched television with another woman while a guy about my age played cards with an older man.

"You boys have a good time?" the landlady called.

"Great walk," Wes said.  "I love to watch the water."

"Bathroom's clear if you want it," she said.  "Or there's coffee on the stove.  These are the Smiths, and the card shark's my nephew, Jack."

"Coffee sounds good," I said.

"Well, I want a shower," Wes said.  "I've had a long drive, and I'm ready to crash.  See you in the morning."

I watched as he climbed the stairs.  He liked to conceal his blindness, but he was doing it too well.  If he needed help in the shower... Well, they thought that anyway.  I suppose I didn't care.  People would believe what they wanted to believe and facts were irrelevant.  I'd never seen Wes naked.

I got my coffee and sat on an overstuffed chair between the women and the card game.  There was a sitcom on TV.  The set was ancient, an immense black and white console.  I did not usually watch television, just listened to it, Wes' influence.

"What are you playing?" I asked the nephew.

"Gin rummy.  Want in?"


"Can I ask you something?" the landlady said.  "How does your friend see with those fool sunglasses?"

"As well as he does without 'em."

The nephew laughed.  The landlady didn't get it.  I reached for a cigarette and realized I was out.  Jack pulled a pack of Kools from his pocket and tapped out two.

The bedroom light wasn't on, of course, but when I flicked the switch, Wes was flat on his back, eyes open, arms folded above his head.  I didn't like to shower at night.  I stripped and slipped on a pair of boxers.

"Tell me about the last time you were here," he said.

"It was our last ocean vacation," I said.  "It was twenty-five years ago.  I was ten.  I liked to sprawl on the beach.  Lloyd Price was on a thousand portable radios and my favorite places were the arcades.  My favorite things were the movie machines.  I wanted to be the next Walt Disney.  I tried to build myself a Mutoscope, a card flipper.  I didn't realize the machines were ancient.  My father gave me fifty cents a day, and most of it got spent as pennies.  The rest of the time, I played cards.  There were two kids my age, Charlie and, I forget.  Charlie was a scrawny blonde from up the block and the other one was... Shit."


"Can't be.  His name was John.  The age would be right.

"The guy you played with tonight?"

"Too strange."

"Ocean City isn't that big.  Ask him in the morning."


"If you don't, I will.  Get the light."

"You can't see it."

"I sense a lot more than you give me credit for.  Good night."

In the dark, Wes pressed against me.  It was not an unpleasant sensation.  I dreamed I was ten again, one of three boys who played cards on a bench on the boardwalk.




Wes was gone when I got up.  I didn't want to be nervous, but I was.  I'd never seen Wes exceed his limits, yet I wondered if he really understood the difference between the Atlantic and a quarter acre artificial lake.  I was relieved to hear his voice rise up the stairs.  I showered quickly, as if headed for work, and bound into the kitchen, drawn by the scent of fresh coffee.

In daylight, the kitchen was a room from my past.  It wasn't my grandmother's kitchen and it certainly wasn't mine, but I was too at ease and found the cups without thought or effort.

"Like coming home, isn't it?" the landlady chuckled.  "Your friend's on the porch with my nephew.  I'm just making rolls.  Here.  Help yourself and take them a couple."

She handed me a plate of hot, sticky buns.  I balanced it atop my cup.  I wouldn't have made a bad waiter.

"Somebody get the door," I called through the screen.

Jack opened the door, but he was alone, dressed in slacks and a white windbreaker.  Wes was not on the porch.  Jack helped himself to a roll.

"Your buddy wanted to see the ocean," he said.

"And you just let him take off?"

"He doesn't need any help."

"I thought you knew...”

"He's with Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  They know this place inside out.  They were coming here before we were born.  Sit."

The boardwalk was off the side of the porch.  It came almost to the second floor.  The view of the ocean was under the boardwalk.

"I left this place when I finished school," Jack said.  "My best friends were gone.  There was no reason to stay, but I keep coming back.  Aunt Lily always puts me up.  She never rents out all her rooms, for fear I might show up.  I keep telling her I don't need two singles."

"We've got a double.  I'll trade you."


Jack took a sip of coffee.

"Wes told me your theory."

"Which one?"

"That I was one of the kids you played cards with in '59."

"The world isn't that small."

Jack grinned and lit a cigarette.

Wes came back windblown, but undamaged, carrying packages, Mrs. Smith's, it turned out.  Side by side, they could have been mother and son.  Wes was just another guy in sunglasses, and a handsome guy at that.  He wore a white sweatshirt with Ocean City, NJ, on the pocket in red letters.  I had a jacket like that in fifth grade.

"Looks good on him, doesn't it," Mrs. Smith said.  "Woulda got you one, too, Jack, and you, too."  She nodded toward me.

"You don't need to," Jack said.

"Yes, I do.  What am I gonna do with my money?  Line my coffin with it?"

"Well, you don't need to buy me presents," I said.  "I'm just a tourist.  I'm a stranger."

Wes lit a cigarette and smirked.

"Want a swim before lunch?" he asked.


"Meet us back here," he said to Jack and went in.

When I opened the door to the room, Wes was had his back toward me.  He was standing in front of a mirror, a full-length mirror.

"Admiring yourself?" I asked.

He smiled and kept looking.  I would have sworn he could see himself.  I opened my suitcase and began to look for my trunks.

"I set them out," Wes said.

I stopped.

"You aren't really blind, are you?"

"I wish," he said, and stepped into a pair of loose tan trunks.