JUST ANOTHER STORY
The Carousel ride was coming to an end. Seeing that Reggie wasn’t trying for the golden ring, the operator had slowed the ride down considerably.
Reggie pulled out some pink lip gloss from a secret compartment inside the army jacket she had donned near the shoreline. She very deliberately began applying the gloss, using her pinkie; a mirror was superfluous. The bubble gum color piqued Richie’s interest because it was so understated compared to the fire engine red Reggie wore during high school. After she finished a generous application, she pouted, uncurling her lower lip. Richie was pleased. With this application, Reggie mirrored Wendy Strummer.
“You’d better not make yourself look too good, darlin’. They’ll auction you off next.”
“But I’m not for sale.”
“I don’t know that you have a choice. Look what happened to the Carousel. It may take 100 years, but sooner or later, they’re gonna get ya.”
“Not me. I can’t be bought. Besides. They can’t sell me if they can’t catch me,” she taunted, deftly hopping off the Carousel. Without saying a word, she sprinted towards the Carousel House exit and the boardwalk.
“Aren’t you at least gonna stay and cuddle?” the operator yelled after Richie, who was already in hot pursuit.
They reached the boardwalk in seconds. The immediate area was deserted, although down towards the other end of the strip, there were a few individuals milling about. A shirtless young man doused the red, wooden boardwalk outside the Starlight Lanes Bowling Alley with some fast-acting chemicals, while on the other side of the fence, an elderly woman blessed the beach with a metal detector, her eyes shaded by a green visor, her precise sweeping movements making her appear robotic. In the vicinity, two gypsy women packed up their belongings and rounded up their children.
Richie caught up with Reggie at a frozen custard and ice cream stand they both remembered from when they were kids. The stand’s overhead, neon sign was lying at their feet at the base of the boarded-up storefront. Choosing from thirty-five different flavors of homemade custard and ice cream and drinking freshly squeezed orangeade (with pulp floating on top) through a candy cane-colored, paper straw were special treats every kid who visited Sea Breeze with their parents anticipated with joy.
Richie looked at the fallen sign and thought of mint chocolate chip ice cream in an oversized waffle cone. “Remember when we were kids…,” he began.
“Just another story,” Reggie said. “C’mon.”
As they jogged, they observed the state of the boardwalk. Neither one could understand how it had gotten so bad, so fast. When they were kids, this whole seaside area had been crowded with families on vacation, eating Taylor ham sandwiches, creamy fudge and salt water taffy. They had played harmless games of chance, like the ten cent betting wheels or the fishing pond, and had won worthless but coveted prizes such as key chains shaped like New Jersey, colorful combs the length of a ruler and the width of a wallet, or plastic back-scratchers, shaped like monkeys’ paws.
All of that had changed. There was a biker bar by the forsaken tea cups ride. Young men with beepers stood guard outside the lone remaining arcade. The “Merchant of Venice” boat ride, which had taken would-be Venetians on a half-hour tour through man-made canals that weaved in and out underneath the boardwalk, was dry; replica gondolas were stacked high, like poker chips waiting to be tossed onto the table during the next redevelopment project bluff.
Only a few of the kiddie rides remained, and if they functioned the way the young men who operated them looked, no parent would let their child on them anyway. The attractions for grown-ups had fared no better. For instance, it appeared to Richie that the “Leap of Faith” rollercoaster required precisely that from anyone who was brave enough to climb on board.
At the end of what was considered to be Sea Breeze proper, where the smaller borough of Sea Breeze By-the-Sea began, they reached The Sand Dunes — the last of the old hotels built around the time of the 1939 World’s Fair. It was in this hotel’s elegant restaurant, The Rainbow Room, that their parents, and countless couples on their honeymoons from all over New York, New Jersey and New England, saw Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Xavier Cugar, Mario Lanza, and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons perform. With those days long gone, The Sand Dunes was dark except for one faintly-lit room on the top floor. As overcast clouds darkened the afternoon sky, the room began to glow.
“Look,” Richie said, pointing to a shadow he thought he saw, barely moving inside.
“What?” Reggie asked.
“Nothing. I thought I saw someone up there,” Richie said, still pointing towards the top floor of the hotel.
“I doubt it. I think everyone has cleared out of this place.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Richie said, mesmerized by the top floor, but afraid of what he might see. “Maybe we should too.”
“Agreed,” Reggie said, stealing a glance at the top floor.
Richie looked at Reggie and considered the changes in her appearance; gone was the high school girl. A young woman had emerged with a leaner look and a self-assured attitude.
“I guess I can’t think of you as a Kewpie doll any more,” he began.
“Huh? Kewpie dolls are stupid.”
He considered her in light of their immediate surroundings and decided that she was representative of a new breed of Kewpie doll, unlike the traditional ones won at the boardwalk. They were no longer handed over just for swinging a mallet and ringing a bell. After years of being surrendered as prizes, the new generation refused to be exchanged for arcade tokens or brainless feats of valor. In fact, they had emerged to demand payment in-kind for all those years they had spent languishing on concession stand shelves.
“What?” Reggie asked, noticing his fixed gaze. “I’m not gonna dress up like a Kewpie doll for you…”
“What? No, I know. Let’s get outta here.”
Holding hands, they exited the boardwalk, making use of a nearby ramp. They proceeded around the back of a defunct souvenir shop to make their way to the train station. Turning the corner, they encountered an old, disregarded man urinating against the shop’s back wall. Huge poster-ads of Tiranna were plastered above him. Six feet-tall and three feet-wide, the posters announced the release of her greatest hits collection. Tiranna wore a body-hugging, black mini-dress that accentuated every curve. She was bent forward at the waist. Her mouth was opened wide. She looked positively elated, standing above the teaser that read: “THERE’S NO COMPARISON TO THIS CHILD’S BODY…OF WORK.”
As the old man craned his neck upward and moved closer to the wall, he splattered urine on himself. He didn’t seem to mind. He swayed enthusiastically and continued to relieve himself, as if imitating one of Tiranna’s dance moves.
They hurried past the man, who didn’t notice them. They walked up the street, about one hundred yards, reaching a spot below some overgrown elm trees.
“Look,” Reggie said, pointing to a darkened Carousel House. “I guess the old man wasn’t kidding.”
“I didn’t think he was,” Richie said, surveying the shoreline.
“Everything looks so dark and deserted.”
“Everything but that,” Richie said, pointing towards the room at the top of The Sand Dunes, where a shadow was now clearly jerking about, like an electric current released from a fallen power line.
“What happened to this place?” Richie asked. “I wonder if my dad knows how bad it is down here?”
“C’mon. Let’s keep moving,” he heard Reggie say from over his shoulder. He knew that she had turned away from the shore and moved on, but he was frozen; unable to reconcile the ruins before him with the playful and colorful seaside images of his boyhood.
He felt Reggie grab his good shoulder and, with authority, and whirl him around.
“You’re all mine tonight,” she said.
Before he could respond, he felt her lips wrap around his own, and command his complete attention. She effectively surrounded his cherished childhood memories in pink lip gloss and, at the count of three, exploded them into a million pieces.