By the sea, by the sea...
  fictions by Jim Beane
  1  Across the Bay
2  Fragile
3  Before the Storm
4  Ocean View
5  The Rising Tide
  About the Author  |  |  Winter 2018 Fiction Issue

Across the Bay

A man and a young girl lumber past. She’s eight, maybe nine. His hand holds onto her shoulder. Their mud stained clothes cling, their shoes squish. It’s dark, she holds the man’s hand, her eyes dart up to meet his. The moon creeps from behind the clouds and its light sweeps across his face. He looks lost, confused. Seeing them, like that, knowing they’re local, knowing what they’ve been through, I feel for them.

The nor’easter hammered the coast from the Atlantic Highlands to Cape May for three solid days, no let up. Wind. Floods. Rain like bullets. All God’s fury. The bay surged twelve feet, and the electricity is still out two days later.

I am waiting for my friend Roy to swing by and pick me up from the Best Burger parking lot on Route 9, south of Manahawkin. Roy texted me last night to meet him early at the lot, so here I am. He wanted to go to the island and see the damage.

I don’t have many friends. Truth, I don’t have any friends. I have Roy. My mom told me specifically to stay home and clean up the mess from the surge. We live in a double-wide in Shady Acres Park behind the Best Burger. But once the rain stopped, my mom disappeared. She works for Maids-R-Us, seven days a week, normally. But after a storm like this, I might not see her for a week.

Roy’s a football stud at school. Girls love him. I’m bony, stick-out skinny, and can’t catch a football if you drop it in my hands.

Weird how shit works out. Believe me, I was more than a little suspicious when Roy first approached me, but he was quick to fess up, he wanted to learn how to surf. Every kid grows up at the shore learns to surf. I did, and I surf like the best of them now. Not Roy, too busy playing football and helping his dad with his plumbing business. Roy most likely picked me to friend up because all the other surfers turned him down. I still feel lucky he did.

Roy’s Jeep wheels into view on Route 9. He’s driving fast with the high beams on and towing his dad’s 23 foot Mako on their old rusty trailer, I jog outside and jump in the passenger seat.

“Hey dude,” Roy says. “Let’s go see how the richies made out.”

There are two types of people on the Jersey coast, locals and summer people, the richies. It’s no compliment. Locals live on the mainland. Richies live on the island. Locals used to live on the island, but the richies bought up everything and chased the locals off… So, the locals resent the richies. Natural. Just the way it is, and nobody hates richies like Roy, except maybe his dad, a plumbing dynamo who depended on clearing muck from the richies sewer pipes to pay his bills. Roy’s mom wasn’t too crazy about summer people either. She works at Albert’s, a snobby restaurant on the island decorated with pretend fishing nets and buoys. Locals can’t afford appetizers at Albert’s and never eat there. Roy’s mom says richies act like jerks, like they’re better than us. His dad says they got their heads stuck up their ass.

Roy’s mom and dad grew up on the island. Now, they live in Tuckerton. Locals like them live in trailer parks and crummy houses all up and down Route 9. They do the work the richies from New York and Philadelphia can’t do or won’t do. Richies don’t waste their precious time doing shit they can pay other people to do. Even my mom, who forgives everybody in the name of Christ, thinks richies don’t behave themselves. The locals don’t want to live with them, never have, but financially can’t survive without them. Catch-22. Weird.

 “What about the Cops and the National Guard?” I ask. Roy pulls off.

“C’mon dude, you know Ocean County cops. They’re probably in Woodstown eating doughnuts. And no Guard, not yet. Billy’s on the island. He called me on his cell.”

“Billy mention the causeway still being closed to cars? That’s what the radio said this morning.”

“Yeah, yeah. Billy texted me all about it. We’ll cruise over in my old man’s Mako. I threw a couple of sticks and two wetsuits in back. Ride some killer surf at North Point. Root around, have some fun, see what loot we can find.”

“What do you mean, loot?”

 “You know,” Roy says. “Shit you want but can’t buy, shit the richies won’t miss. Shit they probably don’t even know they have. What’s it matter? Whatever’s left is for the taking. C’mon, dude.” And I go along. I always go along. I don’t want anything, but I don’t want to tell Roy no.

We hit the water at the south put-in ramp on the Mullica River as a new sun peeks over the horizon. The Mako blows out the mouth of the Mullica in a rush. I zip my fleece tight to my neck and hunch my shoulders against the wind’s frigid spray. Roy pushes the throttle. We huddle behind the console and plow across the bay, past Miller’s Bump, and into the shallows of East Bay. Roy turns the wheel and we bend around Marsh Island and head for Billy’s.

The island, what’s left of it, stretches out in front of us.

Roy throttles down and swings the skiff behind Logan’s Hill. Billy, a speck in the distance, brooms the sludge off his old man’s dock. No boats. No lights. Nothing. Billy is moving slow, it looks like he’s not moving at all. Roy’s eyes narrow. He scans the wreckage bunched up against the shoreline.

Everything. Busted to shit. Roofs off. Phone poles down. Houses twisted, bent, leaning. Roy zigzags through all the crap in the water. He jerks the wheel and a bloated dog bumps off the bow. Poor thing bobs in our wake. I turn away.

Billy spots us and waves us to pull alongside his old man’s busted-up fuel dock. Billy’s a couple years older than me and Roy. He is the King of North Point. North Point has killer surf. Best surf north or south for a hundred miles, every day. The Point spooks even the local surfers, including me. Too many rocks, too much blood, too many broken boards. Not Billy, Billy owns the Point. Legendary.

Roy bumps the stern of the Mako against the pilings and Billy tosses me a rope. I loop the line around the bow cleat and cinch it tight. Roy ties the stern off, kills the motor switch, grabs Billy’s hand and hops off. Billy rents boats and sells bait for his Dad, lives with his dog Rosie in the cramped apartment over top the old man’s bait shack.

“OK to leave the boat here for a while, King?” Roy says to Billy. “Gonna surf the point.”

“Sure.” Billy shrugs. He leans against one of the muddy gas pumps. “You’ll have to truck out to the Point on foot, the roads are shit.”

“C’mon with us, man,” Roy says. “Suit up and show us the way, King. Point’s gonna be bitchin’.” Roy can’t surf worth shit, but he can talk the talk.

Billy looks down at the dock and shakes his head.

“Can’t. My old man hears I’m surfing ‘stead of cleaning up, he’ll skin me.”

“Right. How ‘bout we borrow a couple these bikes.” Roy walks toward the bike rental rack buried under sand.

“Take what you want. Shit’s ruint anyway.” Billy brooms a clump of seaweed the size of a basketball off the dock.

 The stench racing up my nose from the open bait shack door is toxic. The freezers are overturned, and thawing chumbait covers the floor. Black water lines ring the walls. I gag, but the feelings pass and I trot past the shack to catch up with Roy.

He’s muscling two bikes loose from the rack. I wipe the slime off the seat of one and kick the sand from the chain. While Roy’s climbing into his wetsuit, Billy strolls over. He offers us a smoldering joint. Roy hits it. I pass. Getting stoned will not improve the situation.

“What was it like?” Roy asks Billy.

Billy sucks on the joint. “Fuckin’ wind howled, man, screeched a bitch. And the bay kept rising.” Billy points to the scumline above the door on the tackle shop. “Come to the top step.”

“Where’s Rosie?” I ask.

Roy takes the joint from Billy and hits it hard. Billy glances up the stairs.

“Won’t come out the apartment,” he says. “Just lays under the table and cries.” Billy tilts his head and sighs. “Later dudes. Better get.” Billy taps his broom on the stairs and Rosie starts barking. Hearing her makes me feel a whole lot better.

Without a word, Roy takes off, pedaling as fast as he can. I tuck my stick under my arm, settle on my bike and take off after him.

Bay Avenue is a disaster. One old shingle house is completely off its foundation. A Grady White Sportsman lies on its side in the middle of the sand covered road. A wood post sticks out from the Grady’s hull like a broken tooth. Somebody’s skiff broke loose and crashed bow first through the front window of the Double Dip. The skiff’s mangled prop dangles from the stern. I’ll miss the Double Dip.

My bike is a struggle in the thick wet sand. The island is skinnier, or it looks that way from the road. The oceanfront houses stand on spindly legs. Staircases off their front doors dangle into space, the sand beneath them completely gone, water all around.

“Shit is fucked up,” I say to Roy when I catch him. He acts like he doesn’t hear me. He’s busy tallying the damage. Stone-faced, like when he inventories pipe fittings in his old man’s shop. He scratches his ear and grins.

“So what,” he says. “C’mon, let’s go.”

At North Point, Roy leans against his board and stares out at the ocean. Frothy barrels of surf race to the beach. Roy points past the jetties to the ocean ribs, a set of perfect tubes. Breaking, following, angling toward the shore. Roy raises his eyebrows a couple of times.

“Shit’s tight,” he says.

“Uh…right.” A giant wave crashes. The roar makes me cringe. Roy walks to the edge of the wash with his stick and looks back at me.

“No way you paddle through that shit,” I say.

“But check out those tubes.”

“Yeah, right. But you got to get to them.” I point to the underwater stone jetties. “You can’t even see the scabs.”

“You clucked by this shit?” Roy says.

A huge necksnapper slams down in front of him. I take a step back.

“Get axed by that, you might not come up.”

“C’mon, Jaybird, let’s go. Show me how it’s done.” He runs into the surf, throws his stick out, flops on. He paddles out to the close break. Sometimes, being strong is enough, sometimes.

I jam my stick in the sand, cross my arms and watch Roy sit up on his board. He twists around to look back at me and crooks his arms at the elbow, clucking like a chicken. I flip him off, but before he can even laugh, a monster wave swallows him.

I run to the skim to help, but he doesn’t surface. I wait…and wait. Then his board pops up in the suds and tumbles to the beach. I take two steps into the surf ready to dive in after him, but then, fifty yards down the rip, Roy’s head break’s the surface choking, and he washes up onto the sand. On all fours, he spits out water he’s swallowed. As I start toward him, he stands, wobbly like he’s drunk, and shakes the sand from his head. He picks up his board and cradles it under his arm.

“Cluck, cluck,” I say.

He flips me the bird.

“Up yours, kook,” he says. “That shit’s serious.” He lays his stick down fins up, and plops on the sand. I drop next to him and the wash licks our feet. A weak sun forces its way through the clouds and I peel my wetsuit from my arms and chest.

“Fuck this, let’s go shopping,” Roy says.

“Let’s blow, man. This whole scene creeps me out.”

Roy shakes his head no.

“Really?” he says. “I’m going shopping. You coming?” He spits into the wash, stands up and strips off his wetsuit. He slings his skin over his bike’s handlebars and knots the arms and legs to keep them out of the spokes. He takes off, again, without one word. And I follow, again, without a single question.

Fifteen minutes later, I am riding through the tangle of security gates at Engleside Estates, hot on Roy’s trail. Gazillionaires buy houses in Engleside, the richest of the richies. But from what I see, having all that money didn’t help them. Storms fuck everybody.

Roy pulls his bike into the first driveway. The side door of the house is splayed open, hanging from one hinge. Roy points at the opening and raises his hand, thumbs up.

“Jackpot,” he says.

Roy drops his bike and disappears through the open door. A smell like rotten eggs and dead fish jumps all over me as I step through the door. Fuzzy brown streaks crawl up the walls and my sneaks stick to the greasy muck covering the floor. I hesitate a few seconds, pull my t-shirt up over my nose and mouth and call out to Roy.

“Living room,” he yells back.

When I find him, Roy’s standing looking at a ruined painting hanging crookedly on the wall over the fireplace. Everything is ruined. Furniture, curtains, art, electronics, rugs, everything. The water line is a few inches below the ceiling. Roy’s head tilts to the side.

“How much you think this shit costs?” he says. He straightens the painting. Scum streaks the canvas.

“I dunno, nothing?”

“Fuckin’ plenty. For sure.” He rips the painting from the wall and breaks it over his knee. He storms to the bookcase behind the soggy couch and pulls one book at a time from the shelves. He fakes interest, then hurls the book across the room. He smashes a lamp and kicks in the tv.

With fury, he sails plates from the china cabinet like Frisbees, shattering them against the walls. The plates are only dirty, but Roy is enjoying himself and I don’t want to get in the way. Roy’s too big, and he’s erupting. He empties the glass front cabinet and pulls it to the floor, huffing like an animal. He picks up a crystal bowl and slings it like a football into the fireplace. It explodes in a million pieces.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I can’t keep myself from yelling.

Roy’s eyes blaze.

“Fuckit,” he says. “It’s all garbage anyway.” He tosses a blue vase against the wall.

“Stop it,” I scream. “It’s their shit, not yours. They decide it’s garbage, not you, not me.”

For a second, he freezes, then looks at me like I’m a virus.

I turn away and head upstairs to clear my head. He stays downstairs trashing shit. The upstairs looks okay, like the storm decided to spare it. In one bedroom, pale green curtains cover sliding doors opening onto a balcony. I separate the gauzy curtains and stare out the glass doors across the bay. The lights on the mainland are home.

The door to my right shatters and glass scatters onto the balcony. Roy laughs.

“Awesome toss, huh,” he says. A brass dolphin sculpture wobbles on the deck surrounded by broken glass. “Wondered where you went to hide.”

“I’m not hiding.”

“Yeah, what do you call it? C’mon, bust some shit up, like me. It’s fun” He snatches a lamp from the dresser and throws it too close past me onto the balcony.

“What is fucking wrong with you?” I say.

“Nothing’s wrong with me. What’s wrong with you?” He shouts at me. I face up to him for a long time. Finally, he shakes his head like he’s way disappointed in me and turns away.

“These fucks deserve every pain they get.”

“Fuck that,” I say. I think about arguing, about setting him straight, but what’s the use with a guy like Roy. “Ahh…forget it, I’m history.”

Roy advances on me and as I back up, I realize the trajectory of my life is about to change.

“Get your head out of your ass, Jay,” Roy says to me. “What exactly have these people ever done for you?”

“Nothing. But what have they done to you?”

“Don’t feel sorry for them, man. They got it all, and they screwed us to get it.”

“Who’s this us, Roy?” I try to sound tough, but I take another step back. “You sound like your old man.”

“You dissing my Dad?”

“No. Look, I’m just saying, I don’t know anything about these people. I don’t hate them. I’m not going to hate them, I don’t even know them.”

“The fuck you don’t. Richies are all the same. They shit on you, your mom, me, my old man, everybody.”

Every local complains about summer people invading. After the fourth of July, you need a reservation to get on the beach. Yeah, my mom pisses and moans like everybody else when Memorial Day rolls around, and she thanks God for Labor Day. But I think she only does it for show, to keep on the good side of the locals. She needs friends, I don’t blame her. Shit, we all need friends, look at Roy and me. But when it’s just me and her, she says blaming your bad luck on other people is a stupid way to feel better about yourself.

“Come on,” Roy says to me. “Let’s burn this shit down. Get some payback. They fuck us, we fuck them. C’mon, Jay, let’s get to work.”

I try to push past him, but he grabs me by the arm and shoves me into the wall, hard.

“C’mon,” he says. “Let’s have some fun. What’s a matter, Jay, why are you taking their side?”

“I’m not.” I jerk my arm free and shove past him into the hallway.

He follows me. “Bullshit,” he says. “You should be with me.”

“Not like this.”

Roy tackles me, surprising me and we hurtle to the carpet in the hall. Then, he’s punching me, and screaming. I don’t fight him, I try to stop him. The whole fucking scene is beyond belief. I’m not sure he knows who I am anymore. I push at him with both hands, yelling his name, yelling for him to stop.

Finally, his eyes narrow. Recognition. I push at him and he rolls off me. I scramble away from him. He stays put on his knees, not looking at me, his hands limp at his side.

“I thought we were bros,” he says.

I don’t answer. He looks more pitiful than powerful now. He’s not grinning, he’s not anything. I leave him kneeling in the hallway.

Downstairs, I wander to the back of the house. A grand piano takes up most of a small sunroom’s floorspace. The sunroom has four sliding doors and many windows. It is a beautiful view of the bay. The piano’s lid is closed. A bench is on its side. The piano’s once shiny surface is split and puckered. Stained rugs bunch up against the legs. Mud smears the framed photographs strewn around the floor. The photos are the same girl, different ages, smiling from every frame.

One photograph shows the girl and a man who must be her father. The glass is cracked and salt stains the image. But the girl’s tan skin glistens and her already blonde hair is white from the sun. She looks, I don’t know, eight, maybe nine years old and is looking up at her father, smiling, holding his hand. Her teeth are perfect, her face fearless.

I stare at the photo and think of the girl and her father from the Best Burger. Broken, desperate, nothing left but fear of what comes next. I try to hate the girl in the picture, for being rich, for having more. But I can’t. Roy wants me to choose sides. But it’s never that easy. In Roy’s world, locals are righteous and the richies should be hated for all they have that he doesn’t.

Roy’s world. His father’s world. His grandfather’s world. Almost my world, but not after today.

At the sliding glass doors, I gaze across God’s wide waters. The water might as well be a wall. But God doesn’t build walls, my mom says, people build walls, people like Roy, like his dad. I guess I never understood what my mom meant, until now. I guess I thought we were just like all the rest.

Sure, my mom’s working overtime, like Roy’s mom and everybody’s mom and they are all glad to earn the extra money. But how many worried over what had been lost. Not just their loss, everyone’s loss, like the girl this morning, like the girl in the photo.

I touched the photo and rub the dirt away with my thumb. I place the frame on the piano as it should’ve been.

Outside, on my bike with my board beneath my arm, I listen to Roy calling my name. The sound of his voice grows louder, and I push off down the drive. I hope the causeway is open to bikes and plow ahead. Roy’s yelling pushes me to peddle faster, to get away, and all I hear is the sand spitting off the tires.


  © Jim Beane, 2018

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