Friday, October 7, 2016

Boardwalk ghosts

“Imagine this, buddy, in the middle of summer, especially near the Fourth of July. Wall to wall people, just sort of moving in and out of each other. Flashing lights. Loud music. Screams from Morey’s Pier, laughter on the swirly rides. Oh...and the food...ice cream, funnel cake, fudge, cheese steaks, pizza, fries...the smells alone would drive you nuts!” 

Our empty, rainy October boardwalk
It’s 5:00 on the evening before his Nana’s funeral, and we’re standing in a windy drizzle on an empty Wildwood boardwalk. My mind has flashed back to the summer of 1991, when I spent a week here with my best friend. Wicked sunburn. Tandem bike adventures. Water slides. Thrill rides. A ground-shaking thunderstorm. Friendship bracelets. College guys taking showers outside. Ice cream and VCR movies every night.

Back in the here-and-now I’m trying to explain to Zippy what this place is like when it’s not October. He’s been to Rehoboth and Ocean City and Old Orchard Beach, but none of those come anywhere close to Wildwood in peak season. Here the boardwalk stretches for miles and the roller coasters dwarf the ones he's seen in Disney World and Story Land. I can see his eyes and brain trying to fill in the blanks left behind by gated game kiosks and store fronts, the still and silent tilt-a-whirl and locked-tight food stands. 

“Uncle Jack worked at these game kiosks when he was a teenager, and Nana would follow him everywhere, all over the boardwalk and to the bay when he went fishing,” I tell him. “Nana was much younger than Jack. He called her Pinky because she always wore pink. Maybe also because she was sunburned. She’d sneak behind the games and he’d let her play for free sometimes.” Nana smiled with each retelling of these stories, usually working a tattered napkin in her hand after a family meal. She cherished these memories of her brother, her boardwalk, her ocean. 

“Why did Nana follow him everywhere?” Zippy asks. 

“Because she loved him so much and wanted to be with him always.”

“Like me and Happy?” 

“Yep. Uncle Jack watched out for Nana like Happy watches out for you,” I explain. “And Nana probably bugged him sometimes, too.”

“Yeah, probably. What does Uncle Jack look like now?” Zippy asks, and I realize he’s never met his great-uncle. 

“Hmm. Like the man version of Nana, actually.” I smile at how clever I am, but also because it’s true. They look just alike, speak with the same inflections, even walk with a similar tilt and shuffle.

“Does he have blue eyes like Nana?”

“Yep, and like you,” I reply.

Zippy is silent, looking around the boardwalk. We’re walking in the opposite direction now, heading back toward the pizza place to meet up with his cousins. I’m feeling nostalgic. My inner Jersey Girl is beaming. I’ve never been much of a boardwalk person, but you have to admit: Wildwood is like nothing else. I make a pact with myself that we'll bring them back here in the summer, and soon.

“Mama,” Zippy whispers. He’s holding tight to my hand as we lean into the drizzle and wind. “I would be really sad if Happy died like Nana did.” We stop walking and I squat down to his eye level. I have no words. He wraps his arms around my neck, and we just hold each other. A seagull stops a few feet away, cocks its head to the side, susses us out.

“I know, baby. Happy is your best friend. And you’re his.” There is nothing else to say. 

“Uncle Jack must be so sad today,” he says in his matter-of-fact tone. 

I stand up and he leans his head against my belly. I hear him sniffle, but I think it’s mostly because of the wind and rain, not tears. He’s empathizing but still so pragmatic. We walk toward the pizza place, the last remaining light on the boardwalk. Zippy's holding my hand, then bouncing to Happy, then skipping a little between us both. I can't see much of anything now because of the rain droplets on my glasses, but "watch the tram-car, please" repeats from the corner of my brain. One of the many ghosts accompanying us now. I swear I can smell cotton candy, too.

Zippy stops so abruplty I almost trip over him. His face tilts up at me, he juts his arms up over his head like he's trying to catch the wind. 

“I think me and little-kid Nana would have had fun here.”