There were two parking lots on Sixth Street on the way to the Ocean City, New Jersey, boardwalk. They sat across from one another. “Hours: 8 am until 1 am. Violators will be towed away.” White-haired Mike Malloy owned both of them. He sat in the little booth, fanning himself with his Mets’ cap, a paperback in his lap. His brother, Bruce Malloy, worked the lot right across the street. Often, when Bruce used the restroom over at the Starfish Grille, Mike would dash across the street to park the cars himself.
Divorced and the grandfather of four, Mike had a new girlfriend he met at The Boardwalk Art Gallery. She was quite a bit younger, fifty-five to his seventy, but they’d go over to his trailer to chat and for some nice relaxing sex.
A small painting of The Eiffel Tower hung in his dining room, a gift from Debbie.
In mid-June, the hordes descended on the island. Hot and humid it was. But never did it rain. His sharp eyes scanned the passersby, who walked on the sidewalk or in the street, heading toward the beach just up the street. Was there ever a smell like the salty air and the cool ocean breezes?
Squinting against the sun, he watched parents pushing strollers with as many as four children in them, old couples with linked arms, a woman bent over like a pretzel pushing her walker, young girls with great skinny legs in two-piece bikinis and tattoos. And the daredevils would often go barefoot.
Never judgmental, he simply enjoyed what he saw. Oh, there was always something that bothered Mike Malloy, or, rather, someone, but he kept them in the back of his mind.
“Debbie,” he asked her at their next assignation in his trailer, offering her some red wine in this “dry town.”
“Ever seen a single woman who pushes a deformed child, around six, in a tiny wheelchair?”
She thought a moment and said, “Yes, I believe they were watching at the Miss New Jersey Pageant last week. Couldn’t miss them.”
As he sipped on his wine, he said, “I believe the mother is up to no good. She yells at the little girl when they pass the parking lot. Makes a big ruckus. Everyone notices. Gives ‘em dirty looks.”
“What a shame,” said Debbie, wiping her mouth with a pink cloth napkin. “Sure isn’t the little girl’s fault.”
“Yeah,” continued Mike. “If you don’t want the kid put her in a home.”
That week, Debbie prevailed over her new boyfriend to take a break from his job. There were always kids – especially from Russia and its outlying lands – who wanted jobs. He hired Oleg from Ukraine, who seemed honest and spoke good English. When he arrived at the parking lot he noticed that Oleg was reading, of all things, the play “Uncle Vanya” by Chekhov.
“Where we goin’, my dear?” he asked Debbie as they linked arms.
“I need a big virile man to show me the amusement park.”
“Hmm, wonder who you’re talkin’ about,” he laughed.
They walked over to one of two amusement parks on the island, their feet clopping on the newly repaired boardwalk. After all, this was the summer, everything must be perfect, money-making time! Every few feet, someone had spilled something: an ice cream cone with rainbow-colored jimmies, or half a box of caramel corn, whose chestnut-colored kernels lay splayed out on the boardwalk, trampled again and again.
“Aw, my favorite pizza,” said Debbie, looking down and spying a huge slice, its mushrooms and ricotta totally inedible, unless you were homeless.
Were there homeless in Ocean City? Mike had never seen any, though there were rooming houses near Atlantic City where so-called “transients” lived.
Whooshing noises were getting closer. Mike grabbed Debbie’s hand as they entered what, at first glance, might be a Turkish bazaar or a festival in some long-ago fairy tale. Noises assaulted them on all sides and lights from the amusement park rides blinked on and off. Mike’s niece, Valerie, had epilepsy. If the young woman ever entered here, she’d have a seizure, and would need to be carried out to safety.
Debbie was clearly shocked. She grabbed her chest. “I’ve never been here, darling,” she said, directly into his ear. “Scary! But I like it!”
“That’s my girl,” he said.
He led her to a new ride called the Gale Force. Mostly young people stood in line to sample it. The Gazette devoted the front page to it. A list of instructions was printed on a board. You must be four feet high. You can’t be pregnant. Empty out your pockets.
“Sit over here,” said Mike, leading her to a crowded bench.
Whoosh! The Gale Force took off like a car in the Indy 500. Twelve people sat in one car. Although they looked very tiny, you could hear their screams. Up and down they flew, going as high as a three-story building. The screaming never stopped as they rode the bright blue roller coaster, which looked to be made of strong plastic.
The ride was over in less than three minutes. Mike grabbed Debbie’s hand and led her to the exit of the ride. Shockingly, the riders looked as if the ride had been nothing more than a stroll in the park.
“I’m not even gonna joke that we try it,” he said.
As they left Castaway Cove, they saw the woman pushing her disabled child down a ramp to enter the amusement park. Mike nudged Debbie, who nodded, and the mother of the child gave them a dirty look.
On a rainy Thursday night, Mike found it hard to stay asleep. He was reading the newest John Sandford thriller, the one about a U.S. Marshal sending Lucas Davenport to an uncharted territory, not unlike what he was experiencing with the mother and her child.
He got up and threw some khaki shorts over his boxers and grabbed a blue shirt, which he put on over that. His glasses were on the end table. He slid his old callused feet with toenails that needed clipping into some old flip-flops. The trip to the beach was about ten minutes away. He hurried. It was three in the morning. A few people were out. There were always people out in this vacation paradise.
He looked up in the sky. Nice half moon and a few scattered stars and planets winking at him.
“Ola!” he said out loud. “Lead me onward, I don’t know the way.”
He passed the beach sign that read, “Do not feed the seagulls. $100 fine or ten days in jail.” He laughed. As he descended the steps to the beach, he saw all sorts of trash, cigarette butts, ice cream cones, Philadelphia-style pretzels, and shook his head.
Removing his flip-flops, he trotted down to the shoreline. The waves were crashing in, same as they always have done. He got his toes wet. Burning cold. If you took a boat out you’d land in Poland, where they had similar weather.
It was a fine sight, the endless rolling waves, one he never tired of. Something told him to jog toward the right. He followed his intuition and soon saw something glistening near the shore. Was it a mirage? No. It was the little girl in the wheelchair. She had fallen out and lay in the sand. He stooped over her. Her big eyes were wide open. Was she dead?
She stared at him and blinked.
“You’ll be fine, little girl,” he said, sitting her up, and holding her freezing-cold hands.
She managed to crack a smile. Sand covered her face, her hair, and her small misshapen body. He gently brushed the sand away, staring into her frightened eyes.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
She was shivering as she said, “Alissa.”
What a beautiful name, he thought, for a tragically misshapen child.
Mike Malloy was allowed to keep Alissa in his home until an adoptive family was found. He taught her card tricks, the rudiments of fishing, and bought her some Nancy Drew books, telling her, “In your new home you’ll learn how to read.”
She was allowed to see her mother, who came by every week, wearing an ankle bracelet from her jail cell.
Back at the parking lot, Mike Malloy sat and thought about Alissa and her mother. He didn’t even try to read, he was so absorbed by the little girl and her deathly experience. How terrified she must have been as she bravely awaited death.
As always, he stared at the sky. Would it rain today? How hot would it get? Was Debbie selling many paintings on the boardwalk?
“Best job I ever had,” he thought, kissing his fingers and offering them to the sky.
Ruth Z. Deming has had her poetry published in lit mags including Literary Yard, River Poets, Blue Bonnet Review and JonahMagazine. She lives in Willow Grove, a suburb of Pennsylvania in the US of A.