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They started out at five to avoid getting snarled up in the city, and by mid-morning were most of the way down the Jersey shore. Dale was driving, despite Eva’s ideological objections, and every few miles he checked the changing road signs against the map inside his head. Eva was asleep. She had stayed with him long enough to offer one or two pieces of advice on the journey, woken briefly as they emerged from the tunnel against the backdrop of Manhattan, its lights shaking out across the water like raindrops, but mostly followed her usual practice whenever they hit an expressway.
Dale watched the Garden State Parkway batter past, its unwavering yellow lines, the odd shredded remould lying here and there on the roadside or pasted up like a question mark on the central barrier. He found the monotony of it comforting. After five years of sweat and complexity in libraries and classrooms, graduation, then three more months of post-doctoral work, the silence and simplicity made a wonderful change. Though at long last he could afford a car – albeit one older than Eva’s on her magnificent assistant professor’s salary – they had hired a new car between them for the sake of reliability. The shiny, plump wheel beneath his fingers hummed in contact with the road, ticking slightly with the variations in its surface but leaving him free to wander anywhere he chose. He didn’t go far. Even in an awkward sleep, her shoulder and arm wedged tightly against the door, Eva stirred his senses. He ran his eyes over her light olive skin and dark hair, the flat moist line of her mouth. The image of her breasts moving behind cotton occurred to him, and he tapped a finger happily against the underside of the wheel.
Wildwood couldn’t be much farther. After a few minutes a sign informed him that their exit was coming up, then they were at the junction, and he was standing on the brakes and blaring the horn at a greasy Ryder truck that veered across two lanes to cut into the mouth of the exit. He jerked up in his seat and cursed. As they passed, the driver offered a limp apologetic wave and Eva sat up, yawning.
“What’s all the excitement?”
“Nothing – nothing. Go on back to sleep.” But she stretched and kept her eyes open, touched a button to let in the breeze. Scrubby pines fell away from the exit ramp, and they came out on a small highway dotted with cinder-block buildings and telegraph wires looping between poles. The loops tightened as they came into town, cinder-block giving way to tall wooden buildings set amongst trees, flush lawns and streets running between kerbs as white and starchy as corsets. Here and there a building was bottle-green or magenta – even sky blue with a cream trim – but for the most part whites and creams predominated. Every other house was a hotel or guesthouse. He braked precisely at a stop-sign by the Seagull Hotel and a sedan passed; a dog appeared round the corner, its tail whacking against the thin slats of the balcony. Eva smiled.
“Come on, Dale, hurry it up,” she said, waving him on.
“All right. I’m enjoying all this tranquillity. Look at that–” He swept a munificent hand towards the broadly-spaced lots unfolding in green squares towards the coast, the first indistinct hints of Ferris wheel and the boardwalk. There was something appealing about this suggestion of seediness glimpsed from the suburbs, like a flash of hotdog from beneath a silver salver. He bounced the thought around for a minute and grinned. “Okay, let’s hit town.”
He sped up a bit and soon they arrived at the water. The near end of the boardwalk ran by the road, its warped boards closely packed and rippling past a waterfront hotel painted a lugubrious, fading brown. Two fat seagulls sat on a power cable attached to the roof. Beyond the wires a bay stretched into the distance. No Rooms, a hand-chalked sign read. Dale turned the car around, and they headed up main street in search of another hotel. The sun seemed to have brought out every vacationer in the state, and they were turned away at each place they stopped. Even with the air-conditioning cranked up high, the car began to feel uncomfortable. They passed a bold 3-D sign advertising a kite festival, another shaped like a speeding black car announcing some classic corvette show. Dale was getting tired of the constant stopping and parking, all the awkward bumping up of wheels on the sidewalk, even that annoying little ping as the door swung open with his keys still in the ignition. Eva had deputised him for the job, and as he climbed in after another failed attempt he turned to her abruptly.
“You might help, you know. Sitting there smiling and fanning yourself like the freaking Queen of Sheba.”
“I thought I’d let you do it, that’s all. You are the boy.” She smiled again and patted his arm. He ran his fingers through his hair and refused to take the bait. “I was just thinking how fascinating this place is,” she continued. “I mean, those tony suburbs with the lawns and everything, then this.” Across the road the Ferris wheel tilted by, bulbs twinkling. John Cougar Mellencamp thumped from the speakers. “It really underscores the variety of whiteness, don’t you think? That weird sort of cultural overlap behind the hegemony.” Dale groaned. They were supposed to be away from work, on a break, or something. He could hear the rifle-ranges singing like mermaids beyond their concrete wall. “I mean, can you imagine the people who lived here before ever consenting for a minute to all this – culture?” Eva hesitated for a moment, conscious of the word’s high-art connotations, the Jersey contradictions of its use, then pushed on to recover it for the people. “It’s just unthinkable.”
“Well, you’re thinking it now, aren’t you? How hard is that?”
He dropped the parking brake with a crunch and moved out into traffic. 50 yards on, The Fisherman’s Rest winked a neon hello and he swerved into the courtyard.
“Just a minute, okay?” He jumped out and disappeared into the reception. In a couple of minutes he was back, dancing across the tarmac and waving a yellow bit of paper. “Peace in our time!” Eva looked at him blankly.
“A room? A bed and everything; rest, you know? We’re fixed.”
“How much was it?”
“90? Dale, tell me you didn’t pay 90 dollars for a room in this place!”
“What was I supposed to do? You want to keep on trucking and maybe find somewhere in Savannah?” He bristled, remembering the new Coach briefcase she’d begun classes with this semester. He had idly checked out its price in the leather store on his way to Joey’s for a foot-long dog, and it cost one hell of a lot more than 90 dollars.
Eva’s cheeks tightened and she got out of the car. From behind she knocked on the window for him to open the trunk. He sighed, lifted out the bags and, balancing them under both arms, walked ahead of her to the room. A plastic palm tree was stapled to the siding, its leaves yellow and crispy in the heat. He touched her arm and apologised, then unlocked the door and they went inside.
After a long shower she emerged, paler than before and quite fetching in a monogrammed white bathrobe. She tucked her hair up into a towel and perched on the edge of the bed with a nail file, turning the sandy side over and over against the nails of her left hand, her oval face frozen in concentration. He slumped in a cane-backed chair with a book, and looked longingly at her, noticing a pearl of golden water poised on her collarbone. He put down the paperback with a clunk.
“Come on Eva, let’s go get something to eat.”
She agreed reluctantly as she dressed, extracting a promise that she’d be able to come back for a nap right after they ate. He could go out and explore the place right now if he wanted to – she was on holiday and meant to take it easy.
“I know, I know. Just something to eat then you can come on back and sleep. Right.” She pulled a wide-brimmed straw hat from her case and put it on, smoothing down her dress and swishing past him. His hand stole over the warm steel of the doorknob and pulled it firmly into the socket.
They wandered the near end of the boardwalk for a while looking in shops and restaurants, but none seemed quite right. Some were too greasy, the menus tacked up in weather-beaten doorways curling with grime; some were too ambitious, even for a forward-looking assistant professor, and glittered like jewels in bijou hotels a sniffable distance from the crowd. Eva didn’t like hotdogs or burgers and refused to eat anything from a cart anyway. He began to feel the churn of acid in his stomach. She sighed as they reached the halfway point where a huge smiling plaster-of-Paris clown had been set up, and the switch of the boards to a reverse diagonal pattern happened under their feet. She sat down on an iron bench and crossed her legs.
“What?” he said.
“Isn’t there anywhere decent to eat in this place?”
“I don’t know. Denney didn’t tell me the name of any restaurants.” His buddy had come to Wildwood earlier in the summer and had a blast, a freaking great time, man, and urged him to go too. Denney had a paper forthcoming in the Journal of Popular Culture about seaside entertainment in the ‘50s and was still trying to get the department to retroactively fund the trip.
“Well go and find somewhere, Dale. I don’t want to walk about anymore. I’ll sit here.” He looked to see if she was serious, but she was already staring out to sea and tamping her mascara with a little finger.
“Alright, okay. I’ll see about it.”
He touched her leg and set off down the boardwalk, walking at first then breaking into a run as he felt her eyes drilling into his back. He passed a host of places similar to the ones they’d rejected, sandwiched between shooting galleries and soft-toy emporia, their wares bulging out like fluffy warts over the sidewalk. He eyed a foot-long hotdog stand with a pang, then realised he was running out of options. The pier didn’t interest him – or rather it did, but not just at the moment. He didn’t suppose Eva would fancy eating a paper plate of noodles out of her lap.
At the far end of the boardwalk, he started to despair. A rotund seagull squatting by a lamppost stared at him from tiny, bloated eyes, cawing mightily as he passed. He resisted the urge to kick it into the sea and kept on looking. He saw a green awning just ahead, a doorway half-open and with no sign of fluorescent lights or serving hatches propped open on splintery two-by-fours. Closer up he saw it was an Italian restaurant, small and probably family-owned. The menu outside was short but hearty, and when he stuck his head in, a middle-aged waitress looked up at him and smiled.
“Eva!” Half a mile away her tiny figure stirred against the failing afternoon light like a match-head smudged on paper. He stood up on the railings and waved his arms back and forth, calling out her name and beckoning frantically. A few minutes later she walked up to him and pulled him curtly off the rail.
“Alright. You found somewhere, then?”
“Yeah yeah – here.” He took her by the arm and escorted her into the restaurant. They found a booth with its back to the seafront and snuggled into warm leatherette. Eva smoothed her hair and smiled, taking in the solid unpretentious decor, noting the absence of plastic gingham tablecloths and napkins in sprung dispensers. She picked up a fork and balanced it pleasingly in her palm.
“Good job,” she said. He wasn’t sure if she meant it, but the atmosphere seemed to warm up, and, over olives and chunks of crusty bread, Dale relaxed for the first time since he’d found the motel. He leaned back against the upholstery and sipped his beer, watched the waitress carry out big white plates of pasta and sauce from the kitchen. Somewhere in the back a switch was thrown and small lamps came on at the tables; Mel Tormé began to waft out from between high rows of wine bottles, some long sentimental song about a boy winding down a game of cowboys and Indians and falling asleep in his father’s lap. He looked at the smooth brown skin of her face and shoulders, the lift of dark hair against her neck.
“You know, Denney reckons he can get the department to cough up for his trip down here. Says it’s fieldwork or something. He spent most of his time half-cut, wandering in and out of the arcades.”
“I don’t know what you see in him, honestly I don’t, Dale.” Eva looked at him over the cinched rim of the table lamp, eyes glittering. “He’s big and loud and he curses all the time. He’s like a lumberjack or something.” She smiled at her image and his heart clutched like a baby’s hand. A great wave of affection overcame him – for Eva and Denney, for the school and his shabby little room, even the clunker parked under a pine tree collecting resin outside the apartment complex – and he took her hand across the table.
“I do love you, you know,” he said. “You make me happy – most of the time.” She lifted one eyebrow. but he laughed and leaned over to kiss her before she could make an issue of it.
“Why are you in such a good mood?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Just being here, I guess, free and unfettered. I’m looking forward to having something to eat and going down the pier.”
The waitress arrived with their food and for a few moments they ate in silence. Two tables over a car salesman was talking to his buddy in a low voice. Mel Tormé changed to Frank Sinatra, then in the middle of “My Way” the speaker crackled and broke out in a boisterous rendition of “Happy Birthday.” The waitress brought out a cake shaped like a Cadillac to the salesman’s table. The man laughed and blew out the candles as his buddy raised his beer in a toast. Eva turned to meet his eye and nodded slightly. Dale tinkled the stopper on his Grolsch.
When the music stopped, the low murmur of conversation picked up again in the restaurant. The food was solid and delicious. Dale looked up, his mouth full of lasagne.
“What do you think about Denney’s stuff, Popular Culture and all that? D’you think it’s real?”
“Oh yes, don’t you? I mean I’m co-teaching this semester with Anna – over in film studies, you know – and we’re using Dryad’s work on refocusing the white image to get students to think outside the box. His stuff’s popular – ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ ‘White Men Can’t Jump,’ all that. I think it’s fascinating.”
“What stuff is that?”
“Well, you know, the white studies stuff.”
“Yes – tackling the idea that African-American or Hispanic studies depend for their existence on an implied centre, a sort of ‘core culture’ that peripheralises everything else, and then subjecting it to new scrutiny. De-fanging it, maybe, taking away its power.”
Dale smiled. The nearest he’d come to popular studies was briefly discussing the android transformation scene in Metropolis, and then only to flag up humanity’s continuing fascination with the interaction between machines and people.
“So studying white culture decentralises it, am I getting that right?”
“That’s it – but not studying it like it’s always been studied. In a new, radical way.”
“How does it differ from the last hundred years of English Lit? Isn’t that just white studies?” He felt the goodwill drain out of his voice, a perpetual tetchiness starting to creep back in. Suddenly it began to feel like the last few exhausted weeks of the semester when everything seemed stale and quite pointless.
“It just does, Dale. You know I wouldn’t be interested in it if it was reactionary work.” She said the last few syllables as though extruding a length of barbed wire, and he knew he’d better drop it.
“Hey, okay. White studies, whatever.” He called the waitress over and asked for the dessert menu, and they finished their meal. On the way back to the motel he bit his tongue in a moment of flippancy, on the verge of asking if she’d like to de-centre the redneck-zombie horror movie script he had stuffed in a drawer, but saw lines of tiredness appearing round her eyes and stayed quiet. At the motel he ushered her inside and quickly arranged the pillows. She fell on the bed and murmured something, but he didn’t catch it. He paused for a second, hand on the sandwiched-tin frame of the door, then pulled it to and stepped out into town.
Evening was coming down in soft washes of grey between the telegraph poles and railings. Out at sea, in a receding smear where the last of the light lay on the horizon like frosting, a remote ship honked; seagulls swooped over rough water in the middle distance. The boardwalk was crisp and angular in the light of the sodium arcs, and beyond the candy stores and taffy stands the pier stretched cleanly out into the bay like a strip light. Dale tapped the handrail as he walked down towards the pier, quick metallic pats to the rhythm of Joan Osbourne coming from the Ferris Wheel speakers that ponged on the hollow surface. He counted the planks under his feet with a happy grin, lingered at the burger stand for a moment.
“Gimme a cheeseburger, with onions, and a Dr Pepper,” he said to the man behind the cart. The fellow wore a tight pink T-shirt that bulged over his midriff as he leaned in to prepare the burger. I drive a Rincoln Continental, the T-shirt said. With an oozing patty in one hand, the can cold against his palm, Dale wandered through the early crowds and took in all the sights of the fair. Below the boardwalk, on a few hundred yards of hard-packed sand, dune-buggies on huge fat tyres ground around a dirty track. Nearby, a huge spider’s web of elastic lashed to aluminium poles shook on its foundations, six-year-olds and middle-aged women shrieking in the bouncing strands. He watched the cars on the sand for a moment, the O-shaped squeals of the children, but they didn’t particularly interest him. Outside the great plain of print he roved across every day of the week, forever searching out lost theoretical sheep under thundery skies, he actually did have an affection for detail. The curl of a card-sharp’s well-worn Bicycles upturned on a table, the tang of salt in an air pocket a mile from the sea. He found life revealing where he least expected it.
Looking up, he found he had arrived at the entrance to the pier. Lines of powder-coated light bulbs were strung out in shallow arcs along the railings, each side rippling on and off in a myriad of colours, moments of light pulsing along them like a momentary snack through a snake. They stretched out right to the end of the pier, where the Ferris wheel sat on two broad metal legs astride the pilings. Beyond the wheel was the ticket house for the high-wire ride, its small yellow floorless chairs creaking up and around the back of wooden walls before swinging out and round another tower a quarter mile out to sea. Eva would like that, he thought, making a mental note to take them out once she woke up. The lights would be nice reflected in the sea. But for the moment he contented himself with water gun shoot-’em-ups and circular stalls filled with hundreds of bobbing, hooked-head ducks, electric blue pool tables, basketball hoops, rifle ranges, fast food stalls. He walked past a noodle shop and smiled, sniffing up hot oil and soy sauce, then changed a 10 dollar bill at a booth and dived into the nearest rifle range.
An hour later he flopped onto a bench, limp with exhaustion, a grin stretching from ear to ear. Celine Dion came onto the Ferris wheel stereo and warbled and trilled about her heart going on, and he felt all the washed-out tawdry passion of the fairground rise up in him. He couldn’t imagine a place farther from the library, the classroom, or the committee meeting room. For the moment there was nowhere else he wanted to be. He looked around in pleasure and a man in a white cream suit caught his eye. He was standing behind a neon-tinted pool table twenty feet away, a well-worn cue in hand, eyes sparking. The man nodded down quickly at the table then locked eyes with Dale.
Dale stood up and smoothed down the edges of his shirt, strolled casually across to the table.
The man grinned, displaying a gold tooth. “Dollar a shot. Sink all seven and the prize is yours.”
Dale put down a damp dollar on the rail without bothering about the prize. He tucked in the shirt, chalked up a cue and bent to the first shot, scattering the black and white balls rapidly into every corner of the table. A black disappeared into the left centre, and he lined up behind the next ball.
“Alternates, or by colour?” The proprietor gestured at a white ball with the blunt end of his cigar. Dale leaned down again and sank a long white to the corner, then a black and another white. On the final black he left himself an awkward push along the cushion, but paused a moment over the cue, rubbing a fine layer of chalk over the surface, and slid the cue through the shot like a lover caressing a thigh. The ball dropped with a small, satisfying plop. He stood up and looked the man in the face, but he was already mashing the cigar and reaching out for the double-handed shake, arm and elbow-pumping.
“Double or nothing?”
Dale grinned. He squeezed out three more clearances like he was spreading butter, each easier than the last because he just didn’t care – there was no one watching him or taking notes on his performance; the precise detail of how he did it mattered so much less than simply doing it. In the pressure vacuum his style flowered. At the beginning of the fourth rack the proprietor intervened, lifting his dollars off the rail and pressing them back into his pocket. He reached for a soft toy with a dented smile.
“Always a job for talent here,” he said as Dale laid down the cue and walked away, waving off the teddy bear. He bought a candy apple and looked back at the pool table. The man had lined up all the cues against the railing and was standing by the ‘D,’ hands crossed, face clouded in thought. As Dale turned back to the motel, he thought he saw him wink.
The next morning they were up and cruising for breakfast by eight. Dale felt happy and light, hollow as an egg-shell. He kept leaning out of the window at each place they passed to scrutinise the finer points of the menu.
“No pancakes there. Why bother?” he said, nudging the car back up to speed. After the spat last night Eva had decided to indulge him and sat back in the passenger seat with an indulgent smile. She let down her side window a couple of inches and the smell of the sea came in, sharp and tangy in the morning air. She raised her nose and breathed it in.
“Can we try somewhere farther down by the sea?”
“Sure.” Dale peeled off the main strip and back up the road that had brought them from the suburbs, then picked up another, smaller highway heading east out of town. After a couple of miles they passed a Pancake Shack but she gently shook her head, and they kept going. A bit farther on was a long squat place decked out with palm fronds and bamboo poles, built on a spur of concrete jutting out into the beach. The parking lot was already half-full, and from behind the building came squeals of excitement and a rising bass rumble like kettle drums. Dale left the car in neutral and jumped out to look at the menu.
“Hey Eva, come look at this.” He gestured for her to shut off the engine, lock the door behind her. “Krakatoa Motel – full menu with waffles and pancakes and the works, and a round of crazy golf after, for free!” Eva looked sternly at him for a moment, then lowered her head and patted his arm.
“Come on then.” They pushed through the hanging grass doorway and entered the restaurant. A waitress in a tiny skirt and coconut bikini-top showed them to a table. Dale spread back into his wide cane armchair till it creaked under his weight. He ordered a stack of pancakes with bacon and egg, syrup on the side, buttered toast, jam. Eva asked if they could do a plain omelette and coffee and the waitress smiled.
“Krakatoa. Is that an island or somewhere?” she asked when the coffee came, but the waitress shrugged.
“Sorry hon,” she said. “You want cream?” Eva shook her head.
“It’s in Indonesia,” Dale said. “It blew up in 1883.”
Eva picked up her coffee and took a sip. “Now how would you know that?”
“Dunno, just do. 19th century, I suppose. I remember reading somewhere that great chunks of it just up and floated away with trees growing in them, ended up in India or someplace, years later. They had these pressure monitoring machines and every one of them – like every single individual machine – picked up on the effects of this thing. It was immense.” He took a meditative slurp and played with his teaspoon. He tapped the end against a water glass. “There’s got to be some pressure to blow a thing like that. I guess that’s why they wanted the name for this place – all that energy.”
“Wasn’t anybody killed, though?”
“Oh yeah, 36,000 dead, or something. Still, it’s a good name.” From outside, the booming came again, louder this time, followed by a high shriek. A wind chime tinkled in the window and the food arrived. Dale attacked the pancakes, loading up his fork with a thick wedge of batter and crispy bacon. He slopped syrup over the bottom layers of the stack and dipped his forkful in it for good measure.
‘That is good,’ he said.
In 20 minutes they were finished eating. After bringing the check and returning with his change, the waitress pointed them to a plastic umbrella stand by a set of patio doors. Short-handled putters stuck up out of holes cut in the surface, and a small box of grubby golf balls sat on the floor. Dale picked out a couple of clubs, rummaged for the cleanest balls he could find, and handed one along with a club to Eva.
Outside the sun was poking at the fringes of the sky, and the first smell of the sea had burnt away in a mixture of dust and car fumes. The course was laid out in an interlocking series of nine holes, the playing space level – though ramped in places – and the surrounding space sculpted from fibreglass to resemble the lower slopes of a volcano. Hole one happened in the foothills, hole nine on the lip of the crater. Dale grinned and teed up, sinking the first ball in two strokes.
“Alright, Eva! Try that one on for size!”
“Shut up, Dale,” she said, but didn’t seem to mean it. She squared the club against her new Kurt Geiger shoes and struck the ball. It rolled halfway up the slope, paused, then dribbled back down to the starting line and bounced off her toe. Dale laughed out loud, and she glared at him. “Shut up Dale.”
By hole eight, he was nine strokes in the lead, and smelling victory. Eva had twice threatened to quit. She had forgotten about subtlety and was belting the ball as hard as she could towards each hole. The object of eight was to lodge the ball in the half-shell of a coconut at the bottom of a plastic palm tree. When it rolled in, a hidden circuit was completed and the cup progressed regally up the tree trunk, emptying out into a hole between the leaves. Dale’s ball span sweetly round the curve of the trunk and fetched up in the coconut. He watched it rise with something close to joy.
“Eva – !”
“Dale, will you can that shit?” She was pissed now, her face reminding him of how she’d looked the night before when they took the high-wire ride. He had panicked the moment he got into the floorless carriage. Even with a heavy bar clicked in place in their laps, and thick seatbelts, he felt like a fly drifting towards the bug zapper, a taped lobster dangling over the pot. Halfway out he began to whimper and clutched her arm; three-quarters of the way round he shut his eyes and began to pray and tap his feet together compulsively. She’d zapped him with an electric look of her own when they stepped off onto the pier – a blistering, cold glare stuffed with all the contempt she could muster, gender convictions tossed out like so much chaff. Now she smouldered with that same icy fire. He could see a spark of something deadly flashing around in her eyes. He looked up at the lip of the volcano and suddenly everything was fine. Lining up, his feet and hands limber, he flicked the ball into the mouth of the ultimate slope and watched as it disappeared into the target hole.
“You still intent on doing this white studies shit, Eva?”
“What?” She fumbled with her putter and tried to push him out of the way. From somewhere inside the 6-foot mountain a low rumble began.
“Are you planning to actually teach that stuff, write about it, think about it for the rest of your life?”
“What do you mean? There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“Well I think it’s horseshit, and I’ve had enough. I got a job offer last night and I think I’m going to take it.” He remembered the man’s bright grin, the reluctance of his defeated fingers returning the dollar bills. The scent of noodles and engine oil bloomed in his mind.
Eva put down the club and stood with her hands on her hips. The anger had all but disappeared, replaced by incomprehension mixed with sorrow.
“You’re going to throw up your job, your career and everything you’ve worked for to stay here? And do what? Work as a carney?” From the black light in her eyes, he saw he might as well have suggested volunteering on a Republican campaign or agitating for segregation. From somewhere in the bowels of the volcano a great clockwork belch erupted, and with a clash of gears the deep booming began. Lights sparked up in the mid-morning silence and a shower of polystyrene lava fountained from the lip. Her mouth opened as wide as the crater.
“But why?” she said.
“Because I like it.”