LAST EDITED ON 08-23-12 AT 05:09 PM (EST)
The plan had been to rent a beach house in Brigantine for the weekend.
It wasn't my plan.
Understand: Brigantine isn't a bad place. It's a pleasant midsize town a bridge jump away from Atlantic City (in this case, literally: drive past Harrah's and go uphill) and as such, it offers a good place to drop a quiet rental and stay close to the nightlife. Not that there's a ton of rentals -- it's not as much as a summer community as some shore towns -- but in this case, a circlemate found a two-day available, clean, and cheap. Plenty of beds: I was asked if I wanted to fill one, especially since this was one of my last weekends free before the September rush kicks in and shifts my off-days to something more obscure.
But I wasn't that enthused about going. A couple of days down with the circle can be fun, absolutely. But these days, taking a house at the shore is -- well, for starters, it's inviting the capital: Shore. Which implies MTV, which means the meathead crew, which triggers the stereotypes, and gawds help you if you run into some of the thousands of wanna-bes. I wasn't entirely comfortable with a shore stay before that abomination of imports put their stench on the state and they didn't exactly help. And I just didn't have a good feeling about the weekend, period.
My intuition might have understated the case.
* At the beginning of the week, the forecast was for sunshine and high seventies over the entire weekend. More lounge-on-the-beach weather than swimming, but exceptionally tolerable for August.
As the two days approached the horizon, a percentage chance of rain started to manifest. Thirty, then forty. Then with thunderstorms included. Then nothing but thunderstorms. Sixty percent. Seventy. Mostly on Saturday, but with a chance of carrying over to Sunday.
By the time we left, it was one hundred percent for all-day Saturday and then a 40% opportunity to do it all again before leaving. And they were all going to be thunderstorms. But the house was rented and the dates couldn't be changed. Down we went.
* I drove during the second half of the trip. The Parkway has been undergoing construction for the last year-plus, with the stretch between Exit 80 (Toms River) and 63 (Long Beach Island) being widened to create an extra lane on each side -- a process which has resulted in endless lane closures, narrowings, lines of effectively parked cars, and delays of up to six days. This is no longer the case. The widening has been completed and traffic now flows smoothly through those areas.
And then we got past LBI and discovered the construction wasn't gone: it had just moved south for the summer. And winter. And seasons beyond. All of the above slowdown factors were there in force and brought a new friend: the two-hundred-feet-warning lane switch, in which the shoulder became the lane became the shoulder became there is no shoulder and we're gonna hit the concrete! You have to slow down before you reach those points. Drastically. Which is hard to do because no one else on the road is and at one point, we nearly took an SUV to the back. And during one stretch, those switchbacks were coming at five per mile. There was nothing steady to switch from.
Estimated number of times nearly killed, southbound: eight.
* The house was clean. The house was well-organized. The water worked. The appliances worked. There were no suspicious stains anywhere there shouldn't have been.
The beds were singles.
Put it this way: when two occupants couldn't even have sex while standing on the bed, there might be a problem.
What happened there? Dunno. Maybe the owners were against encounters marital and non. Which hardly prevents every other potential surface in the house from being used, but when it comes down to sleep, you generally want a bed. Which we all had. And by jamming three of them side-by-side, you might eventually get a sleeping surface for one. My shoulders overlapped the sides. We were all trying to think of a religion which banned both sex and sleep. We gave up after deciding 'law school' didn't count as a faith.
I wound up on the floor. I'm pretty sure two people ended up in the tub. The next-morning stains were more than a little suspicious.
* We'd cancelled all outdoor plans for Saturday.
It started raining around five in the morning. (I was up. Sleeping on the floor will do that.) No lightning.
It kept raining throughout the grey sunrise. Not a crack of thunder to be heard.
Just before nine a.m, it stopped. And it never started again.
* Ten in the morning: walking the dog. The Bichon came for the weekend. And why am I walking this dog, which has a history with me where the dog is just fine, but nothing good ever happens when we're out together? Because the owner was fast asleep at the kitchen table, worn out by a long night in the bathtub.
The area we're in features stilt houses. You see that sometimes along the shore, although this town doesn't have a lot of them. Afraid of flooding off the beach during the biggest storm the state has ever seen? Raise your ground floor by a few feet. Think the floor level will reach twelve on the vertical? Then you're banking on either a Class 6 hurricane or global warming and in either case, you've got other things to worry about.
There's another dog four houses up ahead, wandering the sparse grass and rocks of the narrow curb. Small, brown, tail moving happily. Well-groomed. Probably not a stray, or at least not a long-term one. But no owner in sight. I'm taking extra notice of it because I've got the Bichon with me and you never know how another canine is going to react towards a stranger, braced for the possibility of a kneel-and-scoop at any moment. Other dogs have attacked her before, and the smaller they are, the more likely they are to rush her with teeth bared and digging for blood. But this one hasn't seen or scented her. It's distracted by the scents of the grass.
It looks up. I get ready for the lift. But it's not interested in us. It decides to cross the street.
I never saw the car coming. I only heard it, and by the time it registered, it was too late to do anything. Too far away to reach, moving far too fast for a scream to have done any good and there was no time to scream, none at all. All I heard was the thump. I've been hearing that thump in my sleep for nights now.
The car -- a red Jeep -- responded to what had happened by accelerating still more, then taking the next corner at a speed which should have flipped it over. It vanished.
And then there was a scream. It came from the porch of the most severely-elevated house, and it just keeps coming. Glance up and there's a woman there, early twenties, dressed for the warmth, dropping a cup to the rocks far below. The dog's owner. An owner who doesn't walk her dog. She just lets it run down the stairs, do what it has to, and come back up when it's done. She's running down those steps now herself, still screaming. Other people are coming into visibility on that porch, following her.
She reaches the dog, drops to her knees next to it. It's lying on its side in the middle of the road. I can't see or smell any blood from where I am, and I start hoping that maybe it was just a glancing impact: a few ribs, maybe a leg broken, a little time in a cast and all is well but for the owner having to force-learn about leashes.
The dog's tail moves. It wags twice. Oh, you're here. Everything's going to be fine...
It never moves again.
Still on her knees next to it, screaming and crying as more people flood down the stairs, come up to her and the dog, if another car comes down right now it's going to be a massacre, and no one knows what to tell her. Someone has a phone out, someone is pointlessly trying to call for help, but...
There's nothing I can do. Not for the dog, not now. Not for the owner. Not for anyone.
I scoop the Bichon up. Turn her head away. I don't want her to see this. I don't know if she understands what just happened or even can, but I'm averting her gaze. She's just happy to be picked up.
I get her out of there. The screams follow me for blocks.
* Around noon. We can't hit the beach until the sun dries things out a little more. The circle wanders, finds a half-wiped-out street fair. Low vendor attendance, but that's understandable: most of them must have looked at the weather and decided it wasn't worth the trip. The ones there must be the locals or the die-hards. I pick up an edition of the complete works of Oscar Wilde and overhear a not-customer asking vendor which chain stores her goods are sold at, because she really likes the stuff but she doesn't buy anywhere that isn't a Name. The vendor very testily replies that her goods are crafts and she's the only manufacturer and distributor. The not-customer tells her to get into Walmart.
One vendor is selling shea butter. Afrimerican male in his early sixties, kindly face. He also has a selection of free candies spread out along the front of his table for passing children. And under the candies are little booklets. Jack Chick booklets. And worse. One of them has a big No circle on it superimposed on all the people who aren't allowed into heaven. Homosexuals are mentioned in the largest typeface. I come in third.
He notices me looking at the stand, smiles, asks if he can help me in any way.
I look right at him and evenly say "And after all that happened for you, you turned out to be as big a hater as any of them ever were."
He stares at me.
He doesn't understand.
The rest of the circle was behind me, self-trapped at a jewelry stand. They're starting to realize what's happening: I can hear familiar and slightly panicked voices on the approach. I shake my head at him and softly add "I don't give money to bigots." And leave.
I glanced back down, a few booths later. He still looked confused. He still didn't understand. And he never will...
* About five in the afternoon: the beach.
I love the beach. I hate the beach.
Love: to watch the ocean, to sit peacefully on warm sand, to read and relax at the sound of the waves, to camp out there at two in the morning when it's just me and the shells, contemplating tides by starlight.
Hate: crowds. Hell is other people, and most of them engage in very loud judgments of everyone else around them, heedless of how they might be coming across. It's your right to be in a Speedo at your weight class, but it makes your comments on my choice of swimwear into a question of whether you're that personally confident or just totally lacking in self-awareness. I'll defend your right to choose that outfit, so please stop bashing mine, me, soma, soma again, yet again-again, and thank you for the extra commentary, but I am wearing this giant floppy-brimmed hat because I don't tan: I burn, and I hate sunscreen. I hate the way it feels on my skin and coats everything I touch. I hate acquiring sand as an dessert coating and topping it off with dried-on salt. I despise jellyfish, I never see them coming, and I almost always get stung. I have to swallow Benadryl by the fistful when I get stung. I hate salt in my eyes, kids peeing in the water nearby, getting slammed in the face by a wave, people trying to bury me in the sand as their idea of flirting, eight-year-olds throwing sodas and dumping melted ices into the sand where you just stepped, impromptu sand sculpture parodies, and paying twenty dollars for a weekend access pass for the privilege. So I spend most of the time sheltering under a beach umbrella trying to pay attention only to those who haven't decided to instantly hate me, fending off some who went the other way, and attempting to just be with friends. It's not going well. I'm not having fun. I've had fun. This isn't it.
In addition to the umbrella, we brought a portable changing tent: basically an extra umbrella with drape-down sides. It's only single-occupancy (because the size stated on the package is not that which results after setup), but it does the job. When it's finally time to leave and start thinking about dinner, I gladly step inside and start switching to evening wear, the first person to do so: the others are just starting to think about coming out of the water, the pickup scene, the volleyball game, or the attempt to bury most of a sports team.
At about the midpoint in changing, I pull my watch out of the bag. It's slick-sticky: something dripped into the bag (which will later turn to be someone's melted ice cream). The shock at the contact makes me drop it, and it plops into the sand to pick up an extra coating of its own. I step backwards so I can see where it landed.
Someone screams in pain.
Wheel around, change position again, try to see -- and there's a handprint in the sand. From the look of the impression, it was palm-up when it was driven in. Lying in the middle of the limb divot is a smartphone. It is visibly set to video record. It is and was recording me.
I pick it up, review the footage -- yes, whoever it was got a lot, especially given that they were probably aiming blind.
I'm not giving chase because it's too late. Look for a target running down the beach? Good luck me. "Officer, have you seen anyone who's taken a heel to the palm lately?" There's a surefire identifier. If a circlemate saw the person jump up and dash, they would be giving chase already and I'm not hearing anything. High-speed foot pursuit is not my strength and realistically, the suspect was lost by the time the echoes died away.
Review the phone's contents. It's active, but it's not activated -- in the sense that there's no owner registered. No name in the log, not a phone number anywhere in the databanks. It won't dial. It will take videos. Presumably it can transfer or upload them later. And that seems to be about it but for the two casual games loaded in. Bought used? Deliberately defective? This is what you get when you stop paying your contract? No idea. My video is the only one there, although there's a number of beach shots. Some of them were taken at extremely non-standard angles.
The fallout from this takes up a good part of the late afternoon.
* It also kills the initial dinner plans, and regretfully does not make us miss the show, which is celebrity impersonators who would have had trouble passing themselves off as a perfectly ordinary human whom you'd never heard of -- which, after you take out the costumes, is how every role they adopt comes across. It is ninety minutes of pure svckage. The people around us seem to be enjoying it. I think they're drunk. Or comped and convincing themselves in that gambling capital way that free equals good, which is not working for the ticket provider and doesn't do much for the standard buffet either, which is where we wound up after the dinner plans got wrecked.
I'm starting to feel like I'm single-handedly ruining the weekend. I haven't even gotten started.
* I did not sleep well. Take out the dreams about thumps and the 'sleep well' option would have been limited to people less than a foot wide and professional yogis.
This put me up well ahead of the others, and I decided to explore the city a little. Up the streets, across and down, avoiding yesterday's walk route because I didn't need to see if there was any blood there, around and about in the fresh hours of the morning.
Which put me in position to see the wallet.
Finding a wallet is one of those daydreams you can get in this area, although finding a Dewey Dropping is more fun. (A tightly-rolled group of one hundred $100 bills, named for a professional poker player who has a talent for losing them in cars. Poker players seem to do this: Doyle Brunson once buried $300,000 in his backyard, never found it again, and eventually moved. He'll probably sell you the address for half.) Ideally, you want it loaded with money and completely devoid of ID. If your daydreams go moralistic, you turn it in, wait a few days while no one claims it, and then pick it up to spend happily ever after.
This one had no money in it. It had three credit cards and one debit, all of which had been -- ripped. Pieces cut out. Anger taken out in sliced measure. A driver's license, intact, which I examined. New Jersey, what I thought was a couple of cities over but I'd have to check a map, senior female Caucasian with a cloud of curly grey hair and a grandmother's smiling face. Pharmacy discount card, also in one piece. No casino clubs. YMCA identification, natural wear. And much to my surprise, six gift cards for six different stores, all undamaged.
I looked at the driver's license again, noted the woman's age. Late seventies. Still active, clearly. And with a family who loved her very much because they kept giving her gift cards. I really wasn't sure why those hadn't been destroyed post-emptying.
Best guess: I was looking at the aftermath of a purse-snatching. Keep the money, destroy the credit cards because they'd either been used up or couldn't be accessed, toss the rest, probably out of a car window. Couldn't even be bothered with a trash can.
A senior, potentially on fixed income. And a driver's license costs money to replace.
I checked the address. Eight miles. I could get there and back within half an hour once I recovered the car. Just drop it off with her, tell her where I found it, make her life a very little bit easier.
The map kept me on the right track, and it was easy to find the house. Nice little beach residence. Two stories. There's a light on in the front window and I can see movement behind the thin curtains, so someone's up. Detached garage decorated in Pennsylvania Dutch patterns. Car parked in front of it, Pennsylvania plate, bumper sticker that indicates she is the proud grandmother of a student in a New Hope school. Pastel colors everywhere. Rock lawn, which is common when you don't want to keep things alive in the salt air. Gnomes all about. No flashing warning signs or stickers announcing that if I am found here tonight, I will be found here tomorrow. The only other notable detail is that in an area where parking is always at a premium, residential stickers be damned, the only car parked in front of her house is mine. Other residences have vehicles jammed bumper to bumper along the curb, but this one is clear.
I should have thought about that more than I did.
More movement behind the curtains. The occupant is leaving that room. Get out of the car, walk up the concrete path between two lakes of pebbles, reach out to knock on the door --
-- which swings open first. Because when you can see people through a thin curtain, they can see you.
"GET AWAY! GET AWAY FROM MY HOUSE, YOU --!"
And that's all I can reproduce here without violating the guidelines.
There are times when someone is desperately trying to offend me with terms and can't center in on the right ones because they can't figure out what I am. This was one of them. It went like most of those occasions do: she called me every name she knew and a few she was inventing on the spot in the desperate hopes of finding anything which would fit. She skimmed past the ones which half-applied, so no points for her spotting talents, and I might have missed some of it because her accent got thicker as the master list went on and words became harder to understand. But the gist of it was that I was immoral and illegal and not to be on her property and I was to get myself and my car off her territory right now or she would do something about it by calling her sons and grandsons to --
I was taller than she. I could see over her head. I looked at what was proudly displayed on the wall. It kept my attention for most of the rant. It was a very familiar flag. I'd never seen one in person before, but I knew it by heart. Seeing one out in the open was kind of a surprise, and the shock had me occupied.
I did try to tell her I was just here to -- and that's as far as I got. Not just because she cut me off (if that's how it counts when she was screaming over every part of the sentence), but because it was clear she wasn't going to listen. I'm not sure why I even tried that much. Maybe I was practicing my defense for when the sons and grandsons came in to do their dirty work, which would start with assault and move up from there.
Step back towards the car. The volume increased. And then she put her hand out of sight to the right side of the door -- and came back with a vase. White, purple flowers.
I got off the path. I got into my car. I got out of there. And pulled over about a mile later, put the wallet on the cup holder, and just stared at it for a while.
Not my weekend for pleasant-faced seniors.
Maybe I could just mail it to her. From another city. Someplace not even remotely close to where I lived or worked or had ever been before. After I wiped off my fingerprints. And dropped it into a mailbox in the dead of night nowhere near a security camera --
-- thought about that flag --
-- and a cruel echo played in my head. I don't give money to bigots. And now I was given any remotely serious consideration to saving her some?
I slowly drove back to the rental house. The circle wanted to know where I'd been, figuring it had just been for a morning explore. I told them everything.
Our most educated historian carefully asked me if I knew that the New Hope area was where a lot of sympathizers had lived -- and brought in additional settlers -- during the war. I hadn't known that, or had at least forgotten about it for a moment because I did feel like I'd been told that before. Made the flag more into confirmation than a random event, but lucky me to discover it at all, right?
A little later, for no real reason at all, I went online and checked the gift cards. Every last one of them was loaded. Smallest amount was just under five dollars, largest was fifty. I really didn't know why the thieves hadn't spent them. Maybe they thought ID was required and they'd never pass for the senior.
There's an envelope on my dining room table at home, handled with gloves. It's made out to that address. Everything is inside it, wiped clean because clearly if I tried to give her anything, I would be the thief trying to get a reward out of her. Not that my fingerprints are on file, but looking towards the future doesn't hurt here.
It's been days now. I should mail it. I shouldn't. I should give the cards to a local jewish community center and let them buy themselves something for the kids. No, it's hers: I know who the owner is and these aren't mine...
Shakes would be laughing at me.
* We tried to have a barbecue lunch. It ended with an entire rack of ribs destroyed by small-press seasoning which had apparently been made from gasoline and napalm. We only found out they'd been destroyed when we tried to eat them.
* There were meatheads.
They traveled in packs. They thought with their abs. All they thought about was their abs. And how their abs would get them sex. With anyone they wanted. Who would comply immediately. Because of their abs. And they explained it to their target in pretty much exactly those words. Because it worked on MTV and it was going to work for them right here, right now, which was also where the sex was going to take place, because they were so awesome that all anyone would want to do was watch.
And that was it for the beach.
* Some gambling was done on late Sunday afternoon, mostly not by me. I played twenty dollars of someone else's casino slot dollar slip (while they sat next to me so no one would complain) because she wanted to see if I was lucky today. Twenty dollars ended on twenty-two, so -- sort of?
New machines? Of course there were new machines. The gamblers age, seniors pass on and are replaced by new ones, and that means the nostalgia factor keeps moving up the years. So this time, once you got past the mega-reel machines which had about two hundred and eighty-one lines where no one could figure out if anyone had won or not and the newest Wizard Of Oz variations because no one's left to sue for the Baum estate and they will keep assaulting the corpse, the newest properties were media-based. Ghostbusters got my attention for a little while: one of those multi-progressives where the smallest jackpot offered is about three times your current bet. Original character likenesses, movie clips, Slimer occasionally popping up to multiply the winnings on your next bet.
The Sex And The City machine was bypassed quickly. Oh, the horrors of trying to match those outfits in a mirror or earn the low payout from Mr. Big.
And then I saw the Michael Jackson one.
A modern machine: computer-generated reels, touch screen, and the bonus modes triggered videos where Michael personally showed up and tried to give you money. But the machine was also frozen in time. Smooth Criminal was as late in his career as it cared to venture. The Jackson of that era exists only in memories and preserved footage, but here he is on this machine, almost live and sort of in person. Trigger the bonus games and either you'd get free spins with Bad playing in the background, where every win made him pop up to turn one of the fifteen spaces into a 'sticky' Wild which remained wild for the rest of the bonus round -- or you'd get free spins with Smooth Criminal, where he randomly turned one or two whole reels into wild cards for each play. It made me think about his talent. About how much he'd changed things. About how this machine refused to admit there had ever been anything else to his life. Believe in the best and only the best, because that's what's taking your money. Wondering how much the patriarch was making off this latest sellout.
I watched it for a while. The music was good.
Later on, I went past a poker machine upon which a woman had just hit a $4000 jackpot. She was celebrating with her friends. She was incredibly happy. Just one more of those and she was out of the weekend hole...
* Dinner on Sunday. No casino meal this time: trying our luck outside the fake veneer of glitz. A restaurant attached to a bar, a non-dive that's a best-kept secret for anyone who can access the Internet. It wasn't as active an affair as it could: the circle wasn't in a great mood, and more than a little of that was my fault. My crapend had brought people down. But we were trying to recover. Conversations, jokes, stories, attempts to make light of all those events. Bit by bit, we were getting there.
And then someone spoke up behind me. A voice I'd heard for a few hours over the course of two days, slurred with alcohol but still distinctive, angry. Angry at me.
"Do you know who this (person who gives out sexual favors with or without necessarily receiving cash) is?" A pause while his presumed audience tried to work it out and my company started turning to stare at him. "This is the (country matters) who owes me two hundred and twenty thousand dollars."
I speed-worked the math. Huh. Divide it by the number of us who'd been there and that was in fact my share. Apparently he wasn't one of those people who had alcohol impair his accounting skills. Other things did that.
He spoke again while the group shock was still settling in. "Never thought I'd see you -- not where I could find out how much you @#$%ing got to @$#% me --"
The largest and strongest in the circle stood up, trying to be intimidating. On most days, it would have worked, but this man was too far gone to be shaken by anything like sheer size. "Do you know this guy?" he asked, with the distinctive acted air that it could turn into 'knew' in three seconds if he made a move.
I nodded. "Remember that civil suit I did jury duty on?" Enough eyes widened that I probably didn't have to finish the statement, but I wrapped it up anyway. "He lost."
Which both pretty much definitively established that I was in no way shape or form lucky on that given weekend once you take out the 'there are millions of people in this state and what were the odds?' factor, touched off my second session of zeroing-in cursing of the day (even drunk, he had more skills), summoned the waiter who wanted to act as security...
There were four total people in his party, so we outnumbered them -- and the others with him didn't want to get involved, certainly not in front of multiple witnesses. So self-drafted security was able to escort him away -- but not out of the restaurant. Back to the bar. Possibly because he intended to consume most of it, which he was entitled to do since it became clear he owned a large percentage of it as an investor. But they did openly warn him, for our audio benefit, that if he had another outburst, he would be escorted off the premises.
They also told him that after the second outburst, which came ten minutes later. That was the one where he asked how many people on the other side I'd been sleeping with. I wanted to ask him if we'd all used a bathtub because the bed had been right out.
On the third outburst, he started verbally going after the rest of the circle, all of whom were apparently sleeping with me, possibly for pay. I could take them all on, y'know. I'm just that sick.
When the fourth went sexual, social, ethnic, religious, and near-necrophile in the same booze-sotted breath, we abandoned plates. We'd been served the food before he'd come in the first time, so kitchen sabotage hadn't been possible -- but no one was in the mood to trust what was supposed to be a very good dessert menu. (No one followed us out of the parking lot. No one tried to get the plates. We spent a lot of time looking out the back window...) Instead, we had McFlurries at McDonald's using the last of my Olympic game pieces. And they svcked.
* Estimated number of times nearly killed, northbound: ten.
It took a few days before I wanted to even try talking about it.