TURN AROUND, LOOK AT ME
by Ken Shane
It was another golden day in an already golden summer. 1968 is most often remembered as a year of tremendous strife and violence, but I remember it as the most exciting time of my life. I sometimes feel that no matter what happens now, the best times are behind me. I think of the proverb that suggests that it is a curse to live in interesting times. I know exactly what that means now, although I didn't then.
Violence had been close at hand for me that summer. I had narrowly escaped a beating at the hands of a gang of ducky boys who were bent on what may have been mistaken vengeance, but was probably merely blood sport. At the same time the infuriating scenes from Chicago filled the tv screens at night. The whole world's watching indeed. I thought I had never seen anything so courageous and moving. How I longed to be there with them, even at the cost of a split skull, or a night in the Cook County jail.
But I had a job to do. I was needed elsewhere. Without me, the summer people that filled the Raleigh Avenue beach in Atlantic City would have had to sit directly on the sand, with only a towel or blanket separating them from the terrible discomfort of actually touching the grainy menace. And the down-for-the-day Philadelphians, how would they have survived the killing rays of the sun without the circle of shade that my umbrellas provided? Yes, I had an awesome responsibility. No wonder Benjamin was willing to pay me the mesmerizing sum of $25 a week for my season of renting comfort to the masses.
My parents said that I had to have a job if I was going to stay for the whole summer, and it was, after all, a job, despite the compensation of $25.00 per week, which amounted to a little more than $3.50 per day. Have I mentioned that it was a seven-day week, with no holidays or sick days or personal days or vacation days? It was every day. A job like this needed some perks.
I rented chairs and umbrellas, seasonal or daily. I set up for the regulars in the morning, rented to the dailies throughout the day, and broke it all down every evening. In between, the time was mine. I was tan, I was lean, I was seventeen.
The nerve of some people. I was into my morning routine. The set up for the regulars consisted of uncovering a pile of pads at their central location, and placing them on the wood frames of the chairs that we left strategically placed around the beach. Then we added the umbrellas to complete the scene. Our perfect little village. And we were just one beach on a strand of coastline that reached for thirteen miles on Absecon Island. The island consists of Atlantic City, Ventnor, Margate, and Longport. Each beach was designated by the location of a raised lifeguard stand. A beach might cover an area three blocks wide and was named after the most central block to the location of the lifeguard stand, in this case Raleigh Avenue. I had actually grown up one beach away, on the Dover Avenue beach, but when it came time for a big payday, loyalty went right out the window.
So there I was, a stack of pads balanced over one shoulder, when what did I see but a pair of interlopers camped out on Mrs. Gold's chairs. No pads, just sitting on Mrs. Gold's frames and leaning back on Mrs. Gold's canvas. Not actually her chairs of course, but she had rented them for the summer, and it was my job to protect her space from people like this. It was a matter of honor.
Just like your typical teenage movie usher, give me a little bit of power and I become terribly officious. I might not have had a fancy jacket and a flashlight, but I did have cutoff shorts and God on my side. This just would not do. I mean The Golds might appear at any moment, and then what? No, a man of action has to take charge, and so I did.
"Uh, you're going to have to move."
"We're just resting here for a few minutes. We'll leave soon."
It would be natural to notice a certain lack of decisiveness on my part in this exchange, but there is one critical element that I haven't mentioned yet. The interlopers, they were girls. Pretty, teenage girls. And the redhead? With the husky voice? I did mention that I was 17 right?
And so, the dance began. Me, twirling around the beach, dropping pads here and there, but always managing to tango back to my new partner. She, seductive, languorous, whispering to her girlfriend, as she matched my every move. By the time the music ended, I knew her name, her vacation itinerary, and what we were doing that night. What a guy.
Short and sweet. No better words could be found to describe our two-day romance. Chris was only in town for a few days visiting her girlfriend, Nancy. Nancy's family had a house up on Oxford Avenue in Ventnor. It was by sheer chance that they alighted on Mrs. Gold's chairs that morning, since the Oxford Avenue beach was some distance away.
It was an erotic adventure, even though there was no sex as we know it (a small problem with logistics), but there was kissing, oh my was there ever kissing.
As it happened, Chris lived in north Jersey, a bond between us, stranded as we were among all of those Philadelphians. Tenafly was about thirty minutes north of South Orange, where I lived during the school year, but in those days it seemed a lot further away. Naturally I expressed the hope that we could rekindle our passion once we were both removed from the dizzying rays of the summer sun, and safely ensconced in our winter quarters, but Chris told me that she was "kind of engaged" to some guy from Princeton.
So this was to be it. The grand finale. The big goodbye. Well then, there needed to be drama and ceremony. An exchange of gifts. A pledge to remember forever. And more kissing.
We did all of that. I gave her my beads (hey - it was 1968!), telling her that one day we would meet again, and I would reclaim them. She promptly flung them into the sea, apparently deciding that our love needed a sterner test.
"Hey! Why did you do that?"
"Sssshhhh. Don't worry, if it's right, they'ïll come back."
Finally it was time to drive her home. The journey seemed eternal, and yet all too short. More gentle words. Tears. Goodbyes. And I still had to navigate that big old car of mine back home all by myself.
I pulled into the driveway of my grandparent's house feeling like a sadder but wiser person. A man, at long last, with real feelings, real desires, and a real empty feeling inside. I would feel that feeling again several times in my life, and at those times I would always recall the night I first recognized it.
Miraculously, there was a song. There, on the car radio. Like it was being played just for us, even though Chris wasn't there to hear it. Remember when radio was like that?
"There is someone, walking behind you
Turn around look at me
There is someone, to love and guide you
Turn around look at me."
I sat there in the driveway, crying the tears of a man who had loved, and lost.
Too young to recognize a perfect ending when I saw one, I made one attempt to contact Chris that winter. We talked on the phone, and it was pleasant, but there was no passion there, and I know that she wished that I had left well enough alone. And so did I.
Spin the wheel ahead twenty years. A lot of water was under the bridge for me, including a short marriage, and a long live-in relationship. I had felt the emptiness again, as I knew I would, but life was generally good. I had a decent job, a roof over my head, and enduring memories of those summers in Atlantic City. About half of my nights I was glad that there was no one there when I got home at night.
It was an autumn afternoon, and the hills outside of my office window were ablaze with color. I sat at my desk. Working. Dreaming. The radio on. And there it was, that song. The Vogues. I thought of Chris. I had heard that song many times over the years, and I always thought of Chris when I did, but I never felt compelled to do anything about it. This time it was different though. Because this time my eyes fell on a phone book on the shelf. A Bergen County phone book. I wondered. Chris had an unusual last name. If there was anyone in that book, with that name, it had to be her. Let's see. It was there alright, but there were two of them. The first one, in Tenafly, that had to be her parents. But the other one, first initial C. It had to be her.
I love a good story, and this one had the makings of a great one. Reunited after twenty years. I had to call. My fingers fumbled over the buttons, and then, it was ringing. No answer -- a machine. There was no doubt. Even though I didn't really recognize her voice, I knew it was her. Damn. What kind of message could I possibly leave? No, no message, this was something I had to say to her directly. I jotted the number down on a scrap of paper and shoved it in my pocket.
I finished the day in a cloud of anticipation, and as I drove home the traffic seemed to part for me like Moses at the Red Sea. They all knew that I had a mission, and they were there to help. I opened my door and went right for the phone. Fumbling again, ringing again, but this time a voice, her voice.
"My name is Ken, and I have a story to tell you."
We met that night at a Mexican restaurant. I'd like to say it was magic. I'd like to say that she was just as I remembered her. But the truth is, I didn't really recognize her, and she barely remembered the events of twenty years ago. It was a tribute to her spirit of adventure that she'd even agreed to meet me. Still, there was something, some long ago voice that we both seemed to hear, and it felt good, safe, to be together. We were refugees from a brighter time.
I saw Chris a few more times after that, but soon the spaces between visits grew longer, and when my job took me to my Miami, I lost her again. I know that one summer day I'm going to be sitting somewhere, and there will be a radio playing softly through an open window. I'll hear that song. And remember.