To The Beach

It was hot, and it was Sunday, everybody's day off.  The sun was a burning hole in the sky; when you looked at it, it looked a burnt black.  The sky itself was a solid expanse of clear blue, a shiny, glassy blue, like the inside of an eye.  Mom and Dad were languishing at the breakfast table, leaned back in their chairs and murmuring to each other like adults do, Umm-mmumm-umm-mummumum.  Jimmy had gone off somewhere, down to the basement maybe or out to the garage.  Me, I was itching to get on my bike and cycle the neighborhood, see if anything was up.  There always was.  There was always something new to see . . .

We thought we'd go to the beach today, my mother said, lifting her voice so I could hear.  She was smiling at me, a bit hazily, soft in the eyes, and looking comfortably frowzy in her fuzzy robe and slippers.

My heart leapt at the thought.  Which one? I asked.

End of the Road, my mother replied.  And my father sang out, in his low, slow voice:

End of the Road, End of the Road, Take me to The End of the Road!

I looked out through the sliding glass door.  The sunlight in the yard was very bright, the heat of it already thickening the air.  End of the Road.  End of the Road was the name of a lake found . . . well, at the end of the road that led to it, of course.  No other place to go.  The lake must've had its own name sometime, I suppose; but I had no idea what that might have been.  We'd been going there for years.  On one part of its shore there was a sandy beach (or was it sandy all the way round?  I didn't know.  There might be a sandy rim, or there could be stretches of sand but also stretches of pebbles, rocky stretches or mushy, marshy ones with thick reeds growing), a big sandy beach that led off far away on either side into the distance, and there'd be dozens of families there on a day as hot as today, umbrellas and beach blankets and radios dotting the sand, shoulders and limbs glistening with suntan oil, and in the water bobbing heads, waving arms, people leaping and splashing about in their brightly colored bathing suits, shouting with laughter, white teeth flashing . . .

I couldn't wait.  Well, my mother replied to my imperious, When?  When?  I have to wash the dishes first, then make sandwiches – and I'll need to get out the mats, grab some towels, then I'll have to do this, and then that, and that . . .  She trailed off, and I waited for her to finish the list she was making in her head.  It'll be about forty-five minutes, I guess, she said.

My father lit up a cigarette and exhaled a long stream of smoke through a lazy grin.  Forty-five minutes, he agreed, and tossed me a lazy wink.  I gave a squeak of pleasure and ran off to tell Jimmy what was up.

Forty-five minutes later we were all piling into the car, bathing suits on under our clothes.  On the shelf behind the backseat under the rear window were the thin straw mats we used to lie on, my dad's sandals, a bag of potato chips, several pairs of sunglasses, and somebody's old tube of lip balm.  A cooler full of pop and sandwiches was stowed in the trunk, along with the beach umbrella and the large cloth bag my mother used to carry everything from suntan lotion to aspirin to a pack of chewing gum to the occasional spare banana.  We were ready.  The car roared into life.  We were off.

Backing out of the drive, the crunch of gravel and always, somewhere, a glimpse, a flash, of one or the other half of an elderly couple, our neighbors, going into or coming out of their house, pushing a wheelbarrow about the yard or stooping over their garden or sometimes you'd see them sitting in big stuffed chairs in their living room staring fixedly at something off in the corner, the tv most likely.  Then their house with the big windows in front was gone, and our house was gone, and there was a sense of everything being suddenly in motion.  I heard Fritz, our mongrel, start to bark as we pulled away, and listening to him made me feel bad:  I made a promise to him in my head that when we came back home I'd take him outside to play.  We drove to the end of our street – I still recognized most of the houses, knew the people who lived in them – then pulled out onto a larger road that eventually led to a two-lane highway, and once there our tires rolled smoothly underneath us and the country landscape, plowed fields interrupted by clumps of trees and small woods, slipped by with increasing speed.

All four windows of the car were rolled down.  Dad had one elbow crooked out the driver's side – that was the hand he used for smoking; the other he used to steer.  He was wearing a white T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up and jeans.  Mom had dolled herself up quite a bit, just like I knew she would.  She treated these outings like they were little parties.  Her hair was stacked up in a high wave atop her head with some curled areas too on the sides and several carefully arranged stray bits around her forehead and ears.  Her lips were a pale, shiny pink and small white round dots decorated the lobes of her ears.  Her blouse – a workshirt of my father's, I realized – was a shade of blue that almost matched the sky, and her pants were green and close fitting and they ended right before they got to her ankles.  Jimmy was wearing shorts and nothing else.  He'd been going through a growth spurt lately and his new, longer legs had started getting fuzzy.  He had hair under his arms now too and I tried not to stare, even though sometimes it seemed by the way he waved his arms around that all he wanted was for everyone to notice.

I leaned forward so I could look between the two front seats.  How long? I sighed.

Mmm, fifteen, twenty minutes, my mother replied.  She unwrapped a piece of hard candy she'd pulled out of a pocket somewhere and popped it in my mouth.  I tasted something bright and shiny and red.

Jimmy leaned forward too; his face was next to mine.  Together we looked through the windshield at the blacktopped highway hurtling towards us, looked over at our mom, looked over at our dad.

Not alot of muscle there, Jimmy commented, pointing to Dad's arm.

I looked at my father's bicep.  Stretched out (it was the one he was driving with), the muscles in that part of his arm were long and thin and kind of stringy.  It's all here, I said, pointing to the ball of muscle in his shoulder.  Dad was a laborer, construction mostly, and it had made his biceps long and lean while building extra layers of muscle in his shoulders and upper back.

Hey, buds, he sang out in a low, lazy voice, I got a new one for you.

Dad used to invent odd little rhymes and tell them to us sometimes.  Whistling, he called it.  We begged him to whistle us one now – anything, anything to keep us from going crazy with boredom.  Tell!  Tell!  Tell! we chanted.

Alright, he said, grinning.  "Here goes:

I once knew a man who had spiders in his hair!
Spiders in his hair!  Spiders in his hair!
'I haven't any worries and I haven't any cares!'
So said the man with the spiders in his hair!"

We all laughed and cheered and Jimmy wrestled me a little on the backseat.  Whistle it again! we hollered.  So Dad repeated the rhyme, and we all started joining in, me and Jimmy and Mom.  By the third time through we all knew it by heart and could say it right along with him.  Spiders in his hair! we shouted, Spiders in his hair!  So said the man with the spiders in his hair!

After that I sank back in my seat and held my belly, which felt all tickly from laughing.  I'd got my own hair cut just the day before, and I could feel cool eddies of wind licking my scalp.  I stuck my head out the window, and the sound of the wind against my ears muffled everything else.  The voices of my parents and my brother, the whole little world going on inside the car, disappeared.

But we were nearly there now; I recognized the last stretch of highway.  Already I could see the parking lot off in the distance, could almost smell the tar baking in the sun.  There was the man in the wooden booth collecting money, fat, balding, always happy.  We began to slow down; stopped; the man's plump arm extended, received its toll, then waved us on and we pulled forward again.  Left, right, then left once more; at last we pulled into a spot and the car gave a little jerk, shuddered and died.  We were here.  We had arrived.  Squinting through the windshield I could see, just past the rows of cars, the bright round discs of the beach umbrellas, people in bathing suits moving back and forth from water to shore, or lining up at the small white shack near a clump of trees where you could buy ice cream and snow cones.

Last one in's a rotten egg! Jimmy shouted as we jumped out of the car.

Hold on a minute! my mother called.  While Dad got the cooler and umbrella out of the trunk she checked her lipstick in the rearview mirror, rearranged bits of her hair and smoothed out her blouse, or shirt rather.  I jumped back into the car, grabbed Dad's sandals from the ledge behind the backseat and hopped out again to hand them to him.

Thanks, Scooter, he said, slipping off his shoes and socks.  His feet looked funny in the bright sun, so white and bare.  He has very big toenails, I thought.  Mom leaned into the car to grab the chips and the mats and we were off.

Waves of heat rose into the air, carrying with them a sharp, fumy smell.  It got better as we moved off the black tar of the parking lot, and by the time we hit the beach it was completely gone.  The sand was mushy under our sandals and the beach itself was very crowded.  We had to maze our way through yards and yards of prone bodies stretched out in the sun; nonetheless we trundled along until at last we found a bare patch, a little section of sand we could call our own.  Dad pitched the umbrella, Mom unrolled the straw mats, we all stripped down to our bathing suits, and after that I busied myself with jumping up and down and up and down while Jimmy hunched low, one foot behind the other, making like a runner waiting for the pistol shot.

Now? I asked.  Now?  Now?  Now?

My mother slanted her eyes at me and said nothing for one long, breathless moment.  Then:  Now! she shouted and we took off running for the water, Jimmy and I, he with long, quick strides and me with shorter, even quicker ones.  Not too far out! our mother called after us.  Keep in sight!

Deliciously cool it bloomed against our feet, licking, lapping, tickling – the water, slippery smooth.  Kids were shrieking, grownups laughing, and everybody hollered.  The water rose round my legs, and I felt the chill shock, something I forgot every time, as it reached near the top.  Quickly I hunched down and dunked my middle, to get that part over with.  A shiver ran up my back into my neck.  Then I stood again, and began wading out farther, into the depths, walking carefully in case some unexpectedly sharp bit of stone rose underfoot (which happened sometimes); soon the bottom fell way, and I floated free.  I didn't know where Jimmy was.  He'd rushed ahead and I'd lost track of him but it didn't matter, there were people all around, some of them much farther out than I was, and I knew Jimmy would find me again sooner or later.  I pushed forward into the liquid coolness, moving my arms as I'd been taught and feeling myself adjust to the water's temperature so that, in its upper regions at least, that cool embrace soon felt velvety and warm.  So I stilled myself, curled and plunged, plunged down as deep as I could, down to where the water again felt chill.

Everything was silent here; it pressed on my ears, pressed in on me all over and I rolled into it, rolled into the cool, heavy silence, did a slow somersault and luxuriated in a dizzying sensation combined with the lushness of a liquidy soft chill that streamed all around me.  When I stopped I didn't quite know where or who or how I was, if I was up or down or sideways or what, and I felt a sudden spurt of panic and a keen desire to breathe – just to breathe again.  Guessing wildly, I pumped myself towards a spot of wavery brightness I saw above, kicking with my legs and stroking my hands downward with all my might, pushing water away, pushing coldness away until at last I felt it growing warmer and warmer all around me, and then suddenly I was bursting through the skin of water, bursting, bursting into air –

~ END ~