She takes the hour’s drive down to Long Beach Island, the kids in tow, under a sky dark with storm clouds and rain. Kate’s twelve-year old son Daniel, sitting in the front seat, for the first time. That grown-up inner-voice of hers playing by the rules denied him the privilege of sitting in the front seat until he’d hit the 90-pound-weight restriction and the legal age of twelve. Until today, she refused him a tradition that she herself experienced almost from infancy—not for any other reason but birth order. The 70’s. No seatbelts. Brothers bouncing around in the hatchback of a 72′ Ford Pinto, or sprawled out lying on their backs in the roomy Hornet, staring up at the telephone wires that looked like some poor soul’s flatline on an EKG. Her father flicking cigarette ashes out the window that flew back in and around the inside of the car, into their faces and hair like party glitter. Holding onto a tumbler of something or other in one hand, the steering wheel in the other. And Kate, bopping forward, dancing in the passenger’s seat, her hand perpetually affixed to the radio dial, her radio dial, as if it were a lifeline to a normal existence. Copacobana or Boogie Oogie Oogie, playing like a tiny orchestra inside a black box despite her father’s endless orders to turn it down, or for that matter, turn it off. That’s not even music.
“I’ve waited my whole life to sit up here,” Daniel tells his mother, with his arm out the window, coursing the waves of sixty-mile-an-hour winds as they cruise down a desolate 532, replete with Pgymy Pines and white sandy trails that lead deep into the forest. Kate laughs and pats his arm which is hovering over the dash. Julien is perched contentedly in the back, in his booster, strapped down, locked in, tapping his fingers on the tinted glass of the minivan.
“Your whole life, huh?”
He smiles at her. He knows it’s silly to talk about a whole life at this age. He’s just starting to put things into perspective. To maybe feel old enough to know how young he really is.
She watches him out of the corner of her eye explore the new area around him. The glove compartment. He opens it, shuffles through papers. Closes it. He puts the window up, then down. He locks the door. He unlocks it. He puts his feet up on the dashboard.
“When I was your age, my father used to take us down the shore, down these back roads, through the Pinelands, every summer. Sometimes he was drunk. Sometimes not. But Grandma would yell at him and say, ‘I need a break,’ and so he would throw me and Uncle Mike and Uncle Tim in the car and he’d take us down here. I was always the one who got to sit up front.” His eyes light up like he shares some special rite of firstborns with his mother.
Kate points to a displaced hill in the distance that is possibly the only hill in southern New Jersey. “There it is,” she says. “The end of the world.”
Her boys are used to this. It is yet another tradition she keeps intact. They fly over the hill screaming, “It’s the end of the world,” they say their goodbyes, their it was nice to know yous and then suddenly, when the car touches bottom over the other side, they act shocked that they survived. It’s all a part of the trip and a simple but clever trick to keep children from dying of complete boredom.
“Do you remember Grandpaw?” Kate asks.
Daniel says “vaguely,” and Julien says no, but that he thinks about him. In reality they remember little. How he used to sit them in his wheelbarrow and cart them all around the yard. Or take them to the hayloft and build forts for them. Or when his eyes filled with tear the day Kate put his first grandson in his arms. He said to her, “It’s like you’re giving me a second chance to do it right. To be a good father.”
“Well, Juli, you were only three when you last saw him, honey.”
And then he stretches with restlessness and monotony. She forgot to pack his coloring book and DS. He asks, “Do we have to go down here and do this? I want to go home.”
Daniel chimes in, “Yeah, what’s the point. It’s not like we’re going to actually see him, see him.”
“True dat,” Kate says, forgiving herself a slip of bad, contemporary slang despite being forty. “But it’s called ‘a visit’ just the same.”
She drives on forgetting the sadness, the anger, the wreckage of her life for the sake of this visit. The drugs. The drinking. The weirdos and loan sharks of the 70’s and 80’s that came to her front door looking for her father, threatening her mother with warnings that she and her brothers could go missing if he didn’t pay his debts. She tries to forget the nights she heard her mother whimpering alone in her room at four in the morning because her father hadn’t come home and hadn’t called. She tries to forget all those art exhibits and chorus concerts of hers where she looked out over the audience for that man, but never saw him. Not once. Nor ever did he come to where she sat on the living room sofa, brooding over the sad fact that Rex Smith or Lief Garrett were only actors and would probably never date her. Never did her father come to console her or put his arm around her and say, but I love you.
They get to the bridge from 72, open all the windows and fly over the Causway. The smell of bay muck and dead fish rise up from the water on salty currents of wet air. When they hit Peahala Park or Brant Beach, she never really knew when one town ends and another begins, all the street names change to states. California, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. They turn left on Nebraska.
When Kate’s dad was seventeen this was his beach. He knew this island like a clammer knows how to dig for little necks with his toes. He lived, during the summers, on Cape Cod Avenue, but life-guarded on Nebraska. And him and Jimmy, Johnny and Josh smoked Winstons and chased after girls who rented rooms in Chalfont for the summer. They drove down the boulevard in Johnny’s or maybe Jimmy’s ’63 Chevy Nova, writing songs to those girls and promising to marry them.
When he was nineteen he formed a band called the Wharf Rats and got a gig playing guitar and singing nightly at the Jolly Pound Boat in Bay Village with Jimmy and a blond named Mary. When Kate was a kid she could buy vintage postcards of her father singing with the Wharf Rats in one of the antique shops on the island. But the Jolly Pound Boat isn’t there anymore, nor is the antique shop.
When he was twenty-one he fell in love with Kate’s mother and had babies and stayed in New Jersey. He did this instead of becoming famous like Jimmy, who, in the fall that following summer, stuck to the plan and went out to Hollywood and joined the Dirt Band, which became an instant success. He didn’t become rich either, like Josh, who inherited his father’s real estate empire and flew off to India and married a sixteen-year-old Hindu princess. He just was. And that, I guess, wasn’t good enough.
By the time Kate could remember, he’d already begun drinking gin and tonics and selling copy machines, and sometimes even kiting checks when business was slow (because he had a family of five to support). And on days when her mother couldn’t take it anymore, he’d fly Kate and her brothers down to Nebraska Avenue, to the jetty, where, at low tide, there was an enclave among the rocks and there they’d set up camp for a couple hours with a blanket to protect us from the wind.They would all fit in this spot that Kate’s father called “The Thinking Spot,” and mostly, the kids let him sit there and stare out toward the Atlantic and think by himself while they crushed shells on the rocks or looked for starfish. And he wouldn’t move and sometimes he’d lower his head in his hands, and while he never said anything, they all knew he was suffering. But more than anything, no matter what conscious hurdles he was jumping, Kate told herself that she was loved.
At least that’s how she wishes to remember it.
Kate takes her sons up onto the beach, and says, “We’re here to see Grandpaw.” But the beach is empty and dark and cold for April. Daniel rolls his eyes. Perhaps he’s too young to appreciate the implied spirituality. Julien half-believes he might see a ghost.
“OK,” Julien says. “There’s no one here. Let’s go.”
It’s high tide and they can’t reach The Thinking Spot, so Kate stands at the precipice of the jetty and much like her father, she look out toward the waves, crashing onto the smooth black rocks with a somewhat melancholy expression on her face. “He’s here, boys. He’s all around us. Let me pay my respects,” she says. The little one scurries around in the sand. Daniel, on the other hand, stands by her side.
“Translation, please?” he says.
“Translation,” she say. “When you love someone and they die, you still love them. That love never goes away. It just changes. And instead of actually seeing the person again, which, obviously, you cannot do, you go to the place where he or she was buried—or in this case, where Grandpaw’s ashes were sprinkled—and you visit. And you remember. And you celebrate all the happiness he or she brought to your life.”
There’s a storm coming up from the south end of the island and the sky rumbles in the distance. There’s not much time, so Kate scoops up a handful of white sand and says her hellos or goodbyes or whatever you say to the dead. I miss you. I love you. I forgive you.
She takes the boys to grab lunch at a little place called The Bayside Diner. It’s the only place open during off-season. They laugh, they plan their summer vacation. They talk about how they’ve all outgrown the kiddie rides at Fantasy Island. And then they head home. There’s something eerie and deserted about the island in winter and early spring. Something that makes you glad the winter is only temporary.
They are quiet for a while as they head West on 72, back towards their town. Kate imagines their brains working to grasp the concept of loving someone who is dead, and possibly even wondering how it is that they can make it over the end of the world, die and then come back to life a dozen times during the course of year.
Daniel’s hand courses over the cool dashboard. He looks at the buttons on the console. And then, it suddenly occurs to him, right as Kate makes the left turn back towards Chatsworth, that the radio exists and that he can actually turn it on. How or why he comes to this realization so late in the day, Kate wonders, is one of the mysteries of who he is. But there it is. He turns the dial on the radio to 102.5, to the sound of Taylor Swift, Jay-Z, Justin Bierber and the Black Eyed Peas; his music. And just like a time-lapse photograph of the opening of a flower in spring, the meaning of freedom crawls across his face and transforms his expression from curious distraction to beaming recognition. A coming of age moment unfolding in the front seat of the Honda Odyssey. Kate knows the radio, from here on out, no longer belongs to her.
“You can even turn it up,” she says, as they dance in their seats down the last of the empty roads to a song that holds no memories, but feels good just the same.