Patti Abbott has issued a challenge to the world, for people to write a vignette (she is asking for a thousand words or less) based on or inspired by the visual art of Reginald Marsh, a particular favorite of hers. Much of his work reminds me of what Edward Hopper paintings might look like if they had been rendered by John Groth instead.
The "official" unveiling day for the vignettes is Tuesday, but as that's Overlooked Film and/or Other A/V Day for me (and, I hope, for a number of the vignette writers), I'm posting the vignette I wrote this morning now. I might have another up by Monday night (Patti is hoping to put five dollars toward a gift to the East Harlem Union Settlement Association for every vignette people write and make her aware of. Bankrupting Patti for charity, of course, is the kind of writerly machismo the world is full of, among many other things the world is full of...)
"Coney Island Beach #1" by Reginald Marsh
I needed to get away from people, as much as possible...not the easiest thing to do in the city, but an afternoon of relative solitude, not simply ignoring the folks all around, was what I needed. It was late October, overcast and with a stiff wind but not yet too cold. Why not Coney Island?
I expected it to be deserted, or close enough, the last bitter-enders like myself strolling down the beach and looking at the shuttered arcades, perhaps a hamburger stand or three where you could still get an egg cream till they, too, admitted winter was coming, and abandoned the beachfront altogether till next spring. One thing for certain: the shipping lines and the railroads might've been feeling the pinch, in terms of a lack of long-distance travelers in the hard times we were having, but there was no shortage of attractions still out on Coney...even the tattiest sideshow buildings still seemed to have relatively fresh paint on them. I guess a nickel's subway ride out this way, and spending perhaps a quarter or so more on the day's activities, if you could afford it, or just bringing your towel and swimming suit if you couldn't, was what folks could still do. I walked further down the beach, woolgathering, and somehow didn't see the bathers till I was almost in the middle of them.
They crawled over each other, in that cool breeze but nonetheless all wearing their bathing clothes, some more revealing than I would've expected at Coney. They were packed and piled two bodies high in spots, but if they were enjoying themselves, it didn't show too clearly on their faces...given the weather, I'm not too surprised...if I hadn't been walking rather briskly, my overcoat might not've been enough. And they were quiet...not completely so, but it was as low a murmur of conversation as I recall ever witnessing in a crowd that large and so closely packed, who weren't the audience for something. Hell, most audiences were noisier. No one was sneezing or coughing. A surprising number (again, even for Coney) were kissing and otherwise demonstrating a serious affection...but, again, it somehow seemed less passionate than desperate. No one seemed to be inhibited by the children interspersed among the crowd. Surprisingly, or not, there was a full-fledged if small candy store open just up off the beach from the huddled mass; maybe that's what the draw was to this little patch of sand.
As I walked up to the newsstand out front, a kid, maybe ten years old, very pale (cold from swimming?) stood, staring at the rack. I figured he probably wanted a comic book or something, but I followed his gaze and saw he was staring at a copy of St. Nicholas magazine...and not a recent one, but one my parents might've read when they were kids, back before the turn of the century. But it didn't look used or yellowed. The kid just stared at it, almost as if he was afraid to touch it. I figured he was probably broke, and his trunks didn't have a pocket in them anyway...if someone was selling back issues of forty year old magazines for their cover price, I could be a big spender and toss a whole dime on a counter. If it was less, better yet.
"You want that, kid?" The kid slowly turned his gaze from the magazine to me. He didn't say anything, and his slightly hangdog expression didn't change. It didn't start getting creepy till after I asked, "That St. Nick magazine...would you like it?" and he still didn't say anything, or do anything but continue to stare. He didn't crack a smile. But I picked up the magazine and walked through the doorway and to the counter. "How much is this?"
The counterman was no more talkative than the kid. I was holding a dime, and he nodded at me, and held his hand out for it, so I dropped it in his palm. He rang up 10c on the old register, but as I turned to leave, he hadn't dropped the coin in the drawer, just seemed to be inspecting it, turning it as if he hadn't seen its like before. Stepping back outside, I handed the magazine to the kid, who nodded once without thanking me or saying anything else, and took it and walked back down the beach, occasionally lifting his eyes from the magazine's pages to look back at me. I decided that these might be at least in part a community of deaf-mutes, or something similar, though the newsstand, now that I looked at it closely, was the damnedest thing...current issues of some of the pulps and Mechanix Illustrated and Ken cheek by jowl with issues of the old McClure's, and The Dial and something called The Black Cat which turned out to be a non-pulp story magazine.
I walked back down the beach, and sat down at the outskirts of the small crowd, deciding that I didn't need so much time alone right now, if it meant figuring out what was going on. I couldn't quite make out the rare conversations going on among the assembled, quiet ones, everyone murmuring or lightly whispering. Again, many were embracing, kissing, some actually petting, I was slightly amused and appalled to note. And the swimming clothes of the folks seemed to be an odd mix, as if from different eras and perhaps from different places, though that wasn't too uncommon at the beach...I hadn't noted before that a few were actually naked, though they mostly were obscured from sight by the outer members of the pack. Some of them, however, were clearly copulating. Perhaps even more surprising, some throughout the crowd were just as clearly not, though those folks seemed to be the ones most likely to be completely engaged in those quiet, intense conversations. It was an overcast day, but it wasn't so dark that it wasn't strange that it took so long for me to finally note that this was an obviously racially and ethnically mixed crowd...was this some sort of naturist cult, some sort of Communist orgy?
I sat alone, not quite ignored by the people nearest me, for what seemed like a half hour...the sky darkened a bit, as the sun moved behind me, as I sat facing the crowd, and the ocean. Relatively few of them swam. A woman, naked, was among those, and she was easy to watch, I'll admit. Olive complexion and dark hair that was, I could tell even as wet as it was as she walked up the beach toward me, shot through with some premature gray.
She sat down next to me, already mostly dry. "You're not one of us." She said it flatly.
"No, I'd have to say I'm probably not. Who are you, and why are you all huddled up like this...for warmth?" I attempted a joke, but it wasn't all that unlikely, I'd decided, given their garb and activities. The aquatic ones, as few as they were, seemed almost insane.
"It's not the kind of warmth you mean," she said. "Where we're from, one doesn't have too many opportunities for...gentle or intimate interaction."
"So you're all making up for lost time?" My half-jokes weren't getting any reaction from her. "Where are you from?"
"You don't know it yet. With luck, you'll never know it." I tried to let that sink in. "We'll be gone soon. A few of us at a time get a day, a day in a very long stretch of time, to go somewhere such as this American beach, and talk and have other sorts of conversations, and then we go back. Where we can't have much conversation at all, where the experience we have here and now serves mostly as contrast...and reminder...of what we have given up, what is taken from us..."
She didn't continue. "So..." I began, not sure how to ask or even what to ask next. "You try to make the most of this day? Everyone seems so strangely muted, for such a...party."
"It's where we go back to, and what's waiting for us. That weighs heavily on all of us. Particularly when we consider the children." Two had silently run by, not quite joylessly.
"So...can you tell me where you'll be going back to?" I didn't know if I was at least risking offense to this beautiful creature. I was not above dallying with a cult member, if it came to that, but in the event she offered, I would probably have to decline, since I had no prophylactic...and no desire to contract a social disease, which I suspected those in her little community might share rather frequently. Maybe the candy store--
"We're past caring about such things," she said, with what almost sounded like a hint of amusement...and as I puzzled about how she seemed to be answering my thoughts rather than my question, she continued, "as we are past caring about any Earthly matter."
I certainly didn't know what to make of that, other than to feel my cultish suspicions were clearly correct, when I saw that she had turned to look directly into my eyes, and had begun reaching gently for my face with her right hand. I didn't flinch, even as she said, "Goodbye, Daniel." I hadn't told her my name, I realized just as I felt the faintest brush of her fingertips on my temple, and then suddenly all was darkness.
I came to not more than a few minutes later, to judge by the sunlight, still fighting its way through the overcast. I sat up to find myself alone on the beach, with no trace even in the sand of the huddle of cheerless souls, or of the woman I'd been speaking with. Looking behind me, there was no sign that the small candy store had ever been there. I saw my own footprints.
You can imagine that that wasn't an experience I've been able to forget. I wasn't any more surprised than you might expect to see a photo of the woman, quite randomly, some fifteen years later, as I flipped through a true-crime magazine in a barber shop while waiting. Maria Calveri, who with her lover had killed her thuggish husband in his sleep, with the hope of collecting on his insurance. She and her lover had been hanged in 1925.
Perhaps I was fortunate in not also meeting him that day, in 1936.
(Copyright 2011 by Todd Mason)