Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2018  Vol. 17 No. 1
 print preview

Boardwalk ’62

No one expected more MacNamara children. There’d been a five-year gap since Sarah. The newest baby wasn’t due until mid-September, but their mother’s blood pressure spiked, and the doctor ordered her to stay off her feet. “She’s not so young anymore,” their dad explained while their mom lay in bed, the shades drawn, ice packed under her armpits. “You’ll all have to pitch in.”

Helene helped her dad carry Sarah’s bed railings and mattress up the steep, narrow stairway. He walked backward, feeling his way with the heel of his shoe. The house was a saltbox, and the back roofline a steep slope. They assembled the bed, and he stood, tucking his head to keep from grazing the ceiling. “I don’t know when your mother will get back up here, so I need you to keep things in order.” He wiped sweat off his nose with his handkerchief, then folded it and placed it back in the pocket of his office trousers. It was a Thursday, and he’d worked late.

It didn’t seem possible that another bed could fit into the room, but there it was, wedged into the dormer alcove. Helene was the oldest and by rights should have her own space, but with five children in the family—three girls, two boys, and soon another—every kid but the youngest had to double or triple up in the second-floor rooms.

Helene knew her dad was worried. The doctor wanted to induce labor, but her mother wouldn’t go along with it. “Women have been giving birth since the day the earth bloomed,” she said.

“Don’t worry, Dad,” Helene said. “We’ll manage.”

He nodded, glancing over at Sarah, whose eyes bulged with disbelief that he was leaving her up there. “I want Mom.” She wore a waffled rubber bathing cap to stop her from pulling out her hair.

“When she feels better.” He hated to say no, which was why it took so long to move Sarah from the nursery, where vinyl decals of cheerful farm animals paraded across all four walls. He ducked through the doorway, unable to look at his youngest daughter.

“I want my room back,” she said, her chin quivering.

“We’d all love our own room,” Judith—the middle sister—said, sitting cross-legged on her bed, flipping through the Archie comic book she’d read a hundred times. “You had one longer than anyone else, so quit squawking.”

Helene sat on the edge of Sarah’s bed, her knees pressed against the wall, which was covered with a pink peony wallpaper that Helene once loved, but now looked grimy. “You’ll get used to it.”

Helene had always been the oldest, never the youngest, never the middle child. She had been an only child for less than a year. Now seventeen, she was working that summer selling cotton candy on the boardwalk, which also had a small seasonal midway with rides and games of chance. It was August, and in a few weeks she’d be a senior in high school. After she graduated, she’d get a job typing or transcribing shorthand for a manager at one of the factories, maybe E.J. Hooks, where her dad was a regional sales manager and sold shoes to stores up and down the East Coast.

“My head’s boiling,” Sarah said, unbuckling the chinstrap on the cap.

“Don’t.” Helene held Sarah’s hand. “Mom doesn’t want you taking it off.”

At first no one noticed Sarah was pulling out her hair. She had fine, baby-blonde hair. Her eyebrows and eyelashes barely visible. After their mother found a wad of it under the pillow, she inspected Sarah’s head and found the bald spot, the size of a quarter, hidden by a whorl of crown hair.

Helene turned up the window fan. It blew in hot, humid air. They lived a few miles from the ocean, but the airflow had shifted counterclockwise. Instead of a crisp, briny breeze, a stench of cowhide and sulfur from the inland factories suffocated the town. “Try to sleep,” Helene said. It was still light even though the days grew shorter. The fan blocked most of the window, but above it, the sky was sharp and metallic.

Judith balanced a stack of 45s on the spindle of her record player, a portable with a cream leatherette case that she’d bought with babysitting earnings.

“Do you have to play that now?” Helene asked.

“I can’t shower when I want. I can’t pee. Now I can’t listen to music?”

The boys’ room was on the opposite side of the landing. They all shared a bathroom, so the boys showered at night. The pipes in the walls groaned as the bath water turned on and off and back on.

“What if I have to pee?” Sarah asked.

“Tough luck,” Judith said.

“Oh, no.” Sarah grabbed herself.

Helene knocked on the bathroom door. “Girls coming in. Close your eyes.”

“You close your eyes.” John was soaking in the tub.

“No one’s looking at you.” Helene blocked John’s view while Sarah sat on the toilet seat and waited. Helene had met a boy that summer. He was a few years older and operated the “Big Eli” Ferris wheel. He reminded Helene of a train conductor even though he always wore a T-shirt, jeans, and crocodile cowboy boots instead of a uniform and visor hat. He would put a hand on each kid’s shoulder, gauging if they were tall enough for the ride. He calculated in his head how much people weighed so that every opposite seat on the Ferris wheel was balanced. He even guessed her exact weight—132 pounds.

Helene couldn’t bear that in a few weeks the midway would close and Vince—Vincent Beauregard—would leave and drive down the coast, stopping to work at other midways before settling in Florida for the winter. “Someday I’ll take you to Gibsonton. I’ll introduce you to the Lobster Boy and the Half-Girl. Circus people keep elephants in their front yards.”

When? She didn’t dare ask out loud.

He told her he loved her—well, sort of. They were sitting on the seawall, feet dangling above the sand and flotsam. He licked cotton candy crystals off her fingers, on her mouth, behind her ear. “I love the taste of you.”

She had a vague notion that he’d return for her graduation. He’d sit in one of the rows of chairs in the high school gymnasium, his lanky body leaning forward, the heel of his crocodile boot tapping, as he listened for the principal to call her name. Helene Beauregard.

“I can’t pee,” Sarah said.

“We’ll try later.” Helene smacked the shower curtain to let John know she knew he peeked.

Helene turned out the light. Sarah whimpered in her bed. Outside, heat lightning flashed in the sky. Sarah bolted up. “It’s going to hit me.”

“It’s far away,” Helene said. “Miles and miles. Come on, you can sleep with me.”

Sarah and Judith dashed onto Helene’s bed. The three girls listened to the whirring blades of the window fan. The sweat on Sarah’s forehead soaked into Helene’s nightgown. Helene unsnapped the bathing cap and peeled it off.

“Yikes, you stink,” Judith said.

Helene wiped Sarah’s face and hair with the sheet.

“Why do you pull your hair out?” Judith asked. “You’re going bald.”

“I don’t remember doing it.”

Eventually, Sarah and Judith slept. Helene stared out the window. Lightning ricocheted between stacks of clouds. Over the summer, Vince parked his pickup and camper in the lot reserved for seasonal workers. He’d traveled through thirteen of the eastern states. She imagined him in his bed, which was tucked into a loft above the truck cab, his long legs stretched out, staring at the sky. He’d be thinking about her, too, how that afternoon they’d rolled up their pant legs and waded into the ocean, letting the surf lap their ankles. He found a sliver of beach glass, and he held the blue-green stone up to her finger as if he were thinking how it would look as a ring.


Helene woke, startled by her father standing by the bed. She extracted herself from Judith and Sarah’s arms and legs.

“Your mother doesn’t look good. I want to take her in, but she insists on taking a bath. Can you help?”

Helene crept out of bed, not waking the others.

Her mother’s face and hands were swollen, her skin pasty. Helene drew a tepid, shallow bath.

“I don’t want you seeing me like this, John,” her mother said. “You go on and start the tea. Helene can manage. Go. Shoo.”

Her mother took a few tentative steps toward the bath. “Have your babies when you’re young,” she said. “It’s no business for old ladies.”

“You’re not old.” Helene helped her mother out of her sleeves and pulled the nightgown over her head.

“I feel ancient.” Her mother looked at her body in the bathroom mirror. “I look like a bloated corpse.”

“You’re beautiful,” Helene said, although the sight of her mother—her swollen ankles, her dimpled thighs, the rolls and bulges on her hips, her mountainous stomach with rivulets of stretch marks—frightened her. People said Helene looked just like her when they were the same age, both resembling a young Maureen O’Hara.

Her mother needed help stepping out of her underpants. “You’re spotting,” Helene said, rolling them up and shoving them into the hamper.

“Then let’s get this show on the road.” Her mother leaned against Helene as she lowered herself into the water. She knelt in the tub. “If I go any lower, you’ll have to hire a crane to get me out.”

Helene submerged the washcloth and squeezed water over her mother’s head and shoulders. She scrubbed her hair and scalp. Her mom lifted her puffy arms. Helene soaped her armpits.

“Sorry about this,” her mom said. “I’ve been stewing in my sweat for a week.” She splashed water over her private parts. Blood trickled from between her legs.

“We better hurry,” Helene said.

“I got time.”

She helped her mother into a clean housedress and soft-soled shoes. She combed her wet hair.

“Lipstick,” her mother said. Helene found a tube in the vanity. Her mother drew a perfect bow lip and blotted the creamy coral shade with tissue. “Now, I’m presentable.”

“Can I borrow it?” Helene rubbed a finger over the waxy tip and dabbed it on her lips.

“Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up.” She capped the lipstick and tucked the tube back in the drawer. “It all happens too fast, and it isn’t the rosy picture we girls imagine.”

Her dad backed the car from the garage and stopped by the side door. They helped her mother down the cement steps and into the back seat where she could lie down.

“I’ll get a blanket,” Helene said, wanting to cover her mother’s splayed legs.

“Good God, no, it’s hot enough back here.”

Mark banged out the screen door. “What’s going on?”

“I’m taking your mother in for the doctor to take a look,” their dad said. “Helene’s in charge.”

“But I’m working on the boardwalk,” she said.

“I’ll be here,” Mark said. “I’ll make sure everyone eats. And I won’t let anyone kill anybody.”

“That a boy.” Their dad gave Mark a military salute.

Helene and Mark watched the Plymouth disappear. “You think she’ll be OK?” she asked.

“She’s done it enough times.”

Mark was sixteen, a year behind Helene in school. He was shirtless. His face and body were soft and smooth, his muscles, if any, hidden under baby fat. Vince was not like her brother or the immature boys at her school. He was wiry and muscular with veins that popped along his forearms.


No one had eaten much besides cereal for breakfast over the past month. They decided to make pancakes. Mark pulled eggs from the refrigerator. Helene sifted the flour.

Sarah was the first to wander in. “Where’s Mom?” She climbed into a chair.

“Hospital,” Mark said. “Baby’s coming.”

Sarah crossed her arms. “There’s no room for it here.”

Helene poured Sarah’s orange juice. “What if we had all said that about you?”

Helene checked the clock. She didn’t need to be at work until ten, but she liked to go early and spend time with Vince. She yelled upstairs, “Judith, John, breakfast!”

They squeezed around the linoleum table. Helene stood, nibbling the edges of a dry pancake. Mark made two more batches. “I have to get ready,” Helene said. “Everyone, listen to Mark. He’s in charge today.”

“Why do you have to go?” Sarah asked, raising her hands for Helene to lift her up.

“I work.” She was saving money so she’d have a nest egg by graduation. She ignored Sarah’s pleading arms.

Upstairs, she drew a deep bath and sprinkled in bath salts. She tied up her hair, which she’d curled with wire-brush rollers the previous day, and covered it with a plastic shower cap. She sank into the tub. She pinched her arms, her stomach, her thighs, checking for loose flab. She was not going to end up like her mother, working as a factory assistant, meeting a shorter man like her father, and then having all those children. She would do more with her life. Go places. Like Gibsonton, where the Lobster Boy lived and circus elephants lumbered through town.

Helene dusted her body with Yardley talc. She fluffed her hair and re-sprayed to keep the flipped bottoms curled. She wiped the mirror with a towel. She had long legs. A narrow waist. Her breasts were a decent size. She dressed, thinking of Vince watching her. Tonight might be her last chance to stay out with him.

Downstairs, Sarah said, “You’re beautiful.”

“Mom wouldn’t want you wearing so much makeup,” Mark said, dumping the eggshells into the garbage.

“Mom isn’t here.” Helene punched his arm.

The wall phone rang and she grabbed it. “Elders first.”

“Helene,” her dad said, “just wanted you all to know that your mom’s been admitted. The doctors are monitoring her. It’s a good thing we got here when we did. There’s, well, some complicated stuff going on. They’re going to induce labor. The baby should come later today. I probably won’t get home tonight.”

“Like what kind of stuff?” There’d never been complications before. Her mother went to the hospital when contractions started and came back a few days later, each new baby as robust as the last.

“I’ll explain later. I don’t want to worry anyone. The baby should be fine.”

Helene hung up.

Everyone stared at her. Sarah picked at the crown of her head.

“Dad says everything’s fine,” Helene said. “Mom’s in labor. We’ll soon find out whether we have a new brother or sister.”

Helene didn’t drink tea, but she sipped from the teacup her dad had left on the counter. It was bitter against her tongue. She rinsed and placed the cup on the rubber dish rack. “I’m off.”

Sarah clung to Helene’s leg.

Helene pushed her away. “Ick.” She grabbed the dishcloth and scrubbed the syrup off Sarah’s sticky hands and mouth.

Sarah puckered her face. “Why do you have to go?”

“Because I need to make money,” Helene said. “And you need a bath. I left water in the tub. You stink.”


Helene liked walking to work. The sidewalk felt cool under the arches of lush, green leaves. The scent of rambling roses masked the shoe factories’ foul air. As she neared the ocean, the sky opened, a salty-blue hue. The summer cottages all looked the same except for colors: pink, blue, mint green. During the week, mostly families stayed. On weekends, young people from the factories and neighboring towns arrived. A car slowed, and boys hung out the windows and whistled.

Helene felt older, different, as if she’d blinked and it was now next year. She undid the bottom buttons on her striped blouse and tied the tail ends, exposing her belly. Up ahead, trucks pulled onto the boardwalk to restock food stands. Game operators strung up stuffed poodles and pandas and poured goldfish into small glass bowls. Soon, the smells—caramel, hot oil, fried dough—would mix with the odor of creosote as the wood planks heated up. It all made her nose tingle.

The Sugar Shack was a hut with plywood windows that unhinged and lowered to make counters on all four sides. They sold fried cakes, caramel popcorn, saltwater taffy, and cotton candy. She looked over the donuts. Vince only drank coffee in the morning. This late in the season the rides were short-staffed, and he often didn’t get a break. He’d have to ask someone, sometimes a girl, to run up and get him a snack.

Helene’s boss, Mrs. Lafferty, was prepping for the day. She ripped open a twenty-five pound bag of granulated sugar and hoisted it up on her hip. Helene helped pour it into the floss head of the cotton candy machine.

“How’s your mom doing?” Mrs. Lafferty asked. “Those last few weeks are a bear, especially at her age.”

Helene didn’t want to think about her mother. The image of her in the tub. Her soiled underwear. “She’s fine.”

“Give her my love.”

“I will.” Helene had twenty minutes before her shift. She picked out a bear claw for Vince.

“I suppose that’s for the boy you like,” Mrs. Lafferty said. She eyed Helene’s midriff.

Helene blushed.

“I know it’s none of my business, but with your mom preoccupied, I feel it’s my duty to give you some motherly advice. Those carnie boys will break your heart. Don’t go getting yourself into trouble imagining it’s more to him than a summer fling. They’re nothing more than gypsies.”

Mrs. Lafferty didn’t know Vince. He was smart. He got paid twice as much as other ride operators because he was in charge of the “Big Eli.” Mrs. Lafferty was nothing but an old busybody.

The rides opened at ten, and a line formed behind the Ferris wheel rope. Vince had the clutch open, running the sixteen-seat wheel at full power, listening for odd clicks and squeaks.

Helene snuck up behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist. “Guess who?”

He reached back and pulled her in to kiss.

“I got sugar,” she said, stuffing the bear claw into his mouth. He had dark hair, almost black, and although he combed it off his forehead, a few locks flopped forward.

“Yum.” He licked the sliced almonds and sugar glaze off his lips.

The first time Helene saw him, he was scrambling up the steel sweeps on the Ferris wheel, tightening lug bolts, a silhouette against the sky. Kids gathered. Nervous girls yelled, “Watch out, you’ll fall.” When all thirty-two sweeps were locked into place, he walked the wheel hub. He moved like a dancer, and now, when she leaned into him, his hips followed hers.

“Something’s different about you,” he said.

“I can stay out tonight.”

“All night?”

She smiled. She walked away, aware of his eyes on her. She turned back, just for a second, and waved with her fingers.

Helene tried to evenly spin the cotton candy onto paper cones, but the humidity that day turned the filaments of sugar in the machine into dense lumps. In between customers, she peeled globs off her fingers.

The top of the Ferris wheel was visible from the shack. On clear, crisp days, the steel rim and spokes glistened, but today they blended into the grainy haze. Only the red and yellow chairs stood out, but as blotches, not shiny, festooned carriages.

By midafternoon, everyone on the boardwalk was dragging. The smell of garbage and burnt meat hung in the air. It was low tide, and a bloom of jellyfish had beached on the sand, their gelatinous sacks decaying. Ride operators tied bandanas over their noses. Helene breathed into a damp rag. A woman ambled past, pushing a baby pram with sunburnt, weary toddlers trailing behind, and Helene thought of her mother. She busied herself, wiping down counters.

Helene wasn’t sure what to expect if she “did it” with Vince. Her friend Agnes, who wasn’t a close friend because her mom thought she was too fast, had told Helene that a girl should always do it with someone older. “High school boys are the worst,” she said. “They’re in a rush. They don’t know what they’re doing. Half the time they spill it on you. Yuck.”

“Don’t you worry about getting pregnant?” Helene asked.

“Not your first time. You can’t. But after that you have to make sure he wears a condom or you need to get fitted for a diaphragm.”


“Something you stick up inside. It works like an umbrella.”

Agnes made it sound complicated. It didn’t feel that way, not when she was with Vince. When they kissed, their tongues exploring each other, she was sure she knew his breath as if it were her own.

“Don’t worry,” Agnes said. “When you’re ready, you come ask me any questions. I’ll give you the full skinny.” But Agnes was a year ahead of Helene, and she disappeared soon after graduation.

The last hour of Helene’s shift was the worst. Hot gusts whipped between concession stands, strewing trash in every direction. Seagulls flapped down, grabbing chunks of bread in their beaks. The cotton candy machine clogged and refused to restart. Everyone kept their eyes on the dark clouds piling up offshore and made predictions about when the storm would hit.

She handed off the cashbox key to the night-shift girl. Helene was sticky, sweaty, and dirty. She ducked into the public bathroom. It reeked of urine. The towel dispenser was empty. The trash can overflowing. She moistened toilet paper under the faucet and wiped her face and armpits.

She stopped outside the phone booth. She felt a pang of guilt for not going straight home. What if Mom already had the baby? But this was her summer, the last before she graduated from high school and was expected to go to work as a factory-office girl, typing and doing shorthand until she married.

She dropped a dime into the pay phone slot and dialed. Mark answered. “Any news from Dad?” she asked.

“The baby still isn’t budging. Dad won’t make it home tonight.”

“Mark, listen, I’m sleeping over at a girlfriend’s house. You don’t need to tell Dad or Mom. They have enough to worry about.”

“Sarah’s not going to like that. She’s been waiting for you all day.”

“I’m not her mother.” Helene hung up. Everyone expected her to fill in. At the beach: “Helene, make sure they don’t drown.” At church: “Hold Sarah.” After school: “You’re in charge. I need to lie down.”

Outside the phone booth, a group of girls had lined up, probably to call their families, too. It was twilight, that in-between time, not quite day or night. Families crowded the boardwalk, searching for one last game or ride. Teenagers trawled games-of-chance booths, eyeing one another. All around her, sounds blared—music, hawkers, whistles, screams. Midway rides spun red and gold bulbs into strands of light against the darkening sky.

Vince was waiting for her on the seawall. The tide was coming in, the waves higher than usual. Clouds loomed offshore, rain bursts visible in the distance. He wore his T-shirt with the neckband stretched around his hairline, its arms tied around his head. He looked like he was wearing a turban. He’d bought hot dogs and Coca-Colas. She stripped off her shoes and sat next to him, thigh to thigh. “I’m so thirsty.”

He ripped the tip off the straw wrapping and blew into the end, shooting off the paper sleeve. A gust picked it up and a seagull chased it.

She sipped her icy drink, her upper arm resting against his side. She noted the heat of him, the smell of the midway, metal and grease. “You look like an Arabian knight,” she said, tapping his red turban.

“And you look like cotton candy.” After they ate, he took her cup and placed it on his other side. He pushed her back onto the grass behind the seawall. He kissed her, his tongue pushing deep into her mouth. She was vaguely aware that in the sand below the seawall, a person and dog shuffled by. Someone hit the bell on the High Striker. He felt light against her, his arms holding his weight as he leaned into her.

Little footsteps ran up. “Mom, it’s the Ferris wheel man. He’s kissing a girl.”

Vince sat up. Helene wiped the grass off her hair and pulled down the tails on her blouse.

“Sorry,” the mom said, grabbing the boy’s hand. “He just loves that Ferris wheel.”

“Hey, little buddy.” Vince fished in his pocket and gave the boy a strip of ride tickets. “Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Wow!” He ran off.

“That was sweet,” Helene said.

“My dad was in charge of an old Eli down in Mississippi. I thought it was pretty cool when I was that kid’s age.”

“Is that where you’re from? Mississippi?”

He shrugged. “Not really. We were always moving.”

Helene had never moved farther than the room off her parents’ up to the second floor. She thought of Sarah, her little bed tucked into the dormer alcove. “Wasn’t that scary?”

“Nah, different places, mostly the same people.”

Helene wished she were free to pick up and leave with Vince. If only she didn’t have one more year before graduation.

“What did you do about school?”

“Sometimes we went. Sometimes we just learned from older kids.”

Helene wasn’t sure what the point was in finishing high school. She could already type eighty-seven words per minute, fast enough to get a job in a typing pool. She knew shorthand. She could operate a mimeograph machine.

Offshore, thunder rumbled. Vince stood. “Sounds like rain.” He reached for her hand and pulled her up.

“I didn’t bring my umbrella,” she said.

“No worries. I’ll take care of you.” They walked, his arm around her waist, bumping hips. She liked when girls glanced at him or called out, “Hi, Vince,” and then looked down at his thumb tucked into her side waistband. He had a huge fan club of girls who knew him as the cute guy who ran the Ferris wheel. He’s mine, she thought. All mine.

The trailer park was its own village. People cooked on kettle barbecues. Clotheslines hung between trailers. Boys played with a steel-mesh trash barrel, stuffing two kids inside while the others rolled it. A woman called out, “Vincent, you and your pretty lady friend want some barbecue?”

“Nah,” he said. “We ate.”

The woman flashed a knowing smile, and Helene glanced at the ground, but Vince squeezed her hand. “Don’t worry. That’s Lil. She’s Camp Mom. I’ve told her all about you.”

She’d never actually been inside his camper. She’d only peeked in at its compact appliances and furnishings, which reminded her of a life-size dollhouse without Victorian frills. The counters were clear of clutter. The floor was swept and mopped. A tree-shaped air freshener hung from the brass chain on the ceiling light. And he’d made the bed, the corners tucked in military-style. She ducked her head as she stepped through the door.

He turned on the transistor and dialed in a station. “Would my lady like to dance?” He put his hands on her waist, and they moved slowly, her feet following his, but soon it was his heat that she pressed into, and his hand slid down the back of her pants.

“You want to go up?” he asked, nodding toward the bed.


“Climb.” He kicked off his crocodile boots and went up first and reached down to help her. It reminded her of the top bunk in the boys’ room. “Watch your head,” he said as she scrambled up.

He lied on his side and untied the tails on her pink-striped blouse. She watched his fingers undo each of her buttons.

“You’re beautiful,” he said and kissed her stomach.

He was prepared with a condom. She thought about telling him she was a virgin and couldn’t get pregnant, but she thought it possible that Agnes had her facts wrong. It seemed quite complicated, getting that “thing” on, especially because he was working under the covers. Agnes had not explained the workings of the condom. “Can I help?” Helene asked.

She inspected the little disk, amazed at its delicacy. He showed her which way to hold it, and then he guided her hand as she rolled it on him. He was on top of her, inside of her, and it didn’t seem to hurt as much as Agnes said to expect. He was gentle and careful, asking her each time he did something new, like move in deeper or hike her legs over his hips, “Is this OK?” Helene didn’t want to appear naïve; Agnes said that could be a turnoff. But soon, nothing seemed to matter, not his groans or her gasps or the squeaking bed. She was finally a grown-up who could make her own decisions. She was Vince’s girl.


He slid open the window above the cab. Thunder rumbled. A salty breeze dried the sweat on her skin. She heard the rattle of the roller coaster on its tracks. The hum of voices outside. Lil yelled to someone, “If you don’t come get this I’m giving it to the dog.”

“Do you think they heard us?” Helene asked, clutching the sheet up around her neck.

“It’s a little late to worry about that,” he said, drawing a line from the tip of her nose, over her lips, along her chin and neck bone, beneath the sheet, between her breasts.

“I wish you didn’t have to go away,” she said. Take me with you, she thought.

“I have a job down in Jersey lined up. But I’ll be back. Memorial Day. Look for me at the Ferris wheel.”

How could she wait? She imagined living with him inside the camper, which seemed just the right size for the two of them. She’d get to know Lil and the other seasonal workers. They’d spend the winter in Gibsonton, where a man could be eight feet tall or have hands that moved like lobster claws. “I could go with you.”

“You start school soon.”

“So? You didn’t graduate.”

“And I’ll probably spend my life living in a cramped camper.”

“But if there were two of us working”—Agnes had said don’t be clingy, but she couldn’t stop herself—“we could save up and buy a house.”

“You’re a sweet girl,” he said. “But it wouldn’t be fair to you. Let’s just enjoy the next few weeks.”

She felt as if the loft bed had become unhinged and dropped to the ground.

There was a tap at the door. “Vinnie, you inside?” A girl’s voice. Helene froze.

He put a finger over his lips, signaling Helene to say nothing.

“We know you’re in there, Vinnie.” A group of girls giggled.

“Who are they?” Helene whispered.

“Just some girls.” He dropped to the floor, pulled on his jeans, and opened the door a crack. “Go away.”

Lil’s voice rang out. “You girls skedaddle. Give the poor boy some peace.”

Helene dressed under the covers. She shimmied into her pants and slid down from the bed. Raindrops pinged against the metal roof. She buttoned her blouse.

He opened the half refrigerator built into the cabinet. He drank from a carton of orange juice. “Want some?” He held it out, but she bumped into it, and the juice spilled.

“Shit, sorry.” He grabbed the dishcloth and wiped her blouse, but the juice bled into the pink-striped cloth. She didn’t know why, but she started to cry, whimper, like something Sarah would do.

“What’s the matter?” He put his hands on her shoulders. “Was everything OK?”

She nodded, although she felt terribly large and awkward, as if she had squeezed herself into a space where there was no room. She wanted to use a bathroom and freshen up, but there wasn’t one in the camper. The carnies used the public baths. “I should go home,” she said.

“I thought you were spending the night.” He touched her waist. “You’re not upset about those girls?”

Helene knew it was foolish to care about a bunch of stupid girls, but it wasn’t just that. She felt foolish. She’d asked to go with him, and he said no. “My mother’s in the hospital,” she said.

“Since when?”

“I called home after my shift. There’s a problem with the baby.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I wanted to be with you.”

“Silly.” He pulled his T-shirt on over his head. “I’m still here for two more weeks. We have plenty of time.”

He handed her his Midway Staff raincoat. It smelled like him, and she zipped it and turned up the collar, tucking her chin inside so he couldn’t see it trembling.

“Where you kids going?” Lil asked, scurrying to pull the meat off the grill. “Poco just heard over the shortwave that we got heavy rain coming. Fishing boat just capsized offshore.”

“Helene’s mom’s in the hospital,” Vince said. “I’m walking her home.”

“Dear Lordy. Let me drive you. I got to go into town anyways to get the boys some beer. Midway will probably be closed tomorrow. Got to give them something to keep occupied.”

Lil drove an old beige Rambler with the bench seat positioned close to the steering wheel, her stout legs wide. Helene sat between Vince and Lil. She leaned against his shoulder, but it was Lil she wanted to curl next to. She could never talk to her own mother about Vince, but somehow, she thought Lil might be able to help her figure out why she felt scared that Vince was leaving soon.

The wipers couldn’t keep up with the downpour. Lil peered out the windshield. “Lordy, it’s as if we drove into the damn ocean. Wouldn’t be surprised to see it rain fish.”

Helene smiled at that thought. “It’s this street,” she said, pointing.

The saltbox house was dark. Vince walked her to the door. The top landing was narrow, and he stood down a step, where the awning didn’t reach. “You’re getting drenched,” she said, unzipping his raincoat.

“Keep it until tomorrow.”

“Lil says the boardwalk might be closed. What if it’s closed all week? What if you leave before I see you again?”

He stepped up to her, onto the landing. She wanted to open her body to him, breathe him in, but she felt alone and unmoored.

If the boardwalk doesn’t open, but it will, we’ll still see each other before I leave.” He kissed her. “Don’t worry. You’re my girl.”

She watched him dash to Lil’s car, which waited by the curb, sputtering steam from its exhaust pipe. His dark hair was plastered against his skull and his ears stuck out. He looked so much older than her.

Upstairs, Mark came out of the boys’ room. “What are you doing here? I thought you were sleeping at a friend’s.”

“Something came up.” You’re not my keeper. “Any word from Dad?”

“The baby didn’t make it.” He looked down at the floor.


“The baby died. They named her Grace.”


“Dad will be home sometime tomorrow. Mom in a few days. I could have used your help tonight. Sarah had a rough time.” He stepped back inside his room and closed the door.

She crept into her room. She didn’t care anymore if she cleaned up or changed her underwear. The girls had fallen asleep with the light on. Sarah had pulled off the rubber bathing cap. Helene crawled onto the bed and put her nose against Sarah’s neck. Her sister’s damp head smelled yeasty. She stroked Sarah’s hair, feeling the raw sores on her scalp. She opened Sarah’s fist and touched the clump of baby-fine hair.  

return to top