Dancing On The Boardwalk
Dancing On The Boardwalk
A Story by Steven Carr
Seagulls were perched in a row on the metal railing, silently watching Charlie Higgins, almost insolent in the way they stared, barely moving any body part, their white and gray feathers gingerly ruffled by the warm ocean breeze. There was six of them. All their eyes seemed exactly the same in size and color, like yellow and black shiny marbles. The markings on their orange tinted bills were different, if only in subtle ways. The same kind of black band encircled both the upper and lower beaks of all of them, varying in degree of width like tattoos applied by the same tattoo artist who had an unsteady hand or a wavering eye. Their silence as they watched him was as noticeable as the multitude of noises that surrounded him.
Between where Charlie sat on a wood bench on the boardwalk and where the ocean met the shore, there was a strip of beige sandy beach that was crowded with every size, shape, color and age of swimmer and sun bathers. The cacophonous noise they produced didn't distract from the calming lull of the waves. Between the railings, under the one that the seagulls stood on and above the lowest one, he could watch the beach goers as he ate his lunch.
He brought his lunch from home in a small brown paper bag. The top was precisely rolled down that allowed him to carry it by his fingertips. He unrolled the top and took out a sandwich wrapped in clear cellophane and placed it on his lap and carefully unwrapped it as if he didn't want to damage the two white slices of white bread with a slice of lunch meat in between. Once the wrapping was unfolded he used it as a place mat across his legs to keep from getting crumbs or dripping mayonnaise on his neatly pressed khaki shorts. As he ate, taking small bites of the sandwich and counting the times he chewed each bite, the seagulls stared at him.
Behind him the clatter and patter of feet on the boards of the boardwalk was never ending. The bench vibrated very slightly, but constantly, to the point of being able to be ignored. The voices of those walking behind him were more distinct than the ones on the beach and without trying to he would hear snippets of conversations, none which were memorable for any reason. There was lots of laughter and some yelling. There was also the whoosh whoosh sound of skates and roller blades passing by at various speeds.
After his sandwich was eaten he folded the cellophane into a neat little square then put it in the bag and took out an apple. He wiped the already bright red apple on his light blue button down shirt as if he was bluffing it, looking at it frequently as he buffed it, admiring the sheen of the peel. The only real noticeable noise he made during his lunch was when he bit into the apple. It crunched between his false teeth like the snapping of a twig. He took a white napkin out of the bag and wiped the juice from the apple's pulp that dribbled down his chin. When he had eaten the apple down to its core he wrapped it the napkin and put it in the bag.
He saved his can of diet orange soda for the last. This he removed from the bag and popped the tab on its top and while taking small sips made an exerted effort to listen to the music coming from the speakers mounted on poles along the front of the shops and arcades that lined the other side of the boardwalk. There was a variety of music, including music he liked; slow, gentle ballads.
“Looks like you got an audience,” the young man who suddenly sat down next to him said pointing to the seagulls.
It was rare that anyone sat down next to him. The young man was wearing board shorts the same color as a the go light on a street corner. He was shirtless and his smooth, muscled chest and stomach was smooth and shiny, as if he had been buffed like the apple. His skin was the color of caramel. The aroma of coconut tanning lotion wafted from him. The perfect symmetry of his face made it difficult to know what to look at; the thick lips, the dimpled chin, or startling blue eyes.
“Every day some sea gulls line up there just to watch me eat,” Charlie said.
“I think they pass it on to their friends where handouts can be found,” the young man said as he ran his hand through his thick black hair taming it into shape.
“I've never given them even a crumb,” Charlie said.
“Good for you. The gulls are wild creatures and people forget that. They're nuisances when they start getting fed,” the young man said. He reached out his large tanned hand. “My name's Greg.”
“Nice to meet you, Greg,” Charlie said as he shook Greg's hand. “I'm Charlie. Charlie Higgins.”
Greg stretched out, placing his large, slender bare feet on the lowest railing. There was a noticeable ease in the way he moved, as if he was at home and on his sofa.
“I've seen you here a few times,” Greg said.
“I eat my lunch here every day,” Charlie said.
“Do you work around here?” Greg asked.
“I'm retired,” Charlie said. “I live in the condominiums over on Palm Street.”
Greg smiled at him, displaying perfectly aligned bright white teeth. “Those are nice,” he said. “You have to have a little money in the bank to live in those.”
“A little,” Charlie said.
Charlie drank the last of the soda and turned the can over and shook the last few drops on the ground between his feet, then put the can in the bag. He placed the bag on his lap and carefully rolled the top down forming the handle.
“I like you, Charlie,” Greg said, still smiling.
“You do? Why?” Charlie asked.
“You look like you have your act together,” Greg said.
Charlie laughed, nervously. “I'll take that as a compliment.”
He looked at his watch, the one his wife had just given him as a gift on their fortieth anniversary, and said, “I have to be going home now. My wife will be expecting me.”
“It was great meeting you, Charlie,” Greg said. “I'll see you tomorrow.”
Charlie stood up and walked around the bench. Greg was still watching him. He walked across the boardwalk and stepped off it onto the street heading home. Looking back he watched the gulls that had been on the railing rise in unison and spread their wings and soar toward the ocean.
From the balcony of his condominium Charlie could see the rooftops of the buildings that lined the boardwalk, but not the boardwalk. Sitting in a plastic lawn chair and sipping on a large glass of iced tea with a lemon wedge he watched the mass of figures on the beach cooking in the late afternoon sun and the slow receding of the tide along the shore. Further out in the water the white sails of small boats seemed unnaturally bright, as if intentionally painted onto the dark blue water that surrounded them for contrast. Gulls flew above it all doing loops and swooping dives.
His wife, Marie, came out and stood at the balcony railing, facing the ocean. The wind played with the loose strands of her white hair and with the lightweight material of her floral patterned skirt. She had applied a bit too much rouge to her cheeks which only highlighted the paleness of her skin. Having sprained her ankle the week before, the tan ace bandage around it had caused her leg and foot to swell a little, making them look oddly inflated, as if filled with air.
She turned her head toward Charlie and momentarily eyed him with a look of curiosity. “You've been quiet since you returned from the boardwalk,” she said. “Did something happen?”
“What could happen?” he said. “I'm always quiet.” He pushed the lemon slice into the tea and stirred it around with the tip of his finger.
She faced the ocean again and began to hum.
The humming during periods of silence between them was a recent development. It annoyed him even more than her tendency to talk during television shows. Charlie stood up and walked into the apartment and put the glass on the kitchen table, then went into the bathroom. At the sink he stared at his face in the mirror on the medicine cabinet. The large pores on his nose looked like craters. He brushed his thinning white hair to the side with his fingers and tilted his head back just enough to see his nostrils. Small hairs stuck out. He got the small scissors from the drawer in the stand next to the sink and clipped them off, then trimmed his bushy eyebrows for good measure. He ran the water in the sink and cleaned it of his hair clippings, then shut the water off, put the scissors back, then went out to the living room.
He sat in the overstuffed chair with the fern pattern facing the glass sliding door leading to the balcony and watched a gull gliding in the bright blue sky. He was attempting to not think about meeting Greg when Marie came into the room from the kitchen.
“What would you like for dinner?” she said.
“Let's eat at one of the places on the boardwalk,” he said.
“Why would we do that?” she said. “The boardwalk is always too crowded and noisy and there aren't any good restaurants.”
“I thought we might try something different,” he said.
She sat on the sofa and propped her injured foot up on the coffee table. “My ankle hurts too much to walk down there,” she said.
He glanced at the dry skin on the sole of her foot and the way her big toe curved outward slightly, then turned back to looking outside.
“Yeah, I guess it was a bad idea,” he said with a sigh.
In the middle of the night, Charlie got out of bed and slipped his feet into his red flannel slippers and quietly walked across the plush blue carpeting and out of the bedroom, looking over his shoulder to make sure he hadn't awakened his wife.
He slid open the door to the balcony and stood in the doorway and inhaled the salt scented air. There was no moon out, yet he could see the black, glassy ocean for quite a ways beyond the shoreline. The glow of the lights from the boardwalk rose up from in front of the dark rooftops.
As he stepped out on the balcony he heard music.
Sitting on the bench, Charlie watched an obese man in too-small swimming shorts trying to put up a yellow beach umbrella. The man's skin was white as chalk except for his face which was bright pink from exertion. The people lying on their towels around him were watching him also, but with looks of annoyance combined with fear. They had positioned their bodies so that they could roll out of the way quickly if the man or his umbrella started to fall on them.
Five seagulls alighted on the railing and eyed him with their usual mixture of hope and threat.
After looking at his watch, Charlie put his lunch bag on his lap and slowly unrolled the top. As he opened the bag, Greg suddenly appeared and sat down next to him.
“Hey, Charlie,” Greg said cheerily. He was wearing a skimpy, tight white Speedo bikini brief that left little to the imagination. The slight breeze carried the fragrance of citrus scented sunscreen from his glistening skin. He propped his large feet on the middle railing.
“Hi, Greg,” Charlie said. “I wondered if I would see you again.”
“You did?” Greg said.
Charlie looked into Greg's eyes and tried to remember if he had ever seen eyes so blue.
“I came up onto the boardwalk from the beach just to see you,” Greg said. “I brought you something.” He reached into his Speedo and pulled out a beige sand dollar and handed it to Charlie.
Charlie turned it over and over in his hands feeling the rough texture on its top and the slight weight of it. “Thank you very much. “I brought you something also just in case I would see you.” He handed Greg a lunch bag.
“This is really nice of you,” Greg said as he ripped apart the top of the bag with his big hands. He took out the sandwich and quickly removed the cellophane and waded it and threw it on the boards next to the bench. He bit into the sandwich, taking nearly a third of it into his mouth. After a few chews he swallowed, then he took another bite. He had the sandwich eaten before Charlie got his out of his bag.
“You coming to the dance tonight?” Greg said.
Charlie placed his sandwich on his lap and began removing the cellophane. “What dance?”
“They're having a dance here on the boardwalk. It starts at eight,” Greg said.
“I haven't danced in years and my wife has an injured ankle,” Charlie said. He folded the cellophane and put it in his bag.
“You could come by yourself,” Greg said. “It would be great to see you.”
Charlie bit into his sandwich, counted the number of chews then swallowed. “It would?”
“Sure,” Greg said as he reached over and squeezed Charlie's shoulder.
Charlie closed his eyes momentarily trying to remember back to a time when he was young and had the kind of strength in his grip that Greg had.
Greg turned his upper body facing Charlie. “I know we just met and you don't know me, but I was wondering if you could help me with something?”
“I will if I can,” Charlie said. “What is it?”
“Believe me, I'll pay you back tomorrow, but I was wondering if you could lend me three hundred dollars?”
Charlie took another small bite of his sandwich. He watched a single drop of sweat slide down between Greg's well defined pectoral muscles. “I don't have that kind of money on me and I don't have my ATM card with me.”
“If you came to the dance tonight you could give it to me then,” Greg said. “Like I said, I promise I'll give it back to you tomorrow. I just need to pay a bill before midnight tonight. I get my paycheck tomorrow so you'd get your money back really fast.”
“Okay,” Charlie said. “I'll bring the money to you at the dance.”
“That's awesome,” Greg said gripping Charlie's shoulder again. He shifted his body back and pulled the soda from his bag and popped the tab. As he drank, his large Adam's apple went up and down his neck as if it was looking for an escape route. He squashed the can in one hand and put it in the bag and stood up, leaving the bag on the bench. “Thanks for the lunch, Charlie. I'll see you tonight.” He adjusted his Speedo, then turned and ran down the boardwalk.
Charlie watched him until he disappeared in the crowd. He then reached in Greg's lunch bag and took out the apple. His heart was pounding.
Marie was sitting on the sofa and soaking her injured ankle in a pan of warm water when Charlie came out of the bedroom. He was wearing his best and favorite green dress shirt and the pair of slacks he only wore on special occasions. His hair was neatly combed and slicked down with pomade. A cloud of his Old Spice after shave trailed behind him.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“I thought I'd go down to the boardwalk and watch the people dance,” he said.
“Why? You don't dance,” she said.
“No particular reason,” he said. “I just feel like getting out for a couple of hours. Do you mind?”
“No, I don't mind,” she said as she sloshed her foot around in the water.
Charlie left the condominium and practically floated on air all the way to the boardwalk. It was a balmy night and a steady light breeze was blowing in from the ocean. The first thing he did was stop at an ATM machine and withdraw three hundred dollars from his bank account. He stuffed the money in his pants pocket and proceeded to an area that had been cordoned off for the dance. It was still early and he sat on a bench and watched with the eagerness of a school boy as the band set up their instruments on a raised stage. As people began to arrive and the band began to play Charlie felt sweat trickling from his underarms down the side of his chest. What he realized right away was that he had overdressed. Almost everyone was in beach clothes; shorts and t-shirts or swimming attire. No one there was his age.
As couples took to the dancing area Charlie began having second thoughts about staying and about lending Greg the money. An hour into the dance and still sitting by himself he thought maybe Greg had changed his mind also. He hoped that was the case.
“Hey good lookin',” Greg said as he stepped in front of Charlie and looked down at him. He was wearing a pair of orange board shorts and nothing else. “Can I have this dance?”
Charlie laughed nervously. “We can't dance, we're two men.”
“So what? They're playing one of those slow songs you like,” Greg said as he grabbed Charlie's hand and pulled him to a standing position. He wrapped his arms around Charlie and pulled him against his bare chest and glided backward into the midst of the throng of other dancers.
To Charlie, Greg's skin smelled and felt like everything his wasn't; fresh, smooth, hard and fragranced with youth itself. He laid his head against Greg's chest and closed his eyes and allowed himself to be cradled in Greg's muscular arms and be slow-danced around the floor like high schoolers at a prom. When the music stopped, Charlie lazily opened his eyes and stared up at Greg's handsome face.
“Did you bring the money?” Greg asked, stepping back a little.
“Oh, yeah, sure,” Charlie said, reaching into his pocket and bringing out the wad of money. He pressed it into Greg's hand.
“Thanks, man,” Greg said. “I'll get this back to you tomorrow.” He turned and walked off, leaving Charlie in the middle of the dancing couples as the band began to play a modern fast song.
With five seagulls standing on the railing watching him, and the incessant noise on the beach and boardwalk vibrating in his eardrums, Charlie took the last sip of diet orange soda from the can, then tilted it upside down and let the last few drops dribble on the ground. He put the can in his lunch bag along with the apple core, napkin and folded cellophane, then rolled the top back into a handle. He stood up, picked up the unopened lunch bag he had fixed for Greg, and went home to Marie.