Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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After my dad ran off with a bank teller with great teeth, my mom and I moved in with her boyfriend, Ronny. I was fifteen and needed a job, so I applied for a position at Marvel Sands State Beach, and I was hired. During the day I sat in a booth at the entrance of the parking lot and sold tickets. I liked it out there, especially in the morning when fog curled around the booth.
I picked up trash in the parking lot before the cars came. I strolled along the hedges that divided the lot from the marsh. I pinched cigarette butts and straws and plastic cups with long metal pickers and dropped them into the black trash bag I dragged behind me. I always stopped to smell the beach roses. Once in a while a bee would be sitting in the yellow center of one like a pearl.
Sea gulls always gathered in the parking lot. Some shuffled around. Others jumped and landed a few feet away. They had beady eyes and beaks bowed like frowns. Some pecked at soggy hot-dog buns.
I whistled a lot when I was alone. I had a whole repertoire of songs, jazz standards like “Someone to Watch over Me” and “Love Walked In.” They made me happy, and I imagined I was in love. I whistled so I didn’t have to think about other things, like my mother sitting at the house, staring at the television or playing solitaire on a tray.
I think the sea gulls liked the songs. Sometimes I just talked out loud about nothing in particular, imagining that they were listening and nodding away, as if they couldn’t have said it better themselves. I hadn’t had company like that in a while. Even if they were just birds, it was a welcome change.
I started out working weekends. Until school let out, I was the only employee. Around five o’clock on my first day, I watched my boss, Mr. Manuel, leave the bathhouse, where his office was. He stopped and faced the building, studying the garden in front with his hands on his lower back like a pregnant woman. He bent over and plucked dead leaves and pulled a few hollow stalks from each plant and then chucked the twiggy handful into the dumpster. The wind blew most of it back into his face. He yelled, “Asshole!” Then he climbed into his red Ford pickup and accelerated into the flock of sea gulls, which exploded into the sky.
Mr. Manuel pulled up to the booth. It was cylindrical, like a lighthouse, with blue shake shingles and double-paned windows. His head was shaved, so his scalp ran into his thick neck. He was probably pushing sixty, but without any hair it was hard to tell. His left eyelid had a pink dot that seemed to push against his eyeball in a painful way. It looked like a sty.
“Dirty fuckers,” he muttered, glaring at the gulls. “They’ll eat anything. I’ve seen them go to town on a diaper.” He stared through the windshield and tapped his thumbs on the steering wheel. He seemed to be thinking deeply. “Anyway,” he said, “have you had any handicapped folks roll through yet?”
I said that I hadn’t.
“Good,” he said. “So, look, they technically get in for free if they’re state residents, but any bastard can get one of those decals. So when they drive up, just play dumb and ask for ten dollars.”
I felt a vague flutter of laughter in my chest and swallowed it. I watched him pick bits of the garden detritus from his green state-issue shirt and flick them out the window. One of the front pockets had an iron-on state-park patch that looked like a kid’s police badge.
“And tell them they have to park in a normal spot,” he continued. “Unless they really don’t have legs or something. Obviously, show those people where the handicapped spots are. And don’t argue with folks about whether they have working legs or not. I already made that mistake.” He scratched his chin for a moment. “I mean, how the fuck was I supposed to know some cars have pedals for your hands?”
I didn’t know what to say. I felt like I was dealing with an insane person. I watched a sea gull peck under its wing. Two feathers sprang loose and floated to the pavement. He was the fattest one of the bunch. I decided to name him Gus, like the mouse in Cinderella.
“At six count the money and write it down and put it in the safe. You have the key, don’t you?” I nodded, reaching into the pocket of my khaki shorts for the lanyard.
“Make sure you count it right. I took it in the ass last year because some idiot couldn’t do math.”
I slapped a mosquito on my forearm and wiped it on a shake shingle.
“I won’t have to worry about you, though, will I? I’ll bet you’re good with numbers,” he said, beginning to roll up his window. “You tall girls are always smart.”
At six that night I hosed down the showers, changing rooms, and foyer. The work was surprisingly exhausting. At one point I looked at myself in a mirror. My neck and throat were red. My hair was frizzed. I bent over and wet my head with the hose. Within minutes my scalp felt hot again.
In the bathrooms I dragged the webbed floor mats out of each stall. The mats were wide and heavy and left black marks on my arms. I poked the nuggets of wet toilet paper loose and hung each mat on its designated hook. Then I emptied the “birdhouses” stuffed with tampons, Care Bear diapers, and the occasional abandoned underwear, and I sprayed the insides with Lysol. I wiped down the toilets and sprinkled Comet into the bowls and swished it around with a brush.
Then I swept and mopped Mr. Manuel’s office, with its framed photographs of the beach during hurricanes: a lifeguard chair strewn on the jetty; waves caught midcrash over the rocks like white claws; purple tufts of seaweed dangling from the shutters of the bathhouse.
The back wall was covered with photographs of lifeguards from past summers. They were always posing on the jetty with a man with long black hair who was invariably touching a bare shoulder or two. The women looked glamorous, with big breasts and little strips of white skin along their hipbones and cleavage. After studying the pictures, I realized the man with long black hair was my boss.
I emptied Mr. Manuel’s trash and closed his office door. RELAX, someone had painted on the door with stencils, YOUR AT THE BEACH! JUST HAVE A GOOD DAY. The missing apostrophe and e were scribbled in with a Sharpie.
I biked the coastal route home, past stone mansions with pillars and green lawns and small cottages in the back for servants. The ice-cream shops were still boarded up, and the seafood restaurants had only a few patrons. The road curved sharply, and in some spots the shoulders dropped straight down onto the rocks. The air was sharp with salt, and I inhaled deeply, feeling content, unzipping my sweat shirt to let the breeze reach my neck as I pedaled.
The next morning, as I leaned my bike against the fence at work and unclasped my helmet, I saw Mr. Manuel watching me through his streaked window. I didn’t wave, and neither did he.
I walked up the stairs to the bathhouse. It had high ceilings with wide skylights. Fans whirred in circles and made quick shadows on the blue cement floor. Red park benches were nailed down on each side of the foyer. On the walls, maps of the seacoast were secured behind plexiglass. Over the water fountain someone had stenciled, THE SPIGOT IS NOT A TEAT.
Mr. Manuel was in his office, hunched over his desk, working on a crossword puzzle with a bottle of Pepsi One in his hand. He looked up at me and swiveled slowly in his chair. He was wearing mirrored sunglasses with leather straps like pilot’s goggles. I almost laughed out loud.
“I want to show you something, Ms. McMaster,” he said. I followed him into the foyer. Green tribal tattoos circled both his calves. He led me to the third stall in the women’s bathroom and pointed to a swirl of sand on the floor.
“Do you see this?”
“This is unacceptable. I expected more from you. Park visitors don’t want to see a dirty floor.”
“Right. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
“Your second day, and you’re already off to a shit start.” He left me in the stall, and I stared at the sand. He returned with a broom and dustpan. “Sweep it up,” he said, and he thrust them at me.
He was basically standing in the stall with me. There was no room to bend over even if I’d wanted to. He just stood there with his arms crossed, staring at me through those ridiculous sunglasses. It was getting hot in that stall, so I bent over.
He pressed his leg into my backside, and I lurched forward. My jaw just missed the porcelain bowl. I could smell bleach and piss. The floor behind the toilet still hadn’t dried from the night before. When I stood up, my forehead and cheeks itched.
“Good, good,” he said, and he backed out of the stall. I watched his tattooed calf muscles flex as he left.
I dumped the sand into the trash barrel, returned the broom and dustpan to the supply cabinet, and leaned on one of the shelves to steady myself. If I quit, there was no guarantee I’d find another job, especially one in which I would be left alone for the most part.
Mr. Manuel’s office door was closed. On the hallway floor sat the money tray, tickets, and an employee manual. I spent the rest of the day out in the booth. I read and fed Gus and his friends stale bread I had brought from home. Mr. Manuel drove through the gate at five and didn’t slow down to say good night.
When I got home, I could see the television flashing blue through the living-room window. We lived in one side of a duplex with brown aluminum siding. A shutter was loose and drooped from the window. A few iris stalks were flattened to the ground. The yard was as brown as the house.
My mother was knitting a sweater in the kitchen with the radio on low. She wore a thin nightgown with bunnies on it, and her hair was pulled back in a braid. A week before, she had slipped and cracked her tailbone. She was perched on an inflatable doughnut cushion so it could heal.
She smiled up at me and rested her needles on her lap. Blue wool strangled her pointer finger.
“How are you feeling?” I asked. She craned her neck like a little bird to accept my kiss on her cheek.
“Real good,” she said. “I even went for a quick walk today.” She was a small woman and looked sick and haggard, like someone in a nursing home.
“How was work?” she asked.
“Fine. It’s just my boss,” I said, sitting down at the table to take my shoes off.
“Oh, is she nice?”
“Yeah, she’s all right.”
I didn’t correct her. I didn’t know why.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. “We already ate, but I can fix you a sandwich.”
“No, thanks,” I said. “I think I might go to bed early.” My mom studied my face. I pretended not to notice and picked up my shoes and walked out of the kitchen.
Ronny was watching SportsCenter with his hairy legs on the coffee table and a bowl of cheese puffs on his lap. He was short with thick limbs and pockmarks on his face and a bushy mustache that grew too far over his lips. He wore netted sports jerseys and hostile cologne. Next to his feet sat a sweating gin and tonic. His hand was resting in the bowl, and he was pushing the puffs around like squeaking Styrofoam. I watched him wipe his fingers on a blanket my mom had knitted.
I ran past him and up the stairs to my room. Islands of dirty laundry covered the floor. I opened all the windows and lay down on my bed and fell asleep with my clothes on. I woke up in the dark and lay there thinking of Mr. Manuel’s green tattoos and how they wrapped around his calves.
It was warm for May. On my third day at Marvel Sands it reached eighty degrees. It was stifling in the booth, so I sat outside on the curb and greeted the cars and sold tickets. The parking lot filled up quickly, and I was able to read only two or three sentences at a time before being interrupted. I’d been reading a lot of Virginia Woolf. I was fascinated by people who drowned themselves.
By three o’clock the wind had shifted. Cold fog rose from the water. I was standing outside the booth, watching storm clouds gather in the west like large bruises, and didn’t hear Mr. Manuel coming to count the money. He grabbed a wad of twenties from the tray without a word and took it into the booth.
“The bills aren’t facing the same way.”
“I’m sorry, what?” I stepped into the doorway of the booth and looked at his shoulder blades.
“Get some Q-tips for those ears, Ms. McMaster. The bills — some of them are facing the wrong way. Fuck, some are even upside down.” He shook his head and kept counting, flipping them over and turning them around as he went.
“I’m sorry. It was busy, and I thought it was more important to get people through the line than to arrange the money.”
“I see. You can’t do both at the same time?”
“No, I didn’t mean— I can do both. I will, next time.”
“Well, sharpen up. You don’t seem to be trying very hard.”
“Sorry,” I said.
He turned around and took off his sunglasses. The sty was gone from his eyelid. His eyes were soft and surprised me.
“It’s all right,” he said. “Come over here.”
I stepped into the booth. It was just big enough for two people to fit inside. I stood there like an idiot.
“Come here, I said.”
I did. We were almost touching. I stared at his forearms. They were hairy and brown and muscular. My arms hung passively.
He licked his thumb and reached for my face. I flinched. He began rubbing just under my lower lip. He lifted my chin with the side of his finger and continued rubbing with his thumb. My eyes were in line with his, but I didn’t look at him. I looked past his ear instead — anywhere but his eyes.
“Ink,” he said.
The spot below my lip was wet from his thumb. It cooled as it dried.
Leaving for the night, Mr. Manuel stopped and leaned out his truck window. “It’s a clusterfuck in the ladies’ room,” he said, turning up the radio to some country song. “Women,” he said, puckering his lips like he was about to spit. “Animals. Expect to stay late tonight.” He shifted into drive. “Make me proud,” he added. I opened my book to a random page and gazed at the margins.
Then Mr. Manuel said, “You have a good face.” I clutched my book and stared dumbly. “I forgot your first name,” he said.
“Annie.” It was just plain Anne, but I’d always wanted to be called Annie.
At the exit he braked and idled for a moment, then drove away.
The bathhouse was full of sand, and hosing down the rooms with the showers and changing stalls was almost pleasant. Those rooms didn’t have roofs, and the white canvas curtains buckled like stiff laundry on a clothesline. The clouds were a muted pink.
It was a hot night, and I was sweating. I took off my shirt and shorts and turned on the water in one of the showers. I kept my bra and underwear on. I didn’t like to be naked in a public place. I held my hair and let the water pummel the back of my neck. Wet, my underwear was transparent, and I felt more naked than I would have with nothing on at all. Paint chips dislodged from the bricks and spun wildly around the drain.
I put my clothes back on without drying off and finished cleaning. A sea gull walked into the foyer and waddled around. It looked a lot bigger in the closed space than it would have outside. I clucked softly.
“Hey, buddy,” I whispered. “What are you doing in here?” It was eerie being alone with the bird in that room. I thought maybe it was a girl. Not that I knew the difference, but it seemed feminine to me.
I retrieved a half-eaten sandwich from the trash and tossed pieces of it onto the floor. The bird pecked at them. Then she wandered out the open door, and I laughed out loud for no reason. I locked the door and biked home in the night with no hands, the peepers pulsing at me from the marsh.
When I got home from work, Ronny was outside sawing a two-by-four. Inside, the house was quiet. I went upstairs and found my mom sitting stiffly on my bed.
She had a cast on her hand. All she would tell me was that it had gotten slammed in the car door. Other than that, we didn’t say much.
She read a romance novel while I brushed my teeth. She popped an extra-strength Tylenol and, with her good hand, rubbed Vicks VapoRub over her chest and under her nostrils. Then she handed me the jar, and I screwed the cover back on and put it on my nightstand. She told me she was going to sleep in my bed for the night.
She stuck in her mouth guard, propped her arm on a few pillows, and sighed. I turned off the light and got into bed with her. My windows didn’t have curtains, and the room was a bleak orange from the streetlights. My mom kept sitting up in the dark to inspect her cast, like she was looking for cracks. She moaned and sucked through her teeth. I didn’t know what to do except ask if she wanted another pillow.
I pulled the sheet over my face. I lay close to the mattress’s edge so I wouldn’t jostle my mom’s hand by mistake. I thought of when she used to read storybooks to me in bed. She always kept her finger tucked behind the next page. My dad would have been around then. He’d be downstairs, just two legs protruding beneath the wings of an open newspaper.
My mother didn’t fall asleep for a long time that night. I didn’t either. I could hear Ronny watching television downstairs. Once, I pulled the sheet down past my eyes and looked at my mom. She was staring up at the ceiling. Sometimes she took a sharp breath like she was about to say something, but she never did.
On Memorial Day cars came to Marvel Sands at a steady pace, mostly SUVs with lots of happy kids and blow-up toys. They idled in line, tinted windows shut tight and air conditioners blasting. I couldn’t sit down or eat. I didn’t have an umbrella because Mr. Manuel said they were for “fags.”
Around noon a yellow Hummer pulled up. It drove so close to me that I had to leap out of its way. The driver was a woman in her forties with heavy makeup and a pixie haircut. She wore a string-bikini top and was on her cellphone.
I stood there and waited, trying to avoid inhaling the car exhaust that hung in the air. Tendrils of my hair stuck to my cheeks and neck. My eyes ached from squinting against the sun.
While the woman talked, she thrust a state-employee badge at me through the open window. She wanted half off. Technically she was entitled to it.
I suddenly hated this woman. I stood there and watched as she pulled down the sun visor and grinned at herself in the mirror.
“You need to sign here!” I shouted, poking at my clipboard with a sweaty finger. The line of cars wrapped into the street. Mr. Manuel pushed a wheelbarrow full of bright-red mulch across the parking lot. A mother with sunscreen-covered hands chased a screaming child. A group of old women with skirted bathing suits and floppy hats shuffled to the beach. I dug the clipboard into my jutted hip. I felt invisible.
“Excuse me, you need to sign this sheet, or you won’t get your discount!” I was yelling like an unstable person. The woman seemed to notice me for the first time. She grabbed my pen and made an X.
“That will be five dollars.”
She shoved a bill at me through the window. I was so angry I was having a hard time swallowing, and my ears were hot.
“Maybe next time you could hang up first,” I said.
“What did you just say to me, you little bitch?” She covered the mouthpiece of the phone, her face pinched with surprise.
No thoughts went through my head. My mind was as quiet as a field at night.
“I said maybe next time you could get off the phone before you drive up. It’s rude.” I scanned the parking lot and saw Mr. Manuel spreading mulch on the far side.
“I’m rude?” She uncovered the mouthpiece and said, “I’ll call you back, John.” She clamped the phone shut like a clam and threw it in the backseat.
“You’re a cunt,” I said. It came out in a mechanical way, like I was reading from an instruction booklet. Her mouth registered horror.
I had heard that word only in movies. I knew it was to be used sparingly and that it was a fighting word. Suddenly I couldn’t focus my eyes. White lace crawled from the corners of my sight, and I blinked it clear. I didn’t know this woman. She could have just gotten a divorce. Maybe she had cancer.
“Oh, you won’t have this job tomorrow, honey,” she whispered to me.
I figured she was right. I didn’t know what to do after she drove off. I considered hopping on my bike and leaving, but I didn’t have the energy for it. I sat down and stared at the money tray. The bills weren’t all facing the same way. I decided to wait for Mr. Manuel to fire me.
Mr. Manuel hadn’t left yet when I closed up the booth. I brought in the small STOP sign and the sandwich board that listed ticket prices. I did everything slowly and deliberately, then walked to the bathhouse, passing a group of sea gulls sitting with their eyes closed.
Mr. Manuel didn’t look up from his crossword puzzle. I placed the tray on his desk and listened to the clicking of the ceiling fan. He jammed the cap on his pen and then threw it across the room. It hit his swimsuit-model calendar and slid down the wall.
“I like a girl with balls,” he said finally.
“Balls, I said. You really gave that woman a good bitch slap, didn’t you?” He laughed.
“Did she come find you?”
“Yeah, she came howling. I took care of her. Gave her a guest pass, said I’d fire you. Don’t worry about it.”
“Oh,” I said.
He smiled at me. Then he grabbed a stack of twenties and started counting. “Now go fix the soap dispenser in the ladies’ room,” he muttered. “Just tape that fucker shut. Use the duct tape. And close my door. I have a headache.”
In the bathroom I taped the soap dispenser and wiped up the greasy puddle on the floor. Then I walked outside and sat on the rock sea wall. A tanker the size of a matchbox inched along the horizon. Receding waves hissed. I watched the silhouettes of a couple with their pants rolled to their ankles. They stopped walking to kiss. They held each other for a long time.
I heard Mr. Manuel start his truck and leave for the night. I picked up my flip-flops and walked back to the bathhouse. I waited by the bathroom door for stragglers dragging beach bags and sunburned children. Then I locked it from the inside.
After I finished hosing and cleaning the bathhouse, I decided to take a shower. I lifted my shirt over my head and dropped it on the floor. I stared at my breasts in the mirror. I had always wished they were bigger, but standing there I thought for the first time that they looked rather nice. I stepped out of my shorts and left my clothes in a heap.
I turned on one of the showers, stepped inside, and pulled the curtain behind me. I closed my eyes and felt the cool water on my skin. I unclasped my bra and let it fall to the floor. I was pulling my underwear down when I heard the curtain rings slide along the rod.
Mr. Manuel was holding the curtain back, staring at me in the shower. His eyes traveled over my breasts and down my thighs. His face was expressionless. His lips were a thin line.
I didn’t move. I didn’t scream or cover my body with my hands. It was almost as if I had expected him to show up. I felt like I wasn’t really in my body at all, yet I was very aware of it: I knew I hadn’t shaved that high up my thighs. I knew the underwear looped around one ankle was part of the “Days of the Week” set. It might have been a Wednesday. I had never had to think about underwear before. I’d never had a boyfriend.
Mr. Manuel stood there like he had every right to be there. My arms hung at my sides. The water dripped from my nose and lips and nipples. We stood for what seemed like forever. I should have been mortified, but I wasn’t.
I could smell his after-shave. I thought maybe I wanted him to touch me, but I wouldn’t have known what to do. I thought maybe I wanted him to press me against the wall.
“I forgot my wallet,” he said finally. “There’s a sea gull in the parking lot with a broken wing. When he dies, he’ll start to stink up my park.” He looked me up and down. “After you’re done here, put the bird out of its misery. They’re not worth saving.”
Then he left.
I stood there with my eyes closed and the water pelting my skin.
I listened to the dull clap of waves against the jetty. The air was cool and smelled of fish. Storm clouds hovered over the showers. A few sea gulls glided past, calling to me.