With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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The man walked over to where I was working at the Jacob’s Ladder, a carnival game my friend Eddie and I owned. It was noon on a late-June day, 1981, in Ocean City, Maryland. Sunlight reflected off the man’s gold-rimmed glasses. His hair was dark and slicked back, and his pale face was dotted with pink splotches, as if he’d applied sunscreen sloppily before a day at the beach or suffered from psoriasis. He was a few inches taller than I was and maybe forty, forty-five. I was fourteen.
Eddie and I had brought our Jacob’s Ladder to Ocean City’s pier after operating it at several small fairs in and around Washington, D.C., our hometown. We’d hoped to bring it to the Maryland State Fair in midsummer, but Don Deggeller, whose company, Deggeller Attractions, owned the midway rights to the fair, told us he had a ladder of his own. He’d recently acquired the rights to amusements on the pier in Ocean City, however, and said we’d be welcome to bring our ladder to it. We would keep 60 percent of gross profits; he would get 40 percent.
If our parents had reservations about our plans, they didn’t express them. In early June they dropped us and our carnival game off in Ocean City, two and a half hours from D.C. Eddie and I found an apartment several blocks from the beach for three hundred a week, then settled on shifts: I worked alone from noon, when the pier opened, to three in the afternoon, and then again from six to seven; Eddie worked from three to six, then again from seven to eight. During the busiest hours — from eight until the pier closed at midnight — we worked together. Our game had three rope ladders that stretched at a forty-five-degree angle over an enormous orange-and-blue air mattress and terminated at the top of a twelve-foot frame. The ladders rotated, which meant that, to ring a bell at the top and win a prize, a climber needed extraordinary balance — or to have practiced for days, as Eddie and I had. We made climbing them look easy, deceiving customers into thinking they had a decent chance to win the enormous stuffed bears, lions, and tigers. Occasionally we showed off by juggling as we sat high on the ladders.
I don’t remember the name of the pale man in the gold-rimmed glasses. I’ll call him Robert. Unless the days were overcast, the pier would see only a handful of visitors during my noon-to-three shift. Everyone was at the beach or else sleeping off the previous night’s indulgences. I wondered why Robert wasn’t bodysurfing or sitting under an umbrella on the sand. I wondered why he didn’t have someone with him: a wife, a friend, a child. It was unusual to see a person alone on the pier.
He asked me about the ladder, and I demonstrated how to climb it. I gave him my usual spiel about how easy it was for a person with good balance to reach the top. I offered to hold the ladder for him until he was halfway to the bell — a seemingly generous gesture that was really another of our tricks: after becoming accustomed to a firm ladder, the climber would inevitably find it as precarious as a unicycle on ice once we released it. Robert gave me a dollar, which entitled him to three attempts, and I held the ladder for him. He moved up it stiffly, his arms and legs jerking. “All right,” I said when he was halfway to the top, “I’m going to let go.” As soon as I did, the ladder spun him onto the air mattress. His two subsequent attempts were equally unsuccessful. I encouraged him to try again, but he just gave me a wan smile and shook his head.
Instead of walking off, as everyone else did, Robert stuck around. Dave, who operated the Super Himalaya ride to the right of our ladder, was playing my Doors cassette over the ride’s loudspeakers. I wanted to listen to Jim Morrison, not Robert, but I sensed Robert’s loneliness and thought I understood. I, too, was lonely. Aside from Eddie, who was a year older, I had no friends at the beach. Whereas Eddie was gregarious, I was shy. In contrast to Eddie’s blue eyes and blond hair, my eyes were a muddy brown and my hair a greasy mess of dark curls. Eddie had clear skin; I could have been the “before” picture in a Clearasil ad. In our first week in town Eddie had found a girlfriend: a svelte, black-haired sixteen-year-old named Noelle. He called her Christmas. I would have been thrilled to date Flag Day.
Only a few months before, my life had centered on playing sports, collecting baseball cards and beer cans, and reading Sherlock Holmes mysteries, but in Ocean City I found myself possessed by new desires. Everywhere — the beach, the boardwalk, the streets — there were beautiful girls whose bikinis covered a statistically insignificant percentage of their bodies. I had a crush on Sissy, a seventeen-year-old with a wide smile, lush brown hair, and a melodious laugh who ran the Skee-Ball concession beside Cinema 180. Her job was to make change, troubleshoot any problems with the lanes, and hand out prizes. She had a boyfriend, of course: Johnny, a twenty-year-old with rock-star hair who performed in a dunking game as Bozo the Clown. Johnny painted his face with white, red, and black waterproof makeup and sat above a water tank, shouting insults — some blatantly racist and homophobic — at customers who aimed to knock him into the water by hitting a red target with a baseball. “In the red, you meathead” was one of his milder taunts.
Robert asked me about my parents, about the high school I would be attending in the fall, about what I liked to do when I wasn’t working. I answered but didn’t ask him much in return. I didn’t know what to ask a lonely forty-five-year-old. I didn’t know, or perhaps I simply don’t remember, whether he was a resident of Ocean City or a tourist. I didn’t know whether he was married or divorced or a lifetime bachelor. I didn’t know why he was spending his afternoon talking to a fourteen-year-old kid.
Robert returned the next day and the day after that. If he discovered I liked something, he often expressed a similar appreciation for it. I wore a Baltimore Orioles cap one afternoon, and he told me about the games he’d attended at Memorial Stadium: a grand slam that Boog Powell had hit; the last game Brooks Robinson had played after twenty-three seasons in the big leagues. He liked some of the same bands I did, and we compared favorite songs. He said that he, too, loved the TV show The White Shadow, about a white basketball coach at an inner-city high school, although he was vague about which episodes he thought were the best.
Whenever someone came to climb the ladder, Robert would retreat across the pier, where a black iron fence surrounded the Morbid Manor haunted house. Gravestones lined its small lawn, the tail of a crashed single-engine airplane protruded from its attic, and a quartet of speakers poured screams, wicked laughter, and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor into the summer air.
Robert would also make himself scarce whenever Dave popped down from his booth in the Super Himalaya to ask me what music I wanted to hear next.
Dave was in his midtwenties and handsome, with red-blond hair and a thick mustache. Like Eddie, he had a summer girlfriend, Molly. Sometimes she visited him at the Super Himalaya wearing a midriff-revealing T-shirt, jean shorts, and high heels. One dull afternoon Manny, another Super Himalaya operator, told Dave to close his eyes and open his mouth. Dave obeyed, and Manny dropped a used tampon onto Dave’s tongue. Manny had found the tampon outside the women’s restroom at the entrance to the pier. Dave didn’t immediately gag or spit it out. He just calmly removed it, shrugged, and said, “Tastes like pussy.” The casualness with which he said this, as well as the experiences with women it implied, astounded me. He might as well have been an interstellar explorer reporting about life on other planets.
Dave and his coworkers made minimum wage, which in 1981 was $3.35 per hour, or $26.80 a day — one-fifth of what Eddie and I each made on a typical day as the co-owners of the Jacob’s Ladder. They lived in cheap housing far from the pier, and at the end of the summer they would join one of Deggeller Attractions’ touring companies on a circuit of county and state fairs in Southern states. In October Dave would send Eddie a letter in which he would use the word lonely three times. But to me, Dave — the master of the Super Himalaya — seemed to have an ideal life: listening to whatever music he wanted, spinning people “super faster backwards,” and hanging out with attractive women.
At the beginning of July our friend Andy came to visit us for a week. Cruel capitalists that we were, Eddie and I offered him room and board in exchange for his working the noon-to-six shift. After his first day of work he told me that a man had come to the ladder and asked about me. If Andy thought it was strange, he didn’t say so. Still, I worried he would think I had encouraged Robert’s attention.
When Andy left town, I returned to my early-afternoon shift. Robert was waiting. “I missed you,” he said.
I wanted him to leave me alone but thought it would be rude, perhaps even cruel, to tell him so. He hadn’t done anything but talk. Plus he was an adult, and I always spoke to adults only with deference and politeness, as I believed my parents expected me to, even though they’d never said so explicitly. I’d never been taught how to say no to an adult — nor even to consider the possibility that it might be necessary to do so. Adults were authority figures; they were to be listened to and obeyed.
When Robert visited me at the ladder, I often disengaged from my feelings of unease or fear over what he wanted from me and convinced myself that my spending time with a strange adult was normal. Dave was a decade older than Eddie, and they hung out together. There was a part of me, too, that believed Robert simply wouldn’t show up one day, and that would be the end of it. I was, after all, a good boy who didn’t deserve to have anything truly bad happen to him.
During my dinner break I sometimes hung around the Skee-Ball lanes. In the early evening, as darkness descended and the beach cleared, Sissy, the girl who worked there, stood around with little to do. One evening she showed me how to roll the ball to get it to fall into the fifty-point hole. Her long brown hair fluttered in the salt breeze as she ran up perfect scores. Red tickets, exchangeable for prizes, spilled from an opening beside the coin slot. She gave me all her tickets and even set me up with a few free games. Another night she told me she’d broken up with Johnny, after discovering he had not one or two but three other girlfriends. In the next breath Sissy said she was already dating Johnny’s friend Tiny. If my self-esteem had been low before, it was now buried in the sand below the pier: I’d lost out to a rival named Tiny.
A week before my birthday, July 23, Eddie said he had a “special present” in mind for me. I would have been happy with another Doors cassette, but seeing Eddie’s devilish grin, I allowed myself to imagine something far better: Sissy, tired of towering over Tiny, meeting me on the moonlit beach.
Robert, too, knew my birthday was coming up. I didn’t remember telling him about it, but I must have, and I regretted it.
I’d also told Robert that I liked playing video games and that Eddie and I wanted to visit a water park called Splash Mountain, several miles outside of town: we had talked about going there while Andy was in town to work for us, but we never had.
A few times Robert had mentioned wanting to play me in my favorite video game, Defender. Four days before my birthday he said, “Why don’t we play after your shift tomorrow?”
“I don’t know,” I told him.
“Come on,” he said. “It’ll be fun. I’ll bet you can’t beat me.”
“We’ll have a great time,” he said.
I still couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone Robert had taken an interest in me. I worried Eddie would think I was weird not to have told Robert to leave me alone. I hadn’t even told my parents. Their marriage was dissolving amid accusations of infidelity, so they were distracted and sometimes hard to reach. Besides, I didn’t want to be a weak little kid in their eyes. I was about to turn fifteen — almost a man.
The birthday present that Eddie had in mind for me wasn’t Sissy in the moonlight but Brenda, one of Johnny’s girlfriends, in my bed. She was seventeen or eighteen, with large breasts and a loud laugh, and, according to Johnny, who had approved the arrangement, she did “tricks on the side.” She might have had a drug or alcohol problem because on the couple of occasions I’d seen her, her eyes had been bleary and bloodshot. She didn’t want much money to have sex with me, Eddie said. He could have paid her out of the petty cash we kept around our apartment. In the end, however, he decided against the gift because he didn’t know if I wanted to lose my virginity yet.
Did I? On the one hand, it was all I thought about. In that ocean of bikinied bodies, my desire to be touched where I’d never been touched and to touch what I’d never touched grew more intense by the day. On the other hand, I didn’t want to buy my way into a woman’s body. I didn’t want to exploit someone who was desperate enough to offer herself to strangers for a few dollars.
For my birthday Eddie gave me the Doors’ album Strange Days. I’d played my cassette of it so often the tape had frayed. My favorite song on the album was “People Are Strange.”
The day I was supposed to play Defender with Robert, Eddie came to relieve me at the ladder at 3 PM, as usual. Anticipating this, Robert had stepped over to the Morbid Manor. I’d become so accustomed to its recorded howls and screams that I hardly heard them anymore.
Robert and I walked to Playland, an arcade on the boardwalk, two blocks from the pier. The place crackled with the crunching and burbling of Pac-Man, the binging of pinballs striking bumpers, the buzzing of Centipede. A recorded voice on an arm-wrestling machine asked if I was ready to test my strength. The place was crowded, and there wasn’t a person in it — from the enormous man holding a stick of blue cotton candy to the seven-year-old girl screaming to play another game of Pac-Man — with whom I wouldn’t have traded places.
Outdoors in the sunlight the patches of sunburn or psoriasis on Robert’s face were an angry pink, but inside the arcade their color was more muted. The garish red, yellow, purple, and blue lights reflected in his glasses. We found a Defender machine, and Robert dropped a couple of quarters in the slot and let me go first. I grabbed the joystick, pressed the button to thrust my spaceship forward, and began to shoot aliens. As I played, I was aware of how close Robert was standing to me. Then I felt his hand on my back. I told myself it was probably innocuous. My grandfather could be overfamiliar with strangers. He was notorious for reminiscing with teenage gas-station attendants about football games played decades before the attendants had been born. I’d never seen him touch anyone, though. I concentrated on saving my planet.
When my spaceship exploded, I turned the joystick over to Robert, who was as bad at playing Defender as he had been at climbing the Jacob’s Ladder. He seemed unfamiliar with the game, barely moving his spaceship and shooting randomly and ineffectively.
We played a few games, his hand finding my back whenever it was my turn. Each time, I ignored his touch and focused on manipulating my spaceship so it wouldn’t be blown up. After our sixth game he said, “I’d like to give you an even better birthday present now.” He pulled off his glasses and smiled at me. I looked toward the Skee-Ball lanes at the back of the arcade and thought of Sissy. I wished she would step out of the depths of the room to spare me from what was coming.
“We have a couple of hours before you have to work again,” Robert said. “I’d like to take you to the water park you mentioned. Would you like to go?”
I mumbled something noncommittal.
“We could go right now,” he said. “I have a swimsuit in my car that will fit you.”
We stepped out onto the boardwalk, with its smell of fried dough, popcorn, Thrasher’s french fries, and whatever fruity drink someone had spilled or vomited the previous night. Beyond it the beach was packed with sunbathers and swimmers. I looked at the waves, wishing I could dive beneath one and never surface.
Robert placed a hand on my shoulder and pointed around the corner. “My car is right here,” he said. He tightened his grip and gently pushed me forward. “What do you say?”
I can only guess what might have happened if I’d gotten into his car: Before we drove to the water park, we would have stopped at his house so I could try on the swimsuit. I would have changed in his bathroom, then come out so he could see. He probably would have offered me something to drink. I would have wondered whether it was drugged before putting the cup to my lips.
But I didn’t get in his car. I just took off. I ran north down the boardwalk, turned a corner, and raced three blocks, dashing across intersections without looking, until I reached the entrance to my building. Inside, I flew up the flight of stairs and into my apartment, then slammed the door shut behind me, locked it, and sat down with my back against it. I was afraid Robert might have sprinted after me and would soon be outside my door, knocking, perhaps threatening to break it down. I listened over my panicked heartbeat for footsteps on the stairs. At last I stood up, grabbed a chair from the kitchen, and propped it under the door handle. I looked out the window to see if Robert was on the sidewalk below. I didn’t see him but felt sure he was lurking somewhere nearby.
I wanted to stay in my apartment until the end of the summer, but at a quarter to six I dutifully left and went to the pier, choosing a route I’d never taken before. Eddie must have seen me walk away with Robert, because he asked who he was. I said just someone who thought he could beat me in Defender.
“Did he?” Eddie asked.
“No,” I said.
I could tell Eddie was surprised, because I wasn’t very good at Defender, but he said nothing more, and neither did I. The pier was busy. Customers crowded around the ladder, thrusting coins and bills into my palms. They climbed and flailed and fell onto the inflatable mattress with a violent whoosh. I was distracted and anxious the entire night, expecting any moment to see Robert at the edge of the crowd.
I didn’t see him again all summer.
The next summer Don Deggeller brought his own rope-ladder game to the pier in Ocean City. He clearly knew how much we’d grossed the previous summer — more than twenty-six thousand dollars — and wanted to keep more of the profits for himself. He asked Eddie and me if we would operate his ladder — for minimum wage. We declined. He did allow us to bring our ladder on the road with one of his touring companies, but after we failed to break even in two towns, we called it quits. Deggeller also allowed us to bring a Hi-Striker — swing a mallet, ring a bell, win a prize — to the pier, and Eddie and I employed friends of ours from high school to run it. But the Hi-Striker broke down often, and we barely covered our friends’ salaries. At the end of August I came to Ocean City to shut it down.
After we’d packed up the Hi-Striker, I was standing in the small crowd around Deggeller’s rope ladder, watching its lethargic teenage operator, when I heard my name. I turned and saw Robert standing next to me. His face — with its patches of sunburn or psoriasis; its strained, unbalanced smile; its gold-rimmed glasses with the swirling midway lights reflected in their lenses — was so familiar I might have seen it every day over the past year. Was he waiting for the teenage operator’s shift to end so he could take him to an arcade, a water park? Or was he waiting for me?
“Aren’t you Mark?” he asked.
It was clear he knew exactly who I was, just as it must have been clear from my expression that I recognized him. His tone was low-key, friendly, practiced. It was as if I’d never fled from him the previous summer; as if he thought I had simply misunderstood his intentions; as if I were just a silly boy who’d missed out on a free trip to a water park.
“Yes, I am,” I answered, trying to sound strong and defiant, and I turned to walk casually away. Then my pace picked up, and I broke into a run. I didn’t look back.