Erin goes to Coney Island. The year is 1952.
Long before the bus makes the familiar turn towards the shore, she can smell Sheepshead Bay. The saltwater, combined with steam clams and the scent of cotton candy, makes her nauseous. As they approach Coney Island, Erin looks out the window and watches the people walking along the boardwalk. The August heat hangs like a weight over the day, making everyone move in slow motion like they are stuck in wet cement. There is no place to escape the heat, except for the cool slatted space under the boardwalk.
On the beach, the scorching sand makes dancers out of everyone. An old woman moves with the speed of a child, hopping and running, her beach chair bouncing on her arm. She stops to grab a pair of flip-flops from her shopping bag. Her beach blanket, dragging behind her, leaves a snake-like trail in the sand. A father scoops up his daughter, holds her high on his shoulders, like a circus performer. He swings her over his head and squeals of joy rise above the sound of the ocean. A young woman cradles her baby, and in spite of the heat, holds her close to her body. A little girl, wearing her mother’s face, sits with a pail and shovel, digging happily in the sand.
Erin looks at her mother. Nothing about her is a part of Erin. She is her father’s daughter, all Murphy, and is so striking that people turn to look at her. Her high cheekbones make her look older than ten. Her eyes change color from sea-foam green to satin blue. She has a dimpled smile that greets the world.
There is flatness to her mother’s features, beautiful in their vagueness. Her white skin, like freshly ironed sheets, is unlined, and her cheeks are rouged into two perfect circles like the doll Erin got last Christmas. Her dyed black hair is beauty parlor perfect, untouched by the humidity of life. Dark eyeliner frames her eyes, which are the color of chocolate kisses with none of the sweetness. Her eyelashes are short and are maximized by Maybelline mascara.
Only this morning, Erin stood in the bathroom doorway, watching her mother’s make-up ritual. Like an artist, she blends the black paste using a small red-handled brush. Never does she use water, just her own saliva, brushing her lashes up to the sky. Her eyes bulging like the carousel horse at Coney Island.
The patent leather pocketbook clicks open. Her mother retrieves a half-opened pack of peppermint lifesavers and offers one to her. As soon as Erin puts it in her mouth, she notices that it is tainted with “Evening in Paris” cologne. Nothing that lives in her mother’s purse from Kleenex to money ever owns itself. It is all part of her. The whole world violated by her presence. Her scent follows Erin from lunchbox to schoolbooks. From daytime safety to nighttime dreams. Like God, her mother is everywhere.
In the distance, Erin sees The Parachute Jump. Tiny white umbrellas move to the top of a steel structure. People like stick figures cradled in slings move toward the sky. The ascent is silent and slow. They are high above Steeplechase and can barely see the riders on the metal horses as they speed to the finishing line. The ocean recedes from the present tense of their lives, and for a few brief moments, they are suspended in time…then free fall through space to return to the real world.
The next stop is theirs. Her mother takes out a gold round compact to do a final face check. When she opens it, the sun catches the mirror, like a spotlight. She smooths her lipstick with her pinkie, turns to Erin and touches her lips. Erin rubs the color from her lips with the back of her hand and stares down at her shoes with contempt. Her Mary Janes are poorly polished. Her mother, always in a hurry, neglects to shake the bottle so the coating is thin and watery, barely masking the dirt. To make matters worse, Erin’s white anklets have lost their elasticity and she constantly has to stop and pull them up. Her mother’s shoes have that saved-for-Sunday look, and the heels are so high that it is a wonder that she can walk without falling over.
As they approach their stop, Erin reaches up and pulls the cord to alert the bus driver to stop. The bus pulls over to the curb and in a gasp of carbon monoxide stops. Her mother grabs her hand and when the back door opens, Erin jumps the three steps onto the street.
Surf Avenue. Skeet ball, freak shows, and the tunnel of love. Roller coasters that sound like their names: Hurricane, Thunderbolt, and Cyclone. Arcades filled with stuffed animals line the boardwalk, cabana-sized stalls outlined in Christmas lights that glow day and night. A man, who looks like he was born with a cigarette stitched to the side of his mouth, calls out to the crowd, urging them to “take a chance, win a prize...only a nickel. Everybody wins.” What he doesn’t say is that the gold wristwatch and the translucent dinnerware are only for show. The good stuff, nobody wins.
At the Penny Arcade, they have their pictures taken. Four poses for a quarter, a flurry of flashing lights behind a closed curtain and in a few minutes, a red-light signals that the pictures are finished. A long tongue of images that smell like rotten eggs slides out of a side slot. And as they dry, the images become instant memories. While her mother admires the photos, Erin goes over to the mechanical fortuneteller, where for a nickel her fortune is revealed. She puts the coin in the slot and The Gypsy comes alive. Her head moves from side to side. Her hands pass over the cards, never touching them. A small card slides out from under a crystal ball. “There is a tall dark stranger in your future.” Erin reads it and puts it in her pocket. She will put it in a shoebox that she carefully hides in the back of her closet—a secret treasure box that only Erin knows exists.
Up ahead is the shooting gallery. The sound of shots being fired and the ping of a bullseye excite Erin. It is one of her favorite attractions. She watches the men point the rifles and shoot. The ducks swim from left to right, clinging and clanging as the bullets hit the mark. Her mother likes to watch Erin perform, likes the reaction of the men. It is not a child’s game, but Erin has played before. She steps up to the booth, the coins clasped in her hand so tightly that they leave an imprint on her palm. As the Grizzly Bear rises up, she squeezes the trigger, striking him in the center of his stomach, a perfect bullseye. He falls back into some dark place, only to rise up and roar. Again, and again, Erin shoots to kill, but the bear refuses to die. The bystanders applaud her skill as her mother moves past the men, slow and steady like the ducks.
They decide to go to Nathan's for a hot dog and French fries. There are so many people waiting to be served. Erin patiently waits her turn. Her mother is standing in the shade of the day, smiling at strangers, fanning the heat from her face like a coy geisha. Erin tries to get the attention of the counter man, but she is surrounded by grown-ups who push her aside, pretending not to see her. They reach over her head with bodies that smell of sweat and saltwater. Frustrated, she moves to a different spot, hoping the other counter person will be more receptive. A man, seeing her frustration, steps aside and invites her to move closer. He calls out for someone to take her order. She doesn’t thank him, just takes her food and leaves.
The man follows her with his eyes as she walks to her mother, who is chatting with a policeman. They talk about the weather and the crowds and how Coney Island has changed and remember the good old days. Erin is not interested in listening to them. She finds a seat on a nearby bench and eats her French fries with a toothpick. The white paper cup absorbs the grease to form mountains and continents, like the map of the world that pulls down from above the blackboard in her classroom. The policeman tips his hat and disappears into the crowd. Her mother joins her on the bench and gives Erin a disapproving look.
“You got ketchup all over your brand-new dress.”
Her mother bought it for her in May’s Basement. It has dragonflies that move around the skirt as though they are in flight. The top is strapless and fits tight against her body. Her mother takes a hankie from her purse and wipes away the ketchup—cleaning it as best she can.
“You’re such a slob…always daydreaming…pay attention to what you’re doing. You better watch yourself today. I’m in no mood for your nonsense.”
She grabs Erin’s arm and pinches it as hard as she can.
“Ouch, what’s that for?”
“A reminder that this is my day out. Make sure you don’t do anything to spoil it.”
They head towards the carousel. Erin walks slower than her mother, falling behind the steady rhythm of the high heels. She can feel her socks slipping into her shoes but doesn’t dare stop to pull them up.
It is late in the day. That in-between time when the sun is close to the ocean but still visible. The streets are littered with trash and half-eaten food. Tired children are pulled along by their parents. Yellow balloons tied to tiny wrists, hands clutching a water-filled plastic bag with one lonely goldfish, a prize from an arcade game, hoping to survive the journey. They climb the stairs to the elevated BMT subway that looks like a tiny train set as it travels around the edge of Coney Island. The doors open and the crowds push their way in, hoping to find a seat. Erin watches the subway move out of sight, longing to be heading home. Far away from her mother and the carousel.
They reach Neptune Avenue.
There is a nun seated on a wooden crate. Her brown hands are dry and ashy, her fingernails are dirty. Erin thinks that Sister has seen better days and feels sorry for her. She is holding a white plate and her crystal rosary beads shine in the fading sunlight—Christ on the Cross is missing an arm. She is wearing a black nun’s habit and a pair of black pumps and is the first black nun that Erin has ever seen and the only nun who smells like cigarettes and beer. Erin puts two pennies on the plate. Without looking at her, the nun closes her eyes and says, “May God bless you my child and keep you from harm.”
Across the street is the carousel.
The lady at the booth dispenses tickets with the same mechanical efficiency as the fortuneteller. “Hi, Erin. Haven’t seen you for a few weeks. Don’t you look all dolled up.” Embarrassed by her too familiar tone, Erin grabs the tickets and heads towards the line of kids waiting to ride.
She knows every horse of the carousel and begins looking for “her” horse and sees him reflected in the mirrored walls. Ignoring the sign that says, “Do not approach ride until it comes to a complete stop," she ducks under the chain and without hesitation grabs a pole and pulls herself onto the wooden floor and heads straight to the opposite side of the carousel, where her horse is waiting. Gold flowers adorn his body. His tail is real horsehair and when he moves up and down, it waves in the air. His eyes are glass marbles, large and green. He is painted a deep blue and stands out from the rest of the pastel colored ponies. Erin places her foot into the brass stirrup and moves her body onto the saddle. Her legs feel the cool sides of the horse. She traces her fingers along the edge of his ears and head until she finds the familiar chip along the left side of his open mouth. She can see her mother standing near the entrance.
The carousel begins to move. Like thunder, the sound of the calliope vibrates in her heart. Invisible musicians depress the organ keys, strum the banjo and beat the drum as the force of the music propels the horses in an imaginary race where there are no winners. Swept away in an up and over motion, her body rocks to the music. She stares at the twinkling ceiling stars, and for the first time that day, feels free. As the carousel picks up speed, she searches for her mother, tracking her like the ducks at the shooting gallery. The horse runs faster and reality spins into a dizzying sensation that makes Erin wonder if this is what her father feels when he is drunk. At that moment, she loves no one but the carousel horse.
Erin sees a man moving towards her mother. Like the pages in a flipbook, she watches as he moves closer until he is talking to her. It is the same man that she saw at the shooting gallery and again at Nathan’s. It is the White Shirt.
It is the last go-round. The brass ring waits to be captured. Her hair is flying like the mane of the horse. Her head is thrown back, and the sound of her screams melt into the music and are heard by no one. With each revolution, she leans out as far as she can, pulls the rings and discards them one at a time, until the brass ring appears. She captures it. Holds it close to her heart and in a moment of victory, raises it high above her head for her mother to see. The music stops. The ride is over. Erin climbs off the horse and gives the brass ring to her mother. She puts it in her pocketbook where all things become hers, to be returned to Erin only when she is sure that Erin will cooperate and be silent about what happens after they leave the carousel. They walk out into the nighttime of Coney Island, her mother, the White Shirt, and Erin.
The White Shirt smells of Old Spice and the Chinese laundry. He is wearing casual well-tailored clothes and reminds Erin of Mr. Soldano, an Italian construction worker who lives in her apartment building. The same stocky body, the same rough hands and thick fingers. He has dark, shiny, slicked-back hair, with a deep part on the left, like a narrow highway separating the rest of his hair. His face is sunburned, and his eyes are brown and have a hungry look that makes Erin uncomfortable. His voice is husky, not as articulate as her father who owns language. Even in his most drunken state, her father manages to speak the King’s English. His grammar is perfect and he rarely uses slang.
The White Shirt tries hard to engage Erin in conversation. She pays no attention to him, pretending to be lost in the passing parade of people. Her mother is clearly annoyed at her sullenness but says nothing. She doesn’t have to. It only takes a look to communicate to Erin that she better be nice. It’s like a flashing warning signal—the narrowing of the eyes that makes her skin burn. The message is clear. Be good or you’ll regret it later…no need to speak, when a look can strike that kind of terror in a child.
The White Shirt invites them to dinner, an invitation half-expected by her mother. They decide to go to The Wharf, a popular seafood restaurant on the water. When they enter the restaurant, a large tank filled with lobsters greets them. Erin thinks that they look like giant cockroaches climbing over each other, trying to escape, like a scene straight out of a Japanese horror film. She wonders why anyone would eat them. The restaurant is crowded, so they decide to sit at the bar, just for a few drinks until a table is ready. Her mother orders a Tom Collins and the White Shirt has a beer. Erin asks her mother for a ginger ale and some change to play the jukebox. The White Shirt reaches into his trouser pocket and retrieves a handful of coins and gives them to Erin. He puts his hand on her shoulder, leaving it there a bit longer than feels comfortable. She pulls herself free. He smiles and puts more change on the bar.
“I’ll leave the coins right here, just for you because you’re so special. You take whatever you want.”
Erin moves to the rhythm of the music and the multicolor bubbles as they float up the amber and red frame of the jukebox. She plays the songs familiar to her, the ones her father likes best. Returning to her mother and the White Shirt for more change, she sucks the cherries from the bottom of her mother’s drink till she is as dizzy as she felt on the carousel—unaware that the White Shirt is watching her. The waiter tells them that their table is ready and escorts them to the back room. The restaurant is separate from the bar and overlooks the water. In the distance the Wonder Wheel and the Parachute rides light up the night. The sound of the ocean slaps against the evening shore and sets off an alarm of fear inside Erin. The table is small; she is sitting opposite her mother and uncomfortably close to the White Shirt. She can feel his leg touching hers and moves as far away from him as possible.
His watch has Roman numerals and Erin looks at it trying to remember if IX is nine or six; trying to understand what is happening. His arms are hairy; he is wearing a pinky ring with a blue stone that has a star in the center. It reminds her of the Star of Bethlehem that led the Three Wise Men to the Baby Jesus.
She can hear her mother’s high-pitched laugh and her too loud voice that signals one drink too many. Erin continues to play the jukebox until all the coins are gone. When she returns to the table, her mother is well on her way to being drunk and is moving to a place that Erin has been before and doesn’t want to go again. The waiter brings the menu. Her mother excuses herself to powder her nose, moving faster than the carousel and walking not too steady on her high heels.
The White Shirt and Erin are alone. Erin sits frozen in her chair.
“What would you like to eat?”
“I’m not very hungry. I’ll just have some French fries.”
“You had those at Nathan’s. I remember you ordered a hot dog and fries.”
Erin thinks it’s weird that he would remember that.
Seeing her puzzled look, he continues. “I not only remember what you ate, I even remember the color of your panties. I saw them when you were on the carousel. Your skirt got hiked up when you reached to get the brass ring. They are the softest shade of blue like your eyes are right now.”
Erin pretends not to hear him.
The menu is large and when he opens it his hand rests on top of hers. She slowly removes her hand and wonders what’s taking her mother so long.
“Let me tell you what they have. I have a feeling that together we can find something you might like.”
He reads the menu and rattles off a list of fish and clam dishes that Erin is not interested in eating. His face is so close to hers that she can smell the beer on his breath. “What am I going to do with you? You have to eat something.”
He looks at her and smiles. Erin notices that one of his front teeth is darker than the rest. He glances at the menu again. “How about frogs’ legs?”
“OK, as long as they come with fries.”
He sees her mother returning to the table and quickly closes the menu and moves away from Erin. “Frogs’ legs it is.”
Her mother is freshly powdered, the lipstick is perfect, and her eyes have been redefined in dark pencil. When she takes a sip of wine, an outline of her lips stays on the glass. Erin sits in silence, eating a piece of bread, sipping her ginger ale and listens to her mother spill their life on the tablecloth. The White Shirt is all sympathy. He kisses her mother on the cheek. Their voices are far away. Erin wonders what frogs’ legs taste like. The noise from the bar drifts into the backroom. The jukebox is lost in an undertow of voices. The ocean moves against the sand in a soft rhythm. The scent of the sea drifts into the open windows. Erin wants to leave. She is tired from the endless play of time that moves from a long day into a longer night, but she must stay until her mother decides it is time to go.
The waiter brings their food, and both her mother and the White Shirt wait to see her reaction to the frogs’ legs.
“It looks like chicken.” They are small brown legs in a savory sauce. There is nothing amphibian about them. “I thought they would be green and slimy.”
The White Shirt takes his fork and picks one from the plate and brings it to her lips. “Here, try one.”
She takes a bite and immediately spits it into her napkin. “Yuck, that’s disgusting! I’m sorry, but I can’t eat it.”
Her mother and the White Shirt order salmon and continue to talk, eat, and drink their wine. Erin asks for some change and leaves the table. She is glad to be away from them. The bar is less crowded than it was earlier. She plays the jukebox and when her songs are finished, she walks outside the restaurant. The weather is warm, and the boardwalk is crowded with people enjoying the evening breeze. For a fleeting moment, Erin thinks about running away but quickly changes her mind and goes back inside. She returns to the table but stands next to her mother and takes a bit of the salmon.
“That’s good. I’m surprised. I thought I’d hate it.”
“Do you want some more?”
“Then sit down and stop getting up and going out and coming in. You’re driving me crazy.”
The White Shirt pulls out Erin’s chair and moves it close to him. While he and her mother are talking, Erin sits there trying to ignore them. When they start kissing, she pretends not to notice…counts the colored lights around the windows, stares into the bar…anything not to watch them.
As the White Shirt kisses her mother, Erin feels his hand move under her dress and up her leg and inside her panties. She shoots her mother a look, but she doesn’t notice—doesn’t care. Erin moves into the dragonflies that fly around the skirt of her dress. She floats up to the sky, sails on their wings and flies away from the White Shirt. Tears fill her eyes. Too scared to speak. Too frightened to move.
The waiter walks over to clear the table and the White Shirt quickly removes his hand. Erin is quietly sobbing. The waiter asks her if she is all right. Her mother looks at her and continues drinking her wine, enjoying the attention of the White Shirt. He turns his back to Erin as though nothing has happened. She gets up, goes to the lady’s room, washes her face, and returns to the table.
“I want to go home. I feel like I’m going to throw up. Please take me home now.”
Her mother is annoyed, and while she would like to stay longer, she doesn’t want Erin throwing up and spoiling the evening. Reluctantly, she agrees to leave. The White Shirt gives her mother money to take a taxi. He kisses her goodnight but doesn’t even look at Erin. On the ride home, Erin is silent. Her mother reminds her again not to say anything to her father.
“If you say anything to anyone, you know what I’ll do to you, and I’ll never give you the brass ring. Is that understood?”
Erin nods her head yes. She closes her eyes and tries to erase the shame she feels. If she keeps all the secrets and doesn’t tell her father or anyone what happened today, her mother will give her the brass ring. Erin will put it in her treasure box with the eight others. Between her father’s threats and her mother’s meanness, Erin is running out of space in her brain for all the lies and deceptions. Don’t tell your mother I’ve been drinking, or I’ll kill you. Don’t tell your father what happened today, or I’ll beat you.
She is too young to be the secret keeper.
That night lying in bed she says a prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
“Dear Sacred Heart, please help me. It is a simple request.
I would like an early winter this year so that it will be too cold to go to Coney Island with my mother. And if you could set fire to the carousel that would be wonderful, but please spare the Blue Horse.
As for the White Shirt, I’ll leave that up to you.
Whatever you do, I beg you, don’t let my parents know I spoke to you.”
He gets on the train at Franklin Avenue. It is rush hour and the train is crowded. He doesn’t see me, but I get a good look at him. Even though it is ten years since it happened, I’m sure that he is the White Shirt.
He looks the same. Some gray has moved into his slicked-back hair. His face is sunburn and he is wearing jeans and a brown leather jacket. He is holding on to the white porcelain pole in the middle of the subway car, and if I have any doubts, the star sapphire ring that at the age of ten reminded me of the Star of Bethlehem is still on his pinky. I have never forgotten his face. Or what he did to me.
The rage that had once been shame rises up in me. All I can think about is that I want him dead.
That day at Coney Island has stayed with me. It has not been repressed or forgotten. A wound that never healed, and here he is, still alive, no visible scars that tell me he has met with any sort of punishment. I was just a child when he put his hand up my dress and inside my panties. I wonder how many other young girls have experienced a similar trauma. How many of them still feel the shame and have never told anyone what happened, held it inside until it tainted their trust. I can barely catch the thoughts as they fly faster than the express train as it rattles into the next stop. I decide that when he gets off the train, I will follow him. I imagine the endless scenarios about what I would say and do if I ever saw him. But to be honest, I am scared; scared like I was when I was ten years old.
Rage takes me to a dangerous place. I don’t think about the consequences of my actions. When the doors open at 34th Street, he exits the train. So do I.
There is no chance that he will recognize me. I’m twenty-one years old, no longer a kid, and with my high heels easily six feet tall. A showroom model in the garment district, I look every bit the part. Long, lean with my dark hair in a French twist. Dark sunglasses complete my Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s look.
I climb the two flights of stairs and stay close enough to see him turn down 34th street. He is heading toward the west side. I reach in my purse for my cigarettes, and while he waits for the light to change, I light my cigarette. My heart is pounding. I am not sure if it is anxiety or the thrill of the chase. He stops at the Teamsters Building on Ninth Avenue. I decide to wait outside. I stand there for about twenty minutes when a man approaches me.
I am bewildered.
“How much what?”
“How much for a blow job?”
“You have got to be kidding. Do I look like a prostitute?”
“No, but you’ve been hanging out in front of the building for a long time…too long to be waiting for someone. What else am I to think?”
My street smarts kick in. I lower my sunglasses and look right at him. “Get lost you mother fucker before I call a cop.”
I look in the lobby and see a phone booth and decide it would be safer to wait there. It’s opposite the elevators, so I’ll be sure to see the White Shirt when he leaves. I am very late for work and call the showroom.
“Mr. Schulman, it’s Erin. I got sick on the subway and came home. I think I have a fever. I’ll give you a call in the morning to let you know if I will be coming into the office. I’m so sorry.”
He tells me “feel better. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Schulman Designs is a family-owned business, and I am like one of the family. I quit high school when I was sixteen, and this is the first and only job I have ever had. The people I work with treat me with respect and are more than just co-workers, they are friends and I trust them. The money is good, and I get to keep the clothes I model.
As I wait in the phone booth, I wonder where this journey will take me. I have no plan beyond following him. Anything could happen. I tell myself to trust my instincts…when the time comes, I’ll know what to do. There is no turning back now. The elevator opens. And the White Shirt exits. He walks past the phone booth to the revolving brass door that leads to the street and hails a cab. I am right behind him. I wave down a taxi and like a scene from a B movie, I tell the driver, “Follow that cab!”
The driver is giddy. He smiles at me in the rearview mirror. “I always wanted someone to say that to me.”
We drive downtown heading towards the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. “Oh God, we are going to Brooklyn.”
The driver hears me and asks, “Is that a problem?”
“You have no idea. Just keep following that cab.”
I laugh at the absurdity of the situation and check my wallet to make sure I have enough cash to pay the cabby. There is a twenty-dollar bill that I keep behind my ID for emergencies. It is my mad money. When I was a kid, my mother always pinned a small black change purse to the inside of my waistband in case I needed change to call my aunt Joan and take the bus to her house. My mother called it mad money. It was to be used when my father was drinking and going mad. I have another forty dollars in my billfold, so I am good to go.
My mother taught me early on never to trust anyone…especially men, and that I should be prepared for anything. Having mad money is in my DNA. My mother may have been crazy, but most of the advice she gave me made sense.
We take the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and continue along Flatbush Avenue. The White Shirt pulls over and gets out of the cab in front of the Glenwood Rest. I tell the driver to keep going and make a U turn at the next light. I don’t want the White Shirt to see me pull up behind him. When I pay the driver, he gives me his card and tells me if I need a ride, or some help, to call him.
“I have a daughter about your age, and I get the feeling you’re in some kind of trouble.”
I thank him and put his card in my wallet.
At the Glenwood Rest it’s Happy Friday. There are banners alerting anyone who passes the place that all the drinks are half price. When I go inside, I am surprised how busy it is. There are about ten tables and most of them are filled with people enjoying an early lunch and cheap drinks. I spot the White shirt and sit at the far end of the bar. I order a Vodka Gimlet. It arrives in a long-stemmed cocktail glass that seems out of place in a local gin mill.
I am very comfortable sitting at a bar alone. My father was a serious alcoholic, and as a child, I spent a lot of time with him. We would go to the park or the zoo, but wherever he took me we always ended up at the local bar before we went home. There are other men at the bar who give me the once-over. I am accustomed to being noticed and ignore them. I give them what my friend Irene calls “the look.” It is my way of letting them know that I am not interested in them. It’s all in the eyes. I can look through someone as if they don’t exist. It serves me well.
The White Shirt lights a cigarette and exhales perfectly formed smoke rings. They float above his head in undulating circles. I am sure a child would be fascinated. But I am not a child. He stares into his glass and plays with his lighter, trying not to meet my eyes. Clearly, I make him uncomfortable. I give him “the look.” I am not going to flirt with him. If he is interested, he will have to make the first move. I take the last sip of my drink. Within minutes the bartender removes my glass and puts a Gimlet in front of me. It is so full that I sip from the standing glass making sure to run my tongue over my lips. I know the White Shirt is watching me.
“Compliments of the gentleman at the end of the bar.”
I raise my glass and mouth, “Thank you.”
The White Shirt walks from his end of the bar to where I am sitting. When I see him approach, I’m ready for him. He pulls out the bar stool next to mine and sits a safe distance from me.
“Do we know each other? I have a strange feeling that we’ve met before.”
“I doubt it. I recently moved here from upstate New York. I’m the new girl in town. Are you originally from Brooklyn?”
He smiles and I notice that he still has one tooth that is darker than the other. “Yes I am. I was born in the hospital around the corner and have lived here my whole life.” He doesn’t make eye contact when he speaks to me. “What brings you to Brooklyn?”
“My aunt lives here, and I needed a change. I wasn’t meant to be part of the grange people. They like to hunt and carry guns and think that Dostoyevsky is a kind of vodka. Small minds with big guns. Not a great mix for me. The women hated me. I was too tall and too thin, and there was always the chance that I would steal their man. I didn’t look like them, and I was more interested in reading than teasing my hair and going to the local bar hoping to meet the man of my dreams. Besides, I’m allergic to dogs.”
He looks at me confused. “What does your being allergic to dogs have to do with moving here?”
“Every guy owned at least three large dogs. No-leash dogs that licked your legs and begged to be noticed. They were so damn needy.”
“The dogs or the men?”
I have no idea what I’m saying. But I can’t stop talking. I keep making up lies. They tumble out one after another like clowns in a circus car, and just as ridiculous. I have been rambling on for so long that I am actually breathless. Nerves will do that to me. To my great relief, he is amused at my nonstop monologue and tells me he thinks it’s charming.
“Tell me about you.”
His Zippo lighter has an anchor on it. I pick it up and ask if he is in the Navy?
He laughs. But the laugh turns into a hacking cough that sounds like he is choking to death. If only he would die now, it would be so perfect. To my great disappointment, he catches his breath and with a faint wheeze says, “I was in the Navy but that was a long time ago. When I got out, I drifted around for a while. I thought about going back to school on the GI bill but I was never much of a student. My uncle is a carpenter, so I started working with him; I like building things, like working with my hands.”
I already know that. I hate his hands. I can still feel his calloused fingers, like a snake’s scaly skin. Slithering up my leg, a serpent stealing my innocence as he moved inside my panties. He is a monster with monstrous hands. I remind myself to be careful not to let my true feelings get in the way of what needs to be done. I might never get a chance like this again.
He goes to the men’s room and leaves his jacket on the back of his chair. I check to see where the bartender is in the mirror. He is at the far end of the bar at the workstation, busy filling the ice bin and washing glasses. His back is turned to me. I check the mirror to make sure I will not be seen.
Smooth as a pickpocket, I subtly slide my hand in the inside pocket of the jacket and lift the White Shirt’s wallet. I quickly look through it, and the only thing I find is a photo of a little girl in a communion dress and wonder if she is his daughter, niece, or another victim. There are some business cards. But there is no ID or driver’s license. No name, no address, no nothing. I see him coming back to the bar and quickly put his wallet back in his jacket. Maybe he doesn’t drive. Lots of people who live in Brooklyn use public transportation or a taxi and don’t want the added expense of a car. Either that or he keeps his ID in his pants pocket. I don’t ask his name, and he doesn’t ask mine. Somehow it doesn’t matter.
He moves his stool a bit closer to mine, and I resist that flight reaction that always happens whenever a man I don’t know gets too close and invades my space. Old fears have a long memory. A reminder to pay attention and keep my guard up or bad things can happen.
He asks me, “Have you been to the really special places in Brooklyn?”
“Let me think. I’ve been to the Brooklyn Museum, Prospect Park, and the Botanical Gardens, and when I was very young, my uncle took me to Ebbets Field to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers play the Yankees. The Dodgers lost. My uncle told me that is why they’re called the Brooklyn bums.”
The White Shirt looks serious. “You don’t understand. Being a Dodgers fan is like a religion in Brooklyn. Every season we worship them and every season they let us down. But then spring training starts and we’re full of hope and fall under their spell hoping for a miracle.”
I have trouble listening to him. His voice has that same raspy tone I remember. I want to tape his mouth shut or stitch his lips together so he can’t speak.
“I can’t believe no one ever took you to Coney Island. It’s one of the great amusement parks in America. I’ll tell you what, if you don’t have any plans for dinner, I’d love to take you there.”
If I wasn’t listening before, he had my full attention now. I look at him and without hesitation say, “That might be fun.”
“Great. When you finish your drink, we’ll leave.”
The cab drops us off at Emmons Avenue, several blocks from the boardwalk. This neighborhood was once lined with private houses and two apartment buildings. There isn’t much left. The houses are boarded up and broken. No one lives here anymore. The apartments are abandoned and windowless. Neon graffiti decorate the exterior. Bits of broken glass shine on the street like jewels, like tiny stars that cover the sidewalks and crunch under my heels. I haven’t been back for a long time. Streetlights are still standing but there is no light; trash clings to the buildings and the entire area smells of sadness. We turn onto Neptune Avenue and the Wonder Wheel still lights up the boardwalk. However, farther down the street, the Parachute ride that once carried people high above the beach has been dismantled…all that remains is an abstract metal sculpture, broken but still beautiful.
Some of the shops are still here and the scent of cotton candy and French fries fill the street. The kiddy rides have been replaced but are still on the corner. As we walk, the White Shirt reaches for my hand. I quickly move away from him. He is getting too close, too familiar. I don’t want him touching me.
Surf Avenue, once a haven for children anxious to ride the carousel, is dark and quiet. As we approach the carousel, all I see is burnt pieces of wood, like bodies piled one on top of another, next to an outside wall. The interior is boarded up. The carousel is no more. I can’t decide if I am happy or sad that it is gone. I have a million questions I want to ask the White Shirt but can’t.
All I can do is ask him, “What was here?”
“The carousel, one of those old-fashioned merry-go-rounds with a calliope and brass poles and hand-painted horses. It was a popular ride. Kids loved it.”
“What happened to it?”
“I’m not sure which paper, The Daily News or The Brooklyn Eagle, said it burned down around two in the morning. No one knew how the fire started. I don’t remember exactly when it happened. But it had to be at least ten years ago.”
“That’s too bad, I’m sorry I never got to ride it.”
Seeing my interest, he becomes very animated.
“By the time the fire department got here, the whole place had burned to the ground and the only thing that survived was one of the carousel horse with gold flowers, not a mark on it. I thought that was so weird I never forgot it. I could never figure out why they didn’t build another one.”
I try to remain calm. I know what happened. It was part of my prayer to the Sacred Heart. The one I said the night my mother and I got home. The night he touched me. I remember asking the Sacred Heart to set fire to the carousel and to spare my favorite horse.
After the White Shirt incident, my mother never took me to Coney Island again. I was a kid and none of my prayers was ever answered. It never occurred to me that the Sacred Heart was listening. I had no way of knowing about the fire. I wondered why we stopped going. But I certainly wasn’t going to ask her. I was young, but I wasn’t stupid and was glad that part of my childhood was over.
Could it be my prayer was answered?
It is probably some wild coincidence and has nothing to do with Divine Intervention. But if it is true, what about the rest of the prayer. I left what happened to the White Shirt up to the Sacred Heart. Why am I here?
We continue to the far end of the street and walk to the boardwalk. I think I hear my mother walking behind me, but it is only the steady rhythm of my high heels on the grey wooden planks.
“I’m surprised how well you navigate the boardwalk in those heels.”
I want to tell him that I learned from an expert, but instead, I say, “It’s just a matter of being careful.” I thought about taking them off and walking barefoot, but I don’t want to get splinters in my feet. “How far are we from the restaurant?”
“It’s about six blocks from here and the walk will give you a chance to see the magic of Coney Island.” He looks down at my shoes and laughs. “You think you can walk that far in those skyscrapers?”
“I’ll be just fine, thank you very much.”
The arcade is still here. There is a new sign with flashing stars and repainted turquoise with pink borders. The first thing I see when we go inside is the fortuneteller. It is the same one that was there when I was a kid. I take out my change purse, the one with the jeweled heart that I’ve had forever and find one lonely quarter. Years ago, it only cost a nickel. I have to know my fortune, especially today. I put in the coin and watch the fortuneteller come to life. Her hands pass over the cards but never touch them. It is exactly as I remember it. My fortune slips under the crystal ball and appears in the slot. I don’t know why, but I can’t bring myself to read it.
“What does it say? What’s your fortune?”
I slip it into my purse and say, “Let’s wait until we sit down to dinner.”
The longer I spend time with the White Shirt at Coney Island, the more I realize all the violent fantasies about what I would do if I ever saw him again are just fantasies. I am not capable of murder.
We are in front of the restaurant. I stop walking. There is an empty bench opposite the restaurant. “Can we sit down for a few minutes?”
It takes all the courage I have but I finally ask him, “Do you know who I am?”
He looks at me. There is no expression in his eyes. “You’re Erin. Aren’t you?”
“Yes. I am.”
His voice is low. I can barely hear what he’s saying. “I was wondering when you would tell me. I thought it was you, but I wasn’t sure until we were at the fortuneteller. When you took out your change purse, I remembered the jeweled heart. It was the same one you had in the pocket of your dragonfly dress.”
He pauses. “The day, that day…” He searches for words. “The day we went to dinner.”
“When you realized who I was, why didn’t you leave?”
He lowers his head. “I wanted to say, I’m sorry. I know that doesn’t change anything. But I want you to know how sorry I am.”
He is so full of shame that he can’t look at me.
“Don’t you dare look away from me! I want you to know what happens when you molest a child. Do you have any idea? Do you?”
I tell him, “I wanted to kill you for what you did to me. But after spending time with you, I realize that you’re nothing. You’re just a pathetic little man, a predator and a slave to your desire for young girls. You are a pedophile. Save your apology for someone else. I don’t pity you. I pity myself for giving you the power to own me for all these years. No matter how many compliments I get about how I look, inside I feel ugly. My poor self-image is one of the side effects of the shame I feel as a result of your sickness.
“I’m not comfortable around men. My guard is always up. When they tell me they like me, I think they just want to use me. I am afraid of men. You made me afraid. Then there is the depression that lives inside of me and can rise up like a wave, pulling me under, until I feel I will drown in despair when I least expect it. Those are just a few things that I carry with me as a result of what you did.”
He looks scared. I keep talking.
“I have been an emotional prisoner. I allowed you to hold me captive because of what you did to me when I was a child. I am no longer ten years old. I’m glad that I got this chance to see you for what you are. Today, I feel free from the pain and the rage that I have carried with me. I’m sure that none of what happened to me has any effect on you. People like you manage to deny you did harm. Someday you will run out of excuses and have to look at yourself. You’ll get arrested or someone will hurt you or kill you. Someone with less of a conscience than mine. It could happen. Tell me something. How many other girls have suffered at your hands? How many have you molested?”
He doesn’t answer me right away. I ask him again.
“How many others. Answer me.”
“So many I stopped counting.”
“How is it you remembered me. What makes me so special?”
“You’re not special. I remember each and every one. I replay them in mind, they are always with me and God forgive me, I always want new ones. There is no end to the pleasure I get from touching young girls, the younger the better. It’s like a thirst that is never quenched.”
He gets up to leave, and as he walks away I shout after him, “I hope someone kills you.”
He turns to look at me and says, “I hope so too. I hope someone puts me out of my misery.”
With a sense of unfinished business, I follow him to the subway. When I reach the station, he is standing at the edge of the platform. I hear the clatter of the rails and see the lights reflected on the ceiling. As the train speeds into the station, the White Shirt arches his back and falls onto the tracks. The train runs him over.
People scream, I scream.
A woman is crying.
People are shocked.
They talk to each other giving different versions of what they saw.
“I was standing right next to him when it happened.”
“At first I thought he was going to jump. But for a split second, it looked like he changed his mind. It happened so quickly I’m just not sure.”
Everyone is talking at once.
“Why would anyone do such a thing. How terrible can life be that you just want to end it?”
“I’ll never understand people who commit suicide.”
“What a waste.”
“It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”
The train sits in the station. There is an announcement telling the passengers who are already on the train to disembark and an uptown train will be arriving shortly.
For now, the downtown train to Brooklyn is closed.
The train heading for the city opens the doors; people fill the already crowded cars. I manage to get a seat and try to piece together what happened. I feel nothing. I am convinced that he didn’t commit suicide; granted, I can’t be sure. I remember he arched his body and pushed backward in an effort to resist the forward momentum, like an invisible hand was pushing him. A force so powerful that he fell to the tracks. No, it was not suicide. I wanted him to die. There is no sadness, just surprise at what happened. I don’t know if he was pushed or he jumped. The one thing I know for sure is that the White Shirt is dead.
It’s a relief knowing that he is no longer going to abuse little girls, a relief that he is out of my life. I’m glad he’s dead. I get off the train at 49th Street. I want to be above ground away from the heat of the subway. I have no idea where I am going. When I reach Fifth Avenue, I find myself in front of St Patrick’s Cathedral.
I often visit St. Patrick’s. It’s a short walk from my office and although I am not a practicing Catholic, I like the peaceful feeling I get when I’m there. It holds a certain magic for me. A thinking place with no distractions and God, it is magnificent.
I walk behind the main altar where there is a statue of the Sacred Heart, light a candle and kneel down in front of him.
“Dear Sacred Heart of Jesus. Thank you for answering my prayers.
Thank you for burning down the carousel and saving the gold-flowered horse.
Thank you for taking care of the White Shirt.
I am glad I left it up to you.
He’ll never hurt another little girl again.
It all makes sense to me now.
Why I followed him to the subway station.
Why I took the train to 49th Street.
Why I ended up in St Patrick’s Cathedral.
It was all part of your plan.”
Before I leave, I light another candle. With a sense of calm, I go outside. It is a clear night and the scent of roasting chestnuts fills the air.
On the taxi ride home, the news on the radio is all about an unidentified man who committed suicide by jumping in front of the IND subway at Surf Avenue. The platform was crowded with people returning from Coney Island who witnessed a man jumping in front of the train. He died instantly. Police are trying to identify the victim.
The driver comments to me. “Have you heard about this? Some people are crazy.”
“I have. I guess he had a good reason for doing it.”
“What a terrible way to die, don’t you think so?”
I don’t answer him.
When we approach the Brooklyn Bridge, I ask the cabby, “Do you mind if I smoke?”
“OK. But roll down the window.”
I reach in my bag and take a cigarette from the pack the White Shirt bought for me. I rummage through my bag for matches, but I don’t find any. I find a Zippo lighter with an anchor on it. The White Shirt must have put it in my bag when I was looking out the window. I also find my penny arcade fortune.
The crystal gazer has wonderful things in store for you.
Someone from the past will return to you after a long absence
Today your patience will be rewarded
Your days of despair will be over
Your prayers will be answered
Your lucky numbers are 12, 32,17, 5, and 2