Short fiction – “I’m Not Feeling Sorry for Myself

December 14, 2013

I’m Not Feeling Sorry for Myself

It rained a lot that August, but I was going to have my day at the beach, at least one day in an otherwise forgettable summer, and hopefully a decent one. When my daughter asked me if we could try a Saturday in the middle of the month, I agreed, and I agreed she could bring a friend. I had warned my daughter that the weather forecast still called for rain, but she didn’t care; she was mainly interested in hanging out with her friend, the beach was just a pretext. And as we were picking up the friend that morning, with a one-and-a-half to two-hour drive ahead of us, several drops of rain spattered the car windshield as a blunt omen that we may want to reconsider visiting the beach some
other day.

Until now the summer had been something of a loss. Quiet and dull. The kids were hardly ever around. I spent many nights on the backyard patio grilling tuna or salmon, and then drinking wine or reading until bedtime. When I’d taken a week off to go nowhere because I had no money, I was treated to unseasonably cool damp weather that made the vacation feel more like fall than summer. The air had warmed lately, but without the benefit of sun.

As we drove to the beach, I swerved the car back and forth, rocking the vehicle on its shocks and springs, my hand arcing the wheel in a 10:00 – 2:00 span. The girls emitted tame shrieks. They sensed the lack of threat but relished the simple frisson. Understandably, they weren’t interested in talking to me. I played their crappy radio station loud. (How else could I entertain them?) I was their ride, pure and simple. When they finally acquire a car of their own (insured by me no doubt), or a boyfriend to convey them from point A to point B, I will become obsolete, disposable, and another link in the chain of child dependency will have been broken. They suffer me at present for the sake of mobility.

We arrived at the beach a little past nine, and I noticed I would need to purchase beach tags for the day. In the past I had always been able to get beach tags from my in-laws, but not anymore. In order to appease the burghers of this mercantile shore town by lining their well-larded coffers, I would have to pay somewhere between 10 and 15 dollars for myself and the two teenage girls. It was criminal, really, the thought of paying to experience the beach, sand, sky and surf. And I figured we probably would not end up staying on the beach for much longer than an hour anyway.

The old man selling tags was tanned with deep seams in his leathery skin. He wore a sun-bleached blue cloth cap over hair that looked like plucked tufts of cotton. A row of tags was fastened to his hat. There was a sign with prices of day tags and another sign warning of rip tides, prevalent during hurricane season. A cool but humid wind raked the sea grass. You couldn’t feel even a little bit of sunlight today.

“Paying to sit on the beach,” I said, disgruntled. “They should stop that practice for good. I think it’s insane having to give someone money to enjoy public property. You don’t see that kind of obsession with private ownership out West.”

The old man half agreed with me. He had a gold molar and a thicket of frosted chest hair, a tangled mat of rime.

“It is a shame,” he said, “but they’re never gonna change the way they do business down here.”

“I mean, look, it’s raining, and it’s likely going to rain all day. You shouldn’t even be here enforcing people to buy tags.”

“I’m always here. Rain or shine. It’s my job.”

“Aren’t you worried about skin cancer?”

“Not today,” the tag taker said as he scanned the darkening sky. “Why don’t you go ahead and have a swim before it really starts to come down.” I then noticed some other people approaching.

I found my daughter and her friend, the little tart. They had already set up the blanket and chairs without me. Bored, they passed the time with a portable CD player, an iPod Shuffle, and my son’s Game Boy. A few short years ago they would have been splashing in the waves, but at age 13 the water seemed to hold little appeal for them. They were talking obsessively about dyeing their hair. It started to drizzle. The sand felt warm beneath the blanket, and you could smell the rain lightly tamping down its surface.

I think there was potential for trouble with my daughter’s friend. She wasn’t necessarily polite toward adults. I had seen her disrespect her mother on a few occasions. The friend didn’t seem to have a sense of boundaries, or appropriate behavior. She may gave been mildly sociopath, or a typical 13-year-old girl. She wore a pierced ring in her navel and ultraviolet lipstick. I’d been having troubles recently with my daughter, too.

I realized I needed to be home because in the past year it had become impossible for me to be anywhere else.

I also realized the date. Maybe the realization wasn’t much of a realization; perhaps the date had been gnawing at the edge of my consciousness. It was well past 10 o’clock now, and most likely she would be up, even allowing for the two-hour time difference. I didn’t feel much like calling her but I figured she would call me if it were my birthday. I also took some perverse satisfaction in calling her early and getting the greetings over with. Obviously, there was no longer anything faintly romantic or tender in calling her. The call was obligatory, polite, the right and civil thing to do, similar to calling an old girlfriend, or a grandparent, or your cousin, or your lawyer. Well, maybe not your lawyer.

I called and wished her a happy birthday, a weakening connection between us despite 20 years of marriage and having raised three kids together. She was waiting for some furniture to be delivered to her apartment. I mentioned I was at the beach with her daughter, and not just any beach, or not just a beach in any town to be more specific, and I also mentioned that it was raining. Still, I praised the beach, the luxury we folk on the East Coast have of living so near to the ocean. I expressed sympathy for anyone who would have to drive more than five or six hours to experience the ocean, to enjoy the beach, on either coast
. . . Atlantic or Pacific.

“Why did you put yourself in a place so landlocked?” I asked her. “It’s six or seven hundred miles from any significant body of water.”

“It’s beautiful here,” she said.

“I know, but there’s no ocean.”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s still beautiful. Snow capped mountains everywhere you look. The lake is huge.”

“True, but there’s still no ocean.”

“Are we through?”

“As far as I know we are . . . Oh, did you mean this conversation?”

It began to rain harder, tight pin-like perforations on the water and sand. I could tell this was no passing shower and that we would need to come up with a new plan to waste a few more hours in an already lost day. The girls weren’t disappointed; they were done with the beach anyway and now wanted to spend some time at the stores on the outdoor mall and promenade. I gave them money for shopping, whatever junk teenage girls buy to amuse themselves. The few people who remained on the beach folded their beach chairs and collapsed umbrellas. I questioned why they’d set up umbrellas in the first place, maybe as a shield from the rain, certainly not from the sun. I was saddened watching them, saddened by the whole dreary day, by the lack of warmth and sunlight in the middle of August.

On the mall the girls wandered from store to store. I walked past a young couple pushing a baby stroller. I was seeing myself and how I may have appeared to others when that had been my reality many years ago. The church was always in sight; its gray stone façade and bell tower looming well above the single-story shops. When the rain began pouring down, I ducked under the awning of a shop that was directly alongside the church. In contrast to the gothic gloom of the stone church and its bell tower, the parish was raffling off a pale aquamarine Ford Taurus convertible. There was something vulgar in the idea of the car raffle, not unlike the way the town sold beach tags to access the beach. Shouldn’t God and Nature be free? An inalienable right? I overheard a family from Brooklyn talking about going in the church to light a candle. The mother pleaded with her children and relatives to join her inside the church. It was a special day for the mother for two reasons: Her father had died on this day eight years ago, and it was also her wedding day. Uncanny, because it was also my ex-wife’s birthday today, and 20 years ago, less than six weeks after her birthday, we had been married in this same church. Should I enter the church now? The family and other worshippers already inside—lighting votive candles, kneeling, crossing themselves, dipping their fingers in holy water and crossing themselves—would have no idea regarding the significance this church held for me.

I thought: Of course, how else but by entering the church would he embrace the cross and receive his enormous personal wound, his own bitter sacrament. He could wallow in self pity, or self flagellation, or maybe pray for forgiveness, his choice. He could compare that day two decades ago—a profoundly happy one—with today, which wasn’t necessarily unhappy but simply less certain regarding the future. As drenched as he was, he couldn’t quite bring himself to step inside the vestibule and wait until the storm had passed.

Where were the girls?

I had been through a similar time of dislocation in this town nearly six years before. It was Thanksgiving weekend. We had planned on arriving at the shore house Friday night with all the dinner leftovers from Thursday. Before leaving our house for the shore late Friday afternoon, we had watched the documentary film “Crumb” which had set the tone for the rest of the day. We then made the one-and-a-half hour drive to the shore with two eight-year-olds, an eleven-year-old, and a beagle puppy, and a cooler loaded with Thanksgiving leftovers. The house had electric heat but no one was there and the heat had been turned off. Although it wasn’t freezing, as soon as we’d arrived I turned on all the baseboard heaters. About one hour later the electric power had abruptly shut down. With the aid of a flashlight I opened the service panel. The main breaker had tripped and when I touched the panel it was as hot as a skillet. We then called the fire department. A few trucks were dispatched along with the fire chief, who said to leave the house at once and leave the electric turned off until the service had been upgraded. There were flashing red and white lights all along the street and a crowd had gathered. By now it was about 9:30 or 10:00 at night and chilly. Kids were skateboarding and rollerblading past the house. It felt as if we were on a movie set. After the crowd of gawkers had dispersed, I began loading the car for the long dark drive back home. The neighbor stopped by, curious as to what had happened, and we talked for a while. He was an elderly gay man who lived alone, and it was always a pleasure talking to him because he was witty and liked to comment wryly on the petit-bourgeois mentality of the shore town. We joked about my situation despite its inherent danger and safety risk, and we joked more about the crowd voyeurism once everyone had spotted the fire truck. The neighbor had helped to lighten up my evening and I’d felt grateful to him. I finished loading the car and we left . . . and the next day I’d heard that the neighbor had dropped dead of a heart attack later that same night.

Where are they, my daughter and her bad influence girlfriend? I didn’t trust the girlfriend; there were problems with the mother. But maybe they all had problems with their mothers at that age. I wondered if the girls were safe. I wondered. . . .

The gift shop was a momentary refuge from the rain and one of several almost identical gift shops on the mall. There were drinking mugs, tee shirts and sweatshirts all silk screened with the name of the town and a picture of its famous lighthouse, a gull or two flying past, maybe a red heart on some of them. Cases of tacky meretricious baubles with an occasional interesting piece from an estate sale incongruously thrown in. Shell jewelry, crystals and seashore tchotchkes—souvenirs in abundance. The shop had a mildly perfumed smell. It felt safe and antiseptic and demanded nothing from you intellectually; you could wile away your time browsing or pretending to browse. Unlike the church, the shop held no memories or reminders.

Outside it teemed.

“How’s business?” I asked the shopkeeper.

“Could be better.”

“Could be worse.”

“You think so? Rain on a summer day? All day? Not just a passing storm mind you.”
“I see. A miserable day,” I said. “I wish it would stop too.”

The shopkeeper didn’t reply. I approached the counter. A bloated paperback fantasy novel lay alongside the register.

“At first I thought I would go inside the church to get out of the rain,” I said, “but I couldn’t bring myself to go in there.”

“I take it you’re not religious,” the shopkeeper said with a false indulgent smile. She had close cropped rust colored hair, big eyeglasses, and freckles on her hands. She didn’t mind talking to me for the moment; she had nothing better to do. I knew she was one of those people who believed all our problems were the direct result of big government interfering in our lives.

“It’s more of a personal reason,” I said, pacing, staring at her with a degree of tension and anticipation. “I was married in that church . . . but I’m not married anymore.”

“Sorry to hear that,” the shopkeeper said with no genuine sympathy.

“Haven’t you heard of me by now?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Don’t you know who I am?”

Suspicion spread across her face. She braced her body and shrunk deeper into the cube of air behind her cash register. When she didn’t answer me, I stepped up to the register and pronounced:
“I am the one who stands at the counter and cries!”

And indeed a tear had started to leak from the corner of my eye. I blinked, felt the cascading tear, the wetted eyelids.

“I think I’m going to ask you to leave now,” the shopkeeper said with a baleful look. “I’m not comfortable with this. Not comfortable at all. Get out of here right now or I’ll call the police.”

“But I love you!”

“I said: GET OUT!”

The doorbell tinkled. A cozy-looking, 30-something, bed-and-breakfast-type couple entered the shop. The shopkeeper looked at me one last time and nodded her head in the direction of the door.

I emerged from the gift shop to a scene that looked slightly out of place: My daughter, and her friend, and a policeman walking towards me. It wasn’t the sort of vision I’d been expecting. The policeman had parked his patrol car at the edge of the mall, on the street next to the church, and he’d left the flashers on and the siren light turning, so a small crowd had gathered to watch. I saw my daughter curtly say yes to the policeman’s question that I was her putative father. I felt guilty and confused, believing that my recent scene with the shopkeeper was somehow linked to my daughter’s arrest. I tried to get clear of the gift shop, but it was already too late. The girls and policeman were soon upon me.

The policeman was here because my daughter and her friend had been caught stealing condoms in the local drug store. I was sure my daughter’s friend had instigated the theft but what difference did that make, frankly? Rather than have the girls simply return the condoms to their assigned location in the store, the drugstore manager had decided to press shoplifting charges, maybe as a lesson to these miscreant teenage hussies. The policeman explained the crime to me with some personal embellishment and point of view. He was annoyed, bothered, he had better things to do as a policeman. He had a gash or drying cut on his left hand, near his wedding ring. My daughter and her friend showed no remorse or embarrassment over what they had done, but instead acted insulted and put upon, and even somewhat violated by the absurdity of their alleged crime. Theft this trivial, this silly, didn’t really matter. Come on!

“And you’re Teresa’s father?” the policeman asked me.

“That’s right.”

“Can I see your driver’s license please?”

The rain had faded to a nagging drizzle. As the policeman questioned me, I noticed the shopkeeper emerge from her den of curios and take several steps in our direction. “Hey, Bill,” she called out. “Can I talk to you a minute? S’important.”

The policeman excused himself and walked toward the shopkeeper. I sensed a municipal conspiracy brewing. There were more of them now. I thought I saw the Ancient Mariner of the beach tags skulking along the edge of the sidewalk, and I imagined the drug store owner had shown up too, and I even thought that I saw my ex-wife in this swelling crowd, but more as a symbol of everything I needed to shun and avoid if I were ever to have a life again.

“What were you doing in that store?” my daughter asked me.

“Nothing. Looking around. Shopping.”

“We didn’t go in there. Did you steal something?”

“Of course not,” I told the girls. “Stealing is wrong, and shoplifting is a crime, even if you were only stealing those condoms as a prank.”

“Right, so then why is that lady talking to the cop?”

“I have no idea.”

It continued to drizzle, warm and clinging water. The policeman walked back over to us, my driver’s license a loose damp tube in his fist, and he looked at me as if to say, “What the hell is wrong with you, Bud?” God only knows what the shopkeeper had told him. I’d meant her no harm, but didn’t care for her kind. The policeman also held a sheet of folded paper underneath my driver’s license.

“Where is Tallfescue?” he asked, glancing at my license before handing it back to me, the drizzle oily on his tanned forehead.

“Near Lament.”

“Lament . . .” he mulled over the name . . . “That’s Lament County, right?”

“Yes, yes, it is.”

The policeman stared past me, or rather slightly around and above me, like I’d grown a second head, and it was that sprung head he now addressed.

“You’re going to have to leave town. Is your car parked near here?”

It was a total violation of my rights, but I was tired. I pointed to the public lot.

“Can we ever come back?”

“Not today,” the policeman said. “Maybe not for a week or two. I’ll escort you to the highway entrance ramp.”

“That won’t be necessary. I know the way out of here.”

The policeman didn’t care for my remark. “Please let me do my job,” he admonished, and then handed me the note paper. “Here’s a phone number for Lament County Social Services. I suggest you contact them as soon as possible so they can assign a counselor for your daughter. The girl is obviously troubled. I assume there’s no mother at home. I am asking that you do this and get your daughter a counselor in lieu of juvenile court which could result in juvenile detention. Do you understand?”

I did.

“Call them first thing Monday morning. We won’t get the other girl’s parents involved because she’s with you and is your responsibility, and we’ve decided not to press charges for shoplifting.” He stared at my real head this time, and said, “Let’s go.”

The police patrol car escorted us to the border and then drove away. Once the car was out of sight, we turned around and drove about an eighth of a mile back into town, to this ice cream and burger stand that we all enjoyed. The girls had fries and slices of pizza and I ate a fish sandwich on a Kaiser roll with a slice of warm lettuce and tartar sauce. We needed some gratification; we’d had nothing but disappointment and trouble here. One of the straps had broken on my daughter’s flip-flop as she’d hobbled over to the window to pick up three cones of ice cream and carry them back to us.

The patrol car sped into the parking lot, brakes squealing. It was the same officer, and he flew into a rage at the sight of me and the girls. I jumped out of the car and tried to shout him down. He drew his weapon and fired. I dodged the first bullet, like Neo in “The Matrix.” I rushed the officer and took him by surprise, wresting the gun from his hand. I was rabid. I held the entire ice cream stand hostage: the short-skirted teenage waitresses, the shocked terrorized families in their petroleum-wasting-global-climate-warming SUVs, the crotchety retirees with nothing better to do on a rainy August day. Soon there were reinforcements: State Highway Patrol, Coast Guard, Black-Ops and Navy Seals; helicopters overhead, their blades blatting, and sea planes without advertisements swooping in. I was picked off by a sniper concealed in the reeds of the estuary behind the dock of the ice cream stand. The sniper’s bullet entered the back of my head behind the ear. My last vision was a regurgitation of my spattered blood amid horrified screams only a split second before the cliché of the lights going out. Parentless, my daughter was remanded to the custody of the state, yet another casualty of the juvenile system, and she would spend the rest of her life in and out of correctional facilities and on the streets. Her friend would be okay.

The girls were silent and gloomy as we left the seashore town, but they seemed to perk up the further we moved away from the mildly awful day we had experienced which now seemed to fade from the rear of the car like wake lines from a speeding boat. The girls began to titter and chat about dyeing hair, and they asked me to stop at the drug store when we got back into town. They wanted to buy black hair dye. My daughter was going for the Goth look, pretty normal at her age, even though her hair was light brown or ash blond in summer, and the change would be ludicrous.

“Mom would never let you dye your hair black,” I said.

“But Mom’s not here is she?”

“But I am. And I forbid it too.”

“You don’t care if I do it. Don’t pretend you do.”

“That’s not true,” I said. “I care. I think it will look bad on you, sweetie.”

“Well, I’m doing it anyway,” she said.

And as we approached our home town, sunlight burst from the clouds, a hot and sunny August day.


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