From the boardwalk I can see the waves rolling toward the shore. Metal trash barrels stretch row on row in parallel lines as far as the eye can see. All the broad, white painted backs of the lifeguard stands are empty now as night begins. Out there, where the fishermen are casting their lines into the surf. Out there where the waves breaking over the hard grey rocks of the jetties pointing out into the sea.
Overhead, the squawk of the gulls that are circling above the beach, dipping toward the waves, hovering over an unseen spot. Something is dead down there but, from here, it is impossible to discern exactly what it is.
Toy carnival rifles crack, a bell rings. The voice of the barker intones: “Three shots for a quarter, win a kewpie doll, win a prize for that special gal, three shots for a quarter, fifteen for a buck, try your luck.” The Wonder Wheel cars slide on the ramp over the boardwalk. For a moment they appear suspended in the air, held in place by invisible metal strings. People inside scream.
I watch the children play tag as I walk. Watch them running amidst the crowds darting in and out among the people walking in either direction down the boardwalk. I wonder how long it will be before they run into someone. How long before they fall to the well‑worn boards of the walk? Would they be crushed after they fell, crushed into the splinters, by crowds walking?
As I walk, I smell the boiling water where the soggy ears of corn sit stewing, turning as they stew, a sick pale yellow. I smell the thick griddle grease where the hamburgers sizzle and the hotdogs turn. I smell the candied apples’ chocolate scorching black as I watch stray dogs pick through the overflowing, rusting garbage cans, for food. Walking here, as the night grows closer and the carnival lights glare.
Walking, I think of the short beach dunes looming like giant sea beasts. The beach grass whipping my ankles as I run, the precipitous slide down, down toward the dune valley, the rusting steel girders, brought here for what unknown reason? And everywhere, broken beer bottles, rusting cans and bottle tops. Everywhere the distinct scent of urine; this death dune valley.
The seashore off‑season. Cool breezes whipping in from the water. The unclean beach- front strewn with all manner of debris: driftwood, cast‑off luggage and empty food containers washed in from the liners and cruise ships sailing for a port of call.
Walking, I remember riding the Wonder Wheel as a child, remember riding against my will, fearing, then, as now, anything free‑falling, anything rootless dropping through the air. I feel the terrible spinning wheel on which I was trapped, hiding on the cage floor, quaking, sobbing, clutching my knees to my chest, rocking a crazed feral beast, as we slide over the concrete walks, out over the boardwalk. I remember shivering while, inside me, a scream louder than all the carnival music ever played.
On the beach front, I remember the reinforced concrete observation towers built by the government during a world war. Deserted now. Cluttered with refuse so thick with black flies in the heat of summer a man might not get inside even if he, for some dire reason, should have to.
Walking down the boardwalk. The resort hotels overlooking the sea. Short sleeve‑shirted old men all balding, all overweight, all smoking fat black cigars, all standing by the hotel entrances. All identical. Watching the crowd file past. So many arms and hands attached to a body. All identical. Marching past this spot in time, disappearing thereafter forever, out into this harshly‑lighted, endless night.
Under the boardwalk a deep, mournful moan. How many animals have come here to die, and for what reason?
As seen from the boardwalk, the city police jeep riding across the beach, slipping between the trash bins, digging in the sand, routing all but the deep‑sea fishers, is some kind of medieval beast, its white eyes shining in the dark.
A tall, gaunt drunk stumbling on the boardwalk, his dead eyes rolled back in his head. His body moving without him, weaving in and out of the crowd. Walking onward, lurching, recovering his balance, only to lurch sideways once again. Moving forward impelled by some inner need, moving forward as if he had somewhere of vital importance to go.
Walking down the boardwalk, looking into hotels, the club bars. Doors flung wide open, the ceiling fans spinning, circulating the heavy clouds of smoke. The dull, gray light of the room. The crowd of t‑shirted old men sitting, standing, leaning on the mahogany surface of the bar. Drinking shots and beer, talking and smoking as they drink. Frozen in the bar mirror. Frozen as the bar man cracks ice in his hands with a short wooden stick. Frozen as he drops ice into a glass, pours in liquor and moves away.
Standing on the boardwalk staring out over the beach toward the sea. The shining chrome‑plated heads of the observation scanners like a row of armor-plated, armless dead men impaled upon a metal pole. Twenty-five cents to peek through a dead man’s eyes, to look directly into the heart of the night.
The red summer moon hanging in the sky, casting light on the white capped heads of the sea rolling, rushing forever onward. Rushing over the black fingered jetties, smashing on the white- faced sand as it withdraws a handful of sand. It will be extremely hot for us, walking here tomorrow. Toy carnival rifles crack, a bell rings. The voice of the barker intones: “Three shots for a quarter, win a kewpie doll, win a prize for that special gal, three shots for a quarter, fifteen for a buck, try your luck.” I watch as the Wonder Wheel spins in a mad terrifying circle. Hear the people screaming.
Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows. He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.