Week 22

         My father, sixty-six years old and almost totally blind, somehow had his vision restored at Jonquil Beach

during winter vacation. His doctors were unable to explain the blindness that had overtaken him two years prior; one said it was most likely the result of a mini-stroke, another said an aortic dissection was possibly the cause. Then, early one mild Carolina morning before it was even light, we put on sweaters, left our motel room, and carried breakfast down to the beach. A few others had ventured out with the same intent, but they were as focused on privacy as we were. It wasn’t quite light yet as my mother spread out the blanket and unfolded the canvas chair for my dad, while I opened the thermos of coffee and laid two jelly doughnuts and a cheese Danish on a paper plate. We had just taken our places, Styrofoam cups filled, pastries carefully picked up with napkins, when it happened.

         “Wow,” my dad said. “Now that’s what I call a sunrise.”

         Despite the exact timing of golden light on cobalt water, we thought he was kidding. But then he turned his head toward the blanket, looked from one of us to the other, and said to me, “You look beautiful, Stephanie, but where are your bangs?”

         My mother, a believer in miracles as well as a woman who had recently badgered me into changing my hairstyle, credited Jonquil Beach itself. It became, for her, holier than Lourdes. A type of Mecca where spiritual healing could be followed by a cold margarita and a plate of coconut shrimp. And one that deserved an annual pilgrimage.

         This happened during our first family vacation. It was an unusually severe winter back in Connecticut, my Christmas break from eleventh grade, an escape we could barely afford. But we needed, we all agreed, a breather. For almost fifty years, my dad had worked six days a week cutting hair in the one-man shop he’d rented next to the State Farm Insurance building. When his eyes went, my mom, a person who embraced responsibility, insisted on pulling more than her share of double-shifts as a dental hygienist. And I, with college hovering not far in the distance, had studied as if I was being chased by wolves.

         After my father’s sight was restored, my mother had faith that our lives would go back to the way they’d been. Her husband would return to his business, she’d be able work somewhat normal hours, we could cut our dependence on Visiting Nurses, and I’d stop being so obsessed with grades and develop a social life. (None of these things ever happened. My father started having occasional dizzy spells almost as soon as we got home and, as overjoyed as we were that his vision had returned, he never picked up a pair of shears again.)

         Still, it was with this belief, this hope, that the day before we left for home, my mother persuaded my dad to purchase a timeshare. It was a tiny condo on the water that overlooked the same strip of sand and surf my father had finally been able to focus on. We were given t-shirts, a DVD, several pamphlets advertising local attractions and, that next morning, a ride to the airport.

         We’d been assigned “Week 22,” the last Wednesday in May to the first Tuesday in June. Five months away. “An ideal week,” the sales agent had assured us: lots of activity, perfect water temperature, and the long Memorial Day weekend.

* * * *

        My mother, five years younger than my father, had decided, at age forty-four, that she wanted a child. They’d been married over twenty years and, they say, “never really gave a family much thought.” They tried things naturally, but nature was not an ally and I was adopted weeks past my first birthday. My bio-parents were a fifteen-year old girl from rural Maine and the married state trooper she babysat for. The adoption put me in an uncomfortable position—the kid whose folks always seemed generations older than other kids’ parents—but I loved both of them the way a dog loves an owner who pats the bed at night and says, “Come on. Up you go.”

         And I felt equally protective.

         As helpful as she was with maps and coupons and a glow-in-the-dark key holder, the one thing the sales agent neglected to mention was that Week 22 fell right in the middle of “Motorcycle Days.” For two weeks practically every motorcycle known to mankind somehow found its way to Jonquil Beach. They were ridden by nerds, freaks, newly married couples, clean-cut suburban families, miscreants, bald-headed accountants... everybody. Helmets were often ignored, mufflers often disregarded. Clothing tended to be, well, leathery and brief. And these were not people who looked like Mel Gibson from The Road Warrior, or Pamela Anderson in Barb Wire. Most were normal sized Americans who weren’t afraid to belly up and order a chocolate shake with those cheesy fries. And like flies trailing a garbage truck, they were followed by thousands of curiosity seekers, vendors, and motorcycle wannabes.

         “Just folks trying to have a good time,” the sales agent smiled when we complained within fifteen minutes of arrival.

         “We want a different week!” my mother told her loudly enough to be heard over the roar of engines.

         “Sorry,” she said. “It’s set in stone. Week 22.”

         My dad, a go-with-the-flow kind of guy, tried to make the best of it.

         “So we’ll go back to the condo, we’ll sit on the deck, we’ll watch the world go by,” he offered.

         But it wasn’t the world we watched go by, it wasn’t the sound of the waves we listened to, it wasn’t the smell of the fragrant palmetto. It was motorcycles. They rode along the sand and shot up plumes of airborne grit. They stalled out. They parked in random clumps. Occasionally, one flipped over, sending its occupants and what seemed like a year’s worth of accumulated possessions, flying. Most riders stopped only long enough to compare tattoos or participate in an impromptu wet t-shirt competition, but others set up tents and tarpaulins.

         Night was a cacophony of ear shattering music, drunken brawls, breaking glass. People who I’m sure led respectable lives in other towns and cities, raced like maniacs up and down Route 17. Housewives drank directly from open vodka bottles. Frat boys, not to be out grossed, tried to mate with anything that had vital signs.

         There were gangs or, as they preferred to be called, “motorcycle clubs.” The Deaf Camels and The Blacklist, an African-American group, were two of the biggest. They rode in clusters, caused accidents, shoplifted cases of beer, intimidated the non-gang members, yelled racial slurs back and forth, and fought with one another.

         I suggested going home. My father proposed driving further south and finding a decent motel. But my mother insisted we stay. In her mind, battle lines had already been drawn. This was her week off and she wasn’t going to have it taken from her.

         On our second day, “the incident” occurred. My dad and I had driven into town to pick up groceries, a three mile trip which, due to non-moving traffic, took an hour-and-a-half. When we got back to the condo, both our assigned parking slots had been taken by huge Harley-Davidsons, their riders still aboard and wearing their Deaf Camel “colors.”

         “Excuse me,” my father said from the rolled-down driver-side window. “I need to park there.”

         I knew these were not people to be reasoned with, but kept my mouth closed. The dirtier, more dangerous looking of the pair had a blonde beard that had been triangularly cut in the middle leaving him with something that resembled a hairy letter “W” on his face. His black bike was immaculate, the motto, “Rubber Side Down,” carefully detailed in script on the gas tank.

         “Excuse me,” my father repeated after being ignored the first time. “You’re in my parking spot.”

         “Hey, Bug,” the one without the beard said. “Is it me or do you hear somebody talking?”

         At this point both bikers looked over in much the same way you might consider a squirrel just outside your kitchen window. Bug slowly swung a leg over the side of his motorcycle and approached our car. He was built like a 55-gallon drum with limbs, dressed indecently in short cut-off jeans, combat boots, and a stained gray t-shirt on which was printed: I’M THE LITTLE BROTHER.

         “Say something?” he asked.

         “Let’s just find another parking spot,” I suggested.

         “I need to park there,” my father said, but I could tell he was wishing this confrontation wasn’t taking place.

         “I thought that’s what I heard,” Bug said. He returned to his bike, remounted, and continued the conversation with his dirt-bag buddy.

         We found a free slot a block away, my dad carrying the canvas, eco-friendly grocery bag we’d brought from home. When we got to our building, the two bikers hadn’t moved. This time, though, they stopped their conversation and looked over.

         “Just walk by,” my father advised.

         “See,” Bug said. “Now was that so difficult?"

         “Ignore them,” he whispered.

         ‘Hey, Pop?” Bug called just as we approached the condo’s entranceway. “We’re always open for compromise. Have your granddaughter show us her tits next time.”

         My dad was not a fast moving man. But the speed he approached the two motorcyclists was impressive. I had no time to try and stop him, no time to call him back, no time to keep him from wildly swinging that canvas bag filled with about ten pounds of food.

         But he never connected.

         In seconds, the two sleaze balls had disarmed him and knocked him to the blacktopped ground.

         “Leave him alone, you fuckheads!” I shouted as I ran over.

         They both turned their attention to me. Bug grinned. “I like this one,” he told his friend. “She has balls.”

         I helped my father to his feet while the two slime buckets studied the spilled groceries before helping themselves to a bag of our potato chips. It was two flights up to our unit and my dad, despite putting most of his weight on me, was breathing with difficulty.

         “It’s all right,” I kept saying, and once he kind of laughed and said, “Fuckheads. That’s a new one.”

         Inside the condo, my mother and I laid him down on the couch and removed his shoes. Mom made up an icepack in the kitchen while I told her the story.

         “I’m calling the police,” she said.

         “I wouldn’t do that,” I told her. “There are three of us and a lot more of them.”

         We took the icepack into the living room, but we may have just as well used it to make Kool-Aid. My father was unconscious. I called 911, but it took them forty-five minutes to get to us.

         “It’s like a parking lot out there,” one of the EMS guys explained.

         My father died before they even got him on the gurney.

* * * *

        It was a tough year that followed. I was accepted at a small, liberal arts college in Massachusetts, but making tuition was impossible so I applied to the community college six miles away. Social Security gave us some money, but not a whole lot. And my mom, in a much deserved move, began working normal hours and bringing home less money. We sold off most off my father’s personal effects to pay for his cremation, but I insisted on keeping his Hess Badger Bristle shaving brush, along with his 5/8-inch Cadillac straight razor. They were the only way, I insisted, I could keep my legs stubble free.

         Mom tried to dump the timeshare, but she quickly found out that most people do research before they plunk down the cash. When Week 22 began to roll around again, I surprised her by announcing that I wanted to drive down.

         “I’m just not up to it,” she said.

         “”That’s okay. I’ll go by myself.”

         “Why would you want to?”

         “Who knows?” I said. “Maybe I can scare up a buyer.”

         “And then what?”

         “And then maybe I can go to a real college instead of thirteenth grade.”

         My mother finally agreed when I lied and told her my friend Natalie had agreed to come with me. Natalie was twenty-years old, worked full-time as a bank teller, supported her retarded brother, and went to college at night. Mom considered her only slightly less heroic than Mother Teresa.

         Natalie, a true pal, agreed to go along with the story in the unlikely event that my mom checked up.

* * * *

        If possible, Jonquil Beach was more congested, smellier, and louder than it had been the year before. The drive, which I made in one day, seemed endless. It took me maybe ten minutes to get settled inside the timeshare, and then my search began.

         It took a lot of looking, hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic, but around 1:00 AM on the third night I spotted his bike—“Rubber Side Down”—parked at a bar called The Hairy Clam. I considered waiting outside but decided that a 2004 Honda Civic parked among so many motorcycles, would be, well, suspicious. Instead, I found a spot in the all-night Burger King across the highway.

         The Hairy Clam smelled of beer and pee and marijuana. The bartender, who could barely be made out through the cloud of smoke imprisoned in the place, ignored me. Model motorcycles were everywhere: placed on shelves, set up in the grimy front window, hanging from the ceiling with braided fishing line. Customers, like teenagers on their first no-curfew night, drank and played pool and sang Elvis Presley songs karaoke-style.

         I spotted him—same beard, same “colors,”—standing at the bar drinking shots of something brown. He was standing among four other Deaf Camels, including one female who looked as if she’d recently been dragged here.

         “Hi,” I said. “Remember me?”

         He didn’t.

         “Last year. I was with my father. You wanted to see my tits.” The Deaf Camels looked questioningly at one another. “I couldn’t show them then, but I can now.”

         I was intentionally braless. I crossed my arms across my chest, grabbed the bottom of my t-shirt, and pulled it up to my neck. There was laughter and somebody applauded as I quickly covered up.

         “Bug got him a fan,” the female slurred.

         “You like to party?” Bug asked.

         “I like the beach,” I said.

         “Mind a few friends along?”

         “I’m into you,” I said. “Not them.”

         “Go ahead, Bug,” one of his buddies said. “Make her one of the chosen ones.”

* * * *

        Bug’s body was found where it fell, just outside The Hairy Clam, in the dirt next to his bike. His throat had been slit, and later a coroner would claim that it had likely been done by someone standing (or sitting) directly behind him. The incision was ten inches wide and deep enough to cause profuse blood loss and almost immediate death. (The newspaper’s exaggerated headline the following morning would read: BEHEADED!) It was, the coroner stated, probably the result of an extremely sharp knife or maybe a surgical scalpel.

         According to the Channel 12’s “Morning News Round-Up,” police interviewed several patrons, including members of the Deaf Camels, who had been at the bar during the time of the murder. Most admitted to having had too much to drink and offered little valuable information. Nobody, a far as I could tell, mentioned a girl who’d been the last person seen with Bug, a girl who’d flashed them, a girl with her father’s Cadillac straight razor in the pocket of her jeans.

         Instead, the Blacklist was blamed. Confrontations quickly followed as small, angry groups mushroomed into large, aggressive ones. Nights of racial gang violence followed and the less vicious motorcyclists, along with most everybody else, left Jonquil Beach like a buffalo stampede across the Great Plains. Eventually the National Guard had to be called in to restore order, but not before the town itself resembled some surreal, otherworldly combat zone.

         The result, it was announced later that summer, was that the mayor and the town council passed laws that made Motorcycle Days as difficult as broad jumping on ice. Helmet laws would be strictly obeyed. Cyclists would have to ride single file so as not to obstruct the flow of traffic. The number of vendors would be regulated. Noise ordinances would be aggressively enforced, and driving with an elevated blood-alcohol level would lead to arrest.

         In the years that followed, most bikers, justifiably feeling harassed, decided to seek more welcoming destinations. And Week 22 on Jonquil Beach became, pretty much, just another week.

         Thanks to a partial scholarship and a student loan, I was able to transfer to a four-year college after my freshman year. For the next three years, while other kids spent Memorial Weekend on Cape Cod, or Nag’s Head, or in Acapulco, I relaxed with my mom at Jonquil Beach. We’d wake up extra early and, still in pajamas, sit on the deck of our timeshare. Hot mugs of coffee would be on a snack tray between us as dawn, lantern in hand, approached the seemingly endless Atlantic Ocean.

         “Wow,” one of us would inevitably say, “Now that’s what I call a sunrise.”

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