What If There Is a Hidden World
That We Can’t See?
by Eleanor Lerman
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2,
3, 4, 5, 6, 7
I had one day off in the middle of the week but then, starting Saturday, instead of heading off to Long Island, I took a local bus to the other end of the peninsula and found another world.
It had been years since I had ventured into this neighborhood, probably not since I was a kid, when there had been an amusement park here with rides and games, but it had been torn down just before I moved away. After that, this area had gone into the same decline as my part of Edgemere but now, it seemed to be thriving as a kind of shabby chic hipsterville.
Someone had renovated an old boarding house near the beach and set it up as a hotel, painting it pink, stringing the outside with colored lights and decorating an outdoor courtyard with potted palm trees and blue plastic wading pools filled with rubber ducks. Next door was a surf shop; down the block there were a couple of boutiques stocked with bathing suits and vintage cabana wear; and every store, from the pharmacy to the corner bodega, was selling beach towels and sunscreen.
I found the food truck, climbed in, and Randy greeted me with little more than a grunt. He handed me an apron decorated with a picture of a smiling lobster wearing sunglasses and told me to get to work. It wasn’t even lunchtime yet, but the truck was being swarmed by beachgoers. I started taking orders and ringing up sales.
By three o’clock I hated it. I hated the job because I hated the people. The upscale fashionistas of East Isle were bad enough, but these people, these tattooed twenty-somethings down for the day, who carried their phones around like talismans, who planted their colorful, thousand-dollar surfboards in the sand and waxed them as if it was a day at the beauty shop, these people made me feel worse. More disconnected and irrelevant and old. Not just yesterday’s news but a relic from a generation so far gone in the past that we had become more rumor than fact.
It wasn’t that my customers at the food truck weren’t pleasant enough; they were, and they were also having fun, which I had no right to begrudge them, but none of that prevented me from wallowing in my black mood.
I worked the whole long Memorial Day weekend, and we were always busy. I don’t think that I ever stopped moving except when Randy gave me a ten-minute break here and there. It was because of this pace and my exhaustion on Sunday night, when we kept the truck open way past midnight because the party animals on the beach were still buying food, that I was able to decide that something I thought I saw wasn’t really there.
I was hauling garbage out of the back of the truck when I spotted a bunch of tipsy revelers : girls in the mismatched bikini tops and bottoms so popular that year and guys in the inevitable porkpie hats. Following them, a few steps behind, I saw the man in that unmistakably out-of-season windbreaker and scuffed-up boots. But as the group came closer they blocked my view; when they parted again, of course, there was no one behind them. No one at all.
* * *
On Monday night, as the holiday was finally winding down, Randy let me off work around eight. I didn’t have to work the next day and neither did Bobby, so we had agreed to hang out together for a while, maybe go for a beer.
He met me at the truck, and we went for a walk on the boardwalk. We started talking and without thinking about it, found ourselves at the boardwalk’s end. This wasn’t our territory. Long ago, it had been a stable, middle-class neighborhood, home to cops and firemen whose kids had gone to a different high school than ours.
Now, however, it looked much like the neighborhood where Bobby and I lived, with more boarded-up bungalows and vacant lots than anything else. But, just down the block, there was a bar called The Blue Sea, with a lighted sign outside that showed an electric surfer riding an electric wave. We decided to go in and have our beer.
The place was a dive, more or less like every other bar we frequented. We ordered our usual Buds and took them over to a table. In other words, I was thinking it was just another night in a beach bar at the end of the world when suddenly it wasn’t anymore.
The man in the windbreaker walked through the door. By now, this was a familiar scene to me: a lean, plain-faced man with an intense, searching look on his face entered a room and seemed to see beyond it. I must have reacted in some way because Bobby asked me what was wrong.
“That guy,” I said, watching as he walked over to the bar, took a seat, and ordered something serious-looking that came in a shot glass. He downed whatever he was drinking and ordered another. “That’s the guy I saw in the store, then on the beach. I might have even seen him again yesterday.”
“So?” Bobby said. “It’s a coincidence.”
“Oh c’mon,” I responded. “That’s what they always say in the movies just before the apocalypse.”
“I don’t think they’d schedule the apocalypse for a Monday night,” Bobby said, downing some of his beer.
“Ask him to come over here,” I said without even thinking about it.
“What?” Bobby said. “Why?”
“Please. Just ask him.”
“Why do I have to ask him?”
“Because if I did, he might think I’m trying to pick him up.”
“And if I ask him,” Bobby said, “he might think I’m trying to start a threesome. But I know I’ll never get anywhere with that.” Then he stood up and walked over to the man at the bar.
I couldn’t hear their conversation, but after a minute or so, the man got up off his stool and followed Bobby back to our table, carrying his drink.
“So,” Bobby said to me, gesturing at the man in the windbreaker, “meet Jack.”
“Yo, braddah,” said Jack. “Me just getting’ all buss up. Then be movin’ on bumbai.”
I looked over at Bobby, hoping he had some idea of why Jack — whose name I didn’t believe for a minute — was talking like this. Bobby shrugged and said, “I think that’s how the surfers talk the talk out there in big wave land. Am I right, Jack?”
He nodded and said, “E komo mai!”
Again, I looked at Bobby, who said, “My guess is that if you’re in Hawaii, that means ‘welcome’.”
I turned to “Jack,” gave him what I hoped was a really pissed-off look and said, “Cut it out, will ya?”
I wasn’t sure where my sudden aggression was coming from — or aggro, as the Aussies would have said; I’d heard some of this surfer slang myself — but I was suddenly just burning inside. Who the hell was this guy? Before he even had a chance to respond to me, I had a question for him. “Have you been following me?”
Something interesting began to happen to his face: subtle, maybe, but to me, very perceptible. He had walked through the door with that searching, sandblasted look on his face, but once he’d come to our table, his expression had become antic, almost buffoon-like; now, however, his features seemed to be smoothing themselves out, softening.
“Sorry,” Jack said. “I’m just trying to fit in.”
“The locals.” He turned to Bobby then and asked a question of his own, kind of man to man. “I guess I’m not doing such a good job though, right?”
“You’re not bothering me,” Bobby told him, downing the rest of his beer and signaling for another.” “Talk to her.” And then he pointed at me in case Jack had forgotten who I was. Maybe he had; I thought both he and Bobby were both tipsy, and Jack had just signaled the waitress to bring more drinks.
“Why do I keep running into you?” I persisted.
“I could ask the same question,” Jack replied. “Why do I keep running into you? Because I’m just looking around. Just trying to figure things out.”
“And just trying to get buzzed, right?” Bobby said, clinking glasses with his new friend.
“Nothing wrong with that,” Jack said. “The whole universe likes to get buzzed.”
“The whole universe?” Bobby said.
“Take my word for it.”
“Wow,” Bobby said. “Does that mean you’re like, an alien or something? I mean, is there a spaceship parked around here somewhere?”
“A spaceship?” Jack looked blank for a moment but then, suddenly, he laughed. “I know what you’re thinking: warp drive and deflector shields, right? Well, nope. Nothing like that.”
“Maybe he’s a ghost,” I said to Bobby. I was getting really annoyed with him. He knew it — I knew he knew it — but he was too buzzed, himself, by now to care. He didn’t answer me. Jack did.
“A ghost?” Jack said genially. “I don’t think so, but let’s see. Boo.” And then he said it again, a little louder, for a little longer. “Boo-o-o.” He shook his head. “I think we can rule that out,” he told me. “It just doesn’t feel right. But I can see where it might be useful.”
“You know what, Jack?” I said. “I don’t like you. Maybe you could just stay away from me from now on, and we don’t even have to finish this conversation.”
“I don’t know if I have any control over that,” Jack told me. “Whom you see and whom you don’t. Even what you see, or when. Especially as you get older, right? Isn’t that some sort of saying? The older you get, the more you see.”
“I never heard that.” Bobby said. Cracking a grin, he added, “Of course, I’m not from your planet. But it makes sense, I’ll give you that.”
I was about to say something nasty to Bobby — he was an easier target than Jack, who was clearly unfazed by anything I said to him — when Jack suddenly leaned over the table and looked at me intently. Very intently, with some version of that million-mile stare that I had been haunted by for so long, only now, it was focused on me.
“It does make sense,” Jack said. “You may have to take my word for it, but it does. So does this: things happen that you don’t expect. You should understand that: it’s like some strange guy keeps turning up in your life and you don’t know why. He might not know why, either, by the way, but that’s not my point. Or maybe here’s a better example: one day, when you’re out surfing, you get knocked off your surfboard and you’re too scared to go back into the water again.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I told Jack.
“Sure you do,” he answered. “You begin to feel maybe there’s a hidden world that you can’t see.”
He kept on looking straight at me. I waited as long as I could manage before saying another word, but finally, I couldn’t keep still. “I heard someone say that on television. Is that where you’re getting all this crap from?”
“Television?” Jack said. “Your television? Here?”
“No,” I said, “on Mars.”
He ignored me. “I have to tell you,” he said, “that’s pretty amazing. I’m not sure what’s happening, but it is interesting. Things seem to be... Oh, I don’t know. Referring to each other? Relating? That might help me.”
“Help you do what?” Bobby asked, though he didn’t really seem interested in getting a reply.
“Okay,” I said to Jack. “That’s enough. Stop pretending... whatever it is you’re pretending.”
“I’m not pretending anything, Christine. What if there is a hidden world that you —we — can’t see? That is, until we begin to. I think that doesn’t happen until we disconnect from what’s familiar to us, from the things we thought we were tied to but, for one reason or another, aren’t anymore. Sometimes that happens in a flash. Sometimes it takes... years.”
He turned to Bobby. “Years. That’s the right word to use in this neck of the woods, isn’t it?”
Bobby, who now seemed to have lost the thread of the conversation, replied in a blurred voice. “Sure,” he said. “I mean, I guess so.”
“Christine,” Jack said — and though it was the second time he’d used my name, which I didn’t remember telling him, I wasn’t about to ask how he knew it — “listen to me. So something shoved you around one day, something in the deep blue sea. Did you ever think that maybe it was just trying to let you know it was there? It didn’t kill you, it didn’t try to eat you, so I’m going to guess that all it meant was: Hello, I’m here. Same point we’re all trying to make, more or less.”
“I know you want something more,” Jack continued, “but that’s all I’ve got so far. Except for the fact that we’re sitting here talking. That’s absolutely new. I mean, the TV thing is interesting, but this... actually being able to talk to people for more than a moment or two...”
“Enough time to order a drink,” Bobby offered.
“Clever,” Jack said. “But yes, until now, that was it. So to be able to have this conversation... that’s never happened before. It might mean something’s changing.” He looked thoughtful. “Or maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m changing.”
“Really?” I said. “Into what?”
“That’s cute,” Jack replied. “I know that’s a joke. A couple is getting ready to go out. The guy calls into the bedroom, ‘Honey, what’s taking you so long? We have to get going.’ She yells back, ‘I’m changing,’ and he says, ‘Into what?’”
“Who are you?” I said, speaking extra slowly, enunciating every word because each one was important. “What are you doing here?”
“Well, that’s it.” Jack replied. “The million-dollar question.” Turning to Bobby, he laughed again and said, “I am learning the lingo, aren’t I?”
The man in the windbreaker stood up, making ready to leave. But before he moved away from the table, unexpectedly, he put his hand on my shoulder and let it linger for a moment. “Don’t worry,” he said. “My guess is that you’ll be all right. I am. You could see me as an example.”
And then he was gone, walking away from us and out the front door with a gait as smooth as calm water.
“Huh,” Bobby said. “So what was all that?”
“Oh, you’re back with us now, are you?”
“I’m not that wasted.”
“Sure you are.”
“So what?” he said. “Explain to me.”
“I’m glad you think I can,” I told him, “but you’re wrong. Why don’t we just go home?”
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Eleanor Lerman