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Rocky Point 3 

            I will always remember July 18th, 1969. Apollo 11 was racing to land men on the moon for the first time, and my right hand made its first landing on a heavenly body.

            That morning, Danny and I worked for Phil, who had left one leg in Vietnam but never let it slow him down. We painted Arlen Forrester’s tool shed. I called him Arlen instead of Mr. Forrester since he knew how many eggs I ate for breakfast. Arlen was Rogerton’s bachelor milkman. Ma said Arlen loved to flirt with women, adding in the same breath that “flirting is all that’s ever going to happen.” There wasn’t a housewife anywhere in Rogerton Arlen wouldn’t tip his cap to while making his rounds. Lately, those rounds had been getting earlier. Mrs. Xavier says he left her order of buttermilk and cottage cheese in the aluminum box on the kitchen stoop before the hens were up. Arlen was finished with his rounds. He poked his head out to see how the painting was going, offered us some cold milk – pasteurized – and ambled back inside for a late morning nap. 

           The work was straightforward, and we were done by lunchtime, so Phil let us go for the day. As I started towards my bike, he called over, “Paul, I think you’re missing something.”

            Checking my pockets, I found my wallet and comb, my basic equipment, where they belonged. I still had my usual three quarters, two dimes, and a nickel in the coin pocket of my jeans for sodas. I stared at him like an idiot. “What?”

            From his own pocket, Phil pulled out a silvery object. It was a folding knife with “U.S.” engraved on its side, identical to the one he used. He’d let me borrow his many times to cut rope or punch open a beer can for him. The can opener tool was labeled “can opener” as if the grunts were too stupid to figure it out. “Time you had one of your own. Happy birthday.” He was days early, but I couldn’t have been happier.

            I folded out each blade and carefully inspected the tool. “Wow.” I should have said more than that. ‘Thank you’ would have been a good addition. Still, Phil drank in my excitement at the unexpected gift and clapped me on the shoulder.

            An hour later, I was fiddling with my new knife in Mobley’s Hair Salon, aging rapidly while Ma’s curler-festooned coiffe dried under a giant cyclone helmet. I couldn’t hear myself think over the noise of the dryers, and the acrid VO5 spray-on hair laminate threatened to bring my PB&J back up. Somehow, the ladies had no problem conversing under those conditions.

            Mrs. Mobley, in her starched pink apron with a large rhinestone seagull brooch, added to the cacophony by playing her portable television set at ear-bleed volume so as not to miss any of the Ames Family’s salacious doings on The Secret Storm. She loved that show, so much so that her eyes fixed on the screen like a dog staring at its supper dish. She nibbled lemon cookies and dabbed the corner of her mouth with a handkerchief embroidered with cute little parakeets.

            Ma stretched out a delicate foot and kicked me in the shin. Her freshly plucked eyebrows formed an arrowhead pointed at Phil’s gift. There was no reason for anyone to care about my pocketknife, but when Ma kicked, I obeyed. I slipped the knife into my pocket and reached in my backpack for my latest paperback. If I concentrated, maybe the story would muffle the din of women getting beautiful.

            In Catch-22, Joseph Heller told the truth in a funny way. I liked his character names: Lt. Scheisskopf, Milo Minderbinder, and, of course, Major Major Major Major. The female situations in the book got spicey, so I made sure to keep the pages turned away from Ma. As for the humor, Heller had a dark view of the army and of human nature. I tried my best to enjoy WWII, but the salon’s racket overpowered Yossarian’s B-25 bomber.     

            The women bellowed to be heard over the dryers. One spoke rapid-fire like she was getting paid by the word. “It’s the greatest thing. I didn’t even have to give up my Russell Stovers, and I’ve lost six pounds, Donna! Not that Connor notices. What do they call us? Golf widows? That’s what I am, Donna, I’m a golf widow.”

            Donna – who looked vaguely familiar; probably one of Ma’s party friends – took the first woman’s hand and gave it a squeeze. Donna spoke slowly, reassuringly, albeit loudly over the tempests of warm air blowing down on them. “Siggy, forget stupid men and their stupid games. My Chet is the same way. Only with him, it’s race cars. When he’s not working, he’s off to Seekonk Speedway so often I barely remember what he looks like.”

            “Maybe we should find some new boyfriends!” Siggy said. This amused Donna, and Ma. I’m sure Ma wanted to horn in on the two women’s conversation, but for now, she contented herself to lurk and listen. “Don’t look so shocked, Donna. Everyone’s doing it. I read all about it in Cosmo. Why shouldn’t we get in on the fun?” I wondered, what kind of a name was Siggy? Give her a steel hat with horns and she could pass for an opera lady.

            Donna baited Siggy, “Who has the time? And I’d need to lose more than six pounds to land a new boyfriend. This broad’s getting too broad, if you know what I mean. Anyway, if I’m gonna horse around, I want to land a millionaire. Or Rock Hudson. Oh wait, he is a millionaire. Yes, I’ll take Rock. He’s a real man’s man!”

            Again, Siggy got herself worked up. She spurted out, “You gotta try it, baby. Come over after we’re done here. I know where Connor keeps his stash. I’ll make us watercress sandwiches.” She winked on the word watercress. My head played the Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper.” Siggy was another middle-aged woman embracing the chemical opportunities of the New Age.

            Five egg timers sat side by side on the table next to Mrs. Mobley’s TV, one for each chair in her shop. Four were ticking, one for each woman currently under a dryer. One timer stopped and then buzzed insistently, signaling Ma’s head was done to perfection. The women clammed up as Mrs. Mobley came over and turned off Ma’s hair dryer. It took forever to extract Ma’s curlers and tease her new ‘do just so. After an interminable thirty minutes of fuss and small talk, we finally left the salon and drove home.

            It was Friday and Ma had decided we’d celebrate my birthday tonight rather than waiting until next week. There was no question how I wanted to do it. Thrill rides, rigged games, and tons of sugar. In other words, Rocky Point!

             The guys got to my house right before four o’clock. We settled in with Ring Dings and Fanta Orange and watched Barnabas the vampire chasing after the severed hand of Count Petofi so he could lift the werewolf curse from Quentin. It was complicated. Afterward, we switched to Dialing for Dollars. We knew the “count and the amount,” but George Allen didn’t call us. All of Rhode Island watched while Todd Mosher of East Greenwich failed to answer his phone and missed out on fifty-five dollars! So, George added another five bucks and took us “back to Al ‘David’ Hedison and Vincent Price in the 1958 sci-fi classic The Fly.”

            At six o’clock sharp, Ma loaded all of us in the station wagon. She gave Danny five dollars and Ricci five and then made a big show of giving me ten. Together with my earnings, I had twenty-seven dollars stuffed in my wallet! We could ride all night til we barfed off the Skyliner.

            To guarantee we were full to bustin’, Ma took us to the Rocky Point - World’s Largest Shore Dinner Hall. The wordy neon sign stretched from one end of the building to the other. Inside, awning windows allowed diners to look out on the water from endless rows of long tables. These afforded an intimate dining experience, just you and a few thousand of your new friends. Ma splurged on the $1.25 dinner: Rocky Point Clam Chowder, brown bread and white bread, too, Narragansett baked clams in drawn butter, clam fritters, corn on the cob, and watermelon. We loaded up our trays and found some open places, and Ma tossed her wool coat (in July!) over the back of the chair next to her, to give her “elbow room,” she said. 

            Ricci, Danny, and I sat down across from her and went to work on the meal. We quickly ran through the paper napkins while gobbling the buttery bits with our hands, but grease and juice were no problem. We were wearing blue jeans. 

            As we inhaled the meal, a man awkwardly navigated the narrow space between rows, trying not to smack diners in the head with his tray of food. Ma made a big show of noticing the newcomer. “Richard! What a nice surprise. Please, join us. Kids, say hello to Mr. Babcock.” Danny’s Coke threatened to exit via his nose. If you have to ask why the name Richard Babcock was funny, you’ve never been a teenage boy. Fortunately, he didn’t react to our hijinks.

            Richard Babcock was a lanky man who sold winches at the local marinas. “No one goes sailing without me!” The sun had left his skin permanently tanned, giving him a smoked ham complexion. Come to think of it, Ma had dropped his name once or twice. With no encouragement from me, he attempted to start a conversation. “You’ve got a pretty wonderful mom, wouldn’t you say, Paul?”

            I said, “Yup” or something equally brilliant, and took a bite of deep-fried clams. 

            Richard Babcock and Ma chit-chatted about nothing for the ten minutes it took Danny, Ricci, and me to wolf down our dinners. Ma knew the drill. We’d head off on our own through the park and meet back at the front gate at closing time. It was the same every year. This year, she’d invited a friend of her own. I was happy for her.

            Three teenagers tore out of the Shore Dinner Hall, eyes wide and nostrils flaring with unbridled glee, feet tramping through blizzards of spilled popcorn. Three leopards sprang through a jungle of wild lights and spinning rides. Where else could shooting a balloon-capped clown right in the mouth (with water) be rewarded with a bendable rubber monster? Where else but Rocky Point could bumper cars become engines of doom, causing little kids to whiz themselves? Where else did childhood get an encore in a rainbow galaxy of blue cotton candy and ten-cent-a-thrill attractions?  

            We boarded the Space Capsule ride. The miniature rocket planes soared, lacquered in Crayola colors with metallic flecks that sparkled under the carnival lights. The joystick made you go up or down, with a trigger for firing the deadly laser. Danny ran to the red one. I took blue. Ricci wasn’t in it for the color. He chose a rocket behind us. He then screamed his threats to shoot us “out of the stars! Buh-Boom, sfigati!” After we’d blasted each other and died a bunch of times, we changed it up, pretending to be real astronauts on our way to the Sea of Tranquility.

            “Hey, Buzz! Buzz Gallagher!” 

            “Read you loud and clear, Buzz Hirsch! Over.”

            “Look out! Buzz Ricci is on your six!” We were Buzzed. It sounded better than calling each other Ed or Neil or Michael.

            Below, people wandered from one attraction to the next. Screams rose from the Trabant Tilt-a-Whirl as it threatened to fling its hapless riders to all corners of the park. As the ride settled, I glimpsed a familiar face. It was Terri from Biology Class. And she looked… good. My rocketing heart took an abrupt nosedive – she was with some guy! I had no time to wallow in self-pity, though. “Buh-Boom, Buzz Paul!” We were at war. In the stars!

            We finished up and headed out to explore the games of chance. Under the brightly lit tents, we found shelf after shelf loaded with treasure: plastic jewelry, cap guns, Topps baseball cards, and toy cars. Stuffed Tiggers split open at the slightest touch, bleeding cottony gore. No matter. They had my favorite: Giant Pixie Stix full of sugar doused to taste grape, orange, lime, or cherry. Chemical lime was disgusting, but I loved the others.

            Danny was tossing small wooden hoops, trying to win a baby turtle. Dozens of the reptiles floated in glass bowls, thrashing about, befuddled at the absurdity of life. Ricci got on Danny’s case. “You can play this game later tonight. You don’t want to win it now. What, you gonna take a turtle on all the rides?”

            “Why not?” Danny protested.

            Ricci bore down on him. “Why do you want one? It’ll die in a week. They always do.”

            “Not always.”

            “No, that’s right. Dainty ate your last one.” It was true. Danny’s dog was a turtle-slayer. Snapped up the poor thing like an Oreo. Gave the dachshund gas for days. To the good fortune of the live turtles under the tent that night, Danny sucked at this game. His hoops clanked harmlessly off the bottlenecks and fell between.

            It was time to hit our favorite ride, the Castle of Terror. Danny raced up to the line, cutting off a little girl and her father. Ricci and I caught up, apologized to the man, and joined Danny in line. Part of the two-story attraction looked like a sandcastle painted green, red, and blue. The other wing presented a medieval stronghold with crenelated parapets from which archers might unleash volleys of flaming arrows. The middle section resembled a wizard’s scary mountain lair. A few years later, they moved the iconic Viking figure from inside to its familiar spot over the entrance. That was around the time they renamed the place the House of Horrors.

            I was long past jumping at the gotcha scares inside this place, but the residual fear was enough to get my adrenaline running. I was so worked up, and the three of us were clowning around so much that, at first, I didn’t notice who was standing in line ahead of us.

            Until I heard her voice. “Derrick, are you sure this ride isn’t going to frighten me?”

            “Aw, baby, I’ll be right here to hold you in case you get scared,” her Neanderthal date replied.

            My stomach lurched. Derrick was besotted, not that I blamed him. Summertime had worked one fine whammy on Terri. She’d done something with her hair, ditched the cat glasses – for contact lenses? – and traded in her woolen skirts for a tight pair of shorts. She also wore an oversized man’s polka dot shirt with epaulets and four-button cuffs. It obviously belonged to Derrick. That made sense. Derrick looked like the epaulet and polka dot type.

             As we reached the front of the line, two painted cars rolled up, a rat and a giant bat. Derrick and Terri stepped onto the platform ahead of Danny, Ricci, and me. We three were planning to squeeze in together.

            “I don’t know, Derrick,” Terri said. “I really want to go on the Skyliner.”   

            By this point, Derrick was losing his cool. “We rode the Ferris Wheel like you wanted. I got you Cracker Jacks like you wanted. We’ve been standing in line for ten minutes. Get in the car.”

            “It’s a rat. I hate rats, Derrick. You know I hate rats.” Arms crossed under her bosom (!), she made herself as immovable as Lot’s salty wife.

            “Just do what I say,” Derrick said brusquely.

            Let me be clear: I possessed precisely zero knowledge of women. I didn’t get why Bobby Goldsboro’s music – or hair or tight pants – turned them into giggling mounds of Jell-O. I’ve never bought a gift for a woman that she didn’t return immediately. Why did they go to the bathroom in groups? No idea. But even I knew that ordering a female to do something was a fatal error.

            The attendant came over and told Derrick to either take his seat or leave the platform and make way for the next riders. Terri quietly stepped away from the rat car… and towards the one behind it, the one painted with a giant vampire bat the three of us hoped to ride in.

            “Paul!” Terri cried, all smiles and eyeliner. If someone had knocked the brain out of my skull with a Louisville Slugger, I couldn’t have looked any stupider. My mouth flapped as I tried to formulate an answer. I didn’t need to. “You don’t mind if I ride with you?” I was flattered and confused. “Okay, partner?”

            Ricci was doing a better job keeping his cool. He said, “Go ahead,” and jerked Danny away from the bat car. “We’ll meet you later.” Glowering, Derrick boarded his rat. The attendant lowered the safety bar on both cars and stepped over to the ride controls. With a hydraulic whoofsssch, we started our journey into fear together.

            Between having Derrick in the car ahead of us and Terri’s bare thigh pressing against my trembling leg, I felt like the animal in the mural next to us. The artist had captured in lurid detail a zebra’s final moments of terror as a lion pounced and sunk its claws into the animal’s striped flank. Our car slammed into two heavy metal doors, which swung open wide to reveal a macabre dungeon display. A prisoner, emaciated and covered in fresh blood, lay chained to a rack, more dead than alive. Of course, the glossy viscera were an illusion of paint and clever lighting, aided by bone-chilling screams emanating from the speakers. Terri pressed closer.

            Our intrepid vampire bat proceeded along the track, dragged by a thick chain below. We made a turn past some buxom chick in a coffin and then ascended an incline to the second floor. The ramp was long enough that we shared it with the rat. As Derrick’s head came into view, he snapped it forward to see what we were doing.

            The upper level offered more spooky scenes and some wild mirrors that saltwater taffied our faces and bodies. Crews built the original ride after WWII, and it had enjoyed many incarnations in its twenty years. Some of the characters belonged to another era. Some were awfully timeless. A gargantuan spider threatened to drop on us from its web above, which made Terri scream and throw her arms around me. I mouthed a silent “thank you” to Shelob.

            At last, the bat car returned to the first level, taking us directly into the path of a spinning buzz saw. An instant before we would have performed division the hard way, the car rounded another curve and smashed through the final double doors, back onto the main platform.          

            The rat car stood empty. Derrick was gone.

            “That was fun,” Terri gushed. “Let’s go on the Skyliner.”

            “Sure,” I said, not asking what her boyfriend might think, not thinking about him at all. All’s fair in love and amusement parks. As we walked, I bought us sodas, and we found a bench to sit on and drink them.

            I finally dared to ask, “Out of curiosity, you picked me and not, say, Dino?”

            “Dino’s a nice guy. He’s cute and all, but I’ve always liked you, Paul.” A devilish look crossed her face. “It’s your hair. Makes you look dangerous.”

            My hair, not Ricci’s luxuriant locks? My hair? Licked by a phantom cow every night, my hair had finally… somehow… amazingly won me female attention. “Beware,” I teased her, shooting my eyebrows up and down.

            Terri walked her fingertips across my chest, stopped as if to feel something, reached into my shirt, and pulled out the talisman. “What’s this?”

            “A gift. It tells my fortune.” My words sounded so lame, but Terri didn’t seem to care. She asked how it worked. I angled it just so under the flood light mounted above and told her to look inside the quartz. Since the necklace was only so long, it forced her to bring her face right next to mine. The move wasn’t planned, or maybe it was.

            She squinted one eye but frowned. “I don’t see anything in there.” I insisted she look more closely, sneaking my arm around her shoulder in the process. “Nothing.”

            “Really?” To be sure, I looked into Zira’s crystal. “Yeah, I’m getting something now.” The message came into clear focus: Kiss the girl. What, no riddle of the Sphynx? No tricky wordplay? Here was a simple command, and a damn fine one at that.

            “What does it say?”

            “Nothing. You’re right. It’s a stupid piece of costume jewelry.”

            “It looks like something a girl should wear.” Her hint was as subtle as her perfume, another recent addition. The urge to surrender it swept over me, and only my own nervousness kept me from doing just that.

            I thought I knew the score. Looking back now after a lifetime, I can honestly say I knew nothing. It all happened so fast. I was an amusement at Rocky Point, a distraction Terri used to cheer herself after a date gone sour. That’s not to say I didn’t like it. We held hands as we walked to the Skyliner. I gave the attendant my tickets, and the ski lift bench scooped up our butts. Instantly, we found ourselves gently rocking tens of feet in the air, looking down at the hair and hats below my sultan bootheels.

            The Skyliner wasn’t fast or particularly thrilling. It was a slow, straight procession over the park. It continued up, rounds an elevated stanchion, and returned the rider back to the beginning. For about two minutes before that turn and two minutes after, we were beyond the midway lights.

            I would obey Zira’s mandate. I turned to look at Terri. For a moment we said nothing at all. It was not a talky kind of situation. I leaned in and pressed my mouth on hers. I was clumsily off target and our noses mushed together, but I got the job done! She responded gently, softly. Calliope music drifted up around us. With the horned moon as witness, we tasted the soda-sweetness of each other’s lips.

            Then, something happened. With a simple gesture, Terri changed my life.

            She took my right hand and placed it there. Through the thin fabric of Derrick’s shirt, I felt what I took to be a nicely filled Maidenform Junior Miss. After careful examination, however, I determined her feminine garment included the rebar-like underwire of a Playtex 24-Hour Comfort Capri. I had studied pages 117-119 of the 1969 Sears catalog harder than I ever studied Chemistry, so I was confident in my assessment.

            Four minutes never passed so quickly nor so well.

            We returned to terra firma, wordless and breathless.

            Ricci and Danny were waiting for us at the bottom of the steps, grinning like goofballs.

            Terri said to me, “That was fun, Paul, but I should be going.” What? Was that it? Was she planning to go find Derrick? I doubted it, but the suddenness of her farewell left me unbalanced. She leaned in and traced one long nail over my chest and said, “I have an early morning. My dad is taking us to Cape Cod for the rest of the summer.”

            I had said fewer than three dozen words to Terri the whole night, and to these, all I could add were, “Uh, oh, uh, yeah. That’s fun.”

            “I’ll see you back at school in September. We can split a bucket of pigs!” She’d learned to laugh about it. That was good. Unless. Did she blame me for spilling the pickled piglets all over her? Was this whole improbable evening an elaborate form of revenge? Maybe she enjoyed my pain. If so, I should have been angry to be the mouse caught in this cat’s jaws. Maybe, but I was kinda likin’ it, too. No. This was an enchanted night. Nothing would shake me from that belief. As Terri walked down the midway, she called back, “Don’t cut your hair.”

            Ricci and Danny waited until she was out of sight before punching my arm and slapping my back. Something gross smacked against my neck. It was a watermelon seed. “Saved that for ya, from dinner,” Danny announced proudly. He’d kept the seed tucked in his cheek for hours, waiting, waiting. It was such a Gagger thing to do.


            Girls made me think too much. I lay awake picturing Terri and reliving what we’d done and how unexpectedly it had begun and how quickly it was over. The more I thought about it, the less I understood.

            And that was okay.

            Later, I had the best dream of my life.

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