(Art by spoon+fork.)
For no practical reason I laid out five rock-hard frozen patties on the grill like the die face for “five.”
The customer had wanted some of them medium and some well done, but I was going to cook them all the same and put pickles on the plates of the “well done” ones.
Howard was slowly peeling off lettuce leaves and putting them on the open buns.
“I could have gotten into Ridderman,” Howard said to his shirt collar. “I could have transferred there after I was done with Sack.” Ridderman was the four-year college next door in Monmouth County. It was private and was Whole Foods-expensive.
“Why would you want to go to Ridderman?” I asked Howard.
“I’m just saying I could’ve gotten in–I didn’t want to go. After my first year at Sack, I had a summer job at Ridderman, in the bookstore. I even went to a few classes. I didn’t register or anything, I just dropped in.
“It made me depressed. All those professors are there to train you how to get a job up in an office skyscraper, take a train there and back everyday. There was no nurturing of entrepreneurship. Colleges just train students how to be good employees. Bill Gates had to drop out of Harvard to become the richest man in the world. And he did it right where he wanted to, back in Seattle. When I have my own business, it’s going to be within walking distance to the ocean.”
I didn’t say anything because I had the opposite goal. I had the “office job” sign above my bathroom mirror. I nodded and pressed the spatula hard against the hamburgers on the grill to help them cook faster. Howard kept talking.
“Now Sean, I don’t see the entrepreneurial spirit in you. That’s fine. Being a boss isn’t for everyone, otherwise who would we hire? But let me give you some advice.
“You don’t have to work in the city or Philadelphia for a full-year job. Probably the best jobs–in terms of pay–are in automotive repair because we’re in the 50-50 zone. Everybody has to use their cars.”
The 50-50 zone ran across Monmouth, Ocean and Mercer counties. It got its name from being about 50 miles from New York and 50 miles from Philadelphia, so you got the best of both worlds. But it doesn’t really matter if you don’t have a car, like Howard and me.
“Automotive repair’s too hard. It would be more fun to work on the boardwalk,” I said. Howard shrugged.
“If you want a job at one of the stands you pretty much have to marry into the families. Those skill stands like Frog Bog and the spinning wheels are like in the third and fourth generations running them. The food and souvenir stands don’t want to hire Americans because they’re too unreliable. They hire Mexicans and Bulgarians.”
I remember buying a slice of pizza from a cute girl who looked American. I even tried to ask her out, but she pronounced words like she was from Transylvania and gave me some extra napkins. And then there was that tiny bumper sticker stand that had the Mexican guy selling the Confederate flag. I don’t think anybody explained to him that it was racist.
“Honestly, Howard,” I said, chiseling the burgers from the grill and smearing them on to the buns. “You and me, we’re the losers in this economy. We live here and we can’t get decent jobs because we don’t come from the right families.”
“Meanwhile, the dots are coming in, buying up property.”
“Looks like the Seahorse Hotel’s doing crappy, though. How could they be making money?”
“They are smarter than us, Sean. They can book losses and come out ahead with tax abatements and stuff. They’re making money, all right. Don’t doubt that.”
The burgers were done and I let Howard take them up front. These days it seemed that either I was slowing down or Howard was speeding up. Probably a little of both.
Up on the hotel roof I could see clouds far off on the horizon. The foam on the waves still looked white, but if the storm got closer the waves would turn brown with the rip tides.
Tourism was hurt in Shore Points a few years ago when a guy was swimming at night and got carried out by a rip tide. The girlfriend watched him from the beach trying furiously to swim back but he drowned. He should have swam parallel to the shore until he was out of the current before heading back to shore. Before the body was flown back to California, they put up some signs explaining how to get out of a rip tide. But that dumb tourist hadn’t even bothered to read the one that said, “Beach Closed After Dusk.”
I took in a full breath from my roach and held it. I could hold my breath a long time, more than 45 seconds the last time I counted in my head.
I exhaled and then took in another two lungs of smoke. I think I started counting. One. One one. One one one.
I lost count and brought my arm up to my face to keep an eye on my watch. After what I think was 30 seconds, I let the air out and put my arm down. Mrs. Angrywall was standing right there, frowning.
“Oh, Jesus and Mary!” I shrieked. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Angrywall! This is the first time! I swear I won’t do it again!”
She didn’t say anything but came in close to me. I moved to snuff the roach out, but she grabbed my wrist.
“Don’t,” she said. Mrs. Angrywall took the roach and turned it over in her fingers. She put it in her mouth and took a heavy drag. I expected her to choke like a girl on a cigar, but she let it out smoothly. “That’s really ace,” she said quietly.
Mrs. Angrywall pulled out the other chair and sat next to me. This was the first time I saw her feet. She was wearing fancy leather and gold open sandals. I saw silver rings on her toes. She took another drag. I was too scared to talk. She could pick up the phone and O’Keefe would run over and in a single bound jump up to the roof, both fists swinging.
“You were jailed for marijuana use, weren’t you, Sean?” she asked casually.
“You know something? Just yesterday your probation officer paid a visit to the front desk. He wanted to know if you were acting ‘funny.’”
“What did you tell him?”
“I knew you were coming up here, but I thought you were just napping. I didn’t know about all this.”
“What did you tell him?” I asked with more urgency.
“I put on my lost-foreigner routine. It’s really the best thing to do when the law comes in. I told him you seemed like a nice boy. Then I kept talking in circles until he got bored and left.”
She took another drag.
“I haven’t smoked cannabis since Harvard.”
Holy shit! Howard was right. They are really smart.
“You went to Harvard!”
“How come you’re not a professor or something?”
“Why would I be a professor?” she asked, then took an incredibly long drag on the roach. She took a seat in the plastic chair next to me. She crossed her legs and I saw a shapely groove form along her calf.
“Because you’re smart.”
“Smart people never become professors. People driven by ego do.”
“Mrs. Angrywall, are you from England?”
“I’ve never been there.”
“Then why do you talk with an English accent?”
“I had British tutors in India.” She took a last drag on the roach and flicked it into the roof drain. “My father’s very wealthy.”
“Must be nice to grow up rich. We never had money.”
“Yes, but you have riches beyond me. You’re a single white man in America. You can do anything you want. You’re not tied down or beholden to anything or anybody. You’ve been to jail for cannabis and a year later, you’re let out to fall in the same rut again. You live without consequences.”
I was a little taken aback from her classifying me as a “white man.” I was just a regular guy. She was the one who was all exotic and smart. And rich. Who did she think she was, singling me out as a “white man,” like I don’t belong here when she was the one who stuck out?
“Your family’s rich and you own this hotel,” I said. You have way more money than I’ll ever have!”
“I said that my father’s rich. My brothers are rich, too, but my mother and I are living in poverty. On top of this, I spend 12 hours a day locked like an animal in a cage behind the front desk. It’s barbaric.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know that anyone who dressed in such bright colors could be so unhappy.
After a while she asked, “Do you have another spliff?”
“I only had one.”
“Mr. O’Keefe said he would make a necklace with your entrails if he caught you. What sort of idiot would risk that for one bloody spliff!”