I’m sure anyone who grew up going to Seaside Heights and the Jersey shore is devastated by Hurricane Sandy’s destruction. I fished out this old manuscript that I typed way back when on a Brother processor. (So excuse the naivete in this story. It was written by a much younger girl than I.) The formatting may be a little weird. This story is about a teenaged girl being forced to hang out with her extended family on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights. She has better things to do than take her little cousins on kiddie rides and eat fattening sausage sandwiches. Or does she? As this story is autobiographical, it brings a tear to my eye to remember those trips to the Jersey shore when my grandma was alive.
As everything in an Italian family’s life, this story begins and ends with food. So enjoy my New Jersey nostalgia, and I hope it brings back memories for you.
ON THE BOARDWALK, short fiction by Dina Di Maio
Grandma wants a sausage sandwich too, so Dad gets two of them. Momma doesn’t want one because she is afraid it will upset her stomach, and she doesn’t want to have to go to the bathroom on the boardwalk.
Momma, Grandma, and Aunt Gemma sit on a bench that faces the ocean. Uncle Sally is standing by the fence. He turns around and yells to my dad, “Hey, Frank, get me one too.”
My dad looks over and nods. I walk over to him to help him carry the sandwiches. As I take Grandma’s sandwich, I watch the guy behind the counter flip the sausage onto the bread and scoop the onions and peppers on top. I think that has got to have 100 grams of fat. Only my family would eat it. He puts it in a plate, folding it slightly, and hands it to Dad. We walk back together and I give Grandma her sandwich.
“Oh, thank you. Look how big this sandwich,”she says, opening her eyes wide. “You want some?”
I frown and say, “No, I don’t like sausage.”
She says, “No, you don’t eat anything with fat. I forgot. How am I gonna eat this?” She lifts it up to eat and a piece of pepper falls in her lap. “Oh,”she says.
Aunt Gemma picks it up with a napkin. “Here’s some napkins, Ma. Just eat. We’re gonna sit here anyway,” she says.
Well, this is another fun trip to the boardwalk with my family. I wanted to go out with my friend Julie this weekend. She won two tickets to a laser show off the radio. It was really nice of her to invite me, I think. My mother thought so, too, but she’s been planning this family boardwalk trip for ages and wouldn’t let me go.
It’s not like I’m having any fun either. We can only move an inch an hour because Grandma can’t walk. We have to stop ten times for bathroom trips, Grandma’s, Momma’s, or Aunt Gemma’s.
Aunt Gemma picks up the straps of her pocketbook and announces, “We better walk over to the carousel when you finish. I told Amelia we’d meet her there at seven.” My mother says OK.
Oh, great. I can’t wait for Aunt Amelia to get here. Then we’ll have the two kids, and we’ll have to wait around while they go on kiddie rides. Sure this beats a laser show at the planetarium any day.
I’m bored, so I take out my camera. I take a Kodak moment of my dad’s mouth open wide to bite his sandwich. He doesn’t get mad. Dad’s pretty easygoing. I remember once when I was little, I took a wooden spoon and tapped it on his head repeatedly. He just sat there. Then he said, “OK, that’s enough for today.”
My cousin Terry wants to play the claw machines in the arcade across the boardwalk, so she asks Uncle Sally for some quarters. He reaches in his pocket and gives her a five-dollar bill to use in the change machine. She waves for me to go with her, so I do. I never really liked claw machines. I might’ve won something from them once; I don’t remember. But Terry is addicted. She becomes a gambling nut like those guys you see who bet on horses or go to Atlantic City. She sees a machine with stuffed toys with plastic heads that look like fruit. “These are weird,” she says. “I want one.” So she deposits fifty cents and presses the button to position the claw over the fruit’s head. She pushes the button to let the claw come down. It does, opens on the head, pulls it up slightly, and drops it.
I can see the excited glow in her eyes because it moved a little. She’s ready to try again. This time, it lifts it up, and the fruit travels but falls before it reaches the hole. So she tries again and again. Finally, the claw grabs onto it, lifts it up, and drops it into the hole. She’s excited. “Isn’t it cute?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say. “Well, let’s go show them what we got.”
“Don’t you want to try?” she asks me, holding that stupid fruit.
“No, not really,” I say. “I’m not twelve.”
She shrugs and walks back, holding up the fruit-head man for everyone to see.
“Oh, you won that, honey,” Aunt Gemma says. “Yea! What is it?”
“It’s some stupid fruit thing,” I say.
Aunt Gemma shoots me a look. “It’s not stupid. It’s cute. Come here. Let me see it, Terry,” she says, taking the fruit-head man from her daughter.
“Good, Terry,” Grandma says.
“What’s that smell?” Momma asks. “It’s corn.”
“Yeah,” Aunt Gemma says. “Doesn’t it smell good?”
“Mm,” says Momma. Lifting up her pocketbook, she says, “Well, let’s walk now,” and gets up .
So everyone gets up and Terry says, “Take a group picture, Diane. ”
Oh, that’s all I need, a picture to remember this wonderful day forever.
They turn around to face me, backs toward the ocean, and when they get together, I say, “Smile,” and snap the picture.
Then Uncle Sally says, “Here. You wanna be in the picture? I’II take it.” Oh, great. Proof that I was actually here. I frown and nod. Uncle Sally takes the camera. He looks through the lens and says, “How do you do this? Just press the button?”
I want to say, “If you didn’t know how to do it, then why did you offer?” But, instead, I say, “Yeah, press the button.”
He takes the picture.
We start walking, and Terry and I get ahead of everyone else. Dad and Uncle Sally are behind us, but Momma, Aunt Gemma, and Grandma are way in the back.
When we get to the building that houses the carousel, we look for a bench for Grandma to sit on. We find one behind a stand that sells sea shells.
“Here’s a place for Grandma to sit,” I say when they reach us.
“Oh, good, let’s sit. My leg. I can’t walk too much,” Grandma says and makes a half and half gesture with her hand.
“OK, Ma, sit,” my mother says.
They sit together on the bench. Aunt Gemma sits too.
Terry wants to walk around and play the machines, so Uncle Sally goes with her. Dad stands up next to Momma because there is no room for him to sit.
I am not standing here like an idiot waiting for Aunt Amelia to come. So I decide to walk off by myself. I start at the sea shell stand. They sell all kinds of shells. I like the ones that are painted glossy purple. I debate about buying one and decide not to. What will I do with it? Some of the shells have scenes painted on them like the ocean or fish. They’re very pretty. I think they’re neat if you’re a kid and you want a cheap souvenir or if you collect them. The big shells are expensive. Next to the shell stand is a candy stand with all kinds of chocolates and odd candies. I don’t see raspberry jells, so I can’t get them. They’re my favorite. I’d always eat the raspberry jells out of the Whitman’s Sampler before my dad could get it; I was really pissed off when they discontinued it.
As I keep walking, I see a little machine that says “Turn your penny into a souvenir,” so I do. I put in a penny and two quarters and watch as the penny gets magically flattened. Ooh. When it drops out, it is a flat oval with a carousel horse on it that says Seaside Heights, New Jersey. I unzip my change purse and drop it in.
I look up and I can see Terry and Uncle Sally across the way at a game. He’s trying to win a New York Yankees hat. “No luck?” I say when I reach them. Uncle Sally turns around. “No.”
Terry says, “We had it on the four. A white four came out. We had it on the blue one.”
“Oh,” I say. “I hate that. Try it again.”
So he puts a dollar down on the blue “Sis” and presses the button to start the wheel. It turns and turns and Terry presses the button to stop it. As it slows down, Terry is saying, “Come on, come on, land on Sis.”
Give me a break. You could buy a Yankees hat for less than you spend trying to win one.
It starts to slow down by the white “Pop” and gets slower and slower and finally stops on the blue “Sis. ”
“Yea!” Terry says .
“AII right. You see that?” Uncle Sally says.
He tells the man behind the counter that he wants a Yankees hat. The man gets it, holds it up and says, “We got another winner. Another happy winner. ”
Uncle Sally puts the hat on his head. “How’s it look?”
“Good,” I say.
He takes it off, looks at it, and smiles. “It’s a nice hat,” he says. He puts it back on his head.
“Can we go back now?” Terry asks. She wants to play claw machines.
I follow them back into the arcade and quickly lose interest. So I walk around and look at myself in the funny mirrors. I take my camera out and take a picture of myself in the mirror. I can show Julie what fun I had. In one, my head and torso look super-elongated and my legs and feet look small and short. Another mirror makes me look like a dwarf. And I think if I were a dwarf how this mirror would hurt my feelings. But I guess these mirrors are really old. They’ve been here before political correctness.
There’s a stand near the sea shell stand that sells jewelry. I look at the necklaces with the ancient runes on them. Each symbol means something. I want the necklace that represents confidence. I search for it through the dangling black leather chains, but they are out of it. Of course they wouldn’t have the only one I want. This day gets better and better.
I walk back over to the bench where I left everyone and hear Dad say, “Well, how long are we gonna wait over here? Let’s start walking a little. We’ll meet up with them.” Momma agrees. Grandma does too. Aunt Gemma says she doesn’t know.
Sally and Terry come over and they show us the Dr. Seuss hat and little Mr. Magoo doll they won.
“Look at this hat, Frank,” Uncle Sally says to Dad. “Hey, you got the Yankees, ” Dad says.
“Yeah, in two tries,” Uncle Sally says. “Get outta here,” my dad says.
Momma stands up and says, “We’re gonna start walking.” Just as everybody gets up and heads for the boardwalk, Aunt Amelia and the kids come in. She scoots over to us with one kid on each side of her.
“Hello everybody,” she yells to get our attention. “We’re lucky we found yas. I said to the kids they prolly left us. ”
“Well, we were just starting to leave,” Aunt Gemma says. “Yeah, Carl wanted to try some of the games, so we did that a little as we were walking,” Aunt Amelia says. Carl shows Terry the baseball hat he won. “My dad won a hat, too,” Terry says.
“And I got a necklace, ” says Anna. She spreads her fingers on either side of the necklace to display it.
“Oh, that’s pretty, Anna,” I say. “You gonna go on some rides?” I ask her.
“Yeah, Carl and I always go on the rides,” she says, lifting her head up high without looking at me.
“Yeah, good for you,” I think.
Momma and Aunt Gemma each grab one of Grandma’s arms and help her walk.
Aunt Amelia says, “I think they’re gonna show fireworks. That’s what all the people are doing.”
People are starting to huddle together, so Aunt Amelia looks for a bench for Grandma. “Here, Ma, sit here,” she says, pointing to an empty bench that faces the ocean.
Grandma, Momma, and Aunt Gemma sit on the bench. Aunt Amelia and her kids stand in front of them near the fence.
Dad, me, Terry, and Uncle Sally stand behind the bench. Dad hits my arm. He says, “Let’s go take a chance on that car.” I say OK and he tells Momma where we’re going.
He hands the old lady in the stand a five-dollar bill for the both of us and we both fill out a ticket.
“I hope I win it,” I tell him. “I’d love to drive to school in that thing.”
“Yeah. You’d keep it? You wouldn’t sell it?” he asks.
“No, I wouldn’t sell it,”I tell him.
I ask, “Did you ever know anybody who won one?”
He nods. “Your mother’s cousin or something,” he says.
“Really? She won a car off the boardwalk?” I ask.
“No, she won one at some church raffle.”
“Then you lied. She didn’t win off the boardwalk.”
“Well, she won a car. ”
“Yeah, but that’s not what I asked you. I asked you if she won one on the boardwalk and you said yes.”
“What’s the difference where she won it? She won it,” my dad says, waving his arms.
“Yeah, yeah,” I say.
When we get back, Grandma is talking about how nice the weather is and Aunt Gemma is telling Uncle Sally about getting bitten by a sand fly.
“All right, start the show already here,” Aunt Gemma says. She looks at me. “I’m glad to sit. The corn on my toe hurts. Don’t get old like your Aunt Gemma,” she says to me.
“I know. What’s taking so long? They are having them, aren’t they?” Aunt Amelia says.
I take out my camera and take a few candid shots of everyone. If I can get them in some dumb poses, maybe this trip will be useful after all. The kids smile and pose together. Aunt Gemma and Uncle Sally fake smile. Grandma sits with her pocketbook in her lap and her hands crossed over it. She smiles straight ahead, waves her hands, and says, “Yes, take the picture.”
A little boom and a fizzle. The fireworks have started. They start off slow making green, orange, and purple flowers in the sky. Then a huge kaboom. “All right!” says Dad. “I love the bombs.”
Grandma covers her ears. Soon a myriad of color and booms ends the show and I take a few pictures of it.
“There’s your laser show,” my mother says to me. I frown at her.
Then, Aunt Gemma stands up. “Yeah, well, you’ll see some more bombs if I don’t get to the turlet.” She looks at me and crosses her eyes. “I know what you’re saying. ‘What’s wrong with crazy Aunt Gemma?’” Then she turns to her husband, “Sal, let’s go to the bathroom.”
“I gotta go? You go,” he says.
“Why can’t you go?” Aunt Gemma asks.
“I don’t have to. Go with your daughter,” he says.
“Oh, go with your ass,” Aunt Gemma says.
They tell my mother they’re going to the bathroom. Terry goes with them.
“All right, we’ll meet up with yas over by the rides,” Momma says.
So Momma tells Grandma to get up, and we start walking slowly over to the pier with the rides.
When we get there, Dad buys a book of tickets. Carl wants to go on the ride that looks like a ship and goes all the way up in the air and upside-down. He goes on alone. I think he’s a brave little kid because I wouldn’t go on that ride now.
Dad and I sit on a bench. Momma, Grandma, Aunt Amelia, and Anna stand in front of the ride waiting for Carl.
By this time, Aunt Gemma, Uncle Sally, and Terry come back. “Everything come out OK, Gemma?” Dad jokes.
“Yes, Frankie darling. Everything’s OK now, ” she says .
The four of us walk over to the rest of the party in front of the ride. When Carl gets off the ride, we start walking again. We stop near the bumper cars to see what everyone wants to do. Rock and roll music is playing really loud. Dad grabs Aunt Gemma’s arm and they start to dance. Terry bursts out laughing, but I’m too embarrassed to laugh. Why do I have to be here with these people?
A few people stop to look. Dad twirls Aunt Gemma around and says to an old man standing by, “Here you go.” The old man waves his hand and says, “No, I was just watching.” Everybody laughs, except me.
Grandma says, “All this noise,” and covers her ears.
Aunt Gemma asks, “What’s a matter, Ma?”
Grandma waves her arm in front of her. “The noise, the noise, ” she yells .
So Aunt Gemma says to Momma, “Well, listen. Why don’t you walk around with Amelia and the kids and Sal and I’ll take Ma to play some wheels.”
Momma strains to hear her over the music. “What?” she asks.
“Sal and I’ll take Ma and yous go on the rides,” Aunt Gemma yells.
Momma nods. They plan to meet at the end of the pier.
Anna asks me, “You wanna go in the Haunted House?”
I knew it was just a matter of time before I became baby-sitter. I say yeah. “Carl, you and Terry go on, OK? With us,”I say.
I get the tickets from Dad for the four of us, and we go on line for the ride. The ride is two people to a car, so Anna and I go first.
The car moves slowly into total darkness, and every few minutes, the lights come up to show a disgusting scene. Anna is quiet and so am I. Then a flash of light shines behind us, a rat drops in my face, a man yells behind us, and I scream and Anna screams. I look over at her and she laughs. She’s having fun, I think. So I laugh too.
“That was so stupid, ” I say when we get out. “Were you scared?” Anna nods. “Well, that guy with the rat scared me,” I say.
We’re all standing around. Aunt Amelia asks her kids, “What do yas want to do?”
Carl wants to go on the Himalaya, so his mother takes him. We sit on a bench next to the ride and wait for them to get off.
“I remember when they first got that ride,” my mother says.
“Here?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says.
I really want to hear about the origins of Seaside Heights’ Himalaya. “When was it?” I ask to appease her.
“In the 1960s,” she says. “1967.”
“Let’s go on the Tilt a Whirl,” I say. Tilt a Whirl is my favorite ride. So Terry, Anna, and I go on the Tilt a Whirl. Anna’s little, so she sits in between us. The ride starts going around slowly, but it doesn’t take long for us to get caught in a big spin. Just when it stops, another starts. Our necks are stiff up against the back until the spin is over. Then we lean forward and laugh hysterically. When the ride stops, I steady myself for a minute before I walk off. I always get so dizzy on this ride, but I love it.
Momma and Dad are waiting for us when we get off. Carl and Aunt Amelia come by.
“Where did yas go?” she says. “We were looking for yas.”
“The kids wanted to go on the Tilt a Whirl,” Momma says.
“Oh, how was it, Anna?” Aunt Amelia asks her.
“I got dizzy,” Anna says.
We continue walking and the kids want to go in the Fun House. I remember going in it myself. I hated it. First, you have to climb these stairs that keep moving up and down. At the end, you have to walk through the moving barrel. I couldn’t get through the barrel and I remember they let me out another way.
I’m surprised Anna and Carl want to go on it. When they come out at the end, Anna falls in the barrel. My dad reaches in, grabs her arm, and pulls her out.
As we walk back onto the boardwalk, I see Aunt Gemma in a little alcove of claw machines.
“Look, there’s Aunt Gemma,” I tell everyone.
“Let’s go see what they’re doing,” my mother says .
Grandma wants a Mr. Magoo for my uncle Joe who lives in Ohio. I see her approach the boy with a ten-dollar bill and ask him for change. He gives it to her, and she shuffles back to the claw machine. She puts in two quarters and doesn’t win. My dad goes over to another claw machine with Mr. Magoos and tries his luck. Momma and I watch him. Aunt Gemma and Uncle Sally are near one machine trying to win a stuffed eagle for Terry. Aunt Amelia and the kids are trying to win baby monkeys for Anna. Dad drops in the quarters. He pushes the button for the claw to drop; it grabs a hold of Mr. Magoo’s pink flowered robe and lifts him up. I run over to Grandma with Mr. Magoo.
“Look what Daddy won for you,” I say.
“Oh, thank you,” she says, smiling.
Dad continues playing with Momma beside him.
Looking around, I see a hand analysis machine. I don’t believe in all that horoscope and psychic stuff, but I put in the fifty cents and put my hand over the lighted spot. I press my zodiac sign and wait for the ticket to come out with my analysis. It says that I’m an ambitious person and that I possess an air of royalty. I like that.
There’s a pizza stand and I suddenly get an urge for a slice of white pizza. So I walk across without telling anyone, pull out a stool, and sit down. I look at the pizza with gobs of cold, white cheese. It doesn’t look appetizing, but I’m hungry.
“Slice of white pizza and a diet Coke,” I tell the girl behind the counter.
“Four fifty,” she says.
I hand her five dollars and she gives me the change. She takes the pizza off the tray and slides it into the oven. As I wait for it, I glance over at my family. Looks like Dad won another Magoo; Momma’s holding it. But poor Uncle Sally still hasn’t won Terry an eagle. Anna and Carl have one baby monkey. They need to win something else to make it even.
“Here you go,” the girl says and hands me my pizza on a paper plate.
“Oh, thanks,” I say and smile at her. I grab a few napkins and take a bite. Greasy, cheesy, and fattening, just how I like it.
As I finish the last bites of my pizza, I see my family is walking out of the claw machine alcove. They’re looking around for me. My dad’s head turns from side to side and then he sees me. He waves for me to come. The family starts walking, but he waits as I get off the stool.
“Look, I won another Magoo and this dog,” he says.
“Mmm,” I say, smiling.
He smiles at me and nods at the pizza. “Is it good?”
“Yeah,” I say, breaking off a strand of cheese with my teeth. “It’s really good.”