The Girl on the Boardwalk
by William J. Cook
I step out of my car and inhale the pungent smells of salt and seaweed. The surf pounds in my ears like the beating of my heart. My breath catches in my throat. “Lara,” I say to the wind.
I had vowed never to come back, never to poke the scar. But here I am on the Spit, that small bar of sand along the bay, where we hung out as teenagers. There were no malls back then, but we had something better—a boardwalk. Built in the 40’s by some forward-thinking city planners, the Driftwood Boardwalk rivaled its more famous cousins in southern California. It ran east to west, parallel to the shore of the bay, stopping just before it reached the heavy surf of the Pacific. On the north side were quaint little shops, filled with trinkets and treasures and the forerunners of fast foods. It was a go-to place on the Oregon coast until Friday, July 21, 1967—fifty years ago to the day.
I’m here in Driftwood on business. I have a staff of paralegals working for me, but I like to do some of my own research. Besides, anything that gets me out of the Portland office on a summer day is a good thing. The hour and a half drive to the coast was pleasant, and the Friday morning traffic was light.
I slip off my suit coat and tie and lay them on the back seat. Then I reach in for our token—the secret gift Lara and I had shared every summer. The sun is warm on the Spit. My shiny black shoes aren’t meant for beach-combing, but I don’t care. I walk by a few sunbathers lying on blankets and hear the cries of children splashing in the bay.
All that’s left of the boardwalk are a dozen support pillars, rising above the incoming tide like the rib cage of a dinosaur picked clean by scavengers. The expense of rebuilding it after the fire had been far more than the small town of Driftwood could afford, so it had been abandoned to the waves.
As I approach the mouth of the bay, where it empties into the ocean, the sounds of the crashing surf become louder. In that white noise, I hear the calliope music of the carousel and the Ferris wheel, children squealing on the tilt-a-whirl, barkers shouting to draw crowds to their attractions. The carnival that camped along the boardwalk the third week of every July has come to town.
And I remember everything…
FRIDAY, JULY 21, 1967. I couldn’t wait to show Lara my new car. I had just driven off the lot in a 1960 Ford Falcon—my Green Machine—paid for by working almost every night at Rosco’s Burger Heaven. I was king of the world.
I pulled up in front of Stan’s house at about noon. He was waiting at the front door.
“Jeez, Jimmy, you did it! Holy shit! A car! Our summer just got a whole lot better.”
Greg came running from across the street. “No way, man! You never told us you were getting a car. Damn! No chick is safe!” He ran his hand along the hood. “I’m in love! C’mon, let’s take it for a test run to Newport. Practice our cruisin’.”
Forty-five minutes later, crooning along with Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco” blasting from the radio, the new cocks-on-the-block made it back to the Spit. Our usual routine was to walk the beach and check out the babes, then head up to the boardwalk for fries and pop and continue our perambulatin‘, as Greg liked to call it. Of course, during the third week of July we walked the midway, maybe even took a ride on the Ferris wheel or the carousel, if they put the rings out. Greg snatched the gold ring yesterday and turned it in for a teddy bear, which he hoped to give to one of the girls who prowled the carnival in groups as we did.
“Nothing smells quite like the carnival, does it?” I said. The odors of sweat mingled with the aromas of french fries and fried clams, the sweet perfume of burnt sugar from the cotton candy and candy apples, the smells of grease and exhaust from the engines operating the rides.
“Picked up the new Sgt. Pepper’s last night,” Stan said. “You guys gotta come over and listen to it with me.” He frowned. “Oh, I forgot. Jimmy’s never free at night anymore.”
“Sorry, guys. It’s only for a week. It’s the only chance I get to see Lara. She has to wait till her old man falls asleep. But I can come over till about 9:30.”
“He goes to bed that early?” Stan said.
“Gets drunk and passes out every night.”
“Sounds like my kinda guy,” Greg quipped.
“She’s afraid to introduce me to him. But I’ve seen him. Works the ring-toss and the shooting-gallery on the midway. Sometimes runs the tilt-a-whirl. Looks angry all the time.”
“We’ll have to stop by and relieve him of some of his prizes,” Stan said.
“Hey, can we hit the boardwalk before I take a bite out of one of you guys? I’m starving.” I preferred our local fare to the carnival’s offerings.
They didn’t need any persuading, and in moments we were scarfing down french fries and slurping sodas.
“Hear the news?” Stan kept us up-to-date on current affairs. “Race riots in Newark? 26 people killed, 1500 injured, 1000 arrested.”
“Now why do you wanna go and spoil this beautiful summer day with downer shit like that, nerd?” All Greg cared about was getting laid this summer before he went off to college. With Vietnam getting worse, we all worried about the Draft, and getting into college seemed the best way out.
“Just sayin’. This country’s a powder keg. You wait. Lots of other cities are going up in smoke before it’s over.”
“Well, thank you, Walter Cronkite. Now shut the hell up.”
We were quiet for a long time after that. Greg finally broke the silence. “You guys are holdin’ me back. I gotta do some cruisin’ on my own.” With that he went down the stairs and back to the carnival.
Stan shook his head. “I think I’ll head home early, Jimmy. I can walk.” He looked unhappy.
“But we just got here, man. Stick around. Greg’ll be back.”
“Yeah, well, my dad wants me to finish painting the house this summer, and I got a long way to go.”
I shrugged my shoulders and waved as Stan walked away. With nothing better to do, I sat on a stool under the awning of an ice cream shop and ordered another pop. I decided to count the minutes till I could see Lara.
I had met her four years ago, the summer of my freshman year. It was the first night of the carnival, when it stayed open till midnight. I had wandered around behind the carousel, where the workers parked their trailers. On the metal stoop of an Airstream sat the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. Her blonde hair glowed silver in the moonlight, which reflected off the tracks of tears on her cheeks. The shadows turned her red lipstick black.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” she said. “This is private—carnie crew only.”
“Well, Jimmy, you’re trespassing.”
I wasn’t about to be brushed off so easily. “Why are you crying?”
I expected her to tell me it was none of my business. Instead, she sighed. “Wanna go for a walk? I don’t wanna wake him up, talking under his window.”
“My father. C’mon.”
In moments we were on the midway, then up on the boardwalk. The wind had died, and moonlight speckled the swells of the gunmetal sea.
“You must live around here,” she said.
“About half a mile down 101 and then up on the hill. How about you?”
“In the Silver Twinkie.” I’m sure she saw the confused look on my face. “The Airstream trailer. Looks like a Silver Twinkie, doesn’t it?”
“I guess it does. Never thought about it before. But where’s your house?”
“No house. Just the trailer. School?”
“Driftwood High. You?”
“Oh, I get some schooling when we winter in Florida. But I’m way behind.”
“You guys come here every July, don’t you?”
“Ever since my mom died eight years ago. The central coast is good for us. People come down from Pacific City and Netarts and Oceanside. Even Tillamook. Up from Depoe Bay, Newport, and Waldport. Sometimes Florence.”
“Where else do you go?”
“Usually bigger cities. Salt Lake City and Phoenix on the way out here. Seattle and Spokane afterwards. Then it’s mostly Florida. St. Augustine, Tampa, Orlando, Miami. But you can’t beat July on the Oregon coast.”
“You like living out of a trailer?”
We walked down the boardwalk and back. I became oblivious to the sounds of people around me, to the smells of popcorn and cotton candy. My world had shrunk to the presence of this beautiful creature at my side.
“How come I haven’t seen you before? I spent every day at the carnival last year. I would’ve remembered you.”
“Daddy usually makes me stay inside. Afraid I’ll meet some bad boy who’ll do me wrong.” She stopped and looked me up and down. “You a bad boy, Jimmy?”
I didn’t know what to say. My heart began to pound and my hands started to shake. “I-I guess I’ve dreamed about being one, but I’m not. I think my mom and dad would say I’m a pretty good kid.” I returned her gaze. “Hey! You know my name but I don’t know yours.”
“Lara.” Her voice sounded like an angel singing.
And I was head over heels. We met every night after that. By the second day, we were holding hands as we strolled the boardwalk. On the fifth day, while we stood at the end of the pier, looking at the moon and the lights of the fishing boats on the horizon, she kissed me. I staggered home, drunk on the pleasure of it.
On the evening of July 21st, the day before the carnival would pack up and leave for Seattle, Lara greeted me at the trailer with a finger to her lips. “Shh! He’s having a hard time falling asleep. I don’t want him stumbling out here and seeing you. Go to the boardwalk and wait for me.”
I left immediately. The minutes passed with agonizing slowness. I kept looking at my watch, pacing back and forth.
“Heavy date comin’?” It was a gray-haired lady standing behind the counter of Driftwood’s Best Fried Clams. Her voice sounded kind. She had my mother’s smile. “So who you waitin’ on?”
“My girl,” I blurted out.
“She must be somethin’, havin’ you all antsy like that. What ya got for her?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Girl like that needs a gift. I’m closing up shop now, so here, take one of these. My husband, bless his heart, brought me some flowers today for our anniversary. Careful of the prickles.” She handed me a single red rose.
“I-I don’t know what to say.”
“You just give her that. Don’t hafta say nothin’.”
A half hour later, Lara came running, out of breath. She threw her arms around me and buried her face against my chest. I felt her warm tears through my shirt.
“I’m going to miss you so much, Jimmy. Promise you’ll come back to see me next July?”
“Of course I will.”
She pulled away. “It isn’t fair to tell you not to see any other girls while I’m gone. But don’t forget me. Please.”
“Forget you? I love you, Lara. I don’t want to see other girls.” I drew her close and kissed her lips. “You’re my girlfriend. My only girlfriend.” I gave her the rose.
“How sweet!” She took my hand. “Walk me to the end.”
I felt my soul warring within me, joy and grief locked in combat. I was desperately in love with a girl I wouldn’t see for a whole year. And a year was forever.
Fortune smiled and gave us another glorious evening, the breeze off the sea cool on our faces, the stars whirling overhead. When we reached the end of the boardwalk, she turned to me and held up the rose. “Do you love me?” she said, as she pricked her finger on a thorn.
My eyes grew wide as I watched a small red drop stain her white skin. “Yes, I love you. You know I do.”
“Then prick your finger and mix our blood together.”
I winced as I did and wrapped my bleeding finger around hers.
“Now we have a sacred pact, sealed in blood. That thorn is all the things that try to tear us apart, the obstacles that block our path. But we’ll overcome them all. Now throw it in the water.”
I threw the flower as far as I could, and we watched it tumble into the waves. We gave our souls to the night.
I moped until school started again, too sad to enjoy being with my friends, too bored to read a book or go to a movie. Lara had punched a hole in my heart. How could I be so hopelessly in love with her after only a week? Yet why did I feel I had always known her? I couldn’t explain it to myself, let alone to my parents or my school guidance counselor. I didn’t come out of my cocoon until after Christmas, when at last I gave myself permission to enjoy things again.
At school, Christie Aaronson wanted me to take her to the Valentine’s Dance, but I pretended to be sick. I finally relented in May for the last dance of the year, but I actually felt guilty the whole time. That cured her infatuation with me. I just wanted school to be over and the carnival to come back.
My prayers were answered. Like magic, the carnival appeared full-blown on the morning of July 15th. When I went to see Lara that night, I was terrified. What if she had found another boyfriend? What if she didn’t care about me anymore? I crept up to the trailer without making a sound. I didn’t see her on the stoop, and my heart sank. I waited for several minutes. Then I heard shouting from inside. Her father’s voice, drunk.
“You can get some fresh air, but stay close by. And don’t you let any boys come sniffing around. You know all they want is to get in your pants.”
Lara came running out. Even in the moonlit darkness, I could see her eyes were puffy from crying. She grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the midway.
“He’s getting worse. I’m so afraid of him.”
“Does he ever hit you?”
She turned away and didn’t answer. Several minutes passed. “I need to be on the boardwalk with you.”
We never talked about her father again. Instead, we treasured every moment, if only sharing a burger and a soda, nibbling a candy apple, or splitting an ice cream sundae. Each night we strolled the boardwalk hand in hand, watching the water and the moon. “You come in like the fog off the ocean, and you disappear just as mysteriously.”
“So you’re a poet now?”
“You make me want to write poems and sing songs and dance like a madman.” I took a deep breath and plunged ahead. “And be with you for more than just a week every summer.”
I’m not sure what I saw in her eyes. She took my face in her hands and kissed my mouth. “Take me back to the Twinkie now.”
And almost before it began, the week ended. We repeated the ritual of the rose on our last night and I was bereft again.
But this time we had the experience of weathering a whole year without each other and had proof we could do it. I threw myself into my studies and spent the weekends with Stan and Greg. In the blink of an eye, it was July again, and the carnival returned.
The summer of my junior year, we became more intimate. We would hide in the shadows behind the Ferris wheel and let our fingers and our lips explore our bodies. It was always gentle and loving. Though we both felt the hunger—the desire that grew in us—we never went all the way. Without saying it, we both knew we were saving ourselves for marriage. The bloody rose sealed our love once more.
When the carnival returned during the July after my graduation, something was different. This was the summer of decisions. Would I go off to college? Would Lara? If so, would we see each other next year? Lara had changed, too. Though she had always been beautiful, she was radiant now, her cheeks rosy and full, her curves more obvious even in the baggy clothes she wore. And how I wanted to show her my new car!
The hours dragged by. I made small talk with little children who came to the shop for ice cream and cold drinks. By five o’clock, the marine layer had moved in from the ocean, blotting out the sun and dropping the temperature almost ten degrees.
“Rain before long.” It was the shopkeeper, a twenty-something guy with long black hair pulled back into a ponytail. “You’ve been sitting here all day, man. You’ll wear that stool out. What’s up?”
“Waiting to see my girl.” I looked at my watch. “Another few hours if you don’t mind me taking up space.”
“I don’t mind, man, but she must be some hot chick. Here, have an ice cream cone. On the house. Gotta support the true romantic.”
As nine-thirty approached, I got up and stretched and walked to the Silver Twinkie. The hours alone with my thoughts had convinced me. I would buy a ring and ask Lara to marry me.
I found Lara weeping on the metal steps of the trailer. She got up and ran to me, hugging me with an embrace that took my breath away.
“I’m here, honey. Everything is OK.”
“No, it’s not.” She took my hand and walked toward the pier.
“I’ve got something to show you first. It’s in the parking lot.” I didn’t answer the quizzical look in her eyes, but pulled her in the other direction.
“Ta da!” I said, introducing her to the Green Machine with a sweeping motion of my arm.
“You own a car?” Her eyes went round with disbelief.
“Bought it myself today. Here, hop in and check it out.” I opened the door for her and she scooted into the passenger seat. “The radio works. And the heater. Supposed to be pretty good on gas, too.”
She stroked the dashboard as if assuring herself of its reality. Then she turned to me with a look in her eyes I had never seen before. “Let’s run away together.” I heard desperation in her voice.
“Let’s just go. Somewhere far, far away, where nobody knows us, and we can start a new life together. You’ve graduated high school. You can find a job anywhere.” She became thoughtful for a moment. “And if you’re worried about the Draft, we could go to Canada.”
She had caught me completely off guard. She saw and heard my hesitation.
“I’m sorry. That wasn’t fair. Your parents are here. Your friends. I have no right to ask you to do something like that.” She leaped out of the car. “Let’s go to the boardwalk.”
I didn’t know what to say. We walked to the wharf. I couldn’t hear the sounds of the crowd, the cries of children on the Ferris wheel and tilt-a-whirl. My vision went in and out of focus. At the end of the pier, the wind was strong, whipping her hair across her face. The sky was starless.
Lara took both my hands and pulled me close. Her eyes brimmed with emotions I couldn’t decipher. “I’m pregnant.”
I rocked back on my feet as if she had slapped me across the face. What she said didn’t make sense. How could that be possible? Confusion and shock became anger. “You didn’t tell me you had another boyfriend.” My pulse pounded in my ears. My breathing came in tortured gasps. I felt dizzy and out of control.
“I don’t have another boyfriend.”
I let go of her hands and slammed my palms into either side of my head. “Of course you have a boyfriend!” I pointed an accusing finger at her belly. Then came words I would regret for the rest of my life. “You’re nothing but a slut!” I shrieked. “How can I compete with boyfriends in Phoenix and Seattle and Miami? I’m such a fucking idiot for believing you loved me!”
I can’t remember what else I said, but ugly words spewed from my mouth, vile and unclean, slashing at her like knife blades. I watched her face crumple in despair, her eyes drain of all hope. I turned and ran, stumbling on the rough wood of the pier, regaining my feet without looking back.
When I reached the parking lot, I jumped into my car and started the engine. Before I put it into gear, I pounded my fists on the steering wheel until the pain stopped me. But that hurt couldn’t match the agony in my heart. I raced toward home as fast as the little car would go. Without saying a word to my parents, who sat in the glow of the television in the den, I ran upstairs to my bedroom.
I was awakened at midnight by the wail of fire engines speeding down 101. I looked out the front window and saw the whole of the western sky aflame, billowing clouds of black smoke silhouetted in the crimson glow. I threw on my clothes and ran to the door.
I drove as close as I could get to the fire. Police cars had cordoned off four blocks to keep the gathering crowd of spectators safe. I left my car and hurried to the barrier, where a grim-faced policeman cautioned me back.
The whole carnival and boardwalk were ablaze, flames raging above the Ferris wheel, engulfing the carousel and shops, a storm of hot ash and sparks streaming across 101. Firemen were hosing down the roofs of nearby buildings to prevent the holocaust from spreading. It had not rained during the night, but the wind had risen to gale-force gusts, creating a blast furnace that consumed everything in its reach. The roar was deafening; the heat, scorching even at this distance.
“Lara!” I cried to the inferno.
I stood there for hours, until the wind diminished and the day dawned weakly through an amber haze of smoke. Engines from as far away as Salem and Cannon Beach had come to the aid of the Driftwood firefighters, and with the dying of the wind, they finally gained control and containment. By noon the hoses were quenching the last of the smoldering hotspots. Exhausted, I staggered back to my car and drove home.
The evening news said the fire was “of suspicious origin.” Police said it had burned so hot it was difficult to identify the bodies and even to determine how many had died. It could be weeks before they finished their investigations. The carnival and the boardwalk were total losses, every trailer reduced to ash. I wanted to believe that Lara had escaped, perhaps made it to shelter in Seattle, where she could have her baby and live in peace away from her father.
By the next summer, my therapist said I was doing well enough to be weaned off my medication. I was eating and sleeping better, and it had been a month since my last nightmare. I still wept whenever I remembered my last conversation with Lara. I sought absolution from the priest at our church, but my guilt was resilient.
My adolescent brain hadn’t believed Lara. She didn’t have another boyfriend, just as she had said. So I devoted myself to school—first college, then graduate study. When I got my J.D., I knew exactly what kind of law I wanted to practice. It was the least I could do.
So here I am on the Spit, on the 50th anniversary of the worst day of my life. I have a long history as a district attorney, prosecuting child molesters. And I’m good at it. The judges like me because my cases are so air-tight, and the defense attorneys cringe when they see who they’re going up against in the courtroom.
I walk to the end of the bay and face the booming Pacific surf. A wedge of brown pelicans flies low over the water, and two seagulls argue over a dead crab on the beach. With a slow and deliberate motion, I raise the rose I hold in my right hand, prick my finger on a thorn, and hurl it into the waves.