In a front yard in Lakeview, a boy runs full speed with a yellow plastic bucket in his hand, dips it in the water, whirls and lets loose, just in time to catch his brother full across the chest with a resounding smack. Both scream, dive after more water, take off. Standing silently on the walk nearby, a slender, pretty red-haired girl watches. When the boys are at the far end of the small lawn, she walks briskly over to the pool, picks up the one spare bucket, fills it, and waits. They skirt her carefully on their way back to getting more bucketfuls to dump on each other, but with a slightly awkward, petite fling, she spills some of her bucket onto one of the boys’ legs. He stops in place and stares. Then he’s off in an instant, after his brother, for one more splash. Five minutes later, when his brother’s gone upstairs, he’s splashing, carefully, with her.
This year, the yard is enough for them. In a year, two, three at most, they’ll need more. For the boys’ father, it’s way too small. He sits in a chair watching. The girl’s mother is in another nearby, reading a book. He watches her and the occasional passersby, smells the first barbecue smoke of the afternoon, hears the muted thump of rock ‘n’ roll in the distance. It’s not quite summer yet, but it’s coming on fast. The beaches have opened again, and going is the closest thing to vacation, to pure escape there can be in the city. If it’s not quite nature, it’s the best imitation in town–a place where skin, sand, water combine to make you believe anything can happen. Tomorrow he’ll go.
The edge where the concrete meets the sand is some dream of Hieronymus Bosch, as if one or two of the high rises behind had tipped and spilled their nearly naked population into 30 yards of sun. Standing on the concrete about 20 yards north of the sand, the zone where the flesh is densest, a woman in her 20s has oiled her skin to deep bronze. It glistens, shines, a kind of dark mirror as she rubs on more oil, setting off her neon peach bikini, the bottom fashionably cut away to reveal an inch or two crescent of skin on her inner thigh. Behind her toward the water, three, four, more men of the dozens there gawk at her. One comes around from the side carrying a camera and takes a picture of her behind.
She’s wearing a thong, its waist a ruffled peach spandex band, only a cord behind, and her completely exposed rear is as bronze as the rest of her body. She’s had the suit all season or longer, maybe she’s spent some hours at a tanning parlor; she’s used to being looked at. A tattoo of what looks to be a dolphin or some other long thin beast crawls partway out of the left cup of her top. A shark tattoo swims down the back of the same shoulder. Her fingernails are long and curved, painted red, her toenails the same color. She’s solid and strong, broad shoulders. Impossible not to notice the gleaming color, the smooth skin, ripples of muscle and flesh.
“Nice suit,” one of two junior-high boys says as he walks by.
“Thanks.” She smiles sweetly, as if she were sister, cousin, aunt, something that just doesn’t go with the body, the swimsuit, the day. She’s used to comments, even expects them.
On the ledge behind the walk, an unbroken line of men sit and watch, a few grinning as they stare obviously, another digging a friendly elbow at the one next to him.
The man with her, also in his early 20s, looks athletic, tan, though nothing as dark as her. Around his neck is a gold chain with the Hebrew letter chai, meaning “life.” Clearly he feels it today. This isn’t the girl he’ll marry, not even his girlfriend, at least not for long–a date to show off, enjoy an afternoon with, then maybe an evening, maybe a little more. But she’ll be plenty to talk about later, and right now more than enough. Still, he’s already a little bored. Part of his look might be practiced pose, but part is genuine.
She’s standing a little higher than he is, and she bends down to watch her face in his sunglasses as she rubs the oil on her skin. The pose seems perfect–the woman’s complete absorption in her reflection, which the man provides. He says something to her, he’s polite, then walks north a few yards by himself, leaving her to finish oiling herself. She looks intently at the crowd and the watching eyes as he goes over to a blanket where two other couples are sitting. He crouches down to talk, and she picks up black pants and a towel and again looks at the crowd toward the water, as if trying to find someone. Then she walks over to a water fountain to take a drink. Five people behind her stare as she bends.
When she comes back her date is throwing a football with one of the guys he was talking to. This one’s taller, also athletic and muscular, thick dark hair curled down the back of his neck, which wears two gold chains. The girl with him catches the ball gracefully. Petite, a foot shorter than he is, and very pretty, she’s wearing a white T-shirt over her bathing suit. Both of them are also well tanned already, though nothing like the woman in the thong. The small woman steps back and launches a perfect spiral ten yards through the crowd to the first guy, who tosses it back. The three of them trade two or three more tosses, listlessly it seems, the woman in the thong standing near her date.
Despite her build, she’s not athletic, and she’s not interested in the ball. Her mouth turns slightly down in a frown. Past two, the best sun is over now, she wants to go home. Her date isn’t so eager, but then on second thought, maybe it’s just as well. Another toss, and then they walk slowly over to pick up their towel and small pack. The two men talk for a moment–they’re good friends. The woman in the thong waves a perfunctory good-bye, and they go, heads turning to follow. Maybe they’ll see her again. Maybe not.
Near the water by the south end of the beach it’s less crowded. A woman lies on her stomach, head at the foot of a magenta, aqua, gold, and white striped lawn chair. She’s propped on one elbow, her black one-piece suit loosened to open her back to the sun. The man next to her sits in another lawn chair, facing the city and the afternoon sun, the other way from her.
A book is closed on the chair seat in front of the woman, and she’s talking on a portable phone. They live, then, in one of the high rises looking down on the beach. Married, 30-ish, no children, good jobs downtown, taking a day off together. Tonight they’ll have dinner at one of the restaurants they like in the neighborhood, maybe come home and watch a video. It’s a long weekend. Tomorrow night they’ll go out again. But right now, her face shows, she’s doing business, and when she speaks her tone makes it clear.
She puts the phone down and turns to speak to her husband. He listens, not looking at her but at the buildings across the Drive, fingering his mustache with thumb and forefinger of his right hand. Then drops the hand to extend a finger and punch it on his knee as he looks down at her and makes his point: This is the way to do it. They’re not going to get away with anything. It’s going to happen the way we say.
He goes back to twisting his mustache. She picks up the thick book and opens it. Another minute and he asks, does she want to go in once more before they call it a day?
Of course. She pulls her straps back on, and they both stand up, walk the few steps to the water, and go in up to their waists, leaving phone, book, chairs, towels. The book’s a hardback from the public library, open facedown on the chair. It’s called Everything and More.
Right on the edge of the sand, next to the concrete, three men in their 30s sit on towels drinking beer. They’ve been at it a while. They’re talking–yelling almost–at two women on a towel three feet away on the concrete. The men are big, a good deal bigger than the two men sitting with the women, and the drinkers are getting more explicit in their sexual suggestions and insults, laughing at their own remarks.
One of the women gets up and walks toward the sidewalk. The three men go down to the water. In a couple of minutes the woman comes back with a cop in regulation dress. The cop goes down to where the three guys have come out of the water. Two of them go back, pick up their towels, and leave. The other is talking loud, shouting he’s not going to leave, he knows Daley, who does the cop think he is?
In an instant, the man’s facedown on the sand, arms crossed behind him, under the cop’s knee. A loud cheer rises from the crowd that’s turned to watch. His face is half coated with sand as he turns it aside to keep yelling at the cop. The cop’s grinning, holding him down easily, and now 30 people are standing in a semicircle around the two of them.
What happened? someone asks a man sitting on the ledge. The man doesn’t know, he wasn’t watching. Someone else tells them three drunks were hassling those two girls.
Yeah, but the cop doesn’t have to be that rough on ’em, another man says. He’s not being rough, another says. You know what he could be doing.
Let him up, let him up, two voices behind begin chanting, not loudly, but enough to hear. Two more pick up the chant, a few laughs are audible, then a few more chant two or three repetitions between audible laughs before they all let it drop.
Put something under his face, someone else says. A man comes with a white towel, slips it under the drunk man’s sand-caked face.
Wha’d he do? someone else asks.
The crowd has grown to 50 or more, and every other head in the neighborhood is turned to watch. It’s the show there’s no ticket for, the unexpected, violent spark in the center of sun-bleached afternoon.
Now another man’s talking to the cop, blue shorts, no shirt, he’s been in the water. A plainclothesman. Suddenly two more are apparent just behind, also wearing blue shorts, one with a white T-shirt that says “Captain.”
Need help? the first asks.
The one in uniform shakes his head, nothing to it, his expression says. He flashes a quick grin.
Three, four, five people are taking photos, two with small instant cameras, two with 35-millimeters, one with telephoto; another has a video recorder with telephoto. Everyone’s seen the TV home video of cops beating a suspect in LA, heard of others. So what we’re seeing is the real thing, and of course we want more, we don’t want it to end.
A paddy wagon’s driven down the sidewalk and stopped. A three-wheeler comes up behind it. Now there are eight or nine cops, a half dozen in uniform, the rest in shorts. The first cop points the guy toward the wagon, and now he goes without any argument. He might be drunk, but he can see the odds. He gets into the back by himself, and the other cops mill around a few minutes while the paddy wagon leaves. The first cop goes down the beach to the woman who made the complaint, talks to her and her friends, takes notes. No one’s watching now. Then he’s gone. Five minutes more, and the two women the drunks picked on and their dates are gone too. Another couple come to spread their towel over the square of sand the drunks have left.
A man and boy–father and son?–are walking north a few hundred yards south of Fullerton. They’re not saying anything, not looking at each other, not in a hurry. The boy’s about 13, white T-shirt, light jacket, underdressed it seems for the cool north breeze, but it’s bright and clear, sparks glint off the pale blue-gray water, more gray than blue all the way to the horizon, where there’s a thin, deep royal stripe.
The boy’s chubby, even fat. Passing him, front and back, all the bodies are thin–moving on bikes, jogging, walking with the set face and determined swing of arms that announce serious business. It’s a TV commercial for athletic shoes, shampoo, new car, cereal, things healthy, natural, and mostly blond and white.
The boy’s face is dark, like his father’s–Spanish, Native American–and his body too is a smaller version of Dad’s, in exact proportion. Both their arms dangle, swing loosely, along for the ride, nothing like the definite strokes of the exercisers. No one else is walking slowly, riding slowly, anything slowly.
No need for either to say anything. When they get up to Fullerton, maybe they’ll just walk on to Diversey, get a hot dog from one of the vendors, sit in the shade a while. The boy doesn’t like to sit as much as his father does, but he’ll be happy awhile. Since the father’s quit the whiskey these walks have been the best, and who needs to say anything? Besides, isn’t that always the way it is with teenagers? They only talk to their friends. In a few years the boy will understand better, and be grateful. He’s got plenty to learn.
Sound of reggae carried by a black man, wearing black shirt, black pants, magenta and green and blue paisley sneakers, comes up the tunnel, walks over to the nearest bench. He sets down his radio box on the bench, faces it and the traffic, and the tall, lithe body begins to sway over it. He’s holding a bag of potato chips he eats from as he moves, looks out at the traffic, up and down the walk, as if to see who’s coming, who’s watching.
A couple sits two benches down. In her early 20s, the woman’s wearing a brown-gold fedora over blond-brown hair, wide black-and-white band wrapped around it, her back to the music. He’s older, maybe 40, wearing jeans, long salt-and-pepper hair, beard, and earring. He’s wearing a plain gold wedding band. She has two silver rings on her right hand, another on the middle finger of her left.
“Maybe I should just go to Nebraska and have a lot of sex and pot and come home after the summer,” she says.
“You could,” he grins. They both laugh.
“But I’ve got this idea I’d like to go to Tucson. I’ve never been there, but it’s just, like, I hear things that make it sound like I should be there.”
His arm is spread down the back of the bench toward her. He nods toward the guy dancing over her shoulder.
“What do you suppose he’s up to?”
The dancing’s more intense now, the sways tilting him farther over, head angled up. Then the music stops, and he bends down to change the radio station.
She smiles back briefly.
“I know it’s not going to work out. My best friend’s pregnant and now she’s going to divorce her second husband. He’s crazy. He comes over to our apartment and rages and abuses her. I’ve seen the bruises.” She shakes her head, lips set in a thin line. “I’m never going to do that.”
Her friend nods, serious. “I’ve got a sister in Tucson,” he says. “She’s married and has a 12-year-old kid, but I bet she’d be glad to put you up for a while if you really want to go out there. She’s done a lot of that on both ends–staying places, and helping people coming through. Give me your number and I’ll call you if you want.”
He pulls out a notebook and writes as she tells him the number. Five minutes later they’re standing by the entrance to the tunnel, close together, looking into each other’s faces. For the moment they’re not talking. They hold the pose, a dozen seconds longer than casual. For just an instant he’s thinking about reaching toward her, touching her, maybe kissing her. Then she backs away a step, churns her hand in three small circles in front of her chest as she gives a kind of stylized bow, walks down the ramp toward the tunnel. He watches a moment, then turns and walks up the beach. The music goes on, and the dancing.
Two weeks later he’ll talk to his sister, she’ll say sure, have her come, she could be a housekeeper, baby-sitter, for her, for people she knows, or she could find another job, or just stay a few days on the way through. When he calls the woman back to give her the news over lunch, a drink, or more, the number’s disconnected.
Fifty yards north of the sand there’s no crowd. A woman in tank top and skirt has been walking slowly from the Oak Street tunnel, and now she’s found her spot. Midway between the sidewalk and the water she sets down her bag, lays out a plain white towel she takes from it, then takes off her skirt to reveal a turquoise bathing suit bottom with some kind of oblong violet figures printed on it. She sits facing the city, pulls a cigarette and a Squirt bottle out of her bag, lights the cigarette. She smokes slowly, drinks Squirt, stares at the city.
She’s used to being alone; she likes it. But she’s open to talking if someone wants. A faint trace of smile on her face, she’s looking at the walkers, bikers, and sitters. Someone has stepped down from the walk to aim a picture at the water–maybe over her head at the blue and white sailboat going by, but maybe at her. And she smiles.
When the cigarette’s done she pulls out a bottle of Coppertone and spreads the oil over herself, a red beaded wristlet she’s wearing catching the light as she works. That done, she puts the bottle back in the bag, sips from her Squirt.
The man in a white cap, gold chain, wearing yellow sport headphones and carrying a blue towel and brown beach bag, very tan, in his 40s, is a regular. He’s walking up from his perch by the water and stops to talk to her. He smiles, she smiles, and he nods toward the two smaller old stone buildings sandwiched amid the high rises. She’s listening as he talks, then answering. It’s a conversation about the architecture, the scene, the neighborhood, the traffic jam on the Drive, and they’re both smiling. In a minute he sets his towel down a few feet from hers, sits down, and keeps talking as they look over at the buildings.
They go on for five or ten minutes, the conversation slowing but not stopping, and they’ve begun looking at each other as they talk. He stands up then, gives her his earphones, and he walks south. She puts them on, listens a moment, then adjusts the station as he makes his way into the denser crowd. Another few minutes and he’s back, carrying two cans of bottled water. He hands one to her, picks up his towel and moves it closer. They both take a drink, then he sits down, leaning back on an arm, facing her. His body is sunburned rose through the tan, and though the afternoon is getting late the sun’s still bright. He doesn’t cover anything. He’ll stay as long as she will.
A tall, lean black man, full beard trimmed short and glasses, fluorescent clothes, sweeps close on purple roller blades. A woman on black roller blades, in a black bikini top and blue-jean shorts, comes by. She’s not the expert skater he is; she sways a little, makes a half circle, wobbles to a stop.
In a minute the guy skates back, executes a jump nearly a foot high on the way, turns to make a backward half circle behind her, then a full circle in place before he pushes off. But he hesitates, and the woman skater smiles.
She asks how he does that graceful move, and he explains, then demonstrates. The woman goes off down the concrete to try it out, tries to lean back, tries it again ten yards farther down, then falls on her rear. She gets up quickly, takes a few more steps, tries again. This time she doesn’t fall, manages to sway to a stop. She stands midway between the sidewalk and the water, no one for 50 feet on either side, ankles bent inward. She’s getting ready to try again.
The graceful skater comes back, pauses near her, and smiles.
“How do you stop?” she says.
A woman, stomach on a towel, has undone her top to expose all of her back. One eye’s cocked wide over an arm, facing the tunnel, the walk, the traffic, the way anyone will come. She moves her head, raises it slightly. She’s thin, long-legged, white, young. She knows she’s watched.
A man, stripped to blue bathing suit, is bent back on his arms as if to face the sun. But not quite. He got there well after she’d settled. He’s facing her.
He raises binoculars to his eyes, aiming them her way. It seems impossible she doesn’t notice, but she certainly doesn’t want to invite his attention. She doesn’t move a muscle. He knows his form won’t get him any notice, but he doesn’t care. He’s in his 30s, he knows how to enjoy himself and the view he knows won’t get any closer.
After a slow pan toward the outer drive and the high rises behind, he puts down his binoculars, but he’s still looking. Another minute, and she reaches behind to fasten her top, sits up. The top is silver lame, some Flash Gordon alien’s bra, outlined in black and cut low. But the opposite of alien, really–instead, the card announcing membership. Calling for focus. Look here. Read this. Pay attention.
The woman slips the sunglasses she’s had perched on her forehead into place, then eases herself back down on her belly. Another minute and a different man walks toward her, stops at the edge of her towel. He’s neat–brown slacks, white shoes, afro cut short, body tilted at a polite angle–and she sits up as he approaches. He starts talking, but she’s sifting among some clothes laid on her towel, then through her white canvas bag, and not looking at him. He writes or draws something on a memo pad, shows it to her. It’s a game, a variation on the game: which shell hides the gold, watch me draw your living room, guess your birthday, license number, phone number.
She glances at it, she knows this, she’s not surprised, but her tone is short, saying leave me alone, I work too hard, I deserve an hour to myself on a Friday, only one more law-school exam and then the summer internship starting next week, I promise it isn’t racial, just hustle someone else. She picks up black stretch capris, stands and puts them on. He keeps talking, writes more, shows her again, but she doesn’t look his way at all. She pulls on a black sweatshirt, oversize white athletic shoes, stands and picks up her towel, not watching as he walks on up the sand.
He’s not surprised, not even disappointed really. He knows his rap’s a good one, that he looks clean, and some of them will listen, if not her.
But she’s happy he’s gone. The beach is hardly crowded today, but enough so that no one’s going to bother her beyond these little hustles. A warm afternoon, but not too hot, it’s been exactly the hour she wanted, and lord knows she’s been busy enough. But it’s getting late in the afternoon, and more riffraff are wandering around.
She heads south to the concrete ramp and disappears around the corner. She lives nearby, it’s a fine, short walk, and she’s got more than enough to keep her busy. Maybe the guy she really wants will call tonight.
Old Style can, Coke can, Coke can, Miller Light, Snickers wrapper, Twinkies wrapper, Salon Select shampoo bottle, 10-30 Valvoline, 7-11 cup, Budweiser, Coke Classic, Special Export, Tang box, Lowenbrau, 7-Up, potato chips, Budweiser, plastic Diet Rite bottle, Budweiser six-pack, Frito Lay, plastic supermarket bag, Special Export, Special Export, Kool box, Snickers, Snickers, Milky Way, Miller Draft, three Old Style bottles, two empty 12-pack boxes of Busch, two empty Boone’s Apple Wine, ten feet of wire, tatters of what looks like a sail, half- buried, blue bottle caps, white bottle caps, a straw, propane fuel cartridge, Baskin 31 Flavors cup, Canadian Reserve Bonded Whiskey pint, all in a 20-yard walk.
By the shoreline, two boys are digging. One’s in bright lime T-shirt and bermudas, blue navy baseball cap, the other in same style red cap, jeans, navy jacket. Each has a plastic bag, some kind of belt or rope cinching its neck. The one in blue stops, opens his bag, looks into it. The other rises, picks up a towel, swings it over his head with his right hand. He’s looking back at his friend, who’s on hands and knees, scouring the sand. They walk a few feet farther down the beach, a little closer to the flock of gulls perched along the shoreline. White, gray, every minute or two one rises, joins the handful gliding and circling, and another settles. Now both boys are bent over, sifting the sand, occasionally opening one of their sacks, putting something in.
They’ve each got piles of it in their rooms, under the stairs, in the basement, viewing by invitation only. It’s the stuff that makes mothers cringe as it rattles around washing machines, clogs drains, multiplies in the refrigerator. It’s sunken ships, bones and treasure. It has nothing to do with race or class. It’s boys. The rite is ancient.
Seven guys, one girl playing tackle football after school. It’s less unusual in a time when girls are more often athletic, but this one gives up in strength and grace what girls often do to boys. Still, she holds her own; the game is serious.
After the last touchdown they sit down with another half dozen, including two more women, who’ve been watching, three or four drinking a beer. They’re all Hispanic, but they speak English, punctuated with occasional remarks in Spanish. The girl who was playing has no interest in a beer, runs to the water fountain for a quick drink, then back to sit down on the ledge next to the boys she was playing with. But they’re not much interested in talking to her, or each other for that matter, and all of them sit staring at the lake.
A man, woman, and daughter walk by behind them, then two women talking, then another running. The other boys stare, remark, then one jumps up and takes off after the runner. He catches her and matches her pace, and they disappear past the end of the beach house.
The rest are deciding what next. The blond girl suddenly jumps up, yells “What!” and beats her fists on one of the boys. Better than six feet tall, he stands over her like a post, half grinning as if he doesn’t even notice her flailing away. She launches a mock karate kick, dances at him, and now he jerks alive, dancing a leg up at her, then close enough to grab her around the shoulders.
“You do look like a motorcycle hag,” he laughs, and she hisses, wrenches away.
It’s not violence, simply; it’s sex, male and female. Skin and bone and touching, the rules particular to each age. The older we get, the more buried and subdued the exchanges. Younger, the hormones itch and stir and flail.
Out in the lake, three teenage boys have stripped to swimsuits, waded out thigh deep, where they jump up and down. One girl watches them from the sand. She says something, and the three swimmers race back, grab her, toss her in the water. She comes out shaking her arms and head and runs at one of the boys, who sidesteps out of the way, waits for her to try again.
On the top of the flat rocks lining the water, scraps of drawings, words, all worn nearly invisible except for one portrait: a girl, pink face, red lips, rust hair to her neck, red flower pinned to one side of it. No expression, strictly an idea. The eyes are black with blue eyeshadow and a bright red spot in the center of each pupil. Splotches of gray green, the color of the rock, scar the face like a rash or some disease. In red, “Acuna” is written next to it. And next to that, in amber, “Tony.”
At the wall on the east end of the beach, as if to echo the image, a couple stand a yard apart, a car behind them. Maybe 17, he’s got a flattop, denim jacket, jeans. She looks Hispanic, thick black hair kinked and curled like an aura around her head and down to the shoulders of her brown leather jacket. In her left hand she’s holding a beer, head bowed, slowly shaking the keys in her other hand. He’s talking, emphatic, somewhere between instruction and plea, loud enough to hear 30 feet away:
” . . . find out. Find out before you ruin it.” Then quiet. She doesn’t move.
He starts again, voice steadily rising: ” . . . Do it. You’ve got to take a chance.”
She kicks a stone down the sidewalk, steps another few feet away. It isn’t working. They’ve been together long enough to be an established couple for all their friends, but he’s just going to join the Army, or work at some nothing job, go out with his friends whenever he doesn’t want to see her. He says he wants to get married, but what kind of life would it be? She doesn’t want it. She wants to go to college, make something of herself. She wants someone who’s going to do that too. Thank God it’s not 1950 anymore. But what can she possibly tell him? She hates to see him hurt. She didn’t want this, ever.
She walks back, opens the door on the driver’s side of the car, gets in. The boy crushes the beer can he’s been holding, drops it on asphalt, gets in the other door. She doesn’t start the car. They sit. She’s crying. He’s talking.
A woman lies facedown on a towel, sandy hair permed into loose afro curls, her top unfastened. A thin gold chain surrounds her right ankle, another her neck. The bottom of her suit is red and small, just a string joining it to the patch in front. She’s tan; there’s no bathing suit line around her back, and a small white crescent is visible at the side of her uncovered breast. She’s 40, or more, green eyes squinting, then closed as she soaks. A girl, nine or ten, chubby in a one-piece blue polka-dot suit, comes over.
“Those boys have firecrackers,” the girl says, pointing back up the beach toward the bathrooms.
The woman lying down doesn’t stir. The sound of firecrackers, four, five, six explosions, chatters from the direction the girl points. The woman lifts her head.
“There,” the girl says, pointing again.
The woman puts her head back down.
“Go, play, Maria,” she says, her voice edgy, louder than it has to be. “We can’t stay here much longer.”
The girl digs idly in the sand at the edge of the woman’s towel. The woman reaches behind and fastens her strap, slowly pulls herself up. Her top is red with a shiny eggshell blue diagonal stripe.
“I wanna go now,” the girl says.
The woman exhales audibly. Lays back down and unfastens her top again. Closes her eyes. The girl watches her, then gets up and heads toward the water, wades in.
Three guys, late teens, maybe 20, 21, pass the woman on her left. One stares at the red patch behind, and the skin. He looks at another man sitting 20 yards off on her other side, catches his eye and grins, gives a quick thumbs-up. The other man laughs briefly, nods.
“Nice tan,” the guy walking by says.
“Real nice tan,” the friend next to him laughs, the other joining in.
She doesn’t stir. They walk a few more steps and stop to stare back at the woman. Another round of firecrackers explodes, then the huge bang of an M-80. The woman doesn’t move.
She’s glad the girl’s old enough not to complain, to be happy with hot dogs for supper and TV when the mother’s date comes over to take her out for a while. At least she can spend the day lying here. And they still look, don’t they, there’s still plenty worth seeing.
A man who looks to be in his 30s, one of the very few it seems who’s not a teenager or mother, has taken off his shirt, exposing a white belly to the sun. He’s wearing gray corduroys, he’s left his shoes somewhere, and he’s walking into the water.
This is his day off, and it’s been an easy walk from the Marine Drive high rise where he lives. The water’s warm, he’s hot from sitting in the sun, no one knows him. Day after day of getting on the bus to ride the same streets to the office, fill out the same forms, answer the same questions of callers, if you can’t do something a little different every once in a while, how do you know you’re alive?
He goes slowly, but doesn’t pause as his cuffs darken, then his knees, thighs, then all the way past his belt and up to his chest. He stops, turns around, and bobs his hands slowly in the water. His eyes are nearly shut, his mouth set in a smile of pure, secret, beatific pleasure.
In the shallows and on the beach near the water, it’s mostly children. One about four years old stands thigh deep, face locked in a hard grimace, fists clenched, swinging hard and splattering against each wave that comes in. He turns toward another boy his age and laughs. The other boy wades a few steps closer to him and tries the same assault, then looks back at the first as if to see what he thinks. The two take turns then, hitting the waves, laughing, watching each other.
Another boy, the first one’s twin, wearing identical trunks, wades out steadily like the man in the pants. He reaches his waist and looks back to where a man–his father?–is watching from the shore. The boy makes his way back to shore and grabs the man’s hand, tries to pull him in.
“Let’s go deep,” he shouts. The man grins but shakes his head. The boy lets go of the hand and runs back in. He gets to his waist, jumps up and down, doesn’t look back. Then walks out deeper. Now he’s up to his chest, the waves lapping up to his chin. One splashes over his nose and eyes. The boy turns toward the beach, rubs his face, shakes his head. His father stands with his feet barely in the water, as if ready to run out and help, but his son isn’t looking and the father doesn’t want to go in. Though the water isn’t too cold, it’s not warm enough for him; he’s done plenty of dipping in the cold, the excitement’s long gone. He wants to sit on the beach, look at a few of the women, the whole scene. But his son is too young to trust without watching–unable to swim, but so proud of his ability just to walk out this deep, the boy turns back toward the shoreless expanse of lake, waits for the next wave.
On the concrete ledge overlooking the walk between the entrance at Fullerton and the beginning of the beach, a half dozen men sit. They’re listening to another man in his early 20s, long sandy ponytail, barefoot, wearing shorts. It’s hot, the hottest day of the year so far, everyone’s moving slow. The man’s playing a guitar, hooked up to a single speaker. A homemade wooden caddy next to him holds equalizer, monitor, amplifier on its shelves. Behind the singer and the caddy, a woman is sitting on a blanket.
He’s singing something he wrote himself about his baby daughter, about how wonderful she is, how she makes the world new, other typical sentiments. If the woman behind is the mother, the baby’s with someone else. But she’s not talking to the singer, or to anyone else–so she’s here alone, sitting in the shade on a hot afternoon. Cross-legged and listening, a sheen of sweat visible on her forehead, with no other beach gear, no book or other distraction nearby. She doesn’t have anything in particular to go home for, and it’s too hot to move. And the singer isn’t bad. It’s too much to do anything but sit.
One of the listeners sitting on the ledge is also intent, a Hispanic-looking man with a trimmed goatee and mustache, thin, in long pants despite the heat. He doesn’t look too hot, but he’s not moving much, hasn’t for a while. The others are staring out at the water or down the walk, seemingly lost in reverie.
It’s late afternoon, and the bikers and walkers heading north and east look up at the singer, one or two pause a few seconds, then walk slowly on. Today, burned out is more than an expression. Moving at all is hard enough.
He finishes the song, and another man about the same age comes up, says, “When do you wanna leave? I gotta be at State and Wacker by about six.”
Maybe he’s a player too. Or there’s another job he’s got to be there for. Still, it can’t be too urgent, his dress is casual, there’s no hurry in his voice. But the day’s worn, the crowd’s hardly a crowd, he’s tired of standing around.
The singer goes into a version of “King of the Road.” His voice isn’t bad, and he jazzes up the delivery with a hint of scat at the end. Then he segues into Steve Goodman’s old country parody “You Never Even Call Me by My Name,” but he does the country pop version instead of Goodman’s. No one’s applauded.
“Know any Dylan?” asks the Hispanic-looking man.
The singer begins picking the strings, then singing: “Lord, take these chains offa me . . . ” Two, three people pause on their way by. “I can’t take them anymore.”
His voice is suddenly stronger, as if in a room with good acoustics, or as if the equipment has shaken out some glitch or something has cleared in his voice, though it hadn’t seemed unclear before.
When he gets to the chorus, “Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door . . . ” two or three sing along on the first line, then a half dozen, then more who’ve stopped.
At the last verse he takes off into full scat improvisation, then a long lead on the guitar, and two or three dozen have stopped to listen, half blocking the walk. The sounds of cars and construction on Lake Shore Drive are buried. Then once more, “Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door.” The shadows behind are deep now, though the day is still hot. The singer’s voice softens, fades into quiet. For a full minute, no one moves.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Meredith.