The Blue Devils are playing in the state finals against whatever color of devil Atlantic City has to offer.
I don’t remember who wins, but, after the game my friend and I pour out into the street with the rest of the crowd and make haste for the boardwalk. It is thick with people. So thick the community of body heat unchills the night.
The saltwater-gnawed wood of the walkway is dark and heavily knotted, slickened by a thin veneer of rain. The street lamps cast a gruesome yellow light on the arcade scene. The bulbs may aspire to radiate a sunny yellow – warm like buttercup blossoms – but I think they’ve swallowed a spoonful of spooky green, painting their aura nauseous.
Swarms of people stroll along the creaky boardwalk. Some pause to toss balls for teddy bears; some slip down dark hallways to play pinball. A few families with children dare to risk the rides out over the ocean, high above that ancient dirty-hazel Atlantic, spuming endlessly at the sand like a cobra hooding before it hisses venom.
The farther we walk, the denser the population. Then sluggishness sets in. Carol and I wiggle our way through the sloth of the masses, our skinny nimble bodies sliding through the various dimensions of flesh and bone. I am following in her wake until suddenly I am not.
Movement stops. It’s pure pedestrian gridlock. I am trapped in a huddle of strangers. Carol’s long blonde hair no longer visible as my compass.
I panic, and then surrender to the stillness. I know where the chartered bus is parked, the vintage school bus earmarked for the basketball fans. I just need to make it to the parking lot before it departs. If I fail, I’ll have to find public transportation. That can be tricky.
As I stand sardined in my woolen coat and gloves, I glance to my left. A small man in a black felt fedora and dark trench coat stands silently. His gaze straight ahead.
I realize then that everyone is silent. A swift hush wraps us together in a peculiar gift box.
I look to my right and another man stands. This one in silver grey. Taller. More portly. Gazing straight ahead also.
Time stops. I think I’m standing in a noir film.
A tiny amount of pressure on my left side, perfectly situated at my waistline. My eyes glance downward. The man in the trench coat has a pistol pointed at my side. Its pewter barrel reflects the sulfur-yellow of the lamps.
I am sixteen years old and about to be shot in a crowd of anonymous people on a random Saturday night, miles from my hometown. Who will ever solve this crime, I wonder.
Fear seems futile. Running is impossible. Screaming is dangerously un-ladylike.
So I stand inside my skin and wait, calmly. In the sick silence of a city ruled by hustle and flow.
Minutes go by and nothing happens. I roll my eyes to the right and see the man in grey perspiring. Beads of sweat on his forehead larger than raindrops. His skin sallows.
Then I get it. He is the target. I am simply in the way of his death.
While rumbling this thought around in my mind like a gumball machine, the crowd suddenly parts, as though a new Moses were standing on the Ferris wheel commanding the sea of skin.
I see a silver diner gleaming in the distance. Without looking back or side-to-side, I bolt toward its railcar comfort. Its red neon sign my new North Star.
Up the stairs two at a time and through the hand-smudged glass doors. The aroma of coffee greets me like the warmth of a mother’s hug. Red naugahyde stools are twirling bodies. One spins fully around. It’s Carol.
I watch the worry, and then the relief, slouch across the terrain of her face.
I don’t explain. We merely link arms and run toward the bus.
Settled in my seat, riding home in the tumult of a school bus with lazy shock absorbers, I wonder why I can fully relax in the presence of a gun. Why it feels like something close to erotic surrender?
When does the temptation of assault translate into the taste of Home? What is the allure of Russian roulette . . . the odds that no one is wagering? The odds of being a stranger in a strange, unchosen position?
Life and death just danced on the head of a bullet in some ecstatic merger that baffles me even now. Why did I draw the dancer of life?