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Authors: Richard Ford

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Though what I sense with my ex-realtor's brain is that Arnie may simply want me to take the trouble to be there—to be his witness. It's what the Christers all long for, dawn to dusk. It's why there are such things as “best men,” “pallbearers,” “godfathers,” “invitees to an execution.” Everything's more real if two can see it. A flying saucer. A Sasquatch. The face of the Redeemer in an oil smear at Jiffy Lube. And today I'm willing to say “I'm here” to whoever can hear me, and for whatever good it might do for man or beast.

A
N UNUSUAL SIGHT GREETS ME AS
I
CURVE DOWN
off the bridge into what used to be Seaside Heights (Central Ave., north to Ortley Beach, south to Sea-Clift). A New Jersey State Police command-post trailer has been hauled across the roadway to block unauthorized vehicles. Sawhorses are piled against Jersey barriers, red and silver flashers spinning on a striped trooper car that's parked alongside—everything but razor wire and a machine-gun nest—beyond which the wound of the storm's destruction assaults my eye. Up Central, toward my old office, as far as I can see along the beach side of the avenue, civic life has sustained a fierce whacking—house roofs sheared off, exterior walls stripped away, revealing living
rooms full of furniture, pictures on bed tables, closets stuffed with clothes, stoves and refrigerators standing out
white
for all to see. Other houses are simply gone altogether. Great, heaping Mount Trashmores (one with a Christmas tree on top), piled with building debris, dirt, sand, ruined Halloween decorations, auto fenders, cabinets, toilets, mailboxes—all that could be bashed into and blown to smithereens—have risen on every corner. Awaiting
what
, it's not clear. Meanwhile, a god's own lot of human activity's underway beneath the mottled sky, up the avenue and down the side-leading residential streets, ocean to bay. Much of it, I see, is police activity—large men in SWAT-team garb, and National Guard troopers in desert issue, their tiny lethal riflery strapped to their chests, patrolling. There are State Health vans with workers in white hazmat suits. Power-line people are here with cherry pickers (they come in convoys from Texas and Minnesota, and won't be kept away). As well, there're trucks of every species—Datsuns like the terrorists in Kabul use, new F-150s, raised Dodge muscle rigs, all the way to elephant-size dumpers and decommissioned garbage scows—conscripted to get destruction, pain, the memory of pain and destruction, up, out and away and into some landfill in Elizabeth like the 9/11 remains. Nothing's livable or OPEN. There's no power. A carpet of ocean and beach sand has been driven up onto the streets and yards and under all the ruined cars, as if The Shore in a single
night had turned into Riyadh. It's a post-combat zone, though in its own way perfectly pacific and orderly. I expect to see buzzards circling in the misty air. Though instead, a squadron of brown pelicans floats along the beachfront, seeking something familiar or edible or both.

In all, there's the palpable, ghostly urge to “put back” what was. Though, in my view—just arriving—it's too bad it can't be left as it is a bit longer, like a ghost that goes on spooking. Decades ago, in my unsatisfactory Marine Corps tour, a few of us privates were dispatched as forward observers from Camp Pendleton down to Ensenada, to surveil enemy buildup in the local bordellos and mescalerias. At the time, I noticed it was impossible to discern if the tumbled-down Mexican buildings we passed were actually tumbled down or half tumbled
up
, with new residents waiting somewhere offstage. Ortley Beach—what I can see of it now—looks that way, as I'm sure do all the once-sparkling beach towns north and south: locked into a moment of indecisiveness between being and not being. I once made a handsome living off this patch of now-salted earth. I should be able to envision the grains of possibility in what's left of it. But for the moment, I cannot.

L
OOTERS BEWARE
! A
SIGN ON THE SHOULDER OF THE
exit curve warns all who'd enter and do ill. A skull 'n' crossbones
has been painted on in red to drive the point home.
CURFEW
6
PM THIS MEANS U
! fills out the space to make it personal. A forest of other signs is sprouted around like political yard art, announcing,
WE'LL BUY YOUR HOUSE (OR WHAT'S LEFT OF IT). MARTELLO BROTHERS—REFUSE HAULING. HABLA INGLES—RAPIDO! LEARN GRIEF COUNSELING IN TEN DAYS. FAST MOLD REMOVAL. KNOW YOUR RIGHTS. WRITERS' COOPERATIVE. NRA ICE-BREAKER AT THE TOMS RIVER HAMPTON INN. A DRUNK DRIVER KILLED MY DAUGHTER. FLOW YOGA. TANTRIC SEX WORKSHOP. FIRST RESPONDERS SPAGHETTI SUPPER
. One sign merely says
NOTHING BESIDE REMAINS
(for victims with a liberal arts degree).

As I nose up to the command-post trailer, Copland turned off, a policeman steps out a side door down to the sandy pavement. No one's permitted in except contractors, owners, and local officialdom (plus President Obama and our big candied yam of a governor). But I'm in luck. The cop, hiking up his heavy cop belt and situating his blue hat on his big cop head, is a man I know. It is Corporal Alyss of the Sea-Clift PD. Years back, I sold his house in Seaside Park when he was a rookie and his family size suddenly doubled, requiring a bigger, cheaper place—in Silverton.

Palm forward, Officer Alyss transforms himself now into a human Jersey-barrier, warning off looters, unauthorized rubberneckers, and sneakers-in like me. When I buzz down
my window, he comes round to utter his discouraging words, big right hand rested on his big black Glock. He's much larger than the last time I saw him. Portland concrete seems to have been added to his shape and size, in-uniform. He doesn't quite move naturally—fully Kevlar'd with heavy, combat footwear as thick as moon boots, plus his waist-harness of black-leather cop gear: scorch-your-eyes perpetrator spray, silver cuffs, a walkie-talkie as big as a textbook, a head-knocking baton in a metal loop, extra ammo clips, a row of black snap-closed compartments that could hold most anything, plus a pair of sinister black gloves. He is the Michelin man of first responders, his police ball cap with gold insignia beetled down to his eyebrows. I want to laugh, since he's a sweetie at heart. But he's too uncomfortable not to be sympathized with. In any case, laughing at the police is a prime misstep in New Jersey.

“Okay, sir. I just need you to . . .” Corporal Alyss begins his “just-turn-'er-around-and-head-your-ass-on-back-across-the bridge” spiel. As I suspected, he's not seen me properly. Though a sneaky smile's awakening, and he shifts his big face to the side, leaning toward my window, like a kid (a big kid). “All right.
All
right,” he says, his smile breaking through, becoming in an instant the jolliest of gendarmes. I'm outed as a friendly. (He takes plenty of ribbing about his name—Alyss/Alice—and has clearly grown into his job.) His big Ukrainian earlobes, I notice—fat, pendulous, and pink—do not have the
hint of a crease. He obviously lacks a care in the world. All his needs are met with his tidy Silverton family, a badge, and a gun. “I guess you're down here to teach us all how smart you are to get out when you did,” he says. He's beaming, his big, blue Slavic eyes wide and intense as he peers in and around inside my car. He is only thirty-five, played tight end at Rider, then spent a year in Ecuador on his Pentecostal mission, bullying the natives into accepting Jesus. His old man was a beat cop in Newark and paid “the ultimate price.” You get to know such things in the realty business. His wife, Berta, was one of the nurses who looked after me when I got shot and stayed a long time in the hospital.

“I'm just going down to counsel an old client, Pete. His house got blown away.” No need to tell him it was
my
house. Just the facts, here.

“Yeah, well, tell me about it,” Corporal Alyss says, his smile fading. He is not a handsome boy—all his features way too big, too pink, too fleshy—a cross between a Minnesota farmer and one of his animals. He's lucky to have a wife. His little shoulder microphone sputters, but emits no voice. Even though he might not say it—and though he himself moved years ago—it probably rankles him that I moved away. “Your old office is an empty lot,” he says. “Back wall just blew in.” He's all police business-y now, as if some training session he's sat through has flashed up into his thick head. Our friendship is paling.

“I heard,” I say up through the window. Chill air has rushed in, carrying sour odors of ocean and diesel and Corporal A's leather rigging. Another cop, a black, hatless NJ state trooper in jodhpurs, has appeared at the trailer door, watching us gravely. He takes note of my license plate, then steps back inside, where they're probably playing hearts. “Did you guys survive okay,” by which I mean him and his brood.

“Just lost our electric. Some roof coping,” he says soberly, extending his lip. “Nothing like down here. Insurance won't pay ours either, though. Ours is supposedly wind, not water.” He inserts a big thumb knuckle into his ear canal for a scratch, cocks his mouth awry, while his other hand rests on his police issue. He's most at ease not moving. “The wife's having repetitive thought patterns. Just worrying, you know?” He's forgotten I know her and know her name. All is policing to police. The rest of the world is like groceries on the shelf.

“I guess it's natural.”

“Oh yeah.” He looks confident and says nothing more, as he thinks about what's “natural” and what's not.

“Okay if I drive on down to Poincinet Road?” I try to act like I've already been there twenty times and am going back to resume whatever I was doing before.

“That's all changed down there,” he said. “The storm,
and
before the storm. You prolly won't recognize it. But yeah. Just be careful.” He takes his thumb out of his ear and wipes
his nose with it, then backs away from my car door. He produces a tiny red notebook from his flak-vest pocket, and with a ballpoint notes down my license number. “I'll write you down in case you get in there, and we never see you again. We'll know who to call.” He smiles at his note-taking. He is a mystery—even for all that's plain about him. It's not easy to balance his life: one minute friendly; one minute a hostage situation; and all the time in between longing to be home with the kids, cooking
brats
on the Weber and smiling at the day.

“Great,” I say. “I'll be safe.”

“No worries.” ( . . . On my inventory; a two-word misnomer meaning “You're absolutely welcome. I'm really glad to be able to assist you. After all, we seek each other in these dire times. So know that I'm thinking about you. And do be safe.”)
No worries
is maybe better.

I run my window back up. Corporal Alyss steps farther back, drags the NJSP sawhorse to the left, waves me through past the skull 'n' bones and the message from Ozymandias. I give him my two-hand fellowship wave and drive on. His back is already to me. He's forgetting I exist. I'm here. He's here. But, in another sense, we're not.

S
EA
-C
LIFT, WHEN
I
DRIVE SOUTH ON
C
ENTRAL
, gives to the world the sad look of having taken a near-fatal
punch in the nose. Power poles are mostly up but lacking wires. Sand has eddied up over everything low-down. Houses—even the now-and-then ones that look unscathed—seem stunned to stillness. Roofs, windows, front stoops, exterior walling, garages, boats shrink-wrapped in blue polypropylene—all look as if a giant has strode out of the gray sea and kicked the shit out of everything. Here are all places where people have
lived
. And not just smarty-pants, foggy-shuttered summer renters who stay ninety days past Memorial Day, but a sturdy corps of old-time “Clift-dwellers” plus happy retirees, alongside an older echelon of hedge-fund, coupon clippers who've bought in since the '70s and call it “home.” Each in his own way patronizes the pizzerias, the mom-and-pops, the car-repairs, the Chinese takeout, the fried-seafood eateries where the TV's never off in the bar and a booth's always waiting. A bracing atmosphere of American faux egalitarianism long has reigned here—which drew me two decades back, when I moved down from Haddam. I arrived when seven hundred thousand still meant seven hundred thousand and could buy you a piece of heaven. With Sally Caldwell as my helpmate I couldn't have been happier.

All
that
life has now been poleaxed and strewn around like hay-straw, so that even a hardened disaster-tourist who sees opportunity in everything would have to ask himself: “What can you do with this now? Let it settle back to nature?
Walk away and come back in a year or ten? Move to Nova Scotia? Shoot yourself?”

Here, too, the morning's bustling with cleanup-removal-and-teardown, line re-stringing, front-loader and backhoe operations. Citizens are about—though many are just standing, hands-on-hips staring at their ruined abodes. As Corporal Alyss has said, it's easy to see how a person could drive down on a reconnoitering mission and simply never show up again; as if calamity had left a hole in the world on the rim of which everything civilized and positive-tending teeters—spirits, efforts, hopes, dreams, memories . . . buildings, for sure—all in jeopardy of spiraling down and down. I
do
, in fact, feel smart for having gotten out when the getting was good. Though when you sell a house where you've been happy, it's never that you're smart. In all such moves one feels the bruise of defeat.

At the end of Central, where my house sat, there was never an actual street, just a sign—Poincinet Road—and a rough beachfront sand track and five large, grandfathered residences, with the ocean and pearlescent beach stretching out front, the way you'd dream it. Nothing between you and paradise but fucking Portugal. It's now become an actual street—or
had
been before the climatological shit train pulled in. I see no sign of Arnie or his Lexus as I turn down the sanded-over asphalt. Though as attested, my former home,
number seven—once a tall, light-strewn, board 'n' batten 'n' glass beach dazzler—lies startlingly up to the left (not right), washed backwards off its foundation, boosted topsy-turvy across the asphalt, turned sideways, tupped on its side against the grassy-sandy beach berm, and (by water, wind, and the devil's melee) ridded of its roof. Its back-side exterior wall where I once entered through a red door (gone) is stripped of its two-car garage and torn free of interior fittings (pipes, re-bar, electric), the dangling filaments of which along with whatever else ever connected it to the rest of the world, hanging limp from the house's exposed “bottom,” which you used not to be able to see. The blond-brick chimney's gone—though not the stone fireplace, which I can make out in the ripped-open living room. The banistered outside steps have disappeared. The panoramic deck, where I spent happy nights gazing at constellations I couldn't identify, is bent down and clinging to the broken superstructure by lug bolts I dutifully tightened each fall. What was then glass is now gaping. Studs show through the “open plan” where, in years past, transpired sweet, murmurous late nights with Sally, or merry drinks' evenings with some old Michigan chum who'd shown up unexpected with a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé . . . where life went on, in other words.

BOOK: Let Me Be Frank With You
8.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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