“We’ll arrive on the beach by 10 a.m., so make sure Jeffrey and Sissy are ready no later than 9:30. I’ll give you $25, then you can take Jeffrey and Sissy to Funland when it opens. Use $5 for ride tickets, which will leave you plenty for lunch and snacks. I’ll collect what’s left when you meet me under the umbrella at 6 p.m. Okay, Regina? Regina, did you hear me?”
Regina’s eyes had been following the tall, tan Avenue Hotel’s restaurant busboy at the next table while Mrs. Rosenthal prattled. She had been given the same directions every Tuesday night since they arrived in Rehoboth at the beginning of a hot 1973 June. “Yes, Mrs. Rosenthal. Funland. $5.”
“I’m hungry! Reggie, make them hurry up!” Jeffrey Michael, Mrs. Rosenthal’s youngest child, kicked his legs under the table next to Regina.
“It’ll be out soon.” Regina smoothed her hand through his soft brown hair.
“Paint my nails when we get back,” Jacqueline said. As the oldest child, Jacqueline had already stared to copy the authoritative tone of her parents. Bored, she stared at the pale pink polish chips left on what had been her newly-painted nails.
“We’ll do that after your bath.”
Regina sighed. Back in May, the prospect of living at the beach as Mrs. Rosenthal’s “Mother’s helper” seemed like a win-win situation. The fact that she would make $10 a week, a total sum that would cover her upcoming driving lessons, while watching kids who were not her younger siblings made the deal even better. The part she hadn’t considered, though, was what this “win-win situation” really meant: indentured servitude to the most affluent family in her neighborhood.
The waitress, hardly older than Regina, arrived with a loaded tray, placing shrimp cocktail in front of Mr. and Mrs. Rosenthal, then giving Regina and the children their burgers.
“Yuck, too much ketchup.” Jacqueline pushed the plate forward and crossed her arms. “I want a new one.”
“Sissy, we don’t have time for that,” Mr. Rosenthal said. He didn’t look up while he spoke; instead, he concentrated on dipping his shrimp into cocktail sauce.
“Do you want me to scrape some of it off?” Regina asked.
“No, I’m not eating this. I want a new one.”
“Regina, do what you need to so Sissy will eat her dinner.” Mrs. Rosenthal’s stern look told Regina to shut Jacqueline up as quickly as possible.
Regina stared at the back of the waitress who had just turned away. She was tempted to ask for another burger, but she knew Jacqueline would find another reason to refuse the second one. Must be nice to have the freedom to walk away, Regina thought as the white uniform and gold apron disappeared into the kitchen.
“How about this?” Regina asked Jacqueline. She leaned close and spoke softly, as if sharing a secret. “I’ll use my nail polish on you, just this once, if you’ll eat your dinner.”
Jacqueline didn’t answer right away, but Regina knew she hit the mark when she saw the girl suppress a smile. “Okay,” Jacqueline finally said, and pulled back the plate.
Just two more weeks. Just two more weeks. Regina’s silent incantation could get her through the rest of the summer. It had to—the Rosenthals were her ride back to New Castle County.
Fifteen minutes before Funland opened the next day, Regina found herself sitting on a white bench between Jeffrey Michael, who alternately sang and ate Gus & Gus fries, and Jacqueline, who ate only the peanuts from her bucket of Dolle’s popcorn. While other children waiting for Funland to open ran back and forth between Delaware and Brooklyn Avenues, Regina wondered if she could pocket an extra dollar out of her ticket and food allowance from Mrs. Rosenthal like she usually did. It was going to be a challenge if she made good on her promise to take Jeffrey Michael on all the rides this time.
“Ride the Surf to Grenoble, Virginia waits for you! Olive waves while you walk, Maryland has the zoo! Baltimore is close yet far, Rehoboth is what we see! Wilmington is way up north, Delaware works for me! Brooklyn’s the last stop for us, but no reason to whine! We can’t play at Funland if we see the Laurel sign!”
Jacqueline threw a handful of popcorn at Jeffrey Michael. “If you sing that song one more time, I’m putting this bucket over your head!”
Jeffrey Michael jumped down from the bench and kicked at a seagull snatching popcorn kernels. “You’re not the boss, Sissy!”
Regina turned to Jacqueline. “Let him sing. He needs to know the song in case we get separated so he can walk back and find your mom’s umbrella.”
Jacqueline rolled her eyes and searched for more peanuts in her bucket.
Just two more weeks.
“I don’t want to ride the carousel. We do that every week. I want to go on the bumper cars again!” Jacqueline put her hand on her hip. “We always do what Jeffrey wants. It’s my turn now!”
“We have to wait while you ride in the Haunted Mansion car. And the Helicopter. And the Wagon Wheel. If you don’t want to ride the carousel, wait for us by the Frog Bog.”
Regina took Jeffrey Michael’s hand and walked with him through the line. “Horse or chariot today? It’s up to you.”
Jeffrey Michael stood as tall as he could. “I want to ride the ponies!”
“Go ahead and pick one.”
Jeffrey Michael chose a black horse that was low to the ground. Regina lifted him onto its saddle and said, “You okay?”
Jeffrey Michael put on a brave face and nodded. Before he was ready, the music began and the carousel kicked into motion. He yelped and clung to the horse’s neck even though Regina stood next to him and had her hand on his back.
“Why don’t we sing a fun song?” she asked. “Riding along on a carousel, trying to catch up to you. Riding along on a carousel, will I catch up to you?”
Regina sang the verses while Jeffrey Michael sang the chorus, his favorite part of “On a Carousel.” Although the song eased his fears, he squealed each time his horse dropped and laughed each time it rose. Eventually, he let go of the horse and raised his hands, enjoying the motion of the carousel until it slowed to a stop.
In triumph and still singing, Jeffrey Michael hopped off his horse. Regina took his hand, and they walked towards the Frog Bog. Jacqueline wasn’t there. They walked outside to the rides behind the enclosed building, but no Jacqueline. They walked back inside by the Skeeball machine. No Jacqueline. Jeffrey Michael continued to sing while Regina dragged him around Funland. She went back to the Frog Bog in case Jacqueline had been in the bathroom earlier.
“Excuse me,” she said to the man holding several plastic frogs. “Have you seen a girl, a little older than this boy? Wearing a tennis dress over her bathing suit. Brown hair pulled back in a ponytail.”
“I did. Walked right by me about twenty minutes ago. Headed for the boardwalk. Haven’t seen her since.”
“Thank you.” Regina picked up Jeffrey Michael, who had finally stopped singing and realized his sister was missing. They sped towards the boardwalk.
“Sissy! Sissy! Jacqueline Marie!” Regina wasn’t worried about surviving her last two weeks anymore. Instead, she was considering what would happen if she couldn’t find Jacqueline. Mrs. Rosenthal would probably call her parents and make them drive the two hours it took to get to Rehoboth to pick her up. Regina would probably have to give them most of the money she earned this summer as punishment. May as well kiss driving lessons goodbye.
Regina turned left towards Delaware Avenue. She dodged packs of vacationers and popped her head into every store Jacqueline might have visited: Gems & Junk, Candy Kitchen, Dolle’s, Rehoboth 5 & 10, all the way to the Atlantic Sands. Then she moved her search to the beach, guessing that Mrs. Rosenthal, with her thermos of gin and tonic water, wouldn’t notice them. Regina kept glancing towards the ocean, hoping that Jacqueline hadn’t had any ideas about going swimming alone.
Regina walked the beach all the way to Brooklyn Avenue, then stopped. She heard someone playing a guitar and singing under the boardwalk: “Spent a little time on the mountain, spent a little time on the hill. Heard some say better run away, others say you better stand still.”
The song was one Regina had never heard before, not at home with her mom controlling the radio, and not at the beach where music was limited to what could be heard coming from the boardwalk shops. In fact, she doubted she’d hear such music on any radio station she knew of. The bluesy tone was a refreshing break from the pop songs she was used to hearing. Still holding Jeffrey Michael, she stepped under the boardwalk to take a closer look.
Regina stared at the man with the guitar. He wore a white t-shirt and a large straw hat even though he was shaded by the boardwalk above his head. His jeans were jagged above his brown sandals. Written in green letters on the side of a faded black guitar case were the words “Big Lar.” Coins were gathered at the wide end inside it. Half a dozen people sat in a semicircle around the singer. The person sitting closest to him was the smallest—and wearing a tennis dress.
“Sissy!” Regina hissed, not wanting to interrupt the singer.
Jacqueline pretended not to hear.
The sound of her full name made the girl turn. She smiled and waved to Regina, then turned her head back towards the musician.
Regina fumed but didn’t want to cause a scene, so she stood just outside of the semicircle of listeners, still holding Jeffrey Michael in her arms. Unconsciously, she swayed as the man sang, taking in the lyrics now that she gave him her full attention. Soon the song ended and the singer received polite applause. Several people threw more change into the guitar case’s belly and walked out from beneath the boardwalk. Regina used that moment of transition to collect her lost lamb.
“Sissy, why did you wander off?”
“I heard the music and wanted to find it. Isn’t he great?” Jacqueline beamed at the musician.
“Thank you, little missy.” The singer smiled at Jacqueline, then looked up at Regina. “I take it she’s in your care?”
“She is.” Regina smiled at the man, then shot a look at Jacqueline who continued to ignore her. Regina turned her gaze back to the singer. “What’s your name? What were you singing?”
“Name’s Larry, but I go by Big Lar.” Larry pointed to the guitar case. “Know the Grateful Dead? One of their songs. ‘New Speedway Boogie.’ Heard it at a Dead show at Temple a few years ago and decided to learn to play it.”
“I like it. I wish I could hear more.” Regina smiled again at Larry, then spoke directly to Jacqueline who could no longer feign ignorance. “Sissy, it’s time to go.”
Jacqueline slowly got up and walked towards Regina.
“Will you be back on the beach later?” Larry asked.
Regina knew the question was for her. She felt her face burn, and not because of the heat or the sun. She hesitated before answering, “I usually go to a movie on Wednesday nights. It’s my one night off.”
“If you change your mind, I’ll still be under the boardwalk. Unless I get arrested. Like the morning sun, you come, and like the wind you go. Ain’t no time to hate, barely time to wait. Oh oh, all I want to know is where does the time go.”
Regina mulled over her choices while she sat with the children in the large house’s enclosed porch. It wouldn’t hurt her feelings to skip American Graffiti because she could watch it next week. But clearly Larry, whom she had never seen on the beach before, was much older than she was. She couldn’t imagine what had brought him and his guitar here at the end of the summer. Judging by his clothes and the money he collected, her guess was that he didn’t have a regular job or a home. But she couldn’t shake his face or his voice from her mind. He lived, in a way she had only dreamed of: freely, on his own terms.
As much as Regina wanted to drop everything she had worked for—money for driving lessons, Jeffrey Michael and Sissy, time away from her parents and siblings—and run away from her predictable life, the risk of totally abandoning it wasn’t something she was ready for. More practically, if she did meet up with Larry tonight there had to be a way for Regina to get back into the Rosenthal’s house if she was out later than normal. This was a problem she had yet to solve.
“Reggie, let’s sing the song again!” Jeffrey Michael wanted to sing “On a Carousel” for the fiftieth time since conquering the painted metal beast.
Jacqueline rolled her eyes and went back to picking off her nail polish.
Jeffrey Michael sang while Regina continued the debate in her head.
How cool would it be to run off with a random guy from the beach?
How much trouble will I be in when I come back?
Maybe I don’t care. Maybe I want to walk on the wild side for once.
But what would I do? Learn to play the guitar and sing songs for a living?
Isn’t that better than what I do now?
Regina had no response to her last question.
Regina turned right from Rolling Road and the Rosenthal house and followed her normal route towards the Beachwood Theater on Rehoboth Avenue. She quietly sang the street name song she’d made up for Jeffrey Michael: “Ride the Surf to Grenoble, Virginia waits for you! Olive waves while you walk, Maryland has the zoo…”
Once she hit the intersection where Surf Avenue meets Lake Avenue, Regina took to the sand. She stopped singing and quickened her pace to match her heartbeat. Soon Regina could hear Larry’s voice even though she was a street away from him.
Larry smiled when Regina sat in front of him. “Didn’t think you’d be back.”
“Sure you did. That’s why you’re still here.”
“Maybe I hoped you would. I take it those aren’t your kids you were carrying around, Miss…?”
“Regina. No, just watching them this summer. I take it you don’t have kids since you catch change in a guitar case for a living.”
Larry laughed. “You got me! I wander around, playing music I like, just getting by. Don’t need more than that.”
Regina listened awhile as Larry strummed his guitar. Then she asked, “How long have you been ‘wandering’?”
“I dunno, maybe three or four years. I stopped counting when I stopped caring.” Larry played a few more chords, then stopped. “The sun’s down, the wind’s cool. We should drive around a bit.”
“Sure, Larry.” Regina was thrilled at her newfound boldness, and she hoped the pause that came before her answer didn’t betray her nerves.
Larry packed his guitar in its case. He stood up, grabbed the case in one hand, took Regina’s hand in his other, and sang while they walked to his station wagon. “‘Till the morning comes, it’ll do you fine. ‘Till the morning comes, like a highway sign, showing you the way, leaving no doubt, of the way in or the way back out.”
The faded blue Dodge wagon was parked on Kent Street. Larry opened the lift gate and put the case and his hat next to his surfboard, then he opened the passenger’s side door for Regina. Once she sat down, he shut her door, jogged over to the driver’s side, and jumped in. Regina stared out the window as he started the wagon. He made a left onto 5th Street, a right onto Rehoboth Avenue, and turned onto the highway, heading south.
Larry hummed for a little while, then asked, “What do you do when you’re not babysitting?”
Regina continued to look out the window. She blurted out the first lie that came into her head. “I’m starting classes at the University of Delaware in a couple weeks.”
“Really?” Larry didn’t sound convinced.
“Yup. Excited to start!”
Larry didn’t reply. He was so quiet that Regina was afraid he’d turn around and take her back to the boardwalk.
“Is everything okay, Larry?”
“I don’t think much of college. Didn’t keep me from getting drafted. Didn’t help me when I got back. Might be fine for a girl like you, but I’ve had to make my way without it.”
Regina had nothing to say to this. The men in her family had avoided Vietnam by being either too old or too young. What she knew about the war came from reports on the news or an announcement one time in her high school about a senior who had died in combat. Not knowing what else to do, Regina took Larry’s free hand in her own.
Larry turned towards Regina and smiled, then started to sing again. “I set out running but I take my time. A friend of the Devil is a friend of mine. If I get home before daylight, I just might get some sleep tonight.”
Regina would have driven around with Larry all night, but she knew she had to sneak back into the large beach house. Just before midnight, Larry let Regina hop out on Surf Avenue so she could walk to the Rosenthal residence from the direction of the movie theater.
“Regina, before you go.” Larry dug into his dashboard and pulled out a cassette tape. He leaned over the seat and handed it to her. “Something to take when you go home.”
Regina saw “Grateful Dead 5-16-70” scrawled in pen on the label. “Thank you, Larry. I’ll never forget tonight.” She smiled, closed the wagon door, and waved as he drove off.
Regina hid the tape in her crocheted shoulder bag and hurried towards Rolling Road. As she approached, she saw that the house lights were out. She crept quietly to the back door and tried the knob. It didn’t turn.
Regina held her breath. She counted three windows to the right, walked to the appropriate sill, and tapped the slightly ajar pane.
“Sissy. Sissy. Can you hear me? It’s Reggie.”
Seconds as long as hours ticked by. Then the window cracked opened wider.
“I know where you went,” Jacqueline said. “I should get Mom. Or Dad.”
“And I should tell them you wandered off when you were told to stay put.”
“You wouldn’t! You’d get in trouble, too!”
“Not as much as you would.”
It was quiet. Then Jacqueline said, “Okay, I won’t tell.”
“Just move over and I’ll squeeze through.”
Jacqueline stepped back. Regina hoisted herself up and scrambled inside.
Regina dusted the sill’s sand and dirt off her clothes and walked in the dark towards the bedroom door. Before she reached it, Jacqueline asked, “Did he sing to you?”
“Yeah, he did.”
“Did you know any of the songs?”
“Not even one.”
“Reggie, will he be under the boardwalk again tomorrow?”
Regina paused. “I don’t think so. Go back to bed, honey.”
She waited until Jacqueline tucked herself in, then Regina walked out of the bedroom and shut the door. She tiptoed across the hall and closeted herself in her bedroom, pulling the tape out of her bag to prove that she hadn’t been dreaming.
Whether because Larry’s voice was in her head or because she imagined she could still feel the breeze that came through the wagon’s window as they drove around just south of Rehoboth, Regina was more excited than she’d been for most of the summer. She forgot all about the Rosenthals and the last two weeks she’d spend at the beach house. Instead, she focused on how she would take driving lessons and soon be free—free to go wherever she wanted. Once she got her license, she would have to read maps and memorize roads that led outside of Wilmington, perhaps outside of Delaware. She’d have to find out where the Grateful Dead would be playing, maybe drive herself to a concert on her next big adventure.
Paula Persoleo is a 2011 graduate of Stony Brook’s MFA program in Southampton, NY. She was born in Wilmington and raised in Hockessin. Currently, she is an adjunct at the University of Delaware and lives in Delaware with her husband. Her most recent work can be found in Gordon Square Review.