The Point-of-View Character

Music in Rittenhouse Square by Christina Tarkoff

Mariel was late getting to the cafeteria after her talk with Dill. She felt his eyes on her as she stepped into the room. Which made matters worse. Not only was there no place to sit, but Dill was watching her from the doorway to see whether she had anyone to sit with. He was forming his opinion, which he would then bake into a hard thing to share with the other teachers.

She felt like a character in a book, the point-of-view character. As every fifth grader knew, the point-of-view character was the one you were supposed to like, and be like.

So then why was it Mariel was the only one with no place to sit, again?

Carissa, Melissa, Sonja, and Karlyn were at the far end of a bench of sixth graders. If she went over there and tried to squeeze between Carissa and Karlyn, she would be stuck across the table from Tierney, the sixth-grade girl who liked to grab your hand and write something embarrassing on it with sharpie markers. Mariel 🖤 Tory. The last time Tierney did that to Mariel, she’d spent twenty minutes in the bathroom trying to scrub the words off because she had a violin lesson right after school, and what would Mr. D’Alessandro say, if she had sharpie scribble all over her bow hand?

Carissa looked right at Mariel as she stood there with her lunch bag, scanning, but she didn’t wave and point to the tiny scrap of bench between herself and Karlyn. Instead, still watching Mariel, she leaned across to Melissa and said something that made Melissa scream with laughter.

The only other spot left, and time was running short with Dill still standing there in the doorway smiling at her, was at the round table with Heather and Katherine.

Heather and Katherine it would have to be. Mariel made her way to the round table past the awful boys. She put her lunch bag down firmly beside Katherine, as if it were her first choice to sit here anyway. Katherine ignored her, which was fine with Mariel. The two were deep in a discussion about cheat codes in their latest video game. Video games were not allowed at school, but that didn’t faze Katherine and Heather, who were drawing diagrams on a napkin, passing it back and forth, arguing furiously.

The other kid at the table was Donovan, who was only eight, but in sixth grade already. He had a special math tutor because he was learning high school calculus. Like Heather and Katherine, he was obsessed with video games. Unlike them, he was small and cute, and smelled like Suave Green Apple shampoo, another one of his obsessions. As he leaned across the table to correct Katherine’s diagram, Mariel got a whiff of his delicious hair above the general cafeteria odor of peanut butter and Lunchables. Heather studied what he had written through her smudgy glasses, and Katherine used the opportunity to steal one of Heather’s Del Monte Pokémon Fruit Snax. Only Heather and Katherine would eat such nasty things. Not Donovan, He ate very little, and only food that was white.

Mariel looked up and saw that Dill had finally gone off to eat his own lunch in the faculty lounge. He would now report back to the other teachers that she had successfully found a place to sit for lunch. But was he smart enough to know that she was sitting at the losers’ table? And that even the losers were ignoring her?

“How is your violin-playing these days, Mariel?” Donovan had a high voice, like a soprano robot. He had a special therapist who gave him lessons on how to interact with other kids, but Mariel sometimes wondered why the therapist didn’t teach him how kids really talk. Today, though, she was grateful for Donovan’s stiff conversation. It was nice to know what the rules were, and with Donovan you always knew.

“Fine, thank you, Donovan,” she said.

“I would like to play chamber music with you again sometime,” he said.

“That would be nice, Donovan.”

Donovan had the smallest cello Mariel had ever seen. It had an unpleasantly nasal sound, probably because of its size, but he was a competent player, as good as some of the teenage cellists in her youth orchestra. Problem was, his vibrato was too tight. His Bach suites were note-perfect but as boring as the ring tones on a cell phone, and he played everything too fast. Last fall, Mary Ellen, the school music director got the idea that Mariel, Donovan, and Eugene Huang should perform a piano trio because they were the only advanced musicians in the middle school.

The trio was a disaster, of course. They were under-rehearsed because they could only practice during Group, and half the time the piano, or Mary Ellen, or one of the trio members wasn’t free. Eugene didn’t bother to learn his music well enough—he said he had plenty already to practice for his private teacher and his real piano trio, who rehearsed on Saturdays downtown at Rittenhouse Music Prep. And Donovan was incapable of listening to or taking cues from other musicians, or even stopping to rehearse a passage in the middle. He was like a wind-up toy: once he started playing, he went straight through the movement until the bitter end. Worse, Mary Ellen did not seem to recognize that these were problems, and kept a jolly attitude about the hash they were making of the Mozart. Rehearsals, when they happened, were frustrating and exhausting for Mariel, if no one else. It was impossible to reconcile this experience with the rest of her life: the daily hours of scales and etudes prescribed by Mr. D’Alessandro; the feeling that she would never, ever be able to practice enough to catch up with her youth orchestra archrival Halerie, who was eleven like Mariel, but proudly seated in the first violin section next to a high school girl. Or with snooty Annabelle Li, who was homeschooled, and said to be a prodigy, and rumored to practice ten hours a day, and already learning Sibelius Concerto.

During the trio performance at the Thanksgiving assembly, Eugene kept hitting wrong chords and losing his place, forcing Mariel to decide which of the two of them to follow (she chose Donovan; at least he was predictable.) But the A-440 in Donovan’s head did not match the A of the piano, which was a quarter-tone flat, and Mariel had tuned her violin to the piano. She considered matching Donovan’s intonation, but as he played so softly on his tiny instrument and Eugene banged so loudly on the school’s wretched upright Yamaha, that she ended up staying in tune with the piano, more or less, and in time with the cello. It was probably the most horrible performance of the Mozart B flat Major piano trio in the history of humankind. At least they stopped after the Allegro (which, thanks to Donovan, was more of a Presto.)

The audience of parents, kids, and teachers had exploded into applause. Donovan’s mom and dad were in the front row with his sister, cheering. Mariel could see her own mother in the second row, one of the last to stand up, smiling, though not very broadly. She was next to Chi-wei Huang, who looked plainly mortified by her son’s playing. And for good reason, Mariel had thought hotly. At that moment she had never wanted to kill anyone as much as she wanted to kill Eugene Huang—who appeared to be perfectly content with how the performance had gone.

“We stank,” she whispered to him as they walked offstage for their curtain call.

“So what? They don’t know the difference,” said Eugene. “Anyway, they’re not clapping for us, dummy. They’re clapping for Donovan.”

Mariel looked at Donovan, who had followed them offstage with his strange tip-toe walk, carrying his little cello. His face, in the shadows, seemed to project its own ecstatic light. Mariel’s grip tightened on her violin. Eugene was right. She saw it now. The performance was not about the music; it was not about Mozart; it was not about playing well, or even adequately. It was about Donovan playing with other kids.

Somehow Eugene had understood all this, but she had not. She and Chi-wei Huang were the only people in the room upset that the trio had gone badly. It was one of those moments when the world seemed to drop out from under your feet. And just as well, for this was a world that Mariel was not sure she wanted to belong to. She was wretched. The botching of the Mozart disgusted her. At the same time, she was ashamed of herself for being more concerned about the music than about Donovan. This had been Donovan’s moment, so why did she feel so used? Why was she so selfish?

In any case, regardless of her feelings, the results were the same as they would have been if she taken Eugene’s careless attitude and played like a slob. Donovan was happy; his parents were happy about all the progress he was making, socially. Mary Ellen was getting congratulated on her great idea by the head of school. The faculty and parents congratulated themselves on having a school so supportive and inclusive of kids like Donovan. Eugene was happy because playing with Mariel and Donovan had been a pain, and he was glad it was over. Only Mariel was miserable.

“You make yourself miserable,” her mother had once told her, out of supreme vexation. It was during one of their fights about Mariel’s perfectionism, her inability to stop working at something until it was perfect. According to Mariel’s mother, perfectionism was okay it started to get in your own way or drive other people (specifically your mother) crazy.

Perfectionism made her late for school every morning because she could not stop practicing, and when she did, she could not leave until her violin was packed in its case just so. And when it was, she could not leave until her shoes were tied, just so. And her hair, and teeth brushed, just so. The list went on. Why couldn’t she be more like Eugene, who could turn his perfectionism on and off at will? Or like Donovan, whose standards were his own, invented by himself, and who had no one to please but himself?

Look at Katherine and Heather,. They were perfectly happy in their ugly, bad-breath world of Pokémon and Nintendo. Look at Carissa, Melissa, Sonja, and Karlyn. They spent their free time watching MTV and painting their nails. Karlyn practiced her clarinet half an hour a day, and if she squawked through Clair de Lune at her teacher’s house recital, her parents brought her flowers and took her out to dinner.

But Mariel did not really want to be like any of them. She pitied them, their sloppy, undisciplined lives. How much they were missing. What joy they were missing. It was a hard thing to realize that she had more in common with Halerie, and Annabelle Li, and Mr. D’Alessandro than she did with her friends, or even her own mother.


Katherine and Heather had finished eating but had not bothered to clean up their mess, and now were leaning across their own crumbs, still arguing about the cheat codes. Katherine had bits of crushed Frito clinging all over the front of her dark blue sweater. Shuddering, Mariel headed for the trash can. There was Melissa, heading towards her from the other direction. With her blue-beaded headband and her ballerina posture, Melissa moved like the queen of the lunchroom that she was destined to become when they got to eighth grade.

“Why didn’t you sit with us?” said Melissa.

“You didn’t ask me,” said Mariel. “There wasn’t room.”

“You don’t need an engraved invitation,” said Melissa. She dumped her trash and rubbed her hands together. As if that would make them clean. “What did Dill want to talk to you about, anyway?”

Mariel shrugged.

“You sat with the freaks instead,” accused Melissa.

“I was talking to Donovan.”

“Oh, well, he’s a cutie. Speaking of which,” Melissa bent towards Mariel and lowered her voice, “what would you say if somebody asked you if you like Zach D.?”

“Zach D.?” Mariel stared at her, mortified. Zach D. was in seventh grade. He was already growing a mustache. Every sixth-grade girl had a crush on him. Fifth-graders followed his love life closely, but none of them dared declare her affection for someone so old and popular.

Melissa’s eyes were merry with excitement.

“No way,” said Mariel. “He’s like eight feet tall.”

“Well, Tierney told me he likes you.”

Mariel began to walk towards the door, and Melissa followed. It was a trap.

“She’s just making fun of me,” said Mariel. “Everyone knows Tierney likes Zach.”

“No, no,” said Melissa urgently. “That was last month. Didn’t you hear that she and Jason are going out now?”

“No way.”

“Way. He asked her at the skating party. You weren’t there. You had a concert or something.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter. You can tell her I don’t like Zach. He’s too old for me.”

“Are you crazy?” said Melissa. “He looks exactly like Justin Bieber.” Melissa always said that. Mariel didn’t know if she were right or not, because she was unsure exactly which one of the pop stars taped up inside Melissa’s locker was Justin Bieber.

“I’ll tell them you need some time to think about it,” said Melissa wisely.

Mariel opened her mouth to protest, but then the end-of-lunch chimes started, calling them back from the cafeteria to the safety of their classrooms, to social studies and language arts. When the chimes stopped, Melissa was talking again, something about a sleepover party on Friday, renting Saw III, staying up all night. That would never happen, Mariel wanted to tell her. She needed to practice her scales. She had to practice her concerto, and her orchestra part. Music Prep began at 8:30 Saturday morning.

But Melissa was already pulling her along with the crush of kids heading for the doors. Everyone was watching her, Mariel, the point-of-view character. Something was happening that was simultaneously obvious and impossible to comprehend. Everyone wanted to be like her (inexplicably taken under Melissa’s wing!) but that didn’t mean they liked her. She caught Dill’s eye watching her on the other side of the plate glass, and when he saw her looking back at him, he gave her a thumbs-up.

“Creep,” murmured Mariel. But Melissa didn’t hear. She was shrieking with laughter and running after Tierney. Mariel hurried behind them, feeling her own self evaporate, like steam, like nothing at all, into the crowd.

Karen Rile is the author of the novel, Winter Music (Little, Brown) and numerous works of short fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in journals such as The Southern Review, American Writing, Painted Bride Quarterly, Creative Nonfiction, and others. She teaches creative writing (fiction and nonfiction) at the University of Pennsylvania, and is the founding and chief editor of Cleaver Magazine. She has an MFA from Bennington College.

Pictures of You

Send in the Clowns by Rosalind Bloom

Hearing Big Audio Dynamite or Tori Amos, I’m transported to the passenger seat in my brother Manny’s golden pickup truck when he drove me to Ithaca for a college interview. I was 26. He was 23. On the highway, two state troopers pulled us over alongside a stretch of browning cornfields.

One trooper eyed Manny’s hair, which was pulled back into a low ponytail and banded with a scarf. He asked to see the ashtray. I grew quietly concerned.

Manny asked, “What’s the problem, officer?”

“Just let me see the ashtray, son.”

Manny pulled out the ashtray. It was full of potpourri. The officer poked his finger in it and searched its dried petals and leaves.

The other officer asked, “What is that?”

“Something like pot-pour-ree, I think.”


They smelled it. With thinly disguised smirks, they regarded Manny anew. “Why do you have tinted windows, son?”

“Florida sun,” Manny said.

“You’ve got Pennsylvania plates.”

I explained that our mother and sister lived in Miami and that Manny visited them for long periods.

After the troopers cleared Manny, they let us be and drove off.

Manny turned to me and said, “That was close.”

He patted the marijuana in his pocket, half-winking at me and chuckling, “Pot-pour-ree.”

I shuddered and, after a moment, laughed.

We drove, listening to the big, upbeat sounds of Big Audio Dynamite and the haunting lyricism of Tori Amos, artists I had never heard before. I bought their CDs when I returned home and they became my favorites. I would remember the car ride to Ithaca, Manny in the driver’s seat with his long hair, his marbled scarf, his denim cut-offs, his arm draped across the steering wheel, and the white line of the highway leading us onward and away.


When I was in fifth grade, I entered into a severe depression and attempted suicide several times. I remember little from this time, and I don’t know if there was a particular incident that caused my despair. Perhaps my hopelessness arose from my father’s physical abusiveness, my mother’s emotional frigidity, and the favoritism they showed Manny.

He was the sole male child in a Cuban-American family, and thus received significant cultural privileges via more affection, material possessions, attention, and freedom. Too often, I would stand by the checkout line as Father bought Manny a train, while he wouldn’t buy me the purple-haired troll I wanted. These experiences, however, had nuances too subtle for a child to appreciate. Manny would have been too young to understand my feelings, and I was too young to understand that those ostensible gifts were mainly intended for my father’s enjoyment.

Two years later, I emerged from my depression with a strong will to change—and live. Music played an important role in my early attempts at self-determination. Seeking solace and inspiration, I listened to the Beatles, Olivia Newtown-John, Kiss, The Knack, Fleetwood Mac, and The Cars. I would write in a journal with song quotes peppering the entries. I developed a new identity.

I also began making friends, something which, for once, I had and my younger sibling didn’t. Whenever Manny tried to tag along, I’d rebuff him and glance back in conflicted triumph as he stood on the tree-lined sidewalk staring at me. Once, Mother forced me to take Manny along to a pool with my best friend. At the pool, I ignored him completely. When we returned home, he told my mother who then pressed a lit cigarette into my hand.

Manny could not know how jealous I had been at the attention he received, which, I realized later, was significant only in comparison to the neglect I had experienced. I knew Manny was lonely at school, taunted by pejorative nicknames and bullied. At home, my father was physically and verbally abusive towards his sensitive son. I sympathized with my brother and, sometimes, felt pangs of remorse. But, as an adolescent, I could also easily tamp those pangs. Life owed me, I thought, and Manny was one of the reasons why.

My perspective changed when, late in his high school career, Manny discovered the Scorpions, then the Smiths, Sisters of Mercy, and Morrissey. I’d open my bedroom door and listen to the music emanating from his room below. Once, I was compelled downstairs to listen more closely and found myself sitting on Manny’s bed. We listened to U2’s October. I became an avid fan, of the music and of my brother.

Manny had changed. He grew his hair long, wore hippie-surfer-dude-cool-enough-for-goth styled clothes and developed a tender handsomeness emphasized by his sidelong glances and quiet chuckles. Suddenly, he seemed always ready to flee, so he would. After high school, he would drive away and stay in unknown places for indefinite periods of time.

When Manny graduated from Lower Merion High School, my parents divorced, and my mother and sister moved to Miami. I would visit annually. During one visit, Manny unexpectedly asked me if I wanted to go to a club. I was thrilled by this rare offer. I freshened up in the bathroom quickly and then examined the clothes I’d packed with trepidation. With full appreciation of their inadequacy, I displayed my two best options for the evening: a blouse with white capri jeans or a tie-dye cover-up. Manny shook his head. No way.

Instead, he gave me one of his black t-shirts and his black jeans. I wore them with giddy delight. We drove out in his truck and parked near warehouses by an empty beach. We walked onto the beach, and the ocean breeze pressed the fabric of his black t-shirt and his black jeans against my skin. The air was delicious against my face and neck. Though I had not smoked weed in years, I couldn’t resist when Manny offered me his joint. We alternated tokes as we walked. I imagined I inhaled the moonlight. Being with Manny, I felt new. Remade in his clothes and the salty air. The moon high, its light a shimmering ray on the rippling ocean. We meandered along the water’s edge, listening to the crest and fall of the waves.

When we finished smoking, we walked back up the beach to the Kitchen Sink, a club with glowing cutlery hanging from the black ceiling. Sipping our drinks, we leaned against a high table watching people dance below multicolored spot lights amid the twirling flatware.

Then, Pictures of You by The Cure played.

The steady snare accentuated the twangy bass in a hypnotic rhythm. Manny set down his drink and walked to the dance floor. He headed right to the center. His shoulder-length hair was loose, his Adam’s apple prominent. Manny closed his eyes and tilted his face upward towards the white bulb above. Under the spotlight, space all around him, all else in the shadows, arms limp at his sides, fingers slack, he swayed.


Manny and I tried to maintain a relationship in our adulthood, but it never coalesced into steady contact. Even after Manny had settled in Pennsylvania, no matter how many times I would visit him, the interval of time before our next get-together increased. He pursued a career as a sound engineer and met and married his wife; meanwhile, I pursued my academic studies, worked as an administrative assistant, and met and married my husband. We lived an hour’s driving distance from each other, but traffic along the intervening King of Prussia corridor could lengthen the commute significantly. Manny could not endure the gridlock.

Despite my efforts to connect with Manny over the years, I was the one who broke our relationship. At 42, I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, and I asked Manny not to tell anyone in the family. I feared their indifference, and I knew Manny would keep that promise.

When I first told him, Manny answered with stunned silence. I held the phone to my ear, staring at the crumbs on my kitchen counter, waiting for him to say something empathetic. He never did. He called me the next day and said, “I talked to this guy at work. He had testicular cancer. He told me it wasn’t too bad. You’ll be alright.”

I understood his words had an aim, except the target wasn’t the deep place I needed. He had meant, I believe, to lessen the scope of suffering, if not mine then his. Doing so may have mitigated his obligations towards me—after all, if cancer was not “too bad,” it did not then warrant any special effort on his part—but it may have relieved him of some anxiety for me. Still, I wanted Manny to visit me. I needed to know he loved me enough to visit me one more time, just in case.

Instead, he would call every week. He began each call with a polite inquiry about my health, but if I told him about my fears or my pain, he said little except, “Stay positive and it’ll be alright.” I learned to withhold the information I wished to share with him. Mostly, Manny would talk about the used cabin cruiser his wife had purchased for him. The boat needed repairs and he related these in detail: techniques, costs, the difficulty finding replacement parts, the complicated business of docking. I tried to imagine the intricate maneuvers of exiting or parking the boat at the dock as he described. But I found it difficult to maintain interest, especially given the daily struggles I was experiencing. With each call, I’d swallow more confusion. I’d remind myself the calls themselves were proof he cared, but how could I continue to interpret the content of these calls as heartfelt concern? I wanted so much more.

About four months into my treatment, I was leaving the cancer center and walking across Washington Square when I listened to a voice message from Manny. Our sister’s husband was having dizzy spells, and the doctors were unable to determine why. Our mother who previously had few kind words for him was flying down to help care for him. Manny was worried, saying he “felt really bad” and calling our brother-in-law “a poor guy.” He thought I needed to know.

I had to sit down on a bench and breathe. All the concern I wanted for myself, Manny had just expressed for our brother-in-law. How much time had they actually spent together?

I couldn’t handle the lack of our interactions anymore. I was overwhelmed enough by cancer. I emailed Manny a request:

“Dear Manny, the things that you’ve said and, even more, the things that you haven’t done have been so incredibly hurtful. I need you to just not contact me for a long while—at least until I’m over what is such a difficult time. How about if I call you when I’m ready? This is not to make you have a guilty conscience. I love you, but let’s face it, if you’re not going to be there for me as family or as a friend when I have something like cancer, what is the point? Take good care and have a good summer.”


Later that afternoon I was at work when Manny left me a message. He yelled, “I have never known anyone—ANYONE—who pushes her family away! Don’t you know family is all you have?” He explained, “You told me not to tell anyone, and my wife doesn’t know, so how could I visit you? I know that you’re sick, but it doesn’t give you any excuse to behave in this way!” After a pause, he yelled, “Fine! Be that way!”

I completed my treatment in the fall, but I did not call him. I was deeply hurt he had not contacted me again. For a few years, I wondered what I could want from a future relationship with Manny, if that was even possible. It was a long time before I could understand that, in order to have a relationship with Manny, I could not expect any satisfying emotional reciprocity. He had become more emotionally removed than I had ever known him to be. I would have to accept what he could give: calls, visits to him, or meeting points.

In recent years, I have tried contacting him to no avail.

For most of my adult life, I was afraid of the suicidal child I had once been. I believed she resided in me, waiting to return, waiting to test my family, longing for their sympathy. I imagined she waited inside me, hoping an illness would solicit their attention and prove that, yes, their love would materialize before I died.

This secret wish threatened my survival.

If Manny were to have proven their love by visiting me or offering tangible concern, perhaps my familial longings would have been assuaged. Instead, he confirmed my family’s truancy. Though his response was egregious to me, it was, if not life-saving, ultimately liberating. Later, I would come to realize I had been suicidal as a child because of my family’s dysfunction and not because of an organic psychological flaw as I had always believed.

I think about the unspoken confusion and discomfort of our last interactions. I think of how much I wanted to feel close to Manny. How much I wanted to lose my perpetual awkwardness with him. How much I hated that nothing, not even cancer, could remedy our disconnection.


Watching Manny dance that night at the Kitchen Sink, I almost laughed. To me, his sway-dance was one arm-movement away from standing. I did not laugh. My admiration for him, maybe even my love for him, held me for another minute. Perhaps I knew even then, I needed to safeguard this image of him.

I joined him on the dance floor, shuffling and bobbing in a subdued manner I hoped would match his style.

I see it clearly now.

Dancing together, brother and sister, knives and forks dangling overhead.

Adriana Lecuona is honored to contribute to Philadelphia Stories. A native Philadelphian, she now lives in Wallingford with her husband and son. Recently she completed an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. She has a previous MFA in Film & Media Arts from Temple University and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania. Ms. Lecuona’s work has appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette, Be Well Philly, Somos En Escrito, and others.

New Speedway Boogie

“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?”

Dancer by Rinal Parikh

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.

Jacqueline Marie!

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.

“Thanks, Sissy.”

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.