That’s me standing on the porch of the summer house we always rented. I drove by the old place today. Sunset Lane, which is just off Depot Street. The house still has that aqua-green paint job. Four other summer houses crowd around it, almost like they’re boxing it in, or protecting it. I don’t remember those other houses being so right on top of each other, taking up the whole lane. Everything seemed bigger back then.
Look at me. Hard to believe how skinny and little I was. She’s not in the shot, but my sister Liz, who was one year younger, towered over me, and probably outweighed me by a solid twenty pounds. Would you just look at that kid? Those legs are skinnier and whiter than the porch slats. This was, what, 1986, so I’d just turned thirteen. This is the first picture on that vacation roll. I always had to be in the roll’s first picture by myself. It was my thing.
That’s my mother carrying the towels. She already looks aggravated. I would’ve been too. None of us kids helped to unpack. The other woman is her younger sister, my Aunt Christine. She was my coolest aunt. She lived in Boston and always liked to play games or take us kids to the movies. I think that’s an emergency rainy-day puzzle box tucked under her arm. Aunt Christine and my parents were in their mid-thirties. Jesus, everyone was just so young. People don’t do that anymore, do they? Have kids so young.
My cheap camera makes everyone look so far away. It broke before the end of the summer. That group of people running away, on the right side of the house, they’re hard to make out, but that’s my younger brother, Ronnie, slung over my Dad’s shoulder. He stole Dad’s floppy Budweiser hat and tried to make a quick escape. You can kind of see the hat bunched up in one hand. Ronnie was eight and built like a hobbit. Liz was tickling Ronnie, trying help Dad. She always took his side over ours.
Here’s Ronnie and his summer buzz cut, standing in a big sand pit we spent most of the day digging. Can’t really tell in the picture but he had this white patch of hair on the right side of his head. Buzzed that short, it looked like the map of some island country.
The sand at the bottom of that pit was shockingly wet and cold. I couldn’t admit it to Ronnie, but we got to a point where I didn’t want to stick my head in and reach down to dig anymore. I was a big scaredy cat. Always was, especially compared to Ronnie.
We’re on one of those Nantucket Sound beaches off of Old Wharf Road. I remember the road as a long string of nameless hotels and motels and restaurants and beaches fitting together, squares on a chess board. In this picture, we’re at the public beach next to what’s now called the Edgewater Beach Resort. I don’t remember what was there back then. Isn’t that terrible? So many of the little details always go missing. Maybe if I hadn’t been too pre-occupied with taking pictures, I would’ve remembered more.
Check this out: I caught it by accident, but those legs there, upper right corner, those are my Dad’s legs. He was following Aunt Christine to the water, but then he stopped to talk to some big guy wearing long pants, shoes, and a yellow shirt. The yellow shirt I remember vividly. I didn’t get a great look at him otherwise, but I remember him being bigger and older than my Dad.
I asked Ronnie who Dad was talking to. Ronnie didn’t know. We waited for Dad to come back, we wanted to bury him in the pit since it was too deep for either one of us. When he got back and we asked who he was talking to, he said, “Just some guy.” We were all used to Dad talking to random people: grocery store, baseball game, walking down the street, didn’t matter to him. Used to embarrass the hell out of us (especially Liz) all the time. Talking to strangers and getting them to laugh or at least smile was simply what he did.
Ronnie and I tried to sneak up behind Dad and push him into the pit. He threw us in instead. I knocked heads with Ronnie. We were fine, but I got real mad at my father, mad like only a new teenager can. Dad didn’t care. He held us down and buried us in the sand.
Rainy day picture. The choice was go with Dad, who went off by himself to pick up groceries, or stay in the house and work on a puzzle with everyone else. I stayed, but I hated puzzles, and sat and listened to Def Leppard and The Scorpions on my walkman.
No one really likes puzzles. Mom, Aunt Christine, Liz, and Ronnie don’t look excited or at all happy. You can tell by the way Mom has her arms crossed and is turned away from the table. They were all out of patience and annoyed with each other.
That’s how I remember puzzles ending: nothing getting solved and people walking away muttering to themselves.
Here we are playing wiffle ball with the boys who stayed in the house next to us. I don’t remember their names. They were from Jersey. The tall red-head was my age and had terrible acne. Looked like his skin hurt all the time. The short red-head was a couple of years older than Ronnie, had round Mr. Peabody glasses, and instead of acne his face was full of freckles. They were geekier than I was, which is saying something. Back home kids at school and in the neighborhood picked on me a lot, and I never said boo. But Dennisport wasn’t home, it was somewhere else, and I became the de facto leader of our little summer group: me, my brother (sis Liz wouldn’t be seen with any of us), the Jersey Reds.
The first couple of days we tried following around this girl from Italy, Isabella. Her name I remember. She was only twelve, maybe even eleven, but she looked older than me, I promise. She didn’t speak any English, had curly light brown hair down to her butt, and wore short-shorts with white trim. She tolerated us for a bit, but ended up hanging around with a group of kids older than us.
When we weren’t following Isabella around, we spied on my father.
Yeah, I took a picture of my hand holding a glass bottle of Coke. There was this small motel down Old Wharf, right before one of the public beaches that had an antique Coke bottle vending machine. It was expensive, and the bottles were small, held less than cans, but I was convinced the Coke tasted better in glass bottle form.
It was down here at the vending machine where we first started spying on my father. Ronnie saw him walking across the sand-filled motel parking lot. Him in his thick black beard, already tan, and he was muscular in wiry kind of way. I used to obsess over how different I was from my father.
Us kids instinctively ducked behind a parked car, our group wordlessly deciding we were going to jump out and scare Dad or try and tackle him into some nearby sand dune. No way the four of us could’ve taken him.
He didn’t walk by us, though. He veered off toward a set of motel rooms. He stopped seemingly at random and knocked on a blue door. The door opened and he went inside. No greeting or anything, he just went in and the door shut behind him.
Spying on your Dad is a younger kid’s game, for sure. But being on vacation, away from home like that, away from who you were (particularly if you didn’t like who you were), was like permission to be and act younger than ourselves. Unless Isabella was around, of course.
So we tried waiting Dad out, but he didn’t walk back through that blue door. We got bored and went to the beach.
Ronnie took this picture without me knowing. The younger Jersey Red said that maybe my Dad was cheating on my mother with the motel maid. So I jumped him, and put him in this headlock and forced him into the water. I remember not feeling all that strong, but he let me hold on and give him his fair share of noogies.
That’s the same Coke-bottle motel. Early the next morning Dad said he was going out for a jog. Ronnie and I followed him. We both stayed quiet, taking this much more seriously than the game it supposedly was.
I tried getting a shot with the blue door open, hoping I could see who was behind it, but, clearly, I failed. I mean, it’s partially open and when I first got this picture developed, if you looked hard enough, you could see the ghost of my father’s shoulder disappearing in the shadow of the room. But you can’t see it anymore.
We’re in some record store in downtown Yarmouth. That’s a picture of the wall of tee shirts, and the Scorpions one there in the middle that I couldn’t buy. I’d already spent my money on a Sandy Koufax baseball card at the card shop next door. It wasn’t his rookie year card, but a 1962 Topps that was still pretty sweet.
That afternoon was kind of a slog through the gift shops and kitsch stores. We tried to be good little tourists. It was hot, the streets were crowded, and other than the candy store (I filled up on salt water taffy and Nerds), we all wanted to go to different places. I fought with Liz who didn’t want to go anywhere. Mom and Dad fought over where to eat. You could tell Aunt Christine was pissed, because she took Ronnie off on her own. Then Liz and Mom, arguing with each other but quietly at least, went off. I went with Dad to the baseball card store, then the record store, and Dad wouldn’t buy me anything.
When we all met back later, Ronnie was smiling and carrying monster movie posters. The kid was taunting me with them. I whined to Dad that how come he wouldn’t buy me a lousy tee shirt. Dad asked me how old I was in a way that made everyone go quiet.
I moved this picture to the end of the album. Notice how the empty rectangle of space is a different shade of green compared to the rest of the page. It’s darker. And it’s ironic that the original or true color of the photo album page was preserved by the photo, preserved by that piece of the past.
This one’s blurry because Ronnie hit my elbow as I was taking the shot of the movie marquee. He did it on purpose. I punched him in the shoulder and almost went at it with him right there in line. We were on edge because we were both nervous about how scary the movie was going to be. At least, I was on edge. Ronnie had seen tons of horror movies on cable but this was going to be his first in a theater. He didn’t say much as a kid, but he’d been talking about seeing this movie all day long.
Dad and Aunt Christine took us to see the remake of The Fly. Mom stayed home by herself and played solitaire. She said she didn’t like horror movies, but she’d been staying back at the house by herself a lot that vacation.
I arranged it so Liz sat on the aisle, then Ronnie, me, Dad, and Aunt Christine. During the movie Liz and Ronnie whispered jokes to each other, and Dad and Aunt Christine did the same. I hugged my knees to my chest and white-knuckled the whole flick. The slow and inexorable transformation of nice-guy mad-scientist Jeff Goldblum into Brundlefly was terrifying, revolting, and really kind of sad in a way that I couldn’t explain. I’d sneak peeks at Dad to make sure he wasn’t changing, wasn’t melting before my eyes, and that he looked like he was supposed to.
Then there was that gross end scene, where Brundlefly vomited up his digestive enzymes on the guy’s hand and melted it. Man, I lost my breath and my legs started moving like I was going to up and run out of the theater.
I looked away and watched Dad watching the movie instead. And during those screams and other horrible violent sounds of Brundlefly’s demise happening somewhere on that movie screen, I almost asked Dad who he was seeing in that motel.
On Main Street, not too far from our rental, near the corner of routes 28 and 134, there was a pocket of kiddie places: ice cream shack, an old bumper car place, and a trampoline fun park. It was just me, Ronnie, and Dad. The trampolines were sunk into the ground, surrounded by gravel. When you landed it felt like you were shrinking, or melting away like Brundlefly.
This is a picture of the parking lot at the bumper car place. We did the bumpers before ice cream, but after trampolines. Before this shot, everyone, even people I didn’t know, would drive their bumper cars into Dad because he was laughing the loudest, calling people out, being a goof. Like I said, everyone loved him.
Ronnie and I got back in line for a second and third go round on the bumpers. Dad went out to the parking lot. I couldn’t follow him outside without being too obvious. Instead, from the bumper car line, I tried to get a shot of him. I couldn’t see who he was talking too, but I heard him talking. All you can see here is a screen window, and some cars in the lot. There was a better view of the lot from the bumper car floor, but every time I was close to seeing who he was talking to, I got blindsided, usually by Ronnie.
This is a picture of the first and only summer group meeting I called in my bedroom. It’s a good action shot. That white blur there is the pillow I threw at the Jersey Reds before snapping the picture.
We started off talking about music. They liked rap, which was typical Jersey, right? Then we talked about Isabella and trying to get her to come with us to the ice cream place on Sea Street. Then we talked about girlfriends back home. None of us had any. But in a fit of personal confession that was clearly out of place, I admitted to having a terrible, hopeless crush on a girl named J.J. Katz. The Jersey Reds thought that was the funniest thing they’d ever heard and spent ten minutes shouting dyn-o-mite like the guy from the TV show Good Times. I kind of lost my status as the leader of the group right there.
Then we talked about our theories of what my father was up to. When I say we, I’m not including Ronnie. He just sat there and didn’t say anything. Most of what was said wasn’t serious and was part of the game, Dad as secret agent man kind of stuff, until I opened my yap and was again probably too honest for the moment, too honest for the room. I told them how my father would bet on football in the fall, how he’d bring home from work what he called his football cards. They were white rectangular and cardboard, printed with a list of teams and point spreads. He’d pick 4 teams, or 10 teams, or both, and sometimes, he’d let me pick a few of the teams for him.
I didn’t really know anything about what was happening with Dad, but I think it sounded like I did.
I remember almost telling them about a few months before that vacation, when I was upstairs in my bedroom listening to my parents arguing in the kitchen, Dad saying, “It’ll be okay,” and “I’m sorry,” and Mom too hysterical for me to understand, until she screamed “Fuck you,” ran out of the kitchen, and kicked out one of the small plate glass windows in the front door.
The Mr. Peabody glasses kid started in again with his your-father-was-hooking-up-with-another-woman theory. He said my father looked like the kind of guy who could get women to go to a hotel with him. Ronnie still didn’t say anything, but I could tell he was upset. To be honest, I was kind of proud that my Dad looked like that kind of guy, and that it somehow meant that I was cooler.
I held out my camera and told the Jersey Reds that I had evidence and that it wasn’t my Dad with some other girl. They asked if I had any pictures of dyn-o-mite J.J. on my camera. That’s when I threw the pillow and took the picture.
Dad came home from a morning jog with a black eye. He laughed and said he slid on some sand, fell, and hit his face off a duck-shaped mailbox. I was surprised he let me take this picture. I don’t think he wanted me to, but what could he say or do with the rest of the family there in the kitchen, pointing and laughing at him?
All right, that’s a picture of the girl from Italy, Isabella, walking away and waving at us. We’d tracked her down and asked her if she wanted to go for ice cream. She pretended to not understand what we were asking despite the Jersey Reds’ embarrassing ice cream pantomime. Which was fine. I got a picture, anyway.
There’s a time gap here with the pictures. I can’t remember if there were more photos and lost them, or if I didn’t take them. Sometimes I wonder how much of this I would have remembered if there were no photos, no proof of what happened.
Here we are eating breakfast at the Egg and “I”. Everyone looks haggard and frazzled because there were only a few days left to the vacation. The Jersey Reds were gone. It was just us. We were all fighting and annoying each other. And again, maybe it’s only the lens of elapsed time making it all clearer, but we were all on edge. Something was going on with Dad but no one knew what, and no one was talking about it.
Aunt Christine and Mom are looking away from the camera and away from each other. Mom might be staring at the ashtray she filled. Liz has her hand in front of her face, and Ronnie, never quite the exhibitionist anyway, his face is a complete blank. He’d been like that since the morning of Dad’s black eye, which was the same morning I told him about the big fight back home and Mom kicking the window out.
They’re pissed off at me for taking a stupid picture of the table. Or maybe they were all thinking about Dad, and asking themselves why he had to make a call from the payphone three booths over.
Check out this shot. This was the small private beach for our little Depot St./Sunset Lane association, a patch of steeply sloped sand next to the big Ocean House restaurant. When it was high tide, it wasn’t really even a beach, more like a dune, or a cliff of sand. I went to that beach today and I don’t know if it’s because of erosion or my memory exaggerated everything, but there’s barely a discernable slope back there now.
Ronnie spent our second to last day of vacation running and jumping off the steep slope, catching major air, and crashing knee-deep into the sand at the bottom. He jumped so much, he had raspberries on his legs after.
I did it with him a few times, but the landing hurt my ankles. It was too steep for me. I went off to the side and climbed up the base of a rock jetty, and asked what he thought was going on with Dad and he said, “I don’t know.” I asked if he was going to get up wicked early with me to follow him on his jog. He said, “I don’t know.” And that was it. He jumped, climbed back up, and jumped.
This is a great shot of Ronnie in mid-jump, arms extended behind him, feet out in front, eyes closed. You look at this long enough, you start to expect him to land.
There isn’t much to see in this one, right? Too dark.
I woke up with the front screen door shutting. It bounced in the frame, hinges squeaking. That door is still squeaking as far as I am concerned. It was dark out, but I didn’t look at a clock, didn’t wake up Ronnie or anyone else. Just threw on my sneakers, grabbed my camera off the night stand, and ran outside.
It was a cloudy night, and I couldn’t see the moon or any stars. I didn’t see Dad anywhere and was worried that I had been too slow. The streets were empty and so were the beaches and the restaurant parking lots. I headed toward the Coke-bottle motel and didn’t see him there either. But that room he usually went to, the motel door was wide open, and inside, the lights were off. I ran as quietly as I could across Old Wharf then through the parking lot to another section of the motel just off to the right of the open door. I crept up to it with my back pressed against the motel, camera held out. I was going to walk by the open door, snap a picture, and bolt.
Then I heard something. It sounded far away, like it was carried in by the ocean. It was someone crying. I knew it was Dad, even if I’d never heard him like that before.
I ran to the motel beach but didn’t see anything, so I worked my way back to the Ocean House restaurant, and to our little private beach with its steep slope and rock jetty, and I ducked behind the jetty as I found him. Only he wasn’t alone. Another man was leading him into the water.
It was too dark to see details, but I think there was a bag over Dad’s head. The other guy had something in his hand, a gun maybe. I don’t know. It was low tide, and they were walking way out there, were past the jetty already, but only waist deep in water.
I didn’t know what to do, so I took a picture. I don’t know if either of them saw the flash.
I didn’t see the end either. It was too dark and they were too far out. Only the other man came back to the beach. I ducked down behind the jetty. He walked by, just a few feet away on the other side of the rocks. I heard him breathing heavily.
I barely remember the rest of the night. Don’t remember if I went to the beach to look for Dad. I don’t remember how long I stayed huddled behind the jetty and don’t remember walking back to the house and crawling into bed next to Ronnie. That was where I woke the next morning. I didn’t tell anyone what I saw. I was in shock. I was only thirteen years old.
Two days later, his body washed up on shore. All the stories in the papers were about a tourist drowning on a late night swim.
After we were home, after the funeral, when I picked up my developed pictures, I thought then I’d go to the police, tell them everything, show them everything. But the pictures didn’t show anything, really, and too much time had passed, I was still afraid, and to be honest, I was mad at my father, mad that he’d let something like that happen to him.
So, this picture. There isn’t much to see in it, right? Too dark. When I looked at this, and I looked at this for years and years, every night before I went to bed, like the first picture of the motel room door I showed you, I thought if I looked hard enough, I could see him there in the picture. But you can only make out black water, the outline of the beach and the jetty. Nothing else. You can’t see anything.
There’s another picture I’ve been staring at for years too.
This is what I moved to the last page. I took this after the tee shirt place, but before we all met back up again, so it was just me and Dad. A random picture of my father on the sidewalk of downtown Yarmouth, right? Look closer. Over his left shoulder. See that huge guy two storefronts away, hiding under an awning, but not hiding. He’s watching behind reflective sunglasses, and was wearing a tight white polo shirt, wearing it like a threat, wearing it the same way he wore that yellow shirt. That’s the same yellow shirt guy from the beach Dad was talking to on our first day of vacation.
I’ve been staring at this picture of you for almost twenty-five years, a quarter of a century. It’s hard to understand how all of that time passed so quickly. In many ways I’m still that kid cowering behind the jetty. In other ways, I’m clearly not.
The funny thing is, I never planned for this. It’s not like I’ve been searching for you all this time. I wasn’t even looking for you when I saw you.
The thing of it is, I don’t even want to know why you did what you did. It does and it doesn’t matter. Okay, I think I already know why. It’s not that hard to figure out. And sure, a few years ago, I asked my mother about the big fight I’d heard and why she kicked out the window on the front door. She said that Dad had blown four grand to a bookie. Four grand was a lot of money in 1986, right? Sure it was.
You see this camera? It used to belong to my grandfather. You’re probably about the same age as he was when he died. Anyway, I kept the camera in working condition. Do you remember Polaroids? I’m sure you do. I’m sure you remember lots of things.
So this is you, duct taped to a chair in our hotel room. It’s hard to see with the tape over your mouth, the bruises, the dried blood, but it’s you. I know, compared to the you in the other picture, this you is the grotesque Brundlefly. But this was and is you, even if you are so much smaller than you used to be.
I’ve brought you back down to Dennisport. Just like old times, right? We’re at the Sea Shell Hotel next to the Ocean House restaurant. I put the room on your card but don’t worry, it’s off season, so I got a great room rate.
This is the last picture on the last page of my album. I took this picture while you weren’t awake. Even for someone of your advanced age, you sure do sleep at lot.
I’m not one hundred percent sure what I want out of this. I could just leave you here and go back home to my own young family. Maybe you’d call the police or come after me yourself, or come after me with a little help. Maybe you wouldn’t do anything. Maybe everything would be okay if I just unwrapped you and watched you weakly limp out of here, old man that you are, and more than just a little broken. That might be enough for me.
Maybe later tonight, I’ll take you by the hand, the one that’s shaking even now when it’s taped behind your back, and we’ll take a walk together out into the water, the very same water. But it’s not the same water, it’s different. Maybe that’s okay.
So maybe we’ll walk out there, past the jetty, up to our waists in water, and just stand there and feel the cold all around us. Then maybe, at the very least, you’ll admit who you are and what you did to him and what you did to me.