Rip Current

Woman on Beach
Courtesy of

Part 3 (Read part 1 and part 2) (Spoilers ahead!)

The night Penny died Nols wasn’t there.

She had worked a double shift earlier, and they’d headed to a party at the house of one of Moises’s friends around two a.m.  Nols remembered she wanted to visit the boardwalk in the morning.  “We’ll rent bikes and ride the whole thing.  Twice,” Penny said, popping the cap from a beer bottle.  “If you can wake up that is—riding ends at 10:30.”

Nols groaned.  “I’ll try.”

Then they sat on the couch together, talking with two guys from Rehoboth.  The four toasted each other, then toasted England, then American involvement in World War II.  “Yanks drink horrible tea, but other than that you’re all right,” Penny concluded.  Moises had a beer sitting next to him on the coffee table and, without looking up, worked a pen over paper, drawing.

He and Nols didn’t recall when Penny left the party.  Nols remembered the slow way the room moved, how this hippie bartender brought along his bow-legged pit bull.  When he woke at ten in the morning, Nols found her coat and clothes, but her shoes were missing.


Nols learned the basic facts about Penny’s death from the police, and all night, while he and Jorge drove, he had pulled apart those facts.  Listed details.  Replayed his memories of her, searching, hoping to fill what was missing from that night. The way he would later tell it over and again, the only sequence that felt true was this: Before dawn Penny walked down to the sand, right along the ocean.  He imagined the mole crabs dug holes under her feet.  She probably felt serene when she stepped into the water, sensing the waves’ chill, the sea foam that tumbled up then slid back.  She wasn’t thinking about tides when she swam out to see the city lights from beyond the breakers, wasn’t thinking about rip currents, narrow rushes of water that surge offshore.  He imagined Penny looked back to the boardwalk, the electric light shimmering in broken zigzags across the black ocean.  Then she felt weakness in her thighs and arms and started back to shore.  Pulling at the water, she looked up only to find the boardwalk was further away, her fatigue worse.  Aching.  Her lungs burned.  Nols wondered if Penny realized then she was helpless, that she wasn’t going to make it back.  He imagined the salt water eclipsing her vision, hinting at the inky darkness below, and when she stopped treading water then slipped underneath the surface, weighed down by her own body.


When they were three blocks from Penny’s apartment Nols asked if they could drive a while longer.  “I feel sick,” he said.  “The rum, maybe.”  He could see that Moises knew he was lying, asking for time.  But soon they would be standing in that compressed living room with her four roommates.  Soon they would admit to everyone Penny’s body was found on a barrier island.

“Sure, I still have a quarter tank,” Moises said. “Just don’t throw up in my car.”

They neared the inlet and headed west, over the bridge and along the beginning of Route 50, leaving Ocean City.  Dawn spilled over the bay, and Nols felt the sun through the window.

They drove through a tangle of houses, along streets and canals.  Light flickered through spindly trees.  They stopped at an elementary school where no children were playing; swings hung empty.

He could see Penny again, as the police had revealed her at the station.  A dribble of foam clung to the edge of her mouth, a slice of seaweed to her hair.  Penny’s eyes were glistening and half-open as if she were only nodding off.

Then he couldn’t bear sitting in the car any longer: the seat felt hot on his back; the belt squeezed his chest.  Nols stumbled from the Camaro and gasped in humidity.  Shaking, he knelt in the grass and looked out at the field—the patches of soil and clumps of dandelions.

As he stood and ran, eyes closed, feeling rushing air on his face and popping dandelion stems against his sneaker tops, he dreamed a thousand things.  Behind Nols seeds caught breeze and painted the lonely morning with wishes.


Rip Current

Photo of Ocean City's Board Walk
Courtesy of

Published in Think Journal in 2010; Finalist in the Delaware Beach Life Writing Contest 2007

Part 1

Penny’s four roommates were waiting back at the apartment so Nols and Moises drove north on Coastal Highway instead. Neither mentioned they had passed the clumps of buildings where Penny lived, even when they had gone sixty streets beyond the hotels at the end of the boardwalk.

Nols slumped in the seat of Moises’s Camaro. Street light sliced across the peeling dashboard. Grunge guitar crackled from blown-out speakers. They drove faster, past 100th Street, where crowds and cops thinned. That’s when Moises reached under the seat and pulled out a fifth of rum. Glancing in the rear-view mirror, he drank then passed the bottle.

“I was saving this for a special occasion,” he said, flipping shaggy, brown hair from his eyes. “Tonight’s as good as any, I guess.” Moises was twenty-five, from San Juan, and had yellowed teeth from drinking a pot of coffee every morning.

“I’m not sure I can do this,” Nols whispered, holding the rum against his thigh. “What do I tell them?” He watched tourists playing a cheap miniature golf course: pink with sunburn, they still wore fuchsia swimsuits and flip-flops from the beach. Mosquitoes tumbled in the fluorescent lights above the parking lot.

“You should start with that rum,” Moises said. “Some things nobody should do sober.”


Ocean City, Maryland, and its boardwalk puts on a grand show for tourists. On the stage they find clean entertainment: smart aleck tee shirts, picture key chains, incense, hermit crabs, caramel popcorn, salt water taffy—everything costs a mint, payment in cash.

Behind that façade, where smorgasbord eaters can’t see, live the stiffs who work at crab shacks or wrap threadlocks in your kids’ hair. Girls from Europe and former soviet countries; boys on work permits from England, Scotland or Ireland. They slum in efficiency apartments by the half dozen drinking Rolling Rock beer. They smoke pot on balconies, blaring Alice in Chains three blocks from the minivans in the inlet.

That’s how Nols met Penny: they both waited tables at a seafood restaurant on the bay. Moises cooked in the kitchen. All day the fishing boats and jet skis motored across the water, cutting wake. Nobody called him Allen that summer—plain, boring Allen. Penny, who came from London, started calling him Nols because his last name is Nolan. Everyone else did, too.

On slow days, the waitstaff pretended they came from different countries. Nols faked being from Dublin but sounded Scottish; Penny played American. “Welcome! I’m Lisa, a college student from Indiana,” Penny told a table of four guys on a golf vacation. “Customers tip better when they think you’re poor, young and American,” she told him later and put her finger to her lips in a silent Shh.

Nols was a local, living with his parents before going back to Frostburg State in the fall: he knew she was right.


In his wallet, Nols kept his two favorite pictures of Penny, half a column of those four black-and-white shots that only come from photo booths. The kind that go in sequence. The kind that couples buy on the boardwalk to mark their romance’s giddy beginning.

That July evening Nols had spun the stool to the right height, crammed in the tiny booth with Penny on his lap, then pulled the powder blue curtain closed. The light was hot, like he imagined a movie set would be, and there they were together: his hands pressed against her ribs, feeling her breath; Penny grinning, her crooked eyeteeth turned out. Then the camera flash, sharp, unexpected.

They held the photographs, still wet with chemicals, and agreed Penny would keep the first two snapshots, and Nols the others. He had memorized the entire progression. In the first two, Penny and he were smiling, her temple on his cheek; the third, they wagged their tongues. The fourth picture captured them kissing, like kids’ faces pressed on a window, their teeth clicking against each other. Nols and Penny laughed afterward, surprised and embarrassed by what just happened: their first kiss.

Be sure to check back September 22 for Part 2.

Classic German Army Cold Weather Parka (In the Style of J. Peterman)

Check Point Charlie. Berlin. November 1989.


As a border guard on the east side of the Wall you had only heard the word as a faint echo,

Berlin Wall falling
(Photo from the German Missions to the United States, Germany Info )

somewhere beyond. But it grew louder at midnight as people gathered at the gate, their traveling papers in hand. Thousands stood shoulder to shoulder.

Other guards looked to you then lowered their rifles as Berliners, east and west, fell into one another, embracing, laughing through sobs.

An old man wept, pausing at the checkpoint, rebalancing on his cane, before walking to meet his family again. Twenty years. He had bought and kept all of their birthday gifts for two decades, waiting. Boys with hammers and axes climbed the wall. They scanned, turning, taking in the whole of Berlin, and smiled, shouting, then striking the wall. They chipped the concrete until it finally cracked.

You nodded then reached in your parka for a cigarette. A united Berlin; this was truly a night to celebrate.

Classic German Army Cold Weather Parka. Four front pockets and one inside meant you never ran out of space for gear. Heavy duty material with hood and removable fleece liner promised years of all-season wear.

Zipper and button fastening. Shoulders finished with tri-color, stitched German flag. Drawstrings at waist and hood. Durable. Comfortable.The start of a revolution.

Price: $238.

Sizes: S (36″), M (38″), L (40″).

Color: Drab olive.

Live Blogging This Weekend at The Philly Folk Fest

Check back all this weekend for my live updates from The Philadelphia Folk Festival on CultureMob.

Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy at Folk Fest 2010.

Also, I will be hosting a spoken word programat the festival at 5 p.m. on Friday at the

Lobby Stage. Remember that time you saw the tents fly over the trees? What about the haunted house camp site? Stop by to hear true stories of festivals of years past and share your own at this all-ages program. The best storyteller will receive a special surprise.

New Story: “Dessert Animals”

Picture of Choclate ScorpionI visited my cousin in Phoenix because he promised we would check out the “dessert animals” together. In the plane I dreamed of rare delights: sucking down a Jell-O sidewinder shooter; nibbling a chocolate scorpion. “So when should we go to the zoo?” he asked at the airport, heat shimmering off the sand. When he dropped my luggage in his car’s backseat a set of brand new silverware clanked. I thought, damn you, typos. Damn you.

(Entered in Painted Bride Quarterly‘s Sidecar #5 Contest)