Ross took his windbreaker off and dropped it on the sand. He hopped from foot to foot and shed his shoes and socks. He continued to hop as the pebbles pinched the soles of his feet.
“What are you doing?” Shannon asked. She didn’t know whether she should be amused or concerned.
“I’m taking a dip.”
“This is a public beach. You can’t take your pants off.”
“I’m wearing drawers.”
“This is a crazy idea.”
“You’ll have to come in with me. I can’t swim.”
“What!” Shannon whacked Ross on the shoulder. “You can’t swim and you’re going into the bay. Are you out of your mind?”
“If something happens, you can rescue me.”
“I could never pull you to safety.”
“You can swim. You won medals on the swim team.”
“I swam in high school pools. I didn’t swim in Delaware Bay.”
“Then an angel will have to keep me from the abysm. Given the nature of this place, it’ll have to be one of the fallen kinds.”
“I could never keep the sea from stealing you.”
“If I went under, I’d make it back. I always make it back from my predicaments. I’d open my eyes in the water and I’d see your face in the light. You’d lead me to safety.”
“Yeah, well, it doesn’t always work that way.”
“It’ll work that way for us. I’m sure it will.”
“This is serious, Ross. The shoreline is not a sure line. The wrack is like the chancel rail in Our Lady of the Sea. Anyone who crosses it uninvited comes to a bad end.”
“We’re all coming to ends, none of them good.”
“I don’t want to be a ghost, not even on my favorite beach.”
“There’s no bad situation that can’t be made worse. But you’re right, it wasn’t a good idea. I’ll postpone the dip till next season.” Ross sat on the beach and pulled his socks and shoes on. “I’ll learn to swim by then.”
“I can’t believe what you wanted to do. You can’t swim and you have a wild idea to go in the bay. You volunteered for the dunk tank in the carnival.”
Ross stood and whipped the air with his windbreaker to clean it of sand. “I could hardly drown in a dunk tank. I could stand in the tank, for Christ sake. If I went under, an onlooker would have ditched his zeppole and thrown me a life preserver.”
“What is it with you and water?”
“What doesn’t kill me piques my curiosity.”
“How is it a strong guy like you never learned to swim?”
“I almost drowned in our family pool.”
“Never mind living water. See how dangerous even still water can be.”
He didn’t tell Shannon the reason he almost drowned. He was in the rooftop pool with Leith and his friends. Leith suddenly swam under him and, seizing him around the waist, pulled him underwater in the deep end of the pool. He struggled to get free of Leith’s grip. He would be safe if he made it to the wall. He could hug the concrete and hoist himself to the pavement. But Leith was too heavy and the weight of the water stole the strength from his arms and legs. His chest burned. The muscles of his larynx pulsed. His throat swelled. It was as if his throat was coming out of his mouth. His lips stayed sealed—his throat would have to rip through the skin of his neck. He couldn’t hold his breath much longer. It was afternoon, but the ripples their struggle churned in the pool became shadows, petrifying and portentous. He felt his body slump. His head was lower than his legs—he wasn’t sure what his posture was. The other people in the pool didn’t look right. They looked wavery and indistinct from the water. They looked like they were in motion, but he wasn’t sure. He wasn’t seeing clearly, he wasn’t seeing anything. He felt an upward tug and pressure on the surface of his chest. At the last moment Leith let go and shoved him in the direction of the wall. Lifting his shoulders out of the pool, he grasped the edge and walked with his arms to the shallow side where he could stand and catch his breath. Leith swam back to his friends. Their raucous laughter mixed with the sound of gagging.
“I want to show you something wonderful,” Shannon said.
“Are you going to take your clothes off?”
“There are tracks in the sand.”
“I know what you mean.” He scratched a rough outline of the letter “S” with his foot. “Tracks in sand are the symbols of our lives—we’re here for a brief while and then we’re gone.”
“No, the tracks are real. They’re going to be in the sand forever.”
She led him across the metal ruins of a pier midway along the beach. The frames of the pier extended nastily upward like the serrated edges of a saw. Laughing gulls led their hike. Tiny birds the size of insects followed. The beach widened and became hilly as they proceeded to the northern end. The dunes were devoid of vegetation. Four pilings broad as tree stumps stood for no explicable reason in the sand. The pilings reached to Ross’s shoulders. A stream of fast-moving fresh water the color of rust divided the beach a few yards north of the pilings. Flowing from an inland source that was out of sight, the flume carved steep banks in the sand several feet across and a few feet deep. The coastline was white and bubbly in a miniature maelstrom at the point where fresh water tangled with salt water. The bay refused to budge and the stream held its own. Fresh water never backed up over the shell-studded rim.
Ross followed Shannon’s hand as she pointed toward the sand. “That’s an amazing sight,” he said. “Amazing’s another word I never thought I’d use about New Jersey.”
At the steepest point on the beach, broken railroad tracks extended over the stream like spears inserted in the sand.
“How are there railroad tracks on a beach?” he asked. He couldn’t help but sound incredulous. By his estimate, the immeasurable bay was a scant twenty yards distant. He walked to the tracks and bent and touched them. The edges were sharp, the sides scaly with the asperity of oxidation. He traced the rails to the places where they disappeared in the sand. “How far do they go?”
“The tracks run underground the entire length of the beach. This beach wasn’t always for playing and sunbathing. In the old days—this was way before I was born—people made a living off the sand. The Blue Water Sand Company built the tracks to cart sand to the wash house.”
“Where was that?”
“It stood at the place where we entered the beach. It was torn down a long time ago.”
“That’s quite a distance. I can hardly see it from here.”
“They cleaned the sand of shells and debris in the wash house and sold it by the ton to the big cities in North Jersey. The sand was used to coat road surfaces in snowy weather.”
“How’d the tracks break—get cut, I should say?”
“My father said that happened in a storm.”
“Are you sure some Civil War cavalry regiment didn’t tear up the tracks?”
“This is New Jersey. There were no Civil War battles fought here. Besides, the tracks don’t go that far back in time.”
“These tracks are like my life—they lead nowhere.”
The tips of the tracks came to an abrupt conclusion and jabbed the atmosphere—they looked like weapons waiting for victims. They were sliced clean across at the same level. This was something soldiers dressed in blue uniforms or butternut rags couldn’t do. The pictures he saw in history books showed mangled tracks bent out of shape by sledgehammers. The tracks on the beach looked as if they had been cut by shears.