THE PERFECT DAY
by Patricia Abbott
The door flew open, striking the wall with a force that brought the sleeping boys to a sitting position.
“What time is it?” Greg asked, throwing an arm over his eyes. Across the room, Charlie moaned softly.
“Six o’clock,” their father said, yanking the curtains back and letting in a blast of sun. “Get a move on, fellows.”
Denny—in his head Greg never thought of him as Dad— must’ve been up all night— Greg remembered the brown-checked shirt and tan slacks. Only the substitution of sneakers for the scotch- plaid bedroom slippers of last night seemed new.
Two weeks out of the slammer and Dennis Batch was already antsy.
“Where’re we going?” Greg asked, looking around. There were no packed bags so it wasn’t a hasty move to dodge the rent today.
“The shore. As long as we’re up, we might as well beat the crowd.”
“The shore?” Greg echoed. Had they ever gone to the shore before? “Is Mom going?”
Charlie sat up, finally awake. “Mom’s going too?”
“Of course, she’s going.” Denny Batch said this as if the customs of family outings were firmly established. “Come on, guys.” He was struggling with the sash. “Try to give you two a treat and—”
“What beach, Dad?”
Charlie stood flat-footed in front of his father now, wearing a pair of footed flannel pajamas that should’ve been packed away months ago. Most of his toes had wormed their way through the flannel.
Dennis usually took a question like this one as a wise-mouthed remark and Greg could hear him catch his breath.
“We’re going to Wildwood, Charlie. Wildwood has the best beaches.”
Both boys nodded thoughtfully, though neither had heard of Wildwood’s superior beaches before.
Denny left the room whistling the theme from Bridge on the River Kwai.
“Do we have to wear our swimming suit?” Charlie was hunting frantically through his bureau drawer. “Or do we just take it with us.” A detail like this could be crucial to the day’s success.
“Put it on under your clothes,” Greg advised. “Dad’ll probably make us strip right out in the open. Tell us real men aren’t ashamed to be naked.”
Charlie shivered audibly.
Head down, Greg ransacked his drawer, finally coming up with the suit he’d worn for his seventh- grade swim class, two years ago now.
“You can’t wear that thing, you fruit loop,” he said when Charlie triumphantly pulled out a tiny white suit with a bobbing whale.
“It’s the only one I have,” Charlie said, struggling to push his legs through the tiny holes, footed pajamas still on.
“No way you’re getting your butt into that.”
Greg went back to his drawer and came up with an older suit of his, wondering all the time what this trip was about. “There you go.”
Charlie grabbed it midair.
And their mother was going.
In the kitchen, Billie was dragging on her Salem and drinking a cup of tar black coffee. She wore a faded black and white striped swimsuit with a floppy red belt at the waist. It looked like a maternity swimsuit and neither boy had the courage to look at her.
“You two have me to thank for this little trip to the shore. He’d never have thought of it on his own.” The smoke funneled up above her head. “The thug.”
Neither boy commented on this because five minutes from now she could be slipping Denny the tongue in the back hallway.
“Better grab some food fast ‘cause he’s ready to take off.”
Greg grabbed the Cheerios and poured two bowls.
“Are we going to be gone all day?” Charlie asked, his mouth full.
“Cause shouldn’t we be packing stuff to take along?” Greg added.
“What stuff?” Billie took a sip of her coffee, made a face, and then dripped more milk into the cup. She blotted up the spilled drops with her forearm.
“An umbrella. Towels. Maybe a beach ball or a shovel for Charlie.”
Charlie nodded his approval.
“We got plenty of towels. The rest we’ll get there.” Billie rubbed out her cigarette and stood, her arms raised in a lazy stretch. “What kind of holiday is it if we have to spend all morning packing? We can rent chairs,” Billie added, “cause I don’t think we have any. Right?” Her head swiveled back and forth between the two boys. “Does anyone remember sitting in one? All right then. Can’t bring what we don’t have.”
She slipped out of the room and Greg rinsed out her cup and dumped the ashtray. Both boys looked up when they heard the sound of Denny starting up the car.
“It sounds like it’s farting,” Charlie said.
“It needs a new muffler.” Greg pressed him toward the door. “Don’t say anything to Dad though.” He paused. “About anything.”
Trouble could come from many fronts in the Batch household.
* * *
“Sit up front, Greg,” Billie ordered. “You can help your father find the bridge. I didn’t want to lug along my glasses.”
She opened the door and waved him in. Thankfully, she’d thrown an oversized Phillies’ tee shirt over her swimsuit. Her brown vinyl bag, the strap replaced with Denny’s old belt, swung wildly from her shoulder. Out in the light, Greg could see dark roots climbing down her blonde head.
“I don’t need anyone’s help,” Denny said.
He was wearing an extremely tight pair of swimming trunks, and a yellow linen shirt, reading Havana Hilton in red script, was stretched across his middle. “But as long as you’re here, Greg, you might as well see if we have any maps in the glove box.”
The box was full of empty cigarette packs, books of matches, lottery tickets, race track paraphernalia, betting slips, envelopes with lists of numbers, and circulars for various food franchises—but no maps.
“Hey, be careful,” his father said, grabbing a few fallen circulars. “Sometimes I use this car as my office.”
In the rear, Billie hooted and Denny turned around and gave her the evil eye.
“Take the Tacony Palmyra, Dennis,” she said. “That’s the bridge my stepfather always took. Would somebody put the radio on?”
“Mickey took the Tacony to Wildwood? Why would he cross the river up there? Better to use the Ben Franklin and take the Atlantic City Expressway.”
“Then you’re gonna have to drive through the whole fuckin’ City,” Billie reminded him. “Think about the traffic.”
“Don’t I have to drive across the whole fuckin’ City in the other direction to get to the lousy Tacony?” His voice was getting a curl in it.
“The Tacony’s only a nickel,” she pointed out fearlessly, her elbows resting just behind Denny’s head. “Greg, would please you get that radio on.”
“Think I care about a lousy nickel toll,” Dennis said, immediately switching it off. “I’d spend more on gas going your cockamamie way.”
“Go however you want, you big—” Billie said, her final noun either lost or unuttered. She sat back, her arms folded across her chest. “Wake me up when you can smell the salt, boys.” She slid her sunglasses down and promptly fell asleep.
“Greg, you got any idea how to get to the Ben Franklin?” his father asked in a lower tone, adjusting the mirror. “Else we’ll have to go to the Sunoco and get a map.” He shook his head like going to the Sunoco was the worst thing in the world.
“I only remember going to New Jersey once,” Greg said, “and we took the Tacony.” Even the word “Tacony” felt strange in his mouth. Was it some Indian name?
Denny’s eyelids fluttered thickly, “Okay then, tell me how to get to the Tacony.”
* * *
Neither boy had seen anything like it: miles of beach with a boardwalk stretching most of the way. Charlie’s head hung out the window like a dog’s.
Twice, Billie had yanked it in. “Want to get your block knocked off.”
“How will you know where to stop, Dad?” Charlie asked, trying to rake down his windblown hair. “Do you have a place you go?”
Dennis shrugged. “One thing that’s gonna factor in here is if there’s a good place to park.”
Billie made a strangled sound. “He means free. Good means free.”
Denny suddenly put his foot on the break, shifted the car into reverse, and backed into a spot in three quick moves.
“You sure you’re allowed to park here?” Billie asked. “Seems funny that it’s sitting empty. Matter of fact,” she said looking around, “there’s a bunch of empty spots.”
No one noticed a street sign or anything forbidding parking; there were no meters, no attendants.
“I don’t know why you couldn’t just park in a lot—but okay,” Billie finally conceded. “Ocean at Juniper. You boys remember that in case I get frazzled by the sun.”
The boys looked at each other. It was more likely to be booze that frazzled their mother.
They’d started to walk toward the beach when Greg suddenly said, “We better get some supplies, Dad.”
“Supplies?” Denny asked, whipping around. “Didn’t you bring anything, Billie? No spread, no cooler, no suntan lotion? Couldn’t someone have packed a lunch for pity’s sake? A can or two of ginger ale?”
“We don’t have any beach stuff to bring,” Billie said. “When’s the last time we went to a beach? That’s what I was saying last night. You’re just a big, cheap—”
She was already heading up the steps to the boardwalk—to a shop called Big Bob’s Beach Balls. Bob’s had a large, red plastic crab on its roof and the theme song from Gilligan’s Island played inside. A bunch of rafts were stacked in front of Big Bob’s, and before anyone could stop him, Charlie threw himself on a purple raft with a huge chartreuse octopus crawling up the middle.
“I bet I could ride all the way to China on this one. Can I have it, Dad?”
“Every house has beach stuff,” Dennis said, ignoring his son. “Just have to know where to look. Did you look in the cellar? I know I saw an umbrella down there.” He shut his eyes, remembering. “And was it too much trouble to throw a spread in the trunk?”
“If we ever did have any beach things, they’re gone now. How many times have we moved? And all our spreads are on the beds.” Billie was already fingering a wide-brimmed straw hat. “What d’ya think?” she asked, looking in a mirror.
“Good, Mom,” Charlie said. “Can I have this raft?”
“You can’t even swim,” Billie said, eyeballing him in the mirror. “You’d better be looking for one of those itty bitty inner tubes to keep you afloat.” She pointed to a pile clearly meant for toddlers.
“You could have thrown a spread from Charlie’s bed in the car,” Dennis thought aloud. “Sand shakes right off.”
Charlie’s lip turned down. “I bet Greg could teach me to swim in about a minute,” He waved his arms and legs and the raft he was bellied on moved incrementally across the wooden planks of the boardwalk. “See! I’m doing it already.”
“Kid’s a freaking loon…” Denny started to say.
“We can both use the raft,” Greg interrupted, taking pity on his brother,
“No rafts,” Denny said, yanking Charlie to his feet. “I got a cash flow thing going on right now in case you hadn’t noticed.” He turned away from their down-turned faces. “When would we ever use a raft again? You can’t use a thing like that in Glenside Pool. You’d take up half the space.”
He was making his case for the ladies at the cash register. They nodded sympathetically and one of them said, “I think you can rent rafts on the beach.”
“See,” Denny said, smiling.
They finally stood at the cash register with a bottle of Coppertone, a woven mat, a pail and shovel, and a pack of Winston cigarettes—Denny’s brand. At the last minute, Billie showed up with her straw sunhat, a can of Tab, and a Cosmo magazine.
“We could have spent this money on a great dinner if you’d have come prepared.” Denny was pulling out his wallet though.
* * *
“We’re gonna fry,” Billie said a minute later.
“Christ, you haven’t been out here five minutes,” Denny said, examining her pinkening nose with interest. “Sit under the boardwalk, why don’t you?”
“Last time you told me to sit under the boardwalk, I feel asleep under the men’s restroom and got peed on.”
“Christ, Billie, it was a leaking faucet,” Denny said. “Are you gonna tell that story till you dying day? Not like it puts you in a good light.”
“Look, Mom, nobody’s sitting under that umbrella,” Greg said suddenly, pointing to a red and white striped one.
“Grab it, hon,” Billie said, breaking into a run and throwing down their mat with a proprietary finesse when she reached the umbrella. All four sat down, bottom to bottom.
“Do I get to go into the ocean?” Charlie asked.
“Do you think I’d bring you down here and not let you go in the ocean? I’m catching my breath.”
Denny reached into the shopping bag and took out the pack of Winstons. Billie joined him with her Salem. It was an oddly peaceful moment despite the tangle of smoke.
“Come on, Chas, I’ll take you in,” Greg slid his shorts off and removed his shirt, folding them into a tight bundle.
“Will you look at the neat freak? You’ll make your drill sergeant happy some day,” his father told him. “Don’t pay to be too fruity.”
Charlie scrambled out of his clothes too and a second later, the brothers ran down to the water. “Is this all you do? Jump over the waves?”
“We’re getting used to it,” Greg said.
“Used to what?”
Some people were lying on their stomachs on rafts, but lots of people just jumped over each wave just before it hit the beach. No one was swimming.
“I guess it’s hard to swim in oceans,” Charlie said.
They stood studying the actions of the other bathers, trying a few moves of their own, watching the lifeguard direct the action with his whistle. Its shriek cut through the din every few seconds.
“Maybe we’ll get to see them rescue someone,” Charlie said.
“Do they swim out or use the rowboat?” Charlie asked, nodding toward the peeling vehicle propped up against the stand.
“I guess it depends on how far out the person is.”
“Hey, let’s get our bucket and shovel,” Charlie suggested, and spotting their umbrella in the distance, they headed back.
A kid wearing an apron over a pair of shorts was standing next to it. Dennis and Billie were both gone.
“Look, kids, these umbrellas are for rent. You can’t just toss your blanket under one. It’s three-fifty a day.”
Greg leaned over and pulled the mat away from the umbrella.
“Better move it a little further,” the guy said, scratching his stomach sleepily.
“Good thing Dad wasn’t here,” Greg told his brother. “He’d put up a fight.”
“Oh, boy,” Charlie said. They both paused to contemplate the possible scenario. “How long were we gone?”
“Twenty minutes tops.”
Charlie eyes brightened. “Maybe they went to get us some lunch. I saw a hotdog stand.” He hand-visored his eyes, scouting the boardwalk.
“Can you really picture them going off together to buy us lunch?” Greg shook his head thinking Charlie might never wise up to the state of things.
“They’d have sent us for it. Right?”
“Right. I think I know where Mom is.”
He’d spotted a spot called the Atlantic Breeze. A fancy umbrella in a frothy drink festooned the sign. Dad’s whereabouts were more unpredictable. Was there an arcade nearby? A casino?
Charlie began to dig in the sand. “Hey, how do you build one of those sand castles?” He was straddling the small mound, trying unsuccessfully to hold it together with his legs.
Oh, what the heck. It was better than cruising the boards for their parents.
“You need wet sand. Go fill your bucket with water.”
The boys spent the next half hour constructing a castle, Charlie ran up and down the beach looking for scallop shells, discarded straws, and other found objects to decorate it. His best find was a rhinestone earring that he set on top.
“I think it’s pretty good,” he said, sitting back on his heels. “For our first one.” He looked at Greg. “Or did you build some castles before I was born.”
“Not that I remember.”
“Think we’d better go look for them?” Charlie asked. “I’m getting pretty hungry,”
“Yeah, but put your shoes on,” Greg said. “I think you can get splinters up there.
They left their socks hidden under the overturned bucket and climbed the steps.
“Let’s try that place.” Charlie nodded and they walked across the planks to the Atlantic Breeze. They hadn’t put two feet inside when a fat, bald man in an apron rushed over.
“What d’ya think you’re doing. No kids allowed in here. Especially no sandy-assed kids.” “We’re looking for our mother,” Greg said.
The man sighed, “Who isn’t? He turned back, letting the door slide shut. “What she look like?”
“Short frosted hair, Phillies tee shirt, real skinny.” This wasn’t the first time Greg had given a description of her.
“Drinks seven and sevens?”
Greg nodded. The guy opened the door and went back inside. Cool air, old smoke, and stale beer eased out.
Billie flew out a minute later. “Come on, boys. Let’s grab a dog. It’s lunchtime, right?” She was blinking fast, trying to get used to the ferocious August sunlight but pretty steady on her feet. “Where’s Denny?”
“You were both gone when we got back to the umbrella.” Charlie said without thinking. “And then some stupid kid said we had to rent it.”
Billie wheeled around. “I came up here to make a phone call.” She looked at the nearby booth. “And then that public one chewed up my dime.”
Excuses exhausted, she stepped up to the hotdog stand. The man dug three dogs off the grill and slathered them with yellow mustard.
“Oh, here’s your father now.” Billie grabbed half the napkins from the holder and patted her face.
The boys turned. Denny was marching down the boardwalk at a good clip.
“”Let’s go,” he said when they were in earshot. “Step lively now.”
“Back to the beach?” Charlie asked, mustard dripping from his chin. “I made a sand—”
“Never mind that,” Denny said, “What street was the car on again, Billie?”
“Juniper,” Billie said, stuffing the rest of her hotdog in her mouth. “Juniper at Ocean.”
“But our stuff’s still down there,” Greg started to tell them. “We don’t even have our socks.”
“And you didn’t even go in the ocean, Dad,” Charlie added. “We gotta a surprise for you too. We built a sand castle with a sparkling diamond on top.”
“Stuff’s just junk,” Denny said, pushing them toward the steps. “Who needs that kinda crap in the city? Socks probably have holes the size of Texas in ‘em. Leave ‘em go out with the tide.”
When they arrived at the car, Juniper Street was half-submerged in water.
“High tide,” Billie said under her breath. She sloshed through it and the boys followed. Only Denny seemed flummoxed by the situation. He stopped, removed his loafers, paused a second, looked around nervously, and then wadded through the water too.
“Be careful of the brakes,” Billie said. “They could be spongy.”
He pumped the brakes a few times experimentally and then put the car into drive and eased out. The Olds, tank that it was, glided through the water and the boys hung out their window, listening to the engine’s groan.
“The Olds is like Dad. It doesn’t like water either,” Charlie giggled. “Hey, there’s a man waving at us from the boardwalk. We must have forgotten something.”
Denny threw his arm out the window and gave him the finger.
“Ha, ha,” Denny said, once they rounded the corner.
“Big man,” Billie said. “Did you have to pull a stunt today? This was supposed to be our day at the beach. Our perfect day.” She was sitting in the front seat, applying a new coat of lipstick. “You never even put a toe in the water.”
“I didn’t notice you frolicking in the ocean either. The only liquid you enjoyed was in a glass. See anything funny going on behind us?” Denny’s eyes were on the rearview mirror. All three turned around. “Don’t be so obvious about it,” he hissed. “Just take a quick peek.”
“The guy in the Buick behind us has a little kid next to him,” Greg said.
“And behind them there’s a Coca Cola truck.” Billie added.
“Okay then,” Denny said, slowing down. “Who’s up for a seafood dinner?”
* * *
The restaurant sat on the pier. A row of men fished along each side. “What are they catching?” Charlie asked. “Can we try it?”
“Maybe flounder,” Dennis said, pausing to watch. “Too shallow here for blue fish. We don’t have any gear, boys.”
He put an arm around both of their shoulders and directed them toward the door. Billie was already inside, looking out of place in her tee shirt and skinny legs. Most of the people were dressed in regular clothes. The hostess took them to a booth in the back and handed them four huge menus.
“Just here for lunch,” Denny said, handing it back.
“Lunch’s on the back,” she told him, flicking some dry sand off the tablecloth.
“Right.” Dennis flipped it over, scanned the offerings and let out a whistle.
“If you’re not the cheapest man in the world,” Billie said. “He wasn’t always like this,” she said to the boys. “He used to be a big spender.”
“Mr. Roper,” Charlie said suddenly. They all looked at him. “Mr. Roper is the cheapest man in the world.”
“Who the fuck is Mr. Roper?” Denny finally asked. “Is he that guy on TV in the cardigan? What a twerp!”
“No that’s Mr. Rogers,” Greg said.
“I bet he’s that guy down the block who mows his lawn in a sports coat,” Billie guessed.
“He’s talking about Three’s Company,” Greg told them. “You know.”
“When did you start watching that?” Billie asked. “I don’t think that’s much of a kid’s show,” she added, looking accusingly at Greg.
“Oh, for pity’s sake,” Denny said. “You can’t compare me to a person on the box. Things are a little tight lately. You know. With inflation and other stuff. You’ll understand it better when you’re grown up.”
“And don’t forget your recent gambling losses,” Billie reminded him, turning her menu back to the dinner entrees. “Well, I’m having lobster” She put the menu down. “Who comes to the Shore and eats a grilled cheese sandwich?”
“I’m not saying you have to order a grilled cheese sandwich, but the menu doesn’t even list a price for lobster,” Denny moaned. “That means they can look us over and name any price they want.”
“Then it ought to be a pretty cheap lunch.What do you boys want?”
Both wanted a clam roll. “First bring us our drinks” Billie told the waitress. “I’ll have a seven and seven and my husband wants a Bud. Give the boys a Coke.”
“I think I saw someone I know going downstairs to the men’s room,” Denny said when the waitress left. “Let me just run down and say hello.”
“Oh, Key-rist,” Billie said, “can’t you let it rest?”
“Easy for you to say. I don’t notice you bringing home a paycheck to help out. The best you can do is drink mine away.”
“Oh, just forget it. Go do whatever it is you’re gonna do. Two months out and you’re dying to go back.”
Billie lit a Salem and blew a stream of smoke at her husband. It was hard to believe a ninety-pound woman could extract so much smoke from a cigarette. It billowed around their table like the special effects at a magic show.
“I’m not running out of here like a fool cause you can’t pull off a good grift anymore,” she finally added, looking him up and down. “When I met you, women used to fall down at your feet.” She exhaled another stream of smoke without having inhaled one. “Now…” she shook her head. “That why you’re going after the old guys?”
“Shut your fuckin’ mouth,” he hissed, smoothing down his shirt. “Boys, I’ll be right back.”
He didn’t come back till his fish plate was ice cold and Billie was working on third drink. On the ride home, nobody said a word for fifteen miles. Finally, Billie switched on the radio. An Elvis Presley song was playing.
“Did anyone notice that blue Torino following us before now,” Denny asked. All of them agreed after a now-practiced glance that they hadn’t noticed a blue Torino before but they did see one now.
Dennis watched it another minute or two. “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. I’m gonna pull off the Parkway at the next exit. I saw a Kmart there on the way down. Now I’m gonna pull in, park a way back from the store, and then turn off the car and head for the main door.” He paused again. “Everyone with me still?” They all nodded. “As soon as I go through the door, start watching for the blue Torino. If a guy gets out of the Torino, a big burly guy probably, you take off as soon as he’s inside the store.”
He looked at Billie. “Remember how to drive?”
“Of course, I remember how to drive.”
“Right. Anyway, I only need you to drive across the road to the rest stop. All of you go inside but leave the door unlocked. Park it on the far side where the car isn’t noticeable from here. I’ll make a beeline out as soon as it seems fitting and hop in the backseat.”
“What if we don’t see the blue Torino?” Billie asked.
“Then someone come in and get me. But be sure he didn’t sneak in. These guys can be crafty.”
“But not as crafty as you. Right, Dad?” Charlie said.
“It sounds like a crackpot scheme.” Billie rolled down her window. “Why are they playing Presley again? Is it his birthday?”
“Forget fucking Presley.”
“Just what did you do in that restaurant in Atlantic City?” Billie asked, her voice flat.
“Look, it’s got nothing to do with A.C.!” Dennis said. “Just stop asking questions cause we’re about to arrive.” He cruised off the exit ramp at the posted speed, slid past the rest stop and into the Kmart lot and stopped.
“Perfect,” Denny said, easing out of the car. They watched as he tried to move as nonchalantly as possible across the parking lot.
No blue Torino showed up.
“Think we waited long enough,” Greg asked after about ten minutes.
Billie opened an eye. “Go get your father.”
Greg found Dennis eating a piece of cherry pie in the cafeteria. “All clear?” he asked his mouth half full. Greg nodded, and his father rose and paid the bill.
When they got the car, Billie was sobbing. “Elvis is dead,” she bellowed. “That’s why they’ve been playing his songs.”
“I never knew you even liked Elvis,” Denny said, looking shocked. Billie hardly ever cried. “How did he die? Drugs?”
“He wouldn’t have been that fat if he did drugs.”
“The guy on the radio said he was on the hopper,” Charlie said.
“Anyway, no sign of the Torino, huh?” They drove home listening to a medley of Elvis songs, Billie crying softly in the rear.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” Denny finally said. “Turn off the waterworks.”
They got home at four. The blue Torino sat in front of their house. No one was in it. “Uh oh,” Denny said, turning the engine off.
“What now, Dad?” Charlie asked, hiding his eyes with his arm. “What’s the plan now?”
Patricia Abbott is the author of more than 80 stories that have appeared in literary and crime fiction venues. She is the co-editor with Steve Weddle of the ebook DISCOUNT NOIR. An ebook of her stories, MONKEY JUSTICE AND OTHER STORIES will be published by Snubnose Press. Forthcoming stories will appear in DEADLY TREATS, PULP INK, GRIMM TALES, PLOTS WITH GUNS and D*CKED. She won a Derringer for her story "My Hero."