A neighborhood of vinyl-clad double-wides; a crop-dusting prop plane sweeps corn and soy. A woman walks by and asks if I own the home. She’s from farm country too—a lush rolling plain of corn fields that smell sweet in late summer. Rootless transplants from Philadelphia, Wilmington, Jersey, and Dover have settled this driftwood spit. We both come from where the corn roots finger the rich, turned earth.
When all the tourists are gone and winter sweeps the sand back to dunes, whitecaps collapse, as in Japanese paintings, and sand stings skin. A local voice rises and falls with a cadence derived from the first settlers of this bay in the 1700’s. It ebbs and flows with a quiet, but sure confidence of what it is saying.
II. Cape Henlopen
We park in the second-to-last lot. A sand path leads between two beaches. One is the beach of crowded towels, waffle chairs, blankets, and the colony of umbrellas where sunbathers congregate—a city block of human noise and flesh, oiled and flapping, concrete transfers to sand. A plank walk leads to the shower-house and snack bar. Men with bellies pouring over swimsuit waistlines buy large paper plates of fries and feed seagulls who hover and watch from rails. They swoop and snatch fries that fall from children’s fingers. The other beach is a line of pickup trucks and SUVs backed up to the surf with grills, coolers, beach chairs set in tribal rings, and fishing poles that stand in PVC tubes stuck in the sand. Slack lines dip surf.
We walk to the truck and Jeep beach to avoid the flesh mob. The driver of the truck next to us wears a National Guard baseball hat. He casts his line in the surf across the waves kids are splashing in. The riptide pulls the line north toward the bay.
By park regulation, these drive-on beach-goers must keep a line in the water. They must be “actively fishing.” The day-time rods are an excuse for men who won’t rub oil on their skin. They have beer in the cooler, meat on grill, and a lame hope of hooking a fish. They wear t-shirts and throw into the waves—deep strong casts—that drag from right to left over the course of the hour. Their overweight wives smoke in waffle chairs.
The wind chops the waves. The breakers rise and crash in bursts. The surf fishermen should wait until night when you can catch sand sharks. They come in for the lights of hotels and the stink of rotten bait.
III. Toys and Candy
Our six year old son blazes down the aisle. Five dollars to spend makes him richer than sugar. A gray-haired man in a polo sidesteps the child lit with desire for plastic toys. The man stares after him saying “excuse me” with scorn. It escapes tight lips as a simpering insult.
In a Berkshire candy store two years before—where the prices were inflated to feed the tourist expectation—a similar thing happened. Our children struggled between candy shelves and stuffed animals to get to the glass cases of fudge and ice cream. A man with trendy glasses, belted shorts, and pastel sweater over his shoulders—it was eighty and humid—put his hand on my son’s head and brushed him out of the way to get a closer view of the ice cream.
“I’m going outside,” I grunted to my wife and walked into the night air, stifling as the music grungy teens were strumming at the street corner. I didn’t want to spend any more money in this tourist town.
I went back in to get the kids. The crane-like man was walking out with an ice cream and a smile. His tongue was busy with a green, mint ball. I drove my shoulder into his chest. It bit like a fish takes bait, but his ice cream didn’t fall.
IV. Plastic Ninja
Specialty stores: one spills jewelry and clothes out of a narrow door and onto the sidewalk. The boys and I stay outside, while their mother and sister browse.
On the bench next to us a man sits with left leg crossed over right knee. His elbows prop on his stringy thigh. His phone screen glows in his glasses. He pokes at the glow like a finicky bird testing mixed seed. His white sneakers, thick as marshmallows, stick out into the sidewalk from knobby heron-like legs. People have to squeeze between his foot and a ceramic planter to get by.
The six year old sits between me and the man. The man’s hair is stretched over raw scalp and his bottom lip pulls at the mustached upper lip. The boy unwraps his plastic ninja set: sword, nunchucks, star, knife, bow and arrow. As he pulls the bow out of the long plastic bag, the end pokes the pink, plastic bag the man has crumpled at his thigh. He looks up from his phone and crinkles his bag closer.
We move. I don’t want to confront another of these stick men who command the benches and aisles of tourist towns. We stop at the metal chairs and tables outside the café two store fronts up and commandeer two tables. A green, metal trashcan obscures the heron’s torso. His arms and legs grow out of the receptacle. His face curls toward the glowing god in his hand. He is oblivious to the passersby that sidestep his big white sneaker. I draw him in my journal, but he doesn’t notice. Engrossed in screens and glass displays we fail to see the eyes that watch us. Today a ninja needs no stealth.
V. Old Dog
We take the dog to the beach at sunset and we let him off leash despite the sign. He runs like a pup on the dusky sand: back legs dolphin-kick through sand. His right rear leg is lame but the two-legged stroke propels him.
Desperate for water, he runs into the thin line of salt and licks. A rumbly six inch soaker hits him and he loses footing. He tries to recover and gets hit again. He looks confused and struggles to pull out of the undertow. He gets free of the lapping sea and scoots up the packed sand. Our six-year old runs after him and has a hard time catching up. When the dog stops, the boy collapses on him in a tackle.
Limbs tumble and sand spits from their mouths and gagging tongues. The dog yelps and the boy lies. He didn’t try to tackle the beagle-mutt he says, but he cries—afraid he’s hurt the dog.
The old dog’s life outweighs plastic toys and gummy worms. Ice cream-licking tongues, neck-tied sweaters, eyes lost in the black void, and a silver necklace at the antique jewelry store count for less than an old dog. Their worth is less than the running legs of boy and dog on the twilight beach, even if it ends in collapse.
Tourism is a plastic toy for adults. An ice cream cone to lap. A line that doesn’t snag fish. A seagull stealing French fries. A ninja whose silence is wasted.
The people who walk the fish-town street fear gut stains on old docks. Fish boat bells avoid the marina where light-strung parties echo the sound. Row homes are storefronts and spiritualists walk in circles in the old Episcopal garden; ignoring the hallowed dead who surround the old brick wall, who founded the settlement, who worked the sea , who spoke the gnarled language of sea-salted tongues.
The remade bay town is the mobile home that stands vacant for three seasons. The new economy is the displaced man who claims the street bench and toy store aisle and pushes the child to get an ice cream cone. It is the poison we eat on corn to get wormless kernels; the carnival of pure-bred dogs and pink-polo shirts that pass storefronts while children clamber for plastic guns.