Whisper to Me - Nick Lake Page 0,1

was shaping up to be a hot summer, the air sticky and close, though the ocean was still cool—I knew that because I had gone for a swim the previous day and nearly froze my fingers off. Not that it was stopping the vacationers: I had seen the buses unloading blinking college kids into the sunlight, and the boardwalk filling up with people in T-shirts, crackling with the energy of being released, from work, from normality.

Only this place is the reality for me.

And there were still fewer vacationers than the year before, a continuation of an ongoing trend that was the source of pretty much all of Oakwood’s problems. Who knows? Maybe the local psycho was killing women because he worked in one of the strip malls that closed down and he’s pissed that he lost his job.


Our house, as you know, is in what the locals call the “town.” Which is to distinguish it from “the walk,” i.e., the strip that runs along the beach lined with arcades, slot machines, stores selling BURGERS PIZZA HOAGIES, fortune-tellers, games, tattoo studios. And of course the amusement park on the piers, on which more later.

I don’t know how you saw our house, when you first came. How it made you feel. Me, it always makes me feel sad. It’s like you’ve stepped from VACATIONLAND! into the clapboard shored-up, scaffolded reality behind it, as if you’ve gone behind the film-set veneer. You can still hear the ocean—we’re three blocks back from it, and the sound of the waves, the constant tssschhh, pervades the air for maybe four blocks. And as I stepped out into the yard that morning, I could smell the ocean and hear the calling of the seagulls.

The walk is all neon and lights—me, I lived backstage. Among the trash.

Sorry! This is super not-cheerful already.

What I mean: all the houses on our street are the same—little, cheap identical white blocks. Porches that, if we were facing the water like in Green Harbor down the coast, would be charming. But ours are usually covered in car tires and broken furniture and other junk, some of it human.

A yard out front, a garage to the side of it, with an apartment above it. That part you know very well, but we’ll come to you later.

I think it would be bad enough to live in a place that looks like every other place on your street, the suburban nightmare of America. But add to that the squalor and the pretending to be something it isn’t, and to me it’s everything that’s wrong with Oakwood, New Jersey.

Or it was anyway. I guess maybe I feel kind of different about it now, after everything that’s happened.

The part I love is the walk to the beach, because you go down Ocean Boulevard and as you get closer to the water, you start to pass those old historic motels that you love too. “Doo-wop architecture,” they call it. Or “New Jersey vernacular.” Like Vegas with more modest ambitions: strange space-age structures like interstellar ships that landed in the wrong place, and Egyptian pyramids and Hawaiian palaces. Neon signs, fifties’ angles.

The Honolulu.

The Sphinx.

The Flamingo—with its flamingo-shaped pool out front.

Hardly anyone stays in these places anymore, but a few years back the town bought a bunch of them, to preserve them, which is about the best thing Oakwood ever did.

That’s layer five of the town, because you think of Oakwood, if you grew up here, like something made of levels, like those cutaway diagrams of the ground, striations of different materials, loam and humus and igneous rock and whatever. There are seven, from land to sea, and they go like this:

— Mall land.

— Crushing, miserable poverty, boarded-up buildings, broken houses, broken people. (Keeping it cheerful!) The rhythm of the waves a background hiss.

— The residential layer. Houses. People live in them. Garages, gardens. Which merges with:

— Two blocks from the ocean: A sudden air of affluence. Vacationing joggers, running past their own parked cars. The ocean louder now, a soundtrack, whispering fun, saying escape. Even locals start to feel the pull at this point, which is why a lot of them stay in the town and never go near the walk—it’s too painful.

— One block: those crazy pop-art motels, with their art-deco lines and neon. [To complicate matters this layer also includes some crushing poverty, just like layer two, so that the touristy part of town is bracketed by rundown buildings, like this sentence is bracketed by … well, brackets.]