Down The Ocean

July 3, 2009

Insulting Remarks from a First-Time Visitor

PostCd

“Ocean City, Maryland, is one of the three ugliest places on the face of the earth. The other two are that strip mall-strewn stretch of Ritchie Highway between Baltimore and Glen Burnie — and Glen Burnie itself.”

Those words were uttered, I’m ashamed to say, by an old buddy of mine one recent Sunday afternoon as we crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on our way back to Baltimore. We were returning home after spending what I had thought were three delightful days over the Fourth of July weekend at my favorite beach resort. The weather during our stay in Ocean City had been ideal: sunshiny days with a haze-free and cloudless deep blue sky; warm ocean water, alive with gentle breakers, perfect for swimming; and cool, sea-breeze nights which induced deep and restful sleep.

It was the end of Mort’s first visit there and I had innocently asked him to sum up the experience. I figured that with his fresh eyes he could offer some special insight into the appeal of the place — besides the obvious attraction of sand and sea, of course. I’m too close to the subject to be objective because, along with thousands of other Marylanders who have spent their summers there for generations, I feel an irrational and uncritical love for that city by the Atlantic. And I assumed that Mort, too, would respond to it in a positive way. I hoped that his comments would explain, or at least justify, the emotions I felt.

“The buildings in Ocean City are a string of discarded matchboxes,” Mort continued, “tied together with telephone wires and power lines. Have you ever in your life seen so many telephone poles? And all those gross cables running off in every direction? The jumble and smell of the place bring to mind old clothes on a wash line, middle of the night television advertising slogans, rancid tuna fish salad, loud next door neighbors arguing endlessly through humid city nights. Ocean City is so ugly that a sort of negative beauty slithers into it — anything that honky-tonk becomes interesting by the very depth of its bland bad taste.”

I should explain that Mort has led a sheltered life. Until that trip to the ocean he had never traveled outside the Baltimore city limits — so, naturally, his points of reference are rather limited. But those very limits lend an innocence and purity to his remarks. He has an uncanny knack for describing familiar things in new and often surprising ways. His slightly bent perspective allows light to strike areas that would otherwise — perhaps should — remain in darkness. “You’re missing the point,” Mort, I said. “The ocean is the thing. The rest is just icing.”

“The town is ultimately more interesting than the sea,” he replied, “because of what it tells you about human nature. The ocean is just a beautiful sideshow. After a while it’s boring to look at something so endlessly perfect. When that happens it’s fun to turn from God’s handiwork and contemplate what the paws of humans have wrought. And when you look at Ocean City — I mean really see it — it quickly becomes clear that 99 percent of what has been created there is truly tacky.”

“It’s a family resort, Mort — not the Taj Mahal. It was designed as a place to vacation in, not to stand back from and admire.”

“The fact is, Ocean City was ‘designed’ and built by businessmen with one motive only: pure profit. That explains the shoddy matchstick construction, the dime store aesthetics, the unplanned sprawl. The whole town is a great example of what greed can create when it’s given total control of local zoning laws.”

“Well, it may not be perfect in your opinion, Mort, but millions of people love Ocean City just the way it is.”

“In the first place, even calling it a ‘city’ is incorrect. Real cities have storm drains.”

“What?”

“Didn’t notice, huh? Whenever it rains the streets fill up with water and stay that way for hours after the storm has passed. Driving the Coastal Highway then is like fording a stream — lengthwise.”

“You’re right, Mort,” I said. It pains me to confess this, but, by the time I pulled up in front of Mort’s row house in East Baltimore I had been swayed — to some degree at least — by his argument. For the first time in my life I was seeing Ocean City with a less than loving eye. It was depressing.

We said our good-byes and Mort, as usual, had to have the last word. As he left my car he looked back over his shoulder. “There was one thing I did love about O. C., though.” Mort paused, but when I refused to bite he continued. “I thought all those beautiful, nearly naked young girls were fantastic! They alone would have been worth the trip — that is, if they’d had had anything on their little sun-fried minds besides the perfect tan.”

As is turned out, my Mort-induced funk was short-lived. Once he removed his gear from my car and mounted the white marble steps to his front door, my indiscriminate love for Ocean City began to revive and surge within me. By the time I had driven to the end of the block and turned onto Eastern Avenue, I was planning my next trip down to the ocean for the next weekend—without Mort.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

The original version of this small fiction, slightly longer and with a few word changes, was published in the Baltimore Evening Sun on August 2, 1979. It was one of a series of pieces I wrote at the time featuring the acerbic character “Mort,” my imaginary East Baltimore friend. In those days I was in an H. L. Mencken phase, strongly influenced by (stealing from) the Master. I discovered that the character served me well when I wanted to be critical and/or acidly humorous about any subject that popped into to my mind. And the best part was that I could shift resulting recrimination to my fictional alter ego. Mort the character was a handy writing tool indeed.


My Wife Thinks You’re Dead

July 28, 2008

My Wife Thinks You’re Dead was inspired by a clever county song of the same title, written and performed by Junior Brown. When I heard Mr. Brown’s lyrics (he was on Curb Records then, these days he’s with Telarc—click the “Junior Brown” sidebar link to hear samples), it occurred to me that the best country songs tell a condensed tale which, with a bit of imagination, can be spun out into a short story, a play, or perhaps even a novel. I’m working on several other stories which use country songs as a starting point, but so far this is the only one I’ve been able to complete. My Wife Thinks You’re Dead will post in four parts, today through Thursday.

Short Fiction/Part One

When Betty got back in town the first thing she did after she stepped off the bus was corner Bernie, which would have been fine had his wife not found out. Betty, a petite stringy-haired blond with a firm body—parts of which were decorated with tattoos you could fully appreciate only when she danced naked to hillbilly music in your living room—had just been released from Goochland Correctional Center, a state institution for women who do stupid things. She was the sort who spent her tragically short life involved with drugs, the wrong kind of sex with both sexes, and serial breaking and entering escapades to raise money for pharmaceuticals. Betty could not resist a fun evening, never mind the consequences.

On this particular day Betty planned to “accidentally” run into her old pal Bernie on his way to the post office, a trip she knew he made like clockwork. She had his schedule timed to the split second, so when Bernie turned off Main onto Market Street they collided before he had a chance to avoid his fate. Betty also knew that once they made physical contact, Bernie would be hooked like a mountain trout, a fish that exists with only one purpose—to be pan-fried for supper. “Damn,” Bernie said, and stepped back and looked Betty up and down three times.

She batted her eyes in fake surprise and played him out. “How you doing, Bern?” Of course Betty knew damn well how he was doing—she knew that the second Bernie saw her he most likely got a boner on. “Not bad for a failure,” Bernie said.

Betty laughed. “Whatcha doing this evening, son?”

“Now, girl, you know I’m happy married. When you disappeared off the radar, I up and told my wife I heard you was dead.”

“O.K.,” Betty said, “if that’s how you want it,” and she flounced off down the sidewalk with that sway-sway walk that Bernie loved to witness.

As Bernie stared after Betty, the one thought in his brain was that with her on the loose he needed the strong reminder of his family to help him resist temptation, so he went straight home. Bernie appears old for his age, not all that much to look at, chubby-soft, balding in the worst way—front to back—and he has mild prostate trouble, which points him to the bathroom a bunch of times each day. His wife loves Bernie more for his kind nature than anything physical. Just picture it, here’s this forty-seven year old manager of an auto parts store who lucks out and lands a beautiful young wife, Helen, to share his bed and keep the house spotless. They have two little kids—boy and girl—just the cutest things. Each Sunday morning he drops his perfect family off at the Holiness church and waits in the car, reading the sports pages. Bernie considers himself reformed from his wild days, but not yet ready for religious instruction. And he thinks of Helen as an angel, soulful and so pure he feels extra guilty about the level of lust he still has for Betty.

Back in the old days, Betty saw Bernie as a cocksman pure and simple, one big hot-to-trot party penis with plenty of money to spread around. Yeah, that was his special appeal when they were burning up the highway, hitting one roadhouse after the other, always winding up as a big ball of naked flesh in some borrowed bedroom or the back seat of a car in the darkest corner of the Wal-Mart parking lot. Betty was looking forward to more of that.

Part two of My Wife Thinks You’re Dead will post tomorrow.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.