The ferris wheel emits a swirl of light visible from all parts of the boardwalk. It stands sentinel over the crowds snaking in all directions, over chipped and fading hardwood, through the smell of fried fats and salt air, the screams and squeals of fun impending or reaching its conclusion. Migrant seasonal laborers and teenagers man the game stalls. They rely on the power of children to apply the necessary pressure on parents to spend handsomely for the chance to be momentary heroes and the winners of junk destined for the back of a closet or toy chest, then a thrift store, then landfill where it meets its final end.
Pierre watches Wildwood recede into the distance of his rear-view mirror until there’s nothing. His wife stares blankly out the passenger side window, shielded from the rising sun by oversized sunglasses. Pierre’s two young children entertain themselves with iPad’s in the backseat. He looks at the GPS – eight hours to go. The trip home to the suburbs of Montreal has only begun and he’s already feeling antsy, maybe a little nostalgia for the vacation of his his mind, his youth, and the reality of his experience over the past week.
“Did everyone have a good time?” The question lingers in the air for a moment, no one sure if it was rhetorical. Pierre asks again – “Did you guys enjoy it?” His wife turns to the kids and nudges them for a response; a look they know well, even through her sunglasses. The kids look at each other and reply in unison – “Yes, dad.” Pierre smiles to himself then looks at his wife. He can feel her eyes roll, but is undeterred. The children’s response, though forced and unconvincing, has still managed to boost his confidence. Pierre takes pride in fatherhood, especially in appealing to his children’s desire for constant stimulation, but sometimes wonders if his fleeting memory of fun still resonates with the generation he sometimes struggles to understand in his backseat.
Pierre had been coming to Wildwood every summer for almost forty years. It was the one place his parents, though unreliable in many other regards, had made a staple of their vacation plans for his entire life. Every August his brother, sister, and parents would pile into the family station wagon and set out for what then seemed like a distant planet, in a different country, with different culture and attitudes. It was the neon clad beacon at the distant end of their long trek. A place that was already draped in nostalgia when Pierre was a child. It was a throwback to fifties Americana, replete with dingy mid-century motels built around small swimming pools, all in the shadow of a decrepit wonderland, a facade really, of plentitude masking naked, raw commerce. All of it concentrated on that long strip mall built on top of wooden planks, dividing the town from the ocean. No matter where you were on the island you could feel the presence of the boardwalk You knew where it was in relation to the place you were standing, even when it wasn’t visible nor audible.
Coming back now with his own kids Pierre could see the holes in the narrative he created in his mind. He could see how the cracks in the scenery he knew as a child had been painted over and allowed to remain on the edges of the frame people deluded themselves into believing was real. He could see the desperation in the people working and those straining and squeezing pennies in the service of a good time. He could see all that now, and wondered what his kids saw, or even his wife. It wasn’t something they ever talked about. She went along with this annual trip, knowing what it meant to Pierre, driven home by the the number of times he talked about it, and the way his eyes would light up by the most mundane memory of a toy won or a sand castle built or fleeting smile that crossed his mother’s face when someone made a joke. There was too much memory wrapped up in this tradition for her to intervene. All she saw was kitsch, a place frozen in time, growing more outdated by the year, compensating by becoming more baroque, not less. She knew the children saw it as well. None of them could understand the appeal. The kids had lobbied her to go to anywhere else, maybe Disneyland, maybe Europe, or another part of America, not so backward or keen to overstimulate, but she would have none of it.
It was Pierre’s special place, so she let him have it. She appeased and obliged and encouraged his delusion of happiness.