by Hal Ellson
It’s a hot night. I got that uneasy feeling again and I swing out of the poolroom, walk to the corner.
Jim is there. He’s my buddy. We greet each other and he asks me what I’m doing.
“Nothing, man. But the scene stinks. You want to drift?”
“Coney Island’s okay. We’ll see the sights.”
That’s it. We hit for the bus, climb on and ride. I got that funny feeling inside me.
“Why’d we have to take the bus, Jim?” I say. “The window’s open and it’s still dripping hot.”
“You complaining, Ace?”
“Too many people riding with us. More than I figured to see.”
“They paid their fares same as us.”
“Yeah, it’s like they all wearing masks. The bus is too slow. Seems like we ain’t ever going to get where we going. It’s too hot.”“It’s hot all around, but we’re getting away from it.”
I look around. We’re passing houses. Windows and doors is open wide. I see lights, people sitting around tables.
“That’s funny,” I say.
“They ain’t got no faces. There’s nobody I know or ever will. They go past too quick.”
“The whole world is like it’s opening up.”
“Man, you’re talking nothing. What you been smoking?” Jim says.
I don’t answer, and what I see don’t last. But what do all them people think about, feel? Yeah, they don’t see me, don’t know me.
“Damn, it makes me feel like a speck of nothing,” I say. “But who cares?”
“What you talking, Ace?”
“Something’s in the air like electric. It’s like a holiday night.”
“This ain’t no holiday,” Jim says. “It’s just another Saturday night.”
“The bus should be about empty but it ain’t.”
“Blame that on the heat. Nobody going to sleep tonight.”
“It ain’t only that. The heat didn’t bring them out at this hour. It’s something in the air, something making them do what they don’t know.”
“You sound all bugged up, Ace. Keep it cool.”
“Okay,” I say, and I shut my trap, keep it shut. But something’s wrong. All day something’s been at me. Something inside me getting ready like to bust.
I hold tight and we keep riding, get off the bus and hop another. This is a shorter ride through a lot of dark, dirty alleys.
Next thing we bust into Coney and it’s all lights and noise and people. People is like fleas, sidewalks crawling.
I stand still and watch. There’s a big humming in the air. That’s from everybody talking at once. Another sound catches me. “Man, what’s happening? Why you staring?” Jim says.
“You hear that?”
“That sound. All them feet on that sidewalk, all that shuffling. Man, it goes in your brain.”
Jim shakes his head. “I’d swear you been hitting the stuff,” he says. “Come on along. We didn’t come to catch no sounds.”
“Yeah, but that’s part of it.”
“Part of what?”
“You don’t know? Hey, you can’t feel all the people walking?”
“Okay, I catch you. What do we do, fall down and pray or enjoy ourselves?”
“I’m for walking.”
“Now you talking, man,” Jim says, and we start off.
The scene is all lights and noise, things going round, shooting galleries popping off and all that. I’m still moving when I don’t see Jim no more.
“You want a cool one?”
I hear that and swing around. Jim is there but his face don’t look the same. It’s like I don’t know him. “A cool what?” I say.
“Damn, some malt and hops. My pipes is hot.”
That’s it. We move to this open counter, order up. That beer slides down real nice. We knock off three glasses and start hoofing it again.
The crowd is bigger now. I feel like a chip in the ocean. My blood’s hot. Something’s in it. Faces around me getting closer, bodies pushing. Everybody jiving and laughing.
It’s getting louder. Must be that beer in my head. But I had only three. Three ain’t nothing. I can drink a tank car of that sudsy stuff.
Something’s wrong tonight. Been wrong before, once, twice. But not like tonight. Never seen Coney Island like this before. It’s all lit up, but I can feel the dark around. Hey, what’s all the push and hurry?
“What’s wrong, Ace?”
I’m stopped for a second. Jim’s up ahead but he’s swung around.
“Nothing wrong,” I tell him.
“You going to fall back and we part company for tonight.”
“Yeah, we come together and we go together, Jim.”
I reach him and he’s looking at me funny now, like he don’t know me.
“Man, what’s bugging you?” he asks. “You ain’t yourself.”
“I’m always myself.”
“Okay. Good thing. You feel like some more beer?”
“Yeah, I’m drying up.”
We stop at another open counter and catch us some more of that cool stuff. It tastes better now, looks good in them long glasses.
I lift mine, turn around and see the crowd passing. Damn, everybody in the world’s here tonight. Look at them moving, but they don’t know where they’re going. They looking to find something and they don’t know what.
“That’s a crowd,” Jim says. “Everybody’s busting out tonight, and we ain’t nowhere.”
“Just like I said. We all by our lonesome. There ought to be a few loose chicks in all this bunch.”
“There’s got to be.”
That’s what Jim says, but I don’t know. Tonight I’m sure of nothing. Jim’s ready to drift, but I want some more beer. I want that good feeling inside me. Got to have it.
Five more beers and we roll off. Yeah, I’m a little better. Got a head on. The crowd is bigger.
Everything’s busted out like they throwed the clock away. The merry-go-rounds is running wild. Hear that music. Look at them come down the chutes. Bang! Bang! Somebody’s clearing out the shooting galleries. We stop at the Wax Museum.
“Hey, Jim, you want to see what’s inside?”
“Nay, that ain’t for me.”
“What of? I just don’t feature that stuff.”
“You get to see things you’ll never see again.”
“Hell, there’s uglier faces in the poolroom.”
“Okay, have it your way,” I say, and somebody shoves me. I swing around, see this stupid stud with a blowed up face. He don’t know I’m alive.
Yeah, I want to bash him, bust him wide open. Jim grabs my arm.
“Hold tight, Ace. You can’t go fighting.”
“Hell, I can’t. I…”
This chick brushes past. Damn, that’s something, all real. Look at them sweet lips. What’s she laughing about? Where she going?
“That ain’t for you,” I hear Jim say.
“Man, what do you mean?”
“Look at that gal, you can see she’s trouble bait.”
We move on. All that beer is soaking in, but it don’t help too much. I still got the same feeling I came out with tonight.
It’s in my bones. Something’s going to happen. Yeah, this is a dream, or maybe I’m dead.
“Why is it so dark, Jim?”
“Dark? Man, you’re blind. You don’t see all the lights?”
“Yeah, millions of them. That’s what Coney is. You ever see it coming in from sea?”
“Yeah. During the war. I didn’t die out there. It was all black, everything black and nothing but water.”
“Three-quarters of the earth is water.”
“Yeah, everybody knows that. But what do I want? The same thing they do? But what do they want?”
“You’re talking crazy, Ace.”
“What do any one want?”
“I know what I want.”
I hear him say that, but it’s like he’s far away and I’m only half-listening. I’m watching all them faces in the crowd. They like made of wax, stupid. The merry-go-round is bopping it up faster, the music is crazy, lights blurred.
Everybody here, the whole world. People having fun, laughing. But they’re scared.
“Of what? What’s happening out there. Yeah, listen, Jim.”
“Cool it, man. You’re talking that crazy stuff again.”
“That’s what you think. You don’t hear that ocean crumbling on the beach, hissing like a snake?”
“I don’t hear nothing.”
“There ain’t no lights out there. No Sandy Hook. No Jersey shore. Just ugly black water. Oil and them floating around.”
“Boy, you better lay off the beer for tonight,” Jim says.
“Floating around and it don’t matter no more.” A piece of string is laying on the boardwalk. I pick it up, look at it, wind it around my finger, then put it in my pocket.
Out come my butts. I light up, cup the match against that dark out there, cup it against all them stupid faces, hide it from the stars.
“Don’t trust nobody,” I say, and Jim gives me another of them looks, shakes his head.
“You beat everything tonight,” he says. “Your tongue is running loose like something hit you.”
“Cause I got to find something.”
“Ain’t that why we come?”
“I don’t mean the same as you mean, Jim.”
“You mean we walking around for nothing? Hell, I’m not for that. What comes along I’m going to grab at.”
“Okay, so you grab it, and after you grab what do you expect?”
“The whole pie if it’s there to be got.”
“That ain’t enough.”
“What you talking?”
“That ain’t enough. It ain’t close to what I want.”
“Man, that’s all there is. There ain’t no more than that. That’s the most from way back.”
“Me and you don’t see eye to eye.”
Jim laughs. “All that beer’s got into your brain, pal. You ain’t feeling right.”
He never been out there in the oil with them, some alive, some dead. So I let that pass. We keep walking. It’s like I’m alone. Jim ain’t there. All them people around me, they ain’t either.
They don’t see me, don’t see nothing, don’t know nothing.
They’re scared but they’re laughing and all goofed up.
I look up and see the Sky Chaser. It looks like a skeleton against the dark. Something’s crawling up its back. It’s small and dark. Looks like a bug.
Next second it’s on the way down and it ain’t crawling no more. Damn, that roller coaster car moves like lightning. A girl screams and the crowd laughs.
Yeah, everything makes them laugh. Jim stops.
“Man, that rides a blip,” he says. “You hear that witch scream?”
“She hit my brain.”
“You want to try that ride, Ace?”
“I ain’t in the mood.”
“You sure you ain’t scared of it?”
“I ain’t scared of nothing around here. You want to hop in the Wax Museum?”
“Man, that’s a square show. There ain’t nothing there but dead people. Who wants to look at that kind of stuff?”
He ain’t for it, but he goes along and we hit the Wax Museum, slap our dimes down and walk in.
Yeah, only ten cents to see everything, all kinds of murder.
“Hey, hardly nobody here but us,” Jim says.
“Yeah, you feel how quiet it is?”
“That’s a fact.”
It is, and that crowd outside is like far away now, the noise of the Sky Chaser.
I look around. Other people in here is whispering. It’s like they’re scared. But I ain’t. All this is cool stuff.
“Let’s get out of here, Ace.”
“I seen enough. These are all stiffs. They give me the creeps.”
“Man, hang around for the dime’s worth. Nothing going to bite you here.”
“I’ll see you outside.”
“Hey, wait a minute. That’s a mean stud. See them eyes? That’s a cold killer.”
“He looks alive. Let’s walk. My blood’s icing up.”
“Okay,” I say, and we move on out, get caught up in the crowd again. Next thing I see a face just like the mean stud’s, the same killer-eyes looking straight at me.
Man, the skin crawls up my back. I look away fast and look back again. That’s a blip, cause that killer-face ain’t there no more.
“What’s wrong?” Jim asks me. “Sweat’s running off you like water.”
“I just saw him.”
“Hell you did.”
“I saw his face in the crowd. You think they ever did get to execute him?”
“He’s long ago fried. He ain’t never coming back.”
“But that was his face. Them cold-killer eyes.”
“Yeah, you seeing things that ain’t there.”
“And I’m looking for things.”
“I don’t know. Everybody looking, trying to catch something, trying to get something. But they’re scared. They’re laughing and they’re scared.”
“There you go with that jive talk again.”
“You mean you can’t feel it in the air? All these people trying to get something cause they’re scared. They’re running away from it, all of ’em. Afraid to face it.”
“You’re talking too crooked to follow, Ace.”
I don’t answer that cause this guy and this girl is passing and I hear her say, “Harry, buy me a dragon with the fiery eyes.”
That’s a real blip. I turn around, look at them. They don’t see me and they’re so close they almost knock me down. The crowd swallows them up but I can still hear that girl saying, “Harry, buy me a dragon with the fiery eyes.”
“You hear that?” I say to Jim.
“Damn, you deaf in three ears.”
“And you’re hearing stuff.”
That talk burns me. “Listen,” I say to Jim, “I been hearing that jive all night out of your big mouth. I’m tired of it.”
“You’re tired? I’m set to throw up from your talk.”
“You don’t like it, you can walk your own way.”
“Okay by me, Ace.”
That’s it. He goes his way, and l go mine.
Ten minutes later I hit this place.
It’s a real rat-hole where they sell hard stuff. I wet my tongue, and this bitch walks in. A blind man can see she’s on the make, and I ain’t blind.
It’s a fast pickup, easy as rolling out of bed. Her name is Flo, and she tells me she’s from East New York.
I put that down as the first lie, and figure her to be thirty. She kind of cute and kind of tough, with a voice mostly like a man’s.
“What’s your name?” she asks me.
“Harry,” I tell her cause it don’t make no difference.”
I light me a cigarette, buy her a drink, turn my back on the bar and look up. That’s the frame of the Ferris wheel against the sky, little cars hanging from it.
“Yeah, they’re caught. They can’t get away like that when they going in circles.”
“You want another drink, baby?”
That answers the question. This one’s a real guzzler. I order her another drink and keep watching the Ferris wheel till her tongue is dry again. That ain’t too long.
When she dumps that one down her mouth, I say, “Listen, Flo, do you want to go to the Wax Museum?”
“It don’t matter to me.”
That figures, but I’m not thinking of that cause I almost catch the reason why I came here, what I’m looking for. Almost, but it gets away.
It’s a short walk to the Wax Museum. When we go in, I say to Flo, “I like this place cause it’s gray. Everything is gray.”
She gives me a pop-eye look on that and says back, “How many drinks did you pour down before you met me?”
“Not enough worth counting. Hey, look at him. You know why he was like that, why he wasn’t afraid like you are?”
“Me? I’m afraid?”
“Yeah, you’re scared, ain’t you?”
“Of what? Wax?”
“You know better than me, but that’s beside the original point.”
“What’s the point?”
“This guy was a machine-gunner in the War. After that, did a white-collar lawyer expect to scare him?”
“Let’s get out of here, Harry. I’d like another drink. Come on.”
“Hell, you know what alcohol does? It cuts you off, makes you think you ain’t afraid. But that power don’t last. It…”
She lams for the exit. I let her breeze and study this killer. He’s the coolest-looking murderer in my book.
Later, this guy taps me on the shoulder and says, “You can’t hang around all night, fellow.”
Okay, I drift cause I got my dime’s worth, walk around and see Flo. She’s caught a new stud and is hanging on his arm.
I’m in the crowd and the going is rough. Everybody’s pushing and shoving. I go with it and keep watching and listening, seeing all them faces, hearing all that jive. I figure I’ll find what I’m looking for, find out what I got to do.
I find out nothing, but I run into this new chick. Her name’s Milly. She’s a cute trick, real young, nice hair, nice face. Yeah, a million faces around me and I pick her out. It’s like she’s been waiting for me all night, her whole life.
I know that soon as she looks at me. It ain’t nothing to pick her up. First thing she wants is a frozen custard. That’s natural. They all want something. Next, is the chutes, then the Sky Chaser.
That Sky Chaser is something. She’s scared to hell, grabs me when we make the big drop and screams in my ear.
That’s sensation, but most is the kick of the big drop. When you reaching bottom it’s like a hand squeezing between your legs.
The Tunnel of Love is next. That’s a slow boat to China, but she lets me kiss her. It’s dark and maybe the water gurgling around is oily. I pull away.
She looks surprised. I tell her about the Wax Museum killer and how he wasn’t scared of nothing.
“I’m scared of everything,” Milly says.
“Me?” I ask.
“No, not you.”
I take her down on the boardwalk. It’s kind of dark, things closing down. That don’t mean nothing tonight. The crowd stays with it and there ain’t an inch on the benches to sit down.
That beach looks queer. It’s grey instead of white, and the sand ain’t real. It kind of looks like mist laying down there. Rolling mist.
Then there’s the ocean. Damp, it’s all big. Big and black as hell and waiting like it’s getting set to come busting in over everything.
We’re both staring at it, and Milly says, “It’s scary, ain’t it?”
“Yeah, no lights out there. Nothing but dark. You know what’s out there?”
“How do you know, nothing?”
“I was out there.”
“Sailor? Where’s your sail—”
She keeps on talking but I’m listening to all them feet shuffling on the boardwalk again, trying to catch what people are saying. The Ferris wheel’s turning, streaks of light on the ironwork. Two little cars start rolling back and forth.
“Yeah, they’re trying to get away, but they can’t. Nobody can.”
“Who’s trying to get away from what?”
“From what they’re scared of. That’s what they’re trying to get away from.”
Milly laughs like she thinks I’m joking. So I drop the matter and we keep walking. We’re in the crowd, being pushed and shoved. But I don’t feel nothing. It’s like I don’t belong.
But I know why I’m here, and I ain’t scared like the others. They’re like kids running around, trying to laugh it off.
We go to the railing, lean against it and look at the beach. There’s patches of shadow down there. A couple of times matches flare. Talking comes from the beach, and somebody in white walks out of the dark and back into it again.
“It’s out there,” I say.
“What’s out there?”
“In the dark. Look, it’s like it’s waiting to pour over us. It’s crouching out there. But you don’t know, you don’t care. Nobody thinks of out there. Maybe it’s happening again, men swimming through burning oil. Maybe you don’t know how black it can be, how big it is. How deep.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking, Harry, but let’s go down on the beach.”
That’s okay by me. We move on, reach a stairway and go on down, hit the beach. The crowd’s behind us now, black water ahead.
From back of the boardwalk I can hear the roller coaster. I turn and it’s like looking at another world. People on the boardwalk are only shadows. Lights look fuzzy.
We move on, stop where the sand is wet. “Listen,” I say, and I can hear it already. That water’s talking. It moves in gentle-like but there’s a cold power behind it. It draws away, comes back, laps at the beach like a big flat tongue.
“You know what, Milly?”
“Men are out there somewhere. They playing tag in the dark. There’s oil-spots on the water. You don’t know what it’s like out there without anything under you.”
Milly just looks and takes a back step. She don’t like this and wants to move.
I let her have her way and we turn around, start back for the boardwalk.
Halfway there, she turns and lets herself down on the sand.
“Let’s sit here, Harry. It’s nice and quiet.”
I go along with that, sit next to her and listen to her talk cause I like the sound of her voice. It’s soothing, like my sister’s. It’s almost like Sister’s alive again. I close my eyes and it is Sis.
“How old are you?”
“I ain’t old, I’m a million years young.”
“I am,” I say, serious. “I’ll tell you something else you don’t know.”
“Do you know what the half-man/half-woman at the side-show is?”
“He’s a man. I know that cause we used to play cards together in the side-show.”
“You worked in the side-show?”
“Yeah, I used to do tricks with cards. I can’t do them no more. Don’t ask me why.”
Milly lays back on the sand with her hands behind her head. “I won’t ask, Harry. But you’re funny.”
“I mean different.”
“I feel that way tonight.”
“I want you to know something.”
“What you want me to know?”
“Don’t think that anybody can pick me up.”
“I know that.”
“It’s the truth.”
“I believe you. You want me to buy you something?”
“A dragon with fiery eyes.”
Milly laughs on that. We both do, then I tell her about the girl asking this guy to buy her that.
“Why’d she want something like that, Milly?”
“I don’t know, Harry. You got a cigarette?”
I reach in my pocket and leave my hand there, cause I see all them faces again, the crowd, the lights and the darkness. The roller coaster is still rattling, that merry-go-round music playing and people laughing.
“Yeah, keep talking, Milly. Don’t stop. I like to hear your voice.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Keep talking. Don’t stop,” I tell her, and I feel kind of strange. I see all them faces, the crowd, the shadows on the boardwalk, that big dark ocean. It’s all mixed up in my brain, and it’s out there.
Out there, everywhere and right here with us and we don’t know it. Wait for the tide. They come in with the tide, all bloated and covered with oil.
That’s why everybody’s laughing. They’re trying to push it away. Damn them. Damn them!
Milly puts her hand on mine. It feels soft, a little bit damp. It’s small as Sister’s.
I see her eyes looking up at me and I bend down. She don’t move, ain’t scared. Her arms come up and pull me down against her and I taste her lips.
Next, I’m leaning above her again. “Don’t stop talking, Milly.”
“But why?” She starts laughing.
That’s when the feeling really hits me. It’s like the ocean raising up on one big wave. It’s coming, getting set to roll over me.
“Say something. Go ahead. Don’t stop!”
She looks at me. I can’t see her throat move, so I put my hand there. “Talk! Keep talking!”
It don’t do no good. The wave keeps coming and I see the faces, the crowd, colored lights, shadows, everything all jumbled together.
The Ferris wheel starts busting up, the Sky Chaser’s falling apart, and that old merry-go-round is going crazy, going faster and faster with that crazy music. Everything’s going round, falling into the dark.
Can’t hear Milly now, so I put my other hand on her throat to make her talk. She got to say something. Damn, I’ll pull it out of her.
That don’t do no good. After a while I let her go, get up, wipe the sand off my hands and look at her.
I’m still looking when that white light shoots out from under the boardwalk. It cuts across the sand, catches and blinds me.
I put my hands over my eyes, but that’s stupid. I got to run. Somebody screaming, “That’s him! That’s him!”
I start to run, try to get away from the light, but it catches up with me. I cut sideways and it picks me out again.
That girl is still screaming. People on the boardwalk watching. A whistle’s blowing. They coming at me. Shadows is running across the sand.
I stop and wait and they come around, lay hands on me. Bam, a bust in the mouth puts me down:
I get up, can’t answer what they’re asking, all them crazy questions.
This cop puts a flashlight in my face. Got a look in his fiery eyes like he wants to kill me.
Somebody yells out and I’m pushed across the sand back to the place where I left Milly. She’s laying quiet, like she’s having herself a sleep.
The questions come again. They’re all crazy, and I can’t answer them.
About the Author
Harold “Hal” Ellson (1910 – October 31, 1994) was an American author of pulp fiction whose work primarily focused on juvenile delinquency, a field in which he has been described as “one of the most popular” writers and as “legendary.”
Ellson was a social worker, recreational therapist, and nurse’s aide at Bellevue Hospital, where he encountered the adolescent psychiatric patients on whom he based much of his fiction; he subsequently stated that many of the patients viewed him as a “father confessor”, and eagerly told him their stories while trusting that he would not report them to law enforcement.
Harlan Ellison cited Hal Ellson’s work as having inspired his own interest in juvenile delinquency — an interest which led directly to the writing of Ellison’s first novel, Web of the City. Ellison also stated that in the earliest days of his career as a writer, he was often mistaken for Ellson writing under a pseudonym — and that decades later, when Ellison had become much more known and Ellson’s career had waned, Ellson was often mistaken for Ellison writing under a pseudonym.
About the Narrator
Dave Robison is an avid Literary and Sonic Alchemist who pursues a wide range of creative explorations. A Brainstormer, Keeper of the Buttery Man-Voice (patent pending), Pattern Seeker, Dream Weaver, and Eternal Optimist, Dave’s efforts to boost the awesomeness of the world can be found at The Roundtable Podcast, the Vex Mosaic e-zine, and through his creative studio, Wonderthing Studios. Dave is the creator of ARCHIVOS, an online story development and presentation app, as well as the curator of the Palaethos Patreon feed where he explores a fantasy mega-city one street at a time.