Swan Dive! Ch. 3: New Jersey Nightmare

Just like that, out of nowhere, Sam Bennett delivered to a stranger on the beach an impromptu ornithology lesson.

“A gull can eat up to 20 percent of its body weight in food each day,” the shriveled sun-cured senior citizen said.

“That’s a lot of french fries,” Marty Durkin said.

“A group of gulls is called a colony,” the 70-year-old said.

“Like founding feathers,” Marty said.

Instead of laughing at Marty’s wit, the old fellow rattled off his odd list of fun gull facts for kids.

“Gulls can fly at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.”

Durkin let him prattle.

“There are around 50 different species of gulls in the world. About seven of those species are regularly seen here on the Gulf Coast,” Sam Bennett said.

Looking for nothing more than a thoughtful walk on the white sandy shore, maybe seeing a dolphin or two surface and dive, Marty still wanted to be polite, especially to a doddering golden ager sporting a gull mask.

“You live around here, buddy?”

Sam Bennett threw a thumb up the beach.

“The Spyglass Apartments,” he said.

Marty, 45, sensed the disheveled beachcomber wanted to talk. Dressed in a faded pink RayRay’s Elbow Room tank top, baggy violet polyester board shorts and scuffed oxblood wingtips with no socks, the grizzled beach bindle seemed lonely and more than a little lost. Jaded but empathetic Marty asked the senile beach townie a sincere question.

“I just moved to town,” Marty said. “You know a good bar around here?”

Sam Bennett pointed to his shirt. Having finished what he wanted to say, he casually strolled away, slowly flapping his arms up and down and picking up speed as he bent his hands at the wrists. For some strange reason Marty wondered how he’d react if the old buzzard really did take off, lifting, flying and cruising high into the sky above the coastline. Nothing would surprise Durkin anymore.

He’d check out RayRay’s later that night.

Walking the beach he saw a group of young men running pass patterns and throwing a football.  Back in the early 80s Marty’s late father, Joe, gave him an official Notre Dame football for his fifth birthday. Until they moved out of West Philadelphia when Marty was 12 he never once played catch with the kid. City police Captain Durkin was too busy stockpiling enough cash to buy the small house in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, a one-story cottage built in the 40s that needed paint and repairs to the wooden shutters. Nonetheless, that comfort afforded Marty, his mother, Mary, and Joe a full-time place “down the shore,” as Philly people said, and got them out of an increasingly Black neighborhood.

For years his dad regularly wore a T-shirt with the words “Retired Cop” stamped on the front and one of those vintage yellow straw pork pie hats with empty Budweiser beer cans attached above the brim. Of course the hat made Joe look like a real ass, but he enjoyed the scornful stares he got from wealthy retirees, mostly widows in supermarkets, or from aging patients at his increasing medical appointments. He was convinced that flaunting the absurd attire advertised his defiant independence.

The only freedom Joe Durkin truly possessed sprang from not having the South Philly mob dregs looking over his shoulder, telling him what to do, paying him with fat envelopes but always there as a menacing presence. Joe finally broke free from these young Guidos, usually the sons of men whose names once struck fear in police and public alike, whose bribes and kickbacks financed his leisurely retirement and Stone Harbor home ownership.

Just listening as a teenager to his father and mother argue in the kitchen alerted Marty to the sad truth. His dad never talked to him about rumors in town that he had been a dirty cop. His mom went to Mass as often as she could. Marty blocked shameful thoughts when he heard whispers at school. Irish and Italian cops’ kids in Philadelphia took official police corruption for granted. Bad cops would always rule. At 21 Marty joined the Stone Harbor Police Department and became a good local cop who honestly protected and served.

One day six months ago, way ahead of schedule, Marty quit the police force, selling the cottage and abruptly leaving town. Putting flowers on his parents’ graves never crossed his mind. He had more than enough of his own problems to last a lifetime. With a pension from 20 years with the police department and the proceeds from selling the house, at least he had money in the bank.

Lifting his nose, Marty sniffed the salt air. Spreading out the towel he bought at celebrity former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan’s restaurant the night before, a full-sized orange towel imprinted with a life-sized likeness of Hulk raising his arms above his head in victory, Marty kicked off the brown leather flip flops he bought that morning for $85 at a surf shop. Playing the part of happy retiree would be tough. But the time had come to start a new life. Taking off the baby blue three button polo shirt staff at the Stone Harbor Library gave him last year for reading a book about alligators to first graders, he stretched out in the sand. Five minutes later he slumbered in a deep sleep. One minute after his first snore the nightmare hit.

A tourist had called 911 and reported a Black man on the beach with a gun. The kid’s eyes blazed like raging coals in a furnace. The 14-year-old’s black skin shined with sweat in Marty’s flashlight beam. A dull sheen reflected off the barrel as the kid held out the object. A gunmetal flash of silver tube pierced Marty’s heightened awareness. The blast came fast. One shot.

Marty fired one shot that caught the kid between the eyes, penetrating his skull and lodging in the soft tissue of his brain. Approaching with the vigilance of a jungle lion stalking an antelope calf, sweat dripped from Marty’s brow. Dry mouth made him gag. The trigger finger on his right hand trembled as he struggled to keep the gun pointed at the victim who still held his weapon.

Kicking away the firearm Marty saw the deadly weapon wasn’t a firearm at all. A nickel silver piccolo lay in the sand, a musical instrument the child had come to play alone on the beach so nobody would laugh at him for practicing.

Waking in a nauseous panic, Marty struggled to sit upright.

The boy’s name.

He forgot the boy’s name.

Marty buried his face in his hands.

He cried tears that dripped into the sand.

Marty Durkin knew he’d never escape himself or what’s-his-name.