They roll in with the waves at the end of the spring storms. Coughing, sputtering, tangled in seaweed, they trudge across the beach toward the boardwalk, where they take up residence in stalls and stands that have stood abandoned since summer.

The midway games are dangerous and the prizes strange, not just the usual day-glo plush toys, but also mummified webbed claws and dried sea horses with too-human faces. The screams from the Tunnel of Love sound final. Attorneys loiter near the bumper cars.

In summer, the boardwalk smells of salt and deepest ocean mud. The fireworks on Fourth of July linger in the dark sky like bioluminescent jelly fish before sinking with stingers extended. Nobody says “ooh” or “aah.”

Bite into a hot dog and you’re likely to taste leviathan or kraken or triton or sea bishop. “Less fatty,” the vendor will growl if you complain. The novelty t-shirts may display funny slogans, but not in any language you know. The palm reader’s predictions are a litany of future atrocity and disaster, and she won’t stop, keeping a firm grip on your wrist, even if you weep and beg.

After Labor Day, the summer sun tires and the air begins to chill. Without a word, the boardwalk workers turn away from the t-shirt shops and midway games. They abandon the merry-go-round with riders still suspended upside-down above the beach. Your half-completed tattoo will have to wait till next summer.

The flotsam don’t look happy as they cross the sand. The beach is broad, and it’s been a long summer. Still, like fish called to spawn, they must wade into the surf, pushing against the waves, thrashing as water fills their lungs and they drown once again.


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