“An Ocean City Story” – 12 May 2013
This is a story that came to me tonight. I kinda got tired of kanoodling around with my tablet, so I decided to do something constructive for a change, and this is the result. It’s a short story I wrote titled “An Ocean City Story,” and it’s kinda weird.
Just like I like ’em.
The clapboard houses stand empty, all the bars lie quiet, and the beach is a virtual ghost town. There’s no more trash whirling through the street; no longer are there Range Rovers and Lambos and mom-ish minivans fresh off an Avis lot rolling through thoroughfares packed with drunks and stragglers and horny college students looking for that summertime lay. The Boardwalk has been faded for maybe two weeks now – Fisher’s has wound down, and Dolle’s has stopped making so much salt water taffy; Trimpers and the Pier’s summertime glory has long since diminished. Slowly, slowly but surely the natural residents of Ocean City are making their way back into the center of town, trudging cautiously to work and errandry among the nearly-empty condos and grocery store parking lots which now appear to have far too many spots available than residents to fill them.
One of the owners of those clapboard summer rentals was Percival Hammond, lifelong bachelor of forty-five years whose only claim to fame was the masters degree he held in accounting from Carnegie-Mellon. Percival was a nervous sort of fellow of average height and with mousy brown hair, with glasses a quarter of an inch thick and a bit of an overbite, always clad in a pair of khakis and a button-down long-sleeved shirt with a plaid pattern racing down his torso and arms. He lived an uneventful existence, an above-averagely uneventful one – for eighteen years he worked as a CPA in a small office building in the center of town and, because of the nature of his work, many of the town’s off-season residents came through his office at some time or another. Other than that his life was routine – grocery store, hardware store, bank, home, grocery store, hardware store, bank, home. Percival didn’t smoke, Percival didn’t drink, Percival didn’t swim, so Percival had no need for those trappings that made Ocean City so attractive to everyone else. Every day he returned home to find it in the exact same condition he left it, for eight months out of the year.
Percival’s job was quite lucrative and he kept his own hours, so he was in a position to take a long vacation – during which he merely transplanted his life of uneventful drudgery to another locale. It never ended, only the points of interest changed slightly – grocery store, bookstore, ATM, hotel room, grocery store, bookstore, ATM, hotel room. Percival never saw his vacation time as a period of great potential; it was just a quick easy way to make large amounts of quick easy money, and renting out his sterile clapboard domicile for four-hundred bucks a week funded his extremely boring vacations. For nearly twenty years he spent three and a half months every summer doing the same things he did in Ocean City, and never once fell in love, or got mugged, or had a one night stand, or got dragged into a street fight – nothing. The only thing Percival looked forward to at the end of every summer was going back home to find his cottage trashed, the remnants of some exciting summer epic rotting in his refrigerator or splashed across his carpet in a strange discolored blob. And while he cleaned it all Percival would imagine, create and revel in what he thought had taken place, and until he got his house spotless and sterile once again he was something akin to happy, the closest he’d ever get throughout the entire year. He never put a keep-my-place-as-you-found-it clause in the contacts he drafted for the strangers that stayed in his home; he wanted them to wreck it – short of total destruction, of course. The more damage was done to his home the longer it would take to clean and repair, and the longer he could stay in the fantasies he would create. He’d come home to some interesting surprises over the years; he’d left a fishtank in the house, bought just as bait for the summer, and came back with all the fish gone and a snapping turtle in their place. He’d found a dead raccoon in his mailbox. He’d come back to holes in his walls more often than he could count, innumerable cigarette burns in his carpets and furniture, and once to his great delight, a pentagram carved into the outside of his oak front door. Every piece of property damage excited him, and he became quite adept at do-it-yourself home repairs.
Once again, another Labor Day was approaching and Percival made his way back to Ocean City. He liked to spend the last weekend of summer close by, wringing his hands expectantly in anticipation of the wanton destruction of his home that invariably awaited him. He went out to the Boardwalk and watched the crowds thronging about him, listened to the vendors calling out to them to come try and buy, to the children and college kids alike cramming as much of the quickly fading summer as possible into their minds to utilize as fuel for the autumn like manic, id-driven squirrels. He grew tired of the scene on the Boardwalk and retired to his hotel room, drifting off to sleep amid images of broken windows and rumpled covers and shoeprints on the ceiling.
The day came. Percival drove as carefully as he could through the streets, and made his way through the center of town trying in vain to conceal his giddiness the entire way. He got home, parked his car, and cut the engine. He inspected the building from the outside, and it looked the same as ever. But it always did.
He got out of the car and trotted up the walk, disappointed that there was no swastika adorning his portal, and that it was still locked. He unlocked the door, swung it open, and threw his opened suitcases through the doorway to add to the mess inside.
The clothing strewn across his floor was the only mess inside.
It was as if he had never left. His living room was spotless, as were the kitchen, his bedroom, and the other rooms in the house. He had bought two huge ficuses as bait this go round, and they were left untouched. He stumbled through his home wearing a look of incredulity on his face, a look that slowly grew into anger. Not only was everything clean, everything was the way it was supposed to be, and that’s wasn’t the way things were supposed to be. He returned to the living room and sat in an armchair he had reupholstered for the non-occasion, and fumed. And that’s when he saw it taped to the door of his microwave. He stalked across the room and snatched the note up to read it.
Dear Mister Hammond,
Thanks so much for allowing us to use your lovely home. We weren’t able to find many converts this go round, but if you’re willing to put us up again next year I’m sure the fathers and I would be most appreciative. If it’s about doing the Lord’s Work, there’s no end to that mission.
I know you mentioned that there was a no-cleaning-necessary clause in the contract we signed, but there was no way in the world I was going to leave your home in the condition we found it. I’m not sure who stayed here before we did, Mr. Hammond, but they had the place in ruins, so the brothers and I pitched in to clean it up for you.
Again, we thank you so much for your hospitality.
Father Kieran O’Halloran and the Jesuit Brotherhood of Science, L.P.S.
As he read the note Percival began to quake with rage, then sob, then crumpled to the floor in a heap, broken.