BY BOB RAYMONDA
Tucked away along the sprawling boardwalk of the Jersey Shore, there’s an unremarkable stand filled to the brim with balloons of all shapes and colors. Jules, an immovable man with a respectable paunch, presided over this place. He was bespectacled and bearded in such a way that made him look like a low-rent George RR Martin and brandished the author’s same tired fisherman’s cap. He never said a word as the sun-pocked children passed by, handing him fives and tens and twenties from their ice-cream stained fingers, begging for a chance to destroy the colorful spheres behind him.
What the children didn’t see, as they flung their dilapidated darts at the wall, was that the man possessed no legs to speak of. Trailing out from underneath his taut black t-shirt was a tuft of smoke, approaching the facsimile of a tail. The smoke’s size and shape ebbed and flowed with the management of his stall. Almost bursting while he waited for the grubs to make their mark, and deflating again as he used his pent-up-pressure to replenish the cheap waxy balloons behind him.
At his side most days sat an ornery fading beach rat named Luellen, clutching a wireless microphone, and cooing at the sweaty vacationers in their stringy bathing suits and inquiring after their fattened wallets. She chain-smoked Parliaments and blew second-hand smoke into the face of her customers, her legs propped up on the stall in front of her. What she lacked in grace, she made up for in what Jules’ mother would have called gumption. The few times she was asked to modify her behavior, be it by their boss or one of her asthmatic tween marks, Luellen had lit up a new smoke, let out a raucous fart, and cackled in their faces.
Jules appreciated her give-no-shits attitude, but couldn’t let her know it. She assumed he was one of those old, queer types who spent all their time in their own head and couldn’t give a second of their day to anybody else. Jules didn’t have a tongue. It got ripped right out his head when he died and never came back when he became re-corporealized. He was tenuously tethered to the land of the living, as it were.
Where others in his predicament would take full advantage of the freedom in his newfound form, Jules has chosen to remain mostly stationary. There would be no haunting the halls of an old manse or zipping along the depths of the ocean floor in his future. There would only be the alternating seasons of the same rickety beach where he spent his own summers growing up. But he didn’t mind, Luellen was good company and he’d always loved the way the smell of deep fried oysters mixed perfectly with the dull glow of the neon lights that surrounded him.
The biggest trouble with Jules’ immortal decision was when the end of the season rolled around, year in and year out, like clockwork. After the last of the balloons had been popped and the summer people had filled their cars back up with their sand-covered beach gear, he stayed put. After Luellen had retreated to her winter job behind the counter of a deli, serving up bland bacon egg and cheeses, Jules floated back and forth in his stall ad infinitum.
During those days, Jules would wait for the sun to come up and finally take a moment to float away. He watched the waves swell in and out as the snow came and went. And he waited, for the next crop of kids to show up and require something of him. It was a lonely thing. He’d drift along the edge of the shore and wonder what it’d be like if he could still wiggle his toes into the harsh frozen sand underneath them. What it would be like to feel anything, at all, anymore.
It wasn’t that he couldn’t touch anything, on the contrary, he could pick things up well enough, but he couldn’t savor anything, not really. He couldn’t eat a Nathan’s hot dog or drink a cold Bud Light without it falling onto the ground behind him in a pool of grey unsubstantiated mush. He couldn’t kiss his husband’s collarbone or feel the brief moment of joy as their hairy knuckles brushed into one another. It all felt so hopeless.
At least, until Phil showed up.
It was like any other January morning: Jules moping about, restocking the balloons despite the cold when he heard a knock at the counter behind him. He spun around and saw someone wearing a long trench coat and a pair of aviator sunglasses. They were chomping on a cigar and chewing a piece of gum at the same time, and spoke with their teeth gritted, “Hey Skin, how much for a chance?”
Jules pointed to the sign behind him, $3 for 2 tries, $5 for 3.
The stranger chortled, “What’s a matter, cat got your tongue?”
Jules, feeling sassy, opened his mouth and pointed to the bloody stump where his tongue used to be. Phil recoiled, but then stuck their head in even closer to Jules’ face.
“Holy Mary, mother of Joseph, what the fuck happened to you?”
“You ever think of carrying around a little pen and paper so you can actually talk to people?”
Jules rolled his eyes, but reached into his pocket and pulled out a faded moleskin with a canary on the cover and a stubby brown crayon: Of course.
“That’s more like it. Name’s Phil,” they said, sticking their hand out, “How about you?”
Jules, he wrote before taking Phil’s hand in for a shake. It was cold. Cold like Jules’ hands were. Dead hands. Jules cocked his head like his pit bull, Tubsy, always would.
Phil let out a knowing smile. “Fifty or sixty years now, I think. I lose track. What about you?”
Jules held up all ten of his fingers.
“A baby then. Sorry I called you Skin, haven’t run into any others in a while.”
Jules shrugged again.
Phil reached into their breast pocket and pulled out a crisp twenty dollar bill. They slapped it on the table and hungrily took the fistful of darts Jules handed them. They didn’t make a single shot but didn’t seem to mind. Casually pinning the wall while taking puffs from their cigar.
Jules picked up his crayon again, wrote: You don’t like sitting still much, do you?
Phil laughed, “Never been too good at that.”
I can tell.
“Can I ask you another question, Jules, was it?”
Do I have a choice?
“Course you do, but I’m still gonna ask: why here?”
For the first time in what felt like ages, Jules’ wrist began to cramp up. He wasn’t used to writing this much, but asked: Where else would I go?
“Anywhere!” Phil exclaimed, giving up on their darts and sitting on the booth, patting the table next to them, “I know this lounge singer, Debby, who goes around at night singing in the empty ballrooms of every venue she never got to topline before she croaked.”
Jules hesitantly climbed up and plopped himself down. His tail wagged with excitement, and as soon as Phil saw it, they unbuttoned the bottom of their jacket and showed off a hazy tail of their own.
“And there’s this other friend of mine, a tax agent from Tallulah who summers in the lingerie section of a Wal*Mart outside Tacoma, for the fun of it.”
Jules scratched away: Sounds like you’ve got a lot of friends.
“I do! And that’s just in the States. There’s this old clown who runs a crust punk DIY venue in Berlin. And…”
That’s very good for them. It sounds like they’ve all had very fulfilling deaths.
Phil let out a big sigh, “You’re not getting my point.”
Jules cocked his head like Tubsy again.
“Forgive me if I’m overstepping here, but if I can hazard a guess, you lived here before you died.”
Jules nodded. So what?
“So, haven’t you wanted to get out and see any of the world?”
Jules shook his head, without conviction.
Phil stubbed out their cigar and spit their gum out in a high arc across the boardwalk. “You’re telling me, in the ten years since you’ve been a skin, you’ve sat here doing the same shit you did when you were one, and you’re still happy as a clam?”
Jules nodded, more and more unsure of himself.
“I call bull shit.”
Where would I even bother going? None of it’ll be any different than here. None of it will get me my husband back.
They sighed and put a hand on Jules’ back. Even dead, lifeless, and cold, it still sent a shiver down his spine. “Anywhere, Jules. You could go anywhere. And you can’t dwell on the skins, it’s bad for your complexion. And this body of yours? If you’d bother getting out once in a while, you’d realize it could be anything you wanted.”
My body is just fine thanks.
“Of course it is! But it could be something else too. Something more”
Jules gave Phil the Tubsy look again.
Phil put their hands on Jules’ face. Their pupils were giant and their eyes were green in a way you could get lost in. They looked at him, earnestly, said, “If you’ll take my hand, I can show you.”
Jules hesitated. Who was this ghost, anyway? And why should he trust them? He broke eye contact and fiddled with one of the darts that Phil never threw. He turned and sent it flying, himself, straight into one of the biggest balloons he’d blown up. A small wisp of mist leaked out as a little part of him escaped back into the world.
It was Phil’s turn to shrug and shrug they did. They rubbed their hands together and pulled their trench coat back in tight to their chest, blowing air on their fingers. “Suit yourself,” they said, as they stood up to leave.
As Phil drifted away, Jules thought about what they said. What was the point of staying here, at least during the offseason? He could always come back when there was work to do again if he wanted. He wrote a quick note and rapped his knuckles on the counter three times. At first, Phil didn’t hear him, and so he did it again. The whole stall shook, and it sounded like a thunderclap against the boardwalk beneath him. Phil turned back now, and Jules held up his sign: Wait.
Jules took one last look at the stall where he’d spent so much of his life and death. He’d miss it, but Phil was right. It was time for him to experience a little bit more of what there was out there. He had his whole death ahead of him and he was starting to look forward to it, despite himself.
Phil had a huge smile on their face as Jules appeared next to them. “You sure about this, friendo?”
Jules sighed, and scratched a final note: You’re really gonna try and get me to turn back, now?
Phil shook their head. Took Jules’ hand, warming him all the way up, and lead him finally away from the shore.
Bob Raymonda is a writer based out of New Rochelle, NY. His work has found its way onto Quail Bell Magazine, Peach Magazine, Syndicated, Potluck Magazine, & Yes, Poetry. In early 2015 he founded Breadcrumbs Magazine, an online literary and arts journal that fosters creativity and collaboration through shared inspiration. The project has grown into a community of over 200 contributors across the world in a wide variety of mediums, with more submitting all of the time.