The Last Walk
by John Duncan
It's a sultry night in July. We start our ritual stroll down to the boardwalk where a barge waits offshore to fill the black sky with bursts of Chrysanthemums. I hold my father's hand and look down at the sidewalk, avoiding the cracks, a tenet of childhood folklore. We pass the candy store; the sidewalk here is covered with black welts, the remnants of wax tubes, minus their sticky-sweet juice. The night is a cornucopia of smells; the salty breeze off the ocean, the hot breath of the pizza shop, my father's cologne.
We always stop for ice cream along the way; I follow as my father crosses the street. The Carvel stand is illuminated by yellow light, casting an amber glow on the faces of the milling patrons. Here too is an olfactory surprise, wafting out through the service window. Hot chocolate and cherry dip sit in silver warming canisters, a ladle hanging over the edge. People stand, smoking cigarettes, or sit at the picnic tables, talking, their murmur in competition with the cicadas and the faint roar of the ocean. I choose pistachio with cherry dip, my favorite, and my father doesn't get any. He likes to just walk, and point out things to me along the way.
We're heading east down Beech Street; the blocks in the West End are a hundred feet wide and named after the states. We live on Alabama street, a narrow one-way street, and the boardwalk is on New York Avenue, one of the wide boulevards that join Park Avenue on the bay side and Broadway on the ocean side. On the corner of New York Avenue are the bike shop and the delicatessen; I'm deliberately slow here. I linger at the window of the bike shop, a blue Schwinn catching my eye. There's no water bottles or fanny-packs, but it does have a banana seat and gleaming sissy bar. I want it so much the desire becomes a dull ache in my throat. I look sideways at my father and neither of us says a word until he blurts out, "We better get going, the fireworks start soon."
We pass St. Ignatius Church and the catholic school, surrounded by asphalt ball fields and an eight- foot high cyclone fence. These fields would come alive in August, the Ferris wheel spinning lazily in counterpoint to the whirring gaming wheels at the Church Bazaar. That event drew big crowds, and if somehow you didn't see someone all summer, you were sure to see them there. This year they were raising money to renovate the school and the playground. I was hoping they would also invest in some plastic rulers; which kept their shape, and were easier on the knuckles.
The streets down here were yet unpaved, but were instead red brick, some of them cracking, and bulging upwards. They were beautiful to look at, matching the Spanish-style clay roofs, but made for a tooth-jarring bike-ride. The entrance to the boardwalk was a wooden ramp, constructed, as was the rest of the boardwalk, of two by fours, some brand-new, and others so weathered as to crumble if you stepped on them. Stepping out on the boardwalk itself was like stepping out on a seaside stage, the applause of the waves lapping at the shore. The railings were galvanized piping, painted silver, stretching out for two and a half miles. There were wooden benches too, but usually we avoided them, preferring to lean on the railing, getting a view of the revelers on the beach below.
A few desultory bottle rockets skittered their way skyward, ending with their signature, "pop" and white camera flash, while the rat-a-tat of firecrackers punctuated our conversation. My father squinted out toward the horizon and pointed, "Do you see it out there? If you look hard you can see the ship." I squinted against the gathering darkness and made out the faint outline of a vessel, barely visible under a crescent moon.
"Where does it come from, Daddy?"
"Its docked in the city and then it sails all the way around the Rockaways."
Just then, the opening salvo rumbled up from the barge and filled the sky with color, like a giant umbrella opening, drawing "oohs" and "ahs" from the assembled crowd. I squeezed the railing in excitement as the pyrotechnics reached a crescendo, looking up at my father occasionally, or shouting a rhetorical, "Did you see that one?" He just laughed and nodded his head, looking more at me than the display before us. Within fifteen minutes, it was all over, culminating in a grand finale that obscured the moon and stars and lit the Atlantic below.
The onlookers reluctantly began to disperse as we contemplated our walk home, by far the longer of the two legs of the journey. My father turned to me with a wistful smile, "Did you like the fireworks?"
"Yeah, Daddy, they were better than last year."
"Happy Fourth of July, son."
"Happy Fourth of July, daddy.
All was quiet but for the endless trill of the cicadas. We walked along in silence; neither of us knowing this would be the last time we would take this walk together. I reached up and held his hand. He smiled.