As Mark headed north on Atlantic Avenue, he surveyed the storefronts, looking for a cozy open bar or even a package store. He did see one or two, but each one gave him a strange feeling of panic. He was convinced that if he went in to any of these places, he'd be booted out. They seemed familiar and strange at the same time.
He remembered feeling this once before. He was at a party at the Chamber of Commerce, a guest of a friend and rather uncomfortable among all the strange and falsely cheerful faces. He drifted through the crowd, smiling weakly at folks and heading back and forth to the open bar. At one point, an attractive petit woman, dark with a Mediterannean complexion and long wavy hair, frowned at him. He returned the favor with a blank look.
"You don't remember me, do you?" she asked.
"Well, you look a bit familiar, but I can't place you."
"We dated a few times last year. You said you loved me, and never wanted me to leave. When I told you I didn't love you, you punched me in the face."
She took the glass from his hand, and looked at his unsteady posture.
"I see you haven't changed. Stay away from me, and I might not call the cops."
"Oh, and this is for you!" She lashed out with one hand and slapped him, and splashed his drink back in his face with the other. Then she threw his glass to the floor and stormed away.
The other people in the room carefully ignored the whole incident, chattering idly among themselves and turning away when he tried to catch their eye. And he felt... like they knew him, but he didn't know them at all. And they hated him.
Mark kept driving. The buildings had seen better days, many of the storefronts were empty, staring hollow-eyed into the street. The street was largely deserted, though a few doorways sheltered people, hard to distinguish from the smudged walls in their layers brown, green and black clothing. The urban camoflague was rendered complete in many cases by a brown paper sack, from which the bearer would sip possessively.
As he neared the center of Atlantic City, he saw it. A sign.
He laughed out loud. "I'm an atheist, and the Lord has seen fit Give Me a Sign. Hall-e-freakin' luia."
The sign was a shield, and it read: New Jersey / US / 40 and below that was an arrow indicating the need to turn left ahead.
He laughed again, and recalling a movie he saw a little after the Chamber of Commerce party, misquoted, "Sometimes you just have to say... Tom Cruise was Right."
When he reached Albany Avenue, Mark corrected himself and said "What the F***.", and turned left, to the west, onto US Route 40.
Atlantic City, and Margate (formerly Known as South Atlantic City), are on Absecon Island. Access from the mainland is via causeway, and that's where Mark found himself now. He knew, if he looked in his rear view mirror, he'd see billboard after billboard advertising casino shows and slots. In this direction, there weren't that many ads. He could see the swamp grass and debris which constituted wetlands. His mind wandered a bit as he imagined a black Cadillac, pulled off behind a billboard, and two burley men dumping a large heavy bundle into the swamp. Business as usual, nothing to see here.
On the other end of the causeway, he drove through the town of Pleasantville. It may have been pleasant in the past, but now it was mostly run down. While passing Toulon Road, in his peripheral vision, he noticed a rococo building with several claw-foot bathtubs out front, and chandeliers and oriental screens in the window. "An antique dealership," he guessed.
For one brief moment, though, the building changed. Mark let off the gas and turned to see a collection of 1950s cars had replaced the bathtubs. "Studebakers??" he wondered. And then they were just bathtubs again.
"Heh. Probably Nash Ramblers, if they're related to bathtubs" he muttered. "Porsche 354s would be nicer, but not along this road." He heard a loud honk, glanced in the rearview mirror, and saw a large black car right on his bumper. The car swerved into the left lane and passed him, the driver signaling his opinion of Mark's driving with an upraised middle finger. Mark, having driven in New Jersey just enough to be familiar with local customs, returned the cheerful gesture.
He wasn't too worried about the hallucination. He'd been seeing all kinds of things in the corners of his vision lately. Over tired, overswozzled, and overboard, no doubt.
He was wrong, though. Those *were* Studebakers he saw.
A little further along, in Egg Harbor, he passed what seemed to be an enchanted village on the right. Storyland. He had been there once as a young man, with his much younger little sister. It was an amusement park for very small children, with lots of fairy tale elements and only a few very tame rides. All the buildings seemed tiny, and all quite shabby, but she had never noticed. That was one of the first times Mark was convinced that he was no longer a child, and it wasn't a very pleasant experience.
Today, however, he was going past at 55 miles per hour, and the fanciful buildings seemed fine. Well, except for the fact that the park had been closed for many years. It was still decorated with lights at Christmas, but the rides were deemed unsafe for modern youngsters.
The road continued ahead, straight as a rail, with shoulders wide enough to park on. As usual, when he noticed the shoulders, he thought about two things. First, the highway department would never spend the effort to create such lovely paved shoulders down in his home state of Virginia. Second, he remembered the first time he heard about spotlighting deer. Evidently South Jersey natives enjoyed driving around in their pickup trucks, shining lights into the farmer's fields next to the highway. The deer would freeze, and provide an easy target for the "hunters". Some even mounted large flashlights on their guns, where telescopic sites would normally go. This made deer hunting in South Jersey a real "point and click experience".
Mark shook his head at his own anemic pun. Computer geek humor. Ar! Ar!
Motoring along, idly reading the billboards for the hundredth time, Mark thought about New Jersey drivers and their reputation. Actually, Jersey drivers were pretty terrific, in terms of raw nerve and talent. They just had some quirks which confused "foreigners", and confused themselves when they traveled out of state.
The greatest NJ traffic invention is the Jug Handle. Only in New Jersey would someone decide that the best way to turn left would be to turn right, first. That explained a lot of their state politics, Mark realised.
The second greatest traffic invention used in New Jersey is the traffic circle, or roundabout. Unfortunately for state competition, this was actually devised elsewhere, by some genuine foreigners (some theorists suggest it was the British, in an effort to retake Boston). Traffic enters a circle from numerous roadways, and the drivers go around and around, faster, and faster, until they recognize their departure road or are flung in some random direction by sheer centrifugal inertia.
Mark cruised through Mays Landing, on the shores of Lake Lanape. He passed through the intersection where one would, if were one were of a mind, turn left to go to Scenic Historic Cape May. He remembered a visit to Cape May, which was sort of the Victorian Williamsburg of New Jersey. Very nice, very dull, but somewhat traditional and comforting in the Christmas Season. However, he did still find the juxtaposition of Victorian Christmas and the Shore a bit disorienting. His parents ate it up.
They were the late twentieth century version of landed gentry, the kind of Nobility Fallen On Hard Times that everyone loved so. Actually Mark would have preferred Nobility Which Was Still Filthy Rich, but that prevented the gentle Gentile gentility preferred in academic circles.
They lived in a very small working class town, in a grand old Edwardian era house which had once belonged to the local physician. It was ratty, and drafty, and had incredibly loud hot water radiators, but it was Grande, and had high ceilings and a Library. Laura called it an Edwardian Mansion, in her slightly overly dramatic manner.
Mark felt his heart clench as he could remember her voice, her motions, the tilt of her head. "That's all right dear, it's an Overly Dramatic Manor as well."
He drove automatically now, his eyes clouded, his chest tight.
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