By Melanie McCabe
The screams are the first thing that make me notice the house. Not unbroken, but episodic: screams; no screams; new screams. Then the flashing lights, the kinetic swirl of color. A calliope tune. Whistles. Bells. I look up at the white clapboard structure just as the head with its glowing green eyes, its incandescent maw, burning crimson through the twilight, rises up and lingers longer than a heartbeat over the second story.
I imagine the child put to sleep in that back bedroom. Lying awake as the colors flash over his body, as the creature’s bared fangs fill the window, obliterate the sky. Would the screams he heard fade to a white noise, heard so often that it was no longer listened to at all? Or would they be threaded each night through his dreams, no plotline possible but one that encompasses peril?
Who owns this dwelling on Brooklyn Avenue in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware—the first house past the entrance to Funland? A weekly rental sign is posted in its garden. From 10 am to 11 pm every day, the cacophony of a carnival rattles these walls, drowns out the churn of the waves on the other side of the boardwalk.
To the right of the Sea Dragon, the Paratrooper whirls its riders in quickening ovals, up high to cast streaking shadows over the roof of the house, then down again, each plummet eliciting new screams to compete with those from the Sea Dragon, the muffled shrieks from the Gravitron, the cackles from the Haunted Mansion.
Who willingly pays to rent a getaway presided over by a sea monster?
Just a short walk down the boardwalk, the manmade clamor ebbs, then surrenders to a backbeat of tides, the cawing of gulls. The houses that face the sea past Norfolk Street are mammoth and gorgeous, their rooftop decks looking out over the Atlantic, over a view I cannot afford to make mine for even a day. For a moment I pause before a mansion the color of sand and picture myself on its high balcony, staring seaward, as dusk lifts a full moon from the horizon. I give momentary sway to my covetous heart before I sigh, turn back toward town, and move on.
My dreams have changed profoundly from those I dreamed four decades ago. But now as then, they are rooted in this town.
In 1972, my sister, Terri, sat beside me on a bench outside Funland, watching prowling gangs of teenage boys scout the boardwalk for leggy, tanned blondes in skimpy sundresses. We were not blonde, despite Terri’s machinations that spring with Sun-In, but we had legs and tans; we were willing recruits, for all that I was fifteen, and Terri only eleven. My eyes were drawn to the boys with long manes past their shoulders, shirts scorned, low-slung jeans. I doubt that Terri’s interest then was as strong as mine. She would have been happier, perhaps, to jump off the bench and peel from our ribbon of Funland tickets enough for a game of Wac-A-Mole or Ring-Fling, but instead, she sat stoically beside me. I was the captain of every mission then. She wanted whatever I wanted.
That was the first summer. The summer she lost her best playmate. Her anchor. By the shaking underwater lights that set the green waters of the Atlantic Sands’ pool shimmering, Terri watched from our hotel balcony as I slipped away from her in the arms of a boy far too old for me.
When my parents brought us back the next July—to the same hotel—they let Terri bring a friend along, to compensate for the sister she had lost and would lose again to a summer romance. Our lives were about to be upended. Everything would change, except for whatever magic kept us with one foot always in this town, with one thought stubbornly focused on a July that glimmered just ahead of us, across the Chesapeake Bay and beyond the cornfields and melon stands of Queen Anne and Sussex Counties.
After my father died unexpectedly that winter, my mother tried to keep our customs unchanged. She brought us back to Rehoboth the next summer, but we never again returned to the expensive hotel by the sea. We were pushed two blocks back into a motor court, its pool just large enough to douse in when the sun was scalding. Our balcony was shared and looked down on a parking lot. But we made do.
To not return was unthinkable.
The August I was twenty-three, I bought a used Plymouth Valiant and decided to do something I had never before dared. To drive the three hours to Rehoboth alone, to cross the daunting four-mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and to stay by myself in a rented room. Perhaps it does not seem so grand an undertaking to some, but it was a daring adventure for someone as timid and as cautious as me.
I had never driven anywhere other than close to home. What if I got lost? What if at the pinnacle of the Bay Bridge, I froze in terror, envisioning my vehicle blown over the guardrail in a high wind? What would I do during my solitary week by the sea? Would I tire of my own company? Would I be too shy to enter restaurants unaccompanied? Would I be swept oceanward by a rip current, unnoticed by any lifeguard, and disappear forever, a mystery my family would never solve?
To cross the Bay Bridge, one must decide at the onset between two lanes. In the left lane, vehicles move faster than I want to travel, but one is better protected from the alarming view the right lane affords. In that lane, so little stands between driver and plummet, between life and disaster. A railing that seems not up to the task it is called upon to do. And a stomach-dropping, knee-trembling vista of blue water and boats far below. My bridge plan then and now is this: Stay to the right; drive just under the speed limit; keep eyes on the road ahead and never look over the rail; turn on the most upbeat tune I can find, one to which I know all the words, and sing my head off until I get to the other side.
The small room I paid for on Wilmington Avenue was one block from Funland. I could not see it, but I could hear it, even with the door closed. The whoops from the Sea Dragon’s pendulum voyages carried readily over the rooftops. The only sound control was to turn on the small air conditioner that rattled and dripped from the lone window that looked out on an alley and trash cans. My requirements then were so much less demanding than they are now. My checklist was short. Could I afford it? Check. Could I walk to the beach? Check. Luxury was not on the list.
I was a pioneer in the wilderness of my own life. A brave explorer. There were moments during that week where I grew lonely and perhaps unhealthily inward, but I toughed it out for nearly the full seven days. I carried my notebook and pen everywhere, scribbling poems and passing thoughts
Certainly, I believed my journey to the center of my wobbling, neurotic soul was a test of my own worth, my own independence. I wanted to pass it. I did not want to wave the white flag that would mean I was still a child, that I was without the inner strength I would need to carry me through this world.
In 1989, my mother cashed in on the stocks my father had purchased in my name. It wasn’t a fortune, but it felt like one to me. Suddenly, I had money to spend on a long-held dream, and I convinced my husband that the dream to follow was our own house at the beach. We immediately fell in love with a tiny townhome on Maryland Avenue, just one block from the sea. No more than a living space with a small loft for sleeping, but with my stock money and my husband’s savings, we could afford it. We planned to rent it during all but one week each summer—a week that would belong only to us and to our daughters.
How short a time I had to revel in the realization of that dream. Just a couple of years later, my marriage fell apart, and our conversation turned to the division of property. I had no anger toward my husband. Instead, I felt sad for him that the money he had sunk into our home in the D.C. suburbs would be forfeited, as I would become its sole owner. What could I do to make this inequity less unfair? I proposed to him that he should have the beach house—an offer he gladly accepted.
I needed a house in which to raise our daughters; I needed to stay in the only home they knew. But sometimes I still rue this trade we made. My girls continued to visit the getaway by the ocean, but I felt cut off from what had been for me a magical place. I stayed there a couple of times after that, but I was a visitor. An interloper. What had been a home to me was now no more than a hotel room, a rental I had the luck to not have to pay for.
On my most recent trip to Rehoboth, I avoided Maryland Avenue entirely. When I pass the mansions along the boardwalk, I am shut out of them; my eyes trespass on what I can never have. But I am shut out, as well, from this small house that was once mine. To let my gaze trespass there hurts more; what I feel is not merely envy, but memory and longing.
On a June evening in 1996, I walked into Funland with my daughters, my second husband, and my stepson. I have never been a fan of amusement parks. Far from being a thrill-seeker, my interests tend toward quieter activities. Heights make me weak in the knees and roller coasters are terrifying. When a child, I listened in horror to the story of the girl who fell to her death from the roller coaster at Glen Echo Park—a park to which my parents had taken me often. I had a vivid imagination; I conjured her fall and her screams with a fascination that was wholly unhealthy, and certainly did not predispose me to ever again ride on any roller coaster, however small.
But my children knew no such fear. They tried to cajole me onto many rides, and, wanting to be a good mother, to fully participate in their lives, I tried my best to accommodate them. The summer before I had ridden with them on the Paratrooper. What seemed a tame ride when observed from the ground proved quite different when I was suspended from a wobbling car at the very top. I white-knuckled through the three minutes with my eyes closed, my girls laughing with delight to see the tables of power turned so thoroughly.
On this evening, they were begging me to climb aboard the Sea Dragon. Here was a ride that seemed reasonably innocuous. A long ship with a sea monster’s head at its bow, the ride did no more than rock back and forth in ever higher arcs, like an enormous swing. I stood and watched as numerous children rode and smiled and shrieked, and finally, convinced that I could brave this experience, I ventured on board with my girls.
My daughters were placed in the seat just in front of me, and I was put in the seat at the end of the boat. An attendant led a very small girl to the empty seat next to me.
“Can she ride next to you? We don’t want her going alone.”
I nodded, looking down at the girl to see if she needed reassurance. She smiled broadly, seemingly not the least bit afraid.
As the ride started, I tensed and grabbed tight to the bar locked across my waist. At first, it was not so bad, but “at first” only lasted about thirty seconds. With each successive swing, my seat rose higher, and at the summit of each swing, my face would tip straight downward to gaze at the concrete far below. It felt as though very little held me inside that seat, that any second the bar might snap and I would crash to my death, exactly like that long-ago child at Glen Echo. Just as I thought we could go no higher, we went higher, and I began to scream and whimper. My daughters chortled with glee. My body began to shake so bad I feared for my ability to hang on. I snuck a quick glance at the little girl beside me. She was eyeing me hard, as though she couldn’t figure out what in the world was wrong with me. In whatever sane corner of my brain still functioned, I imagined her after the ride, reporting matter-of-factly to her parents, “That woman you stuck me next to was nuts.”
Afterwards, I made my way on my noodle legs back to where my husband stood watching. I did not fall into his arms for comfort. Something cold and unsettling had entered our marriage by then, and I doubted he cared whether I was afraid or not.
“It was horrible,” I said, still shaking.
“It’s one of the tamest rides in the park,” he said. “Maybe next time you should try the Teacups. Or the merry-go-round.”
My younger daughter took my hand. “It’s OK, Mommy. You don’t have to go back on the Sea Dragon ever again.”
I took her up on that dispensation, on that pardon. Never since have I climbed aboard that metal transport to horror. But I was not wholly done with the Sea Dragon, with the power it seemed to hold for me.
My partner, Chris, and I went to Rehoboth this past June for more than just sand and surf.
“I’ve made an appointment,” I told him, “with a realtor. I want to see what I might be able to afford here, when I retire.”
I didn’t know exactly when that would be. At least five years. Maybe longer. But for months I had been dreaming of escape, of an end to paper grading and lesson planning. I could stay in my familiar suburbs, pay off my mortgage, play it safe, but something inside me fantasized about what it might be like to live close enough to the sea to smell salt in the air. To walk barefoot by the tides whenever it suited my fancy.
Melinda, my realtor, showed us first what I could afford within town. It became clear quickly that the answer was not much. Within my budget, proximity to the ocean seemed synonymous with tiny or rundown. Fifteen minutes outside of town looked more promising, but the larger, lovely homes we looked at were not the home by the sea I had always dreamed of.
There is a stock image of a writer in made-for-TV movies. She sips coffee while typing her masterpiece, looking dreamily out the window for inspiration as enormous waves crash upon the sand. Later, she and her lover go for a walk along the waterline as the sun goes down. They link hands, amble, pause, and kiss as salt spray beads on their faces.
I was ready for that life. But Melinda didn’t have any made-for-TV oceanfront fantasies in my price range.
Later, Chris and I wandered Rehoboth streets, staring into houses I couldn’t afford, traipsing from midtown to Lake Gerar and into The Pines. As we walked, sometimes I would share with him what I was remembering. But just as often, I did not, because around every bend in a road was a memory, and not all of them happy ones. You don’t spend more than forty summers of your life in a town without it leaving its print on you, without it being the backdrop for not only happy moments, but also some of the darkest moments a past can hold.
As we walked, it hit me with a force that surprised me that this was the first trip I had made here since Terri had died in January of 2015. Two summers had passed without my usual pilgrimage to the ocean, and I realized with a start that the last time I had been here, my sister had been alive. Everywhere I looked, a story waited—a tale of a day long past, of two sisters who had played out so much of their lives here.
I asked Chris to accompany me on a drive, and after dark we set out down the narrow road that follows the sea into an area called North Shores. On the way, I told him a story I had almost forgotten.
Terri telephoned me one day in early May, 1987. “I’m at the beach,” she said.
“Really? Who are you with? I didn’t know you were going.”
“I’m here alone,” she said. “And I’m going crazy.”
Her tale spilled out while I clutched the phone to my ear, my two-year old wriggling on my lap.
“It seemed like a good idea when I made this plan. But I just can’t hack it.” She told me she had read a book called An Unknown Woman, a memoir of Alice Koller’s attempt to find herself by living utterly alone in a cottage on Nantucket for four months in the winter of 1962. Koller’s deep unhappiness and her subsequent discovery of purpose and meaning while living in solitude had struck a nerve with Terri. I had not known she felt so lost, so uncertain of what to do with her life.
“I’ve felt so unsure,” she said. “I can’t find a good job and my love life is a mess. You don’t understand. You’re happy. You’re married.”
I didn’t say anything, but my life then was a lot less perfect than Terri knew.
“So I rented this place. For a month. Mom paid for it. I thought I would come here and live alone and figure everything out.”
“Have you figured anything out?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said with a hollow laugh. “I’ve figured out I hate being alone. I feel like I’m losing my mind.”
“I’m sorry,” I told her. And I was. Sorry that she felt sad and adrift. But also a little bit jealous that she was so unencumbered. I loved being a mother, but I also missed at times the freedom of having no one to answer to but myself.
“Anyway,” she said. “I’m coming home. I’ve been here six days, and I can’t stand it another minute. I wanted to know if you want me to bring you the key. You can stay here instead. It’s all paid for.”
Did I want that key? Yes, I did. I couldn’t go to live alone by the sea, but I could take my little girl and play with her in the sand, leave suburbia behind. On weekends, my husband could drive east and join us. Those days in that North Shores house were not an idyll; I shared a bed with a two-year-old who kicked in her sleep, and the only time that was blissfully quiet was at night or during her naps, but I still remember it as a happy time. The days were still cool, and I rarely saw anyone else along our strip of beach. That early in the season, Funland was only open on weekends, and when my husband arrived for a Saturday night, we would take Shannon into town to ride the tiny boats or the gray dolphin on the carousel. The Sea Dragon was a “big girl” ride; she watched it wide-eyed, but we told her she was not yet old enough to swing so high.
I drove slowly down Ocean Avenue with Chris, looking for the turnoff that would take me to the house that Terri had rented forty years ago. In the dark, I missed it, and had to u-turn and go back. There it was—Holly Road. I peered into the house, recalling that long-ago spring, wondering about the ghosts of my sister and me that lingered inside it.
Now what I remember most is not the pleasant days I spent there with my little girl, but instead, the fragile dream that my unhappy sister brought to this place in hopes of finding her way.
This memory takes on greater weight when I think back on my sister’s long, debilitating illness before her death in 2015. I think also of the blog she left behind her so that her children would have a record of who their mother was, and how hard she fought to stay with them. In October, 2014, she wrote:
When I was battling Stage 1 breast cancer in 2013, I used to get up at 4 a.m., mostly because of the chemotherapy, and I’d take the dog out for a walk while the stars and moon were still shining, and I’d talk to God out loud since there was little danger of anyone overhearing me at that hour. I would explain in great, animated detail how my life felt spiritually void, I felt directionless. I had heard people talking about their life’s calling on more than one occasion, and had come to believe that I didn’t have a calling. I was destined to just be a nobody, never achieving any kind of personal meaning.
Terri’s post went on to reveal how she eventually did find her way, how she discovered meaning—not as she got better, but after she knew that she would die. When she had lost all hope of recovery, she wrote that she finally realized how much there was to treasure in every day of her remaining time.
It hurts me that even at that late point in her life, at the age of 53, she still struggled with feeling unimportant, in search of purpose. Seeing the little house again brought that unsettled, searching woman back to me. I wondered: did I take even a moment from my busy life to hug her, to talk to her on the day that she brought me that key? The truth is, I no longer recall; I hope I did. What saddens me is the suspicion that I might well have simply taken the bounty she provided me, with glee that I would be getting something for nothing. A holiday unearned.
The day before we were to leave Rehoboth and return home, Chris and I spent a final afternoon by the sea. As we walked back to our hotel, a familiar scene caught Chris’s eye; he grabbed my shoulder, grinned, and pointed at 5 Brooklyn Avenue. The house stood as the single peaceful entity against its backdrop of reliable chaos. The rides at Funland were open and humming; music played; children screamed and screamed again with that strange delight that humans take in being terrified—as long as the terror is controlled. As long as we are completely certain that what frightens us cannot really harm us.
The enormous head of the Sea Dragon loomed, a leviathan casting its ominous shadow over the house, over whomever slept there, loved there, passed their hours there as their minds wove myriad dreams. In the midst of their days and nights, it was a dark threat that never receded.
Chris laughed as he pointed, shaking his head. “Who would live beneath that?” he asked.
I laughed with him. It was a sensible question. But as we walked on, I considered an answer I didn’t speak out loud: who among us lives anywhere else?
MELANIE MCCABE is the author of His Other Life: Searching For My Father, His First Wife, and Tennessee Williams, which won the 2016 University of New Orleans Publishing Prize. She is also the author of two books of poems, History of the Body and What The Neighbors Know. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Georgia Review, The Cincinnati Review, Shenandoah, and many other journals.