We have barely settled ourselves on our towels when Robbie announces that he loathes the beach. "It takes all day, it's hot, brutal work," he says, "but I guess someone has to do it." Churlish as it may sound, no one disagrees -- as the summer winds down the beach fever becomes beach therapy becomes beach duty, we have come to prize any attitude sharp enough to challenge the sun. For the sand, once as tan as new khakis, has, over the last few weeks, been bleached bone-white. And the horizon has shimmered for so many days now no one believes anything west of Long Island is out there anymore. The mood is, in a word, Algerian.
"I counted only one Mercedes station wagon coming down here," someone says.
"It's early yet," Robbie mutters.
We lapse into our first silence of a day that, like the days before it and the days sure to follow, exists in a beach time-warp which binds us only to Camus, the Rolling Stones, and John Cheever's summer-house stories.
The sun is now directly overhead, beating even Robbie into submission. "Brainlock," Jane announces, her Washington vernacular fresh off the plane.
We agree, weakly try to read Tom McGuane's account of summer in Key West, grow stupefied anew. Brainlock, we are learning, is a city in Algeria.
"My image of California," my brother Rocko says, attempting a whole sentence, even, perhaps, a concept, "is that it's easy to get a good salad there." It is only correct that Rocko be the first to break the silence in a serious way; he does medical research many hours a day at an uptown hospital and rarely sees people. Still, he must be punished for talking without the group's permission. It is decided that he must walk with us to the refreshment stand.
On the way, we encounter a Zen Frisbee player trying, no doubt, to pick up women, one juggler trying to do the same, and an ordinary-looking man doing cartwheels as his lady removes her bikini top. The world does not, as we have been warned, end at that moment, but an advertising bi-plane flies overhead. Now we know that there is a sale on swimsuits at Bloomingdale's.
"Beauty," Robbie says, as we pretend, behind our dark sunglasses, not to notice any of this, "seems to come in only one form, whereas ugliness is brilliantly diversified."
Diet drinks and french fries. Coppertone perfume. On every radio, the Rolling Stones want to be our emotional rescue. "Mick, my number's listed," a girl says.
We advance toward the chic beach, where the summer burghers have ghettoized themselves and their uniformed maids, who, to our astonishment, really do step barefoot into the ocean to fill pails of water for the kidlets' moats. "Our grandparents put their money into the stockmarket," Rocko explains to Beth, "because it was the closest thing they knew to horseracing."
We overheard everything we can, as if we are, literally, all ears.
"If I'd flown to Paris to have dinner alone with Henry Kissinger, I wouldn't tell anybody about it."
"The thing about Cambodia is that it's a culture based on individual responsibility."
An hour, or a year later, we stumble back to our oasis and fall on our midafternoon towels. The others, having given us up for dead, have eaten all the sandwiches. They say these sandwiches were very good indeed, but they have not been piggish -- they have saved us some lukewarm beers. Because many signs tell us that beer is hugely illegal here, we drink furtively, and immediately stagger off to the refreshment stand for something to kill the taste.
As we return, Ken puts down the magazine he's been reading. Although all of us work, as they say, "in media," no one reaches for it. "Everytime a magazine folds, I think, "Good, one less I have to read,"' Ken says emphatically. And retires to Brainlock, making things unanimous.
"A name for a boat," Lucy announces, much later, "'Sloup Du Jour.'"
Jane, reviving briefly, devises a plan to beautify the New Jersey highway system with billboards featuring pictures of beautiful countryside.
Beth tells of a late frost that froze all the berries and then, with the return of the warm weather, fermented them. The squirrels ate the, got drunk, and fell from the trees in such numbers that her parents forbade her to play outside.
Around four, the owners of the nearest house return from some venue where lime-green pants are de rigueur and inform us that although we are practically soaked by every incoming wave, we are, nonetheless, trespassing on their property. "I pay taxes on this beach," the man bellows. "In my view, not nearly enough," Rocko says quietly.
We flee the jurisdiction by wading into the ocean. The undertow is surprisingly strong. "With all the force of the ocean coming at the shore, there's something silent but powerful moving invisibly out," Rocko lectures. Not a sentiment that would have been met with approval a few hours ago, but now that it is the time of day when the beach empties and it's just us and resplendent nature, pantheism becomes unavoidable. Residents of Brainlock, it turns out, are suckers for unspoiled landscape.
Coasting home, the clicking of our bicycle gears flushes a pheasant, and as it runs awkwardly among the roadside, we pedal hard to catch up to it. The bird takes off, flying toward the break in the topiary that signifies the dividing line between estates. I gear up, cut the gap, and am about to pass the pheasant when a white Mercedes limousine passes us all, and we coast on, a small army in retreat, the lucky survivors of another hard day at the beach.