“Asbury Park: October, 1976” by Caitlin A. Quinn

Hair the cherry-red of a cartoon sunset billows in the water around Merilee Dempsey. Her frustration explodes in a stream of air bubbles. Hadn’t she remembered to request a different hue? Her post-divorce shade of brunette, before she had given up coloring her hair altogether and just let the gray take it over like a flock of bad-tempered geese?

Something pale and large sinks in the water before her. The goddamned hair is floating in front of her eyes now, a scarlet blindfold. She swats at it. Wants to rip it out of her head.

The thing sinking in slow motion is a young man. So beautiful, he’s nearly impossible to look at. Closed eyes. Full lips with a slight pucker, like a cover model’s. She knows she’s supposed to pump her thick tail and swim to him. Press her lips to his, carry him up to the surface. Follow the script.

Screw this!

Merliee presses the round, red emergency button set in her right palm. As she breaks the water’s surface, she sees a kaleidoscope of colors. A burst of yellows and oranges. But for a moment the colors clear, and she sees him again, though the outline is fuzzy: that old man. He’s wearing the same tan hat and gray coat. He’s holding out his hand. The skin around his eyes crinkling as his smile widens beneath a bushy white mustache.

“What was wrong this time, Merilee?”

Merilee’s eyelids flutter as she wakes. She registers the annoyance in Dr. Swann’s voice as the doctor peers over the rim of her black-framed glasses.

What kind of girl-genius can download consciousness but can’t give herself twenty/twenty vision? Merilee wonders if she’s said that aloud. She’s been losing touch with such things lately. But Dr. Swann’s stare remains placid. A sign it’s just been more mental rambling.

“The hair color,” Merilee answers.

Dr. Swann picks up the computer tablet hanging from the foot of Merilee’s bed and swipes her fingers across the screen. “An easy fix.”

Merilee moves her arm within the tangle of IV lines connecting her to whatever is still keeping her alive. “And the man. Too… beautiful.”

“You chose him, Merilee, from a book full of movie star headshots.” Dr. Swann stops her swiping, looks up. “Or have you forgotten?”

It’s a test, Merilee knows. She fights the grogginess, pulls herself up to a half-sitting position in the bed. “Yes, I remember. It’s my body that’s going, not my mind.”

Dr. Swann holds up her hand. “These are questions I must ask, Merilee. Cognitive dysfunction at this point in your illness would not be uncommon. One eternity is all any of us gets, so we need to know you’re capable of making this critical decision. Otherwise, it would need to be made for you. As our agreement specifies.”

Wouldn’t you like that? Pull some cookie-cutter fantasy from the ass-end of your hard drive, plug me into it, and move on to the next dying slob.

Merilee’s angry, but she can’t pretend she’s not also disappointed. Or maybe she’s angry because she’s disappointed. After all she’s been through in this life, doesn’t she deserve some happily ever after? Some true romance in her eternity? But something’s always wrong in these simulations. The men too perfect; their words meant for someone else. Always some undercurrent of disbelief or dissatisfaction she can’t rise above. Something begging to be picked apart.

“I don’t need all my mental faculties to know I don’t want to spend eternity with some pretty boy I have to keep rescuing from shipwrecks.”

Dr. Swann sighs. Merilee’s noticed how frequently she’s been doing that in her presence these past two weeks. “You only rescue him once, Merilee. And then you trade your voice for legs and spend the rest of eternity happily ever after. Doesn’t that sound nice?”

“Peachy. If I’m meant to have no voice, let’s forget all this and just have you resurrect my ex-husband.”

“When the prince finally kisses you, you get your voice back.” Dr. Swann’s own voice sounds graveled with fatigue as she returns the tablet to the bed frame. “You know the story as well as I.”

“Well, Doc Swann, in the original, the little mermaid feels like she’s walking on glass with every step, doesn’t get the prince, and ends up dissipating into mist for three hundred years of miserable servitude. Andersen was nothing if not a frustrated, gay depressive.”

“We don’t do that version of the story at Happily Ever After. We send each person to the paradise of their dreams.”

The sounds of an argument carry from the hallway. Merilee’s daughter, Rosalind, pushes her own daughter, Amy, into the room. Amy turns and glares at Rosalind.

“Here comes paradise. Right on cue,” Merilee says.

A look passes between Dr. Swann and Rosalind. Merilee notes her daughter’s perfectly coiffed hair. The Hermés scarf distorted into a meticulous knot at her throat. Garrote: from the Frankish “to twist.”

Merilee’s granddaughter, Amy, looks past her to one of the room’s two chairs, into which she drops wordlessly, phone in hand.

“What’s wrong, Mom? What happened this time?” Rosalind asks.

Merilee hates the dramatic edge to Rosalind’s voice. She turned fifty last year. Instead of settling gracefully into middle-age, Rosalind has begun to regress into an excitable teenager.

“Nothing happened,” Merilee says. “It just didn’t work out, is all.”

Rosalind throws her gold-clad wrists into the air. “I don’t understand, Mom. I picked this one because you love mermaids. You’ve collected figurines of them all your life. Why wouldn’t you want to spend your afterlife as one?”

“I also collected bad marriages and hangovers. You want to condemn me to either of those for all eternity?”

“Rosalind, I need money for the vending machine,” Amy’s reedy voice calls from the chair.

“You had lunch two hours ago,” Rosalind answers.

“It was a plate of lettuce and three radishes. I’m hungry!”

“You’ll never be thin, Amy, if you continue to eat snacks between meals.”

Merilee studies her granddaughter, sees a pale teenager, the bones of her face too prominent, her breasts barely present. “Jesus, Rosalind, the girl’s too skinny as it is. Let the poor thing get a bag of pretzels. And when did she start calling you ‘Rosalind’ instead of ‘Mom’?”

Rosalind purses the new lips she got last month. “We have a different relationship than the one you and I have, Mom. Amy and I are actually friends. Isn’t that right, Amy?” Rosalind turns an expectant face toward Amy, who continues to stare down at her phone.

There are so many things Merilee wants to say. She bites her lip instead.

“And you don’t know what it’s like for girls these days,” Rosalind continues, smoothing a lock of hair. “The pressure and all the Slipstream bullying. I’m trying to help Amy be happy. We all can’t give up like you did.”

Merilee leans over to reach into the drawer of the small dresser next to her bed. “Amy, I used to have a credit card in here. Unless they took it away so I couldn’t use it to buy gin in Camelot.”

“Stop that, Mom,” Rosalind says, closing the drawer, fluffing the pillows behind Merliee, and settling her back onto them. “You need to preserve your strength.”

Robert, Merilee’s son, arrives in a fluster of ragged panting and heavy, slapping footsteps. His face is red and he’s sweating. When Rosalind turns in his direction, Merilee tosses the credit card hidden in her fist into Amy’s lap. The girl looks up and they share a quick smile.

“What did I miss?” Robert asks.

“Oh, nothing much. Just another failed simulation,” Rosalind says.

“Really? What happened?”

“You want to know what happened, Robert? Be here when you’re supposed to.”

A pained look crosses Robert’s sweaty face. Merilee hates how intimidated he’s always been by his sister. Maybe she should have done something about that when they were younger, figured out how to make them at least tolerate one another. Once she’s gone, Merilee suspects they’ll never speak again.

“I got here as fast as I could,” Robert says. “The parking garage was a nightmare. Not all of us can afford the valet service, Roswell.”

Amy snort-laughs at hearing her mother’s hated childhood nickname, the one Robert coined to imply Rosalind wasn’t human. Robert crosses the room and sinks into the chair next to Amy. She doesn’t look up from her phone to acknowledge him. All the while, Merilee watches Rosalind’s eyes scope Robert’s rounded belly, like a pair of fat-seeking missiles, hears her make a smug little sound.

“Okay, so the mermaid thing didn’t pan out,” Robert says, cuffing sweat from his forehead. “There are literally hundreds of other choices, Mom. What do you suggest next, Dr. Swann?”

Merilee scans the room for Dr. Swann, sees that she was almost out the door but is stopped by Robert’s question. Merilee makes her own smug sound. You don’t get away from them that easily either.

Dr. Swann tries to look thoughtful, but Merilee isn’t fooled. She knows the doctor is as tired of these many trials as she is. “How about something from one of our historical modules. Joan of Arc, for instance.”

Merilee barks a laugh. “Why would I want to be burned at the stake?”

“In our module, Joan is ever-victorious and doesn’t die.”

Robert struggles to sit up in the chair. “That sounds great! You love history, Mom.”

“How is it history, if Joan’s army doesn’t lose to the Burgundians?”

Merilee’s question is ignored.

“There’s also Cleopatra. Or Elizabeth I?” Swann says.

“Snakes and smallpox? Hard pass.”

“If you’re considering magical creatures,” Rosalind offers, “why not a centaur, like Daddy chose?”

“Because I don’t need to compensate for a lifetime of the Irish Curse.”

Robert crosses his legs. “Mom…”

“We have the ability to create a module based on a past memory. Sculpt it to a never-ending happy day, assuming it’s vivid enough.” says Dr. Swann. “Is there a particular day in your life you’d like to be in forever, Merilee? Some happy moment that could be expanded and embellished? Perhaps the day you gave birth to one of your children?”

“Are you insane? This one,” Merilee points at Robert, “gave me hemorrhoids the size of golf balls. And she,” directing the finger at Rosalind, “nearly killed me, and left my vagina stretched like a broken accordion.”

Rosalind turns to Dr. Swann. “See what we have to put up with?” She rounds on Merilee. “Mom, if you don’t pick something before it’s too late, then we’ll have to do it for you. And I, for one, don’t want that responsibility.”

“Good. Because I don’t want to end up in a neverending Pilates class, eating only iceberg lettuce like a goddamned iguana.”

Rosalind’s swollen lips press hard against each other. She takes a deep, trained breath in through her nose, blows it out exaggeratedly through her mouth. Amy looks up from her phone, a smirk on her face. Merilee catches her eye, gives her a quick wink.

“Listen, Mom,” Rosalind says, “if this place isn’t doing the trick, then let’s move you to another facility. The Birnbaugh Center is at the cutting edge of consciousness transformations. The choices are literally endless. This place is what Daddy’s old insurance will cover, but Jonathan and I can pay for Birnbaugh. We want you to have the best eternity possible.” She turns a tight-lipped smile toward Dr. Swann. “No offense, of course.”

Dr. Swann returns the smile, and Merilee imagines she’s mentally scrolling through the different eternities she’d choose for Rosalind.

“No,” Merilee says. “A happy-ever-after is the least your bastard father owes me.”

“As you wish.”

It’s the sixth time Merilee hears those words from the mouth of the handsome blond man with the aquiline nose, and she wants to scream. What had seemed dizzyingly romantic to her as a young woman of twenty-one strikes her now, at seventy-eight, as the worst type of evasiveness. Never trust a man who doesn’t say what he means.

She presses the round, red button in her palm and floats through what look like leaves painted a hundred different shades of green. For just a second, the greens fade to a blue sky and there he is again: the man in the tan hat and gray coat. As always, he smiles and offers his hand. Something about his presence has come to feel oddly comforting to Merilee, as though she’s in the presence of an old friend. Her own hand reaches in response, but then she is awake again.

“So, no Princess Bride?” Swann’s stopped trying to disguise her irritation.

“Not everything ages well.”

“I’m sensing eternal romance is not what you’re seeking, Merilee, despite these chosen modules.”

“Well, this was another of Rosalind’s ideas, and I was stupid to listen. She wouldn’t know romance if it bit her on the tit. Rosalind thinks a man’s love is measured by how much money he spends on her. Meanwhile, her husband sleeps more nights on an airplane than he does in their bed.” Merilee takes a sip of stale water from the plastic bottle beside her bed, feels it ease her parched throat. “You know, none of the great love stories ever involved expensive gifts. Take Abelard and Heloise. A clandestine liaison, an illegitimate child, castration, taking holy orders to keep their love pure. Now, that was a love story.”

“We don’t have that module, I’m afraid.”

The image of the man in the tan hat returns to Merilee and she remembers his smile.

“Hey, can you scan back to what I saw, right before I came out?”

Dr. Swann pulls the computer screen down from its ceiling bar, clicks on the keyboard.

“Do you see him? The man in the gray coat with the hat?”

The doctor squints at the screen. “There’s the outline of a figure. I can’t make out any details, though. It’s definitely not part of the module. Perhaps some repressed memory. Who is he?”

“I don’t know, but he’s there everytime I come out.”

Merilee is tired today. She can’t pretend it isn’t getting harder to breathe, to eat, to keep her mind off the pain. Each simulation takes something from her, empties her out just that much more.

She picks up the crossword puzzle she started while waiting for Dr. Swann. A six-letter word for pointless?

“Futile,” she says to the barren, white sheets and walls.

She’s been through simulations of nearly every film and novel whose romantic storyline had once moved her and filled her with hope, only to experience it in the moment as flat and implausible. Entirely unbelievable.

She had come here wanting a fairy-tale eternity to melt away the years of festering bitterness, but this was hopeless. Futile. And what did she know about love anyway? The women in her family had no luck with men, as though making poor choices were passed through DNA. Merilee grew up with her mother and two grandmothers. No father; no grandfathers; not even a wayward uncle hanging about. Her mother’s mother, Grandma Scipioni, used to call men “God’s greatest disappointment, closely followed by the G-spot.” The mother of the father Merilee never knew lived across town and made herself a constant presence, determined to make up for her deadbeat son—a window salesman with a penchant for cars and women who had followed his own father into obscurity. “Irish Catholic guilt-bloodletting,” Merilee’s mother had called it, and milked the woman incessantly for money. Merilee had Grandma Cavanaugh to thank for her straight teeth and college degree.

When Merilee had cried over having no father to bring to her elementary school’s father-daughter dance, her mother told her to quit her bellyaching. Did Merilee think she had had the luxury of a father growing up? “My pop made a bad bet at the race track, then made an even bigger mess of things by borrowing money from the wrong people. When he couldn’t pay it back, they made him take the fall for one of their guys. Twenty-five years in the slammer and me and your Grandma Scipioni left on our own to figure it out. You think it’s bad having a father who took off? Try having one in jail.” So aggrieved were her mother and Grandma Scipioni that they never referred to Merilee’s grandfather by name, calling him only “that plumber from Palermo.”

A therapist Merilee had met with after her second divorce asked if she thought her life would have been different had she had a positive male role-model while growing up. Suffering a sadness that seemed to crush the air from her lungs, Merilee couldn’t see the point in spending time and money to ponder something so hypothetical, and so never went back. “Dr. Cuervo” and his golden elixir became her therapist for the next two years. And tequila required no appointment.

Pain, blinding and hot, flares from what is rotting and spreading inside her. Merilee feels her armpits dampen in response. She presses the morphine pump, although it’s barely taking the edge off these days. Probably switched me to a goddamn placebo. Why waste the good stuff on someone circling the drain?

She’d had a hard time coming back to herself after yesterday’s simulation, the one that had her rolling in the Scottish Highlands with Jamie after he’d rescued her yet again from Captain Randall—whom, she hated to admit, she’d found disturbingly attractive. Falling for the asshole? Right on brand.

While she had lain there, waiting to open her eyes, she’d listened to the conversations going on about her and thought, This is what it will be like when I’m dead. Hell, I already am to them.

Rosalind had said in a long-suffering, teary voice, “I just don’t understand why she’s making this so difficult.”

“Everything with Mom is always difficult. Maybe she just needs more time to figure it out,” Robert said, and Merilee felt a pang in her chest. Not about her children finding her difficult. She could live—or die, actually—with that. No, what hurt her was Robert believing there was always more time, and the recognition of how her son had procrastinated his life away. No real career, no wife, no children, just a long string of “somedays.” And Merilee was forced to wonder what her life of unhappiness had cost him. Rosalind, too.

Then Rosalind’s voice took on that screechy tone Merilee hated. “Really, Robert? Exactly how much time do you think she has left? The doctor’s already said she won’t last out the week.”

But it was Amy’s voice that finally burned through Merilee’s haze. “Maybe Grandma Dempsey shouldn’t be doing this at all. Those people outside said she’ll be keeping her soul from going to heaven.”

“There’s no such thing as a soul, Amy. There’s only consciousness,” Rosalind corrected her.

Merilee opened her eyes and asked in a voice little more than a rasp, “What people?”

Dr. Swann cleared her throat. “What’s been commonly referred to as ‘heaven,’ Amy, is just an abstract idea. But now we have the ability to send someone to the heaven of their choosing. To create for them a bespoke eternity.”

“Well,” said Rosalind, “let’s agree there’s the bespoke of the Birnbaugh Center and then there’s… this place.”

Dr. Swann looked about to say something when Merilee said, more loudly, “What people, Amy?”

They all looked at her.

“Nothing to worry about, Mom,” Rosalind said. “Just some crazies outside who tried to give Amy one of their ridiculous pamphlets. Sad people who can’t embrace progress.”

But now, alone in this miserable room, awaiting the start of the next simulation, Merilee wonders if it wouldn’t be so bad to die the good, old-fashioned way. To have her consciousness lost to whatever abyss there was before consciousness transformation could implant it in some forever dreamworld. She doesn’t believe in her grandmothers’ heaven and hell, or in the God to whom her mother paid a lazy lip-service. But she does want all this pain to be gone, finally.

Thornfield Hall is a misery, and Rochester’s a moody asshole. Sure, Byronic heroes are more interesting than pretty princes, and Merilee has enjoyed her verbal sparring with the lord of the manor. But what kind of man locks his first wife up in an attic? The kind you’d have to grow eyes in the back of your head to watch all the time, that’s who. She imagines breaking Bertha/Antoinette free of her prison and, once they’ve sent Rochester packing, the two of them settling down before the fire, getting drunk on Mrs. Fairfax’s hot toddies.

Merilee presses the round, red emergency button set in her palm and the colors dance, this time a swirl of purples and pinks. She’s thinking she must ask Swann about the colors, what they mean, when she sees the man again with the beckoning hand.

This time, Merilee fights the pull to awaken. Pushes back against the velvety mauve, the jarring fuchsia.

There’s steady ground beneath her feet. She’s standing on familiar wooden planking. The boardwalk at Asbury Park.

She knows this day: a breezy one in early October. There had been a spate of what Grandma Scipioni calls “Indian Summer,” but the weather had just cooled, and now you could smell autumn’s smoky promise, feel the air deliver a crisp kiss to your cheek.

Merilee is ten-years-old and alone, leaning on the railing, looking out at the ocean. It’s off-season and a weekday, so there aren’t many people on the beach. A couple walking. Three men smoking in the distance, wearing yellow vests and cradling construction helmets under their arms. Merilee’s shivering in her thin, blue windbreaker, and wishes she had brought something warmer to the shore. The breeze teases tendrils of hair from her ponytail that tickle her face.

She remembers why she’s here: her mother broke up last night with Tommy, who drives the truck for Sal’s Seafood. She’s sad and lonely, so she kept Merilee out of school today to keep her company. Merilee’s left her mother in Johnny Mac’s, drinking strawberry daiquiris with two HVAC repairmen on their lunch break. The air smells like salt water and grilled burgers. She’s worrying about the math test she’s missing.

An old man in a tan hat, wearing a gray coat, stands next to her, blocking the sun. He has grizzled eyebrows and a bushy white mustache.

Ciao, bambina. I think you need a gelato.”

The man’s eyes glitter with a warmth Merilee can’t recall ever being directed at her before. She has no words for what she’s feeling, only the recognition that she has this adult’s full attention, and that makes her feel soft inside, like she wants to cry and laugh at the same time.

The man holds out his hand. An offer to belong. A desire to belong back. Merilee’s never felt such open affection from another human being. Some place deep inside her blooms with a new sense of expansiveness.

She knows she’s not supposed to talk to strangers, let alone allow one to touch her, but somehow she knows that, with this man, she’ll be safe. That to him, she’s not a mistake, a burden, an unlucky break.

She pulls back her reaching hand when she hears her mother’s voice—the angry, searing one that reminds Merilee of the stinging feeling of fiberglass shards in her fingertips after touching the old boat in Grandma Cavanaugh’s backyard.

“How dare you show up here, after I told you to get lost! Trying to be part of our lives, after all this time—after what you put us through. Get out of here before I start screaming!”

“Angelina, daughter… sono desolato.” The man’s eyes fill with tears.

One of the HVAC men is with her mother. “This guy bothering you, Angie? Hey, get lost, you old fuck! What are you, a pervert, hanging around this little girl?”

The HVAC man takes a threatening step toward the older man, who holds up his large hands. “Per favore… please! I go, I go.” And then to her mother: “Ti amo. Forgive me, my Angelina. What I did, I did for you.”

Merilee wakes gasping.

There are two other doctors besides Swann leaning over her. All three look worried. Merilee hears one say something about a significant arrhythmia. She hears Rosalind crying out, “What is it? What’s happening to her? Mom? Mom, can you hear me?

Merilee grasps Dr. Swann’s white sleeve. “Send me back. To where I was just then. Asbury Park: October, 1976.”

Merilee is at the boardwalk rail, shivering in the wind. Seagulls screech overhead. On the beach below her, a mustard-stained napkin tumbles past. A radio plays that popular song about a shipwreck, sung by the man whose deep voice reminds Merilee of warm milk.

Next to her, the man in the hat smiles and smiles. She reaches to take his hand. Stops when she notices something hard sitting in her palm. It’s a round, red thing. A marble maybe. Merilee lets it go. It bounces across the boardwalk and rolls over its edge, lost to the sand.

Her grandfather’s hand is large, the calloused palm of a plumber. Warm and embracing. Welcoming. Like a special meal that’s been set out for her alone.As they walk to the ice cream stand, he says, “I want to know what is your favorite flavor, tesorina. I want to know everything about you. And I want to buy you a warmer coat.”

Caitlin A. Quinn lives in Northern California with her partner and two badly behaved Airedale terriers. She spends way too much time imagining conversations between imaginary people. Her short fiction has appeared or is upcoming in the anthology Murder on Her Mind, Blood & Bourbon (Edition 12), and A Thin Slice of Anxiety.