"It's modest," George apologizes over the phone before relaying his address. I picture a saltbox, some dismal Cape Cod but when I pull up to his home it's a landlocked garage tucked behind a thatch of pines, rusted beach chairs, empty jugs and plastic bags, shaming the nautical monstrosities that have overrun the island. I swallow a hot sip, shut the car and grab my things.
This is my first assignment.
Later, George will become my summer lens. It is lonely in my grandfather's Pontiac so I will take him: aboard fishing boats, to postcard museums, lifeguard races, whittling expeditions. An astrology fair housed in a Laundromat beside the Tom's River toll plaza.
It is important to have outside perspective.
His screen door feels like netting against my face. Orange flip-flops propped on a crate, liver-spotted calves. Every reporter starts somewhere. Mine begins with a limp knock on his frame—a stab at some real local flavor. A Harley Davidson stands parked in his living room, hulking chrome, high beam the eye of an enormous insect.
George is slow getting off the couch. Short but the rest of him—mesh tank pulled over pecs that rise to his chin, stud collar, lips of a lamprey—is what you'd expect from a former Jersey Shore pin-up photographer. My angle is human interest and no wonder. His sincerity slips inside me: he's lived in Nassau, Bali, Key Largo. Fathered three children. His shorts creep; he tries to cover.
Some might look and see my life as funny.
The place is hung with girls. I majored in women's studies, graduating too drunk to stay in my hot black rental gown for long. Girls plaster the wood paneling of George's shitty one room, block out the light from his porthole window: Topless, tattooed, in neon triangle tops. Girls with big hair and shellacked tans. On handlebars, straddling bikes, pumped tight with silicone. Rolling in sand, tide lapping their knees, holding conch.
George catches me staring.
"God love 'em," he says. When he speaks it's like he's working down an oyster. He assures me there are plenty of worthy girls, even in their thirties. I wonder how old I look. He removes a high gloss Asian twirling nunchucks, shakes the thumbtacks in his fist. "She crochets baby blankets for an orphanage," he says. The word Ko-re-an makes his eyes wet.
If I had a pushpin for each of his stills I'd run her along my legs. Gouge open bites then inscribe my ankles in twists. I'd pierce them through my lobes, my eyebrow, nostril, my tongue. Ride the pain; squeeze the Charmin. Whatever it takes. I could fall into the wetlands without an egret raising its beak. This past term the girls in my dorm pierced their clits en masse. I understand the feeling. But what will happen to their vaginas when they give birth and marry?
George slides over a box, a lone sock slung over it like seaweed. Such chivalry. I sit.
His buddy has this tuna tower, he tells me. There's something off with his breathing. His hand trembles through his hair. Maybe it's the interview. I am new and he's never been anyone's subject. What, like a deck, I say, pressing the points of my elbows into my knees and he nods through his cough, rungs and everything, salvaged from a junk and nailed to his buddy's place in Beach Haven. It's hard for me to picture but he's insistent. He sucks his teeth. I jut my chin like Christiane Amanpour. From up there, he says, you can see the whole island—eighteen miles. When he lifts his arm to sweep the view his armpit hair sways like anemone. His sclerae are punched red but he's not sorry. George says only after you've seen it do you know you've truly lived.
What about grafting scars, I want to say but we're not here for my story.
I stick to the 5 Ws and 1 H from journalism class: Who. What. Where. When. Why. How?
"It's all about self surrender," he says, tripping on his wetsuit on his way to the mini fridge. He steadies himself at the counter and I agree: the room slopes as if we're aboard something. With his back to me (I'd scrape that mole on his shoulder) my ambition builds. I think about being stretched and pinned up like animal skin. He tucks a nervous gray into his ponytail. Objectivity must be a real challenge, I say. George is looking pale. Did you ever play pageant favorites? Shoot the center pole at Delilah's? Feed off casino buffets, win some, lose out to the roast beef, mashed potatoes awash in gravy? Find a child amidst the scum beneath the boardwalk? I shout. He balks. Jellyfish, he admits, are occupational hazards, he stumbles through the rest. Lighting. Direction. Positions.
I scribble everything down.
George cracks open a can, sucks the foam. Chains on his ceiling loop down like party streamers. His life's work has been featured in Biker. Outlaw Biker. Tattoo Biker. Biker Chick. Iron Biker. Renegade Biker. Easy Rider.
"What'd you say was the name of your paper?"
Surfline, I tell him.
There is nothing more to say. I mount his bike, drugstore fan whirring, my notebook adds to his debris, but when I arch my back to give myself over he whispers close as a ghost, girl my camera is broke.