The city has no respect for time. The train pulls Jason headlong on electric sparked tracks; careless workers in black boots make repair, so he’s late when he makes it to Washington Heights. A palpable cold heat sweeps through him at a turn-style exit. On the street, he pushes on, pulling up his collar in the drizzling day. He soon finds the gray castle-like institution, Forbes Home, an oddity in the city, lying on a stark hill overlooking the Hudson River. The late 1800's stone, parapets, arched entrance. This all fits.
He enters the hall and his eyes adjust to the dark. After confirming his appointment at reception, a thin, rigid, Miss Dobrzycki joins him in her office. As the gray haired woman takes position, ramparted behind her desk, a feeling fires up the back of his spine. Yes, I’ve found it.
Jason explains to Miss Dobrzycki about the diary; how he would like to return it, how the diary only has a first name, Nicole, and was left with him by accident. The aged administrator listens impatiently, fidgeting with her pen, examining this over-anxious twenty-something from over her reading glasses. But I have no secret, no agenda, other than finding Nicole. And the diary, the descriptions within it, are my only clues.
The spindly woman becomes curious. “Mr. Chandler... Jason, you need to slow down. Do you have this diary?”
“I do,” Jason says, and pulls the ragged cloth bound book from a satchel.
Miss Dobrzycki leafs through the tattered pages, silent, skimming, reading at random. The last entry catches her attention and she focuses intently. As she finishes, her manner softens, and it seems she resists, but then her eyes tear up. She peers out the window, barely speaking. “She was deeply in love wasn’t she?” But it isn't a question.
So, the same reaction as others reading the diary. You’ve lost a love of your own, but it’s more, isn’t it? The words are from another time, and for each reader, a longing.
Jason clears his throat. “I’ve marked where there's a description of where she was institutionalized. It’s difficult to decipher, but it fits Forbes. I know it's Forbes. The exterior. The walls. See here.” Reaching to the diary from across the oak desk, he flips to a marked page, his finger points out the entry.
Miss Dobrzycki scoffs, dismisses him, and hands him back the loosely bound journal.
"That description could be anywhere.”
“I know.” But it's here.
She leans back. “The last page describes being at Coney Island. A lot of entries at Coney Island. Have you checked out there?”
“Of course. All I have is the diary. What I know. What I feel."
Her dark eyes narrow, wrinkle. “How long have you had this diary?”
“Just a few days. I’ve been trying to return it, as I said.”
She pauses, thinking. The ceiling fan squeaks, cuts shadows. Rain falls against the window, fingers play on glass. “Why is this important? Some girl lost her diary. What’s the big deal Mr. Chandler?”
What’s the big deal? Jason asks himself, remembering.
“You’re gonna puke your guts out!”
Zack Dickens is giving Jason a hard time for the assignment, Jason’s first solo as a reporter for the New York Times. The editor has chosen Jason to check out the Cyclone, THE roller coaster at Coney Island. But the story is about Charles Lindbergh, his 1927 flight across the Atlantic. Lindbergh had ridden the Cyclone, a brand new ride at the time, as part of his flight training. In the god-like wisdom of the editor: Lindbergh, the roaring twenties, and Coney Island should come together as one feature. Jason, who holds the lowest rung on the reporter roster, a ‘cub’ as they call him, is to go ride the Cyclone.
"Why does he get to go?" Zach whines, like a petulant child. "I'm the one with seniority."
"Because he works the hardest!" fires back the editor.
So Jason finds himself on a subway car, rattling and swaying, as he hangs on a metal grab-rail coming out of Manhattan. He rides the Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue line, the Q, named because the amusement park is the last stop. Few wear COVID masks with the train mostly empty. The amusement park is still open, but the old days are long past.
Imagine the subway line to Coney Island back in the roaring twenties, Lindbergh’s day. Jostling, sweating passengers, immigrants gaining relief from heat-stifled tenements, excitedly pack onto the brand new 1926 train. It's Saturday, and with each stop more passengers for the amusement park push in. They're ready to loosen up, ready to put the prudish Victorian Age behind them, ready to see the freaks. Coney Island isn’t Disneyland, which won't come until the 1950’s (Walt Disney taking the same idea and cleaning it up). No, grifters, gamblers, and swindlers of all sort make Coney Island home. And New York loves it.
Jason is excited also, but not just about going to Coney Island. This is his big chance to get his byline, a story with his name in print. He is young, just shy of twenty-three, bored with dry articles he’s written about the economy, how the nation's total wealth doubled between 1920 and 1927, gross national product (GNP) expanding by 40%. He wants to have some fun, and the 20’s were a time of jazz bands, bootleggers, raccoon coats, and bathtub gin; flappers, flagpole sitters, and marathon dancers. He wants to learn more—and feel the magic of another time.
The train empties at the last stop and Jason enters the park. He's not surprised. It's not like the 20’s, but it's not dead either; just very tired. Nathan’s Famous still has a line for the best hot-dogs in the world. And there, the Coney Island Cyclone beckons, a wooden roller coaster designed from mining cars hauling coal, then emptied and ridden for fun on tunneled rails.
His seat is in the front of the coaster and the attendant brings the bar down. With a jolt he’s soon under way, more scared than he thought. But once the top of the structure is reached and he begins to plummet down, he doesn’t have time to be scared, or breathe, as his stomach is left behind in vibrating turns and flips. His body tenses, his hands grip the bar in front of him, knuckles white. He presses his eyes closed on the sharpest turns, the streets below flash, a blur. And then the brakes squeal, piercing metal on metal. His body presses forward; it’s over.
He exits the gate. More fear than just the roller coaster strikes him. So dizzy he has to sit down, he stumbles to a bench, collapses, the world out of balance. Panicked, he rises and reels down a narrow alley off the Midway. After pushing through a wooden fence, he crawls under a wide seaside boardwalk. He's now hidden under the wooden planks in shaded dark. Sprawling on the sand and the trash, he passes out.
When he wakes it’s late in the day, and he can hear the hails and hoots from the amusement park, the whoosh from the rides, the delighted screams as the Cyclone rounds its turns. After crawling back through the fence, he enters the Midway. Not just busy, teeming fairgoers mill in front of him shoulder to shoulder. The smell of the unwashed in the moist heat. A huge woman leers at him. “A dime sees Jolly Irene fella! Nude as a jaybird!” A boy in a vest hawks from the side. “See Zip the Pinhead. A deformity like no other!” Swept along steadily, he draws his own stares. He's an oddity himself, but on the Midway odd things reign, and he's simply one more.
Insane hallucinations grip him. A man in an animal fur coat walks by. A group of young girls gather, giggling about bathtub gin. Their floppy hats, bagged dresses, and jewelry dangling, seem all wrong, a flashed image from the past, an echo. Hungry and thirsty, he reaches for his wallet, finds it gone. But he steadies himself and takes a seat at a bar facing the boardwalk. He asks for water and the bartender with black, slick, middle parted hair, brings him a glass, but adds, upper lip curling over yellow teeth, “Only paying customers can stay here bub.”
“Are you alright?” A young woman’s voice, a mellifluous life preserver, seems to reach kindly to a drowning man, and Jason turns into the face of an angel—a girl no more than twenty, a hint of teasing smile, something she knows, a wisdom held back. An ageless warmth in almond shaped eyes, she speaks from slightly parted rouged lips, a glistening, an endearing gap in her front teeth. This is a face he's known for years, generations. She holds out her hand and lets her fingers touch his forearm, a familiarity. No, an intimacy.
Jason is confused. He sees around him in flashes, denying what his mind tells him is there. To accept what he sees is to accept he’s insane. “I’ve lost my wallet it seems. I’ve lost my bearings also.”
She motions ahead, “Come with me.”
They stroll the boardwalk where the beach stretches the shore, the sound of the waves a gentle rhythm breaking in white foam. Jason senses a comfort, a depth of two people who have been in love a very long time, an acceptance of who they are, who they've been. A lavender smell holds them, embraces them in the damp cool air. Other couples on the boardwalk move aside as they pass, not realizing why they do. And like the deepest of friends who have not seen each other for a very long time, they catch up. He is now a reporter living in his Brooklyn walk-up, she an orphan working concessions. She kids him how he’s changed his hair. The dusk sun sets on the amusement park, the energy rises in amusement lights growing brighter as the sky darkens. She points to a certain star, her fingers a perfect elegance, her wrist a perfect bow, an aching desire to be where she touches the sky. Whoops and hollers echo the shore, countless points sparkle off the bay, the water rocks the lights, beating time.
Arm in arm at the end of long pier, they come to a small boy with a fishing pole. As they near, the boy drags a small, tail-flopping fish over the rail. His dad stands nearby.
Nicole looks in the bucket of fish. “How many you get?”
The dad steps in. The boy holds back, shy, his eyes wide, magnified behind his eyeglasses. “There’s always plenty miss on the Steeplechair,” the man says, in his working boots and Irish accent. The man takes the hook out, puts the fish in the bucket, looks back up.
“Excuse me my botherin’"
Jason turns. “Sir?”
“We have a sayin’, my people. Love marks the heavens. You two make me think a that.” The Irishman hesitates, takes in Jason, the girl, the summer evening, the cool night air. He catches a reflection in his son’s glasses, an eclipse of swirling blues, pinks, the image of the girl centered in a shimmering aura. At first mesmerized, his face then clenches in fear. He motions to his son. “Pack up boy, we’re off.”
Jason and Nicole return to the Midway. They pause as observers. Jason can sense a resounding sadness. She looks on to the The Preemies House, a hawker yelling. “Come see the preemies! A miracle!” The premature births, the incubators, the gawking masses forming a line.
They arrive at the shacks and hovels where the workers and families live. Without a word, Nicole leads Jason into her one room bungalow. After a while Jason sleeps. When he wakes Nicole is in a chair by her bedside. In her hands is a bound journal in brown paper.
“What are you writing?”
She tucks the journal away in her satchel, sets it aside, then crosses the room to be close his innocence, his hair tousled from sleep. “I want you to know Jason, it’s no accident our meeting. I can’t tell you more, but you are a messenger. There’s a… let’s just say a hole, a gap, we need to fill.”
“I don’t understand.”
Nicole's fingers trace Jason’s cheek, follow his jaw, an admiration of the fineness of his form. “You’ll know your place when it comes. We’re sending the journal with you, but we’re also sending something else.”
“What? What do you mean? I want to see you again.”
“You’ll know when the time comes.” The night air brings rising waves of sound, passengers howling on the amusement rides. The noise catches Nicole. “Let’s go ride the Cyclone. It’s time.”
“I don’t know.”
“I want to know how it feels. I want to be with you.” Nicole stands up, drags him playfully by both of his hands off the bed.
The couple braces into the wind. The roller coaster dips and turns. They leap to the sky, then dive. The car flips on its back, again, then again. The night folds around them, blurring. Nicole reaches out to Jason, an instinct, and holds his forearm tightly. Jason hangs on, and as before, grips the rail, his knuckles clenched. They fly together, seeming to join the stars. And as they do, fireworks fill the air, explode in reds and blues and whites, rising ever higher, popping and bursting. Showers of colored pinpoints slowly fall to the water. And just as before, with the squealing of metal rails, the coaster winds down to a stop.
As he removes the bar holding him down, Jason feels sick. The world spins. He staggers off the car, out the gate past where a long line waits. Moving away from the path he feels bile enter his throat. He gags, bends over, then falls to his knees, retching.
Jason holds Nicole’s satchel as he walks back to the Midway in front of the ride. He feels better. But the fairgoers are no longer surging around him shoulder to shoulder. Only small clusters remain. He is no longer an oddity. The stars are no longer bright.
Jason answers his cell phone.
“Martha Dobrzycki. I followed up as you asked. Your girl did reside here. I looked it up.”
“Yes.” So it’s true.
“But that’s no surprise to you is it? But I found something else.”
A pause. “First, tell me…What’s so important about the diary?”
Jason takes a deep breath. “I want to research the owner. Maybe return it to her, or her family at least.”
“The thing is… Mr. Chandler?
“An heir expected you it seemed. A Julia Wescott.”
“Excuse me.” An heir?
“There’s a note in the file. Refer you to… here somewhere. A Julia Wescott. I have instructions to forward you the address and phone number for this Julia. If you ever showed up here at Forbes that is.”
“What’s the number?”
“That’s the thing Mr. Chandler. I called the number just now. It’s disconnected. All I have is the address.”
A small tract home stands at the end of the street in Queens. Jason checks the address. He knocks and a rough looking man in a dirty, sweat stained tee-shirt answers the door.
Wiping his greasy mouth with his forearm, he asks, “yea. What you want?”
Jason only knows to ask. “Does a Julia Wescott live here?”
The man raises his voice. “Not anymore. How you know her?”
“I don’t. I was referred by Forbes Orphanage in Washington Heights.”
“I have a diary. I want to return it.”
“You don’t want any money?”
“No. I just want to return the diary.”
“Well, Julia’s dead. She passed on.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
The man acts like he’s doing math in his head. “I’ll take the diary. She talked about it. Something about a diary.”
Jason ignores the demand. “Was there a Nicole ever mentioned?”
“No. She was a single mom when I met her. Just the kid.”
“Julia had a child?”
“Sure. Nikky. Now you gotta go.” The man glances down the narrow street where a young girl rides her bike. “Nikky! Come on now. Get your butt in here!”
The girl moves past Jason, then cautiously past the doorway where the man stands.
The man’s eyes narrow suspiciously. “The girl’s an orphan now with Julia gone. Are you related to Julia? She had no one but the kid.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“Nikky. Come out here!” The girl stands in the doorway. Grabbing the girl by her collar, he pushes her at Jason like the evidence of a crime. “How did you know Julia? You trying to get out of something here? The kid’s your spittin’ image. You need to man up!”
Jason pulls out the diary from the satchel he carries like a shield. “I think this might have been Nikky's great grandmother's. I think this goes way back in her family. For some reason I'm supposed to find her, give it to her.”
The man makes a spitting sound as he discards what Jason says. “You gonna step up for the kid or what?”
The girl reaches out. An impulse, as a child, she lets her fingers touch Jason’s arm. He feels the familiarity, and his own desire reaches back, a father's love conveyed to his child. An angel.
Placing his hand assuredly on Nikky’s, he squarely faces the man. “Let’s go inside sir. I think you’ll like what I have to say.”