It’s rare for a man to have true peace of mind. Or maybe that’s too negative. Maybe a man has peace of mind the majority of his life, but only notices it once it’s gone, when turmoil is magnified, during times of stress when one looks back enviously on calmer waters. These were the thoughts running through Peter Bloom’s mind as he drove through a flashing red light down the snowy Main Street of Charter Shores.
There’s not much to say about Charter Shores. The town was founded in 1892, according to the wooden sign that greets summer visitors as they cross the bridge to the island – that is, if you could even call it an island. Charter Shores is a glorified sand bar off the coast of New Jersey. Lots of people visit in the summer. No one visits in the winter. That’s why as the snow fell on Main Street, Peter Bloom wasn’t concerned about stopping at that flashing red light. He wasn’t worried about kids running across the street. All the shops were closed. No one was walking back from the beach. The welcome mat of the five and dime, which usually offered a dusting of sand, was now covered in snow. As Peter passed by the five and dime, he thought about the sand versus the snow, and for some reason, pictured an hourglass filled with soft snowflakes.
Is the glass half-full or half-empty?
Peter pulls his car into the only open store within a mile, the gas station at the end of Main Street. The snowpack crunches beneath his feet as waves crash on shore a few hundred yards away.
Peter is 18 years old. He’s in love. The snow, the ice, all is romantic. The air smells like saltwater mixed with gasoline. It’s perfume to his senses.
Peter enters the store. A pile of hamburgers wrapped in foil sits under a heat-lamp. He’s got no appetite. Hasn’t for days. He read somewhere that when you’re in love you release chemicals or hormones that are like a drug. Pheromones or endorphins or something like that. They kill your appetite. Peter likes the feeling. He hopes it never goes away.
From behind the counter, a young blonde girl offers him a smile.
“Can I get you anything, sir?”
“Why don’t you just run away with me?”
“Excuse me, sir?” Her hair’s pulled back into a ponytail with a white rubber band. Or a hair tie. Peter doesn’t know what it’s called. But he loves it. He loves how the end of the ponytail touches her fair skin. The scent of her shampoo drifts across the counter.
“Let’s just get outta here. You’ve got no customers. Let’s just go.” He leans against the counter and fiddles with a pack of cigarettes. She grabs his hand and puts the cigarettes back.
“I can’t just leave. I’ve gotta finish my shift.” The girl pauses and leans back on the wall behind her. “It’s only another hour.”
He’s enamored with how confident she is. She acts so natural around him. She doesn’t seem to have as many thoughts running through her head all the time. Like he does. They’re both 18 years old, but Peter feels as if she’s more mature.
“We should go somewhere tonight, then. Like the city.”
“In the snow? You’re crazy.” She takes out the rubber band, or tie, or whatever, in her hair, and lets it fall. Then she puts it back into another ponytail. “We should stay inside. Watch TV or something. You can come to my house.”
Peter loves going to her house. Everything about it seems exotic. Her baby pictures on the wall. The cat always sleeping on the couch.
“OK, your house it is. We should spend as much time together as we can before you move.”
“Don’t make me sad.” The girl pouts, jokingly pushing out her bottom lip. But her eyes betray her. There’s seriousness in her casual tone.
“Oh, come on, you shouldn’t think like that. We’ve got, like, two months.”
Peter grabs the cigarettes again and flips them high into the air.
Snow falls on Main Street once more. But Charter Shores feels different. Peter Bloom is 54 years old now.
When he took the exit for Charter Shores off the Turnpike, he’d tried to remember how long it had been since he’d driven down Main Street. Years. He rarely even drove through South Jersey anymore, and he certainly wouldn’t have been in the area if Harold hadn’t moved offices at the last minute. Whatever the reason, when Peter saw his headlights illuminating the green exit sign through the snow, he’d taken the off ramp. The dark pines, the lack of moonlight on the marshland, something about it had made him think of his youth. Made him drive down the causeway to the bridge. The snowstorm held no romance for him now, at least not in the present. There was a glimmer in his past, though. One simple, frozen sliver of a moment in a gas station 36 years ago. It was the only moment Peter could pinpoint where he had peace of mind. Calmness. On that particular evening, in the near dead of night, it was the only moment of happiness he could remember.
Is the glass half-full or half-empty?
The wooden sign for Charter Shores has a fresh coat of paint. Main Street is lined with new stores. National chains. The five and dime, however, is still in business. Bittersweet memories of buying sand toys there as a child mix with memories of buying his own kids sand toys there two decades ago. Peter’s mind isn’t interested in those two dots in time, though. Right now he’s looking to pinpoint a spot somewhere in between.
Peter pulls into the gas station at the end of Main Street. The convenience store’s facade looks different, with yellow stucco incongruously suggesting the Southwest. The neon logo of the current owner casts a glow on the snowy asphalt. Although the exterior is unfamiliar at first, Peter guesses the steel tanks deep beneath the ground are probably the same ones from his youth.
The shop door shuts with a jingle, blocking out the noise of the ocean. A young brunette with stenciled eyebrows and big hoop earrings stands behind the counter. Her complexion is dark, olive, Mediterranean. Peter nervously browses the three short aisles of the store, occasionally glancing at the shoplifter mirror hanging in the corner. He makes eye contact with the girl’s reflection. Peter quickly picks up a bag of potato chips, absentmindedly reading the ingredients before placing it back on the shelf. Finally, grabbing a bag of pretzels, Peter approaches the register.
“Two dollars, fifteen cents,” the girl says.
Peter doesn’t answer.
“Two dollars, fifteen cents.”
At that moment, something inexplicable comes over him. A dark, hollow feeling. An emotion that’s been welling within him for days, that forces its way to the surface. He swallows dry air as the girl looks at him inquisitively. A strange old man, breathing a bit too heavily. She speaks up again.
“Is that all? Can I get you anything else?”
He looks directly into her eyes.
“Why don’t you just run away with me?”
The brunette steps back.
“What?” She’s not sure she heard him correctly. He doesn’t answer. “What’d you say?”
Peter stumbles. A bit dizzy. His throat tightens.
Almost instantly a man with a tattoo on his neck appears from the back room.
“Hey, you all right, man?”
Peter steadies himself on the counter.
“You OK?” the girl asks.
Peter struggles to answer, his eyes on the floor. He finally speaks.
“I’m fine. I’m fine.” Peter almost loses his balance entirely, catching himself on the counter.
The tattooed man steps around a display of candy bars to help. Peter pushes him away and rushes outside.
The snow falls harder. Peter’s hands shake as he fumbles with his car keys. The door finally gives way and Peter throws himself into the driver’s seat. His ears ring with adrenaline.
He knows what do to, once his hands stop shaking. He’ll call Harold and tell him to rip up the papers. He’ll go back to his wife, ask for forgiveness. Everything will be fine.
In the distance, frigid waves crash on shore. The sound echoes off the gas station for a moment, then dies away between the falling snow.
A.E. Milford was born and raised in Delaware, spending much of his youth at the Jersey Shore. Now based in Los Angeles, Milford co-wrote both the awardingwinning short film “Another Day, Another Dime” and the documentary film “Who Is Billy Bones?” — which recently began airing nationwide on the cable network LinkTV. His fiction has been published in the Schuylkill Valley Journal. Milford is a graduate of Berklee College of Music and is married with one daughter.