Steel Pier, Atlantic City, 1938. Mary was the star of the show. She was a natural rider, as my father and the local press would say. She had been since she learned to walk. I guess that included diving with them as well.
She was famous, at least in the tri-state area, and people would come in droves to watch her get on old Mabel, lead her up that ramp and then jump a good fifty feet into a small pool of water, triumphantly walk out of the water, horse in tow, and take a bow. Eventually they even trained the horse to bow alongside of her. The crowd would roar, and there I would be, on the sidelines, ready to take the reigns from my sister and lead the horse back to the stable.
I’d wanted to dive as far back as I could remember, even then. But it was an honor that escaped me and stayed with my sister at that time. “You’re too young,” my dad would say, every year on my birthday, even though Mary had been doing it since she was my age. And so I was a jealous little girl back in those days.
Labor Day, 1938. Our last big weekend for the season. After that we would pack up and head to our small home in South Philadelphia, where father would go back to his construction job, and my mother would go back to being a homemaker. Mary and I would head back to school, where people swarmed around her, asking about her dives, while basically shoving me aside.
That was the weekend Albert showed up. Mary came out of the water, bowed, and began walking, and I saw him standing too close, with a grin on his face, an autograph book and pencil, nervously shifting his weight from one foot to the other. I’d seen it hundreds of times, but for some reason, this time, it was different. To me, at least. Mary barely noticed him as she took his pencil, signed the little book, and continued on towards me to hand off Mabel. I took them and pointed at him, trying to get Mary to turn around. She looked over her shoulder and saw him still standing there.
“What is it, kid?” It always drove me nuts how she spoke as if she were eighteen and the rest of us were four. Albert was only a year or two younger than her, probably right between my age and hers.
“That’s great Al. What’s your story morning glory?” He stood there quizzically. She sighed. “Whatta ya want?”
“I, I,” he stammered. “Want to go out for some popcorn tonight? My parents gave me some money for the weekend and I still have some.”
I smiled at him, trying to give him some support. He was a looker, in my mind, but I could see Mary ready to brush him off.
“Sorry, kid. No can do. I have to wash my hair.”
The look on Albert’s face was one of pure devastation. It was probably the first time he’d asked a gal out, and the look on his face broke my heart. Mary took her glasses from my hands and said, “Make sure you feed Mabel. She seems a bit hungry,” and walked away.
I walked up to Albert. “Hey, I’m Dorothy.”
“Hi,” he said distractedly, looking over my shoulder as Mary walked away.
“I’m Mary’s sister. You know, we go to the Pennsylvania Avenue beach every morning with our parents. Want to meet up with us then?”
His attention came right to me. “Really? You do?”
I smiled and nodded.
“Will Mary be there?”
My smile faded a bit, but I tried to conceal it. “Sure, yeah. She’ll be there.”
“Great,” he said with a smile as he started walking away, “See you there!”
The next day was beautiful, and the beach was crowded. Everyone was out to enjoy the last day of the summer, the day when everyone starts packing, the stores get ready to shut down for the winter, and we have to start trying to remember the math problems we spent all summer trying to forget.
I kept scanning the beach, looking for Albert, but didn’t see him until we’d already been there for a few hours. Mary had just come out of the water and was drying off. I handed her glasses over and she took them.
“Oh look, there’s Albert.” I pointed in his direction.
“That kid from yesterday. Asked you out for popcorn?”
“Oh, that genius?” She sat down in my father’s beach chair and closed her eyes. “Tell that wet sock I’m asleep. I need to rest for the show tonight.”
“Tell him yourself,” I said, picking up a book.
He walked up to us and smiled. “Hey there, Mary. Wanna go for a swim?”
She looked up, annoyed. “I’m all wet, pal. Don’t you think maybe I already did?”
He stood there, awkwardly shifting again, quiet for far too long. “Well, hey, my dad lent me his camera…think we could get in a photo together?”
“I will!” I said. He acted as if he didn’t hear me, so I went back to my book, embarrassed.
That was when father approached us. “What’s going on here?”
I looked up from my book. “That’s Albert. He wants to take Mary out for popcorn or to take a photograph or something.”
My father looked from Albert to Mary to me, and back again.
“Well of course Mary will get in a photograph with you, son!” he said, glaring at Mary. “She’ll do anything for a fan, won’t ya Mary?” She looked at father and sighed.
“Of course I will.”
My father took the camera from Albert and looked around. “We’re too far from the pier, how about over there against that life guard boat?”
Albert nodded enthusiastically and Mary walked over. When Albert got a bit too close and started trying to put his arm around her, father frowned and looked back at me. “Hey, Dorothy, why don’t you get in there between them? Who knows, maybe you’ll be a star too and Albert here’ll have a photograph of the both of yous.”
Albert looked disappointed, but I jumped at the chance. It was the first time father even hinted at the possibility I might one day dive as well, so I jumped right in between them. Mary put on her fake, photograph grin, while I couldn’t contain my smile. And Albert, well he couldn’t take his eyes off of Mary. Father took the photograph and handed the camera back to Albert, also handing him a dollar.
“Tell ya what, why don’t the three of yous head to the boardwalk and grab some lunch. On me.”
Albert looked at Mary, who rolled her eyes, and I nodded enthusiastically. We grabbed lunch, Mary left right after to go home because she had a headache, and Albert, broken-hearted, went home to pack.
It was a few years before father let me start diving, and I loved it. He called me a natural with the fans, since I always hung out after and signed autographs, went out with the boys who asked, and generally was more of a people-person than my older sister. I’d longed for the spotlight for years, and it made me that way.
One evening after my final dive, I was brushing Steel, my diving horse and Mabel’s son, when someone walked in behind me. I turned around and he handed me a photograph of me, Mary and himself as a kid, posing in front of a lifeboat.
“I’ve waited a long time to see you again,” he said.
I smiled. I’d often thought of Albert, wondering what ever happened to him.
“You’ve gotten even better, Mary. And you’ve grown up to be even more beautiful.”
He’d gotten more smooth, but was mistaking me for my sister.
“Actually, Albert, I’m Dorothy.”
His eyes widened a bit, but then he reached out and took my hand.
“How about some popcorn?”
Don’t forget to check back regularly as I continue the series of short fiction based on random old photos I find!
You’re very gifted. That was a great story. I’ll be back.