There are other, better places to spend time than this no-name boardwalk in this no-name beach town. The taffy-chewing girl seemed to like it, though. One early morning sweetened by a cotton-candy sunrise, she stood with her arms akimbo and her foot tapping and her teeth gnashing and her lips smacking. Gooey strands of peaches-and-cream taffy stretched between her molars. She studied a pyramid of milk bottles.
In the shadow of the game booth, a grey-looking man tossed a softball between skeletal hands.
“It’s a dollar for three throws,” he said. “Five bucks for ten. I know the math doesn’t work out, don’t shoot the messenger.”
The girl smiled brightly and slapped a dollar onto the counter. “Three throws, then, please.”
The man swept the bill into a thin stack.
She missed the first two throws. The third took off the top milk bottle and only that.
“A fifth of the way there,” the man said, moving to reset the pyramid.
The girl shook her head. “Hey, does your nametag say Milton?”
“That’s an awful name.”
She beamed a smile at him. “I’ll try again soon. Thanks, Milton!”
Milton watched her go. Bouncy hair, springy steps, sun-kissed spirit. He shrunk back to the shadows and rolled the softball around. Outside, the sea-salt breeze danced with boardwalk laughter. A family of four approached the booth with two children shrieking for the big plush prizes.
“It’s a dollar for three throws. Five bucks for ten. I know the math doesn’t work out, don’t shoot the messenger.”
That night he drank a bit and then laid in bed watching the ceiling fan spin. He thought about the taffy-chewing girl and he said his own name and agreed again that it was an awful name. Bitter and boring as a bad whiskey. But young and pretty girls aren’t supposed to be blunt with you. They’re supposed to tell you what you want to hear. They’re supposed to be sweet on the eyes and the ears. Curious case.
She was back the next day before noon when the boardwalk had more seagulls than people.
“Hi, Milton,” she said, putting down a five. “I’ll give you five dollars for fifteen throws. Or, one dollar for three throws, five times.”
Milton shrugged and pocketed the bill and hoisted up a bucket of fifteen softballs. She took the first one and rolled it around in her palm, narrowing her eyes at the milk bottle pyramid and chewing taffy like a major-leaguer. The boardwalk was quiet but for the breathing of waves.
She threw the balls daintily, leaning back and then forward on one foot and more so pushing them through the air than throwing them. Her first five throws went wide. Her sixth struck the milk bottle in the center of the bottom row and didn’t budge it.
“Hey!” she cried. “Foul play.”
“Need more mustard on your throws.”
“I betcha those bottles are filled with something. Are they filled with something?”
“I don’t know,” Milton lied. “Don’t shoot the messenger.”
The girl tossed a softball from hand-to-hand. “And these feel too light. You filled the balls with cork and the bottles with lead, didn’t you?”
“Don’t shoot the messenger.”
“Does anybody ever win this?”
The girl swallowed her taffy. “Do you like your life, Milton? Filling milk bottles with lead and corking up softballs and being named Milton?”
Milton gestured to the bucket. “You have nine more throws.”
She threw nine more times. Her twelfth throw hit over two bottles, but that was the closest she got to all five and the plush prize.
“This is so silly,” she said, shaking her head and unwrapping a piece of lemon taffy. “I think the balloon toss is rigged too, the darts are all blunted. And in the basketball game the hoop looks like it’s an oval. How’re you supposed to fit a circle through an oval?”
“I got a good feeling about this though,” the girl said, putting another five down.
She missed the next fifteen throws.
“Good try,” Milton said.
The girl looked shrewdly at him. “Are you proud of yourself, Milton? Because anybody can fill some milk bottles with lead and cork up a few softballs. You’re not that special.”
“You’re not either.”
“Actually, I am,” the girl said. “I figured out life.”
Milton chuckled. “How’d you manage to figure out life before figuring out how to knock over some milk bottles?”
“By watching life,” she said. “I just haven’t had the chance to watch many people throw rigged softballs at rigged milk bottles.”
The beach was beginning to populate. Umbrellas bloomed in the sand and ice cream shops slid open their windows and boardwalk musicians strummed and beat and sang their tunes. The last sliver of sunrise leaked from the sky, leaving behind a pastel blue canvas.
“Sit around and watch then,” Milton told the girl, gesturing to the stools bolted down in front of the counter. Relics from the booth’s age of water guns and clown targets.
“I’ll sit after I get some more taffy,” she said. “Save me a spot.”
She turned to go as a couple came up to the booth fishing through their pockets for bills. Then she stopped and looked back.
“Milton, what’s your favorite flavor of taffy?”
“I don’t like taffy,” Milton said, taking a five from the couple and giving them a bucket of ten balls.
The girl left.
The couple failed to knock over all five milk bottles. So did the group of boys in baseball uniforms. So did the fat man with skin like a tomato. So did the lifeguard on break, and the smiling old woman in a sunhat, and the mean-looking man with a big grim reaper tattoo, and every iteration of beachgoer in between. The girl came back and watched and chatted through thick mouthfuls of taffy, speaking as if she thought through her mouth. Milton answered sometimes.
“Why don’t you like taffy?” she asked.
“It’s tasty though.”
Milton got a bucket of boardwalk fries for lunch and drizzled them in vinegar.
“How old are you, Milton?”
“My dad died at fifty-six. Heart attack. He used to eat boardwalk fries all the time. Are you sure you should be eating those?”
Milton spent some time adjusting a pillow on his shoddy wooden chair, fitting it to the small of his back.
“You know,” the girl said, “riptides kill about a hundred people a year?”
“They’re crazy. The riptides.”
Two hours past noon, a lady in a military uniform knocked over all five milk bottles. She picked out a big stuffed bear and gave it to a passing little boy.
“Now that’s an American hero,” the taffy-chewing girl said. “Milton, do you feel like an American hero when you’re rigging the game?”
“I told you it was possible to win.”
“Sure is,” the girl said. She gave Milton another five and he gave her a bucket of fifteen balls. She came close this time, hitting the middle bottle on her ninth throw and toppling all but one. When the bucket was empty, she sat back on the stool with her legs crossed and kept on chewing taffy. The sun began to set and pinken the sky, and the air grew colder and breezier.
“Don’t you have better things to do?” Milton asked. “When I was your age, I had friends.”
“I have friends,” she said. “But they all have jobs.”
“Get a job then.”
The girl unwrapped another piece of taffy. “I don’t believe in jobs.”
“Well, they exist. I have one. Your friends do too.”
“I meant that I don’t believe in the value of them.”
Milton waved the five she gave him. “Where’d this come from then?”
“My savings. I’m retired now.”
Milton sneered. “Retirement is for people who’ve worked. You’re running on your daddy’s money, aren’t you?”
“Well, yes,” the girl said blankly. “Isn’t it sad that he didn’t get to use it himself? He worked real hard all his life to save up money and retire here. Then one week into retirement, his heart gave out and he went eurgh… agghhh… bleh… and died.”
“Very nice,” Milton said.
Here she is, sitting in the sun and smacking her lips all day. Is she oblivious to her luck? Does she appreciate the sun and the breeze and the taste of taffy and the smooth slide of her joints and the springiness in her steps and how she wakes up in the morning without a headache and how she never has to restack milk bottles, restack milk bottles, restack milk bottles until even when they’re stacked the puppet strings of muscle memory urge your hands into more and more stacking.
“You know,” the girl said, “the lifespan of crabs is only three or four years.”
“They lay, like, a thousand eggs, though. If I was a crab, I wouldn’t want to spend so much time laying eggs if I only had three or four years to live.”
The girl was back at dawn watching the sunrise when Milton got there to open up shop for the day.
Milton mumbled a greeting.
“Look at the sun. It looks like a big fat tangerine.”
Milton glanced at the big fat tangerine. Unremarkable. “Once you’ve seen one sunrise you’ve seen them all.”
“Agreed,” the girl said. She turned away from the conflagration of colors and put a five on the booth counter. Milton gave her a bucket of fifteen balls. She didn’t win.
“Taffy for breakfast?” Milton asked, as the girl unfurled a bright blue piece.
She nodded and put another bright blue piece on the next five she slid over. “Try it. It’s a new flavor. Sour blue raspberry.”
Milton waved a hand and gave her the taffy back and a new bucket of softballs. She spent thirty more dollars trying to knock over the milk bottles then left to enjoy other parts of the boardwalk, and Milton was alone.
After noon, he took a long lunch break and ordered a bucket of fries and vinegar, munching them while walking the boardwalk. The rhythmic breathing of the tides were nice. He took his shoes off and walked into the warm sand and smiled out at the ocean. Wavery horizon. Gentle waves. Smooth, moist, dark sand by the water. A clock ticking. His heart. He threw away the half-empty bucket of fries and pulled his shoes back on and trudged back down the boardwalk, wincing at the sounds of laughter sharp as seagull squawks.
On the way back he saw her riding the carousel, mounted on a giant white rabbit bounding up and down around and around. She was giggling, away in some euphoric, fey dimension.
She was at the boardwalk for all of August, every single one of the thirty-one days. Milton scratched tallies into the booth to keep track of her streak.
“Your daddy’s money isn’t going to last forever,” Milton said as they watched a surfer dude whip throw after throw at the milk bottles.
“I’m not gonna last forever either,” the girl said. “So.”
The surfer dude came close on a handful of throws. He thanked Milton and left.
“Did you know,” the girl said, looking out to the ocean, “some riptides can pull people out faster than an Olympic swimmer can swim.”
In September her savings sputtered out. She spent some time fishing through her pockets and managed to scrounge up a hodgepodge menagerie of three wrinkled dollar bills, five quarters, five dimes, a pair of nickels, and fifteen pennies.
Milton scooped up the bills and change and scrutinized her. She looked peaceful, placid.
“A bucket of fifteen balls, please,” she said, smiling.
Milton hoisted up a bucket and clunked it down on the counter. The boardwalk was quiet today, the tide was calm. The sun spilled through wispy clouds.
The girl threw and her pitch went wide.
“It helps to draw an imaginary line before you throw,” Milton said, “between the ball and the intersection of the bottles at the center of the stack.”
The girl nodded. “Huh. Thanks, Milton.”
She still missed the next fourteen throws. Then she sat down and had to stifle a fit of giggles with the back of her hand. “This is so silly,” she said.
Milton cocked an eyebrow.
“I bet nobody’s ever spent this much money here without winning.”
The girl rummaged around her pockets and came out with a piece of strawberry taffy. She unfurled it, popped it in her mouth. “I love this game,” she said while chewing. “It’s fun to just throw and sometimes hit a bottle or two and not care. If I had ever won, I would have asked a kid nearby which one he or she thinks I should get for myself, and then I’d just give it to them.”
Milton sat down in his chair, in the shadowy recesses of the booth, and massaged his temples. A headache was brewing. He didn’t want much more to do with the girl. It was a slow day, and he meant to mellow out his headache with quiet.
“Are you gonna play again?” Milton asked.
The girl shrugged. “How many throws can I get per piece of taffy?”
“Still don’t like taffy.”
She sighed. “Dang.”
“Did Daddy’s money run out?”
“Yup,” she said. She looked out to the ocean. “I figured it would.”
“Time to get a job and become a real person.”
“I dunno,” she said. “When are you gonna retire, Milton?”
Milton chuckled. “You don’t want my job. Go down to the ring toss and work there, they pay commission. Better for somebody who’s young and pretty.”
“I still don’t believe in jobs,” the girl said. “I was just wondering when you’re gonna retire.”
“Five or six years, maybe.”
Milton rubbed his thumb and index finger together. “Money. I’m going to buy a sailboat and have enough money to live out the rest of my days comfortable and alone. That’ll be real living.”
“You might fall off the boat and drown within a week of retiring.”
“Or have a heart attack.”
The girl mimicked his shrug. “It happens more often than you think. I’m retired now because I figured, why wait for that to happen to me? I figured I’d just skip the boring parts of life. Nobody stopped me.”
Milton narrowed his eyes. She was twisting and untwisting a taffy wrapper in her hand, smiling at it like it was the most amusing thing in the world. How crafty she was to find loopholes in the absurd. He hid a smile.
Beyond the boardwalk, the sky was awash with sunset. The big fat tangerine had overripened and hung low in the sky.
“You know,” the girl said, “everybody says not to swim at night because it’s harder to spot riptides. I don’t think it’s that hard to find them though. The moon is usually bright enough.”
The next morning a taffy wrapper washed up on shore.