When I bought my apartment in New York City (in 1988) and moved from Spring Valley (Rockland County, NY), the first thing that I wrote was a short story about Cape May, New Jersey.
I was working in Paramus, New Jersey, reverse-commuting for a job that paid a lawyer all of $20,000 a year. I had written the play JAMES & JOHN (FATHER & SON) (based on John Stuart Mill's autobiography), the screenplay THE ADULT & THE ADOLESCENT (about a person who graduates college, lives at home, covers sports at his old high school, and falls in love four years out of time). I had seen that the New Jersey Chapter of the American Academy of Arts & Letters was offering a short story contest.
Floating around my head was a counterpart to those stories about growing up. It was about a man in his 20s, and a woman in her 60s, and the young man would grow older, and the old woman would grow younger, and they would meet at some point in time and become lovers. But there would be a kicker to it--the young man who grows older would start at nothing and remember, and the old woman who grows younger would know everything and forget. The story would be told by the now old man, in his final act of remembering.
A story needs a place, and the perfect place for it was Cape May, "America's Oldest Resort," the town of gingerbread houses that never seems to change.
I wrote the story and submitted it, but it didn't win. It didn't even finish second, or third. The winners list even announced a tie for third. I felt really sad, and I still do. Every story was better than mine? Didn't it mean anything to anyone?
I remember when I took the bus down to Cape May. "Anything Can Happen in Cape May" was then the tourist slogan. It was all perfect! "This town is famous for the old lady in tennis sneakers," someone said to me.
"You should also write a short story about Wildwood," I was told. Well, forget that.
The story was meant to parallel the movie Casablanca, another city on the Atlantic Ocean. The newlywed couple of Jack and Amy (the same letters as "May") meets Mae of Cape May. The theme song of the piece is "As Time Goes By" ("You must remember this...").
Jack presents Mae with magic beans "from the Mayans." (People from Cape May?) Mae gets younger, Jack gets older. Time goes by. "I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."
Jack and Amy were the names of two of my schoolmates/neighbors in Spring Valley. Jack's family moved to Florida and I never saw him again.
Amy joined the movie business; she was recently a producer of "The Producers."
When I was in elementary school, a teacher had us do creative writing. We were asked to write a story similar to "why the tiger has its stripes" or "why the leopard has its spots." I saw fireflies in the yard that night and wrote "The Little Firefly." The teacher read the entire story aloud in class and it was published in the school paper.
Over twenty years later, I was at a bank ATM and met Amy. She asked if I was still writing, and she remembered me as the famous author of "The Little Firefly."
What could I saw to her? That I spend day after day having people complain to me about parking tickets?
That I solved "the Big Apple"? That I've spent fifteen unsuccessful years trying to honor the African-American stablehand from New Orleans who named New York City?
That I once wrote a short story called "Cape May, N.J.," and she's in it, and it's terrific, and it's the greatest love story Hollywood has ever seen?
I told her that I didn't write anymore.
In the final scene, a young Mae returns to Cape May after living with Jack and his young son in Montclair, NJ. (The author of "As Time Goes By" was born in Montclair.) Cape May has stayed the same, but Mae has gotten much younger. She no longer remembers the place, or even who she is.
A dialect coach is brought in. Even though her memory has disappeared, her dialect has remained. The dialect coach finds that this mysterious woman appears to be from south Jersey!
This part of the story developed after the 2002 death of my friend Donald Lance. See my "Big Apple" colleague Gerald Cohen's post and more:
(January 5, 1988 issue of the Syracuse Post-Standard, the Associated Press story about "Sarah Gray," the real Marylouise Moskel of Clearfield, PA)
Donald Lance had figured out that a mysterious woman suffering from amnesia who appeared in Columbia, Missouri was really from the Pittsburgh, PA area. Her dialect had given her identity away!
There's a line in the short story "Cape May, N.J." that I really like. It's after Mae can no longer remember her husband or her mother or her father. Jack keeps informing her who these people were. "I'll never remember them!" declares Mae. "It's just trivia!"
In the end, she forgets the spelling of her own name and spells it "May."
The fundamental things apply as time goes by.
I hope you enjoy the story.
Personal • Original Short Story: Cape May, N.J. • Tuesday, April 04, 2006 • Permalink