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An exhilarating debut novel of reinvention, friendship, and ambitionfrom the Jersey shore to Scotland
Tom Alison was weeks away from collecting his diploma at a prestigious East Coast boarding school and heading off to the Ivy League. His goal: a job in high finance alongside the power brokers he had watched from a distance as the working-class son of a single mom. But when he gets busted for selling drugs on campus, his life among the children of privilege quickly falls apart.
Tom escapes his ruined reputation with a new friendClaire Savage, the son of a disgraced financierand the two of them flee to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. But what they find is a world shaped by even more powerful and unforgiving forces of greed, class, and ambition than the one they left behind. As Tom is sucked into a life of sex, drugs, and money, he learns what it takes to break the rulesand how we can be broken by them.
Reminiscent of early Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney, Down the Shore is an unflinching, unforgettable novel of youth and excess.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Stan Parish has worked as a senior features editor at Departures and as an associate editor at GQ. His writing has appeared in Esquire and he is a contributor to the New Jersey section of The New York Times.
Read an Excerpt
The birthday girl kicked off her heels and boosted herself onto a barstool to propose a toast. Courtney swayed as she stood up, digging her toes into the cracked vinyl of the cushion, bare arms outstretched. There was no fear in her expression once she’d found her balance—four years of extracurricular opera had taught her how to hold a crowd. Her dress, a loose white sheath, was opalescent in the thin light from the neon signs. It was just after 2:00 a.m. on Memorial Day, the Monday of a three-day weekend. The bar’s AC was either dead or overpowered by a cloud of body heat, and the air inside the long room felt like something you could swim through. I peeled off the top half of my tux as Courtney raised her glass and called for silence. She reminded us that we had nothing to do today, tomorrow, whatever this was. A cheer went up from the crowd, and I whistled through my teeth even though I had the sense, with exams looming, that we were all on borrowed time.
The bar was packed with high school kids in formal wear, most of us from the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, sixty miles southwest of Manhattan. Courtney’s official eighteenth birthday party, dry and closely chaperoned, had been thrown by her parents at the Plaza Hotel. This was the after party: Kildare’s Irish Pub, six blocks south of the Plaza, and not particular about the age of its patrons. We looked less young all dressed up, but we did not look old enough. A knot of regulars had holed up by the bar’s blacked-out front window, nursing Harp and Cutty Sark, keeping to themselves.
I was waiting on an ice water, thinking through the drive back to New Jersey, when I saw a girl sitting alone at a table by a blinking arcade game. She was sketching in a notebook with a pencil, her eyes flitting from the page to the crowd. She discovered something unpleasant in her mouth just then—a strand of hair, a fleck of loose tobacco—and spent the next few seconds trying to extract it, pinching the tip of her tongue, going slightly cross-eyed as she stared down at her fingertips, spitting as gently and politely as she could. She looked like a courtesy invite who had run out of conversation, but that probably had more to do with my feelings than any signals she was giving off. She swept her brown hair back to reveal an earring in her right ear, something long and delicate and gold, but nothing in her left. I left my water on the bar and walked toward her. She saw me coming and snapped her notebook shut.
“Hi,” I said.
A tight smile, nothing else.
“What were you drawing?”
“Boys in jackets.”
“You don’t go to Lawrenceville.”
“No,” she said. “I don’t.”
She was fingering the elastic strap that held her notebook closed, anxious to get back to work. Up close, her earring looked like wind chimes.
“Did you lose the other one?” I asked, tapping my earlobe.
“Yeah,” she said. “Three years ago.”
“How do you know the birthday girl?”
“I’m Courtney’s cousin.”
“I’m in her class. At Lawrenceville. Can I get you a drink?”
“I’m fine,” she said, “but thank you.”
“Where do you go to school?”
We shook hands, awkwardly. She didn’t give her name, but she did turn my hand over as I was about to take it back.
“You have nice hands,” she said, as if considering them for her sketch. She caught herself then, realizing she had given me an in, but she was saved by some commotion from across the room. I turned to find a crush of people at the men’s room door.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, pulling her hair back into a ponytail, a hair tie between her teeth. “You’ll have to go see.”
I nodded and smiled, dismissed. But just before I’d turned completely, she looked up from her book and smiled back, thanking me, I guessed, for leaving right on cue.
By the time I shouldered through the crowd, two boys were struggling through the narrow door, propping up a girl who had been sick before she passed out in the stall. A freshman from some other boarding school, she had been throwing herself at someone from my class at Lawrenceville all night. I had seen her in the men’s room at the Plaza, where a plastic surgeon’s son was holding court with a film canister of Molly, powdered and ostensibly pure Ecstasy, shipped in from Oahu, which he was doling out with the wet end of his little finger. I saw the girl again, later, standing on the dance floor, running her bottom lip between her teeth so that it seemed to come out fuller every time. Then she was making out with my classmate in a back corner of Kildare’s, and now she was too far gone to stand.
A bartender hopped the bar. He hoisted the girl into his arms, shaking his head at her, at all of us. His forearms were wiry under blurred tattoos as she squirmed against him.
“She with you?” the bartender asked one of the boys, who shook his head. “Who’s she with?” he called out over the heads of the people who were inching backward, distancing themselves.
The answer to his question was standing by the bar: Clare Savage, tall, lean, nationally ranked in squash, and almost as blond as the very blond girl. A senior at Lawrenceville, like me. Our relationship had been mostly transactional; he smoked more pot than you might think to look at him, and I had been his regular supplier. Clare and I had both been day students at Lawrenceville, but there was a rumor that he had just become a boarder and moved into a dorm, which was unheard of this late in the year. I knew more about his father, a famous money manager, than I did about Clare, who was inching backward now, along with everyone else.
“She’s with him,” I said, pointing. “Clare, give this guy a hand?”
“Yeah, sure,” Clare said, looking anything but sure as he took stock of all the eyes trained on him.
“She your date?” the bartender asked.
“I guess so,” Clare said.
“Good for you.”
He dumped the girl on Clare, who held out his arms to catch her, and eased her onto her feet with an arm around her back.
“What should I do with her?” Clare asked.
“Get her the fuck out of my bar, for starters.”
The bartender opened the door and jerked his head toward the traffic on Third Avenue. Clare stared at him in disbelief, unused to taking orders from the help. As the bartender turned his back, I recalled my mother telling me to look out for a particularly wasted woman at a party we were catering to make sure that whoever took her home seemed like a Good Samaritan and not a sex offender. I had wanted to stick Clare with this mess, but I had overstepped, which made the girl my problem too. Clare was trying to coax and carry her through the door when I came up behind him.
“Here,” I said, “put your arm under hers, like this. I’ve got her. Ready?”
She was limp but light. We eased her down onto the warm sidewalk outside and propped her up against Kildare’s. Her eyes fell open and she seemed to register Clare’s face before she slipped away again.
“She’ll be fine,” I said. “Does she live in the city?”
“She lives in Jersey. In Far Hills, I think. Fuck, I barely know this girl. How did she get like this?”
“Molly,” I said.
“The other Molly. Molly from Hawaii.”
“Oh, right,” Clare said. “Jesus. What do we do now?”
“Just wait here. My car’s down the street. Far Hills is pretty close.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. Stay put.”
I wasn’t sure. I checked my watch as I drove west on Forty-third Street and wondered if I should forget this, hit the road, and tell Clare when I saw him back at school that something had come up. It was almost 3:00 a.m., and I had a strong urge to take the Holland Tunnel and fly over the marshland on the southbound turnpike with the wind beating through my open windows. I kept looking at my hands on the steering wheel, thinking about what the girl in Kildare’s had said. The last knuckle on my right ring finger was bent and fat, the result of a wipeout on a head-high wave, a collision with a sandbar. My hands had always looked weak to me. I hit a yellow light on Lexington, which made for an easy left in the direction of the bar.
Clare was squatting next to his new friend when I pulled up to the curb. He gave me a wave and then turned his attention to the girl, who had come to again while I was gone. My hazard lights turned her pale skin orange as Clare helped her into the backseat of my Explorer where she stretched out and closed her eyes. He had rescued her white leather clutch somehow, and we found her address on the New Jersey learner’s permit folded up inside. Her full name was Paige Alexandra Baldwin; she lived in Ridgewood, not Far Hills. I drove south and took Forty-second to the West Side.
“Thanks for doing this,” Clare said. “I’d be fucked if you had taken off.”
That was generous, and I wondered why he wasn’t pissed at me for calling him out back at the bar. He seemed uncomfortable and unsure of himself in a way I hadn’t seen at Lawrenceville. Something else was on his mind. We were in the Lincoln Tunnel, the reflections of the overhead lights sliding rhythmically across the finish of the hood, when Clare reclined his seat a few degrees and tossed his cummerbund onto the dashboard. Make yourself at home, I thought. He was staring up at the tile ceiling, his eyes skipping slightly in their sockets, fixing on each light for a split second as it passed.
“How do you know her?” I asked.
“I don’t. I wasn’t kidding about that. She walked up to me at the Plaza and asked me for a cigarette.”
No approach required. Good for him.
We stopped for gas outside Fort Lee. In the Speedy Mart, I took a map off a rack and spread it out to find her street. Clare was leaning on the counter, his black and white clothes framed by boxes of candy, packs of cigarettes, rolls of scratch-off Lotto tickets, his blond hair already bleached by the sun. He had draped his jacket over Paige, and I could see now that he was all long muscle after years of pulling in sails hand over hand and countless hours on the squash court. A body built in recreation. The cashier was ringing up the gas and a bag of Skittles that Clare had plucked from the candy rack. I was trying to remember who had told me that a sweet tooth is a sign of weakness.
“You smoke, right?” he called to me. “Camel Lights?”
“And a carton of Camel Lights, please,” he said to the cashier.
The cashier scrutinized his license, and Clare tossed me the carton, which I caught with the open map.
“Thanks,” I said. “You didn’t have to do that. Here’s her street. I’m not that good with maps.”
Clare tore into the Skittles with his teeth and tipped the bag into his mouth, chewing slowly as he scanned the tangle of rivers and roads. He looked up at me and nodded to say that he could get us there.
As we pulled out of the gas station, I thought back to the last time Clare and I had occupied the front seat of a car. Most of the people I sold to at Lawrenceville seemed to get off on the ritual buys, the overly clandestine meetings, the inane questions about quality and provenance. And most of them understood that waiting was part of the game. But then one day I showed up an hour late to meet Clare, who stared straight ahead when I collapsed into the passenger seat of his black Saab, parked behind the pizza joint across the street from campus. I apologized and asked how he was doing.
“What took so long?” he said.
I had been glancing at my watch so often that I could have answered with the precision of a ship’s log: eleven minutes on the road from Lawrenceville to the brick blocks of low-income housing behind Mercer Mall once I realized that I was a quarter ounce short. This was in the two days between winter trimester finals and Christmas break, when demand always outstripped supply. I spent four minutes ringing the buzzer of number 147 before the door buzzed back and I shot across the living room, past Eduardo’s grandmother, installed like a gargoyle at one end of the sofa, a bath towel draped over her knees as a blanket. Fourteen minutes up in Eduardo’s room after he held up an Xbox controller in greeting and insisted that I play some Grand Theft Auto III with him, because I only called him in emergencies and he knew that I was scrambling. Twenty minutes back to campus, the traffic thickening as cars coursed out of the office parks that lined Route 1. I had been shuttling between two worlds, which takes time. I let Clare’s question hang between us, overcharged him, and went home.
A winding county road ran past darkened strip malls and sprawling public schools once we were off the highway. Clare was staring out at nothing, giving me occasional directions in a voice that sounded either bored or tired.
“You’re not worried about this?” I asked him. “You don’t think they’ll be pissed?”
Clare shook his head. He was the clean-cut kid you’d want to bring your daughter home if she got sick in the city. There was nothing for him to be afraid of. I turned to look at Paige, hoping for additional assurances, but Paige had left the building.
“Take the next left,” Clare said. “No, wait, it’s this one. Turn here.”
A new development, with massive houses stacked on both sides of an unlined street. The first one we passed looked like an Italian villa with adolescent trees scattered across the lawn. The granite curbs that lined the road were high and clean.
“What should we tell these people?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Clare said. “We can’t leave her on the lawn, though. This is it. This one on the right.”
The house had a soaring brick façade. I stepped out of the car while Clare tucked in his shirt and smoothed his hair. His movements were sharper now, but he seemed relaxed and purposeful as he rolled his sleeves back down his forearms and dug through his pockets for a pair of silver cuff links. I stared up at the floodlights trained on us as we walked the flagstone path to the front door. Gnats formed a haze around the fixtures, swarming, crashing into the glass. Clare rang the bell.
A flash of light from an upstairs window, and then a long pause broken by a deadbolt’s heavy click, and the scream of new hinges as the door swung open. The man behind it wore pleated suit pants, a wrinkled undershirt, and salt-stained boat shoes that seemed to be on the verge of exploding as the weight of his body strained the stitching and squashed the rubber soles against the marble floor. He looked wide awake, ready to take on both of us, if that was what it came to. This was exactly what I had been afraid of.
“Can I help you?” he asked, one hand on the doorknob, the other half clenched at his side.
“Hi, Mr. Baldwin,” Clare said. “Clare Savage. Sorry to wake you up like this, but Paige got a little sick at this thing in the city and we wanted to make sure she got home.”
“It’s Mr. Quinn, actually. I’m her stepdad.” Then: “Clare Savage? Are you Michael’s son?”
There was a ripple in Clare’s clothes as his entire body tensed. The shock of Mr. Quinn’s recognition reminded me of the way lightning was described in my sixth-grade science textbook: a bright upstroke that changes the temperature around it.
“Tom Alison,” I said, offering my hand, which Mr. Quinn shook without looking at me.
“Where’s Paige?” he asked, coming back into himself, remembering his duties as a guardian. “In the car?”
“In the back,” I said. “Asleep.”
“Well, at least you made it. Let’s get her inside.”
I hung back as we headed for my car, trying to get Clare’s attention and to understand why this man was interested in anything besides his semiconscious stepdaughter. Mr. Quinn took Paige in his arms and crossed the lawn with her head against his chest, one high-heeled shoe swinging from her foot by the strap across her toes. Paige stirred and her stepfather whispered something to her as he turned and paused for me to get the door. He raised a finger on the hand under her knees, and mouthed “wait here” before he climbed the stairs.
“Clare,” I said, when Mr. Quinn was out of earshot.
Clare was watching the place where he had disappeared.
“Hey, do you two know each other?”
“Do you know who he is?” Clare asked.
“He’s her stepdad. He said that.”
“We have to leave.”
Clare took a step toward the door, just as Mr. Quinn appeared on the landing above us.
“I have beds for you two,” he said, as he descended. “I appreciate you bringing her home, but I don’t want you back on the road tonight. Sleep it off, take off in the morning. Can I get you some water?”
I looked at Clare, whose eyes were flitting between my face and the door as if he were contemplating a twenty-five-yard dash for the car.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“OK,” Mr. Quinn said, as he shot the deadbolt back into place. “Follow me.”
I glanced over my shoulder to make sure Clare was still with us as we started up the stairs. Our room for the evening was halfway down the hall. Mr. Quinn waved us inside.
“You boys need anything else?”
“Thanks,” I said. “We’re good.”
He said goodnight and closed the door. There were two beds against the far wall, both covered in madras pillows. Clare sat down on a window seat as if someone had kicked out his knees.
“Clare, what the fuck is going on?”
Clare stood up and cased the room, looking for a way out. It was a sheer drop from all the windows, and what might have been another exit led only to an empty closet. There was a crisp knock on the thinnest panel of the door.
“Come in,” I said.
Mr. Quinn did not come in. He stood in the hall, and shook a big watch down his wrist.
“Let’s talk,” he said to Clare.
Clare followed him down the hallway and the stairs. Suddenly I could hear them again, and I realized that they were on the deck behind the house, just below the guest room. I slid the window open very gently so that the only thing between us was a screen. Clare sat on the edge of a lounge chair facing the yard, Mr. Quinn in a rocker beside him.
“He left Lehman way before I did,” Mr. Quinn was saying. “We know a lot of the same people, which is how I heard.”
Clare said nothing. Mr. Quinn dug into his pocket, produced a soft pack of Marlboro Lights, and shook one loose. He offered it to Clare, who shook his head.
“You doing OK?” he asked, his teeth clamped down on the filter. “You’re not going to get sick on me, right?”
“I’m fine,” Clare said.
“Look, I’m sorry for what your family’s going through. I wasn’t trying to embarrass you. You look a hell of a lot like your dad.”
“I know,” Clare said.
A door opened down the hall, and I planted my ass on the bed, pretending to untie my shoe. Someone took the stairs very slowly, listening, assessing. I went back to the window in time to hear Mr. Quinn say: “Who knows how these things start. It’s funny, we used to give him shit about that French passport he got through your mom. I’m sure he’s having the last laugh, wherever he is. So where are you—”
A door opened behind them, and Mr. Quinn flicked his cigarette into the yard as Paige’s mother stepped onto the deck, cinching her robe around her body.
“Alan, who’s in the guest room? Do you know what time it is? What the hell is going on?”
“Go back to bed,” Mr. Quinn said. “Everything’s fine. You remember Clare Savage, Michael’s son. Paige got sick in New York and he brought her home. Him and his friend. They’re spending the night.”
Mrs. Baldwin stared at Clare in naked shock, and then looked back at her husband.
“It’s OK,” Mr. Quinn said to her. “We’re talking. I’ll be up soon.”
“Is Paige all right? What happened?”
“She got a little carried away. She’s fine. She told me she left without saying her good-byes when I put her to bed. Go back to sleep, I’ll be right up.”
“Sorry, hi,” Mrs. Baldwin said to Clare, offering her hand. “Nice to see you. Thank you for bringing Paige home.” She turned back to her husband. “It’s four o’clock in the morning,” she said, and walked away.
“She’s a handful,” Mr. Quinn said, lighting another cigarette. “Paige, not Lydia. She’s a sweetheart when she wants to be, but you have to watch her every minute. How do you two know each other?”
“We don’t,” Clare said. “I just met her tonight.”
“Hell of a first date. You’re a senior, right? Following your dad to Yale?”
“I was on the wait list, but he managed some of their endowment. That probably won’t help.”
Mr. Quinn took a long breath.
“You’ll be fine, OK? You’re what, seventeen? Eighteen? I know this looks like the end of everything, but it’s not. Not even for your dad. Look, I’ve got a car coming in two hours, but tell Michael I say hello if you talk to him.”
“I will,” Clare said, as Mr. Quinn stood up.
I kicked off my shoes and pulled my shirt over my head while someone shut the door to the deck. When Clare came in, he stood in the middle of the room in the darkness before he undressed. I was in bed by then, facing the wall, feigning sleep. Clare shut the window and pulled back the sheets. They were soft and clean, and I imagined I’d have all kinds of pleasant dreams between them, but nothing came after I drifted off.
It was bright as hell when I woke up, a hot rectangle of sunlight draped over my legs. Clare was sitting on the bed across from mine, already dressed.
“Hey,” he said. “You’re up.”
I wondered how long he’d been awake, trapped up here in the air-conditioning, afraid to show his face downstairs. The front door slammed, an engine started in the driveway. Clare walked to the window and stared out at the yard while I stepped into my pants and pulled on my jacket. This was the most mileage I’d ever gotten out of a tuxedo rental. Clare’s tux looked like something he owned.
Judging by the boxes and the sparseness of the built-in bookshelves, the Quinn-Baldwin family hadn’t lived here long. We walked softly on the ground floor, through the entryway and empty dining room, unsure what to expect. I had worked parties at dozens of new houses like this one with grandiose exteriors borrowed from another period and layouts with no imagination brought to bear, just a series of boxes to move through. A breakfast spread was laid out on the marble island in the kitchen. Between a plate of pastries and a bowl of sliced fruit was a note from Mrs. Baldwin informing us that she was at the gym. The coffee she had made was bitter, burnt.
“Let’s go before they get back,” Clare said.
“Relax,” I said. “I’m starving.”
I wondered if Mrs. Baldwin had dragged Paige to the gym as punishment, which is what my mother would have done. Clare kept an eye on the front door and the foot of the stairs while I scarfed down some honeydew balls and half a corn muffin.
“Ready?” he asked as I brushed crumbs off my lapels.
We cut across the lawn, making for my car. The electronic lock chirped over the distant whine of a mower.
“So how long before you call her?” I asked as I backed down the driveway.
“Look,” I said, punching the cigarette lighter into the dash and smacking a fresh pack of Camel Lights against my hand. “Even her stepdad says she’s a full-time job. Sometimes the fucking you’re getting ain’t worth the fucking you’re getting, as the saying goes.”
“I’ve never heard that before,” Clare said, laughing.
I’d never said that before; it was something that my mother’s produce supplier used to say about sleeping with his ex-wife.
“So you heard us talking,” Clare said.
“The window was open.”
“The window was open, or you opened the window?”
“The window was open,” I said. “Take it easy. You had no idea who her stepdad was?”
Clare shook his head and said: “Small world.”
No, I thought, it’s not. But after four years at Lawrenceville, I was used to everybody in this circle knowing everybody else.
“Are you on campus for the weekend?” I asked. “I heard you’re a boarder now.”
“I switched over a week ago. That’s when my parents left. They gave me Harrison’s room like two hours after they expelled him. The deans don’t really know what to do with me.”
The new music building was named for Clare’s mother; I was pretty sure the deans would figure something out, but I didn’t know what to do with him either. I had written him off after our Christmas break encounter, and now we were rolling through the suburbs of New Jersey on a sunny Monday morning with nowhere to be. Tuesday was our senior skip day, twenty-four hours of school-sanctioned rebellion. I searched for some tactful way to ask Clare how his father had gone from a man listed under “Angels” in Princeton symphony programs to a man on the run. Did Clare try to reconcile those versions of his father, or did this mess make him realize that he didn’t really know the man at all? We probably had that in common. I didn’t know three things about my dad.
My mother had a catering company in downtown Princeton. The first floor of our house held a commercial kitchen and a market that sold breakfast and coffee and ready-made meals. One night in January, a woman came in, bought dinner, and then asked for our trash, the empty packaging from the ingredients, to leave on the counter of her kitchen as if she had made the meal herself. She offered to pay for it. My mother told her that the garbage was out at the curb, but she was welcome to dig through it at no extra charge. I had been studying in a corner of the kitchen, which is what I had planned to do before Clare and I got sidetracked. My mother had a hard-ass catering captain she brought in for big jobs, and watching Clare drum his fingers on my dashboard reminded me of a line he used on lazy staff. “You know what you look like?” he would say, walking up on someone’s third cigarette break. “You look like my money just standing around.” It was actually the client’s money, but people felt like they owed him something when they heard that, which got them back to work. You know what you look like? I thought, glancing sideways at Clare. You look like my AP econ score going down. Clare was staring out the window at a man and a boy who were pushing a mower into the bed of a dirty red pickup, a striped and shining lawn behind them. The lighter popped out of the dash and I passed it to Clare, who lit his cigarette and dug his buzzing phone out of his pocket. I glanced at the caller ID, which read: UNKNOWN. His father calling from some undisclosed location to check in?
“Hello? Yeah, hang on. He’s right here. It’s for you,” Clare said, handing me the phone.
“Some girl,” he mouthed.
“This is Tom.”
“Hi. It’s Kelsey. We met last night before you ran out. I was drawing.”
“Right,” I said, trying to sound calm. “I remember you.”
“Good thing you two are still together. Everyone had this nonworking number for you, an old pager or something. Did that girl get home safe?”
“She did,” I said.
“Where are you now?”
“New Jersey, 287 South.” We were passing signs for 202 and 206, roads that led back to Lawrenceville and Princeton.
“I wanted to invite you to a party. It’s in Spring Lake, down the shore.”
“I know Spring Lake.”
“You do? It’s the house on Howell and Ocean. You should come.”
“Sure,” I said. “Whose party is it?”
“This family I grew up with. It’s less dressy than last night. Why don’t you call me when you’re closer.”
“Who was that?” Clare asked as I hung up.
“This girl I met last night. There’s a party in Spring Lake.”
“Are we going?”
“If you’re up for it. If not, I can drop you at the train.”
“It’s not a Lawrenceville thing, is it?”
I shook my head, and wondered if people at school had already heard about his dad, if I was the last to know. Clare seemed happy to steer clear of Lawrenceville, which was lucky for him because there was no train, and we were going to this party whether he wanted to or not. I had been thinking about Kelsey since I woke up, Monday-morning-quarterbacking our exchange in Kildare’s. That she had managed to reach me seemed like a sign from whatever god was responsible for these things. Maybe our first interaction would become a joke between us as we lived out the rest of our lives together—the night she blew me off in New York.
“I need something else to wear,” Clare said, sitting up, suddenly alert. “You have clothes with you, right?”
“Just these,” I said.
“Find a store. We can’t show up like this.”
Just before we hit the parkway, I saw a sign for a strip mall that held a Ross Dress for Less, an Acme grocery store, and a restaurant called Cluck-U Chicken. Clare, who I had never known to smoke, lit another cigarette as we stepped into the thick heat radiating from the parking lot.
Inside the windowless clothing store, the metal racks and polished floors reflected the fluorescent light while the clothes seemed to take it in like water, saturated with color, heavy on their hangers. Clare was leafing through a rack of jeans.
“What size are you?”
“I don’t know,” I said, fitting my hands over my hip bones. “Thirty-two?” Clare’s waist was smaller, but there were two pairs of size thirty-two jeans that contained some defect that neither of us could see. The coin pockets were flagged with orange “irregular” stickers, and the inside tags and leather patches had been sliced out with a razor blade.
“These work?” Clare asked. “They might be a little long.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “We’ll cuff them.”
Clare folded the jeans over his arm and headed for a rack of white T-shirts.
“Medium?” he asked, holding up a three-pack.
I saw the basket of shower sandals before Clare did. He went right for it, considering my feet to judge their size and digging for two pairs in flat black. I took an inventory of the outfit in his arms: dark jeans, disposable footwear, T-shirts like blank paper. All new things.
Clare took a pair of aviators off the sunglasses rack and hung them from the collar of his shirt while we stood in line. He shook his head when I tried to give him cash, and passed a credit card to the cashier, who turned it over in her hand and then looked up at him. It was a black American Express, stamped out of titanium. I had read about the card, an invitation-only line of credit with an in-house concierge that could get you Kevin Costner’s horse from Dances with Wolves, if that was what you wanted. Am Ex offered it to people who charged more than $250,000 a year on personal luxuries. It was baffling to me that his father’s credit cards still worked after he had fled the country, that Clare still had access to money the way I had access to clean water. It reinforced my long-held suspicion that there were two very different sets of rules. His family’s trouble should have laid them low, but here we were, on credit.
“Let’s swing by the grocery story,” Clare said, as he signed a screen.
The glass doors of the Acme sensed us, slid apart, and let out a cold breath as we walked inside. The space was small as New Jersey supermarkets go, a place from another era with low ceilings and harsh lights hanging down over the aisles. Clare was on a mission, and I lost him when I stopped to watch the action in a tank full of live lobsters. The store was packed and everyone was party shopping, filling carts with stacks of Solo cups and Firecracker Popsicles and cheap meat for the grill.
I found Clare unloading a basket in the express checkout lane. He counted everything he’d laid on the conveyor belt to make sure that the two sticks of deodorant, two-pack of toothbrushes, travel tube of toothpaste, and bottled water didn’t put him over the twelve-item maximum. I hadn’t thought of him as someone who obeyed posted limits. Clare swiped his card again and swept his purchases into the bag of clothes.
He tore into the T-shirts as we crossed the parking lot and tossed one to me. We changed in the front seats, and when we had both wrestled into chemically fresh clothes, Clare handed me a toothbrush and stepped out of the car. The sandals he had bought for me were on the dash, but I slipped my black lace-ups onto my bare feet and joined him on my front bumper. We brushed our teeth, spitting gobs of Crest onto the pavement. I had been too preoccupied the night before to notice that Clare and I both wore Rolex Submariners in stainless steel, designed to be used underwater. I imagined Clare picking his out on a whim at a St. Barts duty-free shop. Mine had shown up sometime before my fifteenth birthday. My mother produced it from her purse as she was digging for her wallet after dinner at my favorite restaurant. My birthday was two days away, but we were celebrating early because we had jobs lined up three days out.
“This came for you,” she said.
If there had been a card, there wasn’t one now. The watch itself, the mirror-polished casing and thick crystal, was heavy, but the bracelet and the clasp felt like something you could snap with your bare hands. The anticipation of loss was the first thing I felt when I slipped it on. It was the most expensive thing I owned by a long shot, a piece of another world. It was used, loose on my wrist, and if it was from my dad, as I assumed, then it was the only thing I had that he had touched. My mother made a crack about whether it was real or not as I snapped the clasp shut. The watch wound itself with the movement of your arm, which meant I never had to take it in for a new battery and have an expert poke around inside. I had a link removed from the bracelet at a jeweler in Quaker Bridge Mall, a place where they wouldn’t know the difference between the real thing and a good fraud. A Rolex was like camouflage at Lawrenceville, and it was funny to watch people spot a watch like that and assume things about your life, the way I had just assumed something about Clare’s. Who knew why he had $5,000 on his wrist.
Traffic was light on the Garden State Parkway, the twin southbound lanes walled in by trees in full bloom.
“You got in early to Columbia, right?” Clare said.
“Yeah, in December. They changed their mind after I got in trouble.”
“They pulled your acceptance over that? Shit, I’m sorry. Where are you headed next year?”
“The prep school? For a postgrad thing?”
“No. The university in Scotland.”
“Really?” Clare said, turning in his seat to face me. “Is it hard to get into?”
“Not that hard. They like Americans because we have to pay tuition. The Brits basically go for free.”
My mother had a small trust to help with my education, given to her by a man she dated when I was too young to remember, and St. Andrews was half the price of an American school, even after the exchange. When Columbia took back its offer of admission, the head of college counseling at Lawrenceville told me that I had two choices: a year off or a year in Scotland. Every American university asked you to check one box if you had been subject to serious disciplinary action, and another if you had ever been arrested or convicted of a crime. Check, check. Those questions were replaced on the St. Andrews application by a yes-or-no declaration asking whether you could pay in full.
“So what’s the application deadline?” Clare asked.
“It’s rolling. So whenever, until they fill the slots. I got in two months ago.”
Clare’s phone was ringing again.
“Hello? Yeah, hang on. It’s for you again,” he said.
“Did you blow me off? I thought you’d be here by now.”
“We had to make a stop. We’re close.”
“It’s 567 Ocean Avenue, right on the water. Ask for me. I’ll be out back. Drive safe.”
• • •
I knew the house on Howell and Ocean, which sat across from my favorite surf break in Spring Lake. Like most of the homes on Ocean Avenue, it was a busy mash-up of Dutch colonial and Victorian architecture, accessorized with turrets, balconies, and something that looked like a two-story gazebo attached to the north end. We took a space from a departing Mercedes and crossed a strip of bright green lawn. Someone inside was beating on a drum.
Two girls burst through the door as Clare and I hit the front steps, leaving it open for us as they raced across the grass. The drummer I had heard was perched on a piano bench with a djembe between his knees and his back to a white baby grand piano, the centerpiece of a two-story sun-drenched living room. On the floor at his feet, two kids were trading blues licks on acoustic guitars. This was clearly someone’s summer home, but it had none of the seaside kitsch I associated with even the biggest houses in the beach town where we lived when I was younger. Clare and I cut through the kitchen, where someone had arranged empty champagne bottles like bowling pins on a table made of steel and glass.
The door to the back deck swung open and a wave of noise washed in from the yard—hip-hop from a tinny stereo, a splash, a scream. We cut through a tipsy badminton game to the pool deck covered in people who paid us no mind as we walked among them. A well-dressed couple in their fifties were playing beer pong on a patio table with a couple less than half their age, and as we looked around, I realized there were at least a dozen adults here. Parents drinking alongside their underage children was something I had seen only at the poles of the economic spectrum—in the trailer parks of the Pine Barrens and places like this.
We found Kelsey smoking on one of the lounge chairs by the diving board, deep in conversation with an elegant blond woman in a lot of gold. The woman placed a hand on Kelsey’s arm and leaned out of her chair to say something sotto voce, entering into some confidence with Kelsey, who seemed used to talking to adults like this. She waved to us without taking her eyes off the woman’s face, and the woman, realizing that Kelsey had company, kissed her on the cheek and excused herself. Kelsey beckoned to us. She seemed much older than she had in Kildare’s.
“Better late than never,” she said, as we drew near.
• • •
What People are Saying About This
“Few novels have shown us inside the lives of disgraced financial titans as brilliantly as Down the Shore does. Stan Parish’s mesmerizing novel belongs in the grand tradition of the outsider who makes himself indispensable to the ruling class, learns all their secrets, and then passes himself off as one of them—as if Highsmith’s Ripley had a son he left behind in New Jersey.”
"It is the exceptional coming-of-age novel that shows us the truth not only about its hero's maturation, but about the singular age into which he is maturing. Down the Shore is an intimate portrait of a young man, and a sweeping story of the daunting age of global finance. Stan Parish's debut is raw, elegant, incisive, and above all, wise."
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