The Other Cousin Eliot

An image of a boardwalk in early evening. Several storefronts light up the walk, and a ferris wheel can be seen in the background. A few small groups of people stroll along, whilst some eat in front of a storefront for a bar & grill.

The summer she turned eleven, Joanne’s parents got divorced. Before that, the family spent one week, and occasionally two, every summer at Hudson Beach. Joanne remembered those weeks with great affection: long days of sunshine and heat, of hot tar and steaming sand, of Eskimo pies so cold they hurt your teeth, of the smell of Coppertone, of burnt skin and peeling blisters, sand castles and sand crabs, the ticking of fans at night, the weird muting of voices on the beach, the threat of jellyfish and the phantom danger of sharks, of tall tales told by bigger kids who warned of glass cutting their feet in the ocean, poisonous eels, rip tides, kidnapping, all the sweet, blissful menace of childhood. They had been happy there, even Mom and Dad, or so she’d thought.

Now the whole family lived apart, she was the youngest of her siblings and she couldn’t bring herself to spend the summer at home. Spring break had been unbearable. She’d told her college roommate Kara all about the beach and, for reasons of her own, Kara agreed to go there with her. They’d taken the bus down there one cold, rainy day in May to attend a job fair for the summer. The fair was held in a ballroom in one of the glitzy casino/hotels that had been developed years after Joanne’s family had stopped going there.

When Joanne’s family went there, the beach had mostly family friendly motels which let by the week and some cottage courts where Joanne’s family had stayed. There was a little town a short way inland that had grocery stores and bars, but the family never went there.

The new casino/hotels were advertised as family friendly vacation spots. “Yeah,” Kara said, “maybe the Manson family.” Every Casino had strip bars, gambling and a bunch of other things not usually associated with childrearing.

The older part of the beach was much as Joanne remembered it, except that everything seemed smaller and shabbier now. But the boardwalk was still there, the souvenir shops, the food stands.

Joanne and Kara interviewed with an older man in a baggy suit, Bob someone. He told them that the hot dog stand, The Salty Dog, was family owned but that he personally wouldn’t oversee the one in Hudson Beach because he lived closer to the one in Atlantic Beach, some hundred miles up the road. He said that his first job had been at the stand in Hudson Beach when he was younger than they were now. His dad had started it along with his Uncle, both now, sadly, deceased. Bob was visibly proud of the business, not just its history but its present, serving fine food with a smile. He was so sweet and old that the girls didn’t even balk when he told them that the starting salary was $9 an hour and, of course, lunch. There was room to grow, he said, but they wouldn’t be there long enough for a six month eval., the beach shut down after Labor Day. All three laughed at that, he already knew they would be returning to the State College upstate at summer’s end.

The job didn’t come with housing but Bob recommended an apartment building a few blocks from the beach. They made the arrangements over phone and email. The unit looked considerably more worn down in person than it had online, but it was passably clean and had a view of the ocean, if not the beach, through one window in the kitchenette. They flipped a coin for the bedroom and Joanne got the fold out bed in the living room, which meant she also got the only TV.

The boardwalk was much the same as Joanne remembered, at least in the older part, where The Salty Dog, was. That stretch of beach was pretty cruddy now, but families still came there, teenagers still hung out on the boardwalk, other teenagers still tried to look menacing, which was, Joanne admitted, a tough thing to pull off in board shorts. The Beach was crowded, as it had been years before, but the one thing there seemed to be a shortage of was kids like her and Kara, college kids just looking to make a few bucks and revisit their past, which smelled, in retrospect, of innocence and freedom, popcorn and candy cotton. If they’d come here for romance, or even just to meet people to hang out with, the pickings looked discouragingly thin.

They got to work early the first day hoping to impress their supervisor but when they arrived the backdoor was already open and the manager, Conor, a man slightly older than they were, was already there. He had greased back brown hair and wore a grease-stained blue shirt with his name on it. He was a skinny guy of middling height and bore the scars of an epic battle with acne in his past. Kara gave him her very warm smile and held her out her hand as she introduced herself and Joanne, but he pulled his hand back and instead offered them an industrial-size box of latex gloves which he said were mandatory whenever they were near food. While they hung up their few belongings in the tiny closet, Conor got out a much copied bunch of W2s for them to sign and sat them at a wobbly wooden table in the parking lot so they could write on something. When they finished, he called them back in and explained their duties.

He would, he said, always be there and the doors would be locked when he wasn’t. There was no overtime, the hours were solid – 9:00 a.m. ‘sharp’ for set up, coffee and donuts for the few customers who would want them, then prep for lunch then clean up after lunch and get ready for the afternoon business in ice cream and milk shakes, all premade. Also snacks. Then clean up and then everyone out by 5, when he pulled down the metal shutter. He said that he’d been manager for some years now and had done every single job there was to be done at the Salty Dog, plus keeping it supplied. Bob was his step-uncle and he reported regularly to him about how things were going. Here he paused and looked at each of them menacingly for a few seconds as if to warn them that he was not above having them fired. His eyes were black and glassy, like shiny pebbles in a stream, and if he had meant to impress them, he had, but probably not in the way he wanted to. They each perfected an imitation of his glare within seconds and had to suppress the urge to reproduce it immediately.

He demonstrated the lunch routine for the dogs and fries and then had them mime the entire routine for him without actually touching anything. He was impatient and irritated, as if they’d already done something wrong, but neither of the girls could figure out what. He stood close behind them as they worked. He had a slight wheeze and exuded a too-sweet scent of either deodorant or cologne. In the closeness, it was almost nauseating. They tried to be visibly attentive, Joanne wondered if they should be asking questions or writing things down but everything seemed pretty straightforward. Still, everything he said to them was said in a tone that implied that working in a ‘restaurant’ like this one, one that poured pre-made popcorn out of huge plastic bags and warmed them up in an ancient-looking kettle, required an extremely nuanced and arcane set of skills that he knew well, but that they would have little hope of ever mastering.

He watched them intently when the stand opened to the few early tourists and snapped at them if they made a mistake in the order of things, handed out too many napkins (“two only to a customer, unless they ask for more, and then four”) or didn’t keep an eye on the condiments on the counter.

The day dragged, on mostly because there wasn’t very much to do. It was a cold, damp Tuesday after Memorial Day. The girls assumed that Conor would lighten up once he saw that they were at least competent and once there was actually something to be done.

He let them go 45 minutes early although, he explained, that would be reflected in their paycheck. They were more than happy to leave. As soon as they were out, they headed down the boardwalk to try and find the fudge and taffy place Joanne remembered. It was still there and about as nice as it ever had been. The fudge was awesome, thick and rich.

“That guy is way too invested in this job,” Joanne said, stuffing fudge into her mouth.

“Well, to be fair,” Kara said, “It’s probably the only job he’ll ever have.”

He wasn’t hopelessly unattractive, they agreed, and might not even be completely unintelligent but there was absolutely no way of telling that from anything he did or said. Joanne wondered if he slept in his stay-pressed uniform and if every version of it would have grease stains in the same places.

Conor was there before them every morning and stayed after them every afternoon doing something or other very noisily. However, in the middle of the day, noon to three, the exact hours when they needed every hand on deck to ‘deliver excellent customer service’, he was consistently missing. ‘Getting supplies’ he said when he came back from Smart n’ Final hours later with a bag or two of napkins or mustard packets. From what they could see, there was nothing in The Salty Dog that could get stale or disintegrate; he could easily have made his runs once a week at midnight. Kara thought he went home, wherever that was, to ‘think’ about them and ‘take a nap’ but they never asked and didn’t actually care. Without him, they found their own rhythm together. The lunch rush was intense but the hours went by fast.

One Wednesday in mid- July, Conor wasn’t there when they got in at nine. They waited around for 20 minutes, leaning against the back wall in the glaring light until he rolled up in his battered Honda and screeched to a halt in his parking place. He offered no explanation and Joanne didn’t expect him to. He looked like he’d had a really rough night, his normally wet-combed hair was messy, his pale skin even paler and his lips dry and chapped.

Joanne touched his upper arm faintly as he passed by and gently said, “You okay, Conor?” but he pulled away roughly, and started shouting orders at them as if she and Kara had been the ones who were inexplicably late and not him. Maybe he couldn’t handle the responsibility of running what was technically a business, Joanne thought. She and Kara tried to help but he wasn’t open to any kind of delegation.

As he did every day, he disappeared at about noon, just when people were lining up five or six deep at the only two windows they could keep open without him. They hustled their hardest and were well into the beginning of clean up when he finally came back at three, empty handed, and told them to step it up on the cleaning. He didn’t do his usual critique of how they’d done and he actually did more than usual to help. At 3:45 his cell phone rang. He took the call outside, behind the propped open back door. When he came back in, he clicked his cell phone closed with a snap and said, “Close the shutters. We’re having a meeting.”

They’d only had a couple of meetings before and both had been in the early morning. The first one, in June, was to announce that the sno cone machine was broken and wouldn’t be repaired for the rest of the season. He inferred that one of the girls had broken it by leaving it on empty or operating it wrong. The second time, a week or two later, was to tell them to really push the new ice cream sandwiches, which were only slightly bigger than the old ones but cost considerably more.

This time, he hemmed and hawed in the steaming, darkening stand, then finally looked up and said: “You guys will probably love this, but it looks like I’m not going to be your manager anymore.”

The girls were stunned. He was a pretty bad manager and a slovenly employee in general. He sometimes worked hard when he was there, but he wasn’t always there. Still, Joanne wondered what he could have done that was so much worse than what he always did that it would get him fired.

“I know you’re worried that you’re going to be let go.” He said. “Let me put your minds at ease, you’re not. We’re honoring our contract with you both.” (‘Contract?’ Joanne wondered. All she’d done is fill out a W2 and sign it.)

“My cousin Eliot is going to be running the Dog for the remainder of the summer. I have decided to take my career path in another direction.”

In another context, Joanne would have laughed but this was so somehow sad, and also stinky and hot and dark that all she wanted was to get out through the wedged open door. Her cut off time was 5:00 and Conor, a stickler for time, never kept them late. She glanced at the “It’s Dog Time” clock on the back wall and Conor saw her.

“Uh, I’ve still got four minutes left, Joanne,” He said. “No use getting your snarky union butt all up in it.”

That was also pretty funny, but mainly, it was: a) inexplicable, the only union she’d ever joined was the student union at college so that she had access to the Student Union printer, and, b) really hostile and, she felt, undeservedly so. Also, “snarky?” “butt?” Come on, now. She glanced at Kara and saw her looking down and biting her upper lip to keep from laughing.

There was an awkward moment or two until the clock struck five. They both said, “Well, good luck” and “I guess this is goodbye” as they left. Conor nodded and shut the door behind them.

They walked swiftly out and inland a few blocks to the Coconut Tree, a bar in town that was dark and cool. It was never crowded in the late afternoon, and the only people they saw there were too old and defeated to ever bother them. Kara swore that one of them hadn’t moved, even an inch, since the first time they’d gone in there, weeks before. He even had on the same clothes. They downed their beers in silence, then started to wonder. They couldn’t imagine that Cousin Eliot would be as bad, or even nearly as bad as Manager Conor had been. Conor was many things, but a hard act to follow wasn’t one of them. Still, the way he was leaving was odd and Joanne found herself actually worrying about him.

The next morning, they got to the Dog early, not so much to make a good impression as to get a look at Cousin Eliot before he could spot them, but he was already there. There was loud Bob Marley playing and the backdoor was propped completely open. A lean, male torso in a pristine white wife-beater and weathered jeans was busily swabbing the counters and there was a reassuring scent of Clorox that almost superseded the greasy odor of steamed hot dogs that was woven into the place. He had long, glistening dirty- blond hair pulled into a pony tail with an elastic, one small gold ring in his left earlobe and tight, rounded buttocks loosely outlined by his soft, worn jeans. Even before he turned around, Joanne could tell that he was the hottest thing she’d seen in months, maybe ever, including in a magazine, including in a movie.

Eliot had tattoos on both arms, an Eagle and Semper Fi on his right biceps, a long, multi-colored dragon all down his left. He looked good enough to eat and he had the kind of long, spectacular teeth that looked like he could eat right back. Joanne grabbed Kara’s arm as they hovered on the back steps as if to hold her back.

“Hey,” Eliot said as he turned around. “I hope you guys don’t mind if I got started. This place is a fucking pigsty, innit?” He flashed them a sly grin and chuckled.

They nodded mutely in agreement.

“I mean, no offense, but did Conor ever actually clean this place?”

They shrugged a collective “I don’t know”.

“Also – what’s up with the sno cone machine? Man, that was my favorite thing when I was a kid.”

“Uh, Conor said it’s broken,” Kara managed to mumble.

“So I hear. No biggie. There’s a guy, or there used to be a guy in town who fixes stuff like this.” He said. He looked at them both as if they were actual human beings who he was interested in getting to know.

“This your first summer on the Beach?” He asked.

Oh, there was so much Joanne wanted to tell him, all about her childhood vacations here, her parents’ divorce, her memories, her hopes. She wanted to tell him everything about herself, about growing up, about college, about maybe wanting to be a nurse about….

“Uhn, uhn,,” she said finally. “I came here when I was little.”

“Cool,” he said, then looked at Kara, “You, too?”

“Ummmm….sort of,” Kara said. This was bullshit. She hadn’t even heard of the place until Joanne proposed working here but, although Joanne minded, she didn’t blame her one bit.

“Yeah, Conor’s a case, isn’t he?” Eliot said, laughing.

The girls both laughed, too.

The rest of the morning went well even though they worked harder than they ever had before, but not harder than Eliot. He got on his cell and ordered genuine popcorn kernels and a butter heater. He checked the hot dogs in the cooler for expiration dates although, as he said, they had a half-life of a billion light years. Some of them were actually well past their sell date which begged the question once again of where Conor had gone in his daily supplies run, and why.

The lunch shift was a breeze. Eliot kept the music coming on a boom box he had brought in, customers were singing along and moving to it. He promised to bring a couple of better fans the next day since air conditioning was out of the question because of the hinky wiring. He did his share at the third window, joking and smiling at the customers, winking at the little kids. There wasn’t much time for talking but he kept up a cheery, ironic chatter when he could and tossed them supplies under his long, toned arm when needed.

At three o’clock he let them go, but not before thanking them both and promising not to dock their pay.

They were speechless.

Most people would have said that Joanne was the prettier of the two, she thought.

Anyways, more conventionally pretty. But Kara was so outgoing and charming that Joanne often let her take the first wave of masculine interest when they went anywhere together and waited for the shyer boy to notice her later, which usually happened.

But Eliot had smiled the same way at both of them, had seemed to genuinely like them both equally. Certainly his thank-you’s sounded sincere. Conor had never thanked either of them for anything and his interest in them went exactly as far as the broken up macadam in the parking slot behind the Dog.

For the first time, the girls could actually go to the beach at a reasonable hour. They spent the afternoon up the shore in the fancier part and then treated themselves to a nice seafood dinner in one of the upscale restaurants there. They drank themselves silly, ebullient at the thought of how awesome the rest of the summer was going to be.

Joanne wondered if she had ever crossed paths with Eliot during her childhood. Had he been one of the lean, sunburnt surfer boys she had idolized in her visits here, the tops of their hair bleached white by the sun, their noses covered in zinc oxide? She’d been too young then to interact with them, they were in junior high at least, but they had formed her erotic ideal.

That night Joanne had a series of vivid dreams, none of which she remembered except the last one and that was more of a memory, an image. She saw herself as a young girl, seven or eight, standing out in the water where the waves broke and turning back to wave at her Dad on the beach. She remembered sharply that feeling of safety, of being able to duck under the biggest, coldest wave knowing that her Dad was standing there on the shore watching her, making sure that she would be okay.

* * *

They were at the back door of the stand the next morning at 8:45 when the real Cousin Eliot came. He apologized profusely for the day before. He said they’d probably lost a lot of business by closing for a day.

Joanne and Kara were dumbfounded. Neither of them could even begin to formulate a response. They looked at each other in stunned wonder.

The new Cousin Eliot was a younger, more benign version of Conor. They could see a faint resemblance in the long face and short awkward limbs. His skin was better and his hair was in a crew cut but he had the same defeated, slightly baffled look in repose.

“Well, let’s get to it,” he said, mirthlessly ushering them in.

He praised the cleanliness of the stand and said that at least Conor had left the place in good shape.

The shift went slowly and was awkward. Cousin Eliot was not nearly as overbearing as Manager Conor had been but he also didn’t seem to have much experience. He asked a lot of questions about the running of the place but he accepted their instructions without resentment and seemed to catch on fairly quickly. He stumbled a bit during lunch but he kept the third window open and later asked their opinion on what he needed to order more of for the Dog. He wrote their answers down dutifully and nodded at them as they left.

As they walked back to the apartment, they remembered that yesterday’s Eliot hadn’t ever introduced himself, nor had they asked him to.

They plowed through the rest of the summer. The new Cousin Eliot was actually a nice guy and they met a few other nice guys, mostly locals, to hang out with, have beers with, go bowling with, even fool around with. But Hudson Beach by night wasn’t something either of them ever planned to return to.

When the summer ended, they each went home for a few days before returning to Campus. They told their friends all about the long, hot summer they spent working together at The Salty Dog, or anyway, about most of it.


Laura Fanning lives and writes in Alameda, California, an island in the San Francisco Bay.  Stories of hers have been published in Cylamen and Swords, the Circa Review, Flash Fiction World and elsewhere. Her one-act play "Somewhere Close to Texas" received a full production at the Ensemble Studio West, Los Angeles, and her short story, "The Brick" won the Tom Howard/John H. Reid Award for Best Short Story (2016).