Salt and Sweat and Coconutty Suntan Lotion

Salt and Sweat and Coconutty Suntan Lotion

August is Summer Reading Month in Daily Nutmeg, and Donald Margulies, photographed above by Dan Mims, is this week’s featured writer. Please enjoy this new monologue

written by Margulies for The 24 Hour Plays, titled “Time to Go.”

* * *

(Night. A middle-aged man is talking on his iPhone.)

I must’ve been eight or nine. Whatever I was, I was small. And you remember how skinny I was!

You worried I would starve to death. I didn’t.

If I was nine, Stewie was eleven and big for his age, but, still, a kid. We hadn’t moved to Coney Island yet; we still lived on Ocean Avenue. So, not quite nine: It was summer, so going on nine. That’s when this happened: the summer before I turned nine.

We had some stifling summers, but that one was a scorcher. Daddy was at work, of course: Daddy was always at work. If he had to be on his feet all day, at least the store was air-conditioned. When I think of that now: You stuck in that tiny apartment with two restless boys, tearing your kishkes out, climbing the walls—in the middle of a heat wave!—no air conditioning, too hot to ride our bikes, too hot to do much of anything, but languish in front of the t.v. with the box-fan blowing.

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There were just so many days you could schlep us to the library, or to Doris Day double features at the Sheepshead, (for which, okay, I am actually eternally grateful, especially for Doris Day).

Then there were the days you took us to the beach. It couldn’t have been easy without a car. Stewie was like the Sherpa. He carried that low-to-the-ground beach chair—and straw bags with tropical motifs on them like palm trees and pineapples―not that you and dad ever went anywhere remotely tropical…—stuffed with beach towels and a fat library book for you, probably the new Leon Uris, as if you’d actually settle in to read; a brown squeeze bottle of Coppertone, tuna sandwiches in Baggies, and Scotch-plaid thermoses of… what. What was my favorite sugary fake-fruit drink?


Some Mott’s thing. Maybe it was Cran-Apple. Or that purply fruit-punch stuff. Damn. What was that called?

(Thinks. Shakes head dismissively)

Anyway, what a chore that must have been for you, my little Mommy, loading Stewie and me and all this crap for the day’s entertainment—pails and shovels for shell-collecting and tunnel-digging, castle-building and destroying—onto a city bus—


Hawaiian Punch! I can’t believe I couldn’t remember Hawaiian Punch!

Loading us and the stuff onto a city bus—the B-36—I think—packed—crammed!—with Brooklyn families just like us all making their escape from their stifling apartments to the wide open sky and sand and bluest of oceans. The promised land: Brighton Beach!

Funny… when I think about that day, when I remember anything from back then, I see it in pictures—photographs. These pictures are never in color, they’re bleached-out black-and-white, sepia-almost; snapshots with deckled edges, the kind you’d find in photo albums. That’s how I remember this day: as pictures I’d actually seen, in an album, when of course I had only imagined I had. Snapshots:

(Gestures, as if laying them out)

Waiting at the bus stop. Packing onto the already-crowded bus. Being jostled. Standing over a girl my age with a droopy eyelid; you poking me, telling me not to stare. Getting off the bus at Brighton. Everybody gets off. And the pilgrimage moves under the boardwalk, toward the beach.

Stewie complains, dragging the chair. I take off my flip-flops. It’s dark and cool down here—like the moon or someplace not like Brooklyn. The sand feels good on my feet. I love the way the dark, moist sand feels between my toes. Like brown sugar. Then… we step out from under the boards and the world opens up again.

The sunlight is a shock to my eyes. And the sound! It’s a roar of waves. Shouts, squeals, laughs, transistor radios blasting. It’s crowded, people everywhere, beach blankets bordering each other, little passages winding around them. Families. Couples kissing. People eating. And Coppertone. The air smells of salt and sweat and coconutty suntan lotion. Coppertone is my madeleine: it takes me back to Brighton Beach.

“Can we sit down? Pleeease, Mom?”

Not yet. You’re determined to find just the right spot.

We’re losing it. Finally—finally!—you’re satisfied with a patch of sand—I don’t know what made this spot acceptable and a dozen others not—but we dump our stuff and set up camp. We eat our tuna sandwiches and drink Hawaiian Punch and dutifully wait the requisite half-hour before we can go swimming without fear of drowning.

You ask the old people next to us to watch our stuff while we run down to the shore.


“You’re coming with us??”

“Yes, of course I’m coming with you!”

We get into the ocean. You really play with us. Your laugh sounds different here than it does at home. Your hair is slicked back. Your face is shiny. You look so young and pretty. More like a girl, a big sister, than a mom. You splash us. I cackle with glee. I shriek. My little heart bursts: I love you so much. I forget all about the hot apartment and dad at the store.

We got out of the water, my teeth chattering, went back to our spot, thanked the old couple who watched our stuff. You rubbed me dry all over with a towel and I wrapped it around me like a cape.

“Can we have ice cream?”

We wanted frozen custard. The soft chocolate-and-vanilla swirly kind, not the Good-Humor-on-a-stick kind that was being peddled by men schlepping bags of steaming dry ice on the beach. But the only place to get frozen custard was at a stand way back near the boardwalk.

“I’ll go,” Stewie said. “Gimme money.”

“I’ll go,” you said. “Stewie, keep an eye on your brother.”

And you walked away, on a mission, winding your way around beach blankets, swallowed up by the mass of humanity. The crazy chaos of a hot summer afternoon.

I watched you go until I couldn’t see you anymore and then Stewie and I played in the sand. We dug for a little while. A castle, a moat. But minutes went by, many minutes. We wanted our frozen custard! We were mad at you! We stomped on our castle. The old couple said reassuring things about you coming back and packed up to go home. Daylight was taking on new colors.

When you’re young—nine, eleven—you don’t wear a watch—what kind of kid thinks about time?—time is a very abstract idea, something for grown-ups to worry about.

I got scared. But I didn’t want to show that I was scared. I didn’t want Stewie to make fun of me for being a cry baby. But he was getting scared, which made me really scared.

I thought about what our lives—my life—would be like without you in it and just me and Stewie and Dad, who worked all the time and never talked to us much when he was home. I thought about the hole you would leave and my head and stomach ached with fear and dread. And longing. For you. And frozen custard.

I realize now, looking back as a man who has lived a pretty long time, that that boy, that not-yet-nine-year-old skinny kid on the beach, me, in that moment… that was the first inkling I ever felt of what I later discovered had a name: Grief.


Two figures appear on the beach in the distance. Like an apparition in Lawrence of Arabia. When they get closer we see that one is a policeman; the other is you.

We run to each other, through the sand, dodging people on beach towels who look at us. You’d lost your way from the frozen custard stand; lost track of where you left us. You are beside yourself. Sweaty, sunburned, crying. You hold us to you, both of us. Squeeze us. I feel something on my bare skin. Something sticky. And then I see what it is: Your hands and forearms are streaked with stripes of melted chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Streaked! Down both arms. The battle scars of a lost mother’s odyssey to return to her children.

Sorry I can’t be with you now, to see you off. I am so so sorry.

Thanks for everything, Mom.


Time to go.

(His finger is poised over the red receiver button on his phone. A beat. He presses it. The screen goes black.)

* * *

“Time To Go”
by Donald Margulies for The 24 Hour Plays (2020)
View the Performance

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