A Villa in Keansburg

A Villa in Keansburg

A Story by Martin Durso

Working class family struggles with a new unfriendly neighbor. Though having limited English skills, Grandma gets her message across.


Before the Garden State Parkway gave speedy access to better known destinations as far south as Cape May, central Jersey shore points like Keansburg welcomed families whose homes baked during the day and whose front stoops provided the only reasonably cool spot to sit at night.  Though never posh, Keansburg offered a nearby beach with sea shells, bay breezes, and water clean enough for a quick dip.   
            In 1946, a year before the Parkway was completed, my family bought a lot in Keansburg near a spot called Ideal Beach.  My grandfather built two little bungalows: one in back to rent, one near the street for the family.   These were simple wooden structures with creaking floors that sat on piers pounded into sand.   When time allowed, everything in a given room would be painted with a single broad brush.  Then, the furniture would be moved into a different room that had been painted a color thought to be complementary: yellow chairs were moved into the green room, the blue table went into the red room, and so on.  On overcast days, the rooms were still bright.  On sunny days, their dazzle might have inspired a young Peter Max, had he visited from Brooklyn.
            In his final years, my grandfather happily spent most of his time at the bungalows, growing a few tomatoes and soaking up the salty air.  Just weeks before he passed in 1958, the house next door was sold to a short thick man in his 40s.  Kendall Jacobs sported a “flat top” crew cut and introduced himself as a confirmed bachelor.  Not long after Gramps’ funeral, Jacobs complained that our back bungalow was partly on his property.   He approached my father first.
            “My survey showed that place is six inches on my side of the line.  There’s no doubt about it.”   
            Dad replied, “Ken, the place was built by my father-in-law and he -- may he rest in peace -- was no architect.  How about we rent a strip of your land and keep things friendly?”
            “I will never agree to that,” Jacobs said.
            “Well, what do you want?”
            “I want you to knock that eyesore down.   Better yet, sell me the lot and I’ll drop both shacks.”  Disappointed that he’d apparently not yet hit a nerve, Jacobs added with a smirk, “I could use the off-street parking.”
            My Dad was a talented musician who had given up big band ambitions to provide a more reliable paycheck for his family.   If he had regrets, they didn’t show.  Then again, neither did his anger.  His reply to Jacobs was both flat and sharp.  “Why you dirty dog.  You know the old man just died.  You see the old lady in black.  Those ‘shacks’ are full of memories of the only vacations those two ever had.”
            Jacobs was unrepentant.  “Memories?  Well, boo hoo.  Your paisans should have remembered to get a survey; that they didn’t just ain’t my problem.” 
            A meeting of the adults followed.  Nobody was going to knock anything down and nobody was going to sell anything to that SOB next door.   My Uncle Angelo came up with a plan.  
            “We can move the bungalow ourselves.  Jack it up.  Put it on rollers.  And push it six inches.”  When Angelo added that he could get a hold of the timber needed to do the job, there were nods all around.   Grandma walked over to the orange chair that her youngest straddled and kissed the big guy on his forehead.  A brief Mona Lisa smile slipped from her mourning veil.
            The next Sunday, hydraulic jacks slowly lifted the bungalow and logs were rolled underneath.  The aunts and uncles then formed a firing-line, armed with digging bars or other sturdy levers.  After counting “1, 2, 3,” my Uncle Sal," the oldest son," screamed, “heave!” 
            The first push barely nudged the little building but the second was far more encouraging.   After a dozen more exhausting shoves, the bungalow sat two feet on our side of the property line.   Dripping like he’d been caught in a storm, Uncle Sal panted, “OK, enough.”  Everybody cheered.  The idea man, Uncle Angelo, beamed like the Barnegat Light.  My Dad drove off and brought back a box of foaming white cardboard containers.  Schlitz may have made Milwaukee famous, but it made Keansburg taste great that fine afternoon.  Even the youngest cousins had a sip.  The uncles enjoyed a bit more.
            Our joy was short-lived.  The next Saturday, Jacobs came by with the building inspector.   Turned out that once you disturbed an existing structure, it was no longer grandfathered under the town code.  The bungalow now needed a cement foundation.  Moreover, with Jacobs’ prompting, the inspector allowed that the move may have caused some damage.   His quick check revealed a few fresh cracks in the walls and one really bouncy spot in the floor.  An appointment was made for a full inspection during the week.  Before leaving, the inspector expressed his regrets. 
            “I heard about how you folks moved this place by hand.  That was pretty amazing. Still, I’m concerned that the building may have been rendered unsafe and therefore uninhabitable.”  
            Uncle Sal broke the news to Grandma.  She understood and went to console Uncle Angelo.
            Jacobs was not taking any chances.  When walking through with the inspector, he’d also noticed the soft spot in the floor.  Now, he figured to help it along.  He waited until we left on Sunday night.    Jacobs knew Grandma often stayed in the front building but he didn’t care about her, and no one else was going to hear him.   He walked into the unlocked back bungalow and went straight to the suspect floorboards.  One good kick would leave a crack that no sympathetic inspector could overlook.
            Jacobs had not been in the service due to some kind of an ear injury. “Just like Sinatra,” he said.   A self-described “military enthusiast,” Jacobs was forever whistling the catchy theme from The Bridge on the River Kwai.  In fictionalizing the tragic Burma Railway, the 1957 film had portrayed unbreakable human spirit as well as amazingly durable hardwood.  Our little bungalow had nice spirit but had been built on soft pine laid atop sand near a great body of salt water.  Durable, it was not.
            While he only meant to leave a crack, Jacobs’ angry kick drove his boot right through the floor and into the soft sand below.  As quickly as he could say “oh s**t,” the buzzing began.  The stings followed a second later.  Jacobs tried to stand, but the bungalow held him like a Chinese finger trap.  The more he squirmed, the tighter it squeezed.  As splinters bit into his thigh, hornets swarmed his lower leg.  Drops of his hot blood only added to the displaced insects’ enthusiasm.
            Jacobs screamed for help.  Grandma was up front, listening to the Philco.  Once she distinguished his sounds from those on the radio, she walked to the back bungalow.  She struggled a bit to climb inside and then saw him.
            “Oh, Mrs. Bruno, thank goodness.  Go get an ambulance.  I’m stuck and I’ve landed in some kind of insect nest.  I’m getting stung something awful.  I’m allergic, so hurry.” 
            Grandma, all five-foot nothing of her, just stared down at the nasty man in the floor who had no business being on our side of the line.  Jacobs then screamed obscenities at the only person in the world who could help him.  “Don’t you understand what I’m saying, goddammit, I’m allergic!  Al-ler-gic!  Hurry, goddammit, hurry!” 
            My grandmother didn’t understand a great deal of English but she knew when someone had taken the Lord’s name in vain.  Who knows exactly what else she understood.  On one hand, “allergic” in Italian is the very similar “allergico.”  On the other hand, “allergy” is a word coined by an Austrian scientist that derives from two Greek words:  “allos” meaning strange and “ergon” meaning activity.  One thing is for certain, Grandma had no use for Jacobs’ strange activity.  She decided to let him fight it out with the little building her husband had left behind.   She returned to the front bungalow and turned up the radio.                 
            Jacobs didn’t yell for long.  The local press reported that he had expired from multiple organ failure caused by an allergic reaction to hundreds of hornet stings; it ran a confusing side bar about sand wasp nests.  After speaking to the building inspector, the coroner, and my Uncle Sal, the police decided Jacobs was just an unlucky trespasser.  There was nothing to investigate.
            A decade later, after Grandma had passed and riots had ravaged Newark just 35 miles away, we sold the Keansburg lot.  Nobody went there anymore.  This meant we finally had to take down the back bungalow which still sat on logs.  The cousins were old enough now to do the grunt work.  The uncles mostly supervised.  They told us to stop horsing around, to be careful about rusty nails, and to watch where we stepped in the sand.

© 2021 Martin Durso

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I thought this story was entertaining and well written. If it isn't true then it's brilliant fiction; if it's true it's very creative non-fiction, either way good stuff.

Thank you for sharing.

Posted 4 Months Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

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Added on March 30, 2021
Last Updated on April 2, 2021