Crawfish pie, succulent as any dish at Galatoire’s, beckoned from the counter alongside a platter of baguettes and, glistening under the skylights, a heap of romaine tossed with strawberries. Were cilantro and pine nuts wedged in there too? Either way, the silver platter caught Beth’s crab-like hand scuttling toward the baguettes, and her eyes as well, looking to elude her mother’s gaze. “I’m twenty-one years old, Mom, and I don’t care if I’m not emaciated like you,” she might have said.
But she didn’t. In this polite envelope of a crowd, gathered together at Uncle Adrian’s beach house, a rejoinder to her mother’s silences would be unthinkable. Every June they visited. As usual, her family had traveled from Chattanooga, though this time she’d driven alone after work, first with the radio blaring, then As You Like It on CD. While for her the trip to the Gulf Coast took seven hours, her cousins, who lived in New Orleans, except during and after Katrina, could make it in four.
“Okay, everybody!” bellowed a pious great-aunt.
Wooden fans, just like the ones at Galatoire’s, cast musical shadows on the ceiling as Uncle Adrian murmured a prayer like he was talking to a patient. Beth’s own religion, until Spencer dumped her five weeks ago (plus two hours and six minutes), had, for the last year, been Spencer, who was like a worldly philosopher in that Raphael painting, The School of Athens. But then he charmed everyone: anthropology professors, grad students in economics, fraternity pledges, and the cafeteria workers from El Salvador, who giggled, then more seriously confided in him about their children back home. What with his student body presidency, and recent acceptances to med school, perhaps they believed he knew things. Even her own family was dazzled.
So much so, in fact, that they ascribed to her passions she wasn’t sure she still had. “She’s so upset—eating like a horse,” Beth had heard Mom hissing at Aunt Charlotte through the thin peach walls as she lay in bed that morning. To eavesdrop more comfortably, she disentangled her right leg from the sheets.
“That family obviously has gobs of money,” Aunt Charlotte said, then yawned, then said excuse me. “He’s probably spoiled, having attended boarding school. But it would be nice to have a wedding to look forward to.”
What they didn’t know was that he’d called early that morning, left a message. He missed her; could she please call back? Despite, or perhaps because of, her stomach twinging when his number graced her screen, she wasn’t sure.
After splashing water on her face, she replayed the message, listening again as, brimming with renewed affection, he asked what she was doing. Rather absurdly, she glanced in the mirror at her wet curls framing her face and her good posture, content to be alone without anyone assessing her. And yet Spencer’s voice, with its familiar rumble, vital as an ocean wave, crashed into her brain before receding. It was the tone he’d used when he marveled once that she wasn’t spoiled or jaded, that she didn’t “live her emotions through money.” Like his family, he added. Was he being unfair? When she’d visited his parents at that beach in Massachusetts, what she’d noticed was that he took their second home, decorated with nautical themes though none of them sailed, as a given, and the kids who worked on the island—at the homey grocery and the lobster shack—as slightly invisible.
Or that’s how she sifted her impressions as she returned to bed, while Mom and Aunt Charlotte, their voices still audible, hunted visors to wear on their beach walk. After they eased the door shut, Beth lay trembling, skittish in the sheets, which were pleasantly yellow, chilled by the air-conditioning, and not designed for skittishness at all. But especially since the breakup, nervousness had been her proclivity. Still, she felt refreshed by her change in venue, the sheets, a gull outside—and less inclined to dwell on Spencer than usual. What a pleasure, letting her thoughts meander! In fact, beguiled by holiday voices wafting through the screen, she was jolted by one idea in particular: Perhaps she’d abandon the Renaissance and instead write her senior thesis on Rothko, whose last phase of paintings resembled, for her, pillows on beds. And hadn’t she read somewhere that he was a nervous man?
Ruminating that way, she’d managed to avoid calling Spencer all day. Without much fuss, she’d donned her navy Speedo and gone outside. But several hours of edging her chair along the points of a half circle to shade her face and arms beneath the umbrella left her feeling desiccated by the heat. Droplets appeared on her legs and arms; her prickly, open-ended sensibility returned. By dinnertime she was wobbly, sunburned on her forearms, and susceptible to the bread tray.
After grace a ping-pong game of conversations bounced around the family room. Pretending not to swoon over the crawfish, she balanced her plate on her thighs and savored every bite. Yet other things captivated her too. Beyond the diners’ heads a turquoise sea, a riot of blues and greens, all vied with the fading light. Through a sliding glass door, the colors entered the room like marauders, to roam over the freshly washed faces, radiating good health and adroit manners, which, in turn, provided a bulwark against any hue that was vulgar or, God forbid, overwrought.
While not acknowledging the implicit dichotomy, Uncle Adrian conversed eloquently about the view. With concern in his voice, he explained—and everyone listened to his calm, scientific voice—that this year the town had imported sand because the beach was eroding. In his understated way he listed several causes—rising sea levels, construction, storm damage, longshore drift. Although rendered gently, his list unsettled: So the softest, whitest sand that whispered in the breeze, threw a glow around strollers at dusk, and mingled with the faded hues of T-shirts, sundresses—in sky blue, pink, or lime, all swirling upward in a haze—was now potentially underwater. Or fake. Or gone. That glow constituted one of her earliest memories.
Full of crawfish, she went to the kitchen to fetch water, winding around Uncle Jim, a law professor, and three others who were asking him questions: something about his latest book, something about politics and literature. “It’s about Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall, among others, but I can’t decide whether to include Eliot, because even though he was a great poet, he was a bigot,” Uncle Jim mused. From a sink filled with murky water, he pulled a dish studded with iridescent bubbles and placed it in the dishwasher. Standing beside him, though not to wash dishes, his son—her cousin Zack—was seeking funds, which Jim disapproved of. Behind his glasses Jim’s pupils loomed like truck tires, ready to transport him down the road or perhaps back to his computer. Who knew? Beth was merely a pilgrim there, offering her red plastic cup to the refrigerator. With the press of a button, water surged, thus delighting her, until she elicited a contemptuous glance from Uncle Jim, an admiring one from Zack. Perhaps she was interrupting their dialogue? Uneasily, she surveyed Uncle Jim’s beard, agreeing with him about consumerism, while perusing her cousin’s younger, handsomer face, implicitly acknowledging that she hated to forego her plastic cup of ice and all that went with it.
Luckily four-year-old Stevie, the youngest cousin, ushered her back to the family room and thrust his finger toward the gauzy white orb outside: “MOON!” he exclaimed, as if its import was self-evident and all else was minutiae.
Upon smiling tentatively, Beth looked around. Various grown-ups’ arms moved in conversation—like puppeteers’, in her view—ten feet away. If she missed a second helping here, she could walk to Dunkin’ Donuts later and buy two chocolate glazed plus one with sprinkles. With that in mind, she approached the counter to add a heap of crawfish to her plate. But she accidentally dropped the spoon, which clattered onto the floor, making a noisy rhythm, like a bar of sixteenth notes, as her great-aunt confided loudly to a nephew that she, Aunt Charlotte, never should’ve majored in art history. Because all she could do in 1964 was teach or be a secretary. Thus the conversation in the room coalesced into symphonic chatter about applying to college. For the moment, Beth forgot her crawfish.
“When Dad took me on my college tour, it was to colleges he wished HE had attended,” she said, wiping up the crawfish that had splattered onto the floor. She spoke raucously, as she had at Spencer’s parties. Her mother’s face riveted toward her dad’s; her dad put his legs together, cadet-style, even though he’d never been in the military.
It was her new voice, the one Spencer supposedly adored, though she had to admit, his adoration vacillated. Still, at several points he’d marveled that she was a Renaissance woman, she reminded herself, pleased to savor any compliment, even one heard months ago. Plus it emboldened her. “At one college we visited, the tour guide said, ‘I’m sure you’ve heard this area is dangerous, but actually there’ve been only seven murders this year.’ And I was thinking, mmmm, only seven? Probably the sort of people Dad would defend in court.”
“It’s hard for the generations to understand each other,” said an older cousin given to platitudes, smoothing it over. “Anyone up for the Sandpiper Mall tomorrow?”
“I already took Mom shopping last week,” Beth responded, “because she tends to dress like a fifth grader or a government inspector.”
“But, honey, if you feel free to say that, she’s pretty genial,” interjected another cousin, Julia, who was almost middle-aged but rarely said anything. Muffled stories about her had multiplied over the years, then become tinged with a mysterious gloom. Maybe because she was single? With an unmarried relative, one couldn’t deflect from one-half of a couple to the other, thereby avoiding frankness. And tonight Julia wasn’t making it easier.
For example, when Aunt Charlotte’s new husband, who had been baiting Julia in an obstreperous style heretofore unknown to this gathering, wadded several plastic bags around two water bottles and, with a quick thrust, tossed them in the trash, Julia said, quite frankly indeed, “Don’t dump those there! I’ll take them to the recycle.” With her sleeveless top cut wide in the back, everyone could see her shoulder muscles tense up as she bent over.
“That’s for people who don’t have anything real to worry about,” Aunt Charlotte’s new husband said, his eyes keen for a fight, his wrinkles heavy with an ancient grudge.
“You don’t consider plastic rafts forming in the ocean to be real?”
“Look outside—do you see any plastic rafts?”
“Sometimes the materials break down into bits and they’re invisible,” Julia said, springing upright. “So they could be ubiquitous and we wouldn’t know. And, they aren’t biodegradable.” Aunt Charlotte’s husband didn’t hear a word. But the more Julia fumed, the shinier his eyes became. Plus his breath smelled like scotch.
Just to confirm she was with the family she once knew, Beth glanced at her cousin Zack and met a remote, blank expression, unlike the smile he’d worn in a photo of them together at sixteen when he had long hair. Anxiously, he glanced at his girlfriend, whose haircut was cute and orderly, like her definitive opinions. For a moment, closing her eyes, Beth saw the interminable line of cars she’d followed to get here, sparkling in the late afternoon sunlight after she’d passed the Florida line. Locked together, waiting for red lights to turn green, everyone looked faithful above all to a twinkle dancing across their windshields, the juice cups doled out at the Welcome Center, and the promise of what lay ahead. Perhaps out on the beach, in addition to heading for Dunkin’ Donuts, she’d phone Spencer after all?
After dinner, heading straight into a peacock-blue ether, sinking her feet into a silky layer of sand, she felt, paradoxically, as if she were levitating. But Uncle Adrian’s concerns, Julia’s indignation, hovered. Was the beach’s magic simply a ruse? The aforementioned cars, trucks, and SUVs, roaring on the street behind a jagged line of sherbet-colored condos, made her wonder. And yet on the front balcony, making her way downstairs, she’d found little Stevie extolling the congestion. From the safety of his mother’s arms, he identified each car and SUV, thus offering a fresh perspective: Maybe ruses were fun!
On the beach, aside from the shadowy figures of occasional passersby, she was alone. Where a few sandpipers had dallied earlier, she now spotted a plastic bottle of Man Tan cavorting with the foam and ran toward it, ludicrously perhaps, because what difference could it make to pursue one piece of trash? At least in the gloaming, no one would notice her five extra pounds; she could run and splash as she pleased. But the closer she got, the more elusive it was. A sheet of water slid into the bottle, befriended it, then sent it frolicking, bobbing, and finally drifting so that its capture took some maneuvering. Once she clasped the bottle in her hands, moreover, and wrung the drenched sleeve of her cardigan, laden with salt water, she felt bereft. A vast, lonely space engulfed her.
Until, that is, a voice in the semi-darkness, a man standing a few feet away, said, “This beach is transformed.” As tepid water dribbled down her calves, she debated what to say. If ordinarily she’d be inclined to scoot when a strange man spoke, this one was more elderly than vexing. In his linen blazer, he looked merely out of place. And his accent leapt mellifluously into her ears. He’d emerged from his daughter-in-law’s house, he explained, pressing his “o” and “u” together, as if they’d been potpourri-crushed in a drawer, because he was stunned.
“In 1941, last time I was here—with Mothuh and Fathuh—none of these condos were here.” He jutted his patrician face toward their facades.
“Oh, well, I guess not—”
“No golf courses were here, no arcades, malls, or hideous homes.” He glared, as if doing so might strip them away. “Up there,” he gestured, “were dunes, oats, and—all over the shore, were mollusk shells.” He said “mollusk” as if he had all night to finish the first syllable. “The sand replenished itself. Back then this was a fishing village.”
“Now they import sand to lure tourists hither.” He widened his eyes. “No doubt the city council wants to conceal the erosion and keep the entertainment going.”
“Entertainment?” she asked, just to elicit more words, more of his accent.
“Sure. The scene before you is utterly contrived.” His face sagged. “It’s similar to Charleston. People come to escape whatever they’ve inflicted on their own landscapes. After a hurricane they stay away for a bit, but they always return. Developers build more hotels; the erosion worsens; industrial waste travels downriver. Then way out there,” he pointed at the gulf with an ancient, shaking finger, “is the dead zone, thanks to all the nitrogen-based fertilizer trickling down the Mississippi from Midwestern farms.”
He shook his head bitterly, as if bitterness knew to gather around him like mosquitoes. “At least I saw snowy egrets today.” She twisted her lips, unsure if she could tell a snowy egret from other herons. “It’s as if people believe in easy places in which to dump their sins and assume things will come out even in the end,” he said, almost in an accusing tone. She wasn’t sure what that tone reminded her of. Then she remembered Spencer’s uncle saying something equally accusatory about “the South” when he’d met her, in a very different accent.
“I’m not ‘the South’!” she’d howled at Spencer later, thus possibly betraying her great-grandmother, who loved her hometown, while wanting to change it too. In fact, Mimi was nothing like Professor Taylor said Southerners were in “US History, 1930–74,” though some folks were that and more. As a young newlywed during the Depression, Mimi served strangers who requested them free home-cooked meals on her back porch. So why didn’t the professor add that little wrinkle about people like her, or better yet, Myles Horton, who worked with MLK and Rosa Parks at his Highlander Folk School in Tennessee?
“I didn’t say you were; you’re being oversensitive,” Spencer had said, while she struggled with her tangled thoughts. She didn’t want to defend the indefensible, but she didn’t want to betray Mimi, who was wonderful.
“I’m just Beth!” she’d continued, hurling her name into the sky, trying to make it all simple, and nuance-free, like Spencer’s uncle had. But as part of his birthright, he seemed to assume he had a scapegoat to blame. “I’m an individual, not a stereotype. In fact, no one I know is like that!” she finally sputtered. Which wasn’t quite true either. Everyone everywhere knew someone who was a bully about something. But the discussion faltered, and not long afterward Spencer had dumped her to court a sophomore from Wyoming. Even across the campus Starbucks, the girl exuded serenity, her eyes placid as bogs, her arms fluid as a dancer’s. How Beth had wished she’d been more blasé!
Thankfully, chatting on the beach with the old man, she was far away from campus melodramas. Gratefully she inhaled a whiff of brine. Back and forth she looked from the condos to a ruffle of water, trying to purloin the old man’s imagery. However, erasing a line of buildings, the forever golf course across the street, glittering restaurants in the distance, and traffic strained her wits. Plus in the moonlight she saw him glowering, which partly made her recoil. Surely things weren’t so bad? Spencer, no doubt, would indulge the old man’s disgust, then call it sweet before whispering that it was futile. She’d always liked Spencer’s cheerfulness about humanity, even if the underpinnings of that cheer seemed related to his unfamiliarity with minimum-wage jobs.
But what was her view? Down at her toes she glanced, at her pink polish, a little chipped now that her suitemates weren’t monitoring her from head to toe. Nor was her work friend Brenda around, urging her to be “empowered.” “Walking on earth no longer feels like a simple premise,” she said in a tone that sounded overly wistful, even to her own self-sympathetic ears.
“Not to be pedantic, but it never is,” the old man said. “Just begin here, with this sand,” he said, bending down to scoop up a handful, his knees bony against the fabric of his trousers, “it’s quartz crystal. If it’s local it comes from the Appalachians by way of the Apalachicola River. The process goes back to the end of the last Ice Age. Do students still study that?”
Maybe because he was so old he could take pleasure in small things, Beth surmised. In Geology—also known as Rocks for Jocks—she’d learned about igneous rocks weathering, traveling, and breaking down into sedimentary rocks and minerals, and various complexities that ensued from there. But, oddly, the process rang for her most clearly in the old man’s cadences—and the interstices between them.
“Sure, but I’m an Art History major,” she said, suddenly conscious of an expanse simmering around her, far greater than she’d understood, mocking the limits of her comprehension.
Not that she hadn’t been apprised of her limitations before. Her lab partner in Geology had exhorted her to reduce whatever phenomena they observed to physical processes, that’s all. Quit seeing them aglow, he’d said; quit being jejune. She hadn’t dared show him her favorite Rothko painting, called Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, to whose arabesques and unearthly swirls he’d have been completely indifferent.
But roused by hints of those features in the darkening, soft air, she considered asking the old man if he’d seen the painting. Not yet though: He was talking about the gulf’s history, about Native American shell mounds. “Apparently some people down on the peninsula dug around in them looking for gold,” he added with contempt. “They even used some shells to build roads. Then some fisherman discovered oil out in the gulf.” He gestured toward the west. “So the big petrochemical companies moved into Louisiana.”
Trying to think of a reply, she waded into the gulf, which apparently he took as a hint. “Forgive me for running on,” he said, stepping back as she fretted he would fall. But he didn’t. He was a man with archaic manners, capable of reading and honoring subtle intimations: She found those traits charming and evocative of the Slow Swirl, which evoked air and matter trembling, like she trembled. Perhaps her apprehensive, spiky feeling—her nervousness, a cousin of subtlety, offered a way to interpret the world that complemented lab protocols?
“Don’t be so serious!” Spencer had said to her once. But he navigated life so easily in his worn knit shirts and khakis. He wasn’t burdened by anything so ethereal as an intimation or a swirl. Besides, his solution—to put his hand on her knee and flip the question from consciousness altogether—often worked. As did following the standard runes—acceptance letters, headlines, the market, like he did. But then everyone attended to such runes, even those, like her history professor, who said they didn’t. Still, which cosmology was thereby invalidated—Spencer’s or the professor’s—she couldn’t tell.
Dimly she saw a woman in a bright sundress, presumably the old man’s daughter-in-law, show up to fetch him. “Lovely talking to you,” he said. Unless she called Spencer, her only company now would be Stevie’s moon, which reminded her of the time she and her lab partner had gone to dinner. Appearing at her door in a cheap suit made of fabric her suitemates ridiculed, oblivious to her ambivalence, he’d described the moon’s formation as a bombardment. Then patiently, kindly, he’d informed her, as the evening wore on, that human beings are essentially made of stardust. Bits of carbon, iron, hydrogen, she couldn’t recall what else. As if his suit didn’t matter. (Her suitemates later assured her that it did.) At the time she hadn’t really listened; she was missing Spencer, and besides, she had more pressing things to consider.
Like her senior thesis. Frustrated, he’d told her that paintings—the sensual life in general—pertained only to this dimension; and she might not be radiant in a yellow sundress in the others. In sum, he fretted, she was way too anthropocentric.
And indeed her concerns, her peregrinations, tended in that direction. Pressed into the sand a few feet away, for example, a horseshoe crab shell reminded her of nothing more than her relatives’ faces, their wrinkles, their good manners, and thus her rudeness that evening. Did she really want to be like Aunt Charlotte’s husband? Whatever lay beneath her family’s decorum—seriousness, restraint, or more decorum—might well be richer than she’d fathomed before. Not to mention, as with horseshoe crabs, increasingly rare.
His family, Spencer had assured her, was—in contrast—more “open.” During her visit with them, she’d spent late afternoons on their wide Nantucket balcony, near a tall hedge separating their property from the next. As they squinted shrewdly in the northern light, batting P/E ratios around, she’d watched and listened. But because she knew nothing about P/E ratios, her nervousness surfaced: something she couldn’t explain, something, she was learning, people didn’t want her to explain. Consequentially, her thoughts began hurtling through the air, which, in turn, she reminded herself, vibrated far beyond her measly inner life to exchange innumerable particles with the ocean, an azure sliver of which enchanted her as stock chatter flew.
“My family taught me how to be productive,” Spencer said, slipping into a pair of flip-flops before he drove her to the island airport. Even his flip-flops were grand, setting off the illuminated hair on his calves, as his right foot carelessly pressed the accelerator and they whizzed past pricey real estate everywhere. And indeed, as the plane lifted her above the clouds, his golden world sparkled. But without nuance, the gold, she decided now, was ossified, even rococo, not unlike the sand on the Gulf Coast, wherever it was coming from.
But alas, the old man was no longer around to discuss the sand or the Gulf Coast. A little disoriented, she twirled around, almost believing a shell mound or some other relic might appear. Instead, the condos stared her down. Which in turn sent her gazing back at the water, where the reflected moon was shimmering, and a dead zone lurked beyond the horizon. When Rothko abandoned mythology in favor of blocks of color, which he said weren’t mere blocks of color, was he glancing that way too? Maybe he was dislocated, losing his old enchantments; but maybe he was elated too. She especially liked the painting that was orange, pink, and brown, like nervousness translated into color. Or reality seen anew. And yet given high rates of productivity, if the gulf turned faux, if she turned faux, thus avoiding “seriousness,” would such concerns, would everyone’s concerns, with the most sublime reference point of all deteriorating, simply vanish? Beside her feet, a dark expanse of water swayed and glittered, not answering.
In any case, how dispiriting to imagine: a plastic sea, she mused, as froth dampened her toes. If she called Spencer about it, he’d just quote some politician his family knew. Far preferable to think of orange, pink, and brown—the colors of Dunkin’ Donuts—and of rolling her tongue around colorful sprinkles, flecks of dough, before swallowing in bliss. Maybe she’d pick out an extra one for Julia? And Stevie? With her wet toes collecting sand, she made her way in the dark to the neon sign.
Presently an intermittent lawyer, Tricia Warren lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she tries to stay out of her car. Her short stories have appeared in Umbrella Factory Magazine, SNReview and The Tower Journal.