JUNE, JULY AND AUGUST
Grace knows periwinkles. Periwinkles are small, secret, fascinating animals. Each one creates his own shell—they may look exactly alike but each one is as different as one fingerprint is from another. Periwinkles are washed ashore by waves. They cannot fight or change the tide, the wave, the call of the moon. One minute they are fully underwater, deeply surrounded by the endless saltwater sea. Then the wave retreats and they are stranded. Grace imagines them thinking: “Air? What is that dryness?” So they dig. Quickly, while the sand is wet, they look for the wave that left them there. They burrow in. How do they do it? No hands, no arms. No eyes to see. Some ancient plan the periwinkles have had all their lives. Just the right thing for this situation, just in case it happens, they already know what to do.
So one minute the shiny sand is covered with hard, small shells: it moves, undulates, sucking Grace into believing that the sand itself is alive, and then the shells are gone. Before the next wave, the sand is smooth. Then another wave slides in and it all happens again. Until it doesn’t. Grace always thinks how sad that wave must be which comes in to the same shore but has no periwinkles to leave. It carried no life, no living shells; only foam, seaweed, itself.
So those are periwinkles, she thinks to herself. They are no match for her brain, her small hands, her pail and sieve. She gathers handfuls of sand, and places them in the sieve. Gently touching the bottom of the sieve to the water, all the sand runs out, leaving only periwinkles, stacked and smashed one on another, a full load. Pride swells her young chest. She got them. More and more. Grace runs up and down the beach trying to remember where the waves left them, digging here, digging there. She can’t get them all. She just can’t. That’s OK, though. She doesn’t feel like a failure. She got a lot, a ton of them.
For a while it’s fun to watch them in the bucket—an inch of sand, lots of water. All the periwinkles are fooled into thinking they’re still on the beach. Grace wonders what they think when they come to the orange-plastic side of the bucket? She holds one in her hand. Standing still as a rock. Just a pinch of wet sand, saltwater in the cup of her palm—wait. Wait. Look! It’s opening. Closing again. Shhhh. It opens again. A tongue appears. Oh, that is the periwinkle. It looks like a tongue, but smooth. Its whole little body comes slimily out from the shell, touching the sand, the water, her skin. She holds her breath—has she fooled it? Yes! It begins to dig. It is as if her hand holds the whole beach, the whole earth, as if the periwinkle can dig all the way to China. It tickles. She laughs and squirms. It clams up. Grace sighs. Oh well. Back in the bucket with the others.
She lugs the bucket up to the house. This really is the most she ever got. Wow. This is so cool. Grace hoses herself with fresh, cold water. It feels good on her suntanned skin. Funny how good it feels to her, this water fresh from the green hose. She sticks the end in her mouth trying to gulp it down as fast as it is coming out. She can’t keep up. She spits and laughs.
She thinks it over: Funny how good freshwater is for me but it kills the periwinkles. Same with starfish. And hermit crabs. They need saltwater. Like scabs and cuts and chicken pox sores, the saltwater is good for them. Saltwater tastes yuck to me, she says to herself.
Grace carries the bucket upstairs, only sloshing a little water out. “MOM?” she hollers. “Can we make periwinkle soup? I got enough for all of us! MOM!” she keeps hollering. “Is it lunch time?”
Most of the time Ellen goes along with her daughter. Pouring the periwinkles into a colander in the sink, she rinses them. Puts them in a pot. Grace watches the periwinkles sink into the dreaded freshwater. She marvels when Ellen adds salt (even though Grace knows it won’t be the same as real saltwater) and pepper. And her mom always knows just the right amount. Then she turns the stove on. High.
“How long will it take?” Grace always asks this.
Ellen just smiles and walks away. Grace can’t bear to watch them cook. Deep inside she feels like a murderer, like she betrayed them. She knows she gathered them up, they were innocent, and now she’s killing them. Oh brother—she just can’t watch.
Grace wanders off, picking her way through their rented beach house, careful not to sit down because she’s wet and knows she’d leave an embarrassing mark that looks just like her bottom. Like I wet my pants or something, she thinks. She watches her brothers playing with a puzzle. Her dad is snoring on the sofa. Her mom now sits in the shade of the umbrella on the porch, smoking a cigarette and leafing through a magazine. Grace wonders why she sits in the shade, when the sun is ever so soothing.
Sitting on the small wooden bench by the back door, Grace closes her eyes for a minute—she can smell sea breeze, suntan lotion, wet bathing suit. But then the salty sea smell begins to smell like food—like seafood, something real. She makes her way back to the stove. Is it ready? “MOM! Is it ready?”
Ellen comes inside, letting the screen door slam behind her. Without a word, she carefully takes the pot off the stove and pours the broth through a sieve into another pot—then puts that new pot on the stove. No more heat. No more cooking. Now it’s real food—it sits in a pot on the stove, like spaghetti. Grace watches as Ellen rinses the open shells to cool them off, then pours them back into the orange bucket. “Here,” she says to Grace. “Go throw these out.”
Grace walks carefully down the stairs, hardly daring to look. But she does. She always does. Every shell is wide open. Like a pair of wings. And each opening reveals a tiny shriveled bit of flesh. Wow. They were alive. But not now. She tosses the shells into the sandy dune that separates their house from the neighbor’s. There are other shells there too—oyster, cockle, scallop and clam. Bleached white and broken, they catch the sand that blows during storms and during the night breezes. Grains of sand so fine you can hardly see them, but every now and then you realize they are covering your arms. Grace knows that when there’s a ton, a real ton, it will turn into coquina, and then you can use it to build a fort or a wall—somehow in the sand dune they get that magic ingredient that makes them stick together. All the shells broken and mixed up get really strong. She likes to think they’ll get made into a fort someday.
Grace runs back up the stairs, dropping the bucket over the railing. Yum—periwinkle soup. She made it. She found them, and turned the little animals into food. She got food for her family just like pioneers did when they killed a bear in the olden days, in the books she’s read about Daniel Boone. And Kit Carson. I did that, she says to herself. Yum. She loves the salty, seafoody taste of periwinkle soup. It warms her body from the inside out. And it’s funny to have soup in the summer, when it’s hot out.
“Have you ever made a sand castle?” Grace always asks visitors this when they come to the beach to see her mom or dad. Mostly it’s the grown-up women who gather in a circle of low-slung beach chairs with their glasses of iced tea and packs of cigarettes, each one with a special way to keep her matches dry. All the women wear large, glamorous sunglasses, and smear baby oil over their arms and legs. They talk and laugh about grown-up things, and don’t pay much attention to their kids running up and down the beach, splashing in the water and throwing sand. Because the mothers are friends, have been for decades, their kids are supposed to be friends too.
Not Grace. She isn’t interested in such silly antics, such pointless activities. She often wonders if one day she will have friends in a circle on the beach to laugh with and talk to, while her children play nearby. She hopes her children are more like her.
She tries to enter the women’s conversation and interest them in her creation. Grace is serious about her sand castles. She has made quite a study of the best way to do it. She explains her method anytime she shows anyone who will listen. “Let the wet, drippy sand flow from the clump in your hand, like this,” she says, dripping sand onto the molded hill, “building up, up, up.” Grace loves the way the drips form and yet don’t form, both. Usually people stop looking about this time. Yet, she is endlessly fascinated by the process and can create huge sand castles that take hours of painstaking, repeated practice.
Grace knows that getting just the right consistency is important. Too much water and there’s no control at all. Not enough water and the sand just breaks into chunks and doesn’t hold together. Just the right amount and you can convince yourself you’re in control—like God?
Nearby, her older brother Barry uses a gardener’s shovel to dig a giant hole. The hole is getting deeper and deeper, the water seeps in and the sand caves in all around. Still, he digs and digs. Their younger brothers, Teddy and Timmy keep jumping in the hole, making the sand cave in even faster. They all seem to think this is great fun, and are loud and noisy as they play. Grace won’t be pulled into their game, and she hopes they stay away from her castle. When she glances over at her brothers the questions run around in her head: “What is the point of that? Why do they do it? What are they thinking?” She just doesn’t understand her brothers sometimes.
Grace experiments with the sand and the drips, making the formations go here and there. A balcony. A turret. Little pancakes of sand one on top of another. Decreasing in size until she makes a point. “Beautiful,” she sighs. No one is paying the slightest bit of attention to her as she works her way around and around the castle. It is nearly as big as she is. Sand sticks to her shoulder blades and forehead. Her hair juts out in seasalted tufts, and her skin is browned almost to the color of caramel.
Now, if she is very still and waits just long enough, she can see the water drain out of the drips that form the peaks and valleys of her incredible creation. Invisibly, silently, down through the castle the water seeps. It leaves the drip of sand nearly white. Almost dry and almost wet. Both. Grace loves this part where the wetness leaves and the color of the sand changes from slate gray to bright white.
But she also knows it’s rare to see this happen because no one leaves you alone long enough. It’s the strangest thing—when you want people to talk to you they ignore you and yet, when you’re trying to be still and quiet, they demand your attention. With every castle she builds, Grace thinks about the dripping process, and how it must be happening even if she can’t see it. The water drains out. It has to. It has to get back to the ocean.
Summer mornings dawn early when you’re at the beach on the east coast. It’s Grace’s favorite time of day. Slipping out of bed, out of pajamas and into her bathing suit, she can also slip out the door, out of the house and onto the beach. Wide expanses of hard gray sand lay before her. The sun is up, and it hurts her eyes to look out over the water. Like diamonds, the glints of sun seem both brilliant and hard. Each point of light its own sunbeam. Long lines of white waves line up in stripes all along the beach. First thing in the morning the ocean seems so tame and peaceful. There are only a few people out; for one, an old man fishing from the shore. Grace thinks this is so strange, to see people fishing from the shore—buckets and tackle up in the dry sand, the fisherman standing in ankle-deep water with a pole, and all the fish way, way out, too smart to go for the limp, dead shrimp at the end of the line. Pole fishing is something you should do from a boat—Grace knows that the only really good fishing done at the shoreline is net fishing.
She loves it when her dad takes his cast-net and wades out into the water up to his waist. Even if there are big waves, he seems so strong and able to handle it. He can make the whole ocean feel safe when he’s in it. And she is amazed at how he can throw the net out over the swells in a perfect circle. She knows it’s not possible, but it seems, in her memory, that every time he throws it, he gathers in a whole slew of mullet. It’s as if her dad knows how to outwit the fish, not just lure them with a piece of food. She wishes he would fish all day long, catching buckets and buckets of fish, so all the people on the beach who walk and drive slowly by would be thrilled and amazed by his talent. Grace is so proud of her dad when he’s fishing.
But she knows he only goes fishing for mullet around sunset, dusk. When the house is full of whining and fighting and fussing. When mom has had way too much of kids and summer vacation, and everyone is hungry, and Grace can see the “why-do-I-have-to-do-everything” lines show up around her mother’s mouth. That’s when her dad will gather up his net and bucket and all the kids will follow him back down to the beach. Even if they were already bathed and clean and in their pajamas, they’ll quickly change into the cleanest, driest bathing suit hanging on the porch and run after him. Dad on the beach is a miracle, a rare event, not something to be missed, even if you were reading a good book or drawing pictures. And it’s the end-of-the-day beach-time—it’s full of people, it almost feels like a different beach.
If her dad was there in the mornings, he and her mom planned out the days. More often, Grace’s dad was traveling and working, coming to the beach only on weekends. Usually it was just her mom—organizing dinner, preparing breakfast and talking on the phone with a friend about lunch. She would have a cup of coffee and a cigarette in one hand, and the phone crookedly held between her ear and her shoulder, while she moved as far as the cord would allow around the kitchen, setting out bowls, cereal, milk and spoons. If she was the first child to wake up, Grace would get to stir the mushy, half-thawed can of orange juice into the pitcher of water, watching the orange iceberg melt into real Florida orange juice in a matter of minutes. Grace knew how important it was to keep stirring until the whole thing was melted. Disaster struck if you left an unmelted slush clump in the pitcher—mom liked things done right.
After the orange juice was made and her cereal was eaten, Grace was on her own for hours. Her little brothers would be watching Captain Kangaroo and Romper Room on TV and then they’d have to wait until Ellen was ready to go down to the beach. Teddy and Timmy were too young to go outside by themselves. They might drown, or wander off or get hit by a car. Barry would sleep in, being as how he was the oldest and was trying so hard to act like a teenager and be just too cool to play or be a regular boy. Grace knew he went across the lane to the house where the kids from Miami were up visiting their grandmother and the older kids would all sneak cigarettes from their parents and smoke them in the back room. They listened to music on the small portable record player and hardly ever talked to each other. Grace couldn’t for the life of her see how that was fun.
Yes, Grace liked to have the early morning beach all to herself, at least without family. Anonymous. Sometimes there were periwinkles, and sometimes not. Sometimes there were newly-formed pools and dips that were filled with saltwater and starfish and sand fleas as the tide went out. She never quite understood the mystery behind these undulations in the sand, but she knew there was something about the current and water that could do amazing things to the shape of the beach. Sometimes she’d find whole sand-dollars on the beach, bleached white as if they’d been there for ages. Yet, she combed this beach regularly, so she knew they weren’t there when the sun went down the day before. Sand-dollars made her get a little sad because they reminded her of her grandfather. He had died one summer. Before then, he used to pay them a whole dollar for a whole sand-dollar. She can still remember the excitement of having three or four sand-dollars and Grandpa making all kinds of funny faces, as if she was robbing a bank. But he’d pull out his battered brown wallet and take out as many dollars as she had of the round shells in her hand. She was careful not to break or chip them; they seemed like gold to her—gold you could trade in, for real money!
But most times, Grace just liked to walk down the beach. She guesses she was walking north those days. The morning sun was on her right, burning into her shoulder, and it wasn’t even 8:30 yet. The tide was way out, and it looked like she could walk to the ends of the earth. She could walk and walk, past the pier, past the rocks, past the little summer carnival that came only in June, July and August. And still her walk was a straight line endlessly behind her and endlessly in front of her. She liked looking back and seeing her beach house—even if it was just a tiny yellow speck way in the distance. She liked the look of her footprints behind her, the way her toes sort of dug in as she stepped—they looked like the footprints of someone who knew where she was going. Grace liked these times. It always felt like she was home, even if she was really, really far away from the house.
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