likethis

 

 

Miss Betty sighed deeply as she navigated her rusty pickup through the stone gates of the mansion. It’s a good thing Alvin wasn’t sitting next to her today, because when his wife sighed like that he liked to watch her rich brown breasts expand out of the neckline of her cotton wash dress and shine like two plump garden aubergines. Then he would reach over and brush her skin with the back of his hand, or perhaps he would grab a breast and squeeze.   “Too bad we gots to work today,” he’d say, sparkle in his eyes.

More often that not she’d push him away, concentrating on the cleaning that would need to be done at the rich folks’ summer place, making a mental note of the beds to be changed and the places where she would need to broom out the fine dusting of Bahamian beach sand that might have settled under the bamboo couches and in the corners of the kitchen.

But Alvin wasn’t here today to pester her and cause a ruckus in her determination—Alvin was off in Governors Harbour selling yesterday’s catch to the Roadway Restaurant, a nice mess of grouper, carefully cleaned and iced so they’d be ready for tourist lunches of fried fish with macaroni and cheese on the side. And to tell the truth, Miss Betty didn’t miss him: he was always wanting to do mischief on the big bed or sneak a quick grope in the kitchen pantry and then she’d forget what she was doing Alvin would never get all the windows washed and the light bulbs replaced.

Good to be working alone today, she said to herself, but all the same she felt a little nervous as she pushed open the back door of the silent house. “Peoples just shouldn’t be so rich,” she always thought when she entered the gleaming kitchen with its copper-bottomed pans hanging from the ceiling. Those pans always took her breath away, so different from her two own black iron skillets tucked safely away under the kitchen sink. “Skillets ain’t for decoration. They be for fry-ups and the greasier they is the more they is ready to use,” her mama would say, referring to that same cookware which was now Miss Betty’s most prized possession. “I got plenty of things for my own lifetime, and I ain’t got hardly nothing.”

Miss Betty didn’t expect the two young people to be awake when she arrived: she usually had a good three hours to clean before a dark tousled head appeared and a thick voice wondered if there was coffee and a croissant. Alvin would have taken bets on whether it would be the brother or the sister who straggled down from the upstairs bedrooms—Alvin liked to bet on almost anything, she mused: who would be driving the water truck or whether Barbie’s All You Can Eat would have pineapple duff, or whether it would rain before next Friday. Miss Betty didn’t exactly approve of Alvin’s betting, and she didn’t approve of leaving twenty-year-old twins alone in a winter home in the Bahamas, and she certainly didn’t approve of people who didn’t start their days until almost lunchtime, expecting her to clean up the leftover party from the night before—liquor bottles, pizza crusts, underwear draped over the furniture, broken glass.

She knew enough not to complain—once she had said something to the mother of the twins, staying at the cottage on a rare visit to see her children. “They get crazy sometimes,” the woman had said. “But they’re good kids—they’re just having fun on their vacation. If you can’t do the job….” And her voice had trailed off in an implied consequence.

So Betty kept her thoughts to herself most of the time and just concentrated on her own affairs, which were enough of a burden without adding anyone else’s troubles to her own collection of woes. She needed the job, which was really pretty easy most of the time when the owners we back home in New York someplace, and she knew enough not to let a good thing go when she had it.

Opening the kitchen scullery door, she took out the mop and cleaning bucket, not really thinking about the twins and the mess would find when she went into the living room and out onto the patio. So deep was Miss Betty in her own thoughts that she stumbled and fell heavily against the wall when she tripped over the bloody arm of the body stretched lifelessly across the pink ceramic tiles of the kitchen floor.

Writing Prompt: Patricia Ann McNair

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stephenshore-gingershorecausewayinn1977

Water terrifies her, the beguiling blue of it, the cool caress to her ankles her as she walks down the shore’s edge. Lies, the sea is filled with lies—she knows this as surely as she can see the shadow in the summer moon. Still there, after all these years, is this vague outline: a woman against a sharp sky, faceless and moving, endlessly walking into the waves.

 

“Come back,” she had called in her high, childish voice, pleading against the wind.  “Please, Mama.  I didn’t mean it. Please come back.”  But the distant figure doesn’t turn, perhaps doesn’t  even hear her cry as it walks, forever moving into the ocean until it becomes one with the black swells rising up to meet the sky.

 

The last words of the child: “I hate you. Hate you. Hate you!” pound ceaseless in the ear and are unforgiven, cannot not be taken back by love or guilt.  These are words which kill hope in a fragile heart wanting only comfort, only a daughter’s love.

 

They are her secret still.

 

Word prompt: Patricia Ann McNair

bluecello

 

The child saw it first.

 

“Look, Momma,” she cried.  “A present! Someone left me a present because tomorrow is my birthday!”  The toddler fairly danced her way over to the corner of the subway platform beside the escalator, chubby arms churning to speed her along.  “Can I open it now?”

 

“Honey, no!  Don’t touch!  Stay back!” and the mother pulled at her daughter’s pink snowsuit.  “Never, never touch things when you don’t know what they are!  They could hurt you!”

 

The small child burst into tears of frustration and the woman gathered her up in her arms and ran for the escalator, leaving  a small white box  in the shadows.

 

Another woman, a large and lumpy bundle in a grey coat, stopped to stare.  “What do you suppose it is? “ she asked her companion, the hatchet-faced man.  “It’s wrapped so pretty, with that green ribbon and all.”

 

“Leave it,” said her companion.

“But maybe there’s a name on it, or a card or something.  Somebody will be missing it, and perhaps we can find who it is.”

 

“Just leave it, I say. Let’s find lunch!”  And arm in arm, the two hurried to the escalator.

 

The young boy with the blue cello case got closer than anyone else had done.  He edged up next to the wall, and pushed the package with the toe of his athletic shoe.  Obviously the box wasn’t heavy and  it didn’t explode, so he nudged it again.  Still nothing.  He looked longingly at the package gleaming white and green in the shadows.  Then he looked over his shoulder to see who might be watching and finally  noticed the surveillance camera mounted high on the tile wall.

 

A casual shrug and he moved away, dragging the cello behind him as a man in a suit detached himself from the shadows and moved closer to the package.  The man knelt down to look at the little box all wrapped in white with a shiny green bow, and hummed a little under his breath.  He bent his head to one side and then the other, carefully examining the object.  After a few seconds he stood up as if he had heard some warning whisper, brushed at his pants leg and hastily scuttled to the escalator, leaving the package nestled brightly against the dank wall of  the subway station in Woodley Park.

 

Writing prompt from Patricia Ann McNair

top-of-the-lake

 

 

 

 

That’s the pappy, Billy, settin’ in the middle of the picture.  And that’s Lem, on the far left, with the tattoos on his arms.  The rest well, I cain’t keep ‘em straight, never could.  They was all in school with me down in Spencer but alls I remember is Lem, on account of he was the oldest and got put back a couple of years so he was pretty near in the same grade as the rest of them.

 

All four of them boys weren’t too far apart anyways.  My Ma used to say that Sophie, that’s the mother, just kept popping out the boys like there weren’t no tomorrow.  “Ruttin’ like rabbits” is how she described it.

 

I think Sophie lost a couple of babies too, so it’s no wonder she just up and died like she done.  All tired out, she was, just used up and throwed away.  Billy had his boys though, and that’s all he wanted.  He could always find a woman if’n he needed one, just go down to Spencer and there was always some woman who’d give him a quick one.  Billy, he never went hurtin’ for a woman.

 

Them boys took after their pappy, I guess, or at least they wanted to, and they’d get together and go down to Spencer and get all butter-mouthed with the women, but I never heard tell that any of them had much luck.  They’d get all drunk on Sam Titus’s bald-faced whiskey and they’d rip and tear all over town til they passed out or went home, whichever come first.

 

Billy was pretty good at keepin’ his boys in line.  They did some drugs and had a still somewheres up behind the cabin,  but we all done that stuff, and nobody got in much trouble over it.  I heard tell the place was kept pretty good up there, too, being as how they was five men living there and all they done was a little farming and raising some pigs.

But then they didn’t live no different than any of us: we was all depending on what’s called The Draw around here. That’s our monthly welfare check, and what with almost half of us’ns without jobs, we live on that and our food stamps.  Billy’s boys is the same, ain’t no jobs for anybody since the mines shut down.

 

I heard tell that two of them boys got married, finally.  It’s a way to make more money from the government.  You get ‘lowance for each kid and if you can convince somebody that the kid is got some kinda brain problem you  get even more money, until they’s old enough to collect for theyselves.  It’s the way we live down here—ain’t no crops or jobs and so you takes it any way you can get it.

 

Anyways, that Billy is real sick now they say, and all them boys is up there at his cabin to say good bye.   I reckon you can expect ‘em down here in Spencer after they bury him, and so all hell will break loose and you’d better be ready to keep the kids and women inside for a day or two.

 

Hard to tell what them boys of Billy’s is gonna do when their pappy ain’t around to kick ass.

 

Writing prompt: Patricia Ann McNair

malick-sidibc3a9-39 (1)

 

 

“I don’ know what to do wid dat chile, I surely do not,”  Miss Betty said, lowering her considerable body into my rattan armchair. “I surely would ‘preciate an ice tea,  Miss Judith.  It be hot here, even for May.”

 

Obediently, I pulled a glass from the cupboard over the kitchen sink and poured some tea.  “Three cubes, or it gets like animal pee,” she reminded me, and continued, “She only eleven and she got breasts like a growed woman, and her period done been coming. I be her grandmother, but I didn’t sign up for this.  Pretty soon, I have another mout to feed, I betcha, and I can’t even feed the ones in my house now.”

 

I handed Miss Betty her tea.  “She doesn’t have to get pregnant, you know,” I said. “Haven’t you told her about how these things happen? “

 

“Course she knows, Miss Judith. All them kids do.” She replied, distainfully—and avoiding an answer to my question of who gave Shawnda information on motherhood and its causes.  “But she just sees all her friends doing it, and playing dress-up with them cute little babies, and she thinks it would be fun to have one of them all her own.”

 

“Sorta like getting a new puppy, isn’t it?”

 

“Zactly, Miss Judith.” Shawnda don’t see no difference between a new baby and a pet rabbit, and most of her friends don’t, neither. They likes to play house wid them little kids, and they don’t think about who’s gonna feed them  when they grows out of mommy’s milk.”

 

“Can’t you take her to the Free Clinic and get her on birth control pills,” I asked.

 

Betty looked shocked.  “The Bahamian government don’t give away them pills, you know. Bahamians is a righteous people, and the government isn’t going to keep you out of trouble.  You gots to do that yourownself, wid the help of Jesus.  And here’s the problem: when you is eleven, you is too young to understand Jesus. So’s these young girls, they gets their period before they got Jesus, and next ting you know is, Blam! They gots babies.”

 

Betty settled back in the chair and rested the bottom of the chilled glass against her considerable brown cleavage. “Oooh, dat feels so good.  It’s gonna be a long summer, even for Eleuthera.”

 

“Does Shawnda have a boyfriend now?” I asked, unwilling to be distracted from the topic at hand.

 

“I tink so, but you know kids.  They don’t tell grandparents nothing.  I think she sneaks out at night, though, even when I lock the doors.  And she and that Rodney, they do like to dance.  You know Rodney?  His ma is that gal what is deaf who goes to my church, and his daddy drives the water truck?  They don’t live together, though. His daddy be married to a woman over in Rock Sound and they got a bunch a kids.  Rodney, he’s a nice boy, polite and everything, but he ain’t old enough to support no kid, even if he knows to.”

 

“Well, Miss Betty, I’d guess you’d better give Miss Shawnda a box full of condoms, then, and hope she uses them.”

 

“Ifn I do that, she’ll think I means for her to have sex and she and Rodney will be going at it like rabbits in the bush.   I tink not!”

 

Betty hoisted herself out of my easy chair.  “Miss Judith,” she said.  “If you is going to give me such foolish advice, when I got this big problem, I will just have to come back later after you come to your senses. Thank you for the tea.”

 

She slammed the screen door behind her and I carried her empty glass to the sink.

 

Writing prompt: Patricia Ann McNair

03_sfmoma_winogrand_losangeles1964

 

When I was a little girl, my daddy worked in a magical place as the  manager of an appliance store filled with gleaming, shiny machines which did all sorts of things: they grated, ironed, washed clothes, toasted bread, played music—tasks which had done by hand before could now be automated, made easier, and performed in far less time than people ever dreamed possible.

 

The store was a favorite attraction for everybody in our little Ohio town (where not much else was happening anyway).  We were all poor—there were coal mines and some big potteries and a steel plant, but not many good paying jobs for anybody and so it was my daddy’s appliance store where people came to window shop.

 

Well, actually, it wasn’t window shopping.  Nobody had money so people weren’t shopping, because they couldn’t afford to buy: they were window-drooling, as daddy used to say. ‘Most of these folks can’t afford to stew a dishrag,”  he’d grumble after several days went by without a single sale.

 

But there were lots of lookers, and the biggest attraction was the world’s newest and showiest invention—the television set.  Few people could afford to have a set in their living room, so any TV watching anybody did was at the display window of daddy’s store.  There was always a small crowd of people on the sidewalk in front of the display windows, and Daddy kept the television sets on all day, so people could watch the latest news, game shows, and soap operas.

 

 

But the sets were not on at night: Daddy always unplugged everything when the store closed.  “You never know,” he would say, “when there will be a storm and lightening will blow up everything.” Each evening he would insist that the employees carefully check all the electrical outlets and unplug all the cords.  In morning they would reverse the process, along with dusting and polishing each appliance and and carefully waxing the television sets in their ponderous, dark  wood cabinets.

 

The exception to this rule was the June night in 1953 when Elizabeth was crowned Queen of England.  For war-weary Americans, the the day meant the return of a world of peace and stability and in rural midwestern USA, we rejoiced along with the rest of the free world.  Our mother brought us kids downtown that day so we could watch the coronation at the store and my daddy took time to explain to everybody how the magic happened: the films of the ceremony were flown to Canada and the US in jet bombers and then broadcast on the three television networks so we Americans could view the pomp and circumstance on the very day it was happening.

 

June 3 was a day of special memories: Queen Elizabeth was framed full length on the screens of an appliance store in southeastern Ohio, and we heard the crowds cry “Viva Regina!” We saw a  shot of her shoulders and head as she replied “I am willing” to the Archbishop’s query: “Madam, is Your Majesty willing to take the Oath?” We caught glimpses of little page-boys carrying in coronets as the moment of crowning neared; a camera captured the soft face of the Queen Mother tenderly bending over the peeping, curious Prince Charles. And we were captivated by Duke of Edinburgh’s proud and serious mien as he approached to do homage to his wife, that day so much a Queen.

 

They say that over 85 million Americans watched TV on that day, a ceremony broadcast in the US from 85 miles of magnetic tape flown across the Atlantic so that we could share in the magnificence and the humanity of this stunning event. People in our little Ohio town clustered through the afternoon and into the night in front of my daddy’s store, farmers and miners and steel workers celebrating the crowning of the Queen almost four thousand miles away.

 

My daddy worked in a magical place.

 

Writing prompt from Patricia Ann McNair

father

 

 

My brother Petey loved trains.  He always had, even as a kid—he built miniature railroads with stones from our back yard, and drew pictures of steaming black engines which he tacked on our bedroom wall. When he was little, I read him a train story every night before he’d fall asleep—“The Goodnight Train” was his favorite book before the lights went out and he fell asleep as the train soared past mermaids, leaping sheep, and ice-cream clouds.

I remember as children we borrowed all of the “Peter’s Railway” books from the library—my little brother especially loved that series, not only because the child was named Peter, but also because the books told of a young boy being loved by his grandfather and the hours they spent together building a steam engine in the backyard, having some adventures along the way and using all sorts of machines and tools to help them in their great building project.

Petey had the kind of imagination that could create a world as real to him as if it actually existed.  And he believed in that world, too—he really, really knew his inventions and fantasies were true. I’d try to correct him sometimes but he wouldn’t accept anything I had to say.  “Petey,” I’d tell him, “there’s no such thing as a Tooth Fairy.  Mom put that dime on your pillow.”  But he’d go on creating a Disney movie in his mind with a beautiful gauzy creature, wings fluttering and shimmering, dropping silver coins onto his bed pillow after he was fast asleep.

“No,” he’d say.  “This dime is proof that there is magic in the night.  A fairy godmother watches over me and she’s sorry I lost my tooth.  But I will grow a new one and she will visit again with even more money.  Not tonight, maybe, but soon. You’ll see.”

That was my little brother Petey.  He lived his life expecting magic.   He’d never admit that people can hurt you, badly sometimes, and fairies don’t protect you except, maybe, in your deepest dreams.

Take this photo, for instance—the one where Petey and I are walking down the sidewalk and he’s holding the hand of a man, a tall, thin adult dressed in a raincoat.  I’m in the photo too, lagging behind as usual, looking at something in the street, I don’t remember what, while the unknown man and my brother walk on ahead.

“That’s Dad,” Petey would say to me. “He held my hand, and we walked downtown to see the trains.  I can remember everything about that day.  After we went and saw the trains, he got us ice cream!”

 

 

Petey, I would tell him, you don’t remember Dad.  Dad was gone long before you were even born.  He never took you to the station and bought ice cream.  He didn’t even LIKE us and that’s why he ran away and never ever came back. There was only Mom and me and you. And, of course, all the strangers Mom brought home with her most nights.

“No, no!”  Petey said.  “Our dad came back to us lots of times and I can describe every one!  I especially remember the time in this picture, because it is my very first memory of our Dad.  He did too come back.  He loved us!  And there were the trains, big ones with puffy white smoke, and orange sparks and fires in the engine to make it go faster and faster.  That’s where we were going in this picture—to see those trains come into the station! Don’t you remember?”

Oh, I wanted to remember, Petey, I really did.  I wanted to believe in a father who would spend time with his children and buy them cold, sugary treats.  I wanted to believe that we would never have to worry about having enough food because a magical fairy would leave money on our pillows at night, that we’d find gifts of gold glittering in morning light.  And I wanted to forget that the tall man in the picture was the policeman who took us from Mama and the stranger she brought home, the one who had beaten us both with the broken broom handle. That tall man was the policeman who took us to the foster home where we were locked in the basement for days at a time.

Petey, you’re gone now and I hope you have found a world for yourself where there is money on your pillow every morning, and where the trains will carry you to a place where you are safe and warm, where people love you and hold your hand.

And wherever you are, brother, I hope you are happy. I’m sorry I am not there with you.

 

Writing based on a prompt by Patricia McNair.

Candy

She was pretty, of course she was.  She knew it, and we knew it too—she made sure of that.  No matter where we went, she was always there, it seemed: if we were in the coffee shop, the Film Palace, or even at the library, there she was, smiling happily, all glossy lips and shiny hair. We got used to it.

We never asked her to join us, she was just always seated nearby, hovering.  We were the roommates from the shabby little student apartment on Lennox Street and she was the beautiful rich girl who was everywhere we went.  We hated her, we really did.  She was too perfect, too smiley, too friendly.  There was no way we were going to invite her in to our jealous little circle.

But even though we pretended not to see her,  she just wouldn’t quit. From the time we moved into the apartment next door until the awful day when it was over and we had to leave and escape what had become a neighborhood of nightmares, Ellie was everywhere we went.  “It’s the Terrible Threesome”, she’d sing out, announcing our arrival.  “We’ve got to quit meeting like this!”

Privately, we agreed with her, and it got to be a joke with us.  We’d plan to study on the top floor of the library, a place where we seldom ventured, hoping to fool her because we never went all the way to the drafty, dark third story.   We’d climb all the way up the stairs, and there she’d be, sitting in one of the few shafts of sunlight, dark hair gleaming and notebook open on the table in front of her. How did she know?

The three of us lived in that apartment on Lennox for the whole first semester of our junior year at the community college and Ellie was our next door neighbor, our shadow, appearing at the oddest times or in the most unexpected places, even in the middle of a surprise November blizzard.  I remember I saw her first that day when I looked out the kitchen window at the snowy street below.  There was Ellie, sitting on the hood of her snow-covered Pinto while the cute clerk from the 7-11 Store shoveled her car out of the parking space.  “Holy shit, she’s even outside our house in the middle of a freaking snowstorm!” I shouted, and the others came running to see.

“No way!” Candy said.  “She’s got to be stalking us! And she’s managed to get Harold the Hunk to dig her car out of this bleeding snow! That smarmy rich bitch doesn’t deserve to live.” Angrily, she yanked the curtains together and stomped off into her bedroom.

Little did we know then that her words would prove so true.

Writing prompt from Patricia Ann McNair

resolutions

“When you are as beautiful as Jenny is, you don’t need to make New Year’s resolutions”, Alicia said, stubbing out her cigarette.  “I mean, everything just comes to you, doesn’t it? Particularly men–men with good looks, men with money, men in general.  They just flock around her.”

I sighed.  I knew that was true: all you had to do was walk into the coffee shop between classes and there she was—Jenny and her men, sitting around their usual table in the center of the room, laughing loudly, sipping lattes, ignoring the rest of us mere mortals who slunk into the booths at the edge of the room.  My friends all looked pretty ratty in comparison to Jenny’s crowd—we wore stained sweatshirts and torn jackets, our hair clumped up under our knit winter caps, while Jenny and her beautiful people wore puffy quilted vests and matching hats and gloves in bright ski slope colors. And they never looked like they worked a part time job and then stayed up half the night to study for a lit test or finish a paper.

We’d all grown up together, Jenny and her gang and me and my friends and we’d known each other for a long time.  Traverse City, Michigan is a small town but it’s got a good community college, so a lot of us stuck around for at least the first couple years of college, mostly while we figured out what we wanted to do with our lives—career-wise, I mean.

Because we never did address the big questions in life: why should we?  We had skiing in the winter and plenty of beaches in the summer, and lots of jobs for kids like us, what with all the tourists who came here and the orchards and vineyards and hotels and restaurants around.  And some of us—well, like Jenny—came from wealthy families and never had to work.  She could have gone away: her dad was a doctor and her mom had some kind of administrative job at the hospital, so she could have afforded to go to college anywhere she wanted.

But she didn’t, which surprised all of us.  I mean, I asked her myself if she was going to go to U of M, or State, or one of the classy liberal arts colleges, but she said no, she thought she’d just stay here for a couple of years with the rest of us.  She said she loved it here, and didn’t want to leave her mom and dad, either.

When I heard her say it, I thought that was weird.  All any of us did was bellyache about this town—dumb tourists and crowded beaches and no place to hide yourself when you needed a little privacy.  Jenny wasn’t any different from us in that respect—she was as bored with this dump as we were.  I heard her say so many times after a beer or two: “Get me out of this godforsaken place,” she’d yell.  “I want to find a good par-tay!”  And everybody would cheer, and somebody would propose we get some more beer and build a bonfire on Van’s Beach and watch the sun set over Lake Michigan and pretend we were someplace exotic and daring.

And as for her attachment to her mother and father—well, none of us believed that for a moment.  Her old man was a bastard and everybody knew it.  He was head of surgery at West Side Hospital, a movie-star handsome guy with a reputation for always being late for appointments because he had to admire himself in every mirror he passed.  He had a temper, too—making scenes in restaurants was his specialty.  In Red Ginger, where I work, he spit a mouthful of wine all over the sommelier’s tuxedo shirt, screamed that it tasted like horse piss, and then stormed out without paying.

His wife came back the next day and left money for the dinner and a new shirt, cleaning up after him and apologizing, like she always did.   “He’d had such a stressful day,” she said, as if that excused the ruined shirt and the humiliation of the wait staff.

The point is, when all was said and done, Jenny—whose family had more money than God—stayed here in Northern Michigan with the rest of us and so here we all were, two days after New Year’s Eve, hanging out in the coffee shop behind the bank like we always do, getting ready for final exam time at the College, which was going to happen right after Christmas break.

And in the middle of The Roasted Bean Café sat Jenny, looking as smooth and polished as a model from a ski magazine, surrounded by some gorgeous guys all competing for her attention.

“Jesus,” Alicia muttered.  “If she weren’t so nice, I could hate that bitch. She’s too damned perfect to share the same space with the rest of us flawed and mortal women. Somebody should fill her pockets with rocks and sink her in the deepest part of Lake Michigan.”

Even though Alicia said this often when she was watching Jenny from the spectator sidelines, we all dutifully chuckled a little.

The next day, however, Alicia’s statement was no laughing matter.

Writing prompt from Patricia McNair

*Written as a first chapter

shoreline

I never did find anything too romantic about the beach.  You see pictures of coastlines in all the magazines, bright blue water which reflects the sky, sunshine, white sand.  There are families with picnic lunches spread on pretty tablecloths, and graceful women with long legs and microscopic bathing suits, and brilliant triangles of sailboats against the skyline.   “Pristine beauty” and “Relaxing sunshine getaway” and “Serenity and sunshine”, the advertisements all say.  “Come to the Bahamas” they implore you.  “Leave your cares behind.”

Let me tell you, it really isn’t like the photographs.  I’ve lived near beaches all my life, mostly in Northern Michigan, where they call the Great Lakes the “Inland Seas”.  Now that’s romantic phrase, isn’t it?  And last year, some national TV program held a contest and named my hometown beach the most beautiful spot in the US.  “Quaint villages”, they said.  “Miles of sandy beaches.”  “Majestic natural sand dunes.”

First of all, the sun doesn’t shine in Michigan.  Well, sometimes it does but more likely not:  we have big, gray clouds. I read somewhere that Michigan only got 71 clear days a year.  That’s it: 71 out of 365.  You do the math—we don’t run around in tiny weeny bikinis like they show in those pictures of the South.  So revise your mental picture: there are beaches but they are mostly gray colored on account of the clouds, and the water is dingy and oily and blown about by strong, cold winds.

You’ve got to really want to walk on a beach to hang out on most of the Lake Michigan and Lake Superior shorelines.  The sand is damp and cold and colorless, with a lot of dead fish carcasses, and if you take your dog he’s most likely going to roll in the fish guts and poop in the sand, so neither your dog nor your feet smell too good if you don’t watch where you both walk.

When I was growing up in Empire, Michigan, I remember we lived real close to the Lake Michigan shore.  Well, the whole town was close to the beach really, because there wasn’t much town to begin with and behind the sandy parts was some real swampland where the rivers collected before the water made its way through the sand dunes to Lake Michigan. In those days my dad and me, we ran charter fishing boat for tourists who wanted lake trout and Coho salmon and so we was always on the water whenever the weather was good and the tourists were brave.

It’s hard work, being a charter captain.  You gotta keep up the boat, keep it clean and pretty and the engines working and the fishing gear organized and untangled.  Then you spend your days with people you don’t know, being friendly and helpful to some real beginners, and cleaning fish and advertising your business and keeping the books.   People aren’t always nice, either: sometimes they get mad because they spent a bunch of money and all they got was a sunburn—if it was one of the 71 degree clear days.

If it wasn’t one of the nice days, the tourist often gets a bellyache, and we get a boat full of somebody’s breakfast.  Either way they’d be mad at us as if it were our fault they got skunked or sick and they’d leave tiny tips and a big mess for us to clean up after them.  But I kept doing it, working the boat with Dad all through high school, hating the dirty beach and the squawking seagulls and the nasty customers and the days with no fish and the days with a good catch when we stank with fish innards so much we could hardly stand to smell our own selves for days afterwards.

Back then I could hardly wait to leave Northern Michigan and the ‘Inland Seas’ and one of ‘the most beautiful vacation spots in America’. I graduated from high school and worked that last summer with Dad just to save some money and then, man, I was out of there. Just got in my old car and drove away, not knowing where I was going or if I was ever coming back.

It was a good trip and I found out some things—like, the mountains make me feel claustrophobic, and the wide open spaces don’t have any trees for miles, and I don’t know what to do if I’m too far away from open water and a boat.

So that’s how come I’m here in San Diego, working as crew on the Mission Belle, a charter boat out of Point Loma.  We fish the Coronado Islands, get some nice yellowtail on good days and a lot of grumpy, sunburned people throwing up over the side of the boat on some bad ones.  Boats and fishing and tourists: that’s what I know how to do and like they say, wherever you go you take the world you make for yourself.

At least here the sun shines about twice as much as it did back in Michigan.

Writing Prompt from Patricia Ann McNair

 

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