Fiction

Mother Ocean Son

 

His mother wobbles ahead of him, eager to find a spot to sit. This won’t be hard to do, because it’s January and even though they’re in the Gulf it’s cold and not many people want to be at the beach. Job carries his mother’s towel and bag and shoes, along with his own, behind her. He can feel the sand underneath his toenails. It catches in the hair on his legs when the wind blows it up. He squints when it’s blown in his face, and he turns his head when the wind tosses his mother’s sundress around like a flag flapping upward, revealing the spider veins on her thighs.

Right here, she says, waiting for him to set down their things. She offers to help him with the beach towels, which doesn’t do much good, because she holds onto her hat with one hand. The wind blows the towels every which way, and Job can’t avoid getting sand on the upsides. The granules dig into his knees as he kneels to place shoes and other weights on the corners of the towels. His mother looks out at the ocean, rolling towards her with a prevailing freshness.

Watching her, he gets a lump in his throat, imagining what she sees is different than what’s before him. She looks out at something completely new and vast, never having been to the coast. Job has, and he becomes jealous of her, wanting to fall under the spell of the ocean, of its size and weight, of its proportions, or of anything at all. He thinks of impressionist painters and how radical their departure from realism was. How their work was bared from the salons. How genuinely new the visions of Cassatt and Renoir and Morisot were, but how dry and worn they seem to him now.

For a moment he is proud of himself for bringing his mother to the beach. And he is proud of her.

She turns around and pulls off her sundress. She’s done looking, ready to act. To move. Come on, she says, waving for him to join her. Lets get in! But he only smiles and says, Not right now. Maybe in a minute. She jokes that he’s no fun and jogs over to the water. Her bathing suit is even more ill-fitting now. He can see from the patchwork fabric where her breasts and stomach and bottom should be. But she’s lost weight since she’s been sick, and her skin hangs heavy on her shoulders.

She shrieks from the cold as her feet slap the shallow saltwater foam that billows in before receding with haste. But that doesn’t slow her down. She makes leaping strides over the water until it reaches her knees and then her waist. Her arms swing in the air as she hollers with excitement, and her weight shifts around her frame like a loose garment. She yells for her son to take her picture and to join her in the water. But he only nods with a put-on smile.

At a short distance, a young couple near Job’s age walks toward them. They’re bundled up in sweaters and are walking slowly because they have to stop every so often to kiss. He only watches them out of the corners of his eyes, because it would be embarrassing to be caught looking. As they get closer, Job can see that they are both beautiful, and he lets himself turn toward them more, slowly, degree by degree. Her boyfriend puts his hands on her bottom and her stomach, and she comes to a halt. Her feet dig into the sand as he catches her mid-step and turns her toward him to pull close. Job acknowledges that he should look away. Away from them, and toward his mother. But he lets the cold breeze sweep him up with the young couple instead, and stands vulnerable and ashamed, as if her were naked on the beach, for fear that someone might notice him.

Job! Honey, take my picture! He darts back toward his mother and the ocean, afraid that her call may have drawn the couple’s attention, that they may have seen him watching. He kneels to pull the Kodak out of her bag and is careful not to get sand on it while quickly rising and moving toward the water. His mother faces him with a smile, and laughs when a wave comes in from behind her to pick her up and place her forward. She plays in the water like a child, thrilled, and feels healthier than she has in a long time. Perhaps even more alive than she has since she was young. She is more active than she’ll be in the months to come. Weeks even. But Job is embarrassed because she’s being silly, and because he can see her nipples through the wet nylon clinging to her chest.

Smile, he calls out to her. He raises the camera to his face, and his back breaks into a sweat as the couple approaches and walks quietly past.

 

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Fiction

Encounter in the Nude | Goodwater, AL

Excedentes C by Mara Caffarone

Do you know what tossin’ hay is? Probably not, what with those round balers now.  But older folks know. Back when hay was baled in smaller squares, we’d toss ‘em into the back of trucks.  I had a job with my friend D.R. doin’ that for a summer. We’d work with our shirts off and by the end of each day your body’d be spent and you’d have hay stuck all over you. I guess the sweat’s what made it stick, but you couldn’t shake it off. Hatchet Creek ran through a good part of our employer’s land, so we’d go down there to clean off. We didn’t have swim trunks so we’d get out of our clothes, me and D.R., and go skinny dippin’. It worked, got the hay right off. Clean. It felt so nice and you’d come out of the water feelin’ cool and fresh as ever. Sometimes we’d lay out on the bank to rest. Just let the sun beat down on us after all that work. It’d knead its rays into your arms and back and you’d drift away. You’d stop existing. Reminds me of what a kitten might feel like when its mama bites the back of its neck. It curls up and pacifies.

D.R. liked to whittle and sometimes he’d sit on a rock down by the water, his feat danglin’ in the stream, carving somethin’ out of a stick. He’d make these sharp gestures with his right hand as he cut away the layers. Now, you know I don’t know a thing about art, but I’d watch him sometimes. I could hear the water running and the breeze blowing through the trees. D.R.’s back was pink-red from being in the sun so much. Made me think about how young we were and I used to wonder if I’d be sad when we got old. When our bodies couldn’t be worked the same and when they’d be too worn to lay out before God, like we did. I’m going on a rabbit trail, aren’t I? What I’m gettin’ at is that I don’t know a thing about art, but watching D.R. made me think of paintings. The old, classical kind. I’ve not seen any like it, but I imagine there’s one out there that fits the scene nicely. Makes me too sad to think there’s not.

On the day I met your grandmother, D.R. had left the creek early and gone up to the house for somethin’ or n’other. The house, it was a good walk away from where we used to swim, so we never thought much about the residents. But on that day, I was half asleep on the grass when I heard some branches rustlin’. I thought D.R. had come back and was hangin’ his clothes on the branches. You goin’ for another swim? I asked him. But Bobby-Nelle answered, ornery as ever, What’re you doing by our creek? I looked up and there she stood with my clothes in her hands. I got up quick and stumbled back into the water to hide myself. I told her to drop my clothes, but she just chuckled. I couldn’t quite see her face, ‘cause the sun was behind her. It was at that point in the sky before it sets, hangin’ there, blindin’. And I’ll tell you now, I was embarrassed that such a pretty girl was makin’ a fool of me like that. I talked to her like I shouldn’t have, if for no other reason than her daddy was my boss. I said, Girl—I tried speaking to her all manly-like, as if I had some authority over her, although I didn’t have too much on her age, maybe that’s why she found me so funny—but I said, Girl, drop my clothes now! And she said, You’re gonna have to come get ‘em. And I’ll be damned if I knew what to do with her. I don’t know how long I stood there in the water before I did anything. My cheeks were hot and I was getting’ light headed and I still don’t know if it was ‘cause of the sun or your grandma.

At some point my feet felt something buried down in the sediment and started to dig it up with my toes. It was an old pot. It took a while, it was so buried down. But I got it up, and when I did I covered myself with it and marched right on out of that water. Now know this, I put on a confidence that I didn’t have. I was actin’ like a man when I wasn’t one yet. Trying to stand tall, with my shoulders back, tough, in the face of someone tougher. Bobby-Nelle was tougher. I got real close to her face, and then I could see that she wasn’t as pretty as I had thought. She had a boyish haircut and her bangs were all choppy like maybe she cut them herself. Gave me a more genuine sense of bein’ superior. I stood tall and close. I thought the water might drip off of my nose and onto hers. I said, You wanna know what I think? She laughed at me and I was embarrassed again. I’m sure my face was as read as a bull’s. Still unsure if it was due to anger or the humiliation. I started to tell her, Girl, I think— But she interrupted me and said, I know what you think. You think there’s a bottom in that pot. I looked down and sure enough, there was a big ole hole in it. I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there ‘til she gave me my clothes back, and we were married later that summer.

 

Based on a tale told at the Liar’s Contest in Columbia, Tennessee, Apr 1.11
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