Deck

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A beam, alone, is
nothing: a panel
beneath your feet. Like
an object in isolation–
it’s just a handprint in
cement, a deck of
cards rubber banded in
a silverware drawer.
Your aunt’s anchor-
shaped ash tray: a
polyester sleeping bag
folded fat atop a sandy
shelf. But pile them
beside one another, the
memories that
surround them, they
become an
inexplicable sum. It
holds you somewhere
high above, extends
your peripheral beyond
the streetlights and
houses and the sun that
sets pink, burns your
eyes from way up here,
as the blue of bay and
sky collide.
__________________
I am still, backside
against the mesh of a
plastic chair, tracing
the panels left and
right, that have held up
my life, that creak and
moan and sigh with
my steps. The
horizontal rail whose
bars line my view of
the green thicket
wetlands, their reeds
that bang and battle
against the wind.
Strokes of cocoa-
colored brown and
hazel, warped and
faded, the knotted pine
planks and rusted nails
my father spent hours
hammering back into
the wood one by one.
__________________
I am five, knowing not
to climb the ledge of
the bannister as my
brother and I stand
with a loaf, breaking
each slice into
wadded-up pieces and
shooting them towards
the sky, the lightness a
surprise every time our
arms wind back and
throw, the spot
between our elbows
sore. The first gull
swoops and the bread
vanishes with its pass,
then ca-caw ca-caw ca-
caws until they gather
from all ends of sky,
balloons of white and
grey, floating and
flapping still, black
feet hanging, frantic
screams. We throw and
throw and throw and
cackle with them, our
own collection dotting
the sea-dipped air.
Until they drop a white
stain onto the wood
and we run, frantic,
chuckling, knowing
later we will swear it
wasn’t us.
__________________
I am eight, the back of
my head just below my
nana’s breast, her olive
skin and thick
knuckles needled
through a silver
scissors on the verge
of rust. A towel clipped
with a hairpin at the
nape of my neck, as
she pulls the wet
strands taut to my
scalp between a fine-
tooth comb, snip, snip.
Small quarter-moons
of black hair forming
circles on the ground
around me. Bent lines.
It will be years until
I’ll lose her–the
woman who bought
this home with
hairdressing money
collected in jars–until
her memories would
flood the halls of this
house like shadows
and ghosts, sitting on
the toilet with a
swimsuit bunched
around her ankles,
standing at the kitchen
with a yellow sponge
propped against the
screen, Pavarotti
spinning from a
Compact Disc as she
hummed out of tune,
grabbing fistfuls of
fettuccini from a pot
with bare hands.
When we’d return
from the marshes with
oily, mud-stained
calves, she’d take her
tongs and pull the
crabs out one by one,
the blues of their backs
and bubbling breath.
She’d throw them in
the open freezer and
slam the door. Oh
these are going to be
scrumptious, as the
banging and
clobbering would slow
against the freezer
walls, until eventually
silence, still.
__________________
I am 13, my brother
hovering with a
backwards fitted cap
and peeling nose, we
hold on the railing and
watch the clouds of
smoke billow above
the small shed he’d
just left with his
cigarettes, the
neighbors come out to
their porches, the
firetrucks line the beds
of reeds. He speaks
less and less these
days, as he teaches me
how to put my finger
through the tip of
lighter flame, to lie, fill
a body with resentful
rage. And then, to kill:
to throw the bread up
first, and then the
pennies– I’d watch the
gulls swoop down and
swallow, squealing as
they’d fly away.
__________________
Twenty-something,
wrapped around the
glass table with
strangers from the bar,
our voices echoing up
and down the streets
and into windows with
open screens. My
nana’s boombox
blasting Biggie as they
carve out lines onto
my mother’s
placemats, roll and
sniff and lick and
laugh. The noise really
travels, Emily, my
mother tells me days
later after neighbor
complaints. This is a
family town.
We drag blankets
down the dark street
and lay them over cold
sand that squeaks
beneath our feet, ocean
warm and boundless
with freedom. And
then, with a stranger in
the outside shower as
the sun rises through
the grates, the same
spiders I used to fear
crouched high in
cornered webs above
the towel hooks and
bars of soap, watching,
as water rushes off our
bodies into cracks
between the beams
below.
__________________
I am 30, holding my
newborn on the white
stacking patio chairs,
midsection sore and
throbbing, weeks from
a surgery that almost
took my life, left me
with strangers’ blood
dripping into me from
above my right
shoulder for days upon
days. Her tiny lips and
fingers, so fragile but
not willing to break,
her skin a yellowish
white beneath the
backdrop of the sunset
skies, the wetlands
holding up the colors
as they seep into the
horizon.
Impatiens spill out of
stone pots, ferns stand
tall behind them
shuddering in the salty
wind. And in my
bicep, this new heart to
love, weight to hold,
something more to
keep me closer to the
ground.
__________________
20 coastal New Jersey
towns will be under
water by the next
century. Gone, ocean
has met bay, waves
crashing over
dismembered roofs,
bannisters floating like
sea logs towards a
distant shore.
Clothespins and rusted
bike wheels, seashells
in shoeboxes waiting
to be painted will meet
their still natural
matches. I picture the
people who spent their
early mornings on
these decks, with
nothing but coffee and
seagulls and silence,
sun rays crawling up
the backs of the siding,
if they would float too,
in-tact, limp-limbed
and soundless, eyes
dead and open, the
shadows of their
dreams of past and
future a big, dark
seaweed swirl.
__________________
I am here, mismatched
rainbows of beach
towels dangle over
crooked rails, tiny
bathing suit bottoms
line backs of chairs.
My children run and
turn and twist,
stomping over bubble
wands and lifeless
jump-ropes, heels
collecting splinters, the
light from the green
wetlands glows their
sunburnt skin. The
deck that holds them
50 feet into the air,
gives them height
beyond their years,
beyond mine too, to
see the houses curl
their way around the
bay, ospreys still
standing in the
distance, seagulls coast
and flap and soar. She
walks the plastic kiddy
chair over next to me,
holding it to her
backside and small-
stepping with bent
knees. Her tanned feet
dangle as she sits,
chipped pink polish on
the tiny toes, and in the
space they leave above
the wood, I see it all:
who I was and who I
am, all the rows and
rows of memories I
will leave her when
I’m gone.

The feature image for this post was used under CC license.

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Emily James' writing has been featured in The Rumpus, JMWW Journal, Firewords, Con-course Journal, Mothers Always Write, The Huffington Post, among others.

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