In the photograph the two of us are on the beach inside a sand castle. We’re wearing bathing suits in matching flower patterns, mine red and white, his yellow and green, little surfers. Our bare, adolescent chests sparkle with wet sand. We squint into the afternoon sun. My father probably took the picture, as he was the one who always took pictures on family vacations.
The Tale of the Whale. Our second night at Nags Head, we ate plates of fried shrimp, fried oysters, fried grouper, fried clams, and stuffed crab. I don’t remember if the crab was fried. I asked my mother if the restaurant owners had accidentally misspelled tail as tale. She said, no, it was a pun and meant to be clever. My brother Allen, twelve to my seven, said Duh! and acted like he knew that already. I’m pretty sure he didn’t.
Allen spent a morning crushing the shells of horseshoe crabs that floated over the soft, sandy bottoms of the shallow waters. He poked me with the sharp tail of one until it broke off in his hand and cut him, so that every time he went swimming for the next few days the saltwater stung. One day I would do a school project on the Atlantic horseshoe crab—Limulus polyphemus—complete with the hard, dark brown shell of one that I saved from Allen’s foot.
The night after we went to The Tale of the Whale, we went to a smaller restaurant. Not as fancy but overlooking Roanoke Sound. We sat by an open window and tossed French fries and bits of hush puppies to sea gulls that swooped in and snatched the food from the air every time. They never missed, except when Allen threw the lemon from his iced tea—How ‘bout this, ya’ stupid birds. Allen hadn’t fooled them at all. A country-western duo played in a corner, one on banjo and kick drum, the other on harmonica and guitar, singing songs I’d never heard. They both had beards and looked like they could be brothers, like maybe what my brother and me might look like if we got big, grew beards, and became country-western musicians in a seafood restaurant on the Outer Banks. They sang songs that said things like, She tried to love him / But he was all wrong. That night in the small bathroom next to the room where my brother and me shared bunk beds, Allen stood before the mirror and checked his face for signs of hair.
I want to say it was the summer I realized there was no toad under the waves, no such thing as an undertoad. But I can’t. I think I just heard that from somebody else. Later when I tried to tell that story to be funny, it came out all wrong, and the person I was telling it to could tell I was lying. So it wasn’t funny at all.
Because I wasn’t a strong swimmer, my mother insisted I stay close to shore. So, I made up a game called Look Out!, really just wading in the surf until a wave, big or small but mostly small, came rolling in, then running to dry sand before the wave crashed. I played Look Out! while Allen swam out into the bigger waves in places where he couldn’t touch bottom. He called to me—Hey! Landlubber, come on out! But I just stood facing east, the Atlantic Ocean the biggest thing I knew, the biggest thing I could imagine, and shook my head at him. That same summer, my dad had let me see a few minutes of Jaws or maybe it was Jaws 2 one Saturday night on cable TV, where the great white shark bites a boat in half. That’s all I saw, because my mom came in and asked what in the world he was doing letting a seven-year-old see a movie like that, it would give me nightmares, which it did. There was no way I was going out there.
My parents invited some old college friends from Elizabeth City for a bridge party at the rented beach house. They had two girls, one four, one twelve like my brother. He told the older girl how he had body surfed the big waves and how all I ever did was run like a scared little girl from the waves. She laughed and said she wasn’t afraid of the ocean. He told her he was either going to be a professional surfer or an NWA wrestler like “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, he had the long blond hair already, and flipped his hair with his hand. For a second, he looked like Ric Flair, like a superstar. They told me to stay inside, watch the four-year-old, and not say anything, they were going down to the beach. Before they left, Allen snuck a beer out of the cooler on the porch. From the second-floor balcony, I could just make out the two of them sitting close on the sand, looking out at the waves.
While I was playing Look Out! calling Look out! to myself and no one else, I found a pirate knife in the surf. I called Allen out of the water and told him it was a pirate knife and he said it wasn’t, it was a fisherman’s knife, probably somebody fishing right then who would be looking for it. I wanted the knife, a big blade with a deer horn handle—a pirate knife. Allen snatched it from my hands and took it to our dad, telling him I was too little to own such a knife, and why shouldn’t he. Our dad held the knife in the air, squinting at writing on the blade. He weighed it in his hands then looked at me, turned to Allen, frowned and shook his head. Lot of shipwrecks out there, he said, so this definitely could have washed up from one of them, and maybe one of those was a pirate ship. Hard to say. Blackbeard was all over these waters. Still, he said I should go look to make sure it didn’t belong to someone on the beach. I never found the owner and took the knife back to the house we were renting. My dad said he would keep it for me.
I had ten dollars to spend on anything I wanted. I considered a shell necklace like the one my brother had bought, a ship wheel clock, and a rubber shark. I finally found what I wanted at Pirate’s Cove Putt Putt: a pirate revolver made of real wood and a pair of mirrored sunglasses, the kind Ponch wore on CHIPS. As I walked out of the gift shop to play putt-putt with my family, gun tucked into my shorts, sunglasses on, Allen shouted, Argghh, matey! It’s Captain Dork!
My mom and dad had brought a box filled with liquor, some of them big with handles on them. A red cooler with a white top stayed on the deck. My dad drank beers from the cooler. My mom liked the liquor bottles and poured them into a blender to make drinks like slushies. They looked good and my mom let me taste one but I couldn’t even get past the smell, which was part doctor’s office and part something ripe and sweet.
My parents fought much of that summer. They never really stopped, even at the beach, which I thought they might.
On July Fourth, we shot fireworks into the air and water—Roman candles and bottle rockets, and, as a grand finale, something called the TNT 500, which my dad let Allen light.
One night after Allen and I had gone to bed, we heard our parents screaming at each other in their bedroom. My mom kept telling my dad that we were supposed to be on vacation and why did he have to keep bringing it up. They were supposed to be relaxing. I asked Allen what my dad kept bringing up that was making my mom so mad. At first he didn’t answer, then he said it was nothing for me to worry about, grown-ups fought just like kids, and I should go to sleep. I believed him.
My mom broke a clear glass lamp filled with shells—she wouldn’t say how. But that made her drop the glass she carried, which bounced and spilled into the thick shag carpet. It was the first time I had ever heard her curse. That made my dad laugh and then my mom and then me and Allen. She said we could keep the shells since we were paying for the stupid things anyway.
At night, my dad played cassettes he had made for the trip. Cole Porter, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac. My dad danced with me, and my mom tried to dance with Allen, but he said he didn’t want to and went to his room to read a Stephen King book he had found on the bookshelves. My dad and I played air guitar to “Back in the USSR.”
My mom was constantly cracking ice from the ice trays, the metal ones. I hated the sound: the crack of the handle, the ice, like teeth on teeth, like Allen’s grinding at night, grating against the aluminum.
I found a notebook in the bedside table of a spare room. Inside were ink drawings of naked people. The men’s things were scribbly and small. The women had saggy boobs with little dots on the end and more scribbles for between their legs. Written underneath a drawing of a man standing naked before a dressed woman with his thing in the shape of a sword: “I told you not to bring your work home.” I didn’t get it but I liked it anyway. I didn’t show the notebook to anyone, especially Allen.
Allen carved his initials into the upper deck railing outside our room. He carved them into the boardwalk hand rail, he carved them into a piece of driftwood I had found and planned to take home to put on my book shelf, a souvenir of our vacation on which I would have carved Nags Head / August 1974 with my pirate knife.
Allen watched NWA on the television but the reception was bad. When he gave up on the television, he turned to me.
One night we played Monopoly. I got both Park Place and Boardwalk on the first trip round. Allen stole five-hundreds from the bank and hid them under his leg.
My mom cut her hand with my pirate knife trying to open an oyster from a sack my dad had bought at the local docks. My dad screamed Why hadn’t she used the oyster knife, you should never use an ordinary knife to open oysters and this was exactly the reason. She screamed back Not to yell at her, she was bleeding. And she was, a lot into the sink, over the counter, and on to the kitchen floor. It looked like she had splattered Ragu over everything, something she did every time she made spaghetti. Dad said he was sorry but— He helped her wash the cut under the kitchen faucet, his arms wrapped around her from behind, said it was pretty deep, and she was going to need stitches. My mom started to cry, and my dad said it wasn’t that bad and kissed her bleeding hand. Dad poured her a drink—this calls for a double—and checked the info sheet on the refrigerator for the closest hospital. On their way out the door, my dad had blood above his lip in the space where his moustache used to be, as if he had been kissed.
While my parents were gone, Allen said he would give me the advantage by lying on the floor so I could try and pin him. I took a dive off the couch and did a knee drop right across his chest.
The house we rented had maps of the Albemarle Sound. It had maps of the known shipwrecks that littered the beaches like dinosaur bones.
I had never seen anyone turn blue before.
I saw this through a crack in the bathroom door. It had an electric heater on the wall, just coils glowing behind a silver grill and a little black knob, for winter months. Allen had turned on the heater while he was taking a shower. When he got out, he put his thing right on the hot metal, no accident, just stuck it there on purpose. I don’t know why, it seemed crazy to me but I also sort of understood. I was standing right there but Allen didn’t see me. He pulled away with a jerk and tried to wash his thing in the sink. I think he was crying, so I guess it really hurt.
I heard the air rush out of him like a balloon untied, the dull thud of my knee against his chest, Allen’s cry turn into a moan. Then quiet, nothing but the sound of waves breaking over the sand.
The beach house had a telescope, which Allen had tried to use our first night there. But he couldn’t see anything and gave up.
Allen didn’t move for a long time, his face deeper and darker blue. I ran to the beach and kept running, but it was dark and I got scared I might forget where we were staying. When I came back, my mom and dad were sitting with on the sofa with Allen who was crying. His face was no longer blue but flushed. He was tucked under my mom’s arm, her hand wrapped in a big, puffy white bandage. My dad stood, whipped his belt off, and pointed to their bedroom.
I got up early one morning to watch cartoons, which we were allowed to do on vacation every day, and found my dad asleep on the sofa. He was in his clothes, blue Bermuda shorts and an orange Izod. Beside the sofa, a cigarette had burned a black spot into the orange shag. I wondered if we would have to pay for that, too.
Before I closed my parents’ bedroom door to receive my father’s belt, I looked once more at Allen. He didn’t look back, but seemed to be trying to catch his breath still, his chest rising and falling like a bird’s I had seen after it flew into the sliding glass door that opened to our patio at home.
You could never get lost in this house. Every room had a name. The room I shared with Allen was called Buoys Town while my parents slept in the Captain’s Quarters.
After the whipping, I said I was sorry as I was told. Allen screamed, Wrestling’s fake, you dummy. Everybody knows that, but started coughing and ran to our room.
That night I sat with my mom on the deck looking up at the stars. She told me how to mix her drinks—medicine’s got mommy a little woozy, and we snuggled under a beach towel until she fell asleep and my dad told me to go to bed, he would take care of her.
That night, Allen wouldn’t speak to me at all and even went to bed early, saying he was tired and wanted to finish his Stephen King book. He kept the radio on real low listening to a rock station in Norfolk. Up above and over the music, I heard him wheezing like he was breathing through a screen.
Allen and I were supposed to go crabbing with my dad, but when my dad knocked on the door to Buoys Town, Allen said he didn’t want to stand in stinking muck and throw fish heads into the water. He was tired, and, anyway, he had his Stephen King book to finish. My dad asked if he felt alright, and Allen said yes, sort of grumpily. My dad made a mocking frowny-face when he heard that and turned to me. How ‘bout you, kiddo? How are you with muck and fish heads?
In muddy water up to my knees, my sneakers making sucking sounds as I struggled to walk, I feared I would drown in the shallow, weedy marsh. I would sink like people in the movie sank in quicksand when they were chasing giant lizards through the jungle. I cried and said I wanted to go back, I didn’t want to go crabbing anymore and I was sorry I had jumped off the sofa and done a knee drop on Allen. My dad looked at me—I knew he was disappointed or sad or something by his eyes, which looked heavy, like if he closed them it would be real hard to open them again. He stood there in waders and bit at his lip. I know, kiddo. You didn’t mean it. He reached behind his back, under his fishing vest, and pulled out the pirate knife. Will this help?
My dad said I hadn’t meant to hurt Allen—He’s just a kid, for Christ’s sake. My mom said that’s what we get for letting me watch that ridiculous wrestling. Don’t tell me violence doesn’t beget violence. After that my mom didn’t talk much to my dad.
In our room above the bunk beds hung a piece of wood wrapped in burlap and framed with curvy rope. Seashells had been glued to the burlap, but there were dried glue outlines where some of them had fallen off, maybe behind the bed, I don’t know because I didn’t see any when I looked.
Thunderstorms blew through on and off our last day at the beach. My dad suggested we play Monopoly but no one said anything. Mom cleaned and packed. She asked if we still wanted all the shells from the broken lamp. We said no—it wasn’t the same if we didn’t find them ourselves. Allen stayed in bed most of the day, reading his Stephen King book, which he still hadn’t finished. Dad moved the sofa a few inches to cover up the cigarette burn in the orange shag carpet, putting a finger to his lips as I watched.
Our last night, Allen left the radio and the little reading lamp he used on all night. I woke up to “Hot Child in the City,” a song my dad always turned up when it came on in the car, singing along to the chorus, running wild and looking pretty.
I asked my dad did he still have the pirate knife and could I hold it in the car on the way home. He looked up from his hands, which he seemed to find more interesting than anything else in the world, his eyes narrowed and bouncing from side to side—he looked puzzled, like he had heard something but when he looked up nothing was there.
I buried the notebook with naked drawings in the sand underneath the stilted house before we left. I dug a hole a few inches deep and wide with a plastic shovel and dropped it in there along with the pirate knife.
We all went down to the beach one last time before we left, the thunderstorms blown out to sea. Mom sunbathed, saying her hand hurt and she just needed a few minutes to herself. Dad slept under an umbrella, his feet out at his side and buried in the sand. I played Look Out! and Allen body surfed, riding in with the waves, each time splashing me and asking was I always going to be such a chicken-shit. I watched as he rode a wave all the way in, wishing I could do the same but knowing I wouldn’t. I lost him in the surf and ran from a wave that threatened to break over my knees. Then Allen grabbed my arm and pulled me away from the shore into the deeper water.
We rarely saw others on the beach, as if no one took vacations that year. A few fishermen, a walker now and then, but no other families the whole week.
The wave knocked me backwards. I had tried to run from it, but it rose in front of me like a mountain and broke over my head. I rolled, sand scraping my face, my shoulder, my knees. And I kept rolling so that I thought I would never stop. I swallowed a mouthful of ocean like fire and broke the surface facing the beach. There my parents were just as they had been before. Behind me, Allen laughed. Oh, man!
My mom wore a solid white bikini that made her look kind of like a movie star because you could see the tan line around her boobs when she leaned over. I sometimes saw this same thing at the neighborhood pool when other mothers leaned over. I had also seen it on TV once.
I wished Allen would hit his head on a rock in the water like Greg did when the Brady family went to Hawaii and Bobby found a tiki doll that was cursed, which Greg wore when he surfed in the surfing contest. I wished he would drown, I wished he would drown, I wished he would drown.
My dad loved and often played a song sung by Ella Fitzgerald called “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” He played it on his Sony turntable and receiver—from the Sixties and still going, he said every time he put on a record. My dad told us his dad used to play the same song, but he was a trumpet player in New York City in the forties and played the song for real, the only white guy in Cab Calloway’s band. The ocean off the North Carolina coast where my family spent a week the summer I was seven was not blue at all. It was gray and choppy.
Photo Source: Sanibel Captiva Blog