The mothers of young children stand, ankle deep in the water, sides of their hands against their foreheads to shade their eyes to make sure their kids don’t swim too far out. Or they wear bathing caps covered in rubber flower petals and do the dog paddle every now and then. The waves thrash against the jetty like children having a tantrum. The air is thick with humidity and salt. Gnats buzz around your ears. It’s 1959 and the sand still glitters like white mica and stretches all the way to the boardwalk and beyond. Erosion hasn’t swallowed it up yet. When the sun is fierce, you have to dash across the sand furthest from the ocean or your feet will burn. You’ll pass the old man with a ship tattoo that looks like it’s sinking into the rolls of flesh on his torso. He never looks up as he scans the beach with his metal detector like a dowser with a dowsing rod. He never takes his eyes off the treasures he hopes to find.
Closer to the water, some kid is always digging a hole deeper than his height, trying to get to China. Others build sand castles with tunnels to roll balls through or sand sculptures that look like mummies. There’s always kids who pop the brown bulbs on the tips of seaweed fronds without ever knowing that they are stopping baby seaweed from being born.
Teenage girls hang around the white stilt chairs of the lifeguards who peer down into their Coppertoned cleavage. Some girls use a mix of baby oil and iodine that glistens darkly on their skin. From someone’s transistor radio you hear the voices of the Kingston Trio singing “Tom Dooley,” a song about a poor boy who is bound to die that reminds you of the popping kelp.
One mother doesn’t stand by watching her children swim. She’s not at the beach. It isn’t because she works. There are mothers who hold jobs—usually secretaries, salesclerks, nurses, or waitresses. But this mother, Dot, is home because she has a hangover. When she has a hangover, her head feels like the puck that gets smashed by a hammer in the strongman game at Playland. Dot’s daughter, Sue, is twelve, plenty old enough to take care of her four-year-old brother. Christ, Dot herself practically raised her own little brother from the time he was born and did the family laundry and went to the grocery store for her mother. Dot was the one who had to beg Mr. Hamson to add the groceries to their tab. And he always did if she went into the back room with him. He’d sit on a crate and put her on his lap and kiss her on the mouth. She felt him getting hard against her but didn’t know what to call it back then. Even now it makes her want to puke.
She’d never let anything like that happen to her own daughter. There’s no reason Sue can’t do one little thing for her mother, like taking Mickey to the beach today, Dot thinks as she lies on the couch in her darkened living room and stamps another Marlboro into the pile of butts already in the ashtray. Her life feels like an hourglass, the sand flowing out and then you turn it over and it starts again, the same way as the last hour and the last. She wishes she could make time go backward, not far enough to be back in her parents’ house. Just eighteen again before she got married. Maybe she could have been a model or at least tried out for a part on Broadway. Now the plastic cover on her couch makes her sweat. The back of her housedress is damp and sticks to her, but she can’t bring herself to get off the couch just yet. She shifts her body and brushes some stray ashes off her chest.
* * *
Sue lies on her side on a big towel, stabbing the sand with a popsicle stick somebody left around. She looks over her shoulder. Mickey’s got his pail. He’s busy digging for crabs. She already gave Mickey his juice and insisted he wear his rubber sandals so he won’t step on a broken shell and make her carry him to the first aid station again. “Stab, stab, stab,” she says.
She doesn’t even realize that she’s talking out loud, muttering about how, at that very moment, her friends Joanie and Marilyn must be climbing the tall fence to sneak into Roches Beach Club, and she isn’t with them because she has to take care of her dumb little brother again. Mickey could never make it over that fence. He barely walks the seven blocks to the beach without whining. Besides, Joanie and Marilyn are sick of him tagging along. You can’t do the things you want with him there. Like you can’t go into the ladies’ sauna with your towel wrapped around you and peer through the steam at the grown women who sit there naked, sometimes with their legs spread. Where could you see such a thing besides in National Geographic, and those are pictures of natives you’ll never run into at the library or bakery where you feel like Superwoman, being able to look right through their clothes? And you can go to the solarium where they lie on benches, shower caps still on their heads, their breasts sagging sideways to their armpits. Best of all, there’s a chink between the boards of the men’s solarium that you can only see through Karen Sherman’s locker, and Joanie knows Karen from Girl Scouts, so she lets all of them in to have a good look. You can see grown men rubbing sand off their dongs and how their dongs bob as they walk or curl up like slugs when they fall asleep. All of her friends know how you get babies. It’s more sickening to think of it when you see those hairy dongs, but it’s like seeing a run-over cat on the road. It turns your stomach—the flies buzzing around its squished eyes, the guts sticking out of the fur, the flattening of the body against the road, but you go over to look again and again. You even feel disappointed when someone takes it away. Who scrapes dead cats and squirrels and pigeons off the road, anyway?
Going to the beach without Joanie and Marilyn stinks. Who cares that a couple is making out over on that striped blanket? Without Joanie saying, “Look, he’s trying to put his hand up the bottom of her bathing suit,” and hearing herself snort laughter along with Joanie and Marilyn, it doesn’t matter to Sue what that couple does. Even if they strip off their bathing suits and do what couples do in Marilyn’s mother’s marriage manual, A Practical Guide to Sex and Marriage, she doesn’t care one bit. She stabs the sand even harder.
Suddenly hands cover Sue’s eyes. “Guess who?”
She doesn’t have to guess. Joanie’s voice is nasal from never getting her adenoids out. Sue sits up, laughing, and swats Joanie on the arm. Joanie, kneeling half on the towel, half on the sand, has on her yellow polka-dot bikini. Her blonde hair is past her shoulders. Sue hates her own curly hair that grows outward instead of down. She wishes she were Joanie’s twin. Marilyn, who has the same bikini, practically is, but her hair is dark. Sue has on a stupid blue-and-white, elasticized, seersucker one-piece that puckers. Her mother got it for her at John’s Bargain Store.
“Until you’re full grown,” her mother says, “it doesn’t pay to buy your clothes full price.”
Sue wishes she could push the years ahead and be twenty at least.
“I thought you were at Roches with Marilyn,” Sue says.
“I was, but Marilyn and I came back for you and brought three boys with us,” she says, wiggling her eyebrows. “Marilyn’s waiting with them on the boardwalk at Skee Ball.”
“Who are they?” Sue asks. She’s got jitters. Joanie and Marilyn both have older sisters, so they know how to flirt better. But she springs right up from the blanket.
“Karen’s cousin from Brooklyn came to Roches for the day and brought a couple of his friends. They are…wait till you hear…” Joanie claps silently with her hands just inches apart. “…fourteen. Barry, Marc, and Alex. They are sooo cute. Cute, I tell you. C-u-t-e.”
“Crapola,” Sue says, sighing. “I have to take care of Mickey.”
“Can’t you come for a few minutes, just to meet these dreamboats? It’s not every day you get to meet older boys from Brooklyn, you know.”
Sue looks over at Mickey. He’s crouched at the shore with his pail, the sun shining on his red curls. He’s digging for stuff. Once Mickey starts concentrating, he keeps at it. He won’t even know she’s gone, but if she tells him she’s going, he will bawl and bawl, and that will be the end of that. What a crybaby! “I’ll go just for a few minutes,” Sue tells Joanie. “Like to say hi.”
* * *
Mickey watches the wet sand for bubbles. There they are. He scoops his hand beneath them to catch a sand crab. Its little legs that keep scrabbling, trying to dig a hole, tickle his palm. He knows a lot of its names—Emerita, Arthropoda, Decapoda, and something else that he can’t remember now. When he gets home, he’s going to look again in The Wonderland of Knowledge. There’s a starfish lying on the beach, but he isn’t going to put it in his pail. The last time he brought one home, Sue-Sue shellacked it to put on her dresser with the seashells she painted. In the night she screamed and screamed, and he climbed out of bed and ran to her. The shellacked starfish was moving. She threw her arms around him. Then Mickey was the big boy and Sue-Sue was the crybaby. Now he has to make a caca, and the bathroom isn’t close, and his mother says he isn’t supposed to go by himself. His mother says there are bad men in there who do bad things to little boys. Sue-Sue always takes him and waits right outside, calling in, “Mickey, you okay?” He looks back over his shoulder. She’s not on the towel where she was. “Sue-Sue,” he calls, looking behind him. She’s not there. He looks at the ocean to see if she went swimming but he doesn’t see her. Besides, she doesn’t like to get her hair wet cause she hates her curls. He looks to the left where the sand is white. She’s nowhere.
He waits. He waits. It feels like such a long time when you have to caca. Uh-oh, he can’t wait anymore. He’s just going to have to go into the water, deep enough so he can pull down his bathing suit and do the caca where nobody can see him. He worries that a jellyfish can sting his tushy or even his weewee. That would hurt worse than the jellyfish sting he got on his knee last week. And his mother told Sue-Sue to put vinegar on his knee, and it burned so he cried, and Sue-Sue said, “Shut up or I’ll pour some in your eyes.” And how could he explain that he had jellyfish stings on his tushy or weewee? Can they sting right through bathing suits? There’s so much to know when you tell a lie. But he’s got to go, right now.
He wades out into the water to his knees. Seaweed wraps itself around his ankles. The water is coldest when it hits his waist. Is he in deep enough so that no one will know what he’s doing? Do doodies float up to the top of the water? Will he be able to get away from it fast enough so that no one will know it’s his doody? Will fish eat his doodies, or will they float around forever like plastic bags and tin cans? A seagull, flying low, squawks at him like it knows what he’s about to do. He walks out farther, pushing against the tide like he’s straining against the harness his mother made him wear when he still could fit into his carriage. The water is up to his neck, swirling against him.
* * *
Sue runs along the boardwalk to get back to Mickey. Alex, the one who kept smiling at her, looks just like Ricky Nelson. She spots her beach towel and the stupid, big flowered bag with all Mickey’s stuff inside. But where’s Mickey? Only his pail is at the shore.
“Mickey,” she yells, “you better get here right now if you know what’s good for you.”
She doesn’t hear his pipsqueak voice. “Mickey, Mickey.”
She sees a small head bobbing out too far, little hands straight up, sticking out of the water. Mickey. Her voice, yelling his name, becomes as loud as a siren. She hears other voices calling, “Someone’s drowning!”
The lifeguard blows his whistle, springs off his chair, runs to the shoreline, begins swimming, his arms cutting through the waves like blades. Two more lifeguards come running, lifting a lifeboat from the shore, carrying it out into the water, and rowing, rowing hard toward the other lifeguard.
Sue runs through the shallow water, her soles getting cut by broken shells, and jumps in as soon as it’s deep enough. Why didn’t she teach Mickey to swim? If Mickey is okay, she swears she’ll never look at another boy again. If he gets saved, she will watch him every day and never complain again. She’ll play shadow puppets with him and listen to him tell her all about whales and stars and anteaters. She pictures him when he was a baby, his big, gummy smile whenever he saw her. How he patted her cheeks with his dimpled hands when she put her face near him. How “Sue-Sue” were his first words, even before “Mama,” that he said through spit bubbles. She swims underwater but close to the surface, keeping her eyes open to look for him, not caring that the saltwater burns them. She reaches out in the murky water, grabbing at anything, praying to touch Mickey. The salt blinds her. She lifts her head to breathe, nose streaming, mouth spitting water like a fountain. Then she goes right down again. Mickey, Mickey.
She bobs up. The people watching from shore are blurry. Why weren’t they watching before Mickey went all the way out there? How could she have left him? The waves are beginning to stack up. She keeps swimming out farther. Her throat, her lungs feel like she’s drunk Drano. She can’t go home without Mickey. She won’t. She wishes it were yesterday or even ten minutes ago. Her arms, her legs are lead. Mickey. A wave crashes over her.
* * *
Dot, still lying on the couch, her head on a pillow, takes the washcloth off her forehead. There are days she wishes she never had kids. And there are moments, like now, where she pictures Sue’s ornery face, her firecracker temper, and she has to chuckle. That girl has gumption. Dot remembers…was it last year or the year before? Sue brought a raw Cornish hen to school in a paper bag instead of her bologna sandwich and apple. When she opened it in the lunchroom, the kids laughed at her. “Ew, Sue eats raw chickens,” they said, and Sue swung that chicken at them, slapping them in their faces with it. Dot laughs now, remembering Sue imitating those kids and acting it all out. But Dot’s laugh ends in chest rumbling from the cigarettes. When she stops coughing, she thinks of Mickey, the way he’s already reading when he hasn’t started kindergarten yet, and all the other kids are lucky if they know their ABCs. When they go to the candy store, he can count the change. And he tells her how beautiful she is, that she should be a star in Search for Tomorrow. Dot knows she should drink less. She always tells herself this. But now, as she gets off the couch, she thinks how tonight is going to be the very night she stops having two or three scotches, maybe more, to get to sleep. Sleeping has always come hard to her. She puts on her slippers and stands up. Someday Sue could be onstage getting an Emmy and asking her mother to stand up and take a bow. Mickey could make her like Einstein’s mother. Energy shoots through Dot like a wave. Her kids will not just track in sand but half the beach. For once she doesn’t mind that she’ll have to vacuum up after them. Smiling, she goes to the window, pulls up the blinds, and watches for them to come home.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
Like her heroine in Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster, 2004) and in the sequel, Kaylee’s Ghost, an Indie Finalist, Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is a phone psychic. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times (Lives), Newsweek, Empty Mirror, and many anthologies. Her poetry and fiction have been published in The Iowa Review, The MacGuffin, Moment, Stand, Permafrost, and more. She’s the winner of the Brandon Memorial Award from Negative Capability. Currently, she teaches writing at UCLA Extension. https://rochellejewelshapiro.com/
If you enjoyed Popping Kelp, leave a comment and let Rochelle know.
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2 comments on “FICTION: Popping Kelp by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro”
What a beautifully told story. Thank you for your writing and for teaching us!
Those children are so dear.