Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlights: May 2022
The Ghostwriter’s Muse
by Michele Connelly
She was an imposter, always pretending to be someone she was not.
Bellamy Riordan turned into the driveway of the upscale St. Michael's neighborhood. The sunset reflecting off the sand-colored facade made the already impressive house glow with radiance. She parked her clunker next to the shiny, new Audi A8. Running her hand absent-mindedly through her long, auburn hair, she realized that car probably cost more than the first house she and her ex-husband purchased.
The lush landscaping softened the fortress walls. As Bellamy's sandaled heels clicked on the perfectly pointed cobblestone driveway, she made her way to the entrance and, not seeing any bell or knocker, rapped on the door. She supposed no one would show up uninvited at a house like this selling their wares or religion.
Bellamy expected her to be older, but the woman who answered the door appeared to be much closer to her own age of thirty-five.
"You must be Bellamy!" said the very enthusiastic, very blonde woman.
"Yes, hi, I'm Bellamy, but everyone calls me Bella. It's so nice to meet you, Mrs. Sloan," Bella said, shifting her laptop bag on her shoulder and extending her hand for a shake.
"We don't shake, hun, we hug," the woman said, grabbing her and pulling her in for a bear hug.
Bella's laptop bag nearly strangled her in the exchange.
"And please, call me Tinsley," she said with a syrupy southern accent that almost sounded fake, as she led Bella by her arm through the marble-floored foyer. She spied a wonderfully rustic, yet somehow still modern and luxurious kitchen. Tinsley Sloan did not seem like someone who liked to cook, or at least eat. The woman couldn't have weighed much more than one-hundred pounds, and yet Bella counted three ovens in the kitchen.
"Iced tea or something stronger?" Tinsley offered, standing behind the beveled crystal pitcher and glasses, as she brushed a few strands of platinum hair from her eyes.
Bella was distracted by a large, matching crystal water bowl on the floor. She wondered how much that thing cost and if the dog associated with the fancy bowl drank still or sparkling water.
"Iced tea is perfect. Thank you."
"I thought we could sit out here and talk," Tinsley said, nervously smoothing over the hips of her pink short shorts, then motioning toward a seating area with a glass table and four white chairs.
"Great," Bella replied as she removed her bag from her shoulder, pulled out her laptop, a notepad, and a pen before sitting in one of the plush velvety chairs.
Bellamy Riordan was about to hear the story of Tinsley Sloan, and after she finished, Tinsley's story would become Bella's, or Bella's would become Tinsley's. That's what ghostwriters do. The words and ideas blur so dramatically that when the story was finished, it would be difficult to tell facts from fiction, writer from subject.
"I knew I wanted you to write my story once I read your piece on that mistress, what was her name – the one who slept with the congressman?" Tinsley asked, looking as though she were racking her brain.
Bella took a deep breath. Every time she thought of that book and subject, she needed a shower. The infidelity, the lies, the pure evil made her remember that client and the adultery, which in turn made her think of her ex-husband who had committed the same infraction.
"Let's talk about you."
Bella shifted the subject to one that didn't make her want to punch something.
"Oh, Bella," Tinsley said, waving her freshly manicured nails in the air, "I'm not sure where to begin."
The writer wanted to say, "Let's begin with how your eighty-something-year-old husband, more than forty years your senior, died and left you this massive house and estate and how his children think you were just a gold digger who killed their father." But she refrained.
"Who are you? What do you want people to know about you?" Bella asked, poised with her pen, prepared for inspiration.
Instead, after two hours of Tinsley Sloan talking about her beloved Prescott but getting nowhere, Bella could take no more. The widow was not a captivating storyteller, and she lacked passion or personal connection to the late, great Prescott Sloan. Bella had to keep blinking hard to stay awake. This book would not write itself. This was a snoozer of a story that already needed resuscitation.
"I think we have an excellent start here," Bella lied. "It's getting a little late. How about if I come back first thing in the morning and we can start up again, where we left off?"
"That would be fabulous. I need to run some errands in the morning, shall we say ten o'clock?"
"Perfect. I'll see you at ten," said Bella as she finished packing up her belongings and rushed to the door.
Bella got in her car and exhaled. Looking at the clock on her dashboard, she realized it was almost dinnertime. It took her just a few seconds to browse local suggestions on Yelp before deciding on a restaurant. Leaving the posh home, she began making her way back to town to a bistro she remembered passing.
The building, with its cozy porch and shiplap siding, reminded her of summers she spent at the beach with her family as a child. She parked her car and strode into the restaurant. The interior stone wall displayed the specials of the day written on an oversized chalkboard that featured several of her favorite comfort foods. Bella opted for the burger with mushrooms and gruyere cheese and was not disappointed. She dug into the crispy French fries. As she reviewed her notes from her conversation with Tinsley, Bella periodically looked up and out the window to watch the passersby.
With a content belly, she drove to the bed and breakfast. It was only a few minutes from the beach. Bella hoped to visit the ocean at least once during her trip. Upon arrival at her destination, she gazed at the quaint, nineteenth-century, red brick building. After checking in with the perky innkeeper and surveying her new, temporary digs, Bella took her bags to the small, cozy room. Hers didn't feature a fireplace, but this time of year, who needed it? It did have a door to the balcony, which rated even better. With weathered rocking chairs and a small table, it was a writer's dream.
She sighed as she walked outside, inhaling the cool breeze perfumed by the fragrant flowers filling the window boxes. The ocean would need to wait until her work was done, and boy, did she have her work cut out for her. Back in her room, sitting at the upcycled desk, Bella opened her laptop. She wrinkled her freckled nose and squinted as she read the notes she had gathered before her arrival. There wasn't much, only what her editor had told her. Firing up Google, Bella searched for Tinsley and Prescott Sloan. Nothing.
The chiming of her cell phone stopped Bella's sleuthing.
"Hey, Claire," Bella said, as she got up from the desk, and then plopped onto the ultra-comfy bed.
"Hey. How was it? What's the house like? What's she like?"
"Well, if I told you all that now, what would be left for you to read?"
Even though she had only known her editor for nine months and they had never met in person, Claire Fravardin had become a loyal friend. Since her divorce, Claire was probably her best friend and confidante.
"It was all right."
Bella leaned back against the headboard and stretched out her long legs.
"Oh, just all right? Hmm, well, I know you'll get something fabulous tomorrow," her friend reassured her.
"You said you met Tinsley when you worked in the real estate industry before changing careers and becoming an editor, right?"
"Yes, I first met her when I set her up with a rental in St. Michaels when she arrived."
"The house was something. Three ovens in the kitchen!" Bella reported.
"That's three more than I need," said Claire, laughing. Bella believed it. From the way it sounded, the girl never cooked.
After talking with Claire, Bella decided to stroll outside and breathe some fresh air. She had only checked in that evening but had managed to meet no fewer than four dogs who were also bedding and breakfasting there.
As soon as her feet hit the grass, she was greeted by Buster, a big, goofy golden retriever. The happy guy came bounding over to her as though they'd been friends forever.
"Hello, Buster!" she said, bending down to pet him.
Buster's owners were all apologies for their dog's over-friendliness. Not to worry, Bella assured them; she was an animal person. After a thorough petting of Buster, Bella continued her stroll.
Suddenly, she stopped dead in her tracks. There was no dog at Tinsley's house. There was a fancy water bowl, but no dog. "Perhaps he was in another room?" she wondered. No, she would have still heard him. Bella's brow furrowed.
Returning to her room, Bella brushed her teeth, washed her face, and put on her less-than-sexy pajamas—a University of Delaware T-shirt and shorts. She dug the John Grisham book she brought from her bag and climbed into bed, settling in for the night with her murder mystery in hand.
In the morning, Bella woke refreshed and eager to dig into the Tinsley and Prescott Sloan story. She mentally prepared for her interview in the most inspiring place, the shower.
Bella's stomach growled. Trying to cut back on calories, she decided if there were a healthy, low-carb breakfast, she would eat at the B&B. If not, she would just grab fruit and tea. Seeing the banana pancakes, she thought, "Carbs, be damned!" and cozied up to the table.
A couple sitting next to her at the communal table struck up a conversation. It was the usual chit-chat. Where are you from? How long are you here? What do you do?
They were from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, visiting for a week. They visited this week every year to celebrate their anniversary, this being their eleventh. Andrew worked as an attorney and Josh, an English teacher. Once Josh learned Bella was a ghostwriter, he peppered her with questions and barely let Andrew get a word in edgewise.
"Whose story are you writing now?" Josh asked in suspense.
"A woman from the area whose wealthy husband passed away recently."
"Oooh, was it murder?"
Andrew chimed in apologetically. "He watches too many law and order procedurals."
Bella laughed, but whispered to Josh, "me too."
"Do you write anything else?" Josh asked inquisitively.
"I do. I love the cozy mystery genre, but my editor said my attempts at that stink," she said, chuckling. "But I'm not giving up!"
After finishing breakfast, Bella rose and said, "This has been a pleasure, Josh and Andrew, but I need to go to work."
"Hey, why don't you join us for dinner tonight?" Josh asked.
Bella looked at Andrew and then back to Josh.
"No, you're here to celebrate your anniversary. I wouldn't want to intrude."
Josh eyed Andrew. His partner exhaled and flashed a look of resignation.
"We've been together long enough for me to know that when Josh is excited about meeting an author, I should invite her to dinner with us. Please join us. We made reservations at 208 Talbot at eight o'clock tonight"
"All right, I'd love to. See you later!" And with that, Bella headed out the door.
As she stepped onto the porch, Bella breathed deeply, feeling like this was going to be a good day. It was a perfect seventy-two degrees. She slid on her sunglasses to block the early morning glare and hopped into her car.
On her way, she swung through the Rise Up drive-through and ordered a honey vanilla iced chai latte with housemade whipped cream. If heaven came in a cup, a Rise Up chai would be it.
Arriving at the house, Bellamy noticed the Audi was missing from the driveway. She downed the last sip of her chai, flung her laptop bag over her shoulder, and proceeded to the door. A note taped to it read, "Running late. Let yourself in and make yourself comfortable."
"OK, this is odd," Bella said out loud as she opened the unlocked door. After putting her belongings on the table where she and Tinsley had worked the day before, she paced. The pacing turned into strolling, which turned into snooping. In a matter of minutes, Bella found herself sniffing a lavender-scented candle, touching a bejeweled Faberge egg displayed on the mantle, anything crystal or shiny, and the sofa that felt like velvety butter.
Having run out of things to inspect, smell, and touch, she ventured down the hallway which led to a set of stairs. The note did say to make herself comfortable. She found a bronze gate across the bottom of the staircase. It appeared to be a fancy doggie gate. Looking around again for the dog, but finding none, she fiddled with the latch and swung it open. Her curiosity getting the best of her, she proceeded to climb the stairs. Upstairs, she found a study. The framed photo on the desk displayed a man and woman in their mid-fifties.
And who are you?
Bella inspected the photo. They appeared too young to be Tinsley's parents, too old to be her siblings. Prescott had three children, so having a picture of just two on his desk would be odd. And besides, thought Bella observing their body language, this is certainly a couple, not siblings. She put the framed photo back into its place and returned downstairs.
After twenty minutes of browsing and snooping, the front door creaked open.
"I am so sorry, hun," Tinsley was saying as she breathlessly entered the house. "My errands ran late."
"No worries. Where is your dog?"
"I don't have a dog."
"Why do you have a dog bowl?" asked Bella, pointing.
"Oh, that. Umm... I had a dog. You don't want to hear about that though, let's stick to Prescott."
For four hours, they discussed the shipping magnate, Prescott Sloan III, who came from money, then made more money, and died with a ton of money. When they married, Tinsley hadn't been required to sign a prenuptial agreement. How had Prescott's lawyers allowed that to happen, Bella wondered.
Tinsley wanted a break. She had a nail appointment at three and asked if they could meet back up at the house at five.
"If you beat me back to the house, just let yourself in again, and I'll be back in a jiff," Tinsley assured her.
Bella would have rather pushed on, but being a few minutes from the beach and having two free hours was not the worst thing that could happen to her. She drove for a few minutes south. Taking off her sandals, she proceeded to the water's edge.
The cool, frothy waves covered her feet. Bella exhaled. She had woken up with a premonition that this was going to be a perfect day, and that was precisely how it felt.
Bella called Claire with an update as she continued walking along the coastline, cool, wet sand, and water lapping at her feet. Periodically, she would pause her walking long enough to pick up an eye-catching shard of cobalt or robin’s egg blue sea glass or a unique seashell.
She told her that Tinsley had started to get into the details of how she and Prescott met, how his family reacted (spoiler alert: badly), and how their love grew. Bella had drilled down a few details, but she was still struggling.
"Oh, and this is bizarre," Bella said, remembering the picture. "Before she arrived, I went upstairs and found a photo of an older couple in a study."
"You went upstairs? I would have thought the gate would have stopped you," Claire said.
"You know nothing stops me when I'm on a mission!"
Looking at the time on her phone, Bella said, "Oh, it’s time already. I better return to the house."
"Keep me posted. And stop snooping! I have an optimistic feeling about this story. I think this is the one that is going to make you famous."
Claire excelled as an unflappable cheerleader. Not only had Bella gotten divorced in the past year, but she was also struggling to publish anything of her own. As she had told Josh and Andrew, she'd sent a few fiction pieces to Claire to proof, but Claire had been honest, told Bella it wasn't her best work, and encouraged her to try again. She kept telling Bella she needed to find her inspiration, whatever that meant.
Taking one last glance at the sandy dunes, Bella thought, "Someday, I'll be sitting on this beach, reading my book, one with my story in it and my name on it." She was growing tired of doing all the work but using someone else's name and never getting to take credit.
Returning to the house, and, once again, not finding the Audi, Bella let herself in. As she began walking to the table, she heard an awful noise. She turned to find a massive Rottweiler growling at her.
"Oh f—," she froze.
Taking in a deep breath and exhaling, Bella said, "Hi, boy. Who's a good boy?" Why did she assume it was a boy? She didn't have time to check. Despite her love of dogs, her heart raced in fear and she could feel it pounding in her throat.
A man suddenly appeared in the kitchen.
"Who the hell are you?" he asked pointedly.
Bella knew who he was. The man she had seen in the photo in the study was standing before her.
"I'm here interviewing Tinsley."
"What the hell is a Tinsley?" he asked, as the woman from the photograph, presumably his wife, came around the corner. The drooling dog continued growling and sizing up Bella.
"Would you mind not having your dog attack me and I'll explain everything," she said, putting her hands up in a surrender position.
"Crystal, heel," the man commanded.
The dog approached and sniffed Bella. She exhaled and extended her hand to pet the dog's enormous head, which was bigger than, and as solid as, a bowling ball.
"Good girl," she said, this time getting it right.
"I'm a ghostwriter. I was given this address by Tinsley Sloan. She married Prescott and inherited his house. This house," Bella said, laying out the background.
"This is our house," said the woman standing behind the man.
"I was afraid you were going to say that. And I suppose you don't know Tinsley or Prescott Sloan?"
Both shook their heads no.
"Then who did I meet with, right here, in your sitting room last night and today?"
"We've been out of town until this afternoon; just got back from Florida. We've had people renting the house through a realtor but the last rental ended a week ago."
Bella tried to imagine what the opulent house would rent for. Later, she would discover the answer to be a thousand dollars a night.
A faint sound of sirens became less distant and louder. Bella closed her eyes. The couple exchanged glances.
"When I realized we had an intruder in the house, I called the police," the woman said to her husband and Bella, almost remorsefully.
The sound of a closing car door was followed by a knock on the door by a tall figure of a young man. Officer Silas Hudson appeared to be all of eighteen years old. He surveyed the situation and stood near the doorway, asking questions and eliciting the story. Bella tried to explain, but even she thought it sounded crazy. Thinking about everything she had touched in the house – the Faberge egg, the photo upstairs, the iced tea glass, her fingerprints, and DNA were all over the house.
"Do you want to press charges?" Officer Hudson asked the homeowners, who identified themselves as Henry and Cookie Ellison.
"No," they said in unison.
"It seems like a genuine mistake. I'd like to know who the woman was who pretended to live here, though," said Henry.
"Oh, I have a photo of her," said Bella excitedly.
Bella had snuck a photo of the three ovens in the kitchen with her cell phone to later show Claire and accidentally captured Tinsley in the frame too.
The figure was more of a blur, as the focus of the photo was on the ovens.
Cookie squinted and almost appeared to recognize her for a moment, but shook her head. "No, I don't think so."
Bella apologized profusely, Officer Hudson walked her out. She drove quickly while still being mindful to obey the speed limit, back to the bed and breakfast. She called Claire as she drove, but it went straight to voicemail.
It was almost eight o'clock by the time Bella arrived back at the B&B. Andrew and Josh were sitting in the lobby, enjoying a glass of wine with the innkeepers. When they saw Bella, they asked if she needed a glass of wine.
"You have no idea."
After they finished their wine, Bella, Josh, and Andrew followed the brick walkway to the white stucco restaurant with coastal-colored shutters. Talbot 208 felt intimate and cozy with its white linen table cloths, exposed beams, and warm fireplaces. They walked through the dining room as Bella admired the vintage wood floors and interior brick walls.
"So how was your day? Did anything interesting happen?" asked Josh. Bella could tell by his raised eyebrows and eager expression that he hoped the answer was yes. She would not disappoint him.
"Well, I was almost arrested," Bella said as she studied the wine list.
Josh dropped his menu and Andrew's eyes bulged as his jaw almost hit the table.
"Oh look, I found the perfect wine for me tonight – The Prisoner Chardonnay," Bella said with a laugh.
The waitress had returned and after Bella ordered her apropos wine and Josh and Andrew both ordered white wine, the men looked at Bella in anticipation of her resuming her story.
Instead, Bella was focused on the menu, trying to decide between the seafood risotto with scallops in a saffron sauce or the pork tenderloin with jalapeno grits. Remembering she was at the beach, she opted for the seafood. When in Rome. When she glanced up from the menu, her dinner guests were fixated on her.
Bella regaled them with the details of her day.
Andrew kept saying, "You're lucky you weren't arrested."
Josh kept repeating, "I'm so glad you're alright. You could have been killed."
"So who was this Tinsley woman?" Josh asked, brushing off Andrew's doom and gloom.
The threesome enjoyed more wine and continued their conversation, which flowed effortlessly with no breaks except when they were feasting on the delicious entrees.
“This is so good,” Bella said. “I’m so glad I crashed your dinner date.”
After they finished, the waitress approached and asked if they would like dessert.
"It's your anniversary. You should definitely get dessert and celebrate."
"And you were almost arrested, so you deserve to celebrate too," said Josh.
They decided they would order the Bananas Foster to share and they each ordered a serving of fall-spiced homemade ice cream and finished off the meal with coffee. Bella lifted her cup, "To anniversaries, new friends, and ice cream to die for."
They strolled back to the bed and breakfast, the crisp, autumn air gusting. As they walked past an immaculately landscaped home, the wind caught the metal garden gate and slammed it loudly. The noise startled Josh and he jumped. He and Andrew continued walking as they were laughing about Josh's overly dramatic reaction. They didn't notice Bella had fallen back. They turned around and saw that she had stopped in her tracks. Bella was staring at the garden gate.
A strange, puzzled expression came over Bella's face. Her eyes flashed open wide and she began bouncing in excitement.
"I know who it was!" she exclaimed.
"The gate. When we were talking on the phone, Claire said she thought the gate would have stopped me from going upstairs. How did she know about the gate?"
The puzzled looks on their faces made her realize she had lost them.
"My friend... my editor... Claire, whom I’ve never met in person," Bella continued, slowing her breath to avoid hyperventilation. "She gave me the lead on this juicy story. The story about Tinsley and Prescott Sloan, who now I question whether or not even exist."
"Well, then who was the woman you've been meeting with at the house?" Andrew asked.
"Claire! Claire made up Tinsley and then pretended to be her," Bella said as her eyes flashed.
"Why?" Andrew asked as Josh cut him off.
"She wanted the owners to find you and think you were an intruder and what, kill you?"
"Or arrest you for breaking and entering? When she left you alone in the house, she knew you would touch everything,” Andrew said truthfully.
The men smirked at her, knowing her propensity for super-sleuthing.
"I can't help it. I'm a curious person," Bella said defensively.
“How would she have known when the house would be empty or when the owners would return?” Andrew asked.
“Claire used to work for a real estate office. Maybe she still had access to a database or electronic files and where the keys were kept?”
"But a friend wouldn't want you arrested or dead," Andrew said.
After a momentary silence, Josh said pensively, “No. But she didn't end up in jail or dead.”
He looked at Bella and smiled.
"You ended up with the makings of a perfect cozy mystery. Isn't that what you wanted?"
A call to Officer Hudson with their theories about Tinsley really being Claire would result in him being unable to find anyone with her name. Her cell phone had been disconnected. Bella didn't have a physical address for her, only an untraceable email address. Claire Fravardin, if there had ever even been a real Claire Fravardin, was in the wind.
Bella gave her new friends the update from Officer Hudson.
"How ironic. The ghostwriter has been ghosted," said Andrew.
Exactly one year later
Bellamy Riordan returned to St. Michael's. After reuniting and brunching with Andrew and Josh—celebrating their twelfth anniversary—she drove to the beach. Carrying her chair in one hand and a turquoise tote bag in the other, Bella trekked to the water’s edge. After setting up her chair, she plopped into it, buried her toes lightly in the sand, reached into her bag, and pulled out her book. Her book, Ghosted.
Michele Connelly of Limerick, Pennsylvania, enjoys working for a nonprofit organization in Virginia by day and spends her free time writing short stories, cozy mysteries, and humorous tales of everyday life. Four of Michele's short stories have been published in anthologies and magazines. Her hobbies include photography, spoiling her niece, and rescuing very special and old dogs. She dreams of retiring on the Eastern Shore. Find her at http://www.micheleconnellywrites.com or on Instagram @micheleconnellywrites.
Photo by: Paolo M. Micheli
It’s a Serious Business
by Mary McCoy
loving the water so much,
tracking the tides,
wading the beach,
dipping the paddle,
raising the sail.
It’s a serious business
loving the water
that calls to our hearts,
that eats up the shoreline,
that seeps up the edges of the green lawn,
that sashays its way closer and closer
toward our many-windowed house.
And each sunny afternoon,
the water tosses such pretty gifts,
reflections dancing in many-patterned brilliance
across the ceiling of the dear old living room.
And how long will it be
until the water, teasing up the red brick steps
and through the welcoming front door,
comes like a lover to claim its own?.
Photo by: Timothy Meinberg
by Mary McCoy
I wander into the woods
Mary McCoy is a writer and environmental artist and serves as a managing partner of her family’s organic farm beside the Chester River. Her work explores the human experience of the natural world in all its wonder and vulnerability. Her writings have appeared in Orion Magazine’s Place Where You Live, Gargoyle Magazine, Bay to Ocean, and Salisbury University Art Galleries Here/Not Here–Art and Poetry of Place. She has published three books, Iceland, The Turning Year and Tree Tales. She is a former art critic for The Washington Post and several art magazines and currently writes on art for The Chestertown Spy. She is the recipient of a 2022 Regional Independent Artist Award for Literary Arts from the Maryland State Arts Council. Please visit her website at www.marymccoystudio.com.
Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlights: April 2022
Returning of the Light
Where have you been
in your dark winter
when you thought
that the light
might never come back
When all you felt
in your gut
was twisting anguish
and hot tears streaming
When you doubted
that it flickered
threatening to go out
When you learned
secrets about yourself
older than time
Despite it all
you are unbroken
despite the hurt
that immortal part of you remains
And sweet brief gusts
came from somewhere
as ancient things stirred
and your spark jumped to flame
and your soul remembered
that after the shortest day
even after the longest night
there will be
a returning of the light
Melissa Steffy lives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She is a mother, a database analyst, a poet. Melissa holds a bachelors degree in Marine Science and a masters degree in Computer Information Systems. Melissa spent two college summers studying wetlands, tidal rivers, and the ocean—she’s forever in love with the water. She has published two poetry books: Big Sky and Broken Hearts, and Love Letters; additional books are in progress.
Photo by: Yoann Boyer
The Lady Shirt
Mariah Burton Nelson
What happened to the lady shirt happened long ago, when my best friend Charlotte and I were in high school in Phoenix, Arizona. I was in love with her but oblivious the way lots of queer kids were oblivious in the dark ages before Ellen DeGeneres, Orange Is the New Black, and marriage equality. I just knew I wanted to spend every minute with Charlotte. And I liked the way she looked while wearing my shirt.
Your mortician was a tall skinny man with undulating posture
like a single stalk of wheat. Sleepy, perhaps. It was past everyone’s bedtime.
He told me his name, but I did not learn it. You would have. You would have introduced him to all your friends: “This is my undertaker, Frank.”
Before he wheeled you away, I said, “Wait a minute.” I felt an urgent need to dress you in your favorite sweater. Nothing was more important, all of a sudden, than retrieving your sweater from the small armoire and draping it over you, on top of your nightgown.
I tucked it around your chest and arms as if to keep you warm. Since I couldn’t escort you to wherever you are going. Or went. It felt so inadequate, the sweater. But it was blue – your color.
“Would you like me to tuck you in?” you used to ask each night.
“Yes!” I’d reply. You were not a physically demonstrative person. This was affection by proxy: you tucked the covers, and the covers tucked me.
I finally tucked you back, Mom.
Yesterday, I came across an article called “The Therapeutic Effectiveness of Using Visual Art Modalities with the Bereaved: A Systematic Review.” Turns out, engaging in art does not necessarily make a bereaved person feel any better, but it does help with what researchers call meaning-making and continuing bonds. The authors (Rachel E. Weiskittle and Sandra E. Gramling) define meaning-making as “finding meaning in the challenging event of the loss, with new meanings forming and integrating into a system of beliefs.”
I’m finding meaning in this loss as I discover new ways to think about you and our relationship. For instance: You were my birth mother (and you raised me) and I was your death mother, so to speak: the person who delivered you through the process of dying – not just in Phoenix that final week but also over the years, as we talked about death and prepared you for it.
The authors of the “therapeutic effectiveness” article define continuing bonds as “ongoing attachment to the deceased.” Sitting here at my desk in the quiet early-morning hours before work, I conjure you, continuing a relationship that seems almost palpable.
This morning I read an article that explains so much about my beloved figurines – and even, potentially, about you. When I say “you” I mean you in your deceased state. The dead you.
The author, Tamara L. Bray, is an archaeologist who studies the belief systems of indigenous Andean people. She writes about camaquen, a word in Quechua, an ancient language still spoken by descendants of the Incan Empire. Camaquen is a vital, enlivening force that humans can transfer to things, thereby animating what we would consider inanimate objects. When figurines are infused with camaquen, Bray says, they become in effect “miniature persons.” Describing ritually interred female figurines discovered in Peru, Bray says it “seems highly likely” that “such objects were understood by the Inca as animate, person-like beings in their own right.”
Mom, this changes everything. I had been trying to figure out what the figurines symbolized. But these figurines weren’t symbols of something else; they were powerful, person-like beings. This could explain why they were buried: They died.
I wonder what you think of all this. In your psychiatric opinion, I mean. Or motherly opinion. How is my manic defense coming along? Would it be accurate to say that I’m sublimating my grief into this massive writing/drawing/research project?
What about camaquen? If I manage to breathe some sort of vital life force into you for a while, then stop, because maybe at some point I’ll need my breath for my own lungs, will you die all over again?
Mariah Burton Nelson A former Stanford and professional basketball player, Mariah Burton Nelson has written seven books for four major publishers – most notably The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football (Harcourt Brace, 1994). She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including Bay to Ocean Journal; has given keynote presentations in 49 states; and has appeared on myriad national television and radio shows, from Today and Good Morning America to CBS Evening News and Nightline. Her comics have been published in Solstice Literary Magazine, Passager, and other literary journals; her greeting cards are sold through Etsy; and she’s at work on a graphic memoir about grief, creativity, and ancient artifacts. More here: MariahBurtonNelson.com.
Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlights: March 2022
There is a huge mirror on the inside of our closet door. Well, it’s huge to me because I can see my entire body in it, head to toe. My husband would disagree if he cared enough about the topic. It was just a regular mirror to him, no different from all the other full-length mirrors on the dozens of closet doors he had seen in his thirty years. But I grew up Amish. There were specific rules regarding mirrors—and everything else.
Courtney Foster is a lawyer/mom by day, turned fiction writer/mom by night, and day, and all the time. Her storytelling career started early when she would relay to her very loving and patient grandmother every. single. word and detail of movies and television shows she had seen. Bitten by the writer bug a few years ago, she has written dozens of poems and short stories. Two of her short stories have been published in the Bay to Ocean Journal, and she will publish her debut novel Passing Notes this year. Website: Courtneydukefoster.com; Instagram: bycourtneydukefoster; Facebook: bycourtneydukefoster
Photo by: Luma Pimentel
Nathan D. Horowitz
Born and raised in Michigan, writer/teacher/translator/proofreader Nathan D. Horowitz has a BA in English and an MA in Applied Linguistics. After four years in Latin America and fifteen in Austria, he lives with his wife and daughter in Baltimore, Maryland. He is the author of two volumes of creative nonfiction about Ecuadorian ayahuasca shamanism and the translator of three volumes of Ecuadorian fiction, one volume of Venezuelan poetry, and the autobiography of the last shaman-chief of the Siekopai people of the Amazon Rainforest. His work has appeared in the Ann Arbor Observer, Ashé, the Cenacle, Dragibus, Driesch, Eat The Storms Podcast, Fudoki, GAS: Poetry, Art & Music, Global City Review, Kritya, Maquina Combinatoria, McQueen's Quinterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, Poetripiados, Psychedelic Press UK, Q Magazine, Qarrtsiluni, WordCityLit, and The Woven Tale.
Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlights: February 2022
Photo by: Caroline Attwood
Charon Stops by Cedar Grove Cemetery
Carol Parris Krauss
Three streets over, at the sea-foam green ranch, the family car
is a hearse with flame flanks and oversized tires. The orange
side-window curtains have tassels that sway when the funeral coach
traverses the bridge to Churchland. Affixed to the bumper is a peace sign
decal and a Be Nice sticker. I once saw the driver, a middle-aged man
with a receding hairline, and followed his hearse, my one-woman processional.
Modern-day Charon went about his weekly errands to the dry cleaners,
the local library with the scummy lily pond in the front, and then a quick drop-off
at the Goodwill drive-up. A chauffeur willing to drive Death, to call shotgun
as he made his last stop at the Cedar Grove Cemetery on Effingham Street.
Placed flowers on a grave and reminded Death who was piloting this hearse,
and who wasn’t.
Carol Parris Krauss is a mother, teacher, and poet living in the Hampton Roads area after living 24 years in South Florida. Her home is a 82 year old Cape Cod multigenerational abode shared with varied family members, five cats, and two dogs. She enjoys using place/nature as theme vehicles. Her poetry can be found at– Louisiana Literature(forthcoming), Scrawl Place(forthcoming), The Skinny Poetry Journal, Story South, the South Carolina Review, and Broadkill Review. She was honored to be recognized as a Best New Poet by the University of Virginia Press. In 2021, she won the Eastern Shore Writers Association Crossroads Contest and her chapbook, Just a Spit Down the Road was published by Kelsay Books.
Photo by: Alvin Matthews
My Eastern Shore Education
We Yankees have a way of typecasting our southern brethren, which, fair or unfair, includes folks speaking in southern twang while riding horses to the local watering hole. And make no mistake about it, my northern upbringing also instilled a bit of highbrow snobbery. Why wouldn’t it? I grew up in New England, which includes Massachusetts, which includes the Boston area, which includes Cambridge where Harvard University and MIT are located. So of course, I’m wicked smaht, right? Intelligence due to proximity is a thing, right? I certainly wish this was the case, as it might make it easier for me to excuse some assumptions I made when I was first introduced to the Eastern Shore of Maryland as a 19-year-old.
I cannot recall my exact understanding of the Eastern Shore of Maryland at the time. If pressed for honesty, I’m not even sure I gave any thought to Maryland being a state. (So much for the “intelligence due to proximity” theory.) Outside of having to know Annapolis was the capital of Maryland for my 5th grade US capitals test, I don’t think I ever gave the state much thought. Even so, I knew it was near Virginia, which was on the East Coast, so the very idea that Maryland had more than one shore was confusing to me. Further, while I understood Virginia to be a southern state, I was entirely unclear as to the geographical and historical status of the state of Maryland. Perhaps you’re with me.
I’d met my girlfriend, Joy, when we were attending college at a small institution on Boston’s South Shore. In the few months we’d been dating, I’d come to understand her father as a good ol’ southern boy complete with the aforementioned stereotype. To be fair, I’d been told he loved and had owned Tennessee Walking Horses and was a passionate fan of bluegrass music. I’d also heard the faint tones of what I heard as a thick accent on the other end of the telephone when he was on the phone with Joy. So, as I drove down for a visit during summer break in 1995, I was making predictions about what the experience would be like, caricatures in full tow.
To be fair, not even geography or history books are much help in identifying where the South begins. If it’s the Mason Dixon Line, the line of demarcation for where the Union states ended and the Confederate states began, then yes, Maryland is a southern state. But try to explain that to someone from Virginia or Tennessee, well, they’ll laugh you off your front porch. There’s far too much liberal thought coming out of Maryland for it to be considered a part of the Bible-Belt South. But I didn’t know this when I took my first trip to the area nearly three decades ago.
I arrived at Joy’s home in the wee hours when most of the world was already sleeping. I headed to bed on the pull-out couch, which was about two inches shorter than my six-foot-four-inch beanpole of a body. I imagined a good ol’ southern boy might describe me as a “tall drink of water.” My feet hung over the cold, metal frame supporting the four-inch-thick mattress, and even as tired as I was from the long drive south – to an area I’d only recently heard of, mind you – I still didn’t sleep well. I was, after all, about to meet the parents of my girlfriend, and while I felt confident in myself as a superior northerner, my stereotype of the good ol’ boys included a loaded Smith and Wesson holstered to the hip of every southern belle’s father – my southern belle included. So, when I heard the family start to move about in the morning, I feigned sleep with my tousled-hair head turned from the doorway and forced myself to breathe in a slow, rhythmic manner. I was sawing logs, as far as they knew.
I heard whispering outside the guest room door and a barely audible “Dad, NO!” from Joy. As all fathers should, Mr. Willey ignored her protests, and I heard the soft jiggle of the doorknob as he turned it slowly so as not to wake me up. “Well, that’s a tall drink of water!”
The rest of the day has been lost to the recesses of my memory bank. Except for the food. I remember dinner that night. We went to a restaurant called The Red Roost where I was treated to a true, down-home, Maryland crab feast. I didn’t even know this was a thing. I’d never eaten crabs, but as a New Englander, I was familiar with lobster bakes, loved those, and was happy to try a similar form of seafood feast.
A fattening feast it was! Corn dogs, hush puppies, fried shrimp, corn on the cob, okra, and birch beer – a soft drink I’d never heard of. Topping off the experience was live bluegrass music. No lie. Joy watched with delight as I took it all in, not knowing what to make of her father belting out the lyrics with a twang to make Dolly Parton proud, lips stained orange with Old Bay Seasoning. It was a new experience, and as much as it seemed back-woodsy, I liked it. Food helps make most things bearable. And food is something the South – even this northeasternmost tip – takes seriously.
Joy’s mother started grilling me on my food tastes the next evening as I ate the first meal she ever cooked for me. If you’re wondering, it was chicken and dumplings, perhaps better known as “dumplins.” At 19, I liked everything she mentioned. This seemed to please her and I did my best to devour every large portion of everything she placed in front of me. Food is a staple in the Willey household. Guests can expect to be offered food or drink if they linger for any amount of time. If it’s close to mealtime, you’ll see Mom start setting the table for dinner, always making room for the guest(s) in the room, if they can talk you into staying. Southern hospitality is something to be appreciated.
I was well taken care of during that week, and as my relationship with my girlfriend progressed into marriage, kids, and now a move to Maryland, they continued to spoil me to no end. They are good people. I look up to my father-in-law in ways I don’t look up to anyone else. I’m ashamed to say he probably finds that hard to believe. I’ve not always been good to him.
Here’s the thing – we’re much different, Ron and I. He’s a planner, a list-making achiever. He’s the kind of person who wakes up in the morning with a list of things to do and a schedule on which to do them. He is meticulous about regularly scheduling his car maintenance. Regular house preventative maintenance is the norm for him. He is a world-class worrier and gets all out of sorts if there is traffic between him and his destination. It seems he has a constant to-do list that he’s working on. And he just does it. It’s not always done to perfection, but it gets done.
I, on the other hand, am a free spirit. Planning sounds nice, but I’m not likely to stress out over completing some to-do list. I’ll change my oil, but as for cleaning the cars, that’s why God invented rain. I’ll get to the house repairs when I have time to properly adorn my Bob Villa tool belt with instructions to rebuild my Taj Mahal in hand. If there’s traffic that makes me late, oh well. Traffic happens. My to-do list includes one thing: “Make a to-do list.” I’ll get around to it soon, I’m sure. As you may imagine, these two personality types clash. To his credit, he’s never blown up at me. I’m afraid I can’t say the same about how I’ve spoken to him. But I saw something a while back that helped me understand him a bit more.
We were watching a family video taken back in the late seventies when my wife was a small child. The scene opened on the front lawn, strewn with tree branches. Ron had driven his white pick-up truck onto the lawn and was placing the branches into the truck bed, making sure to leave the smaller branches on the ground for his 3-year-old assistant to pick up. There were smiles everywhere. The silent video cut out and began again on the same day with the three of them sitting around the perfectly-set dining room table for lunch. Ron was sitting at the head of the table, shirt off, grinning from ear to ear as he reached for the hands of his wife on his left side and his little girl on the right so they could say grace together before eating. At first, it struck me as another redneck-ish moment. I mean, who sits at a perfectly set dining room table without a shirt on? The guy was a sweaty mess. But as I watched, something grabbed my attention. Whoever took the video captured a man in all his glory, enjoying life and the loved ones for whom he worked. All the to-do lists, all the schedules, all the preventative maintenance things I find annoying were his way of being intentional in providing for his family.
I grew up in a pastor’s home. During my earliest years, the years when you are still taking in everything and just soaking up family practices as facts of life, I seldom saw my father performing “work” in the way you’d see people with regularjobs. He didn’t leave at regular times in the morning and didn’t arrive at home at 5:30 PM. My dad’s work was people visits, hospital visits, sermon preparation, leading meetings, personal crisis intervention. There were so many things for which to-do lists seemed insufficient. Rather than reporting to a boss every day, I learned we leaned on God for direction, sustenance, and financial provisions. At the time, that which was spiritual didn’t seem to fit a world driven by the rigors necessary for tangible achievement. The concepts of daily grind and rat race were foreign to me. Heck, I remember looking at the father of one of my friends in bewilderment when I realized he didn’t have the summer off. Neither did my dad. But a summer filled with church camp, youth camp, and a bit of family vacation sure made it seem so.
So, as an adult when I didn’t go into the ministry, I was ill-prepared for the realities of the nine-to-five. That which I felt was my life’s calling would be made possible by the work of God, not the work of my own hands. I imagine it was difficult for my father-in-law to watch me lack the motivation necessary for career success. And you know what? When I watched that home video that day, and saw the joy on the face of my father-in-law, I suddenly understood why he worried so much, why he made so many lists, and why it was so important to him to accomplish tasks each and every day. His life and the life of those he loved depended on it. What I interpreted as a high-stress lifestyle was simply him being intentional about how he lived each and every day. There are, in fact, things that are in our control, God or no God.
I’d like to say when I came to this realization I flipped a switch and became a beacon of efficiency. I did not. But I began to understand my way was not the only way. I came to appreciate that attacking life with intentionality is in many ways better than waiting for the universe to provide for me. By taking time to watch someone whose approach to life is different than mine, I found that there are other ways – some might say better ways – to handle a given situation. I’m grateful for my father-in-law. Perhaps I didn’t need the universe to provide what I wanted. I needed the universe to provide who I needed.
Jeff Scott lives in Salisbury, MD and is husband to Joy, father to Josh and Jordan. He is the Creator and host of the Delmarva's Own podcast. Twice accepted for publication in the Bay to Ocean Journal (2019/2021). Jeff serves as nonfiction co-editor for the BTO Journal and will be assisting with the 2022 Bay to Ocean Writers' Conference as a Session Host. He has previously written for Metropolitan Magazine and can be found at www.jeffreyscottwriting.com and www.delmarvasown.com, Twitter: @delmarva_s, @JeffScottWrites. Medium: @jeffrey-s-scott. YouTube: Life With Jeffrey Scott.
Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlights: January 2022
Photo by: Hilary Halliwell
Assateague in the Time of Covid-19
Christopher T. George
The ponies refuse to perform for us;
mosquitoes possess no such scruples.
Mare and colt graze on the salt marsh
a half mile off as we socially distance.
(A gander hisses as you nosily point your
camera at his cutely plumed goslings.)
On the beach, beyond the battlements of dunes,
Mister and Missus Baltimore sun their pectorals,
their jazzy Maryland flag anti-virus masks strung
from ears as they slurp their hot dogs and sloppy Joes.
The teen guys in their red Corvette, recklessly maskless,
boom boom their bass notes as they careen through
the pebbled parking lot by Tom’s Cove as they hunt
well-filled bikinis. Meanwhile, you find a tiny pile of sun-
bleached bones, unnamable bones, possibly bird,
fish, or mammal, your lithe fingers the perfect
ossuary as you cherish those precious bones just
as the Assateague Indians guarded theirs, fleshed
and unfleshed, from the uninvited depredations
of Colonel Edmund Scarborough, who attempted
to exterminate them four centuries ago yet found them
harder to find than conquer. So, the Assateague performed
their own funeral rites, not Scarborough’s, driving
flesh from bone, to leave a simple prayer of bone.
Christopher T. George was born in Liverpool, England, in 1948. He emigrated to the US in 1955 but returned home to experience the “Swinging Sixties.” He re-emigrated to the US in 1968 and studied poetry with Sister Maura Eichner and Elliott Coleman. He has been published in such journals as Poet Lore, Smoke, Bogg, Electric Acorn, Anti-Heroin Chic, and Triplopia. A former editor at Loch Raven Review, Chris has a poetry site at http://chrisgeorge.netpublish.net/. After residing in Maryland for some five decades, he currently lives with his wife Donna and sister-in-law Lisa in Newark, Delaware. In addition to his creative writing, Chris is an artist, song lyricist, and a published historian of the War of 1812 and Jack the Ripper. He served as treasurer and president of the Maryland State Poetry Society in the 1970’s.
Photo by: Robin Jonathan Deutsch
The Pick-Up Line
Renee Slover is a 28-year-old speech pathologist who has recently broken up with her boyfriend of several years after discovering he has no desire for marriage or children. Blaming herself for not seeing the situation for what it was, Renee resolves to turn over a new leaf. Her New Year’s resolutions include trying new things, being more spontaneous, and snuffing out a pervasive desire to please others at the expense of herself.
In Chapter One of The Pick Up Line, a steamy contemporary romance, Renee stops in at the hotel bar after attending a conference in Philadelphia. Wearing a sexy red dress and thinking to check off a few of her resolutions, she orders a fancy drink and strikes up a conversation with a handsome stranger. They laugh over topics including Harry Potter, exes, and a dress code for sex workers before Renee invites her new friend, she calls Dumbledore, up to her room. Sparks fly but she refuses to exchange names or numbers, seeing this as a spicy memory to look back on and not the stable relationship she is determined to have.
“Morning, Mr. Schaeffer.” Renée nodded to the principal as she breezed through the doors and into the lobby of Pleasant Hill Elementary.
“Ms. Slover, you’re back. How was your conference?”
Geesh, she’d missed all of two days for a conference on childhood language disorders, and Schaeffer was eyeing her like she’d absconded to Vegas with embezzled funds. The fact that she was grinning like some kind of demented gameshow host might have something to do with that, especially on a Monday morning. She made a concerted but futile effort to tone it down a notch. “Oh, uh, very good. Learned a lot.”
Luckily the walkie-talkie attached to his belt crackled out a staticky message, drawing his attention and providing her with a quick getaway. Any questions regarding the conference would have resulted in her mumbling nonsense, or worse, an open mouth with no words coming out. Because at the moment, she couldn’t recall even one little nugget of information gleaned from said conference. Her head was too full of other things. Things she’d learned after the close of the last session and that had no place rearing their naughty little heads in an elementary school.
She turned down the third-grade hallway, heading for her office in what was generally referred to as the bowels of the school. Schools were notorious for housing the speech/language pathologist, or speech teacher, as she was commonly called, in the worst room in the building, and Pleasant Hill Elementary was no exception. It was like passive aggressive punishment for taking a teacher funding unit from the budget. Never mind that public schools were required by law to provide the services.
She unlocked the door to her office, a miniscule room situated between the blazing heat of the computer server room and the pungent fumes of the janitorial closet. On the bright side, she didn’t have to share it. It was all hers. Nope, no complaints today. She set her bag and coat on the child-sized table before plugging in her twinkle lights and the pony-sized air purifier in the corner. Both were essential for a ten-by-ten space with no windows and measurable levels of mold. True dat—she’d tested it with a handy gadget she’d picked up at the hardware store. Plopping into her chair, she fired up the computer, smirking when certain tender body parts reminded her of Friday night, all night. And Saturday morning. Whew! As if she needed a reminder.
The phone rang as she was opening her email.
“Hi, Miss Slover. It’s Diane in the office. Can you help with bus duty this morning? Mr. Keene’s out today.”
“Sure. I’ll be down in a minute.”
“How was your conference?”
“Good. Great, uh, presenter.” Maybe she should have taken a personal day today. She couldn’t seem to get her mind out of the gutter, or the shower, or the bed, or…
“Well, you didn’t miss anything. Thursday night was a full moon, and this place was a complete zoo. Kids and animals, they always know.”
“I guess that means this week will be better.”
“Low bar, dear, very low bar.”
Renée hung up to the sound of cackling and grabbed her jacket and keys. Bus duty meant email would have to wait and no prep time for her first group of kids. It wasn’t the best way to start off the week, especially after being out last week for the conference, but she was trying to be more spontaneous, go with the flow. Doubtful anything required immediate attention anyway. She ran a finger down her Monday schedule. Shit. Kindergartners. Even a group of two felt like herding squirrels. She did not envy their teachers dealing with twenty plus of them all day long. Sliding her arm into a jacket sleeve, she locked her door and set off for the buses.
At least they were cute squirrels.
Thank God for Jimmy Swanson’s dentist appointment! It was almost eleven o’clock and his absence gave Renée a chance to at least try to get organized. She was shoving Chutes and Ladders back into her activity closet when the phone rang. She recognized the school psychologist’s extension and tucked the receiver between her shoulder and ear.
“Hey, Melly. Please, tell me you’re calling because you made a Dunky’s run. Coffee. Me. Need.” Bumping the closet door shut with her hip, Renee pulled out construction paper and markers from a tray on top of her file cabinet. Not quite halfway through the school day and already it felt like Monday had lasted two weeks.
“Hello, Miss Slover. Yes, uh, Dante’s parents have arrived and we’re ready to begin the meeting.”
Melly cleared her throat, then lowered her voice, obviously covering the phone. “I emailed you,” she hissed. “They moved it up because Dante’s dad is back in the picture.”
“Shit. I’ll be down in a second. You know I haven’t completed the evaluation yet.”
“No problem, Miss Slover,” Melly said in her chirpy parent voice. “We’ll see you in a minute.”
Renée hung up and looked at the war zone that was her room. Go with the flow. Go with the flow. She repeated the words like a mantra. Say it, live it. There must be a poster with that on it. She’d look for one online this weekend.
She yanked open the cabinet door, dislodging a box of picture symbols that landed corner first on her foot before breaking open and scattering across the floor. “Eff, eff, eff.” Yes, they had been painstakingly organized by subject, verb, and object, but they would have to wait with the hodgepodge of game tokens, glue sticks, and marker lids already littering the greyish green, always slightly damp carpet. Shaking her head, she returned to her original mission, positioning the door so she could see in the mirror affixed to the back.
Dear lord of the fucking flies! She looked like hell, like she’d been through a terrible battle, or dealing with young children which was pretty much the same thing. After freezing outside for an hour of bus duty, she’d marched approximately forty miles back and forth between the kindergarten hallway, the boys’ bathroom, and her stiflingly hot office where she’d blown noses, laid on the floor coloring, ignored bad behavior and showered attention on good, and explained, repeatedly, why everyone gets a turn and that you don’t win every time.
Her hair, once neatly brushed and forming perfect ribbon curls around her shoulders, was now crammed onto the top of her head courtesy of three binder clips. Sweat dotted her upper lip and temples, and her eye pencil, minimal though it was, had smudged á la lemur.
She prided herself on being prepared and organized, on always presenting a professional appearance to parents and administrators. Yes, she was trying to be more spontaneous, less rigid, but this was too much. Typically on days with a meeting scheduled, she would have already assembled her plan book, the student file, and a tablet of paper with two working pens in a stack and ready to go. She liked to arrive precisely fifteen minutes early, staking out a chair between Melly, who led the meetings, and the parents so she could point out progress or test results as she shared them. And she always dressed in something that was both practical and professional. Parents needed to feel confident in her skills, see her as the expert she was, not… Jeesh, she looked like she’d been scrubbing the bathroom floor.
Blotting her face with a tissue, she scribbled some concealer around her eyes, applied a quick swipe of gloss to her chapped lips, and picked the clips from the disaster on her head. Thank God there was a hair tie on the handle of her brush because her hair looked like a ripe dandelion. She brushed it into a severe high pony and grabbed the cardigan she kept in her cabinet for warm weather when the district cranked the air conditioning up to near Arctic temperatures.
Settling her hastily assembled paperwork on her arm, she strode down the crowded hallway to the conference room. Lunch was served in shifts starting at ten forty-five, and for the next three hours each grade would successively begin the process of heading for the cafeteria. As always, it was a cacophony of yelling, shouting, and at least a little crying because someone was pushing, butting, or stealing, or all three. Lunchboxes, money, jackets, and hats were missing, and shoes came flying off as teachers tried, mostly in vain, to get everyone in a line on the second tile from the wall with hands at sides.
Renee blew out a breath, trying to organize her thoughts on Dante as she ducked between lines and dodged swinging elbows and feet. Every twenty feet or so, a little kid would break ranks to fling sticky arms around Renée’s legs.
“Miss Slover, I love you!”
“Miss Slover, when do I come see you?”
“Miss Slover, I threw up last night!”
Of course you did. She laughed. “Wow, sounds like you had an exciting weekend. Uh oh, your class is leaving.” The little girl sprinted away lest she miss a heaping helping of breakfast for lunch, a hands down favorite at PHE and probably fifty times over the sugar and calorie content of what a large adult male should ingest.
Renee made it to the relative quiet of the lobby and glanced down at her gray skinny jeans and long-sleeved tee. A swipe of green marker slashed across her right boob and something shiny and snot-like glistened on her knee. Thanks to bus duty, her ankle boots were stained with salt from the parking lot.
No matter. It wasn’t the crisp chinos and jacket or maybe boots and a skirt she would normally choose for a parent meeting, but her cardigan would cover the marker, and no one would see below her waist once she was seated at the table. Plus, she knew Dante well. She’d been seeing him for correction of the R sound since September. He still called her Miss Slovew but he was making good progress and his mom, Shauna, was easygoing. Probably too much so. A few years younger than Renée, she and Shauna had belonged to the same riding club before Shauna succumbed to peer pressure, as Renée’s mom put it. In short, soon after she entered High School, Shauna discovered boys and pretty much disappeared off the face of the earth. Renée hadn’t seen her for years, until she discovered her here at school with a son in tow.
Stopping just outside the conference room, Renée straightened her shoulders and took in a deep, calming breath. She was just reaching for the door when it flew open and the principal burst through, knocking her back and sending her papers flying. One of her pens skittered across the floor rolling under the piano that had been inexplicably sitting in the hall ever since Renee first started here.
“Whoops, sorry, Miss Slover. Didn’t see you there.” Walkie-talkie squealing with feedback, Mr. Schaeffer hurried off to what was tactfully referred to as a disturbance. It could be anything from a first grader accusing a classmate of stealing his pencil to fifth graders hurling desks across the room.
“No problem.” Especially since she wasn’t the one with a walkie-talkie. Renee squatted down to collect her papers. Luckily her favorite pen was still clutched in her clammy hand, sparing her the indignity of groping around in the dust bunnies lurking under the piano. Clutching the jumble of papers to her chest, she shuffled sideways into the crowded meeting room, toeing the door shut as she leaned over the table to deposit her stuff in a pile.
“Sorry I’m late.” She pulled out her chair and straightened her cardigan before scanning everyone seated around the table—Melly, Mrs. Simon, the classroom teacher, and Brianna, the occupational therapist were to her left. Dante’s mother, Shauna, and his grandfather, John, were next and Renée leaned over to shake their hands, and…
Seven circles of hell and Dumbledore’s fucking wand!
Seated next to Shauna’s dad was none other than Dumbledore himself.
Vic cleared his throat, using the crook of his elbow to cover a shit-eating grin and the urge to laugh. Luckily, after virtually tumbling into the room, little Miss Red Dress had begun introductions on the opposite end of the long conference table so he had time to pick his jaw up off the floor. The very last place he had expected to see her again was at Dante’s school.
“And this is Dante’s father, Vic Fiori.” The school psychologist introduced him, and one Miss Slover shifted her gaze and confident smile from Shauna’s dad to him. She froze, Nice to meet you stuck somewhere between her tongue and teeth.
He stood and leaned across the table to take her hand in his before she had time to snatch it back. This must be how the wolf felt when little red riding hood walked into Grandma’s house. Vic not only had her name, but her number, and an excuse to call her.
“Very nice to meet you, Miss Slover.”
“Mr. Fiori.” She drew out his last name like she was just now connecting the dots between his and Dante’s.
She nodded to the reading specialist before sitting down, her gaze flicking to Vic, then Shauna, and then back again to him. A little crease formed between her brows, the wheels in her brain turning so hard you could almost hear them. He folded his hands on the table and turned his attention back to the psychologist who was leading the meeting. He’d get to Miss—he looked down at his meeting agenda —Renée Slover soon enough. Right now he needed to clear up this shit with Dante.
“Miss Slover, we’ve covered the occupational therapy evaluation and Dante’s most recent report card as well as some of Mrs. Simon’s concerns regarding attendance. Would you like to share your update?” The psychologist, Miss Swan, passed her a copy of the meeting agenda.
“Sure.” Renee extracted a stack of papers from the mess in front of her. Removing the paper clip, she slid them to the reading specialist to pass around while she straightened her cardigan, her ponytail and, by the looks of it, her composure. “This is Dante’s progress note for the last marking period. As you can see from his scores, he’s able to produce R in the initial position and in consonant blends. He’s still working on R in the post-vocalic position, which is the typical path for progress.”
Vic smirked. Nothing like listening to Miss Slover talk about positions. “So, just to be clear,” he said, “you’re saying he has trouble with the R in your last name—Slover—but not your first—Renée.”
“Uh, yes. I’ve given examples on the, uh, page there.”
“That’s French, isn’t it?”
“Pardon?” The word came out in a squeak and Vic rubbed his twitching lip with an index finger.
“Your name, Renée, is French. And then, the R in French would be a consonant blend?”
“Oh, uh, yes. Of course, he calls me Miss Slover, which is hard for him, but the students don’t call teachers by first names, obviously, even though Dante would find it easier, but the, uh, the bottom line is that he’s doing well.”
After speeding up to almost chipmunk velocity, her voice trailed off, her face flushed a bright red. She was probably wishing she could chuck her sweater, but he’d caught a glimpse of her shirt when she first came in. White and tight-fitting, there was a bold green slash of something across where he calculated her nipple to be. He’d bet money the heat could climb to triple digits before Miss Slover would dream of ditching the cardi so he could research the matter further.
“The bottom line is good,” he said, his gaze never leaving her face which, after his reference to Friday night’s hot-as-hell elevator ride, was as good as on fire.
Miss Swan cleared her throat. “Okay, does anyone have any other questions for Miss Slover?” By the looks of it, the psychologist did. She was eyeing Renée over her reading glasses like she was watching an exhibit at the zoo. “We had originally planned to discuss the results of the language evaluation, but we jumped this meeting up in the queue, so we’ll plan to go over that at our next meeting. Our priorities for today are getting Mr. Fiori up to speed with Dante’s progress and to address the issue of attendance.”
And so ended the fun part of the meeting. Vic clenched his jaw, flicking a glance at Shauna. She was clutching her dad’s hand like the little girl she was and probably always would be. When her dad, John, had finally sent him a report card, Dante’s grades were off the charts, and not in a good way. Granted, Vic was equally to blame. Whenever Shauna told him Dante was doing fine, he’d taken her word for it. Probably because that was the answer he wanted—the only one he had time for. But he should have known better. He knew that reality for Shauna was a fluid concept.
He frowned at John. He had expected better of him, but either the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, or John couldn’t draw a line in the sand with his little princess. Probably a combination of both. As it was, Dante had more clothes than ten kids needed. He always had some new haircut going and Shauna got studio photography of him for every holiday, grade change, and sport the kid ever took up. You’d think she could manage to get him down the driveway to the damn bus, but Vic should have known better.
And now Dante was paying the price. Vic looked at the report card. This is what his fuck up had led to. They were considering special ed. for his kid. His bright, funny, easygoing Donny.
“His poor attendance has been an issue for me as well,” Renée said, shuffling through her papers and drawing out a datebook. “Normally I would have completed the testing by now—regardless of the meeting date.” She cleared her throat, as if cutting herself off from saying more as she flipped through the pages, which for some reason irritated Vic. She had a phone. Who the fuck still kept a paper datebook? She ran her finger down the page. “I’ve tried to bring him in for testing on five occasions. He’s either been absent or Mrs. Simon is understandably reluctant to have him miss—”
“I don’t understand why you’re evaluating him again.” Vic knew he sounded testy but he couldn’t help it. He got it. Dante was behind but Vic was here now, and things were going to change. “I’m sorry, but Mrs. Simon is right. Dante needs to be in class, not getting more tests.”
Renée tucked a nonexistent stray hair behind her ear and folded her hands over her datebook. He hadn’t meant to piss her off, but he seemed to be the only one in the room who wanted to get this fucking show on the goddamn road. They were wasting precious time. His son’s time.
“I presently see Dante for articulation—”
“Renée, I appreciate all you do for my son and your detailed explanation.” He lifted her progress note—Exhibit A. “The thing is, I’d like to address the more pressing concern of Dante’s grades, especially reading. I’m happy to meet with you one on one if there’s more you want to tell me about speech.” There. Killed two birds with one stone—they could quit wasting time and he had an excuse to meet with her later.
There was some uncomfortable shifting of papers and throat clearing. Mr. Hastings, the reading specialist, opened his mouth to speak before looking at Renée with a kind of silent SOS.
“I’m sorry if I was unclear, Mr. Fiori. As you weren’t involved in earlier meetings, you may have missed some pertinent information.” Renée raised her chin, obviously miffed, but she could join the fucking crowd. He had asked, as nicely as he could, to get this shitshow going, but they were apparently incapable of moving any faster than a goddamn death march. He huffed out a breath and sat back with crossed arms. Christ, if he did business this way, he’d never get anything done and he’d be stone cold broke. No wonder public schools had shitty reputations. This one didn’t, he’d checked, but that didn’t mean it didn’t have room for improvement, starting with efficiency and time management.
“Let me bring you up to speed, if I may.” She raised her gaze to his for the first time and held it.
He had forgotten the green and gold flecks in her eyes, shifting the color from brown to hazel depending on the light and what she was wearing, or not. He nodded agreeably in hopes she wouldn’t look away. Except for the repeated clicking of the button on top of her pen, she seemed to have recovered her cool as well.
“Right now I see Dante for articulation. Because of his struggles with reading comprehension, however, in December, the team, including Shauna and Dante’s grandfather, made a referral for a language evaluation. This is different and more involved than articulation testing. It will measure Dante’s ability to comprehend and use various components of language. That’s important because we can separate it from, for example, difficulty with reading fluency. I should also mention that once a referral is made, I’m legally bound to address it within a specific timeline.”
Vic studied her. Not as the girl he wanted to fuck again—the sooner the better as far as he was concerned—but as the professional she obviously was. Because despite the kind of ditzy vibe she put off on Friday night, and her less than professional entrance a few minutes ago, it was obvious she knew her job and was committed to it. He had underestimated her. He looked down at his paper. “I see. So, you’ve been seeing Dante for articulation for what, ten weeks? You must have some idea about his language skills, just from talking to him.” He returned his gaze to hers. “Do you think he has learning problems?”
She put the pen aside, returning her hands to their clasped position. “From my informal observations, if Dante has language issues, I doubt they’re severe.”
Mrs. Simon cut in. “Speaking for myself, even if Dante doesn’t qualify for therapy, Miss Slover’s evaluations can pinpoint specific areas where he’s having trouble, and that helps me to help him.”
“In other words,” Renée said, her complexion back to a warm honey color, “we don’t want to waste Dante’s time repeating a unit in Social Studies if we can help him by, for example, chunking directions into smaller pieces. We would all prefer a quick fix, but this process prevents us from what might otherwise be fumbling around in the dark.”
He smiled, half raising an eyebrow. Fumbling around in the dark wasn’t always a bad thing.
“Thanks, Renée. I appreciate you explaining that.” He loved using her first name. It made her nervous—he could tell by the way she rolled her lips or adjusted her ponytail. He folded his hands in front of him, mirroring her position as if it were just the two of them in the room. “You weren’t here for the first part of our discussion. Long story short, now that I’ve moved into the area, Dante will be spending every other week with me, and Shauna and I are committed to getting things back on track as far as attendance and completing homework go.” To the table in general, he said, “What if it’s just an attendance issue? I’m concerned about pulling him for testing and sticking him with labels he maybe doesn’t deserve.”
“I’m afraid it’s beyond that, Mr. Fiori.” Miss Swan regarded him over her reading glasses, a combination of hard truth and sympathy stamped on her features. “Even if Dante comes every single day for the rest of the year, he’ll be pulling double duty—catching up and learning new material. That’s a tough row to hoe.”
So, there it was. He’d done his son irreparable harm. Well, hopefully not irreparable because he was going to do everything in his power to make up for it.
To Be Continued
Sarah McGregor is the award-winning romance author of Indecent Proposal and He Loves Me Knot. A native Midwesterner, she makes her home on the eastern seaboard with her family and an assortment of cats, dogs, and horses. She finds that the best stories come to her while sitting on a tractor or running. When all hell isn't breaking on the farm and there isn't a global pandemic, she likes to travel.
Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlights: December 2021
The Healing Properties of Tea
I was almost afraid to open the box, never having received a gift so precious. The outside said in big, bold letters, “Porcelain Toy Tea Set.” I ignored the word “toy” and focused on the word “porcelain.” Surely porcelain, whatever that was, made it very special.
I had seen a show on television about people who lived in Japan and the special tea ceremonies they had. The costumes and dishes and flowers were so beautiful and the people were smiling. Oh, how I wished I could go there! I was fascinated by something that was so very different from everything in my little world which extended only as far as the front yard.
My family had no visitors or neighbors and I had never been anywhere. There were no vacations but I knew from television that those were only for rich people. My summers were spent mostly in the big garden behind our house and in the kitchen. Long rows of corn, tomatoes, peppers, green beans, peas, lima beans, potatoes, squash, cucumbers, onions, and carrots were spread out in front of me every day, just waiting to be weeded or picked while mosquitoes and sheep flies buzzed overhead and bit my arms before I could slap them away. When I started in the morning, my bare feet made little tracks in the dark, damp soil that was soft and cool. I liked that better than walking on the dusty cracked ground when the sun was blazing hot after lunch.
I was afraid of a lot of things, but my biggest fear was being stung by a tomato worm. They were the same color as the tomato plant so they were very hard to spot. I knew for sure that they were poisonous (my brother said that I could die if I got stung) so I was very careful when picking tomatoes. But that meant I went slower and didn’t always finish the row.
I didn’t like picking corn because the leaves could cut like a knife and some of the ears were full of smut, nasty looking stuff all swollen and grey, puffing out of the top of the ear. It was an ugly surprise when I pulled it down to drop it in the bushel basket that I drug along beside me.
I could pick peas and beans without too much trouble although once I wasn’t paying attention and pulled up a whole bean plant. I looked around to make sure nobody saw me and quickly put the drooping plant back in the ground, packing dirt around the broken roots and kept going, pretending it never happened. Maybe one of my brothers would get blamed for it.
When picking was done for the day, there were hours spent husking corn on the back steps and snapping beans or shelling peas and limas spread out on newspaper on the same table where we ate dinner. We canned beans and froze sweet corn at night because my mother couldn’t bear the heat that came from boiling and canning until after the sun went down. She didn’t seem to mind the night bugs – the gnats and little black insects with hard shells that flipped themselves around instead of crawling – that gathered around the ceiling light. They worried me something awful. The longer we worked, the bigger the swarm got. The kitchen must have been too hot for some of them because in the morning I swept up a whole bunch that lay dead even though they were hard to see, mixed in with the squiggly pattern on the floor. I don’t know where the other bugs went in the daytime but I hoped they went back outside.
My first trip away from home was on a school bus to attend first grade where the only person I knew was my brother. He told me two things: I wasn’t allowed to cry and I wasn’t allowed to talk to him. That didn’t help me at all. At least schoolwork was pretty easy: just do what I was told. Line up. Be quiet. Read a story and write what it was about. That was a whole lot easier than picking tomatoes. I leaned my head against the bus window on the ride home and thought about the people in Japan. It gave me hope that a different kind of life was possible even if it wasn’t very likely.
I remembered those happy people in Japan when I added the tea set to my Christmas list that year. I never dreamed that I might actually get it. But sitting there on the floor in front of the tree on Christmas morning was the Classic Blue Bird design box set, just what I had circled in the Sears Christmas catalog, the Wish Book. My mother only shopped at Sears. Never anywhere else except the A&P store on Thursday mornings and Stanley’s newsstand where she bought my father’s newspapers every Sunday. She placed her Sears order over the phone and picked it up at the catalog store in town. If there was anywhere else to buy things, I sure didn’t know about it. I thought everything came from Sears.
That Christmas, just like every year, there were no names on the gifts. My brothers and sisters and I rushed down the steps from our three bedrooms and made our way into the living room. There were seven unwrapped gifts around the tree that we had put up and decorated the day before. One gift for each of us.
As I hurried to get to the tree, I nearly tripped on the hem of the heavy flannel gown I wore. The traditional Christmas Eve gift from my grandmother, it felt like cardboard and was a size too large, but I had been required to wear it. At least it was better than the too-small slippers she gave me last year. That’s all she ever gave us, nightgowns and pajamas or slippers.
My older brothers and sisters quickly selected their gifts, though I can’t be sure what they were, and my younger sister was playing with some sort of baby toy, so the tea set must be mine.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the box. The picture showed white dishes with a dainty blue pattern. A tree with two birds sitting on the branches was surrounded by a scrolling blue border in a swirling design. I had never seen birds like that but decided that they must be the kind of birds that live in Japan. White birds with blue feathers, a big head and short, pointy blue beaks.
The words on the box said, “An Oriental-inspired formal tea set she’ll use proudly.” Formal. See, it was important. I knew it! I looked closely and saw very small letters that said “Yamada Toshio Shoten – Made in Japan.” It was official! Just like the picture in the Wish Book: service for six with teapot, creamer and sugar bowl. I quickly scrawled my name on the box, labeling it as mine, claiming ownership in my best six-year-old penmanship, just like I learned in school.
An orange Nerf ball sailed by, followed by my brother lurching in front of me to retrieve it. Instinctively I moved to guard my new possession.
“Hey! What do you have there? Is it for your doll baby?” he taunted. “Let me see!”
I silently held my ground, defiant even though I knew he had ultimate power. Soon he became bored with bothering a little sister and resumed playing with the rest of the boys, throwing the Nerf ball at the new basketball hoop fastened over the door of the hall closet.
My attention turned back to my special present. Gingerly I removed the box top, anxious to see if the set was as I had imagined. Inside, the contents rested in their own special pink partitioned sections. Plates with cardboard dividers, a stack on each side. One type of plate was a saucer to go under the teacup and the bigger one was for sugar cookies (at least that’s what I decided). The creamer and sugar bowl were located in little pink square spaces between the plates. Above them were the cups, each nestled safely within their own little divider. The teapot occupied the prominent center section with the lid to it and the sugar bowl to the right of it.
All of this was new to me. At our house, we only served iced tea, usually in tall glasses or plastic cups, and we certainly didn’t have a teapot of any sort. Our dishes didn’t have any birds or swirls on them. They were plain and chipped and they didn’t match. None of them was as nice looking as these. That’s the way it was: everything we owned was plain. Nothing pretty and definitely nothing fancy. We had things that we needed and apparently we didn’t need pretty things.
I had no idea why the set included something called a creamer, but if it was in there, it must be necessary. I asked a girl at school about it and she said that her mother used a creamer when she put milk in hot tea. I’d never seen anyone drink hot tea and didn’t even know that tea could be served hot. Putting milk in it seemed strange, but if that’s what they did in Japanese tea ceremonies, then it must be right.
I was so careful with this valuable tea set that I never opened the box when anyone else was around. I didn’t want my brothers to use the plates as miniature Frisbees or break the handle off the teapot. They could be so clumsy! No, this was special, and it was mine, and I was determined to protect it.
On days when I believed it was safe, I filled the teapot with iced tea (without the ice), and if I had any cookies, I put them on the plate beside my cup. I poured a tiny amount of tea in the little cup, placed it on the saucer, and then slowly sipped in the most formal way I could imagine, just like the people I had seen on television. And when I was done dreaming of being born into a different family during another time in a faraway place, I carried the dishes to the sink and washed each one carefully. Instead of leaving them in the drainer to dry where they were in danger of being broken, I dried them individually and put them away in their secret compartments. Then I tucked the box in the back of my closet under a blanket, hidden from anyone who might be rummaging for the Magic Eight Ball or the Parcheesi game.
Today when I notice the tea set in its box on the shelf, I am amazed that it has survived at all and even more incredulous that every single piece is still there, intact, with each item right where it belongs. The pattern is worn and faded in some spots (just like me), having rubbed against the corrugated liner during many moves to new locations, but overall, it is just as I remember it. The birds are still perched in their same positions, frozen in time as symbols of hope and possibility.
Charlotte Zang lives on a farm near the Chester River in Chestertown, Maryland. Her work has appeared in Mused Literary Review (Spring, Summer and Fall 2012 editions), Voice Lux Journal (Dec. 2020) as well as the Bay to Ocean Journal in 2020 and 2021. She published a chapbook titled Night Travels on Amazon. Charlotte writes for a living. Her articles have appeared in local publications including Kent Island Neighbors and The Metropolitan Magazine. She interviews executives from around the country, telling their stories through LinkedIn profiles and business articles. Her work includes creating social media content, email blasts, newsletters, website copy, press releases and more for a variety of clients. She assists authors by editing, proofreading and marketing their books. In addition, Charlotte is a real estate investor who is captivated by historic homes.
Photo by: Markus Spiske
Digging to China
My tin shovel hit the stone shard
in the sandbox and I knew in my five-
year-old bones it was a tip of the Devil’s
horns—what a dumb little girl I was, thinking
I could get to China without going
first through Hell. My stomach soured with dread,
I threw my shovel and high-tailed it back
home and took to my bed. It’s not like
the Devil was ever a big player
in our house—my parents weren’t religious,
just Episcopal, and the only time
I ever heard the word Devil was what
my mother did with hard boiled eggs,
or what daddy was drunk and mad as.
A 2012 Pushcart Prize recipient, Nancy Mitchell is the author of The Near Surround, Grief Hut, and The Out-of-Body Shop and co-Editor of Plume Interviews I. Her poems have or will appear in such journals as Agni, Green Mountains Review, Ploughshares, Thrush, Washington Square Review, and others. Mitchell serves as the Associate Editor of Special Features for Plume Poetry, and is the Poet Laureate of Salisbury, Maryland. She hosts the Poets on the Plaza Reading Series live and on Zoom.
Bay to Ocean Journal Spotlight: November 2021
I’ve spent much of my life waiting, though each wait had an unusual twist.
My sailing days come immediately to mind. I’m a lifelong sailor.
Any sailor navigating the Chesapeake Bay knows how it goes. It’s something like this: One day there’s a fair breeze. Expectations are high, as my wife and I weigh anchor, set sail and glide down the creek. From Broad Creek we sail into the Choptank River and head out for the Chesapeake Bay. It’s mid-August and the summer heat is murderous. The breeze helps some.
In about an hour the breeze shifts a little, becomes erratic and then stops. We swelter in the heat. The wakes of passing motorboats cause us to roll and pitch. The rigging begins arrhythmic slapping against the mast, protesting our delay, while gulls and butterflies glide effortlessly past the boat as though mocking us.
We’re dead in the water. The Bay’s glossy surface looks torpid and viscous for miles around. My world has simply stopped.
Then, on the distant horizon, I see a long line; it’s unmistakable. Behind the line the water is darker and appears troubled, as though shivering or perhaps herring are running just below the surface. No, there’s a breeze out there. Coming our way? Yes, and, we wait. Even the murderous heat can’t draw our attention from the line that moves with agonizing hesitancy, but inexorably in our direction. The water grows darker as the breeze draws closer. Soon the sails flutter, the rigging grows taught, and I hear the hollow rush of the hull as it slices through the water.
The waiting is over … for now.
I am an octogenarian, eight score and five, to be precise. I wonder about the measure of my days. How many are left, I think to myself? Just how will they will end? I wait to see.
I am also a man living in the midst of a lethal pandemic, unprecedented in modern history. In stores, I stand in long lines, masked like a robber, and always six feet from others, and I wait. I also wait for COVID-19 to end, but uncertain what the ending might look like. At times I feel as though I’m living my life like the person who sits waiting in an emergency room. He hopes for the best and fears the worst. In any case I wait expectantly. I’ve been waiting, in one way or another, my whole life. In life, standing and waiting is the name of the game. And there are all kinds of waiting.
The etymology of the word “wait” suggests that over time it’s carried mixed messages for us, or more likely, we’ve mixed its messages. Its early meaning communicated that “one waits with hostile intent,” like “you better watch out.” It seems to have morphed over time assuming a different tone, the state of being awake or alert. It has evolved to mean generally either to stand by in attendance (serve) or to endure.
Few of us like to wait. There’s the universal sense bred in us that we need “to get on with it.” In our “now” generation, waiting is not cool. The express lane is where it’s always best to queue up.
I’ve known a kind of waiting that is troubled by the inconsistences inherent in what the waiting’s about, times when I’m sitting and wishing for two things at once, wishes wholly incompatible with each other. I’m thinking of that day being with my mother. It would be the last day I would ever be with her.
I’d driven from Connecticut to New Jersey, where my mother was staying with my sister. Terminally ill, my mother’s end was near and I wanted to be with her to share in some of her waiting. It was early June, warm and sunny. I sat by her bed where she dozed off and on. A copy of the New York Times crossword puzzle lay beside her. She had done them daily as long as I could recall. She’d just figured out a word. She penciled it in, looked dreamily pleased with herself before putting it aside and nodding off.
The window was half open. A sheer curtain hung there and the sunlight illuminated the translucent images of butterflies imprinted on it. The curtain rose and fell with the light breeze, creating the illusion of oversized butterflies dancing at the windows. My mother and I talked, circumstantially, neither of us really speaking our minds, but I was there to wait, not necessarily to talk.
As I waited I kept trying to square two thoughts, feelings really, neither one remotely in accord with the other. As waves of grief fell over me I knew I did not want to let her go. And still, I wanted her to go, to die. The two-year bout with cancer had ravaged her body and although she remained remarkably good-natured through all the indignities and pain of a lingering illness, I wanted her suffering to end. I felt guilty as if by even entertaining such a thought––wanting her death––I was betraying her. This time of waiting for me was not governed by anything that made sense or what was best. It was governed by the primal ache that arises when we have to confront the most painful of all human realities; that day when we will have to surrender those we love.
As I’ve thought about it, her waiting was much more single-minded than mine. I knew she’d had enough and was ready to go. Her illness had prepared her for what was inevitable and so she was able to face her future at that moment with less turmoil than I was. Life was still holding pleasures for me that constitutionally she would no longer be able to have. She knew it. I had then no idea of her world. All I could do was wait a while with her and try to access my love for her amid my own inner turmoil.
Sometimes waiting is just plain waiting and it’s a pure joy. It’s all about anticipation.
As a child in the 1940s––long before Amazon Prime––I remember how receiving mail was a big deal. During WWII, I received V-Mails, letters from my father serving with the Army in the European theater. What lent the letters their allure and peculiar mystique were the words that always preceded the salutation: “Somewhere in Europe.” The fact that his whereabouts had to be kept a secret only added mystery to his already heroic stature, as I imagined him the mighty warrior on a foreign battlefield.
These were also the days when I sent a quarter and a Kellogg’s cereal box top to the cereal manufacturer to receive my Secret Decoder Ring. What the secret was that the ring decoded is lost to history. I remember only that I wanted one desperately.
I sent my box top and quarter off to get my ring. Anticipating the mail each day was almost painful in its anticipatory promise. And one day the ring came in the mail. I haven’t the vaguest notion today how the ring looked; what’s indelible in my mind is the energy I felt daily in anticipating the promise that each day’s mail held for me.
I suppose now, as I’m living well into my days as an octogenarian, this has highlighted for me the business of waiting. The wait for my end is growing shorter, but the time remaining is deep and rich. Depth is more my preoccupation now than duration. With a trove of experiential treasures behind me––some seemed hardly treasures at the time––still I can assemble the mixed pieces of so many of my past “waitings” into a collage, and weave a tissue of significance from them. My eyes are not as good as they once were, but I know I see a lot more clearly than I did forty years ago. I used to be nearsighted. Now I’m hind-sighted.
I think I now understand why I’ve spent so much of my life often impatient with most forms of waiting I’ve had to endure. It’s because I never really understood how nothing is ever really finished, nor had I grasped just how tentative life really is. That anything is really over is one of the illusions we create in our ignorance. One act ends, but the play resumes. Becoming continues on in its evolutionary trajectory, just as you and I have. Think of it--from the Milky Way, to pond scum, to primates, to homo sapiens, and arriving where we are today, and even now we keep on going.
Matter, science tells me, is neither created nor destroyed, only transformed. I like to think that’s the case with my spirit, too.
“Dear friends,” writes the author the Bible’s First Epistle of John: “Now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known.”
This much has been made known, for sure. I’ll have to wait to find out.
George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.
Bay to Ocean Anthology Spotlight: September/October 2021
Photo credit: "The Mist" by Abishek
If their song presaged death, it wasn’t ours
wherever it is those souls are going.
It could be so. But it’s not like I know
Catherine Carter grew up in Greensboro, Maryland, but now lives in Cullowhee, North Carolina, where she is a professor of English at Western Carolina University. Her most recent collection of poetry with LSU Press is Larvae of the Nearest Stars (2019). Her award-winning poetry has also appeared in Best American Poetry 2009, Orion, Poetry, Ecotone, Southern Humanities Review, RHINO, and Ploughshares, among others. "Whippoorwills, Souls" appears in the 2020 edition of Bay to Ocean: The Year's Best Writing from the Eastern Shore Writers Association. For more about Catherine, visit her her website: https://catherinecarterpoetry.com
The Making of a Mariner
I had been pretty much a nebbish as a kid. My folks were blue collar. We moved from Philly to Bucks County just before I went into Junior High School, where I was given opportunity to learn to play the trombone. But other than music, I had no strong interests. The curiosity that can create a lifelong learner was non-existent up to that point. Then I discovered maps.
My seventh grade Geography teacher, Miss Hart, was clearly responsible for what happened. She had speckled grey hair, bound up in a bun, always with a pencil stuck in it. Her default demeanor was a tight-lipped frown. The horn-rimmed glasses accentuated her latent ferocity.
I was fascinated with the atlases, maps and charts of all kinds that I discovered in her class. She noticed this and put me to work drawing them and reporting on the information that they provide. I learned about political borders, topographical features of the earth, and the socio-economic significance of land masses being divided by rivers, seas and oceans.
Miss Hart also taught seventh grade English. The curriculum, if I remember correctly, was half diagramming sentences and half writing book reports. She doled out reading assignments based on the individual student's reading level, but with an attempt to tailor content to individual interests. In my case, she picked titles with travel adventure themes. She started me on Stevenson's Treasure Island. This was followed up with Kingsley's Westward Ho, a biography of John Paul Jones, and a story about how Sir Frances Drake defeated the Spanish Armada of 1588 CE.
I was hooked. Seafaring meant travel to foreign places. My recreational reading continued along nautical lines. I started building those plastic ship model kits. Wow. The U.S. Navy had some really cool warships--destroyers, cruisers, battleships--with cannons, torpedoes and depth charges.
The more I read about ships and seafaring, the more I wanted the real thing. I wanted to know what it felt like to actually move across water in a boat. Before my seventh grade year was finished, I learned that there was something called Sea Scouts, and there was a troop in the nearby town of Bristol, located on the banks of the Delaware River.
Pestering my mom worked fine. (My dad didn't want anything to do with water for reasons I never learned). So I got a sailor suit and was attending monthly meetings at a local parish house where the pastor, Reverend O'Conner, served as troop leader. I learned knot tying, chart reading, anchoring, boat terminology and other delightful maritime lore.
The best part was having a boat on which we applied our seafaring skills during summer months. It was a 32-foot long, double-ender, carvel-built wooden whaleboat. There were eight oars, four to a side. It also had a 30 horsepower inboard engine with a single screw. Steering was by tiller.
Putting on my seaman’s garb prior to a meeting made me quiver in anticipation. During the summer months, we'd meet at the parish house two, sometimes three, times a month. We then piled into the good reverend's truck for transport to a marina on Neshaminy Creek, south of Bristol, where our boat was docked. We'd motor out of the creek onto the river and puddle about, learning to keep a lookout, ship oars and row, anchor, tie up to the public pier at Bristol, and keep out of the way of the giant ore boats that steamed up river to the steel plant near Trenton.
One nifty lesson involved our troop leader deliberately jamming the boat onto a mud bank. Our job was to figure out how to get it back into deeper water without getting mud sucked up into the motor's water intake system. We succeeded--returning to port wet, muddy and gleeful.
And then, one of the scouts, Tony, came to a few of us with an idea. He lived in Tullytown, a predominately Italian-American community just north of Bristol. Tony was a natural born organizer. He was tall, thin, with dark hair, and dark eyes that squinted at the world as if looking for an opportunity to take advantage of anything.
"Guys, how'd ya like to earn a few bucks?"
We looked at each other. Tony was full of ideas--mostly crazy and unworkable.
"Look, this is legit. My uncle owns some bars and he needs help with transporting stuff he uses in the bars."
Fat Johnny said, "We're just kids. What can we do? Ya mean moving boxes in a storeroom? Or what?"
"Nah, this is big time stuff," said Tony with a grin.
"Okay, so spit it out. What's your idea?" Billy was skeptical. He'd previously gotten expelled from school for three days because he followed Tony into one of his numerous escapades.
"My uncle wants us to transport a bunch of boxes across the river."
I said, "That doesn't make any sense. Your uncle can send one of his trucks across the river to pick up stuff."
Tony's grin got even wider. "He can't use his trucks. Ya see, it's against the law for people in Pennsylvania to buy liquor in Jersey and bring the bottles back here."
"It's a matter of tax. The government here taxes booze and Jersey doesn't. So it's cheaper in Jersey. If someone brings a case of booze across the bridge from Jersey and the State cops catch him, they can take his truck and put him in the hoosegow. But if my uncle can get the bottles for his bars from across the river, he can save a lot of money, and if we can do the transport, he'll pay us for each load."
Billy grimaced. "How can we do that?"
"By boat of course." Tony beamed in appreciation of his own genius.
I smiled back. Smuggling. Having just finished reading Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel, my mind was filled with images of smuggling across the English Channel during the French Revolution.
Then I had another thought. "You're crazy if you think we can use our Sea Scout boat for smuggling."
Tony sighed. "Where do we stay when we do a two-day training out on the water?"
"Billy's house of course. He lives right next to the marina.. But how do we get O'Conner to let us use the boat?"
Tony's grin returned. "We don't need to. I pressed the engine key into a bar of soap and got a cousin who works in a machine shop to make a copy. When O'Conner goes home Saturday night, we'll make a run up to Trenton and get back before morning."
I looked at him in silence. This was wild.
Tony said, "You've got the river chart and can navigate. Billy can get gas from his dad's shed and can run the engine. Johnny will crew and I'm the business manager."
How could I resist? A smuggler on the river? How cool is that? I said, "I'm in."
Billy asked, "How much do we get?"
"Twenty-five bucks each for one trip."
That seemed to nail it. Over the next two years, we managed to pull off three trips each summer. The excitement of each trip was amazing. Shortly after dark, we'd go into the marina, gas up, cast off, and motor slowly out of Neshaminy Creek.
The passage up the Delaware River was easy. I was thrilled to be the navigator, in charge of piloting our craft to its goal. The channel was well marked with lateral buoys, and we steered from one buoy to another by magnetic compass, using the chart to determine the course directions.
In summer, the air over the river was cool and permeated with variegated aromas from the passing shoreline. The smells ranged from petroleum to pine. There was no river traffic at night, so it was a safe passage.
Arriving at a condemned pier on the south end of Trenton, the capital of New Jersey, three flashes of a flashlight would elicit a corresponding reply from a vehicle waiting on shore. Billy would nudge our boat dockside, and then Johnny and I would jump onto the pier to secure bow and stern lines. The guys on the truck would bring cases of booze out onto the pier and we would stack them into our vessel. My main job was to ensure we didn't overload or create a list. Tony tallied the cases as required by his uncle.
On the return trip, we would dock at the public pier in Bristol, where the same truck would be waiting for us. After discharging our cargo, we returned to the marina, tied up, and snuck back into Billy's house. The next day we awaited the good Reverend dockside for our outing on the river, feeling smug with the knowledge of our shared adventure.
Our smuggling career lasted two summers. The Reverend O'Conner's suspicions were aroused one day after Billy forgot to refill the gas tank. Our scout leader checked the engine's running hours meter against his log book and realized that he hadn’t noticed the gaps in the ending and starting times, indicating unaccounted for running times in the log.
He told us he suspected someone in the marina was using our boat and had reported his suspicions to the local constabulary. At that point, we knew our career as smugglers was over.
I don't know what happened later in life to the others in our smuggling crew. For my part, a family friend learned of my interest in seafaring. He introduced me to the United States Merchant Marine Academy (Kings Point), one of our five federal military service academies. A graduate, class of 1944, and Captain of a large tanker, he connected my passion with a road map into my future.
His introduction to this school was electrifying. From that point on, I had only one goal in life, to become a Kings Point midshipman. That was critical to my personal and professional development in life. I graduated from the academy in 1962. That was the beginning of a career that traversed oceans, rivers and continents.
I often think back to Miss Hart. She kickstarted my entry to the maritime world. It's a shame that great teachers often never learn of what they created with the human materials they mold.
Den Leventhal, a graduate of the USMMA, followed seafaring with Chinese Studies at University of Pennsylvania and National Taiwan University, and a 30-year career in China business development. His publications include How to Leap a Great Wall in China: The China Adventures of a Cross-Cultural Trouble-Shooter (2014). Sino-Judaic Studies: Whence and Whither (1985), The Chess of China (1978), and numerous articles Retiring to Chestertown, he serves as a volunteer NRP Reserve Officer. "The Making of a Mariner" appears in the 2019 edition of Bay to Ocean: The Year's Best Writing from the Eastern Shore Writers Association.
Bay to Ocean Anthology Spotlight: August 2021
Photo credit: "Burning Dandelion" by Henry Be
I watched my grandfather burn to death. I stood by the side of the barn and watched him roll in a bed of leaves, the flames fueled by his jacket and his skin. I watched with a child’s eyes open as big and wide as they would ever get.
The flames stood tall and grandfather lay low. A sooty smolder of leaves fallen from the apple tree and the odor of scorched flesh mingled with late afternoon heat. There is no other odor like burnt flesh. I would not smell it again until I was an adult and my cat jumped on a hot electric burner. I vomited on the way to the vet's office, and went into shock, but the cat was fine.
On that day though, Grandpa did not have nine lives, and he rolled slower and slower and then he did not stand again. I backed up against the clapboard barn and gazed with eyes which had not yet seen Fluffy’s kittens born, which had not yet noticed my mom’s pregnancy. I stood long enough. My eyes teared in the smoke.
I watched death before I understood anything of life.
I am told Grandpa, before his stroke, was a different man, a methodical and caring man, who, because I cried when he carried me as a baby, shaved his mustache. Then I loved him and never cried again.
This is not that memory.
This is my own story because no one has told me what that afternoon meant or why I was chosen to witness. It is not one of those stories so rich you want to savor its aroma with the Thanksgiving coffee and dessert of pumpkin pie. This is not one of those stories told over and over, because after one telling you are stuffed and it sits unsettled on overindulgence as does rich food.
This is a wizened story, events dried and long past, but not wiser with age. I tell this now to find the meaning I did not understand on that day and have not yet understood.
I was at the far corner of the chicken coop, where I wasn’t supposed to be, in a spot where Grandma could not see me from the house. I teased the roosters because she told me not to and because I didn’t like her as well as my other grandma, who liked me better too.
I poked the rooster with a stick just to annoy, to agitate, and deliberately to disobey the grandmother who always told me what to do. The rooster rushed me, angry with beady eyes, but with my weapon I was more powerful and made him back away. I did not want to hurt him, just to be the picador in his life.
This is what I tell myself in later and more mature years, although I think this is a lie, the kind you tell yourself because you are afraid if you tell the truth, no one will love you; you won’t love yourself.
Grandma clucked and fussed and adored Grandpa with a fierceness I envied.
When she put me down for a nap, I scratched her headboard with my hair clip, just below the pillow line. I want to tell you I did that on the same day, to exculpate my spite, in hopes you might gasp and say, oh, poor thing; don’t worry, no wonder; it was the grief you couldn’t express.
I want it to be that day because Grandpa’s bed was empty.
If it wasn't that day I hope to be excused as a child who did not understand, but that is not sufficient for the jealousy, the spite, the disobedience. If it wasn’t that day, I have to admit bad intentions.
I hid underneath the porch that same day, or the day before. Grandma was always peering out the door, anxious to locate me. The fact that I was missing was the reason, I am certain, she looked into the back garden that late afternoon. On that day I switched my eyes from the flames to the house, perhaps to find my grandmother. I noticed her at last, peering through the glass storm door, watching her husband burn. Her open mouth, round and large and voiceless, hovered over her bib apron starched white against the darkness of her lips.
That afternoon I stood at the corner of the chicken coop and did not speak. I watched Grandma’s face pressed on the door. I looked to the fire, and back, but Grandma was gone from the door. I did not know what she thought: perhaps I was responsible or, in the fire with Grandpa or, maybe she did not realize there was a body in the leafy pyre until it was too late for him. I knew only what a child could know.
The fire engine drove to the wide front of the barn. I liked the cocky firemen in rooster yellow helmets. rushing across our garden, doors open wide, and the gurney with my grandfather pushed inside.
I think one of them scooped me up but not before I saw the somber ambulance rushing across our garden, doors open wide, and the gurney with my grandfather, charred ashes, buttons melted to bone.
Mary Pauer has received three literary fellowships from the Delaware Division of Arts in fiction and creative nonfiction. Her work can be read in Southern Women’s Review, The Fox Chase Review, Delmarva Review, Delaware Today, The Chaos, The Avocet, and, among others, and in anthologies featuring local authors. Her work has national recognition, including the Sally Reinhart Award and several National Press Association awards. Her new collection, Traveling Moons, won the 2018 Delaware Press award for book poetry. For many years she has been a judge for the Beach Reads story contest. Her story, “Burn,” was nominated by the Bay to Ocean editors for a Pushcart Award.
Photo credit: "Grey Stone" by John Doyle
Carol Casey lives in Betterton, a small beachfront town
located where the Sassafras River meets the Chesapeake Bay. She worked as a
writer and editor for The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.,
and lived in Baltimore near Patterson Park until returning to the Eastern
Shore. She writes poetry and fiction. Her poem, “How to Make a Beach,” and
short story, “Widow,” were nominated for a Pushcart Prize. "How to Make a Beach" was published in the 2019 Bay to Ocean anthology.
Bay to Ocean Anthology Spotlight: July 2021
Jack MackeyPandemic Blues Day 43: In Which I Invite the Germs In
I busy myself making
involving ingredients I don't have
to shop for--flour and water, and hope
for a few sympathetic microbes will fly
into my kitchen alive and ready to work,
leaven this flat feeling that our lockdown
could last what's left of my life. I'm doing whatever
keeps me from sleeping
all day, drinking too much.
On YouTube the helpful man uses just
a measuring cup, eschews
a digital scale and all its romantic precision.
Just eyeball it, leave something to chance, he says.
This recipe for anarchy, his casual approach
suits me just fine I think of all the things
you can do just enough--
like a life--chug along for years without a plan,
dump Tinkertoys on the carpet
knowing a few pieces are lost,
make what you can
or take a road trip in an old car
with squiggly line signs to warn you
of the cliff, but not when you'll meet it.
A carefree journey marked
by ambiguous symbology, open to interpretation
open to hope--
So when the gloppy mess goes rancid after a few days
I pour it down the drain, mix a new batch of chaos,
lid the jar loosely, open a window, and
welcome in the air from outside.
Jack Mackey lives in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. He received his M.A. in English from the University of Maryland. Jack is the 2021 Delaware Fellow in Poetry (Emerging), and his work has appeared in the Broadkill Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Mojave Review, and others. For more about Jack, visit his website here. "Pandemic Blues Day 43: In Which I Invite the Germs In" was published in the 2020 Bay to Ocean anthology.
"Sunset Along the Chesapeake Bay", by Sarah Cottle
In the New Bridge's Shadow
I had tried to tell my granddaughter Lizzie, that I did not want to go with her, couldn’t care less, wasn’t interested. I argued with her on the phone for a full twenty minutes, knowing all the while that she was still coming to get me by the sounds of her driving in the background of our conversation. I hustled as fast as my 86-year-old frame would move, to change out of my farm clothes into something suitable for a Sunday drive.
It wasn’t a Sunday; it was a Wednesday, but you would not know it for all the traffic on Dover Bridge Road. I could see it from my porch, as I sat squeaking out a rhythm in my cane rocker, waiting for her little blue SUV to race up my dirt lane, dust billowing in her wake. The traffic was headed one place, Dover Bridge, the new one that is. They had officially opened it today, and everyone wanted to be one of the first cars to cross it. The Governor and his wife had taken the ceremonial last drive across the old bridge, then the first official drive across the new bridge, in a 1941 Buick convertible. It had been all over the midday news. I guess they could not find a vintage car from the year the old Dover Bride was opened to use.
I had been one of the first ones to cross the old one when it was new in 1932, sort of. We share the same birthday, myself and the first Dover Bridge. The morning of the opening ceremony my parents and some of their friends packed picnics and piled into the back of an old Ford model TT farm truck. It had wooden slats for the bed and rails. My mother was sure that the bumpy ride on those rough, splintery boards, in the back of that truck, had been what had sent her into labor.
Finding a nice spot on the bank, they joined the other picnickers who had gathered to enjoy the spectacle of the ribbon cutting. This new bridge was going to be a godsend, an inter-county connector that would cut a two to three-hour ride to get emergency medical help down to twenty or thirty minutes. Most of the neighbors from the surrounding area had put on their Sunday finest, and come down to the edge of Choptank River in Caroline or Talbot County to witness the opening. Boats were crossing back and forth through the opened center span, just for the novelty of the experience.
My father had wanted to be an engineer when he was younger, but there was no money for him to continue his education beyond the sixth grade when he had to quit to help on the family farm. He had become obsessed with any structure made of steel, and the new bridge was no exception. My mother told me that for the handful of years it took the McLean Company to raise that bridge out of the muddy marsh, father was down there at the construction site at least once a week, watching or chatting with the workers.
That day was supposed to be a day of celebration, father was in the middle of telling all who would listen about how the bridge was 843-foot-long, 24 feet wide with a 16-foot clearance and a one of kind “Warren Truss Swing Bridge.” He was in his glory, lecturing on his favorite topic for a rapt audience.
“Warren Truss bridges are generally for railroad crossings, so that makes it unique that they are using it here for this bridge. There are two other swing bridges in Maryland, but we’ve got the only one with Warren style trusses. Do you see the steel girder triangles? Those are equilaterals, and that design makes it strong and lightweight at the same time. As cars and trucks drive across it, the force from their weight will be channeled into the beams, spreading out, and become a shared load across the bridge surface. In the center there, in that housing just above the waterline is a great big mechanism that will make the bridge swing open. When a boat pulls up to it, the keeper will throw a switch that will make the center turn, opening it for the boat to pass through. Then he’ll close it back up.”
He did not get to really launch into a full oratory on the history of Maryland bridges, because I chose that moment to throw the switch on my own bridge mechanism, sending my mother into labor.
My mother’s water had broken on the Caroline side of the Choptank, and the hospital at that time was housed in the upper floors of the Tidewater Hotel in Easton, on the Talbot side of the river. There was only one way to get there in time, and that was to cross the new Dover Bridge.
Poor mother was unceremoniously loaded back into the bed of the truck once more, as our friends and neighbors helped her to try and get comfortable on the blankets they had just been picnicking on. The men climbed into the cab of the truck and the women all sat in the back with her, just in case mother would deliver during the trip. The center span of the bridge was open at this moment, as all the local dignitaries were having their picture taken with the giant scissors and ribbon for the local paper.
The state trooper keeping order at the proceedings, flagged father down, ordering him to stop and turn around until he heard my mother moaning from the bed. It was the trooper that made the officials move and open the bridge, long enough to let us pass, as they did not want to at first. They went on to have their ceremony after we had crossed but the excitement of my birth was strategically left out of the history of Dover Bridge.
The happy barking of my black lab, Dulcie, brought me out of reminiscing. It was Lizzie, tearing up the drive.
“Pop!” She jumped out of the driver seat, waving at me, barely getting it in park.
“Hey there Lizzie girl!” I’ll never tell the others but she’s my favorite, reminds me of my Margaret, all red curls, coltish limbs, infection mirth, and joyful spirit.
“I see you changed your clothes, I thought you said that doing this was just nonsense.”
“Hmph, smart ass.” She had me and she knew it.
“Do you want to drive?”
“That newfangled foreign thing? No. Besides, your mother would kill you if she knew you let me drive.” My license had been taken by my daughter a while ago. It was one thing for me to drive around the farm in my old beater pickup, checking the herds and the fence line, but I was not supposed to be out on the roads anymore. I had failed to adjust to just how fast things go these days out on the roads, and it terrified Lizzie’s mom, the thought of me driving 40 miles an hour, everywhere I wanted to go.
“Well let’s go! This is going to be so cool!” She snapped her seatbelt on, and I did the same.
“Bunch of nonsense, old bridge worked just fine.” It still bugged me that they had built a new one.
“Pop! Seriously. The old bridge is falling apart. There are big holes in the deck! In the summer it gets so hot that it sticks open, and they have to have the fire companies come to hose it down to cool it off, and just a couple years ago they opened it during the winter and it froze that way for three days!”
“All things that could have been fixed, but these days it’s easier to just waste a ton of money getting something bigger and fancier.” I was irritated by the whole thing. That bridge meant something to me, but I didn’t expect her to understand.
“Pop, you cannot tell me that sitting by the marsh, when it’s hot and stinky, because the bridge is stuck open and you can’t cross, is better than driving up above it.”
She had me there, the marsh around the bridge, when the tide is out, has a smell that is overpowering with decay and rotting vegetation, When the wind is just right, that marsh funk mixes with the eye-watering fragrance from Porter’s pig farm, where it wafts from the bend of the river, just north of the bridge, choking and gagging those unlucky enough to be stuck in one of the bridge traffic jams.
“Look, we’re not the only ones that had the same idea, Pop!” We were part of a long convoy of cars and trucks, all passing through the little crossroads called Bethlehem, headed for the bridge.
“Just think Pop, next summer the old bridge is going to be open as a fishing pier. We can take a picnic out there and sit in the shade of the new bridge and fish. If we sit on the Talbot side, we’ll be able to see that cool sailboat relief they put on one of the big concrete supports.”
I didn’t answer her, thinking about the slight of something that had served shore folk for eighty-six long years being turned into a fishing pier. Maybe I was having hurt feelings because the bridge and I were the same age and I had watched my own usefulness shrink and fall away.
“Look Pop! Oh my gosh, here we go! This is so exciting.” She was bouncing in her seat and I could not help but smile over her joy at something so simple as crossing a brand new bridge. My father would have loved Lizzie.
The view caught me by surprise. I had never seen the river from this vantage point, usually reserved for the osprey that nested on the trusses of the old bridge, summer after summer. It was unlike anything I had ever seen outside of a National Geographic pictorial. The river stretched out in twists and snarls, like a great copperhead tangle in the sun. The marsh on the Caroline side oozed lazily away from the banks, forming great patches of varying shades of green marsh grasses, scrub and the white blooms of the rose mallow.
“It’s beautiful.” I didn’t realize I had said it until Lizzie responded.
“I know, it’s gorgeous! It makes me feel bad for calling it stinky.”
I couldn’t help it, I laughed, and soon we were both laughing like loons, as we coasted down the other side, into Talbot County.
“Let’s go get ice cream, Lizzie and then we’ll come back across it, and enjoy that view from the other direction.”
“Okay, Pops!” She floored it, making me smile. Watching her as she chattered on about what had happened at school that day, I found myself thinking about the old bridge, wondering if it looked at the new bridge, watching it grow up, piece by piece, knowing that its shadow would soon eclipse it and felt proud, knowing that it had earned the right to rest and enjoy watching the new generation carry on.
The cracked vinyl booth of the ice cream parlor pinched Lizzie’s leg, eliciting a squeal from her that turned heads. I took my time, not wanting to repeat her mistake on my good church pants. I didn’t try to hide my excitement anymore from Lizzie, as we tucked into our hot fudge sundaes. “I wish I had brought that camera your mother gave me for Christmas last year; the view is amazing from up there. Your Grandmother Maggie would have loved to paint it.”
“Right? I mean the view from the Sharptown bridge is cool, but our bridge’s view has got character. Who knew that marshes could be so pretty when you see them from above?” She put down her spoon, a serious look, replacing her the normal jovial one on her face.
“What is it Lizzie girl?”
“Mom said you were born the same day that they opened the old Dover bridge. That’s pretty cool. You’ve never told me that story. Will you tell me now?”
I was speechless and choked up all at once. My stories had stopped being requested by my grandchildren and great-grandchildren, years ago. I had to take a moment to try and not let her see the tears that had come unbidden to my eyes at her simple request.
“Pop? I’m sorry, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. We can just finish our ice cream and go back. If we time it right, maybe we can catch the sunset. There is a shoulder on the bridge now, so maybe we can even stop for a minute and get a longer look.”
Composed now, I looked at her sweet young face, so full of worry that she had upset me. So much like her Grandmother. “No, it’s okay. I want to tell you about it.”
“Really? Cool.” She put her spoon down and was completely focused on me.
Right then, I felt like the old bridge, we were brothers at that moment, looking at the face of the new bridge and I smiled. “Your great grandfather loved bridges. He had wanted to build things, great big things made out of steel, but there was no money for him to keep going to school after the sixth grade, so he never got the chance. When word came that they were finally going to put a bridge across the Choptank, it was like a dream come true for him…
Laurel L. Powell: A lifelong resident of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Lauren
L. Powell enjoys crafting stories under the close supervision of her four black
cats. She is currently completing her MFA at Southern New Hampshire University
where she earned a Bachelor’s of Arts in Creative Writing. When she’s not
churning out pages, Powell can often be found hunched over her sewing machine,
performing with the Caroline Association of Theater, or on a softball field.
She is a proud member of the Eastern Shore Writer’s Association. "In the New Bridge's Shadow" was published in the 2019 Bay to Ocean anthology.
Bay to Ocean Anthology Spotlight: June 2021
I Post Another Sunset
My grandfather was a white cop in a blue uniform.
about the man he killed, or the cell phone cameras
Pat Valdata's poetry book about women aviation pioneers, Where No Man Can Touch, won the Donald Justice Poetry Prize. Her other poetry titles are Inherent Vice and Looking for Bivalve. Her novel, Eve's Daughter was published by Moonshine Cove Publishing last November. Pat is a retired adjunct professor who lives in Crisfield, Maryland. "I Post Another Sunset to Facebook" was published in the 2020 edition of the Bay to Ocean anthology, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by the editors.
Sometimes dreams come true, even when they shouldn’t. That thought crossed my mind the cold and gloomy Saturday in December 1996 when I pulled into the driveway of my partially renovated cottage at Slaughter Beach. It had been several months and many awkward sessions with a marriage counselor since I had last seen the place. I hoped a visit would lift my spirits.
The new concrete piers, vinyl siding and replacement windows gleamed, but the entrance steps and deck already looked weathered from the salt-air. Still, it was a far cry from the condition of the cottage when we’d bought it eighteen months before.
I got out of the car and pulled up my collar against icy gusts coming off the bay. The adjacent houses were closed up tight for the season. A storm window on my neighbor’s second-story bedroom hung askew and banged in the wind. I climbed the front steps, turned the key and pushed open the door. The rubber weather stripping that had held firm for months, separated with a sharp ripping sound.
Owning a cottage at Slaughter Beach had been a dream of ours since that weekend in 1969 when Dianne and I spent a Friday night with Bill and Charlotte Jarrell in their rental on Bay Avenue. Bill was the singer with the Banjo Dusters and had a three day gig at a tavern in Rehoboth. He decided to make a vacation out of it and had taken a cottage for the week. We were friends with the Jarrells and followed the band wherever they played. It wasn’t the kind of music most couples in their early-twenties went in for but we liked the nights out and the fun that always happened whenever the Banjo Dusters performed.
Bill had given us directions from Argo’s Corner. As we drove in, the peaceful countryside and lush Sussex County farmland was a welcome change from the frantic city landscapes back home. Early on we had turned off the radio so we could enjoy it all without distraction. But then we passed a stretch of tangled woods and the terrain turned to a broad expanse of marsh and tidal mudflats. A flooded ditch ran along both sides of the road. Off in the hazy distance stood a row of what looked like ramshackle buildings and we began to wonder just what kind of place Slaughter Beach was.
We made the turn onto Bay Avenue and it was as if we had stepped back in time. The old one and two-story clapboard cottages sat side-by-side on narrow waterfront lots. As we searched for the address, we were charmed by the mix of gingerbread and simple beach-influenced architecture, the picket fences, the gardens, driftwood sculptures, the unusual outbuildings.
A few kids rode past on bikes but for a beachfront community in the middle of summer it seemed surprisingly devoid of people. We pulled into the side-yard of Bill’s rental and he came off the screened porch and welcomed us. The weather had been unbearably hot and humid but at the cottage, the soft, off-water breeze cut the humidity. It was noticeably quiet, the only sounds birdsong and the gentle rattling of cord-grass and reeds in the adjacent lot. Standing next to the car, it felt as if the pace of things had just slowed down a little.
Bill’s cottage was across the road from the beach and backed up to a small wood-line that fronted the marsh which now seemed more interesting and inviting than it had on our drive in. We got settled then walked across the road to look at the water. Beyond the wide, grass covered dune was a sandy beach littered here and there with driftwood, shells and a few horseshoe crabs. Looking north, the shoreline made a gradual curve that extended out to the old Mispillion Lighthouse. Several small boats – Hobie-cats, Sunfish and aluminum johnboats – were pulled up against the dune, many marked with the address of the owner’s cottage. There couldn’t have been more than ten or twelve people on the entire beach which we found astounding.
That night we were at the tavern through last-call and helped the band break down and load up before making the easy drive back to the cottage. It was a clear night and we weren’t ready to turn-in so we walked over and sat on the beach for a while. Several ships were at the anchorage, their lights twinkling in the distance. Stars were bright and the breeze off the bay was fresh and cool. Behind us, the beachfront cottages sat silhouetted against the moonlit sky.
In the morning we hung out on the porch and drank coffee. Bill, in a bathing-suit and flip-flops, walked down the block to the store for a carton of milk. He was gone for ten minutes and not one car went down the main drag. It was then that Dianne said out loud what we had both been thinking. “It would be nice to have a place down here. It’s so comfortable and close to everything.” That was the start of the dream.
But it wasn’t one we could act upon at the time. Dianne was working as a teller at a local bank while I worked a part-time job and went to school on the GI bill. We were barely making ends meet and had very little left over after paying the mortgage and the minimum balances on our credit cards. I would graduate in two years but we had been waiting to start a family so it wasn’t likely we would have money for a summer place for quite a while. But the seed had been planted.
For several years after that, on our weekend trips to Rehoboth, we often cruised through Slaughter Beach. We stopped on the road and looked at cottages that were for sale, frequently calling agents and asking prices, knowing any price would be too much. Somehow the act of calling made it seem as if we were getting closer to having our own place. I graduated and started a new job. We had our first child, a daughter. And then in 1973 a bay-front lot went up for sale: 50ft of frontage for $2000. It was an ordinary piece of land, 250ft long and covered end-to-end with a 10ft tall stand of phragmite. It was perfect. We had almost a thousand in savings and borrowed the rest from my brother-in-law. We were in.
For the next four summers we took frequent daytrips to the lot. Our son was born. We lugged the port-a-crib, hibachi and umbrella out onto the beach and spent days picnicking and beach-combing, imagining our cottage sitting on the lot behind us, imagining long summers here as the kids grew up and Dianne and I grew old together relaxing on our deck overlooking the bay. We collected house plans and ideas from decorating magazines, picked up pamphlets from builders, got quotes on septic systems and the installation of electrical service, anything we could do without spending money kept the dream alive and gave the illusion we were moving forward.
But then things got all jumbled up. The kids were growing and we needed some money. Almost magically we received a letter from a real-estate agent offering to purchase the Slaughter Beach property for many times more than we had paid for it. I had a new job that was very demanding, leaving little time for spending days at the beach with the family, so we sold the lot. If things worked out the way we hoped we could go back in a few years and buy any cottage we wanted.
But the years went by, the kids grew up and went their own ways, the career blossomed. We were always busy. There wasn’t time for dreams anymore, or the lazy weekends we had enjoyed so much back in the early seventies. We did very well for ourselves, but in the midst of our success, something had changed with the marriage.
In the spring of 1995 we learned that a fixer-upper cottage in the old section of Slaughter Beach was on the market. “The bay-front property alone was worth the price,” the agent said. We drove out to see it. The place was a wreck. Not one other cottage on the beach was in a worse state of repair. It would need to be jacked up, pilings installed, new siding and windows, completely gutted and re-done on the inside. We wondered if it was even salvageable. Someone would have to be crazy to take on a project like this. But as we wandered out on the dune and looked at the derelict building, possibilities of all kinds seemed to assert themselves. I looked at the cottage next door with its friendly grouping of deck chairs, and out on the beach where a couple with two small children relaxed at the edge of the water. The old dreams began to stir again.
Two years later, on that cold December afternoon, I stepped into the kitchen over piles of shattered plaster and construction debris. The old porcelain sink and ripped linoleum countertop were thick with dust and littered with Styrofoam cups and crumpled McDonald’s wrappers. In the big-room the furniture that had come with the house had been pushed to the side and stacked haphazardly. Unfinished wires dangled from the locations of new light fixtures and receptacles. Ragged wall edges and exposed two-by-fours surrounded the newly framed replacement windows.
Six months after we bought the place the problems with our marriage had become overwhelming. We had the contractors finish the outside of the building and then stopped the renovation. The cottage sat idle as we went through months of counseling where we tried to revisit and rekindle elements of our relationship that had been good and meaningful, things that had brought us together in the first place.
I stared out the back window at the dune and the bay beyond. I thought of Bill and Charlotte Jarrell and the fun we used to have following the Banjo Dusters. I thought of that moonlit night in 1969 when Slaughter Beach had first come alive for us and the joy we felt imagining our cottage, our years of happy dreams. But everything seemed muted now, lost amidst anger and uncertainty.
A sheet of old gray wallpaper, its original flowered pattern barely discernible, drooped on the wall by the backdoor. I tried to imagine this wallpaper when it was new, how it would have freshened and brightened this dingy space. I tried. It just wasn’t in me anymore.
Russell Reece's poems, stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies, such as Gargoyle, Blueline, Under the Gum Tree, and Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors. Russ has received fellowships from the Delaware Division of the Arts and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. "The Cottage at Slaughter Beach" appeared in the 2019 edition of the Bay to Ocean anthology and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by the editors.