The Lightning Whelk
Frank Freeman's poetry has appeared in The New York Quarterly, Tiger's Eye, The Aroostook Review, and The Axe Factory. His book reviews have appeared in America Magazine, Bloomsbury Review,Commonweal, The Dublin Review of Books, The Literary Review, The Rumpus, Touchstone, and The Weekly Standard, among others. His story, "The Snowstorm," can be found in the current Saint Katherine's Review. Frank is a stay-at-home dad of four who lives in Saco, Maine. He grew up in Texas, Connecticut, and California, received a BA in English from Texas A&M and an MA in English from Northeastern University.
I flung myself against the top of the front seat so that my head was between Daddy's and Grandpa's. Daddy smelled like Aqua Velva and Vitalis, Grandpa like beer and Jensen's Hair Tonic, bottles of which he had once delivered to barber shops from the back of a motorcycle before the streets of Houston were paved. "There's the ocean!" I pointed it out to them.
Grandpa clucked his tongue. "That ain't the ocean, Red. That's the Gulf of Mexico."
"It's all the same water," Daddy said. "It flows in from the Atlantic."
"If you looked on a map, what would it say?"
Daddy stopped the car. "Which cabin?"
"What about the key?"
"Ain't no keys here." Grandpa flicked his left hand. "Closest to the beach. 'Key,' he says, as if the Mongol horde can't wait to break into one of these goddamn fishing shacks."
Daddy swiveled his head so his neck cracked like when you crack your knuckles. He drove on to the last cabin, number seven.
"What's the Mongol horde, Grandpa?"
"Bunch of Chinamen who tried to take over Europe. They took over about half of it. You never heard of Genghis Khan?"
"What do they teach you nowadays, just to love niggers?"
Daddy's fingers whitened on the steering wheel. "Daddy, please!"
Grandpa raised his left forearm as if to block a blow. "Sorry! Oh dear, I went and did it now."
Daddy parked Grandpa's red Plymouth with the fins in back, turned it off, got out, slammed the door, and went back to the trunk. He had once taken me aside, when Grandpa was drunk and ranting about niggers, kikes, and spics, and told me if I ever said the word "nigger" he would use the belt on me.
Daddy opened the trunk and hauled out the fishing poles, the blue and tan tackle box, and the galvanized bucket with the flip lid and wire mesh that you put the fish in. The poles clattered as he carried them in. Grandpa eased himself out and carried in the sloshing Styrofoam cooler that had ridden between his feet and from which he had already drunk three beers, Daddy sighing and glancing out his window every time Grandpa cracked one open and slurped. He came back for the cardboard box of food that had ridden between him and Daddy on the front seat, but he left the Houston Post on the dash. I carried in my small blue suitcase with yellow stitching and my favorite book, The Wonder of Caves. Daddy went back to the trunk and hefted out the mustard yellow suitcase he and Grandpa were sharing, then slammed the trunk lid down. I was happy, sort of, to be on this fishing trip, but sad because fourth grade started a week from now.
Inside, the cabin's floors of smooth wide boards slanted down toward the beach. The air reeked of Lysol and fish scales. Dozens of initials had been gouged into the brown wooden table. Two rickety chairs with straw backing were pulled up to the table, underneath which was a dark green three-legged stool spattered with drops of white paint. Two cabinets of dark brown wood barely hung onto the wall on either side of the mineral stained sink. An ancient ice box hummed in the corner but there was no toilet, just an outhouse in back. There were no windows in either the kitchen or the bedroom, but the top board of each wall—there was no sheet rock—had been replaced with a thick wire mesh. In the bedroom, four green canvas cots were folded up against the far wall. The walls were made from the same boards as the floor and where they had warped, daylight sliced through the cracks.
Grandpa thumped the cooler on the table. "Make yourselves at home, boys!" He wrenched the lid off the cooler, fished out another can of Pearl beer and popped it open. He tossed the tab into an empty army green metal trash can, the same kind we had at school, and said, "Ah!" He took eight beers and five small bottles of Coke out of the cooler and set them carefully in the ice box. Then, as Daddy explored the cabin, which didn't take long, Grandpa poured the icy water into the sink. The Styrofoam cooler squeaked when Grandpa handled it, and goose bumps prickled my arms.
Daddy came back into the room, nudging his black eyeglasses up his nose. "This is quite the place." He reached up and jerked a chain to switch on the bare light bulb wired in above the table.
Grandpa emptied the sack, reaching in with his tanned muscular forearms. "We got us sardines, peanut butter, Vienna sausages, Saltines, and Fig Newtons. Plenty of beer and Cokes. We'll eat, hit the sack, get up at the crack of dawn, and catch us some fish tomorrow. Tide comes in around ten."
When Grandpa said, "Vienna," it rhymed with "hyena," and Daddy would wince as if someone somewhere had stuck a pin in a voodoo doll of him. So he winced now but then shook his head and smiled. "Jesus, Daddy."
"We'll have us a good time, Butch, a good time." Grandpa leaned back against the sink, his favorite spot back at his house, and guzzled more beer. Moisture beaded up on the gold aluminum Pearl beer can. There was a picture of a creek flowing over rocks printed on the can. It reminded me of the TV commercial when the announcer would say Pearl was "brewed from fresh spring water from the hill country of Texas."
"We will?" Daddy asked Grandpa. "You sure?"
Grandpa pressed a thumb into the side of the beer can with a click. "Course we will."
I took my tennis shoes and socks off and pressed my nose to the screen door. "Can I go to the beach, Daddy?"
He looked surprised to see me. "Sure, but don't go in the water."
"Wait, Red!" Grandpa reached in the sack and brought out an empty Miracle Whip jar. "Momma washed this out for you to keep shells in."
"Thanks, Grandpa!" I grabbed the jar and stepped outside, making sure the screen door didn't slam behind me. Then I was running for the beach, leaping for patches of grass until it was all hot sand.
# # #
When I got back, my jar heavy-laden with shells, Daddy and Grandpa were both slurping Pearl. Daddy was sitting on the top step to the cabin door, and Grandpa on a battered, frayed, multicolored beach chair he'd found behind the outhouse. I was surprised because Daddy usually didn't drink beer. Daddy had mutton chop sideburns, wore a faded green button shirt, Bermuda shorts, and leather sandals. Grandpa wore what he always wore, a clean white tee-shirt, khakis, white socks and Hush Puppies, and a striped, blue denim welder's cap. They were chuckling when I came up.
Grandpa put his glasses on then held out his hands. "Let's see what you got."
I thrust the jar into his hands and he let them drop as if I had given him a boulder. "Didn't you leave no shells on the beach for nobody else?"
"There's plenty left, Grandpa!"
"I doubt that." He lifted the jar and, holding it loosely in his left palm, rotated it with his right hand. He pointed at a shell. "Look at that." He dug his fingertips into the top of the jar and pulled out a shell about three inches long. "You know what this one is called?"
"No, Grandpa." I leaned against his leg.
"This one here's a lightning whelk." It had a wide top that spiraled down to a point and light brown and white horizontal bars with wavy lines going from the top to the bottom. "This one has the opening for the snail on the left, see? Usually they're on the right. I've heard people call them left-handed shells. Here."
He took my left hand and placed the shell in my palm. "See how that fits right there? Snug like?"
I nodded and wrapped my fingers around it.
"That's kind of a young one there to be so small. Put it up to your ear."
I put the opening up to my right ear and knew what he was going to say next.
"Hear the ocean?"
"Course you do. Go show it to your daddy."
I ran over to Daddy and he took the whelk in his left hand. "Nice." He gave it back to me.
"Grandpa knows a lot about shells, doesn't he, Daddy?"
"He sure does."
"Well, there ain't much to do on Guam."
Back in Houston, Grandpa had a bunch of jars filled with shells he had brought back from Guam where he had worked on a pipeline. When I went over to his house I would always get one or two jars out and stare at them. And he had a big conch shell that I would press to my ear to hear the biggest ocean of all.
Grandpa held the jar out for me so I went over to him and took it and put the lightning whelk back on top of the pile.
"Get that newspaper out of the car."
"So he can sort the shells out on it, goddamn it. Why else?"
Daddy sipped his beer and stared at Grandpa so long I got a sick feeling in my stomach.
"I'll get them, Daddy!" I turned toward the car.
But Daddy, getting up, waved me away. He set his beer down on the step. "I'll get it." He went over to the car, reached in through the driver's side window, rustled some paper around, came back, and handed me the want-ads. Then he went back to the steps, picked up his beer, sat, and started reading the paper.
Grandpa said, "Spread them want-ads out and you can get a good look at your shells."
I put the jar down on the hard-packed dirt in front of the steps and laid the newspaper out flat. One by one I picked the shells out of the jar and placed them on the paper with the lightning whelk at the middle. Grandpa clicked his eyeglass case shut. A gust lifted the corners of the paper so Grandpa stomped on one corner, and I ran to the driveway for the biggest oyster shells I could find. I put a few on each corner and went back to sorting. The insides of the oyster shells were the same color as the sky.
Grandpa's chair squeaked as he sat back down. "You put those in water tonight, Red."
While they shared the newspaper and lamented over the Astros, I lined the shells up in rows on the newspaper.
# # #
Grandpa dug his fingertips into my scalp. It hurt and I slapped his hand away. He laughed and flapped it around as though I had hurt him.
"Let's eat, boy."
"I don't like it when you do that, Grandpa!"
"That's why I do it."
I had a defiant pout that drove Mommy crazy, so I tried it on Grandpa but he just laughed and clomped up the steps.
"But you said I need to put these in water."
"Ocean water. But you can do that later."
We went inside and scooped sardines out of oily cans with Saltine crackers and ate Fig Newtons for dessert. Daddy and me drank Cokes from the small bumpy bottles that were the color of a wave with the sun shining through it. Grandpa drank Pearl. His face got redder and he talked and laughed louder and slapped the table during his stories, like about the time he and his friend Mike had drunk themselves blind and Mike had said, "Elmore, turn that light out, would you?" and Grandpa had shot out the light bulb with a pistol. "Shot it to smithereens," he said. "Landlady didn't care for it none."
When Grandpa laughed, his eyes disappeared in wrinkles. He shook his head and pulled his red bandana out of his pocket. Daddy rolled a toothpick around in his mouth and stared at the floor.
"Oh, we had some times, we did." Grandpa dabbled at his eyes and pocketed his bandana.
Without smiling, Daddy got up and cleaned the table while Grandpa kept talking. I was laughing because Grandpa was laughing, but I had the sick feeling in my stomach because Daddy wasn't laughing. After Daddy was done cleaning up, he grabbed a fishing pole and tried to rig it. He muttered and swore under his breath. Finally, he flung the pole into the corner and went outside, the screen door slamming behind him.
"I'll get them in the morning, Butch!" Grandpa shook his head and sighed. He leaned way back in his chair, opened the ice box and pulled another beer out. The ice box shuddered back on and the light bulb flickered. Moths fluttered and dove around the bare light bulb. Through the screen door the sky had turned a peach color, then a dark purple. Crickets chirped, and the sound of it fell on the night like a net.
"I better go get my shells, Grandpa."
"Sure, you do that, Red." He had not opened the beer. He was just sitting there holding it on the table.
"You okay, Grandpa?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. What else would I be?"
The beach chair was empty when I got outside. I looked toward the sound of the waves, and Daddy was a darker part of the dark in the distance on the path to the beach. I knelt and picked the shells up and dropped them into the jar. Daddy walked by without saying anything and went into the cabin. A chair scraped, a can of beer popped open. The shells clicked on each other as I dropped them in one by one.
"Butch, why don't you go back to court and get custody of the boy?"
"The law's all for the woman, Daddy."
"The boy needs a father around."
"He has one every other weekend. And Nadine would have to agree to it."
"Every other weekend ain't enough."
The jar was almost full. I was saving the lightning whelk for the last.
"Have a beer, why don't you?" Grandpa said.
"I could say some things."
"About fathers being around when their kids are growing up."
"I was working. I sent the money home."
"You don't get it, Daddy."
"What I get is that I worked like a dog all my life—"
"And drank it all away—"
"And never ever cheated on your mother when I had plenty of chances. There were working girls everywhere I went on a pipeline."
Daddy slammed the screen door open in reverse, back against the cabin wall. I could feeling him glaring down at me.
"What are you doing anyway?"
"Putting my shells back."
"Hurry up and go to bed."
"I'm going for a walk."
I put the last shell in the jar and carried it into the cabin. Grandpa was asleep at the table, his cheek resting on an arm. I tiptoed past him into the bedroom, unfolded a cot, and set the jar under the cot. I opened my suitcase and put my Batman pajamas on and read my book. It began with a cowboy who saw smoke in the distance and then rode toward it until he realized the smoke was really bats flying out of a cave.
I must have fallen asleep because I woke up when Grandpa shuffled into the room, unfolded a cot, and collapsed on it already snoring. A little while later Daddy came in to the room, grabbed a cot, and took it into the kitchen. Then he came back in and I could tell he was looking at me. I pretended to be asleep. He slipped the book out of my hands and slid it under the cot. He combed my hair with his fingers, bent over, and kissed me on the cheek. His whiskers scraped my skin. He went back into the kitchen, jerked the chain to turn the light bulb off, and the cot creaked and kept creaking a few minutes until he was snoring too.
The waves sounded like a strong wind blowing through treetops.
# # #
Seagull squawks woke me up. In the kitchen the top of a can was being peeled up. I rolled off the cot and stood in the doorway. Daddy was fixing breakfast. There was an open can of Vienna sausages on the table and he was getting ready to open another one. The rubber pink tubes glistened in the can. Globs of yellowish fat floated on the juice.
"Get any sleep? Daddy snores like a lumberjack."
"You snore too."
"Hmm." He opened the other can of sausages, then spread peanut butter on crackers with his jackknife. "Go use the potty and come back and get dressed and eat."
I plunged outside. The screen door slammed as I zipped past Grandpa, who sat in the beach chair and leaned forward to sort through lures in the open tackle box with its folding shelves and compartments full of lures, sinkers, red and white bobbers, hooks, green and purple rubber worms. I ran over to the smelly outhouse. There were scrawls of penises and scrotums drawn on the wood and words I didn't know the meaning of and telephone numbers with "For a Good Time!" written above them. I ran back to the cabin under a white dome of sky in which seagulls dipped and hovered and swooped. I stood next to Grandpa, leaning against his shoulder, and watched him. The clumps of thick-bladed grass in the sand look like green starfish.
Grandpa held his chin up as he peered through his eyeglasses. His cheeks and chin were shiny smooth, his hair smelled of Jensen's. A smudge of shaving cream clung to his right ear lobe. The tattoo on his upper right arm showed a mermaid with her arms and green scaly tail wrapped around an anchor. Grandpa was tying a metal lure to a line. The lure looked sort of like a small jackknife but it was all silver with a dimpled surface. It had a hole at one end to tie the line through and one at the other end where a three-pronged hook dangled. Grandpa's fingers looked fast and neat, like Grandma's when she knitted. He set the pole aside with four others leaning against the cabin, then wiped his palms together and put his glasses away. He gazed out at the Gulf a long time without saying anything. The waves were bigger today and louder.
"Storm coming in." Grandpa shifted around and grabbed the pole he had just rigged. "Here, I want you to do one of these." He pulled out his jackknife, pulled the blade out, and snipped the line near the lure. "Come here, Red."
He held the pole between his arm and barrel-like torso, nudged the tackle box out of the way with his foot, and, grabbing my shoulders, made me stand between his knees with my back to him. Our heads were about the same height.
"Hang on to this." He leaned the pole forward so I could hold it, then placed the lure in my palm. It was heavy and solid. Grandpa put his glasses back on and took the line with his left hand and the lure with his right.
"Okay now you put the end of the line through here, see? Then you pull the end up and wrap it around five times, like this, see?"
I bit my lower lip and nodded.
"Then you take the end and loop it this way and pull it tight. I ain't going to pull it tight cause I want you to do it." He undid the knot. "Now you do it."
I kept messing up and shaking my head and stomping my feet. "I can't do it, Grandpa!"
"Stop your fussing now. Can't do nothing if you're all upset. Now watch." He tied the knot again, loosely, then undid it. His hands were brown and hard, Daddy's were white and soft. "We ain't going nowhere till you tie it right but I ain't in no hurry."
I concentrated very hard. Everything except for my fingertips and the line and the lure seemed to disappear. I threaded the end of the line through the final loop and tugged it tight.
"There you go, Red! That there's a Shorty Spoon you just tied on. Now put that pole up with them others." While I took care of the pole, he snapped close the tackle box. "I don't know where you got that red hair and freckles."
"Mommy's daddy had them."
"That's right, I forgot about him."
Daddy opened the screen door and smiled at us. He cleared his throat. For a second I wondered if he had been crying. "Time to eat," he said. "And get dressed, Red."
We ate the Vienna sausages, peanut butter and crackers without talking. Then Grandpa said something about Daddy being able to get some coffee at the landlady's house so Daddy walked back up the driveway. As soon as he was out the door, Grandpa sprang up and snatched a beer out of the ice box and gulped half of it in one go, the tab still on his index finger like a ring. I drank a glass of water from one of the old green cut glasses from a cupboard. The water had a strong metallic taste.
The screen door slammed. Daddy stood there holding a black cast iron cup from which steam rose. White specks showed like stars in the black iron. "Can't you even wait till lunch to start drinking?"
Grandpa winked at me. "If I wanted to drink, Butch, I'd have brung a bottle of Wild Turkey."
Daddy sipped his coffee and grimaced. He dumped the coffee into the sink and smacked the cup down on the counter. "Let's get this over with." He went outside. The bucket clanked, and the tackle box rattled.
Grandpa finished his beer and plunked it into the garbage can. He sighed and shook his head, ran his fingers through his slicked-back hair, which was slightly graying at the temples. "Well, let's go face the music, Red. Tide should be coming in." He got up, opened the ice box, slipped a can of beer into each pocket and then went outside. The fishing poles clacked together. I cleaned the cans and crumbs off the table. I was about to open the screen door when I remembered the jar of shells and that I hadn't put water in them yet. I ran back to the bedroom, snatched the jar up, and took off for the beach.
# # #
They trudged ahead of me, their bare white feet slipping in the sand. When we got to where it was all sand, they set their gear down and rolled up their pants legs. Grandpa turned his cap around backwards. We walked along the beach single file, Daddy first.
Grandpa halted and dropped the poles. "Here, Butch!" he shouted. You had to shout because the surf and wind was so loud.
"Why here?" Daddy yelled back.
"I know a good place when I see one!" Grandpa bent over and picked a pole out and gave it to me, then got one for himself.
Daddy came back to where we were and grabbed a pole, then came around behind me so it was him, then me, then Grandpa. Grandpa showed me how to cast but it was hard because the wind blew against us. I clamped the jar between my feet—Grandpa said, "Good boy!" when he saw it—then made a few good casts. I caught a few clumps of heavy kelp and had to peel the slimy brown stuff off the lure. When I looked up, Grandpa had moved down the beach and opened up another beer. I wanted to go with him but Daddy was muttering to himself, so I stayed. Then the wind blew harder and my lure kept plopping into the waves a few feet away. Daddy and Grandpa were still doing okay, getting their lures out there. I dug my toes into the sand. The wind made my eyes water. Frustrated, I whipped the lure out as hard as I could and the next thing I knew my line was all snarled up on the reel.
I wanted to throw the pole into the water or break it in half. I stuck my fingers into the loops of line but couldn't get the reel to move at all. I plopped down in the sand, holding the pole horizontal over my thighs.
Daddy scowled down at me. The wind had frizzed his hair. "What's the matter now?"
"My line is tangled!"
"How did you manage to do that?" He set his pole down and grabbed mine. "Stand up!"
I got up and stared down at the wet sand. Little holes were appearing on its surface like the holes that formed on the pancakes Mommy made in a frying pan once in a while.
"Why didn't you say something before it got this bad?"
"It just happened on one cast!"
He yanked at the loops on the line but couldn't budge them. "What's the matter with you, Red?"
The wind blew even harder and Daddy's shirt-tails flapped like flags.
I stared at the sand.
"Tell Grandpa to fix it!" he yelled.
"I don't want to fish no more! Can I go over to that wharf?" One stuck out into the water down the beach a ways. Two fishermen were casting from the end of it, and waves crashed against its piles.
Daddy flung my pole down. "Yeah, go ahead." He turned away and cast his line, not as far as Grandpa, but further than I could.
I picked up my jar of shells and kept to the smooth hard silky sand. When I walked past Grandpa, he waved and I waved back, and then as I walked on he shouted something but I acted as though I hadn't heard him.
The wet sand felt good on the soles of my feet. A wave creamed up around my ankles and I stopped and let wave after wave splash my ankles and calves until the sand had shackled me. I tugged my feet out with a wet plop and trudged on toward the wharf. Little rivers of purple sand flowed back down the beach into the Gulf. Shells tumbled out of the waves, but I didn't pick them up. I heard Daddy and Grandpa yelling so I turned around to make sure they weren't yelling at me to come back, which they weren't—they were side by side yelling at each other while still casting—then I went on.
The wind staggered me a couple of times. The greenish brown waves boomed on the sand. Seagulls wheeled and cried above the wharf. One big brown one stood above the waterline on the beach, the wind raking its feathers, and gazed out to sea as if expecting something to appear.
I reached the embankment. Under the wharf, moss and barnacles and other glistening slimy things clung to the piles. A dank smell puffed out between waves. The steps up onto the wharf were worn smooth as driftwood.
At the top I peered down the wharf, but the fishermen were gone. I looked behind me but there was no truck or car, no one walking down the beach in either direction. I couldn't figure out where they had gone. I leaned into the wind and, holding the jar of shells like a football, trudged to the end of the wharf. When I got there, I grabbed the rail with my right hand and gazed out at the waves. The wind plucked my tee-shirt and shorts, as if trying to rip them off, then pasted them back. Saltwater stung my eyes and ran down my cheeks and I licked it off my lips. Wave after wave, all the same, all different.
I looked to my left. Grandpa was tugging line from a reel, then jabbing a finger at Daddy. Daddy threw his pole down and clamped his hands on his hips. Their mouths were moving but I couldn't hear what they were saying. Daddy stalked away, then swiveled and jabbed his finger back at Grandpa. Grandpa threw his cap on the beach and stomped his right foot. I giggled, I couldn't help it, then, realizing what I had done, smacked my right palm over my mouth and almost dropped the jar.
Waves pounded the wharf. A few crested even with the level of the wharf and soaked me. I loved them. I was riding on the back of a whale. Water thumped under the boards as though something was caged down there and struggling to get out. A wave smashed into the wharf, made it shudder and sway. I became vaguely aware that a wave not much bigger than the ones I'd seen could sweep me away. But I couldn't move. I wanted to leap. Seagulls hovered above me for a moment, then swept away.
Then I unscrewed the lid of the jar, pulled the lightning whelk out, and stuffed it into my pocket. I leaned out over the ocean and slowly poured the rest of the shells out, down into the frothing waves, until it was only a little sand trickling out.