by Collier McLeod
May 29, 1949
It was silent in the car as Dorothy Jane sat wedged between Ethel and Momma, methodically crossing one ankle over the other. Wind murmured through the crack in the window and the smell of salt spray intensified with each mile marker they passed.
Daddy turned Grandmother’s 1947 Ford Prefect onto McConkey Boulevard. Leftover shells and sand popped beneath the tires.
Grandmother rarely loaned Daddy her car, but this summer was different; Momma never left the house anymore and Daddy hadstopped laughing.
Threading her fingers in between Momma’s, Dorothy Jane looked up into Momma’s eyes, which where normally green. The reflection of the black dashboard made them darker today.
“Momma, why are your eyes green and mine are brown?”
A tired smile lifted Momma’s cheeks. “Because God wanted you to have beautiful brown eyes.”
Ethel snorted as Dorothy Jane turned her shoulders towards her sister. Her face met Ethel’s chest, which seemed to have grown recently. At sixteen, Ethel was six years older than Dorothy Jane. Dorothy Jane wondered when it was exactly that Ethel’s chest grew larger than Momma’s.
“Momma, am I going to have a large chest like — ”
Daddy’s bark severed her question. “Dorothy Jane! That’s not appropriate conversation.”
“But Daddy — ”
He was rude, Dorothy Jane thought. Daddy seemed to bark more than he used too. Maybe he needed a nap.
Leaning back into Momma’s curves, Dorothy Jane watched the palmettos through the window. She wanted to ask Momma to roll down the window, but Momma had closed her eyes.
Their beach house was made of wood. It looked as if it had sat out in the sun, wind, and rain for too long.
The wood had cracked and crinkled like the skin on Grandmother’s face.
It was hot inside the house. Walking up the porch stairs carrying her one bag, Dorothy Jane felt the sticky air pour down from the open door as if it had been locked up and dying to get out.
Daddy got out of the car and carried a window air conditioning unit into the house. He said he wanted to make Momma comfortable first.
She noted the nails and loose planks as she walked back and forth up the stairs carrying Momma’s luggage and the groceries. She navigated the boards like she played hopscotch, careful not to step on the spaces and cracks. Some of the boards bounced and others were bent into shapes that strained against their nails.
Ethel passed Dorothy Jane descending the steps as she carried a carton of milk and dry goods.
“Dorothy Jane, there’s just one last suitcase left. Wait until I come back to help you. It’s heavy.”
‘I don’t need her help,’ Dorothy Jane thought as she wrinkled her nose, ‘I can do it on my own.’
Looping her hands through the handle she tugged until it fell onto the sandy driveway, making a large round impression in the sand. She inched the suitcase towards the steps.
Repositioning herself above the suitcase, she pulled the handle in bursts, moving up one step at a time. After three steps, Dorothy Jane’s arms started to throb.
She thought ‘I can do this! I’m almost there!’ as she yanked it up the final steps to the landing above. The lines from her favorite childhood book, The Little Engine That Could, played over and over in her head.
Momma used to read it to her at bedtime.
Dorothy Jane raised her arms in jubilation, stretching out the soreness in her arms and shoulders.
She called to Ethel, “Ethel! I got the suitcase! I did — ”
A cracking sound interrupted her excitement as the planks beneath her caved in and pulled away from the nails that held them. Dorothy Jane looked down to see the sand beneath her. She scrambled for the suitcase, catching the edge of the planks with her elbows. She held onto the handle of Momma’s luggage with one hand as her legs dangled below.
“Ethel! Ethel, help! Help!” Dorothy Jane screamed. Her voice rose with each syllable. Sweat streamed from her armpits and forehead leaving dark drops on her dress.
Ethel skirted the corner, falling to her knees, as she grasped Dorothy Jane beneath her armpits. Sweaty palms slipped with each failed attempt to hoist her from the hole in the deck. Finally, Ethel wrapped her arms around Dorothy Jane’s chest and lifted upwards with a Herculean effort. They lay on the deck, side by side, both heaving in the summer sun. Sweat dripped down Dorothy Jane’s neck and landed on the warped boards.
Propping herself up on her elbows, Ethel turned to Dorothy Jane, “Are you ok? Pull your dress down. Your underwear is showing.”
“I don’t care if the entire world — including Grandmother and the President of the United States — sees my underwear,” Dorothy Jane responded as she pulled herself to her knees and inspected the tears in her dress.
“Dang it, Dorothy Jane! What the heck happened?! Now I have another goddamn thing to fix!” Daddy’s voice bellowed from the kitchen. His frame appeared in the door as Dorothy Jane looked up into his shadow.
Blinking rapidly, she looked around. “What else do you have to fix around here?”
Shaking his head and muttering, Daddy turned and retreated into the living room. Dorothy Jane followed him into the house. The air inside the beach house was stale and rank, like the smell of old sweaters that had been stored in a trunk too long. The house was always hot. Dorothy Jane was used to sweating in
Georgia summers. Everybody was.
Slowly twisting the doorknob of Momma’s door, a wave of chilly air overwhelmed her.
“Momma?” she whispered.
She heard the quiet murmur of the window unit that Daddy had installed. Momma said the heat made her faint. Daddy said she was sick.
Crawling on her hands and knees across the hemp rug, Dorothy Jane peeked underneath the bed and pulled out a shoebox. The mattress dipped down under the weight of Momma’s body.
Goose bumps freckled her arms as Dorothy Jane crawled into the bed next to Momma. Momma rolled onto her side and smiled slightly before closing her eyes again. For a minute, Dorothy Jane thought she looked frozen, like Snow White in her glass coffin or a figure in a snow globe.
She opened the shoebox and pulled out the paper dolls and their wardrobe of coats, suits, and dresses.
The heat and humidity often made them curl, but in the cold air they remained strong and inflexible.
She mixed and matched outfits and faces, giving them names, families, and histories. ‘Darla had two children with Andrew. Quinn was in love with Edward, but Quinn’s father didn’t approve. Elizabeth was still searching for her one true love.’
All of the dolls had smiles fixed on their faces. They liked the cold, Dorothy Jane thought.
The doorknob turned with a creak as Daddy leaned his head into the room, letting a wave of cold air escape.
Daddy whispered through his teeth.
“What are you doing?! Leave your Momma alone!”
He beckoned to her repeatedly as she crawled out of the bed and across the floor dragging the shoebox with her. Once outside the door, Daddy started his rant.
“We did not come here to sit in the house and play paper dolls. Go to the dang beach!”
Sliding the shoebox under her bed, Dorothy Jane changed into her swimsuit. The paper dolls had already started to wilt.
Out in the sun, Dorothy Jane started to sweat again. Making her way through the dunes to the beach, she walked towards the water. The beach sand was damp and packed onto a perfectly flat surface from the high tide waves.
It was the perfect sand for a drip castle. Drip castles were Dorothy Jane’s favorite because they looked like castles that princesses lived in and because she only had one bucket.
Dorothy Jane started digging the moat, cupping the sand with the palms of her hands and placing it in a pile. With her bucket of seawater ready, she moved fistfuls of sand into the bucket until a muddy sludge reached the bucket’s brim. She left drips of sand on the flat surface inside the moat, layering them into a cone shape. Over and over again she dripped the sand, making several trips to the ocean for more water. Finally the castle towered over Dorothy Jane.
She added turrets and designs to the castle, focusing on each swirl of sand. Pastel colored shells added doors and windows while broken sand dollars surrounded the castle’s base. Leaning back to admire her handiwork, the familiar crash of encroaching waves caught her attention. She peered around the sand castle, her mouth opening in disgust.
Half of the sand castle was gone! Plum gone!
She stomped back to the beach house, making sure to leave extra deep footprints in the sand. Ethel had left a bucket of water on the deck. Dorothy Jane plunged each foot into the bucket, watching sand and shell bits spin through the water like a ballerina in The Nutcracker.
Ethel stood over the sink mixing orange goo into what would become pimento cheese. Sweat dripped down her nose to the counter around the bowl. Two flies fluttered in a figure eight near the overhead light.
Looking up from her pimento cheese, she caught a glance at Dorothy Jane’s scowling face.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“Everything! First, I fell through the stupid porch and Daddy didn’t care. Then, Daddy made me leave Momma and go to the beach where I made a sand castle that the tide washed away!”
Ethel strained to contain a laugh, “That’s all that’s wrong?”
“Yes,” Dorothy Jane replied as she fought back tears.
“Here, stir this while you’re sitting here.” Ethel handed her a bowl of dark brown slop that looked like mud. Brownies! She stirred the mix until all of the lumps dissolved, watching Daddy who was busy measuring and sawing planks into various lengths.
His forehead shone in the sun as his clammy shirt clung to his chest. A pile of sawdust started to gather at his feet. Dorothy Jane noticed that every now and then he would stop and stare at the ocean.
Smearing pimento cheese across slices of white bread, Dorothy Jane handed completed sandwiches to Ethel who sliced them into triangular pieces. Paper plates were garnished with sandwiches, potato chips, and a brownie. It was Dorothy Jane and Momma’s favorite beach meal.
Ethel knocked on the window, motioning to Daddy below. He placed his tools and materials on the ground.
Dorothy Jane helped Ethel carry the plates into the cold of Momma’s room. The family sat together on her bed, eating quietly and slowly. Their faces faded from flushed and angry tones to soft and neutral hues.
“Did you have a good time at the beach today?” Daddy looked at Dorothy Jane as he crunched a potato chip.
“Yep, it was good.” Dorothy Jane responded.
Daddy nodded and took another bite of his sandwich.
Dorothy Jane liked the cold. It was still and quiet. Curling into Momma’s body, she pressed her cheek against the coolness of Momma’s nightgown. It calmed the sting of her sunburn.
When they were finished, Ethel collected the plates and Daddy got up and opened the door. Dorothy Jane winced as a wave of heat rushed through the open door and everything around her melted. Closing her eyes, she wrapped her arms around Momma’s waist and squeezed.
Collier McLeod is a native of Augusta, Georgia, and a current graduate student at Trinity College Dublin.