by Alexandra Ford
Every year you drove your children from Pennsylvania to Cape Cod to sleep in a pop-up camper beneath the shade of evergreens. We rode in a minivan rigged with a CRT television and an old Sega Genesis. The seats were soft, captains in the middle, a bench in the back. I played Sonic the Hedgehog with your sons. I lost to the oldest, who sat beside me.
The light in the campground was golden from sodium lamps and campfires, red from chili pepper party lights strung in other pitches. I fell asleep to the murmur of late-night voices, drunk but talking in whispers. The orchestral sound of crickets and peepers and moths beating on the camper’s plastic windows because you left a light on above the stove—so we could find our way out the screen door in the middle of the night and walk to the campground bathrooms with spiders in the toilet paper rolls.
Your youngest son threatened you with a knife in the camper. You spat at him, I think, while your husband held him back. Your oldest son stood beside you, and I pressed myself into the background.
The next morning, we all went to the beach. You and I sat by the orange dunes. You talked about Mexico in the summertime when you were my age, eighteen, scorched and sunburned with hair down to your waist and cheekbones like knives. What color was your hair? I can only see the pewter color it was on White Crest Beach, polished in the early light. I pictured you on a bleached street, leaning against an Oxxo with a joint between your lips. A loose-fitting shirt giving away your small breasts, long skinny legs in cutoff shorts with fringe. Flat sandals. No makeup.
We went to a souvenir shop the size of a supermarket. You bought a refrigerator magnet. All she does is beach, beach, beach, it read, made to look like it was written in sand.
I stared at it while you thawed a pot of homemade tomato sauce on the camping stove. You told me you’d give me the recipe. You also told me you danced on a table for Rod Stewart before he was famous. That you followed bands around the desert in the sixties with your brother, who was a photographer dying of lung cancer, but he wasn’t dying back then.
We visited your brother in Maine. He looked just like you, except his hair was darker. We cleaned his apartment. It smelled like cooking oil and dust. You gave me a macro lens off his old Nikon, wrapped in a Crown Royal bag.
When he died, you put his ashes in your basement.
I came over to be with you. Your hair was pinned in rollers. The elderflowers were ripe and ammoniated. You were snapping asparagus in your yard, in a garden apron. I tasted the stalks with you: wet grass and mushrooms. You killed Japanese beetles in sugar water and vinegar, swept them barehanded into sliced-in-half milk bottles. I went downstairs to get more vinegar and saw his urn stashed between jarred peaches and a bulk jug of cooking oil.
Most nights, I slept beside your oldest son. We made love while you shouted. There was always something you couldn’t find. Someone must have taken it. But it was probably under your trail of newspapers, Dove wrappers, lost in the smell of cat litter and tomato sauce, because when you finished with something you put it down and forgot it.
At Christmas, when I was twenty, you poured me a glass of brandy. You filled my stocking with lint rollers and candy canes. You accidentally bought duplicates of everything and watched us open it all twice. You seemed disturbed by the mistake, but you laughed and opened a box of cherry cordials. You drank too much and kissed your oldest son on the lips. You sat on his lap while I sat beside him, but you wouldn’t remember that. Or the way you looked at me.
When I heard you died, I thought of Cape Cod, the way the sea breeze blew thick grey strands of hair off your face, The way your voice sat deep in your throat. The way you took me aside and squeezed my hand and said something kind I don’t remember. The way I loved you, the mess you made, the way you made it like it didn’t matter. The way the past felt like a stranger, but the feelings were all still there. From when I left your family without saying goodbye. From hating you because there was something unnatural about the way you loved your oldest son. From when love and hate were defined by small moments. When they were young.
Ten years had passed since that first summer when I sat on the small dock in the campground. I put my feet in the water, and your oldest son put his feet in the water beside me. We counted the leaves on the surface, looked for ducks that weren’t there. And then he shouted, jumped out of the lake, and pointed at a snapping turtle swimming toward us with a sharp, open mouth. It was the size of a Labrador, and its dinosaur jaw was all tongue and beak.
I got my feet out of the water just in time.
A few seconds more, and it would have taken part of me with it into the deep.
Published November 11th, 2018
Alexandra Ford s a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. Her work appears in The Rumpus, Blunderbuss Magazine, and No Tokens Journal, among others. Originally from Philadelphia, Alexandra lives in Shropshire, England. When she isn’t writing, she’s tending her small farm and forthcoming writing retreat, Longhouse. Read more about Alexandra at www.afordwrites.com.
Nikki Shapiro is a recently retired musician turned self taught painter who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He has paintings currently hanging at Variety Cafe at 368 Graham ave in Brooklyn, New York. See more at Nikkishapiro.com and on Instagram: @nikki_shapiro_art.