The first funeral. It was achingly hot. The crushed sand and shells that covered the drive of the funeral home glinted and sparkled in the sun and made soft squeaking noises beneath the feet of the mourners who filed into the open air chapel. I am hyper aware of my white undershirt beneath the blouse of my Girl Scout uniform. I don’t yet have anything sufficient to warrant wearing a bra so my mother still insisted on the undershirt even though I was twelve years old. The cotton was saturated with sweat and stuck to my back between my shoulder blades where I couldn’t reach to peel it off even if I tried. The stiff green polyester blend of the uniform shirt rubbed my skin raw beneath my arms and around my waist where it was tucked into the skirt.

We had come here together in a station wagon as a troop driven by someone else’s mother. We are minus one and our leader. I hadn’t even wanted to be a Girl Scout. I would have stopped at being a Brownie. But before we left New York I had walked over that bridge, looked into the reflecting pond and pledged to be someone better and that person became a Girl Scout. When we moved to Florida, my mother filled out the paperwork I reluctantly carried home from school. She thought it would help me make friends in a new town and it only served to make me incompetent. If there had been a badge for spending all your free time in the library reading books, I would have twenty. So far the only badges I had sewn on my sash were the ones we had earned as a troop. The other girls all had individual badges they had completed or were working on. Amy had accomplished the most of all of us, individually, although I imagined, unless there were Girl Scouts in Heaven, she wouldn’t be advancing much further.

In the car on the way over Jeannie, a girl who smelled like tuna fish every single day, had shared the way, way, back with me and she had whispered into my ear as we crouched in the open trunk that she had heard Amy was buried in her scout uniform. It made me want to rip mine off my body and hurl it out the window but instead I said nothing and concentrated on breathing through my mouth until we filed into the funeral home and took our seats in the row reserved for us, as if we were special guests or dignitaries, behind Amy’s large family.

When we were seated Amy’s mother, our troop leader, turned to us assembled neatly in a row. She smiled but didn’t really look at us individually. Her face was tracked with tiny cuts made darker and deeper by threads of dried blood that had already begun to scab. Glistening over the cuts was a layer of tears, the collar of her shirt was darker than the rest from the water that ran off her face and on the floppy lapel I saw the glint of her Girl Scout Leader pin. She would lead her daughter to Heaven, I supposed, if she could.

I was so taken by her face that it took me a moment to focus beyond Amy’s family, her four brothers, three steps below her and one above and her father, who owned the Snack Shack down at the town dock. He recognized all of us scouts in Amy’s troop and always gave a mound of chips with the hot dogs or free French fries if he had extra. Today he kept his face focused forward and he wore a short sleeve white dress shirt that strained across his back. His sweat stains echoed my own and the sight of them made me sit slightly off the back of the pew, leaning forward so that whatever air the fans pushed out above my head would circulate around my body.

That was when I saw the glossy white casket. Its lid was closed and on top was a framed picture of Amy. Her school picture, I guessed. Since it looked just like the one my mother had of me sitting on the shelf above the television. Amy smiled out at us, her blond hair waved around her face and disappearing way past her shoulders. Her chin was tiny and pointed and her eyes were a pale green that echoed the color of our uniforms.

There were flowers everywhere that had already begun to wilt from the heat, which just made them look like they had given up. Tulips, roses, and carnations the ruffled edges dipped in green, spread atop the casket and around Amy’s picture.

I squeezed my eyes shut tight when Amy’s mother began to cry. Her sobs quieted the entire congregation of mourners. Even the priest who was standing at the head of Amy’s casket seemed to know that God could offer no comfort at the sound of a mother’s anguished cries. Before I closed my eyes I saw Amy’s older brother look agitatedly around the chapel. His gaze angry, embarrassed, bewildered. His father put a hand on his shoulder to calm him and he not so much jerked as slid away from his father’s attempted embrace and sat as close to the aisle as possible – one foot ready poised for escape.

I knew more about the accident than most, but I kept it to myself. My mother was a nurse and a good friend was on the emergency crew first to get to the scene. I knew something was wrong right away when I came home from the library and found my mother and Paul huddled close together in the driveway of our house. My mother was still in her uniform even though her shift had ended at three and it was nearly five. Paul, also a fisherman, had brought a bucket of crabs for dinner and it was between them on the ground baking in the hot sun. I dropped my bike, not bothering with the kickstand, as my mother reached out to me. She pulled me to her side as I stared down into the crab bucket. I watched the bodies move listlessly as she told me the details of the accident.

Amy’s mother had been driving way out on Pine Ridge Road, a well-traveled trucking route from the Sugar Cane fields, to pick up one of the boys, when they were hit. The impact forced Amy through the windshield. Her body hung there, suspended by shards of glass, and her mother panicked. Maybe, had she not pulled Amy through the window, onto the hood of the old station wagon, Amy might have lived. By the time Paul got to the scene Amy had lost too much blood. They didn’t tell me this but I pictured it: Amy’s mother covered in her daughter’s blood as she held her in her arms and told her it would be alright. Although from our Red Cross and CPR badges she probably knew that Amy wouldn’t make it. Before the priest finds his voice, before Amy’s parents realize what has occurred, her older brother stands up and runs down the aisle. His fists are shoved into his pockets, his head is bowed, and his shoulders are moving up and down. His grief is so electric it is terrifying and no one, not even his parents’, move to go after him.

 

Four years later. Another white casket. Mounds of flowers. At sixteen, mourning was something I clung to, stroked and feted like a beloved pet. For days I have barely slept, or eaten and only today have I showered and dressed in a white eyelet sundress to say goodbye to my beloved friend. In my fist I clutch a ball of tissues that have become slick with snot, but I am unable to contract the muscles in my hand to part with them. Had I gone with my friends as we had planned I would have been in the car that killed one of them and left the rest in the hospital, still so broken they are unable to attend the funeral. Instead of my friends I chose a boy who I won’t even allow to share in my grief. I blame him although he has nothing to do with it. I had been waiting a long time for him to notice me and when he finally did, I chose him. I. Chose. Him. I felt sick at the thought of what I was doing when she died. Of what, shamefully, I still want to do although I will not allow myself. His hands were all over my skin and I welcomed them. His mouth hot against my ear, my neck, the two of us twisted together on a blanket on the beach. I can still feel him all over me when there should be nothing left to feel.

When her mother and father see me they draw me to them and close their arms around me. They moan low and soft and we sway as a group before her casket. My dress swishes around my bare legs and brushes up against the metal stand. There is no air in our closed circle but I don’t struggle to get out. I deserve this, I think, turning their tragedy into mine. I have a hard time believing she is gone. I am swollen and sodden with grief and anger. I feel leaden, untouchable, as her mother whispers in my ear that she tucked all of our pictures into the casket. When I am able she wants me to come to their house to pick something out of Terri’s to remember her by. Even then I know it is something I will never bring myself to do.

 

When I extricate myself I look across the room crowded with teenagers in all states of distress. In the far corner I see him standing there. Unlike the first time he is not poised for escape. He knows what to expect. He has been here before. He has lost everything once and it is not impossible to imagine it won’t happen again. Our eyes meet across the room. He doesn’t need to say a word as he slowly begins to pick his way through the crowd to where I am standing. He knows all to well what happens next.

 

 

 

 

You live in Saratoga Springs, New York, home to Yaddo, one of the most famous artist colonies in the United States. Truman Capote, Patricia Highsmith, John Cheever, Amy Bloom, and Andrea Barrett, among many others, have been awarded fellowships over the years.

Frankly, I didn’t even know what a huge deal Yaddo was when I first moved to Saratoga and it is literally around the corner from where I live, just past the famous Saratoga Flat Track.  I had a two year old and a five year old when I moved here so… I was a little preoccupied by Barney and packing a PC lunchbox (something I never mastered).  Saratoga Springs is a jumble of contradictions. A quaint Victorian village in the shadow of the Adirondacks, it is most well known for the flat track which has drawn the rich and famous and their thoroughbred horses since the late 1800’s and the Sulphur Springs for the purported healing properties and for one of the most expensive private liberal arts colleges in the country: Skidmore.  The gardens at Yaddo are open to the public and I’ve spent a lot of time on the grounds… soaking up the ghosts of writers past, I guess you could say, but I’ve never applied for a residency.

How to Clean House

 

What my mother does admit to me when she calls is that Finn is on another bender and she can’t possibly rely on him to help her clear out the house before Monday.  She sounds so small and sad on the phone and I am in such a weird state of mind that I overlook the fact that I am being manipulated.  She needs me.  I can tell by the tone of her voice that she would also like me to offer to find him, just like the other times.  This time, however, I am going to let him sit and pickle before I drag him back home.   Besides, divesting the house of our childhood is enough pain for one weekend.

SantaJesus

By Robin Antalek

Memoir

Santa and I have long had an uneasy relationship. It began a few weeks before Christmas in 1962, the only time in my life when I looked good in cranberry velvet. My mother had ventured with me into Macy’s in Herald Square for my first real holiday experience. An experience that ended with me kicking Santa in the face with my shiny patent leather Mary Jane’s as she tried to pass me off into his enormous gloved hands. I was under two but at close range the Mary Jane’s had enough force from my sausage encased white clad thighs that Santa sprouted a cut lip and a drop of blood on his snowy beard. Santa’s helper promptly thrust me back into my mother’s arms while another Elf called for a wet cloth and bandages. My mother thought she heard Santa utter an expletive while she slinked away under the glare of angry parents and their wailing red-faced children who obviously thought I had killed Santa.

Coming from a large Italian-American family where church was something you did, not really explained, we all trooped to mass every Christmas Eve save for my grandmother who seemed to be excused by the man himself preparing the Feast of the Fishes while we were gone. Christmas Eve services: I was always hot, itchy and overdressed – wearing too many layers of clothing: tights, slip, sweater, blouse with peter pan collar, plaid skirt, wool coat, a hat, and gloves. I would slip slide along the pew, kicking my feet against the padded kneeler, crawling over my mother, aunts, uncles, and cousins until I reached my grandfather’s lap, where I would fall asleep. The singing would wake me and I would be carried from church by my grandfather out into the night where everyone who greeted us assured me that now, Santa would be coming soon and somehow I took that to mean that since church was over, SantaJesus, one and the same, was cleared to deliver the gifts. I remember thinking I should have paid more attention inside the church, that maybe now he won’t bring me that Chatty Cathy doll. In my mind the two have forever become one.

Singy. The following Christmas, my great uncle returned from a trip to California with a special gift for me: Singy. So christened by me who was insistent, obviously on combining then shortening SantaJesus. Singy was a compact little man about sixteen inches in height with a hard plastic face and molded features. His painted blue eyes were affixed so it appeared he was permanently looking off to the side in a mischievous kind of way, his mouth partially hidden by a fluffy white beard, a solid, sawdust stuffed body covered in red and white flocking, a black belt with a buckle and hard plastic white boots for feet. In the pictures that year I am sitting on a small wooden chair in front of a soaring tinseled covered tree in my grandparents’ living room. I am wearing plaid flannel-lined corduroys rolled at the ankle, a sweater with snowflakes and flyaway pigtails that barely touch my shoulders. Singy is tucked beneath my arm, his eyes turned toward me like he thinks I’m going to hit him. I hadn’t been back on Santa’s lap since the Macy’s incident and my wary expression says it all. I’m afraid if I put him down he will be angry so I clutch him to me all night long, but when we go to sleep that night I turn his face to the wall.

When we were small enough not to care, my brother and I shared a room, twin maple beds at right angles to the other. A night light between our heads. My brother’s bed was covered by an army of stuffed animals. On my bed my mother propped Singy, brought out of Christmas storage and he grinned at the wall evoking anything but visions of sugarplum fairies. But I am still nice to him. I include him in all our games. I bring him to the table. I insist we set a place for him and give him some food. I shove his plastic head up the dirty fireplace to show him how it’s done. Just in case.

On this particular Christmas Eve, my brother and I crawl into bed exhausted, aching from too much food, overheated houses, relatives of all shapes and sizes pinching our cheeks. We are wearing our Christmas pajamas. Me in a candy cane striped nightgown and matching ruffled sleeping cap and he in red and green plaid pajamas that button up the front purchased from the pages of the 1967 Sears Wish Book. It is not too much later when rustling noises at the bottom of my bed wakes me. I open my eyes and there is SantaJesus, resplendent in red suit, white beard, black sack rumpled on the floor at his feet. I had twisted my brother’s fingers in church tonight and made him cry after he broke my candy cane and so I think SantaJesus’ appearance in our room may have something to do with that. He is not as tall or as round as I imagined him to be and at first I try and pretend I didn’t open my eyes, but I can feel him watching so I flutter open my lids just in time to see him press a gloved hand to his lips. I pull the blankets up over my head but create a flap where I can peek out. He hangs our stockings on the posts at the end of our beds and then he exits the room, leaving the door just slightly ajar like my mother always remembered to do. I can see a Pez dispenser, the vivid green asymmetrical head of Gumby, the hook of a candy cane and the metal curve of a Slinky popping out the top of one stocking. While I’m debating whether I should go back to sleep or wake my brother, the door to our room swings open and my mother enters with SantaJesus. I am still hidden so she can’t see me. SantaJesus has his arm around my mother’s waist and she says something into his ear and he turns his face to her and presses the side of his white beard against her head and they both smile before leaving the room. I don’t know what to do with this piece of information and I ruin Christmas morning, ignoring the Barbie in the red plaid cape with the moveable arms and legs to pester my parents’ with questions. I spend the rest of the day searching for clues, but find nothing and instead come to the conclusion that because my mother’s name is Mary just like SantaJesus’, mother, then the two of them must somehow be related and I had better start paying attention during mass.

By the age of twelve I have long known that SantaJesus doesn’t exist, although I am still unclear on the reason why I must go to church. As far as I can see the pay-off of life ever after up in the clouds is just too far fetched of a concept for a girl who has yet to be kissed here on earth. During mass, instead of watching the altar, I stare at the ceiling hoping to see the face of Jesus in the shadows making me special and possibly a candidate for absolution of past and future sins. The only thing that holds my attention is the drama of benediction, where the priest swings the smoking incense filled bejeweled ball and speaks in Latin. I have long suspected that this is what SantaJesus smells like and a few years later, as a teenager, when burning cones of incense becomes the thing to do, I alternate between feelings of guilt over becoming a lapsed Catholic and intense longing to sit on SantaJesus’ lap.

But that December of my twelfth year I was still a semi obedient willing to please Catholic school girl. So when Sister Jean, the director of our Christmas Pageant had emergency surgery, Sister Mary Catherine announced there might not be a play unless a volunteer from the class came forward. I offered myself as writer and director. I constructed a play about an angry Santa and a Mrs. Claus who longs to travel and a few reindeer that refuse to participate in Christmas along with a monster and a wayward Elf. The storylines cobbled together from every televised Christmas special I have ever seen. I also, to please the church loving crowd, throw in Mary and Joseph and in the cradle, where the baby Jesus is to lay, I place the precious, albeit mangy, Singy with his shifty eyes turned to his supposed stepfather, Joseph

 

At the end is the big production number where we dance to Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and I instruct the boy who played Joseph to toss Singy into the air for a grand finale. That is when, carried away by the music, the end of the play, the bag of candy kisses that I had backstage, the jubilation that we are done, Singy becomes the holiday equivalent of a hot potato. He is catapulted over and over again by greedy little fists that punch him, volleyball style, higher and higher into the air. When I finally get him back his beard is torn, the pom-pom from his hat is hanging by a thread, his belt is gone and the stitching on the side of his left leg has come unraveled.

That night when we get home my mother salvages his leg with thread and glues his beard back to his face. When I wake up in the morning I see that she has placed him at the end of my bed, his shifty little gaze looking off toward the wall. I sit up and stare at Singy; I demand that he look at me. Under the covers I rattle my feet so he moves. His squat little body tilts to the right, as does his gaze. Look at me, I say again.

Understandably, our long and tortured history not withstanding, that painted twinkle in his eye gave me a glimmer of hope.

But he refused.

 

 

 

Sharks

By Robin Antalek

Essay

The fall I was fifteen my mother had surgery that would hollow out her insides, scoop them clean like a wide mouthed spoon against the split open flesh of a watery honeydew melon and keep her in the hospital for ten days. This was back before insurance companies got involved and surgery actually meant you recovered in the hospital. Children were discouraged during visiting hours and while my father might have been able to sneak me in, he was too disoriented by the absence of my mother for that long, to even consider what I might need.

The doctor had told my father that my mother would have to take it easy for a month after the surgery and somehow my father equated this with the purchase of an electric clothes dryer. Pre-surgery, my mother hung our laundry on the clothes tree out back: an aluminum contraption with a center rod spiked into the ground like a beach umbrella. The actual lines criss-crossed at the top in the shape of a square, reminding me of the God’s Eye’s I was forced to make during my brief attendance at Vacation Bible Camp out of yarn and popsicle sticks. It was an oddly inefficient design, poorly engineered, that usually toppled under the weight of the wet clothes listing severely to the left or the right if things weren’t balanced just so causing the entire process to begin again, this time with cursing.

I went with my father to Grant’s Department store where my old fifth grade math teacher from Saint Ann’s also worked part time in the appliance department. While my father perused the dryers, Mr. McGowan brought up the subject of monthly payment plans, obviously aware of our financial situation since he had been on the committee that had expelled both my brother and me into the world of public school and the glories of smoking in the bathroom, for non-payment of tuition. Of course they had messily hidden the money issue beneath my mother’s vocal support of Roe Vs. Wade, but I knew the truth. After a few Old Milwaukee’s, my parents could be very forthcoming on a variety of subjects.

While I pilfered candy from a dish by the salesmen’s desk, I noticed my father flinch as he looked at the price tags, finally arriving in front of an avocado green dryer that had the lowest price. It was a basic model, Mr. McGowan exclaimed, his complexion ruddy, with broken capillaries that spread across his cheeks like the silvery threads left behind by slugs. It would do the job for the little lady, he said as a last resort to sway my father.

If my mother had been here she would have turned and walked out. As a matter of fact if my mother knew my father was even considering this she would have called him a fool. There was no way that I could even tell her about his idea: My father hovered over me when he called her room every evening after dinner and handed me the phone. Her voice would always start out strong and then dwindle down to a thready whisper. Every call ended with me saying I love you and my mother repeating it back only it sounded like she was on the moon not the hospital ten blocks away. I hated the phone calls and besides, they were so not the time for telling the truth. I knew that by the fake tone my father took every time he announced into the receiver, “here’s your girl! Like my mother had just won the grand prize on Let’s Make A Deal.

But I could tell my father wasn’t going to budge on purchasing the dryer with money we didn’t have. Servicing the pools of southwest Florida paid the bills, my mother’s job as a nurse provided a little extra, but without her income there was nothing left over. In his lifetime my father had been a pilot and an engineer but for some reason was now devoting his life to a fledgling pool business. I was just beginning to figure out that there weren’t enough Old Milwaukee’s in the world to get that truth out of him. Pride was not even going to allow him to consider a payment plan and we left Grant’s Department store with a handful of candies I’d swiped and Mr. McGowan’s beady little eyes boring into our backs as we bid a hasty retreat out into the buckling heat of the asphalt parking lot.

 

An idea landed in my lap innocently enough. At the very end of the town pier, an old wooden structure that extended out into the Gulf of Mexico like a multi legged sea creature, there was a group of guys who fished for shark after midnight. For obvious reasons, the town discouraged shark fishing. Once the sharks established a feeding area, it would be hard for the sharks to distinguish between a bloody hunk of chum versus the tasty thigh of a tourist.

But the shark fishing continued because the meat was just exotic enough for area restaurants (tasting just like chicken, no lie, albeit a little chewy, so more like conch) and the remainder of the shark: the jaw and the teeth, could be cleaned and dried and sold to the tourists – an entire jaw from a six foot shark could bring ten dollars, maybe more. The way I saw it: five jaws equaled an avocado green clothes dryer. I was no sissy. At my father’s urging I had been baiting and cleaning fish for years. I had cut the jaws out of sharks that had turned up on shore after the red tide. How hard could this be?

The opportunity arrived when, aided by Old Milwaukee’s and exhaustion, my father turned in before eleven o’clock. By eleven thirty he was sound asleep and I was on my bike headed to the pier, his heaviest fishing pole and a bag of tackle strapped to my handlebars. When I got there, I propped my bike up against a piling and walked to the end of the pier with the pole. I was wearing a t-shirt of my brother’s and it rattled around my torso like a sheet in the wind, baring more of the body I was trying to hide, to be invisible among the guys. The pier was empty except for the glut at the end, guys passing the time with a cooler of long neck beers, their fishing poles held loosely in one hand or leaning against the railings, a deep bucket of bloody chicken parts in a tall white plaster bucket – dripping over the sides and trailing off towards the bait table like a bad crime scene. The air smelled like pennies. A few of them glanced my way, seemed to take in the pole and the plastic bag of tackle I clutched in my fist and dismissed me with a smirk.

I walked over to the railing and looked down. It was obvious that for the amount of lines in the water some of the guys had more than one pole going at a time. The tables were empty, the wooden board of the deck glistened from the bait buckets, not a catch in sight. The water lapped against the pilings and made a clucking sound. Occasionally, a cigarette butt would arc over the side and land in the water below, the hiss of the flame as it extinguished forever lost in the wind.

I hung over the railing for a while getting up my nerve. Hoping a shark would appear and make me less obvious when a guy sidled over to me and hoisted his body at a dangerous angle over the top railing of the deck so that he had to look back up at me. When he had my attention he said, “You think a shark is gonna come up and bite cause your cute?” I simultaneously frowned and laughed nervously. He was older than me, but not by much. I was pretty sure I’d seen him around school last year, but not this current year. So he either graduated or dropped out. I was guessing the latter. He offered to help me and before I knew it he had taken the pole from my shaky hands and threaded a bloody mass onto the hook. He squeezed it in his fist, allowing the juice to run down his arm in thin cock-eyed rivulets. I took the pole from him like I did it everyday and arching back, I cast the line over the side. He raised an eyebrow, but said nothing as he wiped his bloody arm against his t-shirt.

After a while he lit a cigarette and cracked a beer, offering me the first swig. I took it, keeping one hand on the pole, and drank deeply until my throat felt funny from the foam and I handed it back. I noticed the others were starting to pay more attention to me because he was, although I wasn’t sure it was the kind of attention I wanted. The wait for a shark went on forever, the only sounds in the dark were of a beer being opened or the strike of a match followed by sulpher as it skunked the air. When it finally happened the guy whose line it was reacted quickly and quietly. He braced himself in a wide leg stance as he strained to bring up the shark. The muscles in his calves shimmied and quivered. Others moved in to help him, peering over the side, offering encouragement in muted voices. When I think of it now they reminded me of nurses in the delivery room, administering direction in low, firm voices, that didn’t interfere with the real work at hand.

When he finally pulled the shark in, the sleek gray body was scarred in the pale underbelly, it’s body, supine against the planks of the dock, shuddered like a child at the end of a temper tantrum, the hook and line still imbedded deeply in its throat. Out of water the shark continued to thrash but it was clearly losing the battle. By the time I turned back to my father’s fishing pole it was gone, along with the guy who had baited the hook. Whether he had taken the pole or it had slipped over the side in the confusion of the moment, I’d never know. In a panic I ran to the end of the pier, to my bike, intent on getting home and into my bed before my father knew I was gone. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I swerved as headlights illuminated the road from behind. I glanced over my shoulder quickly and caught the outline of a familiar truck and behind the wheel my father, his face all pale angles in the light of the moon, his mouth an angry grimace, his brow furrowed in worry. Instead of stopping to accept my inevitable punishment, I continued pedaling as my father trailed slowly behind, ushering me home.

 

In the driveway as I dropped my bike, he stayed in the truck. I could feel him watching me as I slid open the glass door on the carport and walked inside, careful not to look back and meet his eyes. I lay in bed too afraid to sleep, face and teeth unwashed because I was scared of the consequences if I left my room. I considered the fact that he wouldn’t tell my mother because then he would have to admit to the plan of a dryer and she would have been furious, still it didn’t make me feel any better about losing his best fishing pole.

What I didn’t know then was that in the morning my father would wake me early with a gruff announcement of breakfast. After eggs and toast we would take a ride to Ace Hardware where he would purchase a bag of cement and then he and I would spend the morning beneath an aching sun digging a deeper post hole for the clothesline and then filling in all around it with the pebbly gray concrete. I would hold the post steady with both hands as he poured the cement. Sweat dripped down my forehead and the tip of my nose causing my face to itch but I wouldn’t release a hand from the pole afraid to move, afraid of disappointing my father again.

 

 

Ghosts

By Robin Antalek

Essay

My childhood was a combination of magic and terror.

I come from a loud, sprawling clan of first generation Italian Americans who, for the most part, resided within walking distance of each other in the hamlet of Pelham, New York, a suburb of Manhattan.

They loved food, God, their newly adopted country, baseball, and their family with fervent yet equal abandon. My earliest memories are of the wrap around porch of my grandparents’ home overflowing with cousins and aunts and uncles eating, drinking and talking all at once; of my older cousins wearing teased bouffant hairstyles, and white lipstick, their hemlines inching way above the knee; of my grandfather and his brothers drinking homemade wine and smoking hand-rolled cigars beneath the grape arbors in the backyard; of going into Manhattan, my hand held firmly in my grandfather’s, to watch the circus elephants arrive in town linked trunk to tail; of Jones Beach, of Coney Island; of rambling village parades where nearly half of those marching were related to me. Of holidays: of Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, Halloween and the Fourth of July, where the house was always full of people who had known me since I was born.

When I was eight my mother did the unthinkable: she moved us to a speck of a town in southwest Florida at the lip of the Everglades. It was 1968. The world she had grown up in had changed enormously. A President had been murdered. A classmate who had gone to Mississippi to register voters had disappeared. People no longer married for life. Sex was no longer something you waited for. The town she chose was so small you had to squint to find it on a map. My relatives, whose sole relationship with the Sunshine State was firmly rooted in the beach cabana culture of Fort Lauderdale and Miami, shook their heads in disbelief as we left behind all that we had ever known.

We arrived with very little from our old life with the understanding that it just wouldn’t fit. The house in my new town was single-story without a basement, and everything inside, without shadow, was a violent bright white. Our new neighbors, parents to a roll call of children who seemed to arrive in two-year intervals, insisted we call them Miss Ivey Dell and Mr. David, and after they spanked their kids they read them Bible scriptures and told them Jesus loved them. A long black snake slithered out of our laundry basket. Bright green lizards clung to the screens on the windows. The yard didn’t grow grass; instead it was filled with mounds of crushed shells and fossilized rocks. Slowly it began to dawn on us that our furniture was far from the only thing in our new life that just didn’t fit. Still, we stayed and slowly, the new life started to take over the old.

As childhoods went back in the late sixties and early seventies, mine was fairly autonomous. On weekends and summer vacations, I remember leaving the house on my bike in the morning and not coming home until dinner. The landscape was so raw and clean that it was easy to be a pioneer. The beaches were pure back then, hardly a condo or house in sight, just long unending strips of white sand bordered on one side by the aqua water of the Gulf of Mexico and on the other straggly pine forests surrounded by clumps of sea grape and sea oats that were not yet considered endangered. As a child as I stood on the shore and contemplated the horizon, it seemed as if I had discovered the tipping point at the end of the world and Cuba, a place even more wild and unpredictable, was just beyond my reach on the other side as a dare.

I learned to shuffle my feet as I entered the water to ward off the prehistoric-looking stingrays and horseshoe crabs with the barbed venomous tail that burrowed in the shallow shoreline. I watched the waters turn blood red from a surge of bacteria known as the Red Tide, and I helped my mother cut the jaws out of sharks that had died and washed ashore, and dried them in the sun to sell to tourists who had just begun to trickle into town. I swam to the sandbar and beyond. I swung off the ropes of a sailboat. I felt the blunt bump of a shark nose as it brushed against my legs. I was young and invincible just like the lyrics to a bad pop anthem.

As a teenager, the deserted beaches held marvelous pockets of privacy. I had a bikini that made me braver and more sure of myself than my old ragged one piece. There were bonfires and boys with long hair, sun-bleached white on the tips, whose wiry bodies were bronze and toned from endless hours surfing the waves. Boys who gave me rides on the handlebars of their bikes to the beach. Boys I curved around on a sandy blanket, boys who broke my heart, boys whose hearts I broke. Altering our moods seemed innocent; a joint passed around the bonfire mouth to mouth until it was gone, a bottle of limb warming amber liquid, origins unknown.

One of those nights I wandered away from the bonfire with a friend. Walking along the beach at night, the sounds of the waves rushing the shore, the moonlight turning the sand silver. Even in the dark the air was still so warm. I was buzzed enough that my limbs felt fluid, but not so buzzed that what I saw emerge from the woods in front of me wasn’t real. Three men in white hoods, their bodies shrouded in volumes of white cloth that was folded and gathered crudely, like a child’s elementary attempt at a Halloween costume. I grabbed a hold of my friend and because we were sixteen we stood for a moment longer than we should have, longer than common sense, before we turned and took off back down the beach towards the bonfire.

I didn’t look over my shoulder until we were in the light of the fire, back among the clumps of people who greeted us with a long-neck beer and the wave of a joint. Puffed with bravado, we told our story accompanied by the roaring of the Gulf and the hiss and pop of the fire. A ragged group was formed to investigate. Someone talked about the remains of a burning cross, a lost dog, the forlorn cry of a child in the night, a stolen bike, a piece of torn white fabric caught on a branch, as if all these fragments, real or imagined, were connected. Around the fire, our faces appeared haunted and distorted by the flickering flames. We huddled under blankets loosely tented around our shoulders till dawn, until the gulls cawed and the sky streaked pink behind the slowly dilating charcoal smudge of night sky.

We had no idea what we were waiting for or what we would do once it arrived. We had no idea what was to come.

 

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23 Comments »

Comment by Irene Zion
2009-10-20 08:58:28

Robin,
What started out as a lovely family tale morphed into a story of disassociation to a new life and then into the story of a child’s introduction to hatred and terror.
Phew. I’m exhausted riding through it.
Good job.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:45:57

Irene, I had the same experience reading your last lovely piece. Thanks so much!

Comment by Matt
2009-10-20 09:32:18

Wow.

’scuse me. I kind of feel the need to go surfing now. Back later.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:47:03

hmmmm…… you can’t ever separate the boy from the board!

Comment by Richard Cox
2009-10-20 10:33:01

This is a dense and vivid journey. Nicely done.

As a child I always feared the moment I would forget to shuffle my feet and plant my foot squarely on top of a stingray hidden under the murky surface of the water. Luckily it never happened. Well, not yet, anyway.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:47:54

Keep shuffling…. that’s my motto anyway. Works for most everything. Thanks so much for the compliments, Richard

Comment by Zara Potts
2009-10-20 10:36:34

God, how creepy.
But what lovely writing Robin! I could almost smell the salt from the ocean and the smoke from the bonfire.
What happened next??

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:48:52

What happened next? I fell in love with another sensitive soul who stayed up with me all that night…..

Comment by jmblaine
2009-10-20 10:54:28

A professor once told me that good writers
describe well
and the touch you put on things
is magic here,
where have you been?

ps. the Klan winds through my childhood as well
but I cant find the words to write about it
yet

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:51:22

My God…thanks. I am humbled by the compliments. When I began this piece I thought I wanted my “Klan” experience to start it off – only to find the entire thing flipped around in the telling. You might find a way to tell your story yet. A wise teacher once said to me when I was stuck that I should think about…”going in the back door.” Have you?

Comment by Simon Smithson
2009-10-20 13:36:09

Wow, good piece!

Like Irene, this one caught me by surprise. It started in one place, then ended up in another.

Sort of like childhood, I guess.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:52:32

Simon – you are so right I hadn’t thought of childhood that way until I read your comment!!! I love TNB people!

Comment by Col. Hector Bravado
2009-10-21 04:48:08

You have a great way of letting what was then a new landscape help tell this story of strangeness and change. Beautiful, restrained portraiture. The cutting of a shark’s jaw sticks in my head. And the emergence of hillbilly hatred from the woods…it reminds me of a story my dad told me.

When I was very young, my parents — hippies fresh from Rhode Island in their red VW microbus — moved us to southwest Missouri in service of my dad’s quest to wash his hands of society to what degree he could. The Ozarks were beautiful. Some things about the Ozarks were not. He described to me an early meeting with a realtor/land guy who, upon their first appointment, met them not at a prospective piece of land, but a black graveyard.

“See that?” the man said to my mystified parents, pointing at the headstones. “That’s why we don’t have a nigger problem in this county.”

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:51:33

Your anecdote leaves me speechless. Have you ever told that story?

Comment by Col. Hector Bravado
2009-10-24 06:17:56

Only here, on this comment thread. And to a few friends.

(Comments wont nest below this level)

Comment by Autumn
2009-10-21 06:57:16

Your writing about Florida really knocked me back to my childhood: slopping through low-tide mud to hunt for urchins and horseshoe crabs, swimming past the sand bar, bonfire and boys with long hair. I was a teen in the 90s, but I guess the experience never changes.

I, luckily, never had any experience with the Klan, but racism was definitely alive and well in Florida back then too. And, I fear, sadly still is.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:56:02

When writing this, I was never quite sure if a place that held such a strong and lasting impact on my memory would translate on paper… I’m glad it resonated with you. Writing about childhood can be unsettling when you layer in adult perceptions….

Comment by LitPark
2009-10-21 10:23:41

Haunting, and beautifully told.

Comment by Greg Olear
2009-10-21 14:18:18

I agree with Susan. Haunting (they look like ghosts, after all) and beautifully told.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:52:39

Greg and Susan… thanks so much….

Comment by Marni Grossman
2009-10-21 19:57:49

Florida’s such an anomaly. It’s a southern state, but it’s easy to forget that amidst the flea markets of Boca and the parties of Miami. You shine a lense on a very different Florida. And you do it so damn well.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 10:01:59

You’re so right about that! Florida is indeed an anomaly…. one forgets that it is much more than the birthplace of Mickey Mouse! Going back to that town, which I did this summer for the first time in nearly fifteen years, was still unsettling. Although not sure if it was just me trying to reconcile past and present, or there was something else at work. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece – thanks!

Comment by D.R. Haney
2009-10-25 18:56:42

Very well described, Robin, as others have said, and I love the conclusion, which to me is reminiscent of the final fadeout of a European art film from the 1960s, though it’s hard to explain why. I think, for example, of the girl vainly waving to Mastroianni on the beach at the end of La Dolce Vita. Or maybe it’s simply sufficient to use the word “haunting” and leave it at that.