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Strayed

by

Jennifer Gooch Hummer

 

 
     
   

 

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I HAD TO WORK FAST, PULLING MY MOM'S HIGH HEELS OUT OF THE BOX AND SLIPPING THEM INTO THE LOBSTER TRAP BEFORE MY DAD COULD SEE. My mom’s stuff was going to Goodwill tonight, but the shoes were staying with me.
            Outside, I heard Grandma Bramhall’s car jiggling down our dirt road. I slid everything back in its place and stepped out of the garage. My dad was on the porch already, the screen door slamming behind him.
             “Hi Mom,” he said, one hand in his pocket and the other one lifted, palm out, in a wave. He looked tired, and tired of it. The way he always did now.
            “Hi dearie,” Grandma Bramhall answered, screeching into the driveway, poking her head out the window. “How’s the girl?”
            A bee bumped into my heart. I hadn’t told anyone about Rennie and no one seemed to notice I hadn’t slept over at her house last night either. I watched my dad shake his head. “A little under the weather,” he answered sadly. But my lips made a U-turn. They were talking about M, not me. We were all supposed to be calling her Margie now, definitely not Nurse Margie anymore, but so far Grandma Bramhall was calling her nothing, or lately, the girl. I kept my smile low when I walked up to the passenger side of her brown square car.
            “Well dearie, if you’re going to make your own bed,” Grandma Bramhall sighed, throwing her hands off the steering wheel.
            I knew the rest: if you’re going to make your own bed, you better be willing to lie in it, too. Grandma Bramhall said it a lot. But what it really meant was: bad choice.
            My dad didn’t agree. He shrugged and started down the stairs, both hands in his khaki pants now. “When do you think you’ll bring Apron home?”
            “Well now that depends,” Grandma Bramhall said, turning her head to shake it at me, sliding into the passenger seat. Her head always shakes and she always let me ride in the front. “On whether we decide to have dessert or not. Doesn’t it, Apron? Did I tell you we are making three stops in the Caribbean?”
I bugged my eyes out for her. But my dad said, “Sounds a lot more fun than fly fishing,” which you had to admit was true. Last summer she went to Orvis Fly Fishing School and when my mom and I went to take care of her house, there were notes all over the kitchen that said, “Dear little people, I’ve gone fishing. Make yourselves at home.” My mom never believed in those little people, but I did. She would roll her eyes whenever Grandma Bramhall told us she had seen them again, shorter than the buttons on the dishwasher, eating all her crackers and leaving all the crumbs. I’ve seen those crumbs.
             Grandma Bramhall jerked the car into reverse before my dad could lean down into her window. “Call me if she gets to be too much for you, Mom. I’ll come pick her up,” he said, sounding worried all of a sudden.
            “Oh for God’s sake Dennis, she’s eleven. What’s too much?” Grandma Bramhall grumbled, twisting around to back out. Her head even shook cranked to the side like that, just a little slower, like it was up against something.
We couldn’t hear what my dad said next because of the dirt crunching under the tires. But when I looked again, he was climbing up the stairs, hands back in his pockets.
            Then, we were on our way. I punched around on the radio until I heard We Are The World that Cyndi Lauper and her friends sing every second, whenever she’s not singing Girls Just Want to Have Fun. Cyndi Lauper was my mom’s favorite singer but she never got to hear this song.
            “Oh I love this one,” Grandma Bramhall said, putting the petal to the metal and gunning it out onto Rte 88, cutting off a #1 Maine Movers truck behind us. That driver let out a huge long beep, but Grandma Bramhall threw her hands off the steering wheel and said, “Turn this up, dearie, will you?”

The driveway into Handy’s Boat Yard was so full of potholes if you closed your eyes, you might think you were on a ride at Fun Town/Splash Town instead. Halfway down, there was a sand lot full of every kind of boat you could think of just waiting to be fixed or painted. There were huge boats that could fit our whole Fifth grade class in them, and tiny boats that could fit only one or two people inside. But all of them had names, like Sunrise Surprise or Sailendipity.
            Grandma Bramhall got bumping so fast down the end of the driveway that it looked like she was trying to launch us off the docks. Then at the last second she turned into the parking lot, tires screeching again. Seagulls cawed all over the sky and the air smelled like God just burped after eating fish for lunch. White poop was drizzled on everything, including Grandma Bramhall’s brown hood already.
            “Damn birds,” she said, getting out and shutting her door. I shut mine almost at the same time and then we started up the walkway with old wooden piles roped together. I held the door for her, which had a knob like a helm.
            “Thank you, dearie,” she said smiling at me.
            In the restaurant, the air conditioner was practically below zero and the fish smell from the outside turned into a fish smell sprayed out with Pledge on the inside. Grandma Bramhall told a lady who looked too old to have bangs our names. Then we followed her into the dining room with dark wood everywhere and old people eating piles of fried clams behind wine glasses. Out the window, you could see a path sloping down into the water, where a medium sized sailboat named The Portland Polly with a green hull was waiting to go. “I don’t think so,” Grandma Bramhall said after the bang lady stopped at a tiny table in the middle of the dining room. “I asked for a window. So my granddaughter can watch the boats getting launched.”
            The bang lady pinched her face into too many wrinkles, just like I thought, and started walking over to a big square table with a Reserved triangle in the middle of it. After she picked it up, Grandma Bramhall followed her and said, “there,” then sat down. I tried to look extra nice when I said, “thank you,” but the bang lady just spread a smile and left. I watched her go Reserve the bar instead, whispering something to the bartender with a grey moustache that was turned up at both ends.
            “Isn’t this lovely,” Grandma Bramhall sighed, bringing some ice water to her shaking lips. Even though her head moved a thousand miles an hour, she knew exactly how to sip without spilling a drop.
            “Thanks for bringing me here, Grandma Bramhall,” I said putting my napkin on my lap and slipping my flip-flops off my feet, against the law but who was going to see.
            “Nonsense,” she said opening her menu. “Anything you want. The world is your oyster.” She laughed at that. Then she leaned into her bag and pulled out three brochures, each of them with a big white ship on the front. “Did I show you these, Apron? Look where Mr. John is taking me,” she said holding them up like a fan.
            I plucked out the middle one and unfolded it. There were pictures of happy people eating in fancy dining rooms or dancing under big chandeliers. And pictures of tan ladies sitting around the pool with one knee up reading, and pictures of people with their arms wrapped around each other smiling big while the sun set behind them. Not a person with a freckle anywhere. After I was done, I smiled back up at Grandma Bramhall who was looking down at another brochure now, studying it really, bending it this way and that, trying to find something. It wasn’t people with freckles though, because Grandma Bramhall didn’t have any. Just like me, my dad caught them from his dad.
            I put the brochure back down and opened the huge book of a menu with so many adjectives Ms. Frane would have had a field day. Succulent, ripe, and perfectly roasted were all over the place. Plain tuna salad is my favorite sandwich but at Handy’s the tuna is so fresh and chunky you can’t even eat it. Which is why I usually got the fried clams, except now it reminded me of the seals I needed to save. Yesterday, I took the pamphlet out of my drawer and checked off the yes, please send me flyers to distribute box, then put it in the envelope and pogo-sticked it up to our mailbox. You didn’t even need a stamp to mail it, that’s how badly they needed help.
            A waitress with brown hair and bright pink lipstick came over and said, “Mornin’ to yuh ladies.”
            Grandma Bramhall put on her glasses and held the menu about a mile away from her and said, “yes, I’ll have a bloody mary and my granddaughter will have a?” then waited for me to fill in the blank. I said Shirley Temple please. Grandma Bramhall said, “And I’ll have the crab roll and my granddaughter will have the?” I said grilled cheese please, then started finger painting a heart on my sweating water glass. I was back to drinking water again, even though I could practically feel those amoebas we studied in science class falling down my throat, eyes wide open and laughing like they were on a water slide. But I was finished eating meat. Hamburgers had parents too, and I wasn’t about to eat anyone’s mother.
            After the waitress took our menus, Grandma Bramhall put her napkin in her lap and said, “Excited for school to get out dearie?”
            “Yeah,” I said. Kind of, I didn’t. I still hadn’t written my Free Verse Poem about love, what it means, in six lines. And now that M would be living with us all summer I wished school would never get out.
            “Well I hope the girl starts feeling better soon,” Grandma Bramhall said looking out the window, around at all the boats. “When I was pregnant with your father I never felt better. She’s probably just trying to get attention. Your father should marry her, you know, so at least he can make an honest woman out of her.”
            My throat caved in when she said that. M wasn’t honest, she was from Brazil, and Grandma Bramhall and I were the only ones who knew how badly she didn’t want to go back there. My mom knew too, but now she was the only one who didn’t know that when M said she was going to find a nice American man to marry, she meant my dad.
I picked up my fork and tried balancing it on one finger like a seesaw.
            “Grandma Bramhall?” I asked. “What does love mean to you?”
            Something about that was funny to her, so she laughed. But I didn’t. I just found the exact spot on the fork that I needed to keep it straight, and stared at it, perfectly balanced. Grandma Bramhall patted down both sides of her neat grey hair and said, “Well let’s see then, a three-stop cruise in the Caribbean?”
            My fork crashed into my water glass which tipped over, making a fast lake on the table. Grandma Bramhall said, “Oh dear,” and picked up her soggy brochures, then held up her hand and turned around for the waitress. I stood up, but already there was a wet spot on my yellow dress right where you don’t want one.
            “Sorry,” I said, wiping the table. The bartender saw my grandmother’s hand and sent the waitress over. By the time she got there though, it was too late. Everything was soaked.
            A few times while we were eating, Grandma Bramhall caught someone’s wrinkly arm walking by and asked, “Do you know my pretty granddaughter, Apron?” Then I would stand up to shake their cold hand and watch Grandma Bramhall smile big and say, “Oh did I tell you about my cruise?” Two ladies said, “Yes, Dory you did,” and kept walking, but one old lady with a quilted lobster on her pocket book shook her head and said, “No, for gracious sakes, Dory, do tell.” So Grandma Bramhall told her to pull up a chair.
            I turned my head away so I didn’t have to see those happy people dancing under chandeliers again. The Portland Polly was in the water now, puttering past the docks. Way out in the harbor, boats were bouncing up and down against the waves like pigeons pecking at birdseed. A small blue sailboat named 2 Have Fun was tied onto the dock, and someone in red Nantucket pants and a dark blue polo shirt, wearing a white baseball hat, was spraying the bow down with a hose. I watched those seagulls dare each other to land on deck but then chicken out when the man aimed the hose at them.
            “Did your grandmother tell you about the Beluga whale?” the woman with the lobster pocket book asked me. She was as old as Grandma Bramhall, but dressed fancier, with big gold earrings that matched her necklace and a red coat with gold buttons.
            I shook my head and looked at Grandma Bramhall, in her same blue dress with white squiggles on it, a matching belt tight around her waist, always thick and soft. But Grandma Bramhall kept staring at one of the brochures while she said, “I don’t know anything about a whale, Betty.”
            “Oh you do too,” the lobster pocket book lady said, slapping the air in front of her. “That poor whale has been stuck in the harbor for days. Lost its way.”
            “Well I haven’t been here for days, Betty,” Grandma Bramhall said, picking her head up.
            “I can’t remember there ever being a whale around here, can you?” the pocket book lady asked.
Grandma Bramhall shook her shaking head at me. “No,” she said, her voice lifting a little. “Actually I can’t either. Go down and have a look, dearie.”
            I turned to the window and sighed. I didn’t want to go take a look, but Grandma Bramhall and the pocket book lady had already swapped brochures once and were about to do it again, back to talking about upper decks and pineapples. So I stood and tried to remember if you were supposed to push your chair in or leave it sticking out in fancy restaurants. I tucked it back in. We weren’t allowed to be home until after two o’clock anyway, when the baby shower ended and M’s nurse friends would be gone. I had heard my dad on the phone last night promising to get them all back to the hospital by then, the beginning of their shifts. And it only took twelve minutes to get to the Maine Medical Center from our house.
            Outside, it felt like I stepped into a dryer by mistake. But the closer I got to the docks, the cooler the wind got, blowing across my forehead and whipping up my red pigtails. I crossed the pebbled path and headed straight down the dock ramp, steep now at low tide. Everything creaked on the way down, so I held onto the railing. When I got to the bottom, the man in Nantucket pants was on his knees tightening up a knot in the cleat. I walked over to the edge of the dock and looked into the deep black water. No signs of life anywhere under there.
            “Apron?” someone said.
            When I turned to look, I saw it was Mr. Perry, the same face as Rennie’s except a man’s, and older. He wiped his hands on his Nantucket pants and stood.
            “Hi, Mr. Perry.” I hadn’t seen him since Rennie dumped me for Jenny Pratt, unless you counted last weekend when I saw my dad punch him in the stomach.
            “Well hi, is your dad here?” he asked, pretending not to be nervous but sneaking looks at the ramp behind me anyway.
            “No,” I said. “Grandma Bramhall is taking me to brunch.”
            “Oh,” Mr. Perry nodded, worry falling off his face. Then he looked down at my dress. “Well you’re a picture of loveliness.”
            “Thank you,” I said smiling once, fast, my freckles burning like someone just plugged them in. Then I turned to the water again; still nothing there but slapping waves.
            “Are you looking for the whale?” he asked, stepping closer to take a look for himself. “It’s a baby Beluga, all white.”
I nodded. Mr. Perry was even more handsome with a hat on.
            “Haven’t seen it myself. Though supposedly it’s been hanging around for a few days, must have strayed from its pack.”
            That got me worried. “Are they going to kill it?” I asked, looking up to Mr. Perry like I used to, when I was still Rennie’s best friend.
            “No Apron,” he said quietly. “No one’s going to hurt it. All we can do is hope that it finds its way back home soon enough, while it still stands a chance.”
I nodded and then we stood on the edge of the dock together like that, waiting. Small bits of wind were blowing here and there, but the sun was beating down, hot.
            “Mr. Perry?” I asked softly, my heart banging inside my throat. “Can I ask you something?”
He didn’t answer me though, he stepped back and picked up his hose. Then with his voice much lower he said, “What is it Apron?”
            “Did Rennie have Jenny Pratt for a sleepover last night?”
            “Jenny Pratt?” His voice squeezed into a question. “As a matter of fact yes, she did Apron.” 
My stomach felt like I ate a knife for breakfast. Just off the docks, a man in a Boston Whaler screamed, “Yo Perry, you done?” But Mr. Perry didn’t answer. He waved him off with a flick of his wrist and said, still looking at me, “Uh-oh. Did Rennie make plans with you first, Apron?”
            I watched the man turn his boat around and zoom off. And just when the wake from the Boston Whaler slammed into the side of the dock, I shrugged. Not exactly a lie.           
            “Gosh I’m sorry about that. You two remind me of sisters though, and sometimes even sisters fight.” Mr. Perry said, smiling in a big goofy way, trying to get me to smile back. But things were different now and Mr. Perry knew it, you could tell by how fast he dropped that smile.
            I hung the ends of my flip-flops over the water.
            “Listen Apron, I think Rennie was always a little jealous of you and your mother. She was pretty great, your mom,” he said quietly, like he was sorry about that, like being great was a bad thing. “I think Rennie wishes her mom was a little more like your’s.”
            Something cold flew up my spine when he said that and it was too hot outside for it to be wind. I kept looking down at the waves banging against the docks. It had a life of its own now, the water, splashing back onto itself so hard that even the seagulls stayed away.
            “Hey, I know,” Mr. Perry said, perking himself up and pointing to the boat tied next to him. “Do you want to take her back to the mooring with me?”
            I turned around and looked up at the restaurant, then back to Mr. Perry who dropped his hose again, waiting for an answer. “You’d be my first passenger?” he said. “Just launched her this morning. Not even Rennie’s been on her yet.”
            I nodded and climbed aboard the 2 Have Fun, imagining exactly how I was going to tell Rennie and Jenny Pratt that I had been on the boat before they had.
            On deck things were really rocking. I held onto the side of the boat while Mr. Perry undid the cleats and then got in and pulled up the bumpers. My mom taught me how to sail in the dingy we had in the garage, using old sheets for a main and a pillowcase for a jib. But in here, everything smelled new, like shoe polish, and the floor was the sandy color I should have had for hair; lighter here and darker there.
            Mr. Perry said, not yet, when I asked him if he needed any help, so I leaned against the side of the boat and watched him wrap and store and turn things on. My dad gets too sunburned to sail, but Mr. Perry was brown as a bear.
            “Okay, Apron,” he said. “We’re going to motor out to the mooring.”
            I leaned over the side and dragged my hand in the ocean, picking it up again quickly, watching my fingers grow five long fingernails. After they dripped off, one by one, I did it again and again. Until the motor slowed and Mr. Perry said, “Take the helm, would you?”
            I looked around to see who he was talking to. But no one else was there and he was staring at me with one hand on the wheel. “Come on. You can do it, Apron. Just for a sec.”
I walked over and took the helm, then yelled, “which way?” to Mr. Perry up on the bow already, sprawled out on his stomach and leaning down over the side.
            “No way,” he screamed to all the mackerel and lobster and clams zipping along down there. “Just hold her steady.”
            So I did. And even though I was still nervous, Mr. Perry was right, I could do it. I breathed in deeply and looked around at the names of some of the other boats. No Billow Bertha was black and long, and The Lazy Daisy was as yellow as my dress.
            “There. She’s on,” Mr. Perry said, standing up and clapping his hands on his Nantucket pants. Then he walked back towards me with two dark handprints above his knees. “Time to call the launch. You’re going to love this.”
            He told me to let go of the wheel; the boat wasn’t going anywhere now. “On the right side is a foghorn, can you go down and get it, Apron?” He pointed to the stairs leading into the cabin.
            Below, there were two red cushioned benches, plus a sink with wine glasses hanging upside down over it, swaying back and forth with the waves. There were life jackets and radios and compasses, all tucked neatly into a shelf under the two round windows on either side.
            “Wow,” I said.
            “Great isn’t it?” Mr. Perry yelled from on deck, winding something else up, you could tell. Then, when I turned around again, I saw the foghorn hanging on a hook and my mom.
My brain froze.
            It was a picture that I had seen before, when my mom volunteered for the sponge toss at the Halloween fair, two months before she moved into the hospital for good. Her hair was in a ponytail and her wet cheeks reflected like mirrors. She was laughing at the camera, at the person taking the picture, and right then I remembered Mr. Perry, hitting her flat in the face with a sponge while Rennie and I watched from the side, grabbing each other’s shoulder to see if she was going to be mad about it or not, then letting go when we saw her come around from the painted backboard with holes for heads, smiling at Mr. Perry. That was when he took the picture. 
            I tried to act normal when I went back up on deck and handed Mr. Perry the foghorn. But I couldn’t look at him. He told me, no Apron, you try blowing it. But not how loud it was going to be, and when I squeezed that bubble, my ears felt like someone was pulling them inside out.
            Mr. Perry said, “good job kiddo,” after I handed it back to him.
I said “thanks,” but not: why don’t you have a picture of Mrs. Perry taped on to the wall down there instead? I remembered, then, about my dad punching him after their rugby game, my dad in a blue tunic and Mr. Perry in a green one, both of them team captains. “He cheated,” my dad told me in the car on the way home, his eyes falling off mine in the rearview window. “And he was trying to tell me he didn’t.”
            Mr. Perry hung that foghorn on his belt loop, whistled something, and started tying and folding, while right in front of me three seagulls dive-bombed the water. You couldn’t see what it was, but something was stirring under there, and all three of them knew it.
            The launch motored up to us and the launch boy took my arm when I stepped into his boat. Mr. Perry went downstairs to close up and when he came back, his face looked like it had been painted white. That foghorn wasn’t hanging on his belt anymore, either.
            He didn’t look at me when he said, “wait a minute” to the launch boy, he just kept walking up to the bow with a green plastic snake in his hands.
            The launch boy said, “Don’t worry, it’s not real. Old lobsterman trick, supposed to scare off the seagulls.”
            But I wasn’t tricked at all.
            After Mr. Perry climbed on board with us, he stayed in the stern, one foot up on the side of the boat looking back the whole time. I kept my eyes peeled straight ahead. The wind was blowing so hard it could practically erase your mind, unless you were me who had too much to think about now. Like my Free Verse Poem; and Mr. Perry and my mom; and my dad and M; and even Rennie and me. You’re only supposed to love one person, that’s what love was supposed to mean, but no one was getting it right around here.
            As soon as the bumpers hit the docks I jumped off.
            Mr. Perry stepped off behind me and caught my arm before I could go anywhere.
            “Wait, Apron,” he said. Then he slid the picture into my hand.
            I started to tell him he could keep it, it was his anyway, but something big splashed next to us. Mr. Perry and I saw it at the same time: a long shiny white back under the water.
            “Will you look at that,” he whispered, leaning over the edge of the dock.
            I stepped up. Shimmers of light exploded on top of the water faster than I could blink them out.
            Mr. Perry shook his head. “It never should have strayed.”
            I tightened my hand around the picture. “If you’re going to make your own bed,” I said, so quietly it might have been the wind.
            He turned to me, but I kept my eyes on the water. I thought the Beluga would be huge, too big to see all of at once, but it was the same size as the dolphins I was going to save.
            Mr. Perry crossed his arms and looked back at the water.
            And then we stood like that, watching the whale surface again, blowing water out of its spout like all it could do now was stay lost.

     

Jennifer Gooch Hummer

Jennifer Gooch Hummer graduated with a degree in English from Kenyon College. She has worked as a script analyst for various agencies and major film studios, and has continued graduate studies in the Writer’s Program at UCLA, where her work was nominated for the 2006 Kirkwood Prize in fiction. Represented by Foundry Literary + Media, Jennifer has written two novels. Her short stories have been published in Miranda Magazine, and long-listed in Fish. Currently, Jennifer lives in Southern California and Maine with her husband and three young daughters.

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