The Beach House

Fiction by Leslie Harper Worthington

Cecelia walked the beach again that morning.  A few other beach houses dotted the shore, but she didn’t give a damn.  She was barefoot and big-bellied.  It was 1962, and she wasn’t hiding any more.

She had that dream again last night, the one where she gave birth to three little black kittens, each small enough to fit in her shoe.  What would he think if that was all he got – little black kittens?  She tried to keep herself from such silly thoughts.

Seagulls were soaring overhead and diving for their breakfast.  Raw fish didn’t sound like a bad morning meal, but she had to admit she’d been eating some strange things lately and craving even stranger ones.

That Army doctor said not to gain more than twenty-five pounds.  It’d been only seven months and she was sure she’d already gained more than that.  What did he know about having babies?  He’s an Army doctor.  Still, it was nice of him to see her, considering she and Wes weren’t married.

According to that palm reader, they were never going to be.  No one can see that in your hand.  “This child will not fulfill your expectations.”  What did that even mean?  If you talk in riddles, then people can believe what they want to believe.  The girl wasn’t much older than Cecilia herself.  She had startled Cecelia when she approached her on the boardwalk and took her hand without asking, but Cecelia could see reassurance in her hazel eyes.  “It’s going to be okay, “was what Cecelia saw her eyes say.  Who knows what more she could have said if Wes hadn’t pulled them apart.  “This is nonsense,” he said as he took Cecelia by the arm and guided her toward the clown giving out candy on the other side of boardwalk.  Cecelia didn’t realize she was even showing.  Wes probably didn’t either.  It was the last time he’d taken her out anywhere.

Wes’s sergeant was kind to let her stay at his parents’ beach house.  She wondered if they even knew she’d been there the last four months.  Everyone was being so nice.  For Wes’s sake.  It wasn’t as if any of them knew Cecelia.  She had never seen any of these people before Wes brought her here, and he wouldn’t have done that if not for the baby.  He was being nice for the sake of the baby.  What was going to happen after?  She didn’t mean happen to the baby.  Wes had that all planned out.  The baby would have some where to go.  But what was going to happen to her?  Who was going to be nice to her then?

She’d like to stay right here forever.  True, there wasn’t a radio or television, but that made it peaceful.  The high ceilings of the beach house reminded her of the church she had attended as a child, the church where she’d learned to sing “I’ll Fly Away” and “In the Garden.”  That white church around the corner from her house had been the place she’d loved most.  She’d sneak in early to listen to the choir practice before service began.  She wanted to sing too.  The church was close enough that she could walk there by herself, so she never had to ask for a ride.

She didn’t have a ride anywhere now either.  If she had a car, she could leave when she wanted, but she wasn’t sure she would ever want to leave.  She found the solitude restful.  She could barely remember a time before she’d had to work day in and day out.  She’d started working weekends at the mill when she was fourteen and had quit school to work full time at sixteen.  Before the mill, she had helped Momaw watch the babies she kept during the day while their Mommas worked.  She felt like more than four months would be required to rest from the first twenty years of her life.

She didn’t want to go anywhere right now.  Wes came every Saturday, and she wasn’t half way through The Complete Works of Mark Twain she’d found on the shelves in the living room.  She couldn’t leave until she finished. Huckleberry Finn was currently keeping her company.

What if she had a boy?  Would Wes let her name him Huckleberry?  Of course not.  She wasn’t going to get to name him anything.  But Huckleberry could be his secret name, just between the two of them, while she still had him.  When she remembered his slime-slick face and first-breath screams, she could think about her Huckleberry.  When she imagined him toddling across the kitchen floor, running onto the little league field, or walking across the high school stage in cap and gown, she could call him Huck.

The Killdeers rushing away from the surf caught her attention just then.  They looked as if they were afraid their little bird feet would get wet.  Cecelia didn’t care this morning.  Her green maternity pants were soaked to the knees.  She should have worn her dress again.  It didn’t matter.  The wet felt good.  It weighed her down as she walked along the beach.  The water was her anchor.  Wes would probably yell about the mess.  He yelled so much more now.  Most of the time, she couldn’t figure out why.  He used to be all sweet talk.

If he were here he couldn’t yell now.  The day was so beautiful.  The sky was as blue as her Papaw’s Irish eyes.  She wondered if Papaw and Momaw wondered what had happened to her.  The note she left that night said she was getting married but not where she was going or when she’d be back.  They were probably happy for her.  They didn’t know Wes, but she’d told them he was an officer.  In her small mill town, that meant something.  She could hear them in her head.  “Don’t worry none.  Celie be back fore we know it,” Momaw would be sayin’ to Pap.  “Don’t yall know it.  Bet that boy’s taken her north to meet his folks,” Papaw would reply and then flash a smile at her, so she’d feel better about it all.  How could Papaw be so happy when all he did was work all day in that nasty mill and come home too tired to even pick a tune on his guitar?  That town was a dirty place.  Momaw knew it even if Papaw didn’t.

Everything was so clean here.  The sea air rushing through her nose was fresh.  She wanted to open her mouth wide and swallow it all.

She wondered if the Killdeer had a nest somewhere nearby, if their dance was meant to distract her from finding their eggs.  None feigned a broken wing the way she had seen them do, but she probably wasn’t threatening enough or maybe just not close enough to bring on the full show.

A brown pelican landed on a pole a few yards away, a sliver fish in its peak – breakfast.  Cecelia was hungry.  She’d only had coffee before she headed out for her walk.  But it didn’t really matter today.

What had Wes said the last night he was at the beach house?  He’d brought groceries and a stack of old magazines.  She made spaghetti.  “It’ll all be over soon.”  That’s what he’d said.  She didn’t need magazines.  She had Mark or Sam rather.  She’d never known Mark Twain’s name had really been Sam.  What’s in a name anyway: Mark, Sam, Huck?  She felt she’d come to know him well enough to call him Sam.

As she looked up from the Killdeer, she noticed the sea oats dancing in the morning breeze.  They were supposed to be endangered.  If no one protects them, there might not be any more.  Without sea oats, the sand would wash away – no sand then no beach.  She was amazed how everything is connected to everything else.  Today the tall shoots looked like little brown boys having a game of freeze tag: stuck in one place till the wind touches them, instant unfreeze, and they are all free to run again.

She couldn’t tell how far she’d walked, but farther than most mornings, farther than ever before she suspected.  She didn’t remember that peach house.  The houses were so cute here – pink and blue, yellow and peach, like doll houses or the houses in the picture of the Swiss village above her mother’s bed.  She couldn’t remember much else from her mother’s house, but she would lay awake nights tracing the streets of that tiny village, wondering if life was happier in yellow houses.  Momaw and Papaw’s house was just dirty white, like all the puny, row houses on their street.  She’d spent only that one summer with her mother, the summer she’d turned twelve.  Her mother had called her “a handful” and sent her back on the Greyhound bus.  “Handful, my ass.  Celie never give me a minute’s trouble.  Unlike some other little girl I could name,” Momaw said to Pap, as they road back from the bus station.

Cecelia was a long way from home today and a long way from the beach house.  She’d not seen the pretty peach one before.  She would have remembered the swing on the porch. She’d better pay attention and not get too far to walk back.  At least the beach wasn’t like the woods.  You couldn’t get lost on the beach.  All you had to do was turn around.  You could wander in the woods for days and still never find the way out.

She remembered that day at her Granny’s house.  Granny was her Momaw’s momma.  A rabbit was munching the grass under the butterfly bush beside the back porch.  Cecelia startled him, and he ran into the woods behind the house.  She was seven and she had to follow him.  She soon lost track of the rabbit and realized she’d been walking in circles.  It couldn’t have been passed noon, but she would have guessed it was passed midnight, with no more light than what trickled through the trees.  Cecilia would probably still be there in the dark if Brutus hadn’t found her.  She dropped to her knees when she saw that big, black dog standing on the ridge.  She didn’t have to be strong any more.  He’d save her.  He walked her to the road on the other side of the woods, and Mr. Burns, Granny’s cross the street neighbor, happened by in his pickup truck. He carried them back to Granny’s house.

That wasn’t the only time Brutus had saved her.  She’d love him even more for the stormy nights he jumped on her bed, circled a few times and then settled at the foot.   He’d lay his snout across her leg so even in her sleep she’d have a reminder that he was there.  Thunder frightened her more than anything else on God’s green earth, but she was determined never to let anyone know it.  Brutus always kept her secrets.

She wished Brutus was walking with her today, but he had been gone almost ten years.  Cecelia had never gotten another pet.  She wasn’t sure she ever wanted one after Brutus.  It would be like replacing a brother.

What would she do now if she got too tired to walk back?  Stop at a beach house and ask strangers to borrow their phone?  She didn’t even have a number to call.  It was okay.  She wasn’t that far or even that tired yet.

She looked out at the aquamarine waves.  From where she stood, the sea never ended.  She hadn’t been in the water for a long time.  Baby Huck was swimming in her water.  She waded out a little ways into the surf.  The water was cold, but it felt good around her knees. It would probably feel even better around her waist or where her waist used to be anyway.  She didn’t really have one anymore.

The water was deeper and calmer a few yards out.  She lay back and floated.  Making snow angels in the sea, she watched the gulls directly over head.  She wondered if the birds were taking breakfast back to their babies in the nest.  Some birds chew and swallow their food and then vomit it back into the baby bird’s mouth.  Her Momaw told her stories of women chewing beans and spitting them back out to feed their babies, in the years before manufactured baby food or at least back in the hollers where there wasn’t much store-bought food.  That was before they’d left the farms for the mills.

Birds aren’t much stranger than people, she thought.  Cuckoo birds lay their eggs in other bird’s nests, so once the baby cuckoo hatches, the foster parents feed the cuckoo before their own babies.  The cuckoos are bigger and eat all the food up from the smaller birds who eventually starve.  Are those cuckoos any happier for the switch, she wondered?  Wes said everything was going to be alright, that Huck probably wouldn’t ever even know.  But Cecelia knew from experience.  Bastard babies were born with broken hearts.

A wave splashed her face and reminded her she was floating along the shore. Is this how Huck feels?  But it’s dark where Huck is.  She’ll have to try it after the sun goes down.  She determined to float there — surrounded by fluid — till after dark.  She was floating a way.  She could be the only woman on earth.

Cecelia may have fallen asleep.  She wasn’t sure, but a seagull’s cry startled her and she realized she couldn’t touch the sandy bottom.  When she looked to the shore, the peach house was tiny.  In the opposite direction, a boat sailed in the distance.   The Bloody Mary, called the tattooed side panel.  If she started screaming who would hear, the people on the Bloody Mary or the people in the tiny peach house?  Wes off on that Army base?  Her mother over in Atlanta?  She had wanted to scream for a long time now, but still didn’t.  What would it feel like if her lungs were filled with water?  Could she scream?

Maybe she could wave, but she thought better of that too.  She was just too tired and floating felt too good to stop.  She lay back once again, not willing to resist the current, determined to drift till dark.  Where would she be by then?  She couldn’t tell.  She decided she didn’t care.  They were too happy to change course now.

Leslie Harper Worthington is chair of the Department of English at Gainesville State College where she also teaches composition, literature, and creative writing and serves as advisor for The Chestatee Review, the college’s award-winning literary magazine.  She holds a Ph.D. from Auburn University with a concentration in Southern Literature and is the recipient of a Brittain Fellowship from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a Quarry Farm Fellowship from the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College.  Her short stories and poetry have been read at the Southern Women Writers Conference, The Southern Literary Festival, The Mildred Haun Conference, and several Gainesville State College events.  Her poems “She’s the One” and “Home without You” appeared in the “Pectoriloquy” section of CHEST: The Journal of American College Chest Physicians in summer 2011, and her book Cormac McCarthy and the Ghost of Huck Finn will be released by McFarland Publishers in summer 2012.  Dr. Worthington lives with her children and grandchildren in Flowery Branch, Georgia in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

Read our interview with Leslie Harper Worthington conducted by Jessica Powers, Bastard Babies are Born with Broken Hearts.

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