Once again my mother has stranded herself on a sandbar. Every few weeks she steals my brother Harry's jetski from its slip and takes to the ocean. At first we worried, but she always ends up in the same place -- up to her ankles in water, calling me on the cell phone that Harry bought for her and that she keeps clipped to her shorts. It's the same sandbar every time. She can't seem to avoid it, which is good because it stops her from heading out of the Bay and into the ocean proper, where who knows what could happen.
She's crying when Harry and I get there, her face turned in at the corners like a crabapple doll, her body sagging. Harry makes a quick getaway, driving his jetski back to shore, leaving me to be the shoulder. Mom is wearing a bright yellow lifejacket and hugging her is like holding up an enormous plastic toy you'd win on the boardwalk.
"Hey, hey," I say. "No more of that."
"No more of this," she splutters, gesturing indistinctly at the ocean.
"It's not your fault," I say. Because, really, it isn't. Age derails the brain. What once seemed weird becomes protocol. We all become eccentrics in the end. I pile her onto our 19 foot bay boat, where she sits on the back bench staring glumly at the horizon. By the time we're back to the boat slip she's returned to her usual, ebullient self.
"Well, that was fun," she says, kissing me on the cheek. "Thanks for taking me out on your boat."
"Sure," I say, even though it's her boat, or Dad's boat, not mine. Being unemployed makes it hard to afford things like 19 foot bay boats. For two months I've been living off an inheritance check from my mother's father, but now that's almost gone. It would have lasted longer, maybe six months, if I hadn't splurged the first day I cashed the check, binge-buying a few cases of liquor and three shopping carts loaded with food -- watermelons, steaks, baguettes, a hodgepodge. My two friends and I each pushed a cart across the Acme parking lot, dumping the food into the back of a used pick-up I'd bought that morning. For three days we got drunk and ate until we threw up. Dissolution, drunkenness, the usual. I woke up once with Berta running her hands up under my shorts, and I didn't mind at all. Neither of us is a full-blown lesbian, yet, but we seem to be tending that way. Men, even good-looking men, don't attract me much anymore. Their needs, their equipment, their smugness -- why bother?
Mom climbs into my Nissan still wearing the clunky yellow lifevest. It bunches up past her shoulders, hiding her face. All I can see is the top of her nose and her black-rimmed eyes. Gray hair fountains up and falls around her.
"Here," I say. I reach over, negotiate the straps of the lifevest, and pull it over her head. It's easiest to warn her that I'm going to be doing something, but not to let her know what it is or give her any choice in anything. I stuff the vest behind the seats, hoping that if she doesn't have it anymore she'll stop stealing the jetski.
"There," she says, "now isn't that better?"
At my parent's house, a saltbox a few blocks from the beach that they bought when I left for college, Dad is standing in the driveway, grilling. Last year he had an incident with the propane grill -- grease had dripped onto the gas line and set off a conflagration, charring a few precious cedar shakes -- so since then it's been charcoal in the little Webber. He raises his spatula but doesn't smile.
"Back again," he says. I can't tell if he means me or Mom. Either way, it seems a little too offhand.
Seventy years old, Dad looks about fifty, except for the plaid shorts that no self-respecting fifty year old would be caught dead wearing. His chest is still broad from when he was a Marine in Korea and he pushes it out in front of him like an adolescent girl with new breasts. His face is square, but, since he's gotten dentures, not as menacing as it used to be.
When I was a teenager, Dad would challenge dates who picked me up at home to push-up contests. He'd always win. If that didn't scare them away he'd wait until they dropped me off and then he'd show them his extensive gun collection in the work room. There were ambushes and hand-to-hand combat for anyone dropping me off after curfew.
Out of the corner of my eye I see Mom slip the lifevest out of the back of the truck and hurry inside with it.
"Should I throw on another one?" Dad asks, gesturing down to whatever's grilling‹chicken or pork. "Your mother's going to kill herself one of these days."
"Keep an eye on her."
"You expect me to stop her? Do you think I could, even if I wanted to?"
It's been three years since my father's suicide attempt. Harry came home from college for a surprise visit and opened the garage door to toxic fumes. Dad behind the steering wheel, eyes closed, acting dead.
"You have to fuck everything up, don't you?" he'd said to Harry, even though Harry is the one who has done everything right, and I'm the fuck-up.
Harry has an actual job that he got straight out of college, something in the biohazard industry. I'm not sure exactly what he does, but he's a lot more cautious now. He never drinks anymore. Mom uses the jetski more than he does. He's saving money for a house and talks about points and amortization all the time. I don't really like him.
Since the suicide attempt Dad has changed, too. He's become quieter. He doesn't fight anything anymore. And with Mom it's just a steady slide into forgetting and anger.
I'm the only one who hasn't changed in the last two years -- unless you count sexual preference.
"So," Dad says, "you staying for grub?"
Berta picks me up that night in her metallic purple Chrysler PT Cruiser. It's hard to believe that someone I like, on any level, could drive a car like this. It's like a blown-up toy. She opens all the windows and blares the local pop radio station. Surprise, surprise, it's a song about sex. Berta's blondish hair (dark roots) blows in the wind. Her face is broad, crossed with a black pair of sunglasses. There's a part of her that still looks like a little kid. She's wearing a bathing suit top that's three times too small for her. Her tits are hanging out, but since she lifts weights her chest is a mix of muscle and actual breast. Her shoulders are broad and flake off dead, burnt skin.
"Your mom again, huh?" Berta shouts over the beat.
We end up parked at the dead end of a dead end road, hidden by a brake of phragmites in front of the Bay, kissing each other on the mouth and trying to decide if we want to swing one way or the other as far as sexuality goes. Neither of us is sure and our kisses are reluctant, laden with guilt and fear, more erotic than any normal kisses could be.
When the sun starts going down, we head to the deck of a restaurant to eat. The food is overpriced and bland, grill stuff, cheeseburgers and chips on flimsy compartmentalized Styrofoam trays. A few kids pick up shells and rocks on the beach below us. A few others throw the same stuff into lapping bay waves. Older men with leathery skin and white polo shirts sit alone. A tableful of women that looks like a tooth whitener commercial laughs loudly -- I can't decide if they're ignoring everybody or too concerned with what other people are thinking about them. In two weeks I won't have any money left.
I have to get a job.
On my first shift, I shadow an older woman with mousy-blond hair and a Harley Davidson tattoo on her neck. When my cell phone goes off I know who it's going to be even before I look, and I realize I've been waiting for it, maybe, even, hoping for it. The restaurant is dark and depressing and we wear skull and crossbones over our left tits.
"Boy it's a beautiful day out here," Mom says. "You should come out and see it. I don't know how to get home." She starts crying. I hear seagulls and slopping water in the background.
"On my way," I say. I change out of my restaurant shirt in the shitty little bathroom. The hostess gives me the evil eye when I hand it to her. What can you do?
When we get to the sandbar the tide has gone out. Mom is laying supine on the wet sand staring up. Wispy feathery clouds with blue holes. A few ominous cumulus clouds in the distance.
"Look at her," Harry says, straddling his jetski. "Just look at her."
I look. I see. I shrug. Maybe compassion is not my strong suit, but with Harry it's not a suit at all "I'm tired of this," Harry says. "I have my own life, too." I don't know what his problem is, since he can leave work at the drop of a hat. He doesn't seem to report to anyone. I wonder where the biohazards are, what he's cleaning up, how much danger we're in. From the sandbar, and from everywhere else around here, you can see the old nuclear reactor, just sitting at the edge of the water. I'm not sure if they use it anymore, or if my brother has anything to do with it.
"I'm going to sell the jetski," he says.
"Don't be an asshole."
"We've got to be responsible now, Kate," he says, his voice grating and fatherly. As he drives off, water spumes from the backend of the jetski. He maneuvers cautiously, his head in a constant swivel, ever-wary of the other water traffic.
I lay down next to Ma on the wet sand, feeling the ocean water slowly seeping into my cotton shirt. Her breathing is heavy, probably because the lifevest makes even laying awkward, and maybe because of emotional stress.
"Did you know it's only been five months since Poppop died?" she says. "He was some kind of son of a bitch."
"I thought he was a sweet old man."
"You would. You weren't raised by him. Then again, look at your own father to get an idea."
"He wasn't so bad."
"Are you kidding?"
I imagine the tide rising up and carrying us both away. I feel so light all of a sudden -- I would float like seaweed. They'd find me washed up near the nuclear reactor, still staring up at the sky.
"You should just lock me in a closet," she says, "and throw away the key."
"I love your brother's jetski, though. I love the feeling. I love straddling the seat, working the handle-things, flying. The wind, the water's elemental. I'm hoping someday I'll just float away into all the elements, but this fucking sandbar keeps getting in the way. I'm not so far gone, you know. I know what I'm doing."
Berta and I rent a jetski at a place a quarter of a mile down the road from the nuclear power plant. A hundred or so brightly colored jetskis sit in the sand like beached pilot whales. A few families walk among them, deciding. The rental kid has a broken nose and biceps like overstuffed kielbasas. He looks us up and down as we secure tacky plastic lifevests over our chests. We let the kid drag the thing over the hard sand into the Bay. I straddle Berta's back, and off we go. It's like my mother said -- wonderful, elemental-- although the smell of gas is strong and the water rushing by makes me nauseous.
We stop at the submerged sandbar and sit there, the water up to our chests, and I feel Berta's legs. They're smooth, like she's never had to shave, maybe because they're underwater.
"This is so fucking weird," Berta says. I don't know what she means, but I stop touching her and she doesn't say anything else. We just sit there, bobbing a little. On the way back I drive and Berta straddles my back. I go fast and carom off waves, taking chances I wouldn't normally take. Why not? That's the point, isn't it?
When we get back Berta is laughing but her hair looks like meringue.
"You're fucking nuts," she says. I can tell she means it. She's half-scared. I want to kiss her, hard, but I know she'll push away, or do something even worse.
After I pay rent on my two offshore rooms, I'm left with exactly twenty two dollars and fourteen cents. If I don't get a job in a few days I'll have to bum money from my father. If it's longer than that I'll have to move into the saltbox and deal, fulltime, with an early Alzheimer's mother and a jackass of a father.
There are all kinds of things I can do. I make a list: fast food restaurants, grocery stores, the Wawa.
Harry is smiling in the driveway, wearing a yellow polo shirt and gray chinos. His tan is deep and even. His teeth are white. He doesn't look like anybody I could possibly know, definitely not like somebody I would want to know. Standing across from him is a white kid with dreadlocks and tribal tattoos down his stringy arms. The kid is peeling bills into Harry's hand and smiling, looking at me from behind his dark sunglasses.
"Problem solved," Harry says. The kid drives off with the jetski on a trailer and Harry heaves a self-satisfied and, I hope, exaggerated sigh of relief.
I eat at the saltbox, because it saves money and looks good to my parents. Even if they know I'm only coming here for food, their parental instincts keep them from acknowledging it. That's an exploitable fact of life. The only problem is that Mom no longer cooks. It's all Dad, and that means grilled chicken, grilled steak, grilled pork chops, grilled fish, shish-ka-bobs, corn on the cob. I pick silk out of my teeth all day, and I've started gaining weight.
What we talk about: the weather, sports and People You Grew Up With. First it was my mother keeping track, but since the suicide attempt Dad has joined the game. Someone has just graduated from law school, someone has overdosed, someone has popped out a third baby. Mom and Dad seem to think it's instructive. Worse yet is Dad's new hobby: jigsaw puzzles. He has a 10,000 piece New England Mill scene spread over an old table. He's already separated the main colors and is working on the subsidiaries -- separating tan from brown from ochre.
After dinner one night I decide to pop the question that's been bugging me for three years.
"Why'd you do it, Dad?"
He seems to know exactly what I¹m talking about, but he doesn't answer for a while. He squints at a tiny puzzle piece.
"It's not easy getting old," he says.
"You were trying to pull a Hemingway?"
"Too bad I sold all my guns for that damn boat, huh?" The puzzle gives him somewhere to squint his attention. "Don't worry about that anymore, though. I'm over that now."
"Well, good," I say. I want to tell him to ease up on Mom, to make her life a little easier, but I know where that will get me.
"I know this guy," Dad says, when I start standing up to leave. "Needs help painting houses. Not much to it."
So I start working for another ex-Marine. He calls himself Big Bob and challenges his workers, mostly Mexicans, to push-up contests. It's apparently a thing with ex-Marines. I paint and keep away from everyone else. I endure lustful looks and collect my pay. The next week I do it all over again. It's not all that bad, but it's not all that good either. It keeps me afloat and saves me from moving back home.
I'm at the saltbox most of the time, anyway, so the difference is minimal. Mom looks out the window at the side yard, where the jetski was when it wasn't in its slip, and Dad calls her a crazy bitch and refuses to hand over the car keys. They've stopped talking to each other, but sometimes they talk through me. "Tell your mother I'm cooking chicken," "Tell your father I'm not hungry yet," kind of thing. They are unhappier than they've ever been in their lives.
I'm painting some kid's bedroom bright purple. The day is oppressive and muggy, the paint seeming to hover in the air, purple drops the size of raindrops. Atomized paint seeps into pores and alveoli. The room is walled with cheap plywood, which the purple saves. I'm taking my time. I can hear Classic Rock blaring in the living room and merengue coming from downstairs.
A heartbeat goes missing when I realize that the paint is the same color as Berta's PT Cruiser. I haven't seen her in two weeks. She doesn't return my calls. I feel stupid. I imagine her too-wide face, her peeling, manly shoulders. I wouldn't mind having a man inside me at this point, but there aren't any tempting prospects around. The men I work with, the other painters, all smell like footsweat or something worse, something bacterial and quick-growing. Besides, in the past weeks, they've all gone from lusting for me to ignoring me. I have become another piece of equipment, an extendible handle, a rollerbrush. I'd have to wear something demeaning to interest them now.
My cell phone rings -- sure enough, it's Mom.
"Come out and play," she says. "The sun, the sand. Get me off of here." Seagulls. Water.
She's stolen Harry's old jetski from the new owner's yard. Apparently she's been driving around late at night searching slips, yards and trailers. While she seemed to be getting better, at least about the jetski, she'd been getting more obsessive. Harry shakes his head and says he won't get involved, but he's in the boat already, for Christ's sake.
"Okay, okay," he says, acting like it's me who needs reassuring. "Maybe it'll be okay. Maybe he won't press charges."
It's the same old, but this time Mom doesn't even pretend to be guilty. She shrugs and grins. The grin has nothing to do with me. It doesn't communicate. She stretches both arms across the back of the boat as we head in. Insolent Mom.
"We're going to have to lock her away, you know," Dad says. He's doused Mahi with lime and grilled it. For once it smells good. Harry is standing in the driveway waiting for food, too. It's like a holiday, even though it's not.
"I agree," Harry says. "Absolutely. I have my own life, you know."
"I've heard," I say. "Why not buy her her own? Jetski?"
"This is about the right thing to do, not the most convenient thing. If we did the most convenient thing every time, do you know what kind of shithole we'd be in right now?"
"That's right," Harry says.
They take turns with the spatula flipping the Mahi. When it's done, it's just slightly overcooked.
"Not bad," Dad says, but you can tell he's disappointed. Mom is wearing black eyeshades and tanning her wrinkly old body in a bikini that might be mine. She takes a hunk of fish and guides it to her mouth, missing, smearing her cheek. Her tongue comes out. It's like a small pink cracked ball. "Ummmmm," she says.
Berta calls me, invites herself over. We drink margaritas, get drunk enough to blame the drinks later, and get down to real business in my apartment.
"I guess there's no more pretending anymore," she says, laying on the carpet, staring at the ceiling. Her face seems two times too wide. I climb on top of her, hold it in both hands and look down into her eyes, trying to see someone inside her, someone who doesn't like PT Cruisers or dance music or lifting weights, someone with depth. I try to find something unique in her -- something beyond my own sense of attraction and curiosity.
"That was fun," I say.
Harry has left the jetski in its old slip and the new kid hasn't picked it up yet. It bobs in the slapping waves. I get on and start it up. I'm not wearing a lifevest. The jetski judders on the waves of the Bay and takes to the air. It's elemental, like Mom said, completely different from the time I rode with Berta. Alone, the passing water doesn't seem like water anymore, the wind doesn't seem like wind. I'm part of the same thing the wind and the water are part of. I'm going about thirty knots, I'd guess, when I hit the sandbar and the jetski bucks me into the air.
I imagine that I'm my mother, that this is how she feels every hour of every day now, out of control, chained to her body like she's always been, but somehow in a new way. My existence -- experiences and memories -- travels with me in the air. I can't go fast enough to get away from it, from everything I've ever done and ever failed to do. I realize I could easily die doing this, but I know that I won't. The ocean proper approaches.
Jamey Gallagher recently earned his Masters degree from Saint Joseph's University and will soon begin or has already begun teaching high school English in New Jersey.
ABOUT THE STORY:
Jamey writes: "I guess this story started in South Jersey, and it pretty much stayed there. For a long time I thought I was incapable of writing stories set in South Jersey, even though I've lived here for five years now. There's something weird about the place. But then I figured the further away from myself I got, the easier it might become. So, no, I'm not a young woman. I've never even painted houses or waited for a living. But for some reason I really like and respect the narrator of this story. I had also been thinking a lot about aging when I wrote the story, so there's that, too."