WHAT THE BEACH IS LIKE
Lauren Trojniar teaches preschool in Austin, Texas. "What the Beach Is Like" is based on a story overheard one Christmas dinner. Her "This is How You Paint a House" will be featured in THE2NDHAND broadsheet installment 20 in May.
Albert had a car he called Buster. It was busted. He drove the '89 Mercury Cougar to Ma's house listening to "Surfin' Safari." He allowed himself to sing loudly because he was doing a good deed. Ten minutes later, he was at the apartment complex, rectangular and misplaced in the sun and palm trees.
He greeted Mama quick, then moving, scooping up her hat. "On to the beach!" he said. "I have everything you'll need in the car."
"My Harold!" she exclaimed in the doorway. Albert saw the cane off in the corner of the room and retrieved it for his mother. "Thank you, Alberto."
Blowing exhaust down the highway, Mama with a blue scarf flapping out the crusty window, Albert shuffled stations. He took a piece of hard candy from the green glass turtle dish that loomed over the dash. It was Mama's contribution to the trip, its mouth wide and sharp-beaked like a real snapper. Each child in his family used to sneak from that dish except Albert. "'Fraid he'll get his finger chomped off.' -- brother Lee's words.
They were stifled by the day. Was it a smile on Albert's mustached face? Mama smoked a cigarette while Albert disapproved.
Queen's Cove. Albert had named it so after seeing a sign on a ladies room door and thinking it sounded nice. He didn't know if the beach had any other name. Sand shot out from their tires like fireworks as they approached the water. Halfway between St. Teresa and Carrabelle, they stopped.
A scramble! Albert over the sand, back to the car, in the car to reassure his mother, out to search for the spot -- sand in his shoes too, he hated that. The chairs and umbrellas went down first, for comfort. Meanwhile, Mama was roasting in the car -- motor off to save gasoline. Did he get her cane? Hold her arm, but watch her head? There we go, Mama.
The water pushed at the sand, the white heaps, and pulled pieces into the blue. A collection of scattered trash and seagulls played audience, all sitting focused but impatient. Mama nested her rump in the chair, put her cane by her side and belched, very small. To her left, Albert made conspicuous glances at her face. Didn't she just love it here?
But Mama was quick as a spark. "Albee, what a perfect umbrella for shade!" she said.
"D'you look at the water yet? That's the bluest water around. Hey, you got sunscreen on?"
"We have this umbrella," she protested. Albert fumbled the bottle into her lap. "No thank you."
"This stuff's really good." He pressed the gold-lettered bottle into her hands.
"I put some on before. Is that a surfer or a boat?" She lifted up her round tortoiseshell glasses and squinted into the blue. Albert took back the bottle but felt excitement swell in his chest as he produced the cooler. She might want a seltzer water with fresh lemon? The drink was prepared, and his mother relaxed into her ocean view. Nostrils flaring delicately, Mama had the sea-breeze curl in her thin hair.
Albert and Mama usually spent their time together doing errands. All he could think of today was "I'm giving her an opportunity." But he had almost forgotten: "You've got to take your shoes off at the beach so you can really feel the sand. You know, get the full experience." His mother complied by kicking off her sandals and using her toes to work off the preventive nylons. Albert handed her the seltzer water with a fancy spiral straw. She sank her toes in.
"Oh, I love the sand," she said. Albert nodded his capped head. This was what his mother needed.
It was a surfer in the waves. He was close enough so that mother and son could distinguish the flamingos on his swim trunks. As the surfer wet the sand with dripping salt water, Albert's mother stationed her tortoise-rimmed gaze on his flamingos. "Oh, those are darling," said Albert's great mother. She wore a navy blue moo-moo and Albert wore worn green trunks left over from teenage beach days. Albert's brow furrowed. He readjusted the umbrella. He lost sight of the surfer and huffed and puffed, debating the conversations he could begin.
Wave. Wave. Blue and white. "Come on, whatcha say we take a dip?"
"Oh, I don't think so," Mama said.
"You don't have to get all wet, let's just see how the water feels."
Albert waited while Mama rolled up her nylons and settled in her sandals and hoisted her body up with her cane. The sand shushed away from their feet. Look at her getting out of the house and actually going to the beach! Look at him, helping his poor mama out! The sunshine began to prickle his skin, and Albert went back for the sunscreen. His mama waited for him while he tripped into the umbrella. She put her hands on her hips. "Here, Mama," Albert breathed, passing the sunscreen her way.
They made it to the shore and now it was Mama huffing and puffing for breath. Albert tested the water. "Like bath water, I swear, like bath water!" Albert rejoiced over his shoulder. Mama stayed at the edge in the hard-pack, and after looking at the clouds and birds' flight patterns in the sky, she cautiously used her cane to inch up to the edge. She bent down and Albert jumped. "I'll get your chair. Just wait here." He was back out in the dry sand falling up to the umbrella, beach chair in hand, now a towel, and back to the shore. The chair popped open and Albert played usher again. Mama was content right here -- she told him with that wink.
Albert scanned the small white humps of sea foam and lost himself imagining he saw someone out there. Mama fell asleep. Her white sun hat slumped its way into her lap and the water caught her cane and coaxed it away. Albert wondered about women, and imagined he saw one bobbing in the white and blue. He let his eyes blur a little so he could see her better. In the waist-high water, the wooden cane came dancing right on by. Not her cane, not her Harold. Rocking its way toward him, one then two rocks away. Albert was tentative about getting all wet.
Awake again, Mama spied the cane going into neck-deep water. "My Harold! Oh, Albert grab my Harold!"
"I got it, Mama!" Albert was all over the water now. He pushed his thin body away from the shore and came up for a swallow of air. He dove straight down and reappeared, blowing water out.
"Over there, Albert," his mama directed. The cane danced faster now. Rock, rock, swish. Albert popped up again and took a moment to get reoriented. Did he pass the cane already? Mama had stood up and was shouting to him to go on. She shouted for her Harold. It was a name she had given the cane as a joke, but it had stuck. Her old buddy. She shifted herself from the chair to the sand, and then from sitting to reclining in the water. With one "Hell with it" she eased herself supine into the waves.
The waves held her there, though, and she showed the first look of discomfort. Mama had beached herself and calmly called out, "Alberto." Albert was up and down after that cane. Only deep enough to soak her lower wrinkles and mist her hair, Mama rocked and rocked like a docked boat. Albert was weak now, but made an effort, leaping like some sick dolphin and crashing down hard on his belly. "Mama, no! Mama! I'm coming."
"Hey lady!" came a dusty voice from the shore. The man in flamingo shorts ran over to help the old caneless woman. Albert treaded indecisively. Harold bobbed on.
The man jogged over and wrapped his thick arms around her torso, hoisting her up. "Mama!"Albert desperately fought his lethargy. He dove into the water, came up sucking air, and back down again making little progress.
"I'm OK," she laughed, sitting on the shore. Albert saw her and the man share a laugh.
"Watch out for your ma," called the hero. His mother patted him and he was off. Slowly letting the waves work his body, Albert backstroked to the shore. He breathed for a long time next to his mama before speaking, "I'm sorry, Mama."
"Just a cane, right? You rest, Alberto." Albert and his mama sat in the wet sand. The cane was out of sight. Mama applied some sunscreen. They watched and finally relaxed. Albert hid his fingers in the damp tunnels of sand he made next to the water. On the way home they both smoked cigarettes and smiled out the window.