– Terry Sanville
Something in the rear of the Plymouth station wagon rattled, kept me awake, that and the snores from my two sisters. We girls filled the rear seat of Dad’s aging clunker, its way way back crammed with our family’s luggage.
At 4:50 AM Dad had uttered one of his many proclamations, “We leave in ten minutes. Anybody not ready gets left behind.”
Even at fourteen, I never functioned well in the morning. I had downed a few gulps of Mom’s battery acid coffee, but it had little effect. We girls had squeezed into the downstairs bathroom of our 18th century stone farmhouse, brushed teeth, pulled combs through tangled long hair, and pestered Mother to let us use her lipstick. Dad paced the hallway outside, twirling the car keys on a finger while his face turned dangerously crimson.
Finally, he shouted, “I’m bloody well leaving,” betraying his British pedigree.
Squealing, us women and almost-women flew from the bathroom, grabbed sweaters, jackets, and purses, and hustled out the kitchen door to the rumbling car. Within five miles of home, nine-year-old Nancy fell asleep. Carolyn clicked on the dome light and squinted at a dog-eared edition of Glamour Magazine. Her 12-year-old femininity far exceeded mine.
In the front seat, Dad hummed classical music that he played incessantly in his artist’s studio. We shared a love of that longhaired stuff, while Carolyn and Nancy wanted to buy Elvis records. The car twisted and shuddered. We shot through the darkness, heading west and south through the Pennsylvania hill country, then across flat farmland into Maryland. Carolyn clicked off the dome light and fell asleep with her head on my shoulder, drooling on my new blouse that I’d bought specially for that summer trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. I complained to Mom.
“Margaret, just put a Kleenex on your shoulder,” she whispered. “You know how hard it is for her to sleep. You’re older. You can handle it.”
Carolyn had survived polio a few years before and suffered recurring nightmares of weeks spent in an iron lung. Our whole family had those dark dreams.
At dawn we cruised through Baltimore, the city asleep, the highway and boulevards still free from the morning’s traffic crush. I retrieved my sketchbook and penciled quick drawings of brick row houses with their identical marble front steps. The day filled with Mom’s complaining about the heat, Carolyn’s chatter about Hollywood stars, Broadway, and the New York fashion scene, and Nancy’s insistence that every fifty miles we take a pee break. After one of these stops I caught the faint scent of Christmas trees in the car. Dad had brought his pocket flask full of gin and had taken nips. He thought none of us knew about it. He was careful, but not careful enough.
Sometime in mid-afternoon while we girls and Mom discussed buying clothes for the upcoming school year, Dad cut loose. “Will you women shut the hell up? I’m trying to concentrate here.”
“Now Charles, please don’t swear at the girls,” Mom said. “This trip was your idea, remember?”
“Yes, yes. I bloody well remember. I just miss my afternoon cocktails. They take the edge off, you know.”
“Believe me, I know – for the afternoon and the rest of the evening.”
I waited for the argument to erupt. But neither of them took the bait. She continued to stare at her Good Housekeeping Magazine, pretending to read while Dad muttered to himself and drove faster. The speed combined with the unrefrigerated sandwiches we’d downed at lunch to make me carsick. Mom looked over the seat and yelled at Dad to stop the car. He stomped on the brakes and we all squealed. I scrambled out and barfed into the weeds somewhere north of Newport News. We were in sight of water and the freshening wind off the Atlantic made me feel better. I sucked in deep breaths. My head cleared. I staggered back to the car, slumped onto the seat and barely got the door closed before Dad gunned it and spun the tires on the gravel shoulder.
“Slow down, Charles,” Mom yelled. “You’ve already made the girl sick.”
“I’m taking a bus home,” I muttered. “You guys can drive this thing into the ditch after that.”
“Oh come now, Margaret,” Dad crooned. “We’ll be there by the cocktail hour. You can walk the beach and collect conch shells, like the ones in those nature books Uncle Alf gave you.”
Mom handed me a Kleenex to wipe my mouth. “You’re gonna love it. My school chums and I used to drive down from the City on long weekends. Took us all day. Back before the war we’d camp right in the dunes near Kitty Hawk. It was so romantic.”
Carolyn sighed and I sensed that her pre-teen imagination was at full throttle.
Dad grumbled. “Your Mother always fantasizes about those years before she met me. Why don’t you ever tell them our story?”
“They’re your daughters too, Charles. If anyone is a story teller it’s you, especially fiction.”
We all laughed, except Dad. I sometimes felt sorry for him, ten years older than Mom and living in a house full of women marooned in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch country. I knew he missed New York, his commercial artist friends, and the nightlife. He told me plenty of stories while teaching me how to draw and paint in his home studio. But the City had…had destroyed him, a nervous breakdown the doctors called it. They’d ordered him to stay away, and he had, for the last seven years.
The late afternoon turned cool. Mom handed me the road map and I traced our progress. We crossed Croatan Sound to Roanoke Island, then pressed eastward to the Outer Banks before turning north toward our final destination, an inn near Currituck Beach and its famous lighthouse. Everyone shut up and stared at the harshly beautiful landscape sailing past. A wide lagoon bordered the western edge of the narrow island, its waters dotted with sea ducks and gulls. Sand dunes and broad beaches formed its eastern edge. Endless lines of combers rolled onshore under a blue sky with clouds tinged in gold. It felt wide-open, wild, desolate, and exposed. A stiff evening breeze bent the dune grass over, bringing with it the smell of the Atlantic. I could almost taste the salt in the air. I shivered with excitement and fear. Was this the place we were supposed to relax? The place where the problems between Mom and Dad would magically dissolve into the sea?
We rolled along for miles, through tiny villages called Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, and Kitty Hawk. Near Corolla we pulled into the quarter-full parking lot of an inn that overlooked the island’s seaward side. Parts of the lot were covered with sand drifts from the adjoining dunes. The two-story structure rested on a raised foundation, with a veranda encircling its first floor. Its wood siding was bleached a dull gray-green, the color of the ocean.
“All right, everybody out,” Dad ordered. “Grab as much as you can. I want to unload in one trip.”
We struggled up the steps and pushed through the inn’s front door into a foyer and a check-in counter. A parlor with overstuffed chairs and sofas opened off to the left while the entrance to the dining room opened to the right. A pleasant looking dark-haired woman relaxed behind the counter. She read a copy of Life Magazine with a sexy photo of Margaret O’Brian on its cover. When we entered, she rose quickly.
“You must be the Colgrove family,” she said. “We’ve been expecting you.” The woman spoke correct English but with a smooth Carolina cadence.
“You are correct,” Dad said, letting the two bags in his hands drop to the floor.
The woman smiled. “We have your room ready for you. You’ll find the inn quiet since it’s the middle of the week. The weather’s been fantastic.”
As Dad signed the guest register, Mom held Nancy’s hand and we girls shifted from foot to foot, waiting for the key and the final dash to our room. Dad had asked for a big suite that could fit all of us and leave space for him to set up his easel and paints. He never went anywhere without them. At Christmas his brother Alfred had criticized him sternly.
“I know you freelancers never take breaks. I’m going to book you into that resort your lovely wife’s been talking about. And damn it, you’d better rest.”
No chance of that happening, I thought.
After Dad signed in, the hostess thumped a call bell twice and a young woman dressed in a maid’s uniform descended the stairs into the lobby. Three chattering couples passed us on their way to the dining room.
Dad stretched his arms and sighed. “Is the bar or lounge open? I need a Martini immediately, if not sooner.”
The clerk frowned. “I’m sorry sir, but we don’t serve alcohol.”
Dad stopped fiddling with the room key. “What the seventh-circle-of-hell do you mean?” His face twisted into one of his ugly sneers, lips quivering. Blood filled his nose veins and he swelled to his full height.
The clerk backed away from the counter. “We…we can’t serve alcohol to anyone, sir. This is a dry county.”
Dad’s eyes got huge and he turned on Mom. “Edith, what the bloody hell…you let Alf book us into a dry county? Are you out of your God damned mind?”
Mom shuddered and shoved us girls into the parlor. “Put your things down and be quiet,” she whispered and rejoined Dad.
Nancy’s lips trembled and tears spilled down her cheeks. She buried her face in my skirt. I’d seen my father furious plenty of times. Several months before I’d found them in our kitchen, Dad clutching a carving knife and pointing it at Mom who’d backed against the counter. He’d quieted down when I’d walked in on them. After that I didn’t like leaving Mom alone with him until he calmed down for the night.
Dad stood clutching the room key and muttering. Finally, he glared at the frightened clerk. “Here’s your damn key. We’re leaving.” He slammed the key on the counter and turned toward the front door.
“Please…please, sir,” the clerk pleaded. “I’m sure you’ll enjoy your stay with us. We have a fine dining room…and…and the island is so beautiful. Why don’t you take a look?” She pointed through a side window at the dune tops bathed in golden light.
Dad stormed out the door. I moved to follow him. Mom gave me a dirty look, but I continued to tail him at a distance. He walked into the dunes, working hard in the deep sand for a couple hundred yards before he stopped. He held his shaking hands out in front of him, then jammed them into his pockets. I backtracked, keeping low so he wouldn’t see me, and rejoined Mom and my sisters. She had dragged all of our luggage into the parlor.
“What’s he doing out there?” she asked.
“Just staring at the ocean. I think he’s calming down.”
“I hope so. He’s just tired, you know. It’s been a long day cooped up with us in that car. He’s been working too hard and his New York clients are so pushy.”
“Yeah sure, Mom.”
The desk clerk joined us in the parlor. “I’m sorry your husband got so upset.”
Mom sighed. “He gets that way when he doesn’t have his…his evening cocktails.”
“I have a brother who acts the same,” the woman said and ducked her head. “You know, we can’t serve liquor in the dining room. But we can provide the glasses and ice if you bring your own supply and serve yourself.”
Mom brightened momentarily. “If this is a dry county, where can we buy what…what he needs?”
“There’s an ABC store in Nags Head. But they close early on Wednesdays. You’d have to go inland, probably to Manteo or Manns Harbor, about a ninety-mile run, round trip.”
“Thank you, you’re very kind.”
Mom sat with us on one of the huge sofas, cradling Nancy’s head in her lap. That kid could sleep anywhere, anytime. In a little while, Dad returned. He kept his hands in his pockets. Mom, Dad and the desk clerk huddled at the counter. In a few minutes Mom returned to the parlor.
“Now listen to me, girls. Your father and I are going for a drive to buy some…supplies. We should be gone a couple of hours. But don’t worry if it’s longer.”
“I should come with you,” I said. “You know how Dad can get…”
“No, you stay here with your sisters. The night maid will also help out. They’ll bring you food here…I know how you all love spaghetti.”
Nancy and Carolyn grinned at the idea.
“But why can’t we just go to the room?” I asked.
Mom tisked. “They don’t like children left unsupervised in the rooms. Besides, your father hasn’t exactly given them a good impression of us.”
“Come on, Edith,” Dad called. “Let’s get moving while there’s still some light.”
Mom touched my cheek and hurried to join him. At the door she glanced back, her lips turned downward, and waved. The door clicked softly behind them. We settled into the parlor. I read from a book of Shakespeare’s plays that Uncle Alf had given me for my birthday. The night maid approached me slowly. She had a pretty face with blonde hair tied in a bun.
“Ma name’s Lucy. Sorry your folks had to run off and leave ya with me,” she said, smiling. “Y’all feel like eatin’ supper?”
“God yes,” I blurted, realizing how famished I felt. My sisters nodded vigorously.
“I’ll bring it to ya here,” she said. “That way me and Evelyn can keep track of y’all.”
I nodded sheepishly, not wanting to acknowledge that I needed to be babysat, but grateful for the help with my sisters. After spreading a cloth on one of the parlor’s low tables, Lucy brought us plates of spaghetti and meatballs, with hot garlic bread. We girls sat Indian style around it, slurping up the noodles and trying not to mess our clothes. Other inn guests descended the stairs, heading for the dining room. They stopped to gawk at us and whisper to themselves. Nancy greeted them with a wide grin and a face smeared with tomato sauce.
After eating we cleaned up in a tiny bathroom off the foyer. Returning to the parlor, we found that Lucy had left us board games, including one of my favorites, called Risk, and fashion magazines for Carolyn. A wall clock in the corner chimed every fifteen minutes. After the dining room emptied, Lucy joined us and told stories about the Outer Banks, how her family had lived there since before the Depression, had survived hurricanes with huge storm waves that had cut clear across the barrier island and created temporary channels between the east and west shorelines.
Outside the wind picked up and slammed against the inn, causing it to creak and groan. The louder it howled the more nervous I got. Two hours passed, then three. The desk clerk turned off the light over the check-in counter and disappeared into her adjoining apartment. Lucy left to turn down beds and to service the restrooms. Lights in the dining room flickered off and the kitchen staff left for the night.
I clutched a couch cushion to my chest and waited, imagining all sorts of calamities that could befall our parents, including murder and suicide. Nancy continued to snore and Carolyn had joined her. As time passed, my fear turned to anger. Where the hell were they? Mom said they’d be back in two or three hours. They should have phoned the inn and let us know they’d be late.
At half past midnight I heard a low rumble. The wind had died and the cold seeped in through the walls. I rose quietly so as not to wake my sisters and moved to a window next to the front door. Our Plymouth wagon had turned into a parking stall filled with a sand drift, its front wheels half-buried. Dad slammed the car into reverse. With tires screeching, he backed out of the space and slid into a vacant one. The headlights clicked off. Mom and Dad climbed from the car slowly. He opened the tailgate and lifted something out. Mom joined him and they moved forward unsteadily, cutting a crooked path toward the inn.
As they came into the full glare of the porch light Mom pushed him away. Her lipstick was smeared, coat open, dress disheveled with buttons unfastened. Dad clutched a cardboard box. I heard the clink of bottles. He put a finger to his lips and shushed Mom who had started to giggle. I hustled back to the parlor, slumped into an armchair and closed my eyes. A blast of cold air hit me as they pushed inside, followed by whispering and more giggles.
Dad’s heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs. Mom laid a hand on my shoulder and I jumped.
“Sorry to wake ya, kitten. Time for beddy-bye.”
“Where…where the hell have you been?” I growled, ignoring her baby talk that she hadn’t spoken in years.
“Sorry. We kinda got lost. Then we stopped for some grub at this little joint on Roanoke Island. Best damn bay scallops I’ve had in years. Reminded me of the time Charley took me to–”
“You’ve been gone more than five hours. You shoulda called.”
Mom smiled and patted my head. “Look whose playin’ the little mama tonight. Relax, we’re all on vacation, remember?”
“Yeah, yeah.” I felt royally PO’d but hugged her hard anyway.
“Ah, honey, it’s gonna be all right.” She rocked me in he arms. “Your father and I just need to…to get reacquainted. Maybe this Godforsaken island will be good for us after all.” She laughed softly and stood to rouse my sisters.
In the morning I woke to gray light filtering in from the suite’s sea-facing windows. I moved to the balcony in my nightgown and stared out at Dad. He gazed along the beach and the rolling dunes with their carpet of golden sea oats. His easel held a large sheet of watercolor paper. His hand grasped a paintbrush, dabbed at a palette of grays, browns, and blues, and made confident strokes. Mom sat in a deck chair beside him, hair a tangle and wearing no makeup. She sipped coffee and watched him paint.
I backed away from the balcony door, dressed quickly and slipped downstairs to the dining room. After gulping a glass of orange juice, I left the inn and picked my way through the nearby dunes, keeping low on their shaded sides. I crouched against a dune shoulder. The Atlantic looked immense, with wave after wave pushing up the strand toward me. The gulls wheeled and turned in the blue-white sky, their cries barely heard over the sea’s constant rumble. I pulled my sketchbook and pencils from inside my coat and turned to stared up at Dad, his thin hair whipped by the wind, his glasses balanced precariously on the end of his nose. Mom sipped coffee and smiled to herself. Their shadows stood out sharply against the building. I began to draw them, trying to capture the details of that moment, to freeze it in time so that I’d have something to show them, to remind them when we got home.
Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one skittery cat (his in-house critic). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, and novels. Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted by more than 200 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies including The Potomac Review, The Bitter Oleander, Shenandoah, and Conclave: A Journal of Character. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his story “The Sweeper.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.