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Excerpt for The Beach Trees

Julie
September 2010

Death and loss, they plague you.  So do memories.  Like the Mississippi's incessant slap against the levees, they creep up with deceptive sweetness before grabbing your heart and pulling it under.  At least that’s what Monica told me.  Monica had been the one with the memories of the great muddy river that cradled the Crescent City, and of the sparkling water of the Gulf and the bright white house that sat before it.

My own family settled in Massachusetts about one hundred years after the Pilgrims, and my sturdy New England upbringing left me unprepared and a little in awe of Monica with her strange accent that curled some words and mispronounced others, that was neither southern or northern but a strange combination of both.  Her stories of her childhood were seasoned with the dips and waves of her accent, almost making me forget that Monica had abruptly turned her back on these places that existed so vividly in her memories, and never gone back.  Like me, Monica was a self-imposed orphan living and working in New York City, both of us trying very hard to pretend that we belonged there.  

I leaned forward in the van’s driver’s seat and glanced in the rear view mirror at Beau, Monica’s motherless little boy, and the fear and anxiety that had been dogging me took a hold again.  In the last two months I had gone from being a workaholic at a reputable auction house, with no other responsibilities except for my monthly rent and utilities, to the broke, unemployed guardian of a five-year-old boy, possessor of a dilapidated mini-van, and apparently the owner of a beach house in Biloxi, Mississippi with the improbable name of River Song.  Despite almost a lifetime spent collecting things, I was at a loss to explain my recent acquisitions.

Beau stirred and I found myself hoping that he would remain asleep for at least another hour.  Although we’d stopped overnight in Montgomery, Alabama, listening for endless hours to Disney music was more of a strain on my already raw nerves.  For nearly twenty hours we’d been traveling south in a van built during the Reagan administration through towns and scenery that made me think I’d taken a wrong turn and stumbled into a foreign country.  After recalling some of the stories Monica had told me about growing up in the South, I realized that I probably had.

“Mama?

I looked into the rearview mirror and into greenish blue eyes so much like his mother’s, offset by remarkably long and dark eyelashes.  Monica said the lashes were from all the Tabasco sauce Louisiana mothers put in their baby’s bottles to get them used to hot food.  The memory made me smile until Beau looked back at me, his eyes repeating his question.

“No, sweetheart.  Your mama isn’t here.  Remember what we talked about?  She’s in heaven, watching over you like an angel, and she wants me to take care of you now.”

His face registered acceptance, and I looked away before he could see what a fraud I really was.  I knew less about Monica’s Catholic heaven and angels than I did about raising young children.  There was something about this whole experience that was like on-the-job training for a career I’d never wanted.

Beau lifted his left thumb to his mouth, a new habit started shortly after his mother died.    In his right hand he held Monica’s red knit hat that he placed against his cheek and began to softly scratch a hole into the knit.  It had become his constant companion, along with the dozens of matchbox cars and Legos he managed to secret in his pockets, backpack and pillowcase.  Although just barely five, he’d seemed to regress to almost three-year old behavior since his mother’s death, and I didn’t know the first thing about how to fix it.  Letting him keep his mother’s hat had simply seemed a necessity.

“Julie?”

My eyes met his again in the rear view mirror.  

“I need to go pee-pee.”

I glanced over at the portable GPS that I’d purchased second-hand from eBay.  We were in a place called D’Iberville, Mississippi, only about thirty minutes from our final destination.  I could picture the beach house Monica had described so clearly in my mind; the wide porch, the rocking chairs, the columns that had always made me think of welcoming arms.  My foot pressed heavier on the gas pedal.  “Can you hold it just a little longer, Beau?  We’re almost there.”

Scrunching his eyebrows together, he nodded, and began to scratch his mother’s hat in earnest.

Focusing again on the road in front of me, I began noticing the signs for the Biloxi casinos:  Beau Rivage, Isle of Capri, Treasure Bay.  None of Monica’s stories had included mention of the casinos, leaving me to wonder if they’d been built after Monica left, or because they were as alien to the Gulf Coast as their names.

Taking the Biloxi exit off of Interstate 10 and onto Interstate 110, the GPS showed the van on a narrow strip of road and surrounded by water on both sides as we crossed the Back Bay of Biloxi toward the peninsula nestled between the Bay and the Mississippi Sound.  I felt hot despite the air-conditioning, my heart pumping a little faster as it suddenly occurred to me the enormity of what I was doing.  Heading into the unknown with a five-year-old child no longer seemed like the sanctuary I’d at first imagined as I’d sat in the lawyer’s office on Lexington Avenue as he’d handed me a set of house keys, and the name and address of a woman with the unusual name of Ray Von Williams.  From twelve hundred miles away, it had all seemed so much more promising than the bleakness of my current situation.  Death and loss, they plague you.  I sighed, finally beginning to understand what Monica had meant.

The March sun skipped and danced over the water as the road rumbled under the minivan’s tires, the constant rhythm doing nothing to dissipate my increased heart rate.  The chipper voice of the GPS, whom Beau had named Gertie, instructed me to exit onto Beach Boulevard, the Mississippi Sound running parallel the road.

High rises and casinos dominated the landscape to east.  Driving west, I passed the hotels and restaurants with empty parking lots owing, I assumed, to the time of year.  A wide apron of sand banded the sound to my left as I continued west where on the right side of the road empty lots and stunted trees sat next door to houses with new roofs and brightly flowered hedges.  The garish colors looked defiant against the scrubby grass yards and plywood windows of their neighbors.  A tall, white lighthouse sat nestled between the opposing traffic lanes of the highway, leaning slightly inland.  

I recalled a photo of Monica, her brother, and assorted cousins gathered in a pyramid in front of the base.  A photo that could belong in any family’s album; any family’s, except for my own.

Nervously, I watched the destination flag on the GPS show that I was nearing my destination on the right, my thoughts confirmed by Gertie’s enthusiastic voice.  Flipping on my turn signal, I turned blindly into a gravelly driveway and stopped at my final destination.  We had arrived.

I blinked through the windshield, trying to comprehend what I was seeing; trying to understand if the bare boards of wall frames were brand new, or the hollowed out guts of a house that had once stood on the site, its porch columns like welcoming arms.

Without looking down, I reached inside my purse for the piece of notepaper where I’d written down the address for the house to make sure I’d plugged the right one into the GPS. 1100 Beach Boulevard.

Trying to quell my panic, I turned around to face Beau with a forced smile.  “I need to check on something.  Can you watch the van for me for a minute?”

He only hesitated for a second before nodding.  Removing his thumb from his mouth, he said, “I still need to go pee-pee.”

I patted his jean-clad knee.  “I know.  I’ll hurry, okay?”

Leaving the van running, I climbed out onto the crushed shell drive and slammed the door behind me a little too hard.  I smelled the water, then; salty and something else, too, that I couldn’t quite identify.  Something that reminded me of my own desperation.

Sending Beau a reassuring smile, I walked to the spot where the drive met the road, looking for a mailbox, a painted number—anything—that might tell me that this wasn’t where I was supposed to be.  Not that I hadn’t had that exact thought about one hundred times since climbing into the van in New York the day before.

There was an empty lot next door, with short cement steps leading up to nothing but air, and a For Sale sign swinging in the barren and sand-swept yard.   On the other side of it sat a modest yellow clapboard cottage with new grass and a freshly swept front walk.  More importantly, it had a mailbox at the end of the driveway.  Walking quickly, I stuck to the side of the road squinting until I could read the house number.  1105.

Using my hand to shield my eyes, I counted off the lots to make sure I’d really found number 1100.  I stole a glance across the street that ran perpendicular to Beach Boulevard, and noticed the For Sale signs on empty rectangles of land nestled alongside mid-century homes with thinning trees and new porches.  An empty lot near the corner had brick pilings sticking out of the sandy soil like grave markers, casting shadows on the landscape.

Staring back across the street to where I’d left the van, I spotted the old oak, the ancient tree of Monica’s stories and paintings.  There had once been a tire swing hanging from its thick limbs, leafy branches granting shade on hot Mississippi afternoons.  It still stood, but its arms were shorn and stunted, and the sparse leaves like the balding pate of a man too vain to shave it all off.

I stumbled back to the car, the enormity of my situation colliding with the pent-up grief and the years spent searching for all I’d lost.  I was blinded by it, could barely see the door handle and fumbled three times before I was finally able to open the door and pull myself into the driver’s seat.  I grasped the steering wheel, oddly relieved to find something solid beneath my hands, wondering—and hoping—that I might pass out and wake up anywhere else but here.

“Julie?” the little voice called out from the back seat.  “I don’t need to go pee-pee anymore.”

I smelled it then, the sickly tart smell of urine as it saturated the small space inside the van.  I sat in shocked silence for a long moment, and then I began to laugh because it was the only thing I could think of to do.

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