Most of the nights of the annual vacation were a slow repetition of each other: Beth’s mother and her grandmother in the hot kitchen of the rented beach house, cleaning up dinner so that her mother could then give her little sister a bath in the wide and worn porcelain kitchen sink, while in the one bathroom of the house her grandmother rinsed her dentures, replaced her corn plasters, and donned her evening house coat. Sometimes, after her sister had been put to bed, Beth would sit on the floor in front of the sofa and rub both women’s feet while they laughed at Richard Dawson on Family Feud: “Oh he really kissed that one!” her grandmother would chuckle. Dawson was scandalous! Both Beth’s mother and grandmother felt a little wild watching him.
Family vacations at the beach always began without Beth’s father, and the nights before he joined them, in the rented house, would be long, hot, and quiet after the TV was switched off. A box fan wedged up under the front sash cooled the living room, but the other rooms were cooled only by a lucky breeze through their open windows. Mother and Grandmother would take their teacups onto the porch and quietly talk and talk and talk until it seemed as if they were creating their own breeze of slow, humid air. Beth, alone on the sofa, fought the boredom with the newest Nancy Drew, before rising and heading into the small room she shared with her baby sister, whose light snore would somehow manage to float in the still and sticky bedroom air, the sound keeping Beth awake and tossing on the muslin sheets, the day’s sunburn making her itch and twitch, and wish she was back in the sea.
Beth’s parents saved money all year for a vacation, and when they added in a little extra from Grandmom, they could usually swing a week in a rented house that would change from year to year, based on what they could afford. All the houses they rented over the years shared the same qualities of being worn, but scrupulously clean. Each year, when they finally arrived from the long drive from Philadelphia, Beth and her grandmother made all the beds up with their own soft threadbare and faded sheets, while Beth’s mother re-cleaned every sink, toilet, and tub she could find, and little Alice lined up all her buckets for the beach. Then everyone helped to unpack all the clothes and toiletries, and load up the fridge with the cold cuts and peaches for lunch on the beach. There would always be a leg of lamb for a special dinner, because Beth’s father hated it, so no one ever cooked it at home. Part of the vacation for Mother and Grandmom was enjoying their favorite meal on one of the nights Beth’s father wasn’t there. The minute the rental was available the four girls piled into Beth’s mom’s Malibu, her grandmother’s laundry basket full of linens keeping baby Alice wedged on her side of the backseat so she couldn’t kick the Nancy Drew out of Beth’s hands. Because she worked as a telephone operator Beth’s mother could usually get a week’s vacation in the summer, but her father could only get a few days, so he would join them a few days into the week, after the groceries had been unpacked, the scrubbed house re-scrubbed, the beds made, and the lamb eaten.
Until mid-week, when Beth’s father arrived, each day would be the same. Grandmom would cook breakfast, and some mornings there would be a jelly doughnut to have with the eggs and the orange juice. Mother would make lunch and then pack the ham sandwiches in waxed paper and place them in the fridge to chill while she and Grandmom lingered over the coffee. Both women were fond of mayo, so no matter how long her mother chilled the lunch, when Beth ate it later in the day, huddled under her grandmother’s turquoise flowered beach umbrella to avoid a worse sunburn than she already had, the bread inevitably slid back and forth over the ham, making it hard to bite into it without the meat or American cheese slipping out on the slick hot mayo, and when she chewed her sandwich, there was always the familiar grit of sand mixed in with the warm oily Hellman’s. But if the sandwich was warm and gritty, the peach that followed was always sweet and cold, from being secreted in the bag up against the jug of Mother’s iced tea. Both her grandmother and her mother ardently believed in God, and just as ardently believed that a nice lunch on the beach could kill you if you went into the water too soon after you ate it, so when her peach was finished, Beth had to wait out the time before she would be allowed back in the ocean by helping baby Alice with her buckets and sand castles until her mother gave her the all-clear to go swimming again. Around three in the afternoon, her grandmother would walk back to the house to watch her stories and peel potatoes or snap green beans; for her, simply watching her soap opera in a different house, while her green beans boiled to mush on a different stove, was an exotic and wonderful experience.
After Grandmom left, Beth’s mother would bring her chair down to the water to read the current mystery novel while Alice was allowed to finally play at the edge of the sea. Eventually her mother would look up from her novel, and somehow catch Beth’s attention. There wasn’t a person alive who could avoid her mother’s sharp gaze when it landed on them, and try as she might, Beth couldn’t catch the waves quick enough to miss it, so she had to come in. Then mother and Beth loaded themselves with the chairs and the sandy blanket, the turquoise umbrella and the towels, the bags, the toys, the gritty and uncooperative fingers of Alice’s little hands, and the iced tea jug. Her mother buried the peach pits in the sand with her foot, and they trudged back to the house where it was Beth’s job to shower the chairs, the flip flops, and herself in the outdoor shower, and then set the table for dinner, meatloaf one night, Swiss steak the next, until the night of the leg of lamb, saved for the last dinner before her father arrived, straight from his job at H&H Pipefitters.
Dad would arrive most times while they were finishing up the meal, his nose wrinkling from the smell of the lamb; mom would warm him up a slice of leftover meatloaf in a frying pan, and both women would fuss over his plate until it had the right amount of vegetables, and a large enough helping of mashed potatoes. Dinner was over for Beth and Alice then; they didn’t care about the meal once Dad was back. Everyone would laugh at his jokes and stories about his job and their poor dog at home, languishing in the kennel until the end of the week. Usually on the night he drove down he felt like getting out in the air, and down to the water, and so, finally, when his last green bean had been eaten, he and Beth and baby Alice would go outside, put baby Alice in the stroller, and walk to the boards while the sun slowly sank in the sky. He would take them straight to the Mr. Peanut store, and always get Beth and Alice any treat they wanted, nonpareils for Beth, and a lollipop for Alice. And when they walked back, he pushed Alice’s stroller with one hand, and unwrapping another chocolate salt water taffy for himself with the other.
Back at the house her mother was there to lift Alice from the stroller, and take her in for her bath in the sink and bed time. Then Beth and her dad would lift up the hatch on his car, and pull out the polls and the tackle box, the minnow bucket and the still frozen package of squid wrapped in butcher paper, and the special reel that he had attached to Beth’s kite’s string.
Grandmother never wanted to let Beth go with her dad so late; to be out in the dark was to open your chest to invading lung diseases, so she was not happy unless Beth was at least swathed in a fully-buttoned up white crocheted sweater as a hedge against the night air, but finally she would give up, shake her head, and go back inside, and Beth and her dad would walk to the ocean with the gear and two low sand chairs.
By the time they reached the edge of the sparkling Atlantic Ocean the sun had disappeared behind them, the moon was in front of them, showing off over the great swelling water, and the beach was empty of people. Beth’s dad would let her bring some slices of stale bread as long as she didn’t go near where he was setting up the chairs and the bait, and Beth would begin the night of freedom by standing in the middle of a cacophony of flying gulls, tossing bread scraps into the air, raising her arm to let the huge creatures swoop down and feed from her hand, in a whirl of shear wild joy from being surrounded by such a madness of birds. She was always fearless in the middle of them, just as she was when she was stretched out inside a wave, flying right along in the sea, fast and invincible.
And then the bread would be gone, and Beth’s dad would call her over. He would have their spot all set up. Two rods, baited and waiting, and Beth’s kite.
At home, Beth’s sister was, by this time, washed and in the twin bed next to hers. The women were on the porch, Beth’s grandmother wrapped up as if it was going to snow, talking and talking, low, long, and quiet.
But there, on the beach, the cool wind, the gulls ‘calls, the little running pipers, the night, the moon, the sea–all of it belonged to Beth and her dad.
In the distance they could see the lights of the boardwalk. They could smell the roasting peanuts on the breeze when it came. They could hear the screams of the riders on the terrifying rides, but the screams were far off and faint, like a scary movie being watched at a neighbor’s house. The colored lights and the faint sounds added to the ambience and privacy of their nighttime escape. The stars were in the heavens, laid out for them to marvel like one of Beth’s sequined dance recital tutus.
Once the gulls were fed, and the chairs set up, Dad would take up the special reel with no rod, and it was Beth’s job to hold the kite up as high as her tip-toes could get her, while he showed off his speed and youth, running into the wind away from her, almost immediately pulling the kite from Beth’s hands, setting it aloft and free.
He was marvelous when he raised the kite, smiling, laughing, running into the wind in his bare feet. There was nothing Beth’s father couldn’t do.
Once the kite was up there, and he was sure it was going to stay, he put the reel into Beth’s nervous hands. From then on she could let it out, or pull it in, as she chose. Its destiny was hers to control, but Beth could never bring herself to lord it over the dear kite. She always let it fly, up and up and up, ‘til it unwound, on the dismounted fishing reel, right to the last little snib of string.
By this point Beth’s dad was on to his own idea of fun. His line was baited, a minnow on one hook, twisted and flipping in the windy night, and piece of squid on the other, always two hooks on his line. He would wade into the water up to the fray on his cut-offs, and stand, cigarette dangling from his lips, looking out over the sea as if he owned it. Then he would take his stance, like a pitcher on the mound, twist his perfect torso with ease, pull his arm back, and send the minnows and the weighted line up, and out, out, out, through the stars and over the waves, beyond where Beth had even a hope of seeing the line finally hit water. Most nights the catch was nothing, maybe a horrible spider crab, maybe a sand shark, which Beth’s father always lobbed softly back into the water. He was looking for a flounder or a fluke, and if he managed to catch some, oh how the women would fuss over him back home, what a hero he would be. But, most nights there was nothing but the freeloading sharks and crabs, and yet Beth’s dad was never deterred or disappointed. He knew he had done his best, and that his best was better than most, and the lack of fish never made a dent in his breezy disposition.
And if Beth wanted to tie up the kite reel to her chair, there was a rod for her too, with two hooks as well, but her dad never baited hers because he knew she liked to show him that she could use the rusted bait knife to cut her own squid, and he knew, though he thought her silly, that she could never, ever, bear to hook the sharp barb through the tiny helpless minnows in his bucket. In fact, when it was finally time to return to the rented house, he always let Beth release the last of the bait-fish back into the ocean, even if it meant he had to buy more tomorrow. If the boys made it through the night, they earned the right to live. And she could also chop-up the rest of the squid, and stand once again in a cyclone of birds, throwing the bait into the sky.
Every year of her childhood Beth, and then Beth and Alice, had two or three lovely, nights alone with their dad, on the beach, in the dark, eating candy under the moon, fishing and talking, and telling secrets that were only meant for their dad. By the time Beth had her children, Alice had moved away, and her dad had taken up a permanent place in the heavens with the stars.
But Beth knows how to hook a fish, and she knows how to raise a kite, and each summer she and her girls sneak away by themselves for one or two nights of candy, and talk, and fun under the stars and among the birds. Beth still has the special reel with no rod, and before they raise the string into the sky, Beth always ties a little message to it for her dad.
Before founding Devil's Party Press as its publisher and editor, Dianne Pearce established The Milton Workshop in 2015. It happened that the workshop, luckily, attracted very talented writers, who all happened to be over the age of 40. Pearce realized, after much frustration among the group, that something should be done to help mature authors get a leg-up in publishing, and the idea for DPP was born. The Milton Workshop is still going strong and meets bi-weekly at Pearce’s house when there is no pandemic, and via virtual means when there is a pandemic. “Pandemic or not, we meet, and we write. The motto of the group is ‘Finish your damn novel!’ Have you finished yours yet?” A graduate of both the West Chester University and Vermont College writing programs, Pearce has taught writing of all kinds in DE, CA, PA, and MD. Pearce has edited, for friends and as a work for hire, many books that have gone on to finally reach publication. She has also done both writing and advocacy for causes close to her heart, among them adoption and animals. She considers herself a card-carrying feminist and PFLAG.