Bay to Ocean Anthology Spotlight: September/October 2021
Photo credit: "The Mist" by Abishek
If their song presaged death, it wasn’t ours
wherever it is those souls are going.
It could be so. But it’s not like I know
Catherine Carter grew up in Greensboro, Maryland, but now lives in Cullowhee, North Carolina, where she is a professor of English at Western Carolina University. Her most recent collection of poetry with LSU Press is Larvae of the Nearest Stars (2019). Her award-winning poetry has also appeared in Best American Poetry 2009, Orion, Poetry, Ecotone, Southern Humanities Review, RHINO, and Ploughshares, among others. "Whippoorwills, Souls" appears in the 2020 edition of Bay to Ocean: The Year's Best Writing from the Eastern Shore Writers Association. For more about Catherine, visit her her website: https://catherinecarterpoetry.com
The Making of a Mariner
I had been pretty much a nebbish as a kid. My folks were blue collar. We moved from Philly to Bucks County just before I went into Junior High School, where I was given opportunity to learn to play the trombone. But other than music, I had no strong interests. The curiosity that can create a lifelong learner was non-existent up to that point. Then I discovered maps.
My seventh grade Geography teacher, Miss Hart, was clearly responsible for what happened. She had speckled grey hair, bound up in a bun, always with a pencil stuck in it. Her default demeanor was a tight-lipped frown. The horn-rimmed glasses accentuated her latent ferocity.
I was fascinated with the atlases, maps and charts of all kinds that I discovered in her class. She noticed this and put me to work drawing them and reporting on the information that they provide. I learned about political borders, topographical features of the earth, and the socio-economic significance of land masses being divided by rivers, seas and oceans.
Miss Hart also taught seventh grade English. The curriculum, if I remember correctly, was half diagramming sentences and half writing book reports. She doled out reading assignments based on the individual student's reading level, but with an attempt to tailor content to individual interests. In my case, she picked titles with travel adventure themes. She started me on Stevenson's Treasure Island. This was followed up with Kingsley's Westward Ho, a biography of John Paul Jones, and a story about how Sir Frances Drake defeated the Spanish Armada of 1588 CE.
I was hooked. Seafaring meant travel to foreign places. My recreational reading continued along nautical lines. I started building those plastic ship model kits. Wow. The U.S. Navy had some really cool warships--destroyers, cruisers, battleships--with cannons, torpedoes and depth charges.
The more I read about ships and seafaring, the more I wanted the real thing. I wanted to know what it felt like to actually move across water in a boat. Before my seventh grade year was finished, I learned that there was something called Sea Scouts, and there was a troop in the nearby town of Bristol, located on the banks of the Delaware River.
Pestering my mom worked fine. (My dad didn't want anything to do with water for reasons I never learned). So I got a sailor suit and was attending monthly meetings at a local parish house where the pastor, Reverend O'Conner, served as troop leader. I learned knot tying, chart reading, anchoring, boat terminology and other delightful maritime lore.
The best part was having a boat on which we applied our seafaring skills during summer months. It was a 32-foot long, double-ender, carvel-built wooden whaleboat. There were eight oars, four to a side. It also had a 30 horsepower inboard engine with a single screw. Steering was by tiller.
Putting on my seaman’s garb prior to a meeting made me quiver in anticipation. During the summer months, we'd meet at the parish house two, sometimes three, times a month. We then piled into the good reverend's truck for transport to a marina on Neshaminy Creek, south of Bristol, where our boat was docked. We'd motor out of the creek onto the river and puddle about, learning to keep a lookout, ship oars and row, anchor, tie up to the public pier at Bristol, and keep out of the way of the giant ore boats that steamed up river to the steel plant near Trenton.
One nifty lesson involved our troop leader deliberately jamming the boat onto a mud bank. Our job was to figure out how to get it back into deeper water without getting mud sucked up into the motor's water intake system. We succeeded--returning to port wet, muddy and gleeful.
And then, one of the scouts, Tony, came to a few of us with an idea. He lived in Tullytown, a predominately Italian-American community just north of Bristol. Tony was a natural born organizer. He was tall, thin, with dark hair, and dark eyes that squinted at the world as if looking for an opportunity to take advantage of anything.
"Guys, how'd ya like to earn a few bucks?"
We looked at each other. Tony was full of ideas--mostly crazy and unworkable.
"Look, this is legit. My uncle owns some bars and he needs help with transporting stuff he uses in the bars."
Fat Johnny said, "We're just kids. What can we do? Ya mean moving boxes in a storeroom? Or what?"
"Nah, this is big time stuff," said Tony with a grin.
"Okay, so spit it out. What's your idea?" Billy was skeptical. He'd previously gotten expelled from school for three days because he followed Tony into one of his numerous escapades.
"My uncle wants us to transport a bunch of boxes across the river."
I said, "That doesn't make any sense. Your uncle can send one of his trucks across the river to pick up stuff."
Tony's grin got even wider. "He can't use his trucks. Ya see, it's against the law for people in Pennsylvania to buy liquor in Jersey and bring the bottles back here."
"It's a matter of tax. The government here taxes booze and Jersey doesn't. So it's cheaper in Jersey. If someone brings a case of booze across the bridge from Jersey and the State cops catch him, they can take his truck and put him in the hoosegow. But if my uncle can get the bottles for his bars from across the river, he can save a lot of money, and if we can do the transport, he'll pay us for each load."
Billy grimaced. "How can we do that?"
"By boat of course." Tony beamed in appreciation of his own genius.
I smiled back. Smuggling. Having just finished reading Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel, my mind was filled with images of smuggling across the English Channel during the French Revolution.
Then I had another thought. "You're crazy if you think we can use our Sea Scout boat for smuggling."
Tony sighed. "Where do we stay when we do a two-day training out on the water?"
"Billy's house of course. He lives right next to the marina.. But how do we get O'Conner to let us use the boat?"
Tony's grin returned. "We don't need to. I pressed the engine key into a bar of soap and got a cousin who works in a machine shop to make a copy. When O'Conner goes home Saturday night, we'll make a run up to Trenton and get back before morning."
I looked at him in silence. This was wild.
Tony said, "You've got the river chart and can navigate. Billy can get gas from his dad's shed and can run the engine. Johnny will crew and I'm the business manager."
How could I resist? A smuggler on the river? How cool is that? I said, "I'm in."
Billy asked, "How much do we get?"
"Twenty-five bucks each for one trip."
That seemed to nail it. Over the next two years, we managed to pull off three trips each summer. The excitement of each trip was amazing. Shortly after dark, we'd go into the marina, gas up, cast off, and motor slowly out of Neshaminy Creek.
The passage up the Delaware River was easy. I was thrilled to be the navigator, in charge of piloting our craft to its goal. The channel was well marked with lateral buoys, and we steered from one buoy to another by magnetic compass, using the chart to determine the course directions.
In summer, the air over the river was cool and permeated with variegated aromas from the passing shoreline. The smells ranged from petroleum to pine. There was no river traffic at night, so it was a safe passage.
Arriving at a condemned pier on the south end of Trenton, the capital of New Jersey, three flashes of a flashlight would elicit a corresponding reply from a vehicle waiting on shore. Billy would nudge our boat dockside, and then Johnny and I would jump onto the pier to secure bow and stern lines. The guys on the truck would bring cases of booze out onto the pier and we would stack them into our vessel. My main job was to ensure we didn't overload or create a list. Tony tallied the cases as required by his uncle.
On the return trip, we would dock at the public pier in Bristol, where the same truck would be waiting for us. After discharging our cargo, we returned to the marina, tied up, and snuck back into Billy's house. The next day we awaited the good Reverend dockside for our outing on the river, feeling smug with the knowledge of our shared adventure.
Our smuggling career lasted two summers. The Reverend O'Conner's suspicions were aroused one day after Billy forgot to refill the gas tank. Our scout leader checked the engine's running hours meter against his log book and realized that he hadn’t noticed the gaps in the ending and starting times, indicating unaccounted for running times in the log.
He told us he suspected someone in the marina was using our boat and had reported his suspicions to the local constabulary. At that point, we knew our career as smugglers was over.
I don't know what happened later in life to the others in our smuggling crew. For my part, a family friend learned of my interest in seafaring. He introduced me to the United States Merchant Marine Academy (Kings Point), one of our five federal military service academies. A graduate, class of 1944, and Captain of a large tanker, he connected my passion with a road map into my future.
His introduction to this school was electrifying. From that point on, I had only one goal in life, to become a Kings Point midshipman. That was critical to my personal and professional development in life. I graduated from the academy in 1962. That was the beginning of a career that traversed oceans, rivers and continents.
I often think back to Miss Hart. She kickstarted my entry to the maritime world. It's a shame that great teachers often never learn of what they created with the human materials they mold.
Den Leventhal, a graduate of the USMMA, followed seafaring with Chinese Studies at University of Pennsylvania and National Taiwan University, and a 30-year career in China business development. His publications include How to Leap a Great Wall in China: The China Adventures of a Cross-Cultural Trouble-Shooter (2014). Sino-Judaic Studies: Whence and Whither (1985), The Chess of China (1978), and numerous articles Retiring to Chestertown, he serves as a volunteer NRP Reserve Officer. "The Making of a Mariner" appears in the 2019 edition of Bay to Ocean: The Year's Best Writing from the Eastern Shore Writers Association.
Bay to Ocean Anthology Spotlight: August 2021
Photo credit: "Burning Dandelion" by Henry Be
I watched my grandfather burn to death. I stood by the side of the barn and watched him roll in a bed of leaves, the flames fueled by his jacket and his skin. I watched with a child’s eyes open as big and wide as they would ever get.
The flames stood tall and grandfather lay low. A sooty smolder of leaves fallen from the apple tree and the odor of scorched flesh mingled with late afternoon heat. There is no other odor like burnt flesh. I would not smell it again until I was an adult and my cat jumped on a hot electric burner. I vomited on the way to the vet's office, and went into shock, but the cat was fine.
On that day though, Grandpa did not have nine lives, and he rolled slower and slower and then he did not stand again. I backed up against the clapboard barn and gazed with eyes which had not yet seen Fluffy’s kittens born, which had not yet noticed my mom’s pregnancy. I stood long enough. My eyes teared in the smoke.
I watched death before I understood anything of life.
I am told Grandpa, before his stroke, was a different man, a methodical and caring man, who, because I cried when he carried me as a baby, shaved his mustache. Then I loved him and never cried again.
This is not that memory.
This is my own story because no one has told me what that afternoon meant or why I was chosen to witness. It is not one of those stories so rich you want to savor its aroma with the Thanksgiving coffee and dessert of pumpkin pie. This is not one of those stories told over and over, because after one telling you are stuffed and it sits unsettled on overindulgence as does rich food.
This is a wizened story, events dried and long past, but not wiser with age. I tell this now to find the meaning I did not understand on that day and have not yet understood.
I was at the far corner of the chicken coop, where I wasn’t supposed to be, in a spot where Grandma could not see me from the house. I teased the roosters because she told me not to and because I didn’t like her as well as my other grandma, who liked me better too.
I poked the rooster with a stick just to annoy, to agitate, and deliberately to disobey the grandmother who always told me what to do. The rooster rushed me, angry with beady eyes, but with my weapon I was more powerful and made him back away. I did not want to hurt him, just to be the picador in his life.
This is what I tell myself in later and more mature years, although I think this is a lie, the kind you tell yourself because you are afraid if you tell the truth, no one will love you; you won’t love yourself.
Grandma clucked and fussed and adored Grandpa with a fierceness I envied.
When she put me down for a nap, I scratched her headboard with my hair clip, just below the pillow line. I want to tell you I did that on the same day, to exculpate my spite, in hopes you might gasp and say, oh, poor thing; don’t worry, no wonder; it was the grief you couldn’t express.
I want it to be that day because Grandpa’s bed was empty.
If it wasn't that day I hope to be excused as a child who did not understand, but that is not sufficient for the jealousy, the spite, the disobedience. If it wasn’t that day, I have to admit bad intentions.
I hid underneath the porch that same day, or the day before. Grandma was always peering out the door, anxious to locate me. The fact that I was missing was the reason, I am certain, she looked into the back garden that late afternoon. On that day I switched my eyes from the flames to the house, perhaps to find my grandmother. I noticed her at last, peering through the glass storm door, watching her husband burn. Her open mouth, round and large and voiceless, hovered over her bib apron starched white against the darkness of her lips.
That afternoon I stood at the corner of the chicken coop and did not speak. I watched Grandma’s face pressed on the door. I looked to the fire, and back, but Grandma was gone from the door. I did not know what she thought: perhaps I was responsible or, in the fire with Grandpa or, maybe she did not realize there was a body in the leafy pyre until it was too late for him. I knew only what a child could know.
The fire engine drove to the wide front of the barn. I liked the cocky firemen in rooster yellow helmets. rushing across our garden, doors open wide, and the gurney with my grandfather pushed inside.
I think one of them scooped me up but not before I saw the somber ambulance rushing across our garden, doors open wide, and the gurney with my grandfather, charred ashes, buttons melted to bone.
Mary Pauer has received three literary fellowships from the Delaware Division of Arts in fiction and creative nonfiction. Her work can be read in Southern Women’s Review, The Fox Chase Review, Delmarva Review, Delaware Today, The Chaos, The Avocet, and, among others, and in anthologies featuring local authors. Her work has national recognition, including the Sally Reinhart Award and several National Press Association awards. Her new collection, Traveling Moons, won the 2018 Delaware Press award for book poetry. For many years she has been a judge for the Beach Reads story contest. Her story, “Burn,” was nominated by the Bay to Ocean editors for a Pushcart Award.
Photo credit: "Grey Stone" by John Doyle
Carol Casey lives in Betterton, a small beachfront town
located where the Sassafras River meets the Chesapeake Bay. She worked as a
writer and editor for The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.,
and lived in Baltimore near Patterson Park until returning to the Eastern
Shore. She writes poetry and fiction. Her poem, “How to Make a Beach,” and
short story, “Widow,” were nominated for a Pushcart Prize. "How to Make a Beach" was published in the 2019 Bay to Ocean anthology.
Bay to Ocean Anthology Spotlight: July 2021
Jack MackeyPandemic Blues Day 43: In Which I Invite the Germs In
I busy myself making
involving ingredients I don't have
to shop for--flour and water, and hope
for a few sympathetic microbes will fly
into my kitchen alive and ready to work,
leaven this flat feeling that our lockdown
could last what's left of my life. I'm doing whatever
keeps me from sleeping
all day, drinking too much.
On YouTube the helpful man uses just
a measuring cup, eschews
a digital scale and all its romantic precision.
Just eyeball it, leave something to chance, he says.
This recipe for anarchy, his casual approach
suits me just fine I think of all the things
you can do just enough--
like a life--chug along for years without a plan,
dump Tinkertoys on the carpet
knowing a few pieces are lost,
make what you can
or take a road trip in an old car
with squiggly line signs to warn you
of the cliff, but not when you'll meet it.
A carefree journey marked
by ambiguous symbology, open to interpretation
open to hope--
So when the gloppy mess goes rancid after a few days
I pour it down the drain, mix a new batch of chaos,
lid the jar loosely, open a window, and
welcome in the air from outside.
Jack Mackey lives in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. He received his M.A. in English from the University of Maryland. Jack is the 2021 Delaware Fellow in Poetry (Emerging), and his work has appeared in the Broadkill Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Mojave Review, and others. For more about Jack, visit his website here. "Pandemic Blues Day 43: In Which I Invite the Germs In" was published in the 2020 Bay to Ocean anthology.
"Sunset Along the Chesapeake Bay", by Sarah Cottle
In the New Bridge's Shadow
I had tried to tell my granddaughter Lizzie, that I did not want to go with her, couldn’t care less, wasn’t interested. I argued with her on the phone for a full twenty minutes, knowing all the while that she was still coming to get me by the sounds of her driving in the background of our conversation. I hustled as fast as my 86-year-old frame would move, to change out of my farm clothes into something suitable for a Sunday drive.
It wasn’t a Sunday; it was a Wednesday, but you would not know it for all the traffic on Dover Bridge Road. I could see it from my porch, as I sat squeaking out a rhythm in my cane rocker, waiting for her little blue SUV to race up my dirt lane, dust billowing in her wake. The traffic was headed one place, Dover Bridge, the new one that is. They had officially opened it today, and everyone wanted to be one of the first cars to cross it. The Governor and his wife had taken the ceremonial last drive across the old bridge, then the first official drive across the new bridge, in a 1941 Buick convertible. It had been all over the midday news. I guess they could not find a vintage car from the year the old Dover Bride was opened to use.
I had been one of the first ones to cross the old one when it was new in 1932, sort of. We share the same birthday, myself and the first Dover Bridge. The morning of the opening ceremony my parents and some of their friends packed picnics and piled into the back of an old Ford model TT farm truck. It had wooden slats for the bed and rails. My mother was sure that the bumpy ride on those rough, splintery boards, in the back of that truck, had been what had sent her into labor.
Finding a nice spot on the bank, they joined the other picnickers who had gathered to enjoy the spectacle of the ribbon cutting. This new bridge was going to be a godsend, an inter-county connector that would cut a two to three-hour ride to get emergency medical help down to twenty or thirty minutes. Most of the neighbors from the surrounding area had put on their Sunday finest, and come down to the edge of Choptank River in Caroline or Talbot County to witness the opening. Boats were crossing back and forth through the opened center span, just for the novelty of the experience.
My father had wanted to be an engineer when he was younger, but there was no money for him to continue his education beyond the sixth grade when he had to quit to help on the family farm. He had become obsessed with any structure made of steel, and the new bridge was no exception. My mother told me that for the handful of years it took the McLean Company to raise that bridge out of the muddy marsh, father was down there at the construction site at least once a week, watching or chatting with the workers.
That day was supposed to be a day of celebration, father was in the middle of telling all who would listen about how the bridge was 843-foot-long, 24 feet wide with a 16-foot clearance and a one of kind “Warren Truss Swing Bridge.” He was in his glory, lecturing on his favorite topic for a rapt audience.
“Warren Truss bridges are generally for railroad crossings, so that makes it unique that they are using it here for this bridge. There are two other swing bridges in Maryland, but we’ve got the only one with Warren style trusses. Do you see the steel girder triangles? Those are equilaterals, and that design makes it strong and lightweight at the same time. As cars and trucks drive across it, the force from their weight will be channeled into the beams, spreading out, and become a shared load across the bridge surface. In the center there, in that housing just above the waterline is a great big mechanism that will make the bridge swing open. When a boat pulls up to it, the keeper will throw a switch that will make the center turn, opening it for the boat to pass through. Then he’ll close it back up.”
He did not get to really launch into a full oratory on the history of Maryland bridges, because I chose that moment to throw the switch on my own bridge mechanism, sending my mother into labor.
My mother’s water had broken on the Caroline side of the Choptank, and the hospital at that time was housed in the upper floors of the Tidewater Hotel in Easton, on the Talbot side of the river. There was only one way to get there in time, and that was to cross the new Dover Bridge.
Poor mother was unceremoniously loaded back into the bed of the truck once more, as our friends and neighbors helped her to try and get comfortable on the blankets they had just been picnicking on. The men climbed into the cab of the truck and the women all sat in the back with her, just in case mother would deliver during the trip. The center span of the bridge was open at this moment, as all the local dignitaries were having their picture taken with the giant scissors and ribbon for the local paper.
The state trooper keeping order at the proceedings, flagged father down, ordering him to stop and turn around until he heard my mother moaning from the bed. It was the trooper that made the officials move and open the bridge, long enough to let us pass, as they did not want to at first. They went on to have their ceremony after we had crossed but the excitement of my birth was strategically left out of the history of Dover Bridge.
The happy barking of my black lab, Dulcie, brought me out of reminiscing. It was Lizzie, tearing up the drive.
“Pop!” She jumped out of the driver seat, waving at me, barely getting it in park.
“Hey there Lizzie girl!” I’ll never tell the others but she’s my favorite, reminds me of my Margaret, all red curls, coltish limbs, infection mirth, and joyful spirit.
“I see you changed your clothes, I thought you said that doing this was just nonsense.”
“Hmph, smart ass.” She had me and she knew it.
“Do you want to drive?”
“That newfangled foreign thing? No. Besides, your mother would kill you if she knew you let me drive.” My license had been taken by my daughter a while ago. It was one thing for me to drive around the farm in my old beater pickup, checking the herds and the fence line, but I was not supposed to be out on the roads anymore. I had failed to adjust to just how fast things go these days out on the roads, and it terrified Lizzie’s mom, the thought of me driving 40 miles an hour, everywhere I wanted to go.
“Well let’s go! This is going to be so cool!” She snapped her seatbelt on, and I did the same.
“Bunch of nonsense, old bridge worked just fine.” It still bugged me that they had built a new one.
“Pop! Seriously. The old bridge is falling apart. There are big holes in the deck! In the summer it gets so hot that it sticks open, and they have to have the fire companies come to hose it down to cool it off, and just a couple years ago they opened it during the winter and it froze that way for three days!”
“All things that could have been fixed, but these days it’s easier to just waste a ton of money getting something bigger and fancier.” I was irritated by the whole thing. That bridge meant something to me, but I didn’t expect her to understand.
“Pop, you cannot tell me that sitting by the marsh, when it’s hot and stinky, because the bridge is stuck open and you can’t cross, is better than driving up above it.”
She had me there, the marsh around the bridge, when the tide is out, has a smell that is overpowering with decay and rotting vegetation, When the wind is just right, that marsh funk mixes with the eye-watering fragrance from Porter’s pig farm, where it wafts from the bend of the river, just north of the bridge, choking and gagging those unlucky enough to be stuck in one of the bridge traffic jams.
“Look, we’re not the only ones that had the same idea, Pop!” We were part of a long convoy of cars and trucks, all passing through the little crossroads called Bethlehem, headed for the bridge.
“Just think Pop, next summer the old bridge is going to be open as a fishing pier. We can take a picnic out there and sit in the shade of the new bridge and fish. If we sit on the Talbot side, we’ll be able to see that cool sailboat relief they put on one of the big concrete supports.”
I didn’t answer her, thinking about the slight of something that had served shore folk for eighty-six long years being turned into a fishing pier. Maybe I was having hurt feelings because the bridge and I were the same age and I had watched my own usefulness shrink and fall away.
“Look Pop! Oh my gosh, here we go! This is so exciting.” She was bouncing in her seat and I could not help but smile over her joy at something so simple as crossing a brand new bridge. My father would have loved Lizzie.
The view caught me by surprise. I had never seen the river from this vantage point, usually reserved for the osprey that nested on the trusses of the old bridge, summer after summer. It was unlike anything I had ever seen outside of a National Geographic pictorial. The river stretched out in twists and snarls, like a great copperhead tangle in the sun. The marsh on the Caroline side oozed lazily away from the banks, forming great patches of varying shades of green marsh grasses, scrub and the white blooms of the rose mallow.
“It’s beautiful.” I didn’t realize I had said it until Lizzie responded.
“I know, it’s gorgeous! It makes me feel bad for calling it stinky.”
I couldn’t help it, I laughed, and soon we were both laughing like loons, as we coasted down the other side, into Talbot County.
“Let’s go get ice cream, Lizzie and then we’ll come back across it, and enjoy that view from the other direction.”
“Okay, Pops!” She floored it, making me smile. Watching her as she chattered on about what had happened at school that day, I found myself thinking about the old bridge, wondering if it looked at the new bridge, watching it grow up, piece by piece, knowing that its shadow would soon eclipse it and felt proud, knowing that it had earned the right to rest and enjoy watching the new generation carry on.
The cracked vinyl booth of the ice cream parlor pinched Lizzie’s leg, eliciting a squeal from her that turned heads. I took my time, not wanting to repeat her mistake on my good church pants. I didn’t try to hide my excitement anymore from Lizzie, as we tucked into our hot fudge sundaes. “I wish I had brought that camera your mother gave me for Christmas last year; the view is amazing from up there. Your Grandmother Maggie would have loved to paint it.”
“Right? I mean the view from the Sharptown bridge is cool, but our bridge’s view has got character. Who knew that marshes could be so pretty when you see them from above?” She put down her spoon, a serious look, replacing her the normal jovial one on her face.
“What is it Lizzie girl?”
“Mom said you were born the same day that they opened the old Dover bridge. That’s pretty cool. You’ve never told me that story. Will you tell me now?”
I was speechless and choked up all at once. My stories had stopped being requested by my grandchildren and great-grandchildren, years ago. I had to take a moment to try and not let her see the tears that had come unbidden to my eyes at her simple request.
“Pop? I’m sorry, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. We can just finish our ice cream and go back. If we time it right, maybe we can catch the sunset. There is a shoulder on the bridge now, so maybe we can even stop for a minute and get a longer look.”
Composed now, I looked at her sweet young face, so full of worry that she had upset me. So much like her Grandmother. “No, it’s okay. I want to tell you about it.”
“Really? Cool.” She put her spoon down and was completely focused on me.
Right then, I felt like the old bridge, we were brothers at that moment, looking at the face of the new bridge and I smiled. “Your great grandfather loved bridges. He had wanted to build things, great big things made out of steel, but there was no money for him to keep going to school after the sixth grade, so he never got the chance. When word came that they were finally going to put a bridge across the Choptank, it was like a dream come true for him…
Laurel L. Powell: A lifelong resident of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Lauren
L. Powell enjoys crafting stories under the close supervision of her four black
cats. She is currently completing her MFA at Southern New Hampshire University
where she earned a Bachelor’s of Arts in Creative Writing. When she’s not
churning out pages, Powell can often be found hunched over her sewing machine,
performing with the Caroline Association of Theater, or on a softball field.
She is a proud member of the Eastern Shore Writer’s Association. "In the New Bridge's Shadow" was published in the 2019 Bay to Ocean anthology.
Bay to Ocean Anthology Spotlight: June 2021
I Post Another Sunset
My grandfather was a white cop in a blue uniform.
about the man he killed, or the cell phone cameras
Pat Valdata's poetry book about women aviation pioneers, Where No Man Can Touch, won the Donald Justice Poetry Prize. Her other poetry titles are Inherent Vice and Looking for Bivalve. Her novel, Eve's Daughter was published by Moonshine Cove Publishing last November. Pat is a retired adjunct professor who lives in Crisfield, Maryland. "I Post Another Sunset to Facebook" was published in the 2020 edition of the Bay to Ocean anthology, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by the editors.
Sometimes dreams come true, even when they shouldn’t. That thought crossed my mind the cold and gloomy Saturday in December 1996 when I pulled into the driveway of my partially renovated cottage at Slaughter Beach. It had been several months and many awkward sessions with a marriage counselor since I had last seen the place. I hoped a visit would lift my spirits.
The new concrete piers, vinyl siding and replacement windows gleamed, but the entrance steps and deck already looked weathered from the salt-air. Still, it was a far cry from the condition of the cottage when we’d bought it eighteen months before.
I got out of the car and pulled up my collar against icy gusts coming off the bay. The adjacent houses were closed up tight for the season. A storm window on my neighbor’s second-story bedroom hung askew and banged in the wind. I climbed the front steps, turned the key and pushed open the door. The rubber weather stripping that had held firm for months, separated with a sharp ripping sound.
Owning a cottage at Slaughter Beach had been a dream of ours since that weekend in 1969 when Dianne and I spent a Friday night with Bill and Charlotte Jarrell in their rental on Bay Avenue. Bill was the singer with the Banjo Dusters and had a three day gig at a tavern in Rehoboth. He decided to make a vacation out of it and had taken a cottage for the week. We were friends with the Jarrells and followed the band wherever they played. It wasn’t the kind of music most couples in their early-twenties went in for but we liked the nights out and the fun that always happened whenever the Banjo Dusters performed.
Bill had given us directions from Argo’s Corner. As we drove in, the peaceful countryside and lush Sussex County farmland was a welcome change from the frantic city landscapes back home. Early on we had turned off the radio so we could enjoy it all without distraction. But then we passed a stretch of tangled woods and the terrain turned to a broad expanse of marsh and tidal mudflats. A flooded ditch ran along both sides of the road. Off in the hazy distance stood a row of what looked like ramshackle buildings and we began to wonder just what kind of place Slaughter Beach was.
We made the turn onto Bay Avenue and it was as if we had stepped back in time. The old one and two-story clapboard cottages sat side-by-side on narrow waterfront lots. As we searched for the address, we were charmed by the mix of gingerbread and simple beach-influenced architecture, the picket fences, the gardens, driftwood sculptures, the unusual outbuildings.
A few kids rode past on bikes but for a beachfront community in the middle of summer it seemed surprisingly devoid of people. We pulled into the side-yard of Bill’s rental and he came off the screened porch and welcomed us. The weather had been unbearably hot and humid but at the cottage, the soft, off-water breeze cut the humidity. It was noticeably quiet, the only sounds birdsong and the gentle rattling of cord-grass and reeds in the adjacent lot. Standing next to the car, it felt as if the pace of things had just slowed down a little.
Bill’s cottage was across the road from the beach and backed up to a small wood-line that fronted the marsh which now seemed more interesting and inviting than it had on our drive in. We got settled then walked across the road to look at the water. Beyond the wide, grass covered dune was a sandy beach littered here and there with driftwood, shells and a few horseshoe crabs. Looking north, the shoreline made a gradual curve that extended out to the old Mispillion Lighthouse. Several small boats – Hobie-cats, Sunfish and aluminum johnboats – were pulled up against the dune, many marked with the address of the owner’s cottage. There couldn’t have been more than ten or twelve people on the entire beach which we found astounding.
That night we were at the tavern through last-call and helped the band break down and load up before making the easy drive back to the cottage. It was a clear night and we weren’t ready to turn-in so we walked over and sat on the beach for a while. Several ships were at the anchorage, their lights twinkling in the distance. Stars were bright and the breeze off the bay was fresh and cool. Behind us, the beachfront cottages sat silhouetted against the moonlit sky.
In the morning we hung out on the porch and drank coffee. Bill, in a bathing-suit and flip-flops, walked down the block to the store for a carton of milk. He was gone for ten minutes and not one car went down the main drag. It was then that Dianne said out loud what we had both been thinking. “It would be nice to have a place down here. It’s so comfortable and close to everything.” That was the start of the dream.
But it wasn’t one we could act upon at the time. Dianne was working as a teller at a local bank while I worked a part-time job and went to school on the GI bill. We were barely making ends meet and had very little left over after paying the mortgage and the minimum balances on our credit cards. I would graduate in two years but we had been waiting to start a family so it wasn’t likely we would have money for a summer place for quite a while. But the seed had been planted.
For several years after that, on our weekend trips to Rehoboth, we often cruised through Slaughter Beach. We stopped on the road and looked at cottages that were for sale, frequently calling agents and asking prices, knowing any price would be too much. Somehow the act of calling made it seem as if we were getting closer to having our own place. I graduated and started a new job. We had our first child, a daughter. And then in 1973 a bay-front lot went up for sale: 50ft of frontage for $2000. It was an ordinary piece of land, 250ft long and covered end-to-end with a 10ft tall stand of phragmite. It was perfect. We had almost a thousand in savings and borrowed the rest from my brother-in-law. We were in.
For the next four summers we took frequent daytrips to the lot. Our son was born. We lugged the port-a-crib, hibachi and umbrella out onto the beach and spent days picnicking and beach-combing, imagining our cottage sitting on the lot behind us, imagining long summers here as the kids grew up and Dianne and I grew old together relaxing on our deck overlooking the bay. We collected house plans and ideas from decorating magazines, picked up pamphlets from builders, got quotes on septic systems and the installation of electrical service, anything we could do without spending money kept the dream alive and gave the illusion we were moving forward.
But then things got all jumbled up. The kids were growing and we needed some money. Almost magically we received a letter from a real-estate agent offering to purchase the Slaughter Beach property for many times more than we had paid for it. I had a new job that was very demanding, leaving little time for spending days at the beach with the family, so we sold the lot. If things worked out the way we hoped we could go back in a few years and buy any cottage we wanted.
But the years went by, the kids grew up and went their own ways, the career blossomed. We were always busy. There wasn’t time for dreams anymore, or the lazy weekends we had enjoyed so much back in the early seventies. We did very well for ourselves, but in the midst of our success, something had changed with the marriage.
In the spring of 1995 we learned that a fixer-upper cottage in the old section of Slaughter Beach was on the market. “The bay-front property alone was worth the price,” the agent said. We drove out to see it. The place was a wreck. Not one other cottage on the beach was in a worse state of repair. It would need to be jacked up, pilings installed, new siding and windows, completely gutted and re-done on the inside. We wondered if it was even salvageable. Someone would have to be crazy to take on a project like this. But as we wandered out on the dune and looked at the derelict building, possibilities of all kinds seemed to assert themselves. I looked at the cottage next door with its friendly grouping of deck chairs, and out on the beach where a couple with two small children relaxed at the edge of the water. The old dreams began to stir again.
Two years later, on that cold December afternoon, I stepped into the kitchen over piles of shattered plaster and construction debris. The old porcelain sink and ripped linoleum countertop were thick with dust and littered with Styrofoam cups and crumpled McDonald’s wrappers. In the big-room the furniture that had come with the house had been pushed to the side and stacked haphazardly. Unfinished wires dangled from the locations of new light fixtures and receptacles. Ragged wall edges and exposed two-by-fours surrounded the newly framed replacement windows.
Six months after we bought the place the problems with our marriage had become overwhelming. We had the contractors finish the outside of the building and then stopped the renovation. The cottage sat idle as we went through months of counseling where we tried to revisit and rekindle elements of our relationship that had been good and meaningful, things that had brought us together in the first place.
I stared out the back window at the dune and the bay beyond. I thought of Bill and Charlotte Jarrell and the fun we used to have following the Banjo Dusters. I thought of that moonlit night in 1969 when Slaughter Beach had first come alive for us and the joy we felt imagining our cottage, our years of happy dreams. But everything seemed muted now, lost amidst anger and uncertainty.
A sheet of old gray wallpaper, its original flowered pattern barely discernible, drooped on the wall by the backdoor. I tried to imagine this wallpaper when it was new, how it would have freshened and brightened this dingy space. I tried. It just wasn’t in me anymore.
Russell Reece's poems, stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies, such as Gargoyle, Blueline, Under the Gum Tree, and Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors. Russ has received fellowships from the Delaware Division of the Arts and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. "The Cottage at Slaughter Beach" appeared in the 2019 edition of the Bay to Ocean anthology and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by the editors.