Bay to Ocean Anthology Spotlight: June
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 was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by the editors..