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Tea in Chesapeake

 

Like so many others, Barry Howard found the ocean’s shores to be magical, almost timeless and often cathartic.  A given stretch of beach able to provide solace for loss, contemplation for decision making, or even inspiration for art or prose; the latter being Barry’s intent as he rose early on the second day of vacation, careful not to awaken his family, which was nestled on a queen and hide-a-bed in their small hotel room.  His wife and two daughters breathing peacefully, two light whistles and an occasional snore. 

Barry had often come up with ideas for stories or breakthroughs on novels while walking solitary miles on the Oregon beaches.  In search of focus and inspiration, Barry found nothing beat a walk on the beach, and he had indeed, a most cumbersome knot to unravel on a novel that was threatening to shelve itself.

“Daddy, where are you going?”

Barry froze upon hearing the voice of his nine-year old daughter penetrating the near dark as his hand clasped the doorknob.  “Going for a little walk.  Go back to sleep.”

“On the beach?”

“Yes.  Now go back to sleep, sweetheart,” he whispered.

“Can I go with you?” the voice hopeful.

Inspiration, focus, breakthroughs… or… family time; Barry mused; the beach was almost magical.  He paused, unsure if the literary gods were having their fun with him.  This child required a freight train and marching band braving a hurricane to rise before seven on school days but was asking her father to walk in the cold and dark at five?  The knot in his throat reminded him of the fictional knot that lie in wait.  On the other hand, he had missed time with Lauren since school had started, away during the day and tired and hectic at night, chores, homework, baths, with a bedtime much earlier than the carefree summer evenings of just a month earlier.

“Sure.  Let me write Mommy a quick note so she knows you’re with me.”  Instantly Barry back-burnered the novel and brightened at the thought of an hour or so alone with his oldest as he scribbled a note on a coffee filter and left it on top of the maker like a paper crown.  He pocketed some snacks while Lauren changed out of her pajamas.

Father and daughter sat on the hotel steps giving each other almost conspiratorial looks while slipping on moist, cold and sandy shoes so as to avoid awakening Nora and Julie.  This was going to be fun and almost sure to provide the teachable moments Barry lived for as a father.  He was flattered that Lauren wanted to be with him, seeing this as an opportunity for it to be just them.  There was no way of knowing how many chances like this might arise.

Barry remembered that his first year teaching seemed to drag on forever.  He must have made a comment to that effect to an older teacher once because he could remember her telling him that each year went by faster than the last.  Six or seven years later he realized she had been right, as Christmas vacation came on suddenly, and before you knew it Spring Break was there, and you had to really cram to get everything in before school ended in June.  Barry began to apply this understanding to the raising of his children, as he and Nora were told repeatedly by older and more experienced parents how fast little ones grow up.

Father and daughter made their way past the tall, scratchy grass that marked the path to the beach, the soft, and deep sand cool up to their ankles.  Past the driftwood logs that were charred from bonfires they walked, Lauren now clutching Barry’s hand as she saw the darkened, inky black form of kelp looking like a bullwhip.  He knew it summoned the thought of snakes in her mind as she tightened the grip on his hand.  The sand began to harden, allowing the pair to quicken their pace as they neared the frigid, foam-laced fringe of the Pacific.  It was indeed cold, and Lauren switched hands as she took the shore side, allowing Barry to serve as a buffer from the ocean, still dark and ominous, the sun yet to break the horizon.

As it grew lighter Lauren still held her father’s hand, and he gave it no mention, not wanting to dispel her natural inclination.  Her hand was small but warm, and he could remember evenings - it seemed like yesterday - when his wife, equipped with cutters, and he, armed with a flashlight, would sneak into Lauren’s room and cut her tiny fingernails while she slept. 

Lauren was quiet, and Barry wondered what she was thinking, when the questions would come.  Some of their best talks occurred when they were driving, Lauren anchored in her booster, quiet and contemplative, her question well slowly filling until it crested.  Then a torrent of questions would come, some easy, what’s your favorite animal?  How come you yell at the TV when you watch football? Some not so easy, usually starting with why: Why have all the presidents been men?  Why do countries fight each other?  Why does God let people get cancer?

Sometimes the line of questioning followed a theme; other times the barrage was random and scattered as if inspired by slips of paper drawn from a hat.  Either way, Barry reveled in the queries, tiny teachable moments, each demonstrating his daughter’s thought process as if a tiny window into her mind was opened, and he was privy to a brief glance at the magnificent cognitive cogs and gears in motion.

“Daddy, when are we getting a dog?”  This a fair question, since he had put in a doggy door to the small shop he had built in the backyard three years ago.

Barry hedged.  “Oh, I don’t know.  When the time is right.” 

“Did you walk on the beach when you were a boy?”   Barry’s mind whirred. Scattergun; gotta stay on my feet.  Today is random.  Could be anything.  Potpourri.

“I did.  Walked with Mac and Chubb,” he said, mentioning his own parents before adding, “and our dogs.” This a shameless effort to test the resolve of random over theme based questioning.

“Did you always come to this beach?”

“Most of the time Lincoln City.  Sometimes Seaside.”

Then out of nowhere, “Why do you have blue eyes, daddy?”

“Just genetics.  That’s how it goes,” he said, glad the questions were coming randomly.

“What’s genetics?”

Serves me right, Barry thought.  “My dad has blue eyes.  So I have blue eyes.  He kind of passed them on down to me.”  Barry loved teachable moments, but wanted his wife around for where he feared this was going.

“I have brown eyes like Julie,” Lauren declared proudly and Barry suspected he’d dodged a bullet.

There was a long pause between questions as if Lauren was weighing the pros and cons of two different questions, two different paths.  Finally, “When are you going to let me read your stories?”

“When you’re a little older, I think.”

“Why not now?”  Lauren looked at her father, the sun now providing enough light for her to read his face.

“Well they’re not really written for children, you see.  They’re more for big people,” Barry responded, wondering what she will think of his writing when she is older.

“Inappropriate?”  This the word used when turning channels from unpleasant news stories.

“Not so much inappropriate as hard to understand when you’re nine,” Barry explained truthfully.

“Maybe you could write a kid’s book,” Lauren suggested.

Barry frowned, frightened at what he regarded as a daunting prospect.  “Maybe someday,” he managed before deciding to turn the tables and asking her a question.  “What would it be about?”

Lauren shrugged.  “I don’t know.  You’re the writer.”

“OK then, think of your favorite book and tell me what you like about it,” he prompted.

“That’s easy.  I like The Odd Duck.  You know, the one about the duck who is raised by a family of chickens.” 

Barry knew the book well.  Lauren had read it repeatedly, and they had talked about it a great deal as a family, Barry glad when Lauren had moved on to new and different subject matter, suddenly filling her book basket with an eclectic mix on their weekly Saturday morning pilgrimages to the library.

There were a few other walkers out, early risers who also enjoy the solitary peace of the waking coast, where land and water peacefully compromised.  Many had dogs; some walked in pairs, and more than a few walked head down as if burdened, or perhaps merely in search of shells.  Barry was always leery when dogs approached, using his body to shield Lauren whose face was so close to the animals’.  Inevitably the owner would claim the dog to be harmless as it called the canine away.  Those they passed with their heads up smiled at the unlikely pair; perhaps reminded of their own children, or other families they knew.

Lauren pointed ahead and inquired about an object in the distance.  Barry speculated that it was a piece of driftwood, but his daughter remained unconvinced and quickened her pace, spurred by doubt and a child’s curiosity.  Barry feared she going to let go of his hand, but she didn’t, and instead pulled him along.  Her eyes were better than his, and it soon became apparent to both that the object was too smooth to be a log.  Within moments, Barry realized it was a small whale and not as far away as it had first appeared.  He held Lauren back as soon as he had determined it was a whale.  A few feet closer and Barry became convinced the whale was just a calf.

Barry wondered how at nine Lauren could have the frame of reference to also recognize this because in a distraught voice she blurted out, “Oh, look, Daddy! It’s just a baby!”  They walked around the creature, keeping their distance, Lauren because a part of her feared the whale wasn’t really dead, Barry because he wasn’t sure about disease, bacteria and the like.  Thankfully, there were no bites taken out of the tail, no evidence that a killer whale or hungry shark had been the culprit.  In fact, the whale seemed pristine, although the small gnat-like flies that live in the sand had discovered the poor, young mammal, its skin beginning to dry, smooth and rubbery.

“I wonder how long it’s been here,” Barry said.

“I wonder why it died,” Lauren responded.

“I don’t know.  Maybe it was sick,” was the best her father could offer.

“That’s so sad.” 

It was, and Barry didn’t know what to say.  While he wanted to go, leave this poor creature behind, he didn’t want to pull Lauren away before she was ready.  She was processing this happening; this notion of premature death, and he wanted her to be the one to signal a readiness to leave it behind.  Barry also knew they would have to walk past it on the way back and hoped it would remain undisturbed. 

After circling the calf once more, Lauren looked up at her father and nodded.  They walked away in silence as if in a show of respect for the dead creature.  When the whale was no longer in sight, Lauren sighed and repeated her earlier assessment, “That’s so sad.”

“I’m sure it’s already in whale heaven,” Barry consoled.

“No.  I mean for the mother,” Lauren said sadly.  “She lost her baby forever.”

Barry was taken aback and speechless for a moment.  He hadn’t thought of the mother and felt a sense of shame wash over him as he wished Lauren would skip to another question or subject - any subject.  But the dead whale had changed the tenor of the walk irrevocably.

The sun soon helped, breaking through and obliterating the bluish gray hue; that pallor which so readily accommodated the dead.  Barry suggested they continue to a large, curved log in the distance where they could rest for a few minutes before heading back.  He knew Lauren’s spirits had risen again when she suggested they race to the log.  After sitting on the driftwood Barry pulled out two breakfast bars and let his daughter pick.  Lauren had him perforate the top of the small boxes of apple juice.  Inevitably, as she had known it would, the juice shot out the top of the straw like a miniature geyser, hitting him in the chest. 

“Mom puts the top end into her mouth before she pokes the hole,” Lauren advised, still giggling.

“Why didn’t you tell me that before?” he asked, licking his fingers.

“I don’t know,” she smirked.

“I think you like to see your old dad make a fool of himself every now and then,” Barry countered.

They ate the breakfast bars, and he waited to see if she would bring up the whale again.  He was relieved when she didn’t.

“Where do you think this tree came from?”  Lauren tapped the log with her foot.

“I don’t know.  Could be from just about anywhere.  Could be from down the coast or across the ocean for all we know.”

“Could it be from Africa?”

“I suppose.”

“Could it be from Russia?”

“It’s possible.”

“Could it be from China?”

Barry smiled at his daughter and ruffled her dark hair.  “It could even be from China,” he said as she handed him the wrapper to her breakfast bar.  He shoved both wrappers into his pocket, and they took the last sips from their juice boxes.  Barry put them in his other pocket and saw that Lauren was putting a faded candy wrapper into her own pocket.  He smiled at her and she smiled back, her tongue showing through a gap courtesy of a recently lost tooth.

“Green is golden,” she said echoing her mother’s words of the previous month when Nora had completed setting up a small recycling bin under the sink next to the large Tupperware compost container.

Barry looked at Lauren and realized how much of her mother and himself he had been seeing in her lately, bits and pieces that were being reflected not in image but action and words.  He heard himself when Lauren asked Julie if she had “kicked tail” in foursquare that day at recess.  “Kicked tail” being a product of his attempt to use “appropriate” and perhaps less colorful language at all times.  Nora was constantly reflected as Lauren and Julie played and mothered their respective dolls and babies.  More than once, Barry had sat outside Lauren’s room as she read to her babies, marveling at the familiar expressions and intonations she employed. 

Soon they could see the whale again in the distance.  People were gathered around the dead creature now, and as Barry and Lauren approached they could see the people taking pictures of it, some dancing around happily and posing in various manners.  One fellow had a fishing pole and was making as if he had reeled in the baby whale.  Barry asked Lauren if she wished they had brought a camera.

“No.  I wouldn’t want people having fun and taking pictures of me if I died,” she answered quietly.  Barry shuddered involuntarily and merely nodded, impressed with her reasoning and empathy. They headed to the high side, away from the ocean and into the soft, dry sand in order to skirt the whale and its admirers.

“Julie will be sore she missed seeing the whale,” Barry said when they had passed the spectacle and returned to the hard, wet sand near the surf.  Lauren didn’t say anything and her father realized they were holding hands again.  He tried to remember when she had grabbed hold of his and could not.

Barry had just made out their hotel, small, grey and unassuming, when Lauren broke the silence.  “Daddy?”  Barry wondered at what point Daddy would become Dad and felt a little saddened at the thought.

“Yes?” he answered.

“Could we not tell Julie?”  Lauren asked through squinting eyes as she looked up at him.

“About the whale?” he asked somewhat surprised.

“Yeah.”

Barry paused before responding, his wheels turning.  “OK,” he said slowly, the two letters leaking out of him as he pondered the request.  “May I ask why you don’t want to tell her?”

“I don’t know.  I guess I just think it might make her sad,” Lauren replied, looking at her sand-crusted shoes.

Of all the things Barry Howard loved about his daughter, and there were a great many, the thing he just may have loved the most was the affectionate and protective nature with which she regarded her sister.  Barry and Nora had started a family late in life and were acutely aware that for at least half the girls’ lives, they were likely to be without their parents and have only one another and the families they ended up making for themselves. 

“Does it make you sad?” Barry asked, hoping not to betray his own emotion.

“A little,” Lauren responded quietly.

Barry contemplated exploring this more and decided against it.  “I won’t say a word.”  He motioned as if zipping his lips and discarding the key.

Lauren brightened.  “Promise?”

Barry made a muffling sound.  Lauren stooped as if retrieving the cast away key.  He took the imaginary key from her small palm and unlocked his lips.   “I promise I won’t tell.  Not for all the tea in Chesapeake.”

Lauren frowned and nodded her head like her mother did when telling him he’s incorrigible.  “That’s not how it goes.”

“What goes?” 

“The saying.  It goes, ‘not for all the tea in China.’” 

“Oh,” Barry said, aware that his heart was now beating faster.

“Why do you say it wrong?”

“I don’t know,” Barry answered, suddenly unsure.

“I think I know,” Lauren said looking up at him again.

“Why?”

“’Cause I think you’re afraid,” her voice trailed off.

“Afraid?” her father laughed uneasily.  “Afraid of what?”

“I think sometimes.”  Lauren stood kicking her heel gently into the sand so as to distract herself.  “That you’re afraid I’ll want to go back and live there when I grow up.”

Barry’s throat tightened.  “To China?”

Lauren stopped kicking.  “Yeah.”

“Maybe I am.”  Barry’s voice sounded uneven, and he had the sense that they had suddenly reversed roles.

Lauren squeezed his hand consolingly and looked at her father through beautiful almond shaped eyes.  “Mommy and you will always be my mom and dad.  Just like Julie will always be my sister.  Nothing could change that, Dad.”

 

 

Tea in Chesapeake was a finalist in the 2012 North Carolina Writers’ Network Thomas Wolfe Fiction Contest.  It is included in Michael Twist’s anthology Full of Choices.