Cape Cod, by William Cass

I was already lying awake and waiting in the dark when my father came into the room that my little brother and I shared at the cottage.  My grandparents had been renting the same place since my father was young and they began coming over from their home in central Connecticut to Cape Cod for two weeks each summer; our family had been making the drive from ours in Ohio to spend one of those weeks with them for as long as I could remember.  I sat up on the edge of my twin bed and nodded when he put his index finger across his lips to keep us from waking my mother, baby sister, and grandmother.  I heard Greg groan when my father shook his shoulder in the bed next to me.  A three-quarters moon hovered above the pond outside the window, and I could hear the quiet tumble of waves up the road at the south end of Kingsbury Beach.  Down the hall, I saw my grandfather at the kitchen stove and knew he was making fried egg sandwiches on hard rolls that we’d eat for breakfast in the car.

Forty-five minutes later, my brother and I were hunched together in orange life vests at the bow of an old wooden skiff we’d rented at Rock Harbor while my father worked the outboard in the stern.  He was motoring us out into the bay while my grandfather baited drop lines at the bench seat in the middle.  The sun was just a muffled pink line low in the thick marine layer behind us, and the cool lick of night was beginning to fade.  Seagulls called and chased the skiff.

My father stopped a half-mile or so out and a little north at a spot he calculated by markers on the shore that the marina’s owner had recommended to us.  My grandfather helped my brother and I unspool our lines from where we sat, Greg’s on one side of the skiff and mine on the other.  It was 1964, and our gear was nothing more than coils of thick fishing line spooled around a hunk of wood shaped like an “H”.  My father poured coffee from a thermos into two freckled metal mugs and watched my grandfather demonstrate patiently to us again how to slowly jerk the lines when they’d reached the bottom to entice the flounder we were seeking.  Afterwards, he took a steaming mug from my father and they sat looking off over the water.  I was struck by how they mirrored each other in the quiet way they sat with their forearms draped across their thighs; their hooded eyes and thin, straight mouths were the same.  I didn’t really care if we caught any fish or not; it just felt wonderful and special to be together in that boat in the gray, early morning mist with the smell of salt everywhere.

After a while, they set their mugs on their seats and got their own lines in the water.  The seagulls had scattered and flown off.  When one of us moved, the boat rocked a little, but otherwise it was still until my brother began to hum softly next to me: a song my mother sang to us each night after she’d turned out the light and tucked us in.  I’d turned nine that summer and he was seven.

Perhaps an hour passed before I felt Greg startle next to me.  He jerked his line straight up over his head and shouted, “I think I got a bite!”

My grandfather handed his gear to my father and scooted back to us.  “That’s it,” he told Greg.  “Just bring in a little line at a time.  Don’t rush it.”

I watched my brother grimace and grunt as he worked his quivering line, his eyes wide.

“Good,” my grandfather told him after several silent moments passed.  “You’re doing great.  Almost there.”

The slant in Greg’s line had grown closer to the skiff.  My grandfather lifted a long-handled net and stretched it over the side where the white belly of a fish flickered near the surface.  The leader appeared, then the pinched mouth of the fish, and my grandfather leaned out, netted it, and lifted it onto the bottom of the boat.

“Boy, oh, boy,” Greg said.  “Look at that!”

The flounder was flopping about gray side up showing its strange two eyes.  My grandfather unhooked it and handed it to Greg by a gill.  It couldn’t have been more than eight inches, but he struggled against the weight and movement of it.  We were all grinning and watching him stare at the fish with his mouth agape.

My father applauded from the stern.  “Well done, son.  First fish means you buy the first beer.”

My grandfather chuckled and opened the cooler between us that he’d filled with crushed ice at the marina.  “Drop it in,” he said, “and let’s get some more.”

Greg laid the fish down on top of the ice.  My grandfather closed the lid, ruffled his hair, and began re-baiting his hook.  Off to the east, the sky had begun to brighten as the marine layer started lifting.  I could just make out a trawler motoring to deeper water through it in the distance.

By eleven, we’d all caught fish, six altogether, and the sun was almost straight overhead.  It hung bright and hot in the wide blue sky.  We’d been sweating for most of the morning, so the breeze on our faces felt good as my father opened the outboard’s throttle bringing us back to the marina.  After we docked, we bought hot dogs and sodas at the snack shack there and ate at a picnic table in the shade of its awning.  Boats knocked quietly against the dock as we ate, and clusters of exposed barnacles clung to its creosote-soaked pilings.

My father looked at his watch when we’d finished and said, “What say we get a few clams before we go back?  Tide’s almost low.  Forks and baskets are in the trunk.  We leave tomorrow, so last chance.”

“Sounds good to me,” my grandfather said.  “Boys?”

Greg and I exchanged grins and nodded.

My grandfather took a couple of quarters out of his pocket and set them on the table in front of us.  “Think you might need an ice cream bar for the drive?”

I grabbed the coins before Greg could get to them.  He was at my heels as I scampered over to the snack shack’s open window.

We went to a secluded spot that Mr. Snow, who owned our cottage, had told my grandparents about years before.  It was along a marsh not far from the cottage, and like always, we were the only ones there.  We were already in shorts and our old sneakers, so we just waded out to a little below our knees and started feeling around with our feet, disturbing sandy clouds in the water as we did and staying near one another.  My grandfather and father had the baskets strung to their waists, so Greg and I only had to manage our rakes.  When he or I raked up a clam, we just tossed it in whichever basket was closest, then shook off the seaweed left on the tongs.  My father and grandfather found twice as many as we did, but after a couple of hours we’d filled the baskets with quahogs and a few steamers.

On the way back to shore, my brother stopped suddenly, wriggling both feet around.  He frowned, and said, “Hey, wait.  I think I have a big one.”

We watched him reach down into the water with his rake, but what he lifted out wasn’t a clam.  It was a horseshoe crab waving its long, spiky tail – small, but big enough to elicit a shriek from him as he threw it as far as he could.  My father, grandfather, and I bent over laughing.

It was almost three when we got back to the cottage.   We found my mother in the front room sitting on the couch my parents pulled out to sleep on.  She’d just finished feeding my sister a bottle and was settling her into her playpen next to it.  My mother gave a little joyful when we showed her the fish and clams we’d gotten and gave Greg and I kisses on our cheeks.

She said, “Seafood feast tonight!”

My brother joined my father and grandfather at the narrow table on the side of the cottage to help clean the fish.  I wandered down to the edge of the pond where my grandmother stood painting at her easel.  She was dressed in jeans, one of my grandfather’s old plaid shirts, and a tattered cap.  In one hand, she held a piece of cardboard with smears of oil paint on it, and in the other, a pallet knife.

She smiled as I approached and said, “Sounds like you had luck.”

I grinned and nodded.  I watched her turn back to the easel, study the shoreline of the pond, and flick the pallet knife to add brown shading to a cattail she was painting.  She’d been working on the same canvas for several days, and I admired the progress she’d made.  It was a pastime she enjoyed along with my grandfather, and they’d done a lot of it since his retirement.  She favored the pallet knife technique and bold colors, while his style was more precise and traditional, reflecting his years working as a draftsman.  I watched her until I heard the screen door on the back porch yawn open and closed, then followed my father, grandfather, and Greg back inside.

My father put the tray of cleaned fillets in the refrigerator.  My mother was already at the kitchen sink opening quahogs, a big pot steaming on the stove next to her.  She turned, looked at Greg and me, and knitted her eyebrows.  “Look at you two with your eyes half-mast.  Go lie down.  You were up before dawn, see if you can nap.  Otherwise, you’ll fall asleep during dinner.”

My brother and I protested, but my father ushered us to our bedroom and waited until we were in our underwear and laying on top of the faded chenille bedspreads.  Then, he closed the door quietly, and I heard his footsteps retreat and soft music begin from the radio in the kitchen.  Greg’s small snores started soon afterwards, and in a few minutes, I was asleep, too.

When my brother and I came into the kitchen several hours later, the long slants of light on the floorboards had already lengthened towards evening.  Just outside the front door, I could see my grandmother taking down laundry from the line.  My grandfather sat at the kitchen table in a sleeveless T-shirt holding a can of beer and reading a newspaper over the top of his spectacles.  In her bassinet next to him on the linoleum, my sister kicked her feet like a swimming frog.  It was still hot.  Good smells came from the stove where flounder baked in the oven and my mother stood in her apron stirring clam chowder.  My father was behind her with his arms around her waist.  They were moving slowly together to the music on the radio.  I watched him bury his face in the hair at the base of her neck and her shoulders shiver.  I didn’t know then that it would be the last time we’d all be together there.  I had no way of knowing that my grandparents would pass away in a car accident a few months later or that my father’s work would transfer us out to California the following spring where I’d live for the rest of my life.  I didn’t know either that he would discover my mother’s affair soon after that move because he didn’t tell me about it until much later, just after she died and not long before he did himself.  It explained a lot about the distance that grew between them over the years; by the time my sister went away to college, they seemed little more than roommates sharing a house.  And, I had no idea that forty-five years would go by before I’d set foot on the Cape again.

I hadn’t been long as the principal at a new elementary school near San Diego when that next visit occurred.  It was Spring Break, and I’d flown to Boston with my daughter, Jordan, to visit colleges where she’d been accepted before she had to make her final decision about which one to attend.  She’d been set on going east for school for a long time; she wanted something new, to experience the change of seasons, and probably some distance between her mother and me.

We spent the first part of the week travelling through Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut from school to school.  We had that last Saturday free, so I’d booked a room for us at a bed-and-breakfast in Eastham, just a few miles away from Mr. Snow’s cottage.  We spent the night before in Providence, Rhode Island, had breakfast at the last college on her list where we’d toured the afternoon before, bought a couple souvenirs from their bookstore, then started our drive east.  We crossed the canal at Sandwich onto the southern tip of the Cape about ten-thirty and took our time heading up Route 6 on the Mid-Cape Highway.  I pointed things out to Jordan as I recalled them, but memories didn’t really start to crystalize until we pulled into Orleans and drove down Rock Harbor Road to the bay.  The place where my grandfather and father had rented skiffs and its snack shack were gone, replaced by a large charter fishing service.  But, we had lobster rolls for lunch in a restaurant perched over the harbor where we could see some of the original dock, and I told Jordan about our early morning fishing trips while we ate.  Afterwards, I looked out silently over the wide expanse of bay until Jordan shook my shoulder and asked if I was all right.

We checked into the B&B about two, then drove over to Kingsbury Beach.  It was a cold, gray, windy afternoon, and we walked where the ocean’s wash met the sand with our hands buried in our coat pockets and collars turned up around our ears.  We were the only people on the beach.  Afterwards, we drove over to the old clamming spot, but didn’t get out of the car.  The tide was low like the day Greg had thrown the horseshoe crab.  I told Jordan about that, and we both laughed.  My brother and sister had long ago settled in separate parts of the country, and I hadn’t seen either of them for several years, although the three of us chatted by group text pretty regularly and always spoke on the phone at Christmas.

It took me a while to find the cottage, but finally stumbled upon it.  I parked the car in the same turnaround as all those years ago, and we got out.  The smells hit me first – the mud along the pond’s shore, the marshland off through the trees, the tang of salt from the ocean – and a kind of flush spread over me.  The clothesline bobbed empty on the breeze.  We walked up to the front door and peered through the glass: the kitchen linoleum and stove seemed the same, and so did the couch and slider that led to the back porch.  We walked around the side where the narrow table still stood stained with fish blood, then down to the edge of the pond where my grandmother had set up her easel.  As I had hundreds of times as a boy, I picked up a flat stone and skipped it across the still water.  Concentric circles widened towards one another after it sank.

“Did grandpa teach you how to do that?” Jordan asked.

I shrugged.  “Him or my grandfather, I guess.”

I looked back at the cottage and thought of that last evening we’d all been together.  Sitting there around the table after dinner laughing with the yellow ceiling light over us in the gathering darkness, crickets calling outside.  I remembered looking out towards the pond that night and seeing fireflies blinking, suspended over the water.

Jordan said, “Show me how.”

I looked at her and smiled.  She resembled her mother so much that it ached.  It had been fifteen years since I’d found out about her mother’s infidelity, nearly that long since we’d been divorced, and it still ached.  Standing there, I wondered about patterns crossing generations and how those might touch Jordan.  I thought about recognizing my grandfather’s and father’s eyes and mouth when I’d stared into the mirror that morning.  A frog, fresh from hibernation, croaked in the reeds near where we stood, and I thought about my grandfather in the skiff showing Greg and me how to use drop lines.  I picked up two flat stones and handed one to Jordan.

“Here,” I told her.  I said it gently.  “You hold it like this.”

***

William Cass has had over 150 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such december, Briar Cliff Review, and The Boiler.  His children’s book, Sam, is scheduled for release by Upper Hand Press in April, 2020.  Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal.  He lives in San Diego, California.

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