Daddy found six orange life jackets in somebody’s garbage and brought them home. I helped him unload the car and marched across the kitchen wearing one.
“Get that dirty shit off your back,” my mother said.
“They’re good for the beach. Do you want I should drown?”
“You can’t swim, numbnuts. Outside.”
“They’re brand new,” my father insisted.
“They’re soaked in piss, Gene.”
“Who cares once they’re wet?”
We’re going to the Boat House, just meand Dad. Our lunches are packed in two brown paper bags. Cold cuts and mustard on a roll for him. Cream cheese and jelly for me. Mom got the good bread, and I asked if she’d cut my sandwich into four sections so it lasts longer. Fig Newtons and frozen sodas wrapped in tin foil.
I wait in the car when we stop at the beer distributor to get supplies. Two cases of Schaefer Shorties and a bag of ice. I wonder if Uncle Mike will be there, and my cousins. I hope so. It’s more fun with the other kids around. Judy didn’t want to come this time, and Mommy didn’t make her. I don’t think she likes the Boat House so much anymore. She says it’s boring. I still love it.
It’s easy to forget we live this close to the water. There’s no water in my neighborhood. And I wouldn’t know how to get here unless somebody was driving us. We wouldn’t even be going this morning unless Daddy had a good reason. He doesn’t just take us places because it’s fun. He’s not like that.
Past that last busy intersection where all the stores are, and the long crash wall and those little houses where the sidewalk ends, look, it’s the ocean – or the river or whatever. All blue and sparkly, it just appears out of nowhere, and you can’t believe it’s not fake. Seagulls fill the sky. Even the air smells different, salty. Big and small sailboats, fishing boats, rows and rows of them, parked and strapped to the docks that fill the marina.
We go a little further and turn into the first driveway that leads to the boatyard. Slow, tires crunching rocks and shells, the dust makes it hard to see what’s coming. Canoes and dinghies, stored three and four deep, line either side of the road. Giant fan blades and motors, maybe. Who knows? Greasy piles of junk. Somebody left their dog tied to the fence. He stands up when the car gets closer.
Three young boys feed a trash can that’s already on fire. Daddy turns the radio down and pulls over to their collection of cardboard and wood, pieces of a broken bar stool.
“Why don’t you fellas take a walk?” he suggests through the open window.
They stop what they’re doing and look at each other.
“Fuck you,” one of them yells.
“Yeah, mind your own business.” It’s pretty clear they all feel the same way.
“You don’t want me getting out of this car,” my father says. When he reaches for the door handle, they take off running. He laughs, and I laugh, too. Except I don’t think it’s very funny.
Daddy knows a guy named Erik. He’s got a boat. It’s not a nice one, but when the men can get it going, he’ll take us for a ride. I sit in the way back. I grip the railing and pretend I’m not afraid. As soon as we leave the pier, I start counting how many times my father reaches into the cooler for another beer. He gulps them down faster than everyone else, like he’s in a contest. I get scared when he tries to help with the anchor. I imagine his feet getting tangled in the ropes. That he’ll hit his head, fall into the water and sink to the bottom. I don’t wanna think about it right now. Maybe today will be different.
The door’s already propped open as we pull up to the dirty blue shack. We stack the life vests Mommy wouldn’t let us keep along the front of the house and go inside.
The smell of this place takes some getting used to. Wet clothes and rags, fish, beer and blood. Glue traps hang from the ceiling and door frames of every room. Long, yellow adhesive strips covered in dead flies, bees and wasps. There is no more room to die, and the insects that remain seem bolder and more hysterical. They land on my face and neck, dive into my ears. Some of them bite.
“See if you can’t clean up a little in here.” Dad points to some of the empty sardine tins they use for bait, Chinese food containers and beer bottles that fill the sink and lay strewn about the kitchen counter. “Use this.” He kicks at a busted up plastic hamper that’s already got a bunch of ketchupy paper plates and Styrofoam cups in it. Other stuff like macaroni salad and half-eaten hotdog buns.
When I pull it away from the wall, something gray and fast skims across the floor and behind the cabinet. I dig my fingers into Daddy’s arm and make a sound that surprises us both.
“You see that squirrel?” he asks, grinning.
“Un-huh.” I know he’s lying. I let go of him and get back to work.
I can hear someone coughing in the other room. I turn off the water, dry my hands on my shirt and go see. Whoever she is is laying on the couch, naked from the waist down. When I turn around, my father’s gone. He’s already up the road, talking to one of the Mikes. There’s like six of them.
“Daddy, there’s a lady inside. She’s not wearing any pants.”
I follow the men back to the house and through the kitchen. “Stay here,” Dad says. He grabs a beach towel that’s tacked to the window and covers the woman’s legs. I watch from the doorway.
“Hey, Murph. We got company,” Mike says, nudging her with his knee. “Murphy, wake up.”
She groans and turns over, face into the sofa cushions. The towel twists around her waist, and I see her hiney again. Daddy picks her dungarees up off the floor and lays them on top of her. A box of cough drops fall out of the pocket.
He looks at me. “Go outside,” he says. I do what I’m told.
I sulk all the way over to the car and try to sit on the hood, except it’s really hot and burns the back of my thighs. I could walk down to the jetty, but it’s too far to go all by myself. So I sit on the steps of the trailer next door, watching people go past with their fishing poles and buckets. When that gets boring, I wander nearby into the tall grass.
There’s a cat between some tires and an old barbecue grill. I can tell right away that he’s dead. His eyes are open, and there’s a stick jammed in his mouth. That’s the worst part, the stick. Why would somebody do that? Flies try and land on his fur. I swat them away. I hate seeing him like this. I pull the stick out real fast and throw it as far as I can.
I find an empty grocery sack from the Grand Union. I tear it open and make a tent to cover his body. I use rocks to keep it from blowing away.
When I get back to the house, I smell coffee. Murphy’s sitting up, and now, she’s dressed. Her eyelids lift when I say “Hi,” but she doesn’t answer. She holds a hot cup to her lips, fingernails outlined in dirt. She looks terrible. I plop myself down close to those cough drops still on the rug.
“Everything alright with you two?” Dad asks, like she and I are sisters who need to get along. Neither of us say anything. “I’m going with my friend here to take care of something.” He points over his shoulder. “Couple minutes, that’s all.”
“Can I come with you?”
“It’s not necessary. Stick around here.”
Murphy falls asleep eating a donut. She snores, but not very loud. I eyeball those lozenges. Pine Brothers, my favorite. They’re the honey kind, though. Not cherry. But that’s okay, I like those, too. I decide I should just take one. She won’t notice. I reach over and sneak the box into my lap, hooking my finger into the crumpled wrapper. They’re all stuck together, but I jiggle two loose. I put both in my mouth and check to make sure she hasn’t seen me. I tuck the box back into the shoe she’s not wearing.
I wait a few minutes and reach for the box a second time. I take another cough drop and seal the package shut again. Back in the shoe. I repeat this procedure until there are none left. I don’t want her to know I stole them, so I stuff the empty box inside my underwear.
Three men come into the house to visit with Murph. I don’t recognize any of them. They look surprised to see me.
“Hello there, little girl. Where’s your father?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is he coming back?”
“I guess.” I wish Daddy was here right now. I can tell they wish I wasn’t.
“Hey, Murph. Let’s us go for a ride.”
“C’mon, sweetheart. Get up.” One guy gives her shoulder a shake.
Why can’t they leave her alone? She never even opens her eyes. She must be so tired. Or sick. Or something.
I stand up and head into the bathroom, even though it smells worse in here than anywhere else on Earth. I close the toilet lid, so whatever’s in the water doesn’t get me. I lean against the door, thumbing through an old TV Guide from two months ago. I circle my favorite programs in my head.
Other people show up and leave. I hear them laughing. It sounds like they’re still bothering her. I wish they’d just go away. I want my mom.
Daddy doesn’t seem that bad off when he gets back. I don’t even care. I just wanna leave. But It takes a few more beers and another hour to get that happening.
They’re all drinking and smoking, telling dumb stories. They play music nobody cares about anymore. Murphy’s perked up quite a bit. She sits like a baby in some old man’s lap, giggling and stroking his greasy hair. He whispers into her ear, and she kisses him with her mouth open.
I beg my father, “Please, can’t we go?”
Finally, he reaches into his pocket for his keys and turns to Murphy. “Gather your shit,” he says. “We’ll take you home.”
“Relax, Gene. The lady wants to stay.” All of a sudden, she’s everyone’s favorite.
“Yeah, Gene. I wanna stay.”
Daddy takes one elbow and lifts her to her feet. She reaches for her duffel bag and almost falls over. We usher her into the car. She tries to talk to my father as we drive, but he’s not interested in anything she has to say. We drop her off in front of a bar on East Tremont Avenue and wait until she disappears inside.
“Who was that?” I ask as we head back to the house.
“I don’t know. Just some girl.”