Rhea Crone / 2007

Keeping Calm (2007)

Thick weather, today; my father's street is all gales and mist that muffle the sounds of the park and the town that spreads across the hill below us. The man who's speaking is not my father. I can hear him from outside, coming clear over the mist pressed against the house. I know the spot he's talking about. Most everyone does. There's a break in the body of the river downtown where the whole thing winds off and the water's expanded—like it wasn't sure which way to break and reached out two ways at once and never shrank back. It's where the river is widest and where the dogs run away to in the summer. Slick currents abase these dogs, wear down the ground beneath them right where they lay, near the green rim of the bend. “Hey, now—Sergeant—that ain't right, is it? I mean, them dogs, they can't just live down there like that.” The man who is speaking is named Rabid. He picked up that name in the gulf in the early 90s is all I'm told. He packs 20 pound bags of dog food to the banks when it strikes him to. He brings up minor, vague justifications each time he is so stricken. “I just can't imagine havin' to live out there like that. Out in the heat like what it is. Right?” He leaves the big blue bags of food right there on the shoreline. Cats get down there, then rats, then possums, then the food is gone and they're all waiting for it to come back, miraculous like the first time it appeared. They wait and they wait, get thin to the quick. You can see where their spines curl in from want if you get close up enough. You can see the hawks circling from just about anywhere in town for a week or so after that. Like five dogs fresh from home could finish two 20 lb sacks of food before the rest of the animal kingdom caught drift. Rabid always did mean well, and he always uglied something up. He was an ugly man, himself. “You do what you need to do, Rab,” dad waves him off. It's harder to hear my father from outside. (When mom is around dad says to her, “Who goes nuts and gets that kinda name in a damn desert gulf is beyond me. 'Specially in a war. That's when you get calm. Gotta be calm in a war. Not rabid, for chrissakes. Never rabid.” Dad is always calm. Makes everyone around him try to keep that way, too. It's fair to say I was led, young, to a very unstable understanding of that word. Calm. To this day I find it easy to confuse the term with a controlled tension resulting in absolute silence.) Rabid is generally manic. Too chipper. Too desperate. “All right. I will. I will. You want anything from the store while I'm down there, Sergeant?” Dad clicks his teeth, shakes his head and smiles. The door closes behind Rabid. “Can't believe that guy sometimes. He's gonna learn you can't just go feeding every stray. He'll find one a dog half wild that's been to the river more than once one of these days. He better believe that dog'll bite.” *** They were homeless. Rabid and the rest of the men that gathered in my father's living room for days on end. If they were not homeless in the sense that they had no roof and no floor to retreat to, they otherwise lived with their uncles whom their mothers and fathers did not speak to, not any longer, not at all. This was usually due to money disputes, social security checks, deals, pills, smoke that never came through. To be clear and honest, then, they were not all homeless in the sense that they had nowhere of their own to return to. Some even owned homes. Some rented spots in the tenement shacks by the old administrative building near West Main Street. Some lived in the tenement and hadn't paid rent in months. Some had families. The best among them were the ex-coalminers, grimed over, still blackened, still dusty, still coughing; each one looking over their shoulders at the last 20 years; mannerisms of survival stuck in their movements, hatching twitch after twitch. Old safety drills alarming. These people were homeless in the simple sense that they did not want to return to the place that was theirs, to the overly loud or overly quiet rooms where they woke. Beyond the miners and the bums, flat out bums, there were the overweight aunts and uncles. A couple of much older siblings with young children in their laps, eating McDonalds. Members of the families one finds on Main Street on the cooler summer stretches, crouching low or leaning up against sign posts, angry pets tied to buckets full of cement holding up signs that read invariably, over and over, “Me for Mayor! Me for Mayor! Me for Commissioner! Treasurer! Treasurer!” It was always election season, and the winner never clear. Whether we are discussing ex-miners, or the people who were tired of their homes, or the precisely homeless, they were all whom one found standing at 5 p.m. each day of summer under the bridge by the Pantry Shelf with their beer in a bag, waiting for the rain to stop so they could walk to where they were staying, which was in my father's house. Because of this, where they stayed, where they left their homes and ran away to, they each knew who James Joyce was and about Ulysses S. Grant. That was the condition of their staying: they had to listen. My father was a retired professor, forcefully so, and remained a compulsive pedant. He had to teach them. Again, and again, and again, they had to listen. My dad was always home. He'd turn the television down when he was sick of the people and stories inside it and raise his arms carefully, looking to his right and his left, towards his beer and his piles of sunflower seed shells, having knocked each over several times before, and he would call people to class. I can only remember clips. Stray clips of speech and movement. Loose bits and phrases. “Now, James Joyce didn't mean—” and “all of this was to say that by the time Kennedy took office—” maybe tell a few people that of course they could think the way they'd been thinking but that they way they'd been thinking had of course been wrong. “Then the Sumerians tore down some leaves, see, they had leaves, not paper—imagine gettin' that check of yours printed on a leaf—” and “Eliot only had one truly great poem.” I wonder if the bums remember more than I do. I don't remember when the bums came, and don't know that they ever left. I blame them for nothing and for everything that happened that year and the following two. *** Mother's hand is on her face and we have just returned home from New Orleans. A 13 hour drive, north from the delta into mountains. Interstate 75 cuts through thick, high growing cane, the service roads lead down dusty exits to the paper mills. The wide lanes of the interstate follow a line like smoke, thick and straight close to the source; it dissipates in the north, unravels into curve overlapping curve until the interstate is a highway, now, is a road, is a mess, now, crooked and steep. Mountains override Mississippi delta, delta overrides sprawling swamp bayou. I am thinking like a map might, an incorporation of flat water, cypress, and blue mountains. 7:30 p.m., eastern standard time. I am gravel headed and not speaking clearly to my mother. “Stand here, there, go there, be quiet, be still. The neighbors, there's traffic.” There is a shovel in my hand. My mother is holding a broom and the side of her face with her left hand, right, right hand, left, alternating, worried. “Be careful. I'm here. I'll wait. I'll be here. This will pass.” My head is bent back, eyes swivel and stick, fixed to a cracking warp of white all weather paneling. Words get caught, grow stiff in the back of my throat. They bend me over. Coughing, rubbing the backs of my thighs, I blink back hot water. The porch lights on this street are making me sick. My father's is yellow. Fuck yellow. “No, stay there, yes—just keep back. Keep back and watch the road, ma.”


Jess Fry / 2013-2014 / Chapman University

Salt Water Veins
By Jess Fry

We were born with salt water in our veins.

Raised to talk slowly. Come and go with the tides. Raised by communities rather than parents. Grew up on beaches. Freckle splattered skin. Generations of kindness. Simple living.

We were raised where land met sea.

A town only as big as a thumbprint. Sandwiched between the Assawoman Bay and the Atlantic. A town run by tourism. Three months out of the year we let strangers treat us like servants. We accept their crude remarks about our dirty skin and calloused feet, knowing that they’d be gone soon and that we would live on their money all winter. We laughed when the sunburnt travelers asked us where we were from.

That’s how he met me.

Dark skin; no silhouette in the moonlight. Eyes, teeth, and tan lines glowed against the many shades of night between the sand, the sea, and the open sky. Chapped lips. Bare feet caked in sand. Dancing between and around the bonfire flames. The ocean, my chorus.

He was all strawberry hair and smooth, pale skin. Khaki shorts and a polo. He’d never been around here before; you could tell. Our eyes crinkled in the corners. Our skin, worn and wrinkled from summers spent working and swimming. Not him.

He was new.

I spent that first summer teaching him freedom. Taught him that responsibility set with the sun. That rules didn’t apply between the months of June and September. That in this town, the fact that we were young was all that mattered.

He was a fast learner. Let his hair turn blonde in the sun. Learned how to pop up on a surfboard. How to let the air out of his truck tires before tearing through sand dunes. I never saw that polo shirt again.

He taught me that life starts all over again in the fall.

Showed me how to laugh with my whole body. Taught me about real friends and honesty. That no one goes through life alone.

I always dreamed of getting out. Leaving this town for a bigger one. This ocean for a different one. Finding people with a quick wit and a no nonsense attitude. But he had found peace here. In this way of life. He told me not to go. That nothing got better than this. I should have listened. Should’ve known he’d be right. Garrett was always right.

Yesterday was the perfect day.

Pale skin stretched out over cool sand. Backs arched, worshipers of the sun. We’d roll over and untie the black string of our bikini tops. Our only goal, an even tan.

And when the breeze stopped blowing I would wade out, knee deep in the clear, flat water. Sailboats and windsurfers played chess across the horizon. The shock of the cold melts away after a few minutes. Numb.

I watched from my bed as the sky slipped into shades of pink and purple. Balcony doors open, curtain billowing. Flies danced between the indoors and the hazy sky, stopping every once in awhile to taste my salty skin.

We dressed up for dinner. Poured white wine over sunburnt lips. Casual conversation doesn’t exist among us. We swap war stories and show battle scars between cigarettes.

Everything glittered. Between the sand and the sea and the wine. Everything glittered.

Bryan fell in love in the backseat of my mom’s Toyota, hanging out in parking lots after school. He was fast with his heart and didn’t care that I didn’t give him mine.

It took Garrett longer; we’d been friends for years. One unreasonably hot night in August when we could still taste childhood, before life got in the way. The ever-present perfume of French fries clung to our clothes and escaped our pores in the muggy dusk. I stood up on the ledge of the pier and asked him to jump with me. He didn’t hesitate. Didn’t stop to take off his shirt or tell me that I was crazy. Took my hand and leaped. And when we came up choking on water and laughter, he told me. We laid on the beach underneath that pier listening to the rhythmic jingle of the Ferris wheel and the dull whir of the amusement park at work as our clothes dried in the salt air.

I could have loved him then.

Hurricane Sandy took out that pier last fall. I watched that news segment on repeat from my dorm room a half a world away. The icon of Ocean City. Of home. Of the time when I could have known love.


You never really get to go home. Not to the way it was when you left. But you try anyway. Leave some things out of place. And if you’re lucky the Earth doesn’t shift too much in your absence. At least that’s what it’s like in my hometown. A town so quiet that most things go untouched.

It was the first place I went when I got home that winter. The pier. More than half of the beach was missing. Broken pylons. Endless planks missing from their places along the boardwalk. An overturned bench, forgotten. A string of broken twinkle lights lay half in the water, partially washed up on the beach. I ducked under the caution tape and walked out onto what little was left. It wasn’t jagged like I thought it would be. No. A clean cut. It just stopped. Dropped off into shallow water scattered with rocks from the destroyed jetty. Pungent rotting seaweed. And sounds; there were no sounds.

They had plans to rebuild.

But everyone had started hibernation. Locked the shutters. Moved south. People here are afraid of snow. Of what happens when the air thins. So we shut most of it down. Turn off stoplights. Drag an iron gate across every storefront along the boardwalk.

I don’t go home during the off-season. Usually. But there I was. Stuck for three months in the dead of winter.