Published by Sou’wester
What I remember most about adults at our beach colony is this: they’d come in groups to sit and drink. They called this a cocktail party.
All their crossed legs were about my eye level where I sat on the linoleum floor, listening, watching tans peeling off shins, watching their red toenails wiggling in plastic sandals.
Cocktail parties never seemed fun to me as a nine year old, but the adults would laugh, boy would they laugh—all at once, like cherry bombs going off. You didn’t need to know the joke to laugh with these people. They were an easy and forgiving audience for one another.
My father would stand up in a circle of friends and imitate a light house. Round he’d go making his mouth into a search light. The hole in his flushed face grows, and grows, until it flashes right at you, then down, down, down, and around he’d go again. (This made Mr. Brock wet his pants one night. Peter Brock was the one who wrote in our guest book, which is a thing everyone kept in their beach houses, “just stopped by for a fifth and to tee tee.” In private, we kids poured over than entry, giddy at what it might mean.
The grown ups would sit and tell stories, their crossed legs pumping slowly to some mysterious and unconscious pattern. My father told about his sister, Seta, who honeymooned on the Gulf Coast. Seta was a perfectly soft and dreamy southern belle who ran off with a poet. She and Tom were warned to evacuate because of an approaching hurricane but they stayed, instead, and walked the beach. The storm winds moved in and the water started to fly. Seta stood up on the sea wall saying, “Look Tom, it’s a hurricane.” And Daddy would repeat this, “Look Tom, it’s a hurricane,” with an exaggerated southern accent, which was unnecessary because my father was quite thick with the vowels himself.
My mother would complain about the civil rights activities up in Jackson, where we all lived when we weren’t at the beach colony. “Trouble makers,” she called the yankees. She didn’t hate, “niggrahs,” she hated freedom riders. “We love our niggrahs, which is a fact the yankees fail to recognize. Honestly those yankees don’t have anything better to do with their lives than come down here where they don’t know diddly squat and inform our niggrahs that they should be unhappy.”
And I’d listen while they sat. Legs crossed. Drinking drinks. Crossing and recrossing their legs. Telling Jokes.
Julius was the colony caretaker. I never knew his last name. He took care of us and built our bonfires on the beach. He also took tribes of children floundering at night. He’d light the Coleman lanterns, which seemed unbearably explosive. He’d pump the propane the strike a match and I’d draw back in terror until the double nets caught and gave off their eerie glow.
I can still see Julius, standing in the low tide with his trousers rolled up, lifting high the Coleman lantern for a circle of children with long spears.
He laughed all the time, too. He never sat around, laughing, like my parents, but he laughed out loud like they did and it never took much to get him going. I’d follow Julius around while he worked, loading up the big fishing boats for the men, mowing the fat bladed augustine grass, scooping dead leaves out of our pool. Once he used that long scoop to dip out a water-stranded bat then he tossed the frantic creature high. The wet bat sailed up into the summer sky then at the top of the arc it caught the air and flitted away.
Julius had a proud wife named Irma, who cleaned the beach houses for the Jackson ladies. She was extremely efficient but she never laughed, not with us anyway. Irma smiled sometimes, but always to herself, behind veiled eyes. And by veiled I mean it was like she kept her eyes in a dressing room and you weren’t invited to poke around. I remember Irma wearing a trim dress with an apron, moving around the kitchen. I remember her boiling pots of crabs and dumping then on newspapers spread out on the porch table. I remember her rubbing Noxema on my sunburn. I remember the way she pulled her hair together in a bun at her neck. I remember the dusty pink color of the palms of her hands he pale nails and pecan skin.
Irma and Julius had at least three children. A teenager, I don’t recall his name. Then a boy named Clarence, he was older than me, and a girl, younger than me, named Flap.
You know, it’s funny but memories about adults are different from memories about children. I remember what adults wore and what they said. With kids, it’s all action. (I can’t tell you a single thing my brother ever wore or a single word he ever said but I can tell you exactly what he did. He went frog gigging with his pack of boys, Lane and Dallas. He drove a spear deep into the spine of a fat frog until his eyes bulged and his guts squirted out. This event, I think, more than any other, is why I sought out the friendship of Clarence and Flap who lived in the caretaker’s cottage deep in the back garden.)
Clarence and Flap, they were spirits. Clarence, so slow and quiet, lifted us up into the big tree but stayed below to catch us if we fell. Flap was Tinkerbell, light and dancing, scampering down the limbs of the great oaks.
I hadn’t even known Julius had children, not until I followed him back to the cottage one day. As we walked along the path of crushed shell, toward his place, he named the flowers: foxglove, lamb’s ear, butterfly weed, balloon flower, forget-me-nots, johnnie jumpups, spanish bluebells, white emperor tulips, cardinal flowers. Deeper into the shade, I followed. I’d been around the sunny edges of the the garden plenty of times but I would have never gone into the dark of it alone.
“Live oaks,” Julius said as enormous branches crowded the sky.
“Where are the dead oaks?” I asked, stepping along behind him.
Surprised frogs sprung away from our feet. Spanish moss dripped from gnarled branches into my face. I brushed it carefully aside, moving through the live curtains into a forbidden place. The deeper we moved into the moist and dark garden, the more closely I followed, until I was stepping on Julius’s heels. We finally came to a sunny clearing surrounded by low twinkling dogwoods.
The caretaker’s cottage was made from hand sawed cypress, aged to a pale grey. Moss spread in snake skin patterns on the roof. It sat on eight rock piles, so you could see clear under it. Two children swung their legs off the front porch tossing broken shells into a fishing net laid out on the grass. I sat down by Clarence. He opened his hand offering shells to me. When he smiled his eyes disappeared.
After that day, I stopped trying to keep up with my brother and his cruel friends. I went into the garden alone.
I’d walk up to the front porch and call, “Hello, Hello.” Hello’s would come back from the shadows and, in time, Clarence or Flap might come out and sit in the grass with me. The inside of the caretaker’s cottage was always shadowy. People moved around, half dressed, behind screen doors: grandmothers, aunts, children. I didn’t know who all lived in that cottage with Julius and Irma and Clarence and Flap but there were many others.
Once I heard Irma inside laughing with Julius. She came out on the porch with bananas for us and she smiled at me. Her hair was down and she wore a loosely tied housecoat. I was suddenly shy of her. This woman who had folded my mother’s underwear. I’d sit quietly beside her in our kitchen while she peeled shrimp. But I had never once heard her laugh. She had never once spoken of her children, who had never, in our presence, set foot on our property up front, or clubhouse, or our clubhouse, or our pool, or our beach,, or our piers, or our ocean beyond.
But in the garden, We played. Clarence twirled me around by my arms. Flap taught me to braid spanish moss. We hid among the elephant ears. The broad tree limbs were our horses as we charged through the garden slaying giants.
One day I asked mother if I could invite Clarence and Flap to our house. “Who’s that?” she asked.
“Clarence and Flap,” I said. “Julius’s children.”
Her face twisted itself into a big question. “Julius’s children? Well,—no, of course not.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because—how do you—have you been going back there in the woods?”
“You shouldn’t do that.”
“Why?” I felt a panic jump from her to me.
“Because nice girls don’t play with colored children. It’s acceptable to be polite and to visit a bit but you can’t be playmates.”
“Why not?” I cried.
“It’s just not right. People don’t do it. You’re probably making them uncomfortable too.”
“But,” I began.
“That’s enough,” Mother said and left me with an undone puzzle.
I sat on the porch with Clarence and Flap still puzzled by what my mother had said. I thought, somehow, that they could — I don’t know what I thought. “My mother said that I can’t play with you anymore because white people and niggrahs aren’t supposed to play together like we do.”
What followed was geological. The earth opened between us. Clarence and Flap began to swell and vibrate and Julius appeared, words bloomed. Julius called Irma. Irma’s figure appeared behind the screen door.
“What did you say? What did you say?” she moves through the door, wiping her hands on a dish towel, stepping toward me.
Quick sand gave way beneath me. Even as I fell I repeated what my mother had said. I didn’t know what else to do. Couldn’t Irma save me? Couldn’t she give me something to stand on?
No, no, she would not take me up. She said, cold and loud, “Your mother is right. You don’t belong here. Go home.” The children were gathered into the shadows behind the screens. Julius and Irma and Clarence and Flap.
I didn’t mean anything. When I saw they weren’t coming back, I pulled myself off the porch and walked home, alone. The spanish moss dragged across my face and shoulders and closed behind me like a heavy curtain. And I never went into the garden again. I quit following Julius around. When he and his family moved on to another job, nobody told me. Summer came again but they were gone.
I understand, now, that I was the one. I was the first one to tell Clarence and Flap.
Years later, my father and I were driving back from the coast on state highway 59 coming north. He breezed past a lone black man, walking aimlessly along the roadside. “That’s Julius,” Dad said. “Damn, that was Julius, remember Julius the caretaker?” Then he laughed at the coincidence and pumped the gas toward home. I turned back to see Julius again but all I could do was watch out the back window as his silhouette shrunk and disappeared in the perspective of the road.
The next year Hurricane Camille hit Pass Christian and blew the whole colony away. Our beach houses— all of them ripped apart by record breaking winds. Everything except our toilet. My father drove down to the coast and walked through the rubble, kicking flotsam. He stopped at the toilet and pushed the handle. It still flushed. That’s a fact.
Julius and Irma and Clarence and Flap are dead, or gone, or forever out of reach, and I am stuck for the rest of my life with no appeal. Irma’s voice echoes in my memory. “What did you say?—What what did you say?”
“What in God’s name had I said?”
You people of mine, you crossed your legs before my eyes, crossed and recrossed your legs, like fingers crossed behind your back. Your pack of boys—my brother and Lane and Dallas—bragged once, in low tide they had mistaken Julius’s foot for a flounder and gigged it. They squealed as if it were a joke, said he turned away, Julius did, without saying a word.