We buy nine canoes to start with because that’s how many extra the man with the alligator cap has. My whole life, I’ve never seen Bruce without that gator skin shoved down on his skull. When I was little, I thought it was cruel the way he’d rearranged bits and pieces of the creature—thick scutes across the top, marble eyes on either side, snout and teeth on the brim. My only recurring dream is of that hat swallowing the head that wears it.
“It ain’t gonna be easy fixing your granddaddy’s business up. You know that, right, girl?” Bruce shoves his sunglasses down a little.
I stare at my reflection, small and dark and distorted in his cheap aviators.
“I know,” I say.
He pops his gum. Juicy Fruit by the smell of it. The smell makes me think of hide-and-seek in the dark. I’munna count to ten and find you. You know you ain’t supposed to be out here at night. Your granddaddy’s looking for you, too.
Janey, my twelve-year-old, told me recently that gum flavors are strictly chemical compounds. Nothing natural about it. She knows too much for her age.
I watch Bruce chew. His gator cap moves a little with the working of his jaw.
“Quit dipping Kodiak six months ago ‘cause the wife says it makes my breath smell like the wrong side of a raccoon.” He grins.
I remember his wife as small and rotund and always smelling of beer batter.
“You have the money, Margaret?” asks Jack. My husband can’t keep anything useful in his pockets anymore because he fills them with bottle caps. At any given moment he’s got at least fourteen or fifteen caps on him even though he doesn’t drink soda or beer anymore. He won’t explain why he collects them and it has become a point of frustration for me.
“I don’t have the money,” I tell him.
The money is in the car where I left it. Where we left it.
“I’ll get it,” says Ponce. Ponce is my eldest and we let him go because he hardly ever volunteers for movement anymore.
Watching him lurch across Alligator Cap’s lawn on his crutches does sickly things to my stomach. Fourteen and missing a leg. With a face like that, the girls aren’t even going to notice the missing leg, Dr. R told him. I wanted to do a mother’s violence to that woman. Ponce just sort of half-laughed, like ha ha ha here’s this adult trying like hell to connect with me.
We sit in plastic lawn chairs beneath branches hung with Spanish moss and wait on Ponce. Bruce nurses a Yuengling.
“Want one?” he asks. “They bottle the stuff up in Tampa. Terese and I prefer to keep our money in-state.”
Neither of us answer him about the beer. I watch Ponce disappear around the corner toward the front of the house and listen for the yelling, the clatter of fallen crutches that filled our house in Tampa for so many months.
“Are possums a problem?” Jack nods toward the possum hanging from the porch by its tail.
Bruce follows his gaze and I follow it, too. The animal wouldn’t move in a breeze (were there a breeze). It looks that heavy.
“Nah, they aren’t so bad. Trap them every once in awhile for food and fur. Cook it up like beef stew. Goes down real nice.”
Bruce takes a swig of beer and nods toward a mound of Spanish moss. “What’s your girl doing over there?”
“Jayney,” I call. I feel the beady eyes of the possum on me.
“Red bugs,” she says, and I leave it at that.
“Chiggers,” says Bruce. “They’ll make her itch, so make sure to microwave the moss first.”
This is the same thing he told me when I was a kid. I did it once and my grandmother looked at me wide-eyed. The microwave clouded with smoke and she shooed me away, sent me out to my grandfather where I spent the afternoon helping him repair the floating dock. Only last year did Granddaddy turn 90. I’ve always had the youngest grandparents of anyone I know.
“No chiggers where you’re raising your kids, Margie?” asks Bruce.
Jayney approaches us wearing a wig of moss. “Sure there are,” she says. “I’m immune. I wish I wasn’t, though, because did you know their bites are actually good for you? A chigger bite helps fight off sickness by raising your white blood cell count.”
I pull her to me and toss the moss aside. I run my fingers through my daughter’s curly hair. My little liar. My little seller. She twists away from me and sits at the foot of the oak, staring up into its thick, drooling branches.
Jayney is always adding her own words to things, always making things up. Jack says she’s just a natural-born storyteller, says it’s harsh the way I call her a natural-born saleswoman. When it’s just he and I in our sleeping bags at night, staring up at the rain-fly, I’ll say these things and he’ll turn his back to me.
“That’s not true and you know it,” he’ll say.
But it is true and I’m pretty sure he does know it. I’m pretty sure he knows as well as I do that Jayney is our own little liar. Some nights I fall asleep imagining Jayney with her curly hair loose around her shoulders selling old men used Buicks with sawdust in the engines. I can practically see her in the next room selling our old house with its cracked linoleum and leaky bathroom faucet to a young couple that has no idea about the actual cost of repairing damages. I’m afraid of who she’ll grow up to be.
Lately all I do is watch. I watch Ponce struggle to find his balance. I watch him grow tight-lipped and narrow-eyed with frustration. I watch the corner of Bruce’s house.
Ponce is probably fine, I tell myself. It’s only been a few minutes.
But I can’t help picturing him fallen, lying on the gravel in the burning sun.
“Bathroom?” I ask.
Jack looks at me. He flips a Coke bottle cap over one knuckle and under the other, over and under, which he only does when he’s nervous and/or annoyed.
“I think I’ll have that beer now, if you don’t mind,” he says.
“Surely,” Bruce says. “Kitchen’s off the front hall, bathroom’s on the left under the gator head. But you know that, Margie.”
We walk through patchy crabgrass. From the porch the lawn chairs look like sun-bleached bones. The possum turns a little as we pass it.
“You sure it’s okay to leave Jayney with him?” asks Jack.
I nod. “I was over here all the time during the summer when I was a kid. Weirdest thing he ever did was show me how to gut a gator.”
“That’s supposed to make me feel better?” Jack asks.
“Yep,” I say.
The inside of the house still smells mostly the same as it did ten years ago: Pine Sol and fried food. Less tobacco, though.
“There’s a window in the kitchen,” I say.
A slab of pink meat lay on the counter next to the sink, thawing.
Jack peers over it. “Is that a tail?” he asks.
I nod. “Terese must be making gator tail.” I point out the window above the sink. “Look. He’s fine.”
There’s Ponce, in the driver’s seat of our Corolla, hands on the wheel, leaned way back in the seat. My heart lurches.
“Do you think he’ll ever be able to drive?” I ask Jack.
“Of course he will. He’s missing a leg. Not an eye.” Jack scrapes at something red along the sink with his fingernail. I put my hand over his, flattening it against the metal.
“But it’s his right leg.”
Jack sighs. “Remember that time I broke my knee cap? When I was seventeen?”
I don’t remember this. I didn’t know Jack when he was seventeen. We met when we were 21 and were married by the time we were 22.
“Well, I drove with my left leg just fine,” he says. “Ponce will be fine.”
I try to convince myself of this, try to remind myself that sometimes Ponce just needs to be alone with his thoughts. He’s always been this way. Only now he’s locked in our car blasting Led Zeppelin instead of holed up in his room with the album.
Jack turns away from the window. “Let’s go back before your friend eats our daughter.”
A gecko crawls across the counter and I catch it. Jack raises an eyebrow at me.
“Another hidden talent,” he says. Jack is from New York.
I smile and hold the gecko up to him. He touches it lightly on top of its head and the gecko closes its eyes. I hold it up to my ear, remembering how, as a kid, I used to wear them as earrings, their small jaws clamped to my earlobes.
Watch the water, the gecko tells me. I hear its small whisper, just like when I was little, and goosebumps run across my skin. Watch the water, okay?
I’d convinced myself that these moments were dreams, that all the warnings were the stuff of childhood imaginings. That the cowbird that came to me before my brother’s drowning had been a coincidence. That the green anole that warned me about heartbreak and Tom Wilson had been my own subconscious. When the boofa toad told me about Ponce’s illness, I’d ignored it on grounds of stress. But he’d gotten sick. He got staph from a jujitsu mat and now here is this gecko whispering warnings in my ear.
“You look pale,” says Jack.
“It’s stuffy in here,” I say.
We walk back through the house and I leave the gecko on the porch, its ribs pressing against its soft skin with breath.
Back under the tree, Bruce holds Jayney’s attention—a rarity.
“Here’s how you tell them apart,” he says. “The gator? She’s got a short snout, sort of stubby. All them teeth point down.”
He demonstrates with his hands, using his fingers as teeth.
“Then the croc,” he says. “The croc’s got a longer nose and teeth in all crazy directions.”
I remember the lesson from my own childhood.
“One day, I’ll teach you how to call little ones over to you,” I tell her.
“Cool,” she says.
We’re talking about bull sharks when Ponce comes back with my wallet—the one Jack bought me three Christmases ago because it’s purple, which he knows I like on practical things. Sweat stains Ponce’s “Stairway to Heaven” t-shirt and his hair sticks to his forehead.
“It was under the floor mat,” he says. He tosses the wallet to me and sits.
“Gator get your leg, son?” Bruce asks. He waggles three finger nubs in Ponce’s direction. “This was a little one. Yours must’ve been a thirteen-footer. Oooeee.”
Ponce doesn’t even flinch.
“Actually,” says Jayney. “It was a salt water crocodile.”
Jack stands. “Let’s hook this bad boy up to the car, shall we?”
“No way you’re going to be able to pull a canoe rack with that little thing. Take my van. Bring it back in a couple days,” Bruce says. He disappears inside for a moment and reappears with a set of keys. Ten minutes later I’m behind the wheel of a large white van, pulling a rack of red canoes down a dirt road.
Jayney cranes around in the seat beside me. “Can’t even see Dad and Ponce.”
“They’re there,” I say.
Swallow-tailed kites swoop above us.
It takes us thirty minutes to get back to the canoe shack and twenty more to figure out how to unhitch the rack. I want to ask Granddaddy because he would know, but he won’t leave the house anymore. Not since Grandma died. Salt air reminds me of her skin, he told me once.
So Jack and I set to unloading canoes onto our shoulders. Our voices echo in the claustrophobic fiberglass space.
“Between you and me,” Jack says. “This is a terrible idea. Absolutely terrible.”
“Everything’s going great,” I say. “Can’t you just be happy that we got the canoes?”
I can smell his sweat, practically feel it on my own skin.
“I just fail to see how your senile grandfather and his dead business is our best option. You didn’t even listen to me about the whole flipping houses thing,” he says.
I can tell by the way his fingers are twitching that he desperately wants to pull out a bottle cap. Bottle caps are the pinnacle of his suffering. The whole thing started when Ponce got sick. He suddenly couldn’t pass up a bottle cap. He suddenly couldn’t stand to see a single one go to waste.
My armpits feel damp. Dollar store deodorant isn’t worth fifty cents.
“We’re in debt. You have to have money to flip houses. Be realistic, Jack, okay?”
“Yeah, sure,” he says, and then he just shuts down because this is what he does. He starts a fight and refuses to finish it. He ducks out and leaves me to swim around in his silence until I feel like drowning myself.
The air under the canoe is hot and sticky and I’m slowly losing oxygen, slowly putting out carbon dioxide breath by breath.
“Dammit, these things are heavy,” Jack says. He drops his end lower and the fiberglass digs deeper into my shoulders.
He slips out from under the canoe. I tip it on its side, lift, and settle the wooden yoke on my shoulders. I feel old muscles burn and waken. I carry the canoe the last yard to the water myself. I leave it lying there in the dirt and go for the next one.
This is what I want to believe: We are okay, Jack and I and the kids. The Florida sun warms its way through our 30 SPF and we are okay. Because Ponce is humming Led Zeppelin tunes again, which he hasn’t done since his last surgery two-and-a-half months ago, we are okay.
This is what I actually believe: I’m losing my family.
“There aren’t enough boat slips,” says Jack. He stands at the edge of the concrete, overlooking the floating dock.
“There’s enough room to have a few in the water at a time,” I say.
I stare at the familiar stretch of water: the old mangrove on the opposite bank dipping low over the water, the failed boat launch further out where alligators sun, then the trio of mangrove islands off where the water opens up. I watch for signs of something and try not to think of the gecko, try not to think of the way Jack dropped his half of the canoe.
Jayney pokes me in the side. “Mom, Ponce is on the roof again. And did you know that sawfish sometimes eat small children?”
She’s ad-libbing the SAVE THE SAWFISH signs posted all over by the Florida Fish and Wildlife people. In the weeks we’ve been here, I’ve found myself staring at the pixilated fish photo for hours by flashlight while I can’t sleep for thoughts of Granddaddy dying, choking on his own thick air in that godforsaken house. I imagine each room a vacuum, a black hole, sucking him down. I count the printer-blurred points on the sawfish’s nose over and over, straining to hear Grandaddy’s breathing through the thick Florida air. I count them until I’m certain he won’t know I’m on the porch and then I go inside. I stand over his thinning shape until I know for sure he’s still living. I’ve done this every night.
There are 46 teeth on a sawfish.
“Jayney, please stop making stuff up. Go check on Granddaddy,” I say, mostly because sometimes I need to focus on her flaws so that Ponce doesn’t seem so broken.
Sometimes I’m a terrible mother.
Janey stares up at me. Before she heads toward the house she says, “No one liked orange roughy until the American fisheries convinced consumers to like it. Now its populations are in severe decline.”
My strange little girl. I hope she uses her powers for good.
Ponce has been climbing from the dumpster to the roof of the canoe shack the last couple days. Maybe he wants to hang his legs in the air, to feel their difference in weight. Maybe he wants to prove that he can still climb, period. I leave him alone and turn back to Jack.
“Your nose is burning.” I pop open a tube of sun block and go to put a little on his nose, but he moves his face and it winds up in his eye.
“Fuck,” he says. “I mean shit. I mean damn.”
“You mean ouch,” shouts Ponce.
“Yeah, Ponce, I mean ouch.” He grabs the tube from me and I burn a little because that sort of thing used to come easily to us, the whole easy-touch-easy-movement thing, but now it seems harder and our kids are mysterious, too.
Jayney is a smallish dot at Granddaddy’s door.
Ponce tips his head back, then belts out, in full rock-and-roll splendor: “Squeeze me baby, till the juice runs down my leg. The way you squeeze me, honey, I’m gonna fall right out of bed.”
There was a college party where Jack and I drank PBRs and listened to some guy on a guitar sing that particular Zeppelin song to his dreadlocked girlfriend. It seemed inappropriate then, too.
I convince myself for probably the thirty-second time that Ponce doesn’t actually understand what he’s singing. Just like I hope he doesn’t understand that camping on Grandaddy’s property isn’t just for fun.
Here’s the thing about my granddaddy: he’s always been tan. It kills me to watch him grow paler and paler in the humid darkness of his home. He refuses to leave the salt flats, but he refuses to face them. After Grandma died, he decided to stay in. Eventually, months later, the canoe business trickled to a slow almost-stop. He used to call me when a handful of people showed up clutching outdated brochures, peering into the rental booth. He described with perfect clarity their Tevas and tattoos. (A dolphin leaping over a sunset clutching a strand of seaweed. Seaweed! Do you believe that?)
When Ponce got sick it was my granddaddy I called. A small part of me hoped the news would shock him out of his agoraphobia. A larger part of me simply wanted to take comfort in him the way I used to. I wanted his crisp deodorant smell, his salt-water-sun-soaked-sunscreen smell. His big arms around me making everything feel small. I found myself telling him how deep in debt we were, how we were losing the house, how Jayney was spewing off statistics and bits of academic articles about staph survivors and the lives of legless men and women. I told him all of this with the blindness of desperation.
“Well, babygirl,” he told me. “It’s a tough world out there, so you know what you got to do? You got to pull yourself up by the bootstraps. You’ve got to start anew. Come on down here and breathe some heavy salt into those lungs, alright? Bring tents.”
He hung up. I went to Wal-Mart and bought tents. The kids hadn’t been camping since they were tiny. Jack doesn’t really like camping.
Jayney’s back with her usual scowl, unwilling to explain how she got it. She immediately goes to the end of the dock, and I can tell by the way she’s staring intently at the surface that she’s looking for manatees. Ponce scans the sky for willets. Jack ‘s over in the gravel parking lot looking for bottle caps. Everyone’s searching for something. I stay away from the water, but keep an eye on Jayney.
Watch the water, the gecko’d said.
When the sun gets a little lower, Jack adjusts the tents, tightens the rain flies, straightens the sleeping bags. When the beans are done, we bring them to the porch and knock on Grandaddy’s door and eat while the sun sinks lower and lower into the water until the only things glowing are the fireflies.
“You kids act like you’ve never seen fireflies before,” says Grandaddy. He sits on the other side of the doorframe, the inside darkness looming up behind him. I don’t like the way it waits to swallow him.
Jayney and Ponce shrug. They’re both still shy around this new, fearful version of their great-grandfather. He lifts another forkful of beans to his mouth.
“There’re some jars in the kitchen,” he says.
Ponce and Jayney look at me. I look at Jack, who’s half-asleep with his bowl in his lap.
I stand, brush the sand off the back of my shorts, and step around my grandfather into the dark. I bring out the jars and Ponce leaps up the best he can, chasing after the lit insects, and for a moment there in the dark it’s like my son’s crutches disappear. It’s like my boy has legs again. Two strong legs that carry him through clouds of tiny, floating lights.
I’ve believed since I was small that the salt flats at the edge of the Everglades are where the sun fixes everything. It’s where I know to lunch perched on mangrove hammocks. It’s where I took boyfriends to camp on white sand beaches and eat cheese sandwiches and make love in noon-hot tents. This is the place I know best for escape.
Two months ago there was this:
“You’ve been wrapped up in bandages for too long, dude. You’re going to be an albino.” Those were Ponce’s exact words to his shorter leg. Those were the words that made me push to come out here. I wanted to cure Ponce’s albino leg the only way I knew how: with sun.
This was after Ponce’s final surgery, the one that cleaned out the rest of the staph infection and sealed up his knee for good. The one that left us nearly broke and turned our house quiet.
At first, when Ponce showed us the red bump on his calf we thought it was a mosquito bite, but he’d never complained about mosquito bites before, not really. So we watched it. And when the bump was as big as a nickel and Ponce couldn’t walk without pain, we went to see Dr. R who told us he needed surgery.
So here we are in the Everglades, where people and their staring are scarce.
Here is what I hope for:
On the salt flats Jack and I will get to be parents again.
We spent weeks before the move reading field guides so that when the kids asked what that succulent plant was (Jayney) or if that smushy thing in the sand was a giant loogey (Ponce), we’d be ready to parent-knowledge the hell out of Google. There’s no internet out here.
The first question came when we stopped at a Publix near Coral Springs. We’d been stocking up on camp food—beans and tortillas and plantains—halfway between home and Granddaddy’s. Somewhere between unloading groceries and corralling the cart, which he insisted upon doing, Ponce found a crab.
“I found a pocket crab in the parking lot,” he said. “Can I keep it?”
It was like leaving home woke him up again. He talked more. He moved around. He was curious again.
Ponce held the crustacean up to my nose and I took a couple steps back in order to see its spiky mouth and its long limbs waving like bumpy twigs.
“Cover up your legs or they’re going to burn,” I said. I always refer to both his legs so as not to make one seem any different from the other.
Ponce rolled his eyes and put the crab in his shirt pocket. It scrabbled against his chest but he didn’t seem to notice. His pocket writhed, but at least it wasn’t a cell phone.
Two days later, we were setting up red tents in Grandaddy’s patch of crabgrass. One tent for me and Jack. One tent for Jayney and Ponce.
The most constant complaints my children have about camping:
4) Who lives where cell phones don’t work?
3) Jayney/Ponce is touching me. Tell him/her to
2) The mosquitoes won’t stop biting me.
1) It’s hot. Why can’t we sleep in Grandpa’s house?
4) Ask Jayney. She’ll know.
2) It’s because you’re so sweet. And you’re not
wearing bug spray.
1) No AC in there either.
Camping on the southwestern edge of Florida means waking at sunrise to prairie warblers.
Zeet zeet zeet has become our morning greeting.
Zeet zeet zeet, I say to Jack.
Zeet zeet zeet, I say to Ponce and then Jayney.
Zeet zeet zeet, they answer back.
The morning after buying Bruce’s canoes I find Jack sitting cross-legged on the dock, his pants rolled up, baring the thin hair around his ankles. Two canoes float in the water, bumping gently against the dock.
I sit behind him and lean my face into his back.
“We should canoe around a little,” Jack says. His voice reverberates through my cheekbones. “Get to know the area, check out the spots on those nautical maps we have for customers.”
“Okay,” I say, and I think, This is a good thing. This is a family thing.
All the same, I keep my eyes on the water. I think about the gecko’s flat tongue.
When the saltwater croc surfaces in front of the dock, I pay attention to it.
“Check it out,” says Jack. “Crocodile?”
“Crocodile,” I say.
“I’m going to go get the kids,” he says. He stands and brushes lots of nothing from the seat of his pants, and then I am alone.
The crocodile comes closer to the dock. It swims with long, lazy sweeps of its tail. For a while it just stares. For a while it is just me, the croc, and the brown brown water.
Then it speaks:
Keep an eye on the tree line, it says. Its voice is gravelly in the way my grandfather’s voice is gravelly.
The crocodile doesn’t bother to repeat itself, only floats, quiet and still for a moment before sinking into the water.
“Well,” says Jack. “Apparently your mother is a crocodile whisperer.”
I turn around to find my family standing at the edge of the concrete, their eyes wide. Jack’s arms are folded across his chest. My stomach drops.
“Did you hear it?” I ask.
I have to know.
“Hear what?” Ponce asks. “We saw it go under.”
Okay, I think. They saw it go under.
I duck into the house to tell Granddaddy we’re heading out to explore the area. Get a feel for the waters, as Jack put it.
“Margie,” he says. “You’ve been canoeing these flats since you could paddle.”
He touches a match to the end of a cigar. By the green and gold label I know it’s from Key West. I wonder how old it is.
“It’s been ten years, though,” I say. “Last time I was here Jayney was two. And Jack didn’t even come.” This is important, I want to say. This is my chance to share my heart with them.
The water glitters out the window. Sweat glistens in the folds of Granddaddy’s forehead.
“Bring extra water.”
We pack bags and tents and set out in pairs: Jack and Jayney in one canoe; Ponce and I in the other. Our red boats cut through the bright, brackish water. Mangroves bunch along both sides of the brief channel and I find myself watching the tangled treetops. Every so often I check the water for the croc, but I know it won’t be back. Ponce, who insists on being the rudder, hums “Ramble On” at the back of my head. The air is weighty with salt and humidity and sun, and a flock of black specks floats further out on the water. The dock shrinks to the size of a tissue box and we round the bend into open water.
“Woah,” says Ponce. “Nice.”
And it is nice. Miles of mangrove coast on our right. Open water on the left. Hammocks and keys scattered in between. The slight ache in my shoulders seems like a paddle blessing. Each stroke promises me browned, smiling children and camp stove red beans.
“How many miles are we going today?” asks Ponce.
“Ten,” I tell him. I dig deeper into the water and my paddle touches bottom.
“You didn’t tell us we were going that far,” says Ponce. “You just said we were canoeing out to a beach site. There’s tons of beach here.”
He gestures with his paddle, spraying me with water.
“Keep your paddle in the water,” I say.
He sticks his arm out like he’s going to drop it in, lets his fingers touch the surface of the water before bringing his hand, and the paddle, back up, rocking the canoe in the process.
“Ponce, come on,” I say.
Jayney and Jack pass us on the left, moving swiftly along the water in perfect synchronized rhythm. A slight breeze tosses my hair around and I scrunch my hat down further on my head. I can hear Jayney talk and talk into the sky, Jack grunting an answer every once in awhile.
Time passes slowly.
Egrets flap out from the water’s edge, gliding above us like lost kites.
At noon we stop for lunch and don’t make it any further. We land our canoes on a small, white stretch of beach, and there are the pelicans.
Here’s where you want to be, they say. This is the place. Watch for the shark.
I study the brown birds, their clownish blue faces, but they say nothing more. I don’t like the sound of a shark.
“My arms hurt,” says Jayney.
“Why don’t you help Dad with the sandwiches?” I answer.
Jayney shoots me a wounded look and stalks off, rubbing her arms.
Ponce climbs the nearest mangrove and settles in among its branches. His arms are getting stronger, I can tell. The pelicans give him wide berth.
We pass the whole afternoon under those mangroves, eating sandwiches and remembering how to be a family. Jack doesn’t pull out his bottle caps even once. He smiles at Jayney’s line about pelicans once being circus birds. Ponce and I play Hearts in the sand and when the wind blows our cards away, he chases after them, whooping and hollering, quick on his crutches.
When the sun starts to dip below the treetops I ask Jayney and Ponce to set up camp. By some stroke of luck they don’t protest. I pick my way closer to the water. No shark fin circling. Not yet. I drag one canoe and then the other further up shore and flip them over so they won’t fill with water if it rains. Yards away, Ponce and Jayney handle the tent poles expertly now, each staking down one side of the tent, working their way around until they meet in the middle. In that moment I know nothing but love for my children.
Jack comes up behind me perched on the hull of the second canoe and wraps his arms around me. I sink into that muscle, digging into the familiar smells of sweat and pine deodorant that somehow come together to mean husband. And there is something new there, too. There’s salt. There’s wood smoke.
Jack rests his chin on my shoulder. His hair tickles my ear.
“You know,” he said. “Before today I didn’t think we could do this.”
“Do what?” I ask.
“This,” he says. “Us. I didn’t think we could be us anymore.”
I turn to look at him, to read his eyes, but all I can see is hair. I slip out from under his arms. My stomach is a failed fisherman’s knot, coming loose.
“What do you mean you didn’t think we could be us anymore?” I ask.
Jack looks me in the eye, steady gaze as always.
“I mean I thought about leaving. I was going to get you set up here and then go. It’s all just been so damn much, you know? The money, the house, Ponce…but here? In this?”
He gestures toward the ocean, the mangroves, our children. His face is open the way it used to be when we’d stay up all night talking about love and sex and religion and politics, discovering each other for the first time—the way he looked when we reveled at finding someone, finally, who looked at life through the same lens.
“Here we can maybe do anything,” he says.
He takes my hands and I pull them loose again.
“You would’ve left Ponce? Jayney?” I ask him.
There’s a fist in my chest. He would’ve left me.
The moon rises, and with it a sense of waiting. I climb over Jack’s sleeping body and out of our tent. The sand is damp and cold beneath my feet. I shiver. Above me: stars and moon and black. The tide’s gone out, leaving yards and yards of seashells and crabs and other unseen creatures wedged in grey clay. Who knows what lies beneath my footprints.
I stop at the water’s edge. The shark circles in the shallows.
The crocodile told me you’d be here, it says.
“Why?” I ask.
Every moment has brought you here, has it not?
This is probably somehow true. I nod, then realizing the shark can’t see that, I say, “Yes.”
So come in the water.
I tuck my toes into the clay at the waterline. I balk. I do not go into the water. I wrap my arms around myself instead.
I want to go in.
You came back and the water is still the same.
The shark swishes its tail, shoots to the left and stops. Its speed intimidates me. I think of the time I tried racing one in my canoe. No, its speed terrifies me. But I find myself moving into the water.
Behind me, the tents themselves seem to breathe.
The shark brushes against me. Blood flowing through sandpaper—that is a shark.
It’s warm, the water.
The water is warm. I close my eyes. I duck all the way under. My eyes burn in the salty, cloudy water. The shark’s dim torpedo shape circles me.
A wild thrill shoots through me when I recognize it as a bull shark. The most ruthless shark.
And somehow I become calm.
Jack is still here.
Ponce is missing his right leg.
Jayney manipulates the truth.
We will be okay.
Jack says he found me in the morning, lying stark naked on the beach. This, among other things, has become family myth.
“Remember the time Mom went swimming with the shark?”
“Remember the time Ponce lost his leg?”
Remember the time remember the time remember the time.
I remember the feel of my skin, dry and salt-stretched, how it seemed like I could crack right out of it to begin raw and pink-skinned and new. I remember being thirsty. I remember sand caked to my breasts, to my scalp. I remember feeling bare and wakened, in love with the whole world, with everything and everyone, and thinking how even rocks worn down by wind and water become endless beaches of sand.