My little sister, destined to be a vegetarian at the age of five, kicks me under the kitchen table, scowling at the bologna on my mustard sandwich. She licks the salt off her potato chips while our brother, a year older, zooms his matchbox car across the slick formica surface. They hate my know-it-all attitude, but at nine, I see them practically in diapers. An afternoon with the two of them stretches in front of me, as boring as watching our dad on Sunday nights, while we pretend to eat the one meal he cooks – Chef-Boy-Ardee pizza with hot dog slices and burnt crust.
the twilit smoke
from a mosquito truck
Another endless summer day, until my mom, home early from teaching, says, “I know – let’s go swimming!” We jump up like she’d said Disney World, rushing off in search of beach towels, buckets, sandy bathing suits. Outside, the press of humidity on our block-long trudge, the asphalt street scorching the bottoms of our flip-flops. The bay shimmers in the haze, its white sandbar poking up like a treasure in low-tide. We cross Old Martha’s sandspur-filled yard and her monstrous vegetable garden. My brother and I race ahead, daring each other to peek back in the direction of her spooky shack.
the smell of fish
from her gnarled fingers
Grey mud, speckled with dirt turds from a million fiddler crabs, sucks at our toes. In the shallows, a menacing horseshoe crab waves its dagger, as my brother’s splashing flushes white herons from the mangroves. I escape to walk out alone in the tepid, ankle-deep water, with its shells, strange sea creatures, and tinkly sounds of tiny waves. My own little world, dredged out of the depths of the bay, between two long fingers of land sprouting new houses here and there amidst the fresh white sand. No mangroves or herons, just huge homes for rich folks, with their manicured lawns, blue swimming pools and plate-glass windows open to the view.
the hunched silhouette
of a lone night heron
With full buckets and salty, wrinkled toes, we holler, “No, not yet,” when mom tries to herd us home. My sister skins her knee crawling over the makeshift rock seawall. Her wailing draws out fat Old Martha, with her missing front teeth and hairy moles, bringing mercurochrome and a band aid. But my sister screams when she tries to touch her.
ghostly shadows flicker
off bedroom walls
We kids always hang back from Old Martha’s dark shack, with its saggy front porch and weird herbs hanging upside down from her rafters like bats. Mom goes right in, takes her time. She comes out loaded with a sack of turnip greens, cabbage, carrots, maybe some homemade strawberry jam, and a Dum-Dum for each of us. As soon as we’re home, she hides the stuff in the fridge from our dad. If he finds it, he throws it out, yells, “You stay away from that dirty hag, you hear me!”
his black mood
The next day, my mom fills a sack full of store-bought groceries and makes me take it over to Old Martha’s. I leave it on the front porch and run.
off the tips of waves