by Tom Altreuter
Only a faint waft of different damp climate greets his return to the outside, under a more southern, Carolina blue sky. Early spring humidity is a welcome change from the cold snap. Wind and drizzle left a few time zones behind.
Merle told him to call at touchdown. Pings instead, after slow-walking the concourse to the curb where she’ll pick him up in the rental. Only to buy maybe ten minutes of not sitting, not moving at 500 mph, which feels like the worst slow drip insomnia. No longer enclosed after six hours on the red eye from Seattle to Newark, a three hour layover, plus two more hurling through turbulence and no drink service, to arrive at Myrtle Beach. Free and out after a half a day trodding gates to connections. Chews another gummie during the brief moment of peaceful wait.
She gives him a long hug in the loading zone. He’s normally the hugger but currently too washed out and stoned. The element of surprise has him responding the way she usually does, which is to be just awkward and uncertain as if a knife might land between the shoulders. No fear of a deadly blow, just an emotional dagger. There is a grudging respect between them that took decades to form yet remains fragile. He puts the carry on in the popped trunk. The A/C blasts. Merle is not one for warmth.
Tosses over her phone with instructions to navigate the low gray swamplands, but her device is a pointillist mosaic of compressed app tiles. His fumbling and questions, her snatching it back is their means of small talk that can only be skipped after knowing someone their whole life. Breaks the ice. Roles to roll with.
Point Z is programmed in by Merle, pulling over for the task, at his insistence. She, like him, eschews the placid robot voice since they both find it just almost north of creepy. They don’t vibe on much and, given all her apps, the techno-phobia is mostly on his side but the assistant’s purr is a bit much in its groveling to be found pleasant “even if you set it to German,” is their joke.
Merle begins to explain her crowded screen space even if it’s hard for her to justify seven different buttons for weather–and at least ten apps she has no memory of ever loading let alone using–while trying to connect the bluetooth to the dash screen. Defends Bird Song and Night Sky hard and that’s a tell. Her personality depends not on babble but clear plausible lines, or fudged lies, and he wrong foots her every time. Not many people have that effect on her. She needs him to not get her or maybe just have some sense of doubt. Maybe they will never be comfortable. Close is a distance maintained by being absent.
Hands back the phone, navigation managed; he scrolls to her music. His phone is a phantom limb in the current situation. Nobody to notify.
She’s on a Sonny Rollins kick. Knows it because everything they exchange is mostly on social. They call at Christmas. Been six plus years, more or less in proximate, not counting her eldest’s wedding but there’s never any time for anyone at any large gathering to really connect. ‘Rona just furthered distance.
In less than two miles he has missed three turns by paying no attention to the task at hand. Merle once again snatches the device and tells it to talk. Several turns, an off- then on-ramp in the right direction later, delivered in placid phone robot voice (English, standard American, not posh). She asks how high he is and laughs at his shrug. Passes along a gummie after unwrapping it. Tells her to check in after an hour.
Merel gives him the rundown on the folks, older but still in surprisingly vigorous health. Sharp as tacks but with even less hearing than posts. Makes the joke about them outliving god along with a reference to the wild cats of Kilkenny, which may also apply to where her marriage is at but a side topic to the matter at hand, an end-of-a-world for their parents.
Thirty years is a long time to live anywhere in the same place or with anyone. The way she says his name, how she lets the sigh lead the “Simon,” always just Si, as the rest of his name drifts off into an inhale when she reminds him that their folks retired two years after she married and moved here the year after Emma was born. Emma is now twenty eight.
He’d started moving here to there well before that. He now stores the empty boxes to fill again, counting coup on a new state, planting no roots, one lease away from the next.
Emma just had a kid, Anya, and bought a home a half hour away from Merle, who leaves out how little Si was around for any of it. That might come up if they get drunk–inevitable, she’s told him what is stocked–and not always the best time for such, but linear space time is limited on this trip.
Emma told him that, back when she was seventeen and he fumblingly decided to start being an uncle she’d just accepted the presence over the myth. Now he admires the pictures of Anya she sends. She is happy to share life through text. Merle is jealous of their closeness. Something unlikely that happened, as if she had accidentally delivered a better version of herself as a sibling.
Billboards advertise Gentleman’s Clubs, personal attorneys for a wide variety of litigation choices, and pleas to save the unborn from being excused from a world of suffering. Flat and vast–not anywhere near verdant, only spring in the wings–the land stretches out in ways unremarkable, save the trash scattered in the name of freedom along the roadway. Speed limits are advertised as aggressively enforced but such seems open to interpretation. Woe to the leadfoot under sixty in a beater with a too-dark skin shade.
In his high, white head he’s not sixty and is not sure how to feel about how worn his sister is looking. Knows he’s no breath of morning glory. Wonders if it shows as bad on him.
The folks have lunch ready. Three kinds of sliced bread, limp lettuce, a poor sad pale pink tomato to slice, and mayo. Cold cuts: ham, turkey, roast beef. Mom offers that the lot could be used for one sandwich or used individually for several and lists the combinations. They are out of mustard but have baby gherkins. No cheese. Dad hates cheese and so Mom no longer bothers. It just goes bad. Salt and pepper are at the ready to add zest.
Dad, careful and slow, sets the table in the breakfast nook with a knife and fork on top of a paper napkin folded into a triangle. The ritual matters to him even for DIY sandwiches.
Simon has just spent the last twelve hours in far more sterile environments and the idea of a table being set makes him want to grab the old wedding gift candle holders from the more formal dining room, which sits like a movie set off from the foyer. Such action would end with having to dissect the motive of the joke, not worth the time. Some food would be nice. Hot and fresher would have been better, but the spread is much more dollars-less than wrapped and assembled for the same at any airport.
They talk small and chew. Dad does a crossword. Merle checks her email. Mom tries to be a mom and asks mom questions, not listening to answers.
Apparently he is sharing a room with Merle. Twin beds from sixty-five years ago. They were once bunks for Garret, the missing middle, and Si. Merle, the oldest, always had her own room and Garret lives in New Zealand now. Still some travel restrictions down there so his move, the furthest ploy, has paid out. He remains the missing middle chair. The arrangement is awkward, as if the folks have a blurry vision of their kids.
Merle shrugs it off. Her proximity and status as the oldest means she’s spent way more time here and is familiar with the indignations. Explains it as a reverse. They are shrinking and now their children loom as large over them as they had once loomed.
Both know it doesn’t matter, they are grown ass adults and have to face the fact that in the moment the housing is better than an ICU chair under ever lit fluorescence, whirs, beeps, small blinking lights, nowhere to lie down except the cold floor, and shift changes. Something they have both done for their partners’ parents. Two clicks away from orphan. Just a known history, not talked about. A small guilt.
Coffee, the ground canned sawdust made robust by Dad’s freehand measure and fading never famous taste buds, in the relic drip maker and offers of toast and jam the next morning as Dad sits positioned with a wooden salad fork to spear the English muffins from the toaster. Those are his–just his, same for the scotch in the liquor cabinet. Merle, always having moved with more rarefied tastes, is why the scotch has marks on the bottle. Si hates the stuff. Very first middle-school-booze puke.
Bothering to look, the fridge is a wasteland. After doing some spelunking and inventorying the pantry, finds both are stocked redundantly regardless of need. Conferring with Merle, a grocery list is made. They’ve got four days in the nest. No point in getting anything Mom or Dad would call fancy, which includes garlic or even sweet peppers. Fresh herbs, like parsley or basil make Mom ask if he’s still doing drugs. They’re not fond of any herbs. The smell and bother of such. Onion is in the repertoire, almost an outlier but needed in all standard recipes, kept for that reason only and potatoes that live in the crisper box and are to be peeled, mashed, or roasted. Mostly mashed. They are a family of strong teeth. Even so, the creaminess of the mash, the comfort of bland, is preferred. Rice is never steamed, only boiled like pasta. Celery and carrots make the cut in the crisper drawer. Like always.
There is a tension to the whole food thing. They don’t understand why every one of their children obsess on food. There will be some power struggle over how Si gets to the docks to buy shrimp off a boat or if he and Merle can steal a moment to find some BBQ worthy of the name. To Si, no other reason exists to go anywhere than to at least get some decent local specialty even if just taking care of family business.
They conspire. The folks like to block any visit to the more outre visions they have of these culinary quests as being pointless driving around, but Si can spot the right dive. Where they smoke the meat off the ribs. Where the smell of char and vinegar greet before stepping in. Best is a visible handmade, individual concept smoker and cartoons of blissful pigs with angel wings holding knives and forks in their trotters. Those places make the folks nervous and they have no love for lands past the cul-de-sacs and golf greens of their chosen blue heaven. Plus it’s the last lap of Lent, so the shrimp will be indulged but the ribs are a rub so he’s either going to steal their car while they nap or scheme hard with his sister. She is more than willing.
Merle will take the folks to the grocery store tomorrow letting him do a dump run. A small gift to ease his acclimation. She is far more used to dealing with them.
They spend the afternoon cleaning the attic, not the Aegean stable project presented in the emails from mom. Empty boxes from thirty years ago. Crumbling holiday decorations along with saved checks and statements under dust. Those were once important, unlike the mounds of stuff he dug through when dealing with the death of his ex’s mother. Collections of empty plastic containers, broken moldy furniture, the list was long and filled three storage units.
Her wedding dress is there in remarkable preservation, sixty-five years old and in the original box from Saks. Merle calls dibs. She passed back when it was passe to accept the traditional maidens gown. Now it’s a seriously hot piece of vintage and she knows where to hustle such for top dollar. Later, she snaps a shot of Mom’s official portrait from the day. It’s black and white, a near forgotten fixture of all their lives in its small frame over the mantle. Shows both the dress and her in ways that will sell.
Mom is not sentimental about the dress when asked if it should be sold. Emma hadn’t cared to get hitched in such formal settings or finery like their grandmother. Not even in a church. Both outdoor ceremonies. This bothers Mom more than the indifference to dress she had thrice offered. Merle gave her grandkids, though, and is more forgiven even if Dad is still pissed that the family name has run its course.
He looks at the other photos on the mantel in the Carolina Room, as it is called by local custom. A space less formal than the Living Room, which–like its dining counterpart–is an exhibit of fading social mores. Grandparents to grandkids and even Emma’s new one. Mom hates the new great grandkid’s name but maybe being the last Hortence, or “Teddy”–the formal just being some custom of carrying on names because it was expected even if it was terrible–led to Merle’s name and Anya was far “too pretty,” but no objection to Emma when it was placed on the birth certificates.
Mom has to have something to fight about and looking at all the framed family pictures, sienna to Kodachrome and sixty years later, digital print, they leave little doubt that no one was adopted. Merle says Anya might be the family Dali Lama, the shot of immortality, a joke the folks take poorly. They’re sensitive about being Catholic and find such references a mockery of established faith none of their offspring have embraced. First born Merle, the blessed one, seems to take some liberty when he’s around, trusting him to truly cross the lines. Sometimes he just leaves her on the hook.
For the first dump foray his folks send him to Mr. Coin, the landfill king. This dump carries a monthly fee and requires a windshield sticker, a detail omitted, along with how it is strictly landfill so when Merle drives off with the folks in the dash sticker car and Si takes the rental, a much larger ride that was intended to haul trash off to dump, he is detained by Mr. Coin, who has rules.
Mr. Coin emerges from the weather beaten makeshift shed from a salvaged chair, leaving the cronies who sit, smoke and dip, as Si waits for him to remove the pylons blocking the drive. Instead Mr Coin inspects his windshield and waves him off. Si leans out the window to say hello and say he’s just dropping off stuff for his parents, whose names he drops.
Mr. Coin is only interested in the required sticker. His curated fiefdom, seeming just random piles to Si, need the documents to cross the cone wall border. Points to the hand painted plywood sign nailed on a post mounted in a five gallon bucket of concrete and lights another cigarette. Everything in his empire appears to be reclaimed, if the different colors for the signs lettering are any indication.
He holds the right to refuse. Also, no photos. Dogs must be leashed although there are a few rambling about unfettered. No combustibles. Jesus is life, blue lives matter, not really dump rules as a strict regulation, more like a personal Utopia —the list ends with “courtesy is contagious.”
Si tries a bribe, a five, after considering the rules. Never travel without folding cash is a rule of his and Mr. Coin is clearly not up on Venmo. Rebuffed but given arcane landmarks that Mr Coin, clearly not a man to be bought, offers as guides to the more lefty dump, a state-funded socialist run operation he’s told while the dump king spits out the info like a bad taste. Tips his Vet cap, and Si feels sized up as just a libtard who don’t give a shit about global garbage conspiracies.
There is a spread out sameness to everything. Phone navigation is a must. The uncanny voice returns. Landmarks biased on favored worship houses or barns or chain stores according to various patterns of faith or personal paths to consumer fulfillment. Whole communities dedicated to golf. Many use the word plantation, especially the far more upscale ones nearest the inter-coastal. All of them essentially the same as the folks, cul-de-sacs and looping drives are deeply homogeneous. People wave to each other, friend or stranger. Everyone seems to live in a state of putter.
The County Sanitation Facility is a place for retirees from the northern snow states to virtue signal and rub elbows even if the atmosphere is less than clubby. With nothing else to do, they just check the boxes of doing something. A strange xenophobia that restricts the developments from using curbside pick up as part of the rules regarding aesthetics and some intricate approval processes for yard work and other contractors is also part of it. Plus the bins can be onerous to move for some.
He has some paint, an abundance of poisons (weed, fire ant, cans of hornet spray), and a few other hazards that, he is told, need to go to Bolivia. He blinks and the county guy tells him it’s a town half hour up 17, just past the Waffle House on the left. It’s the county haz-mat drop off and big landfill. Decides to save that road trip for tomorrow and instead heads over to the pier to see about picking up some fresh shrimp for dinner. Asks for directions just to hear the local dead reckoning. Without his phone this would all be nowhere.
The shrimp are fresh, and the high school kid running the weight is happy to leave the heads on and cuts the price since its less work for him. A slouchy, pierced, blue haired girl rings up the purchase, no resemblance, so Si assumes romance in the languid way they run the front end and how neither make eye contact with him. He tips the folding five too good for Mr. Coin.
No easy feat making the shrimp into dinner just using shit in the house. Recruits Merle to help. Mom tells him they can remove the heads at the pier at no cost, not understanding why they are tearing them off and shelling the shrimp, saving it in a pot. Si squeezes a head for her and a small amount of yellow oozes out. Tells her its like butter and everything she thinks is waste is the real secret.
Peels and roasts potatoes while Merle deveins the shrimp. Quick stock from the shells strained and poured over to poach the shrimp halfway. He strains the resulting liquid letting it reduce before using butter to make it thick and lets the resting heat finish cooking the shrimp. Tossed in asparagus with the almost done potatoes (setting some aside to boil for dad, a strong advocate for vegetables to be drab and mostly mush) and then plated. Basic, but Merle is impressed. A far better make do than expected.
They all go to Bolivia, Mom insists wanting time with her “kiddos.” Dad is the worst sort of back seat driver. He imagines catastrophe in every lane change. Sitting in the back seat of the rental they cannot hear the robot navigator telling Merle where to go (the terrain is hopeless for Si and her, so the voice guides but still irritates). Not helping is Si using his phone to keep diverting off the highway to find any deep dive located, only to find the joint closed or not meeting an exterior standard of how a North Carolina BBQ smokehouse should present. Every side quest leaves dad yelling about how they’ll get lost, robbed, murdered, or arrested. Merle keeps reminding him that she’s a lawyer with a smart phone so the first and last worst cases are manageable, the other two being just pointless objections.
Mom mentions that one of her former golf buddies, born and raised Carolina Blue, recommended a place just past Wilmington. She prints out all her e-mails like letters, needing hard copies. Mom’s not sure about how forwarding works and had handed Si a list at breakfast. To even give the spot a once over would turn a dump-run, BBQ-quest into a four hour ordeal. Even if what he looks up for reviews gives it grail aura. The friend’s recommendation mentioned no personal experience, but it seemed popular with the Blacks is mentioned, having driven past numerous times. It’s the last one on that list and the dog whistle is sharp. Next time, there will be at least a few more trips, he will fly into or out Wilmington just to eat there, but for now pissing off Dad and letting Mom try to be helpful is the time he occupies. Merle at least understands and trusts his foodar. The folks just don’t care about food. Dad hates The Waffle House because they don’t use real butter, his only strong objection even though the caramel colored corn syrup maple “flavored” is the true disgrace. Mom would eat there but not without dad, and Si can’t sneak Merle out for a meal since she thinks it’s a place that Denny’s slutty sister opened to just exhibit new lows in dubious human pleasures. He’s a fan for those reasons and lets the desire remain unrequited because the trail of smoke sought is not on Google but is the more worthy fight holding an ally.
The port of last resort is a few miles east and a little south of the prosaically named New Brunswick Transfer Station. Instead he has Merle turn around after passing a place needing a second look. Dad moans about how arbitrary a simple trip has become. Mom keeps saying it’s the wrong spot, but pulling into the parking lot, rolling down the window it seems to be just right.
Porcine worship, the blessed and blissful pig iconography, smoke seasoned air, peeling paint and a small farm stand shop. Smoked Heaven is the name. Guy outside the door puffing his brand of smoke, curing his insides, a local patriotic legal heritage bit of produce banned within twenty feet of a door he is six feet from, according to fresh looking signage from the health department.
Not the ideal of heaven as a visual. Every angel one sees in the storied heaven as beatific and ethereal is just a swan winged future meat cartoon swine blessing the walls. The place is empty, but it’s eleven-thirty in the morning. Early and fast is understood as a different speed in languid climates. Their host compliments Merle on her Mets cap. Jokes how he may have not been as receptive to a Yankees one. They both fall into sports banter about spring training, and Si picks a booth near the back.
Merle guides the folks to the table. Their host pushes the ribs. Dad gets a sandwich as does Mom. No sides. Si exchanges a look with his sister. They get the ribs and all the sides on offer. Beans, red slaw, white slaw, greens, fried okra, cornbread, and, the litmus test for both, mac and cheese. The cornbread lacks sentiment, but the collards are fire, and the mac is velveeta used in a transformation spell to make a deity.
The ribs are as promised, melting from the bone when placed before them. Everything arriving at the table in wafts of smoke and vinegar. The fried okra is too hard to not snatch at right away. Dad raises his voice. Little of it left to raise, so Si ignores it until Merle kicks his ankle. Their dive offends him, how they dig in and ignore the need to say grace, his breaking of his Friday thirty-three day old Lenten penance, held for years at the proper forty and demands respect, even says “damn it” and not a cussing man. It is his strongest phrase of choice.
They bow their heads and fold their hands, and he administers the pro-forma blessing. Peace restored. Si gets up to use the restroom. He just wants to pick up the check since around them his money is no good. Needs his own dignity too. Mom is always sending him money not asked for, and it feels as if they fear he is failing. Their money, his life, and he accepts it. He will not be spending his later days futzing about Carolina Shores and its amenities.
Merle wants him to move back east. Emma tells him its because she’s not doing well with the nest empty even with her kids still local. His brother in law dislikes him. Always has. Si finds him painfully dull. They live in a flat sprawling rust belt city in recovery. Long brutal winters negate any positives. Merle always pushes anyway.
They take the shuttle from the rental dropoff, both with similar waits for their flights. She’s got two hours in Delaware, and he’s got three in Charlotte. The bar in the concourse is as familiar as a local one to her, even if the regulars and staff are never the same, and he lets her buy the drinks.
Weather delays his flight, and the next available will leave him arriving far too late to find a ride home at any rate reasonable or to ask a friend. Takes the bump, the voucher to a hotel room, cab fare, and a twenty dollar coupon for concourse food. Not in any hurry to get there even if home, as it is would be nice, rushing seems unimportant. This could be anywhere and that is where he is now.
Tom Altreuter occasionally enjoys short walks on the beach, chasing seabirds, biting other dogs, and snoozing. He’s learning to type.