SAND, SUN, GUN
Brangien Davis

There are no mothers on the beach when the guns come out. The women were here earlier, carrying trays of ham and pumpernickel, plastic-coated gingham tablecloths, Hellman’s mayonnaise and Grey Poupon, cans of Budweiser for the men and glass bottles of Coke for us kids, all the way down the railroad-tie steps my grandfather cut into the bluff long before I was born. Most summer weekends, my grandmother leads this charge, hating the burden of cooking, relieved by lunch’s fend-for-yourself spirit. Her sisters, at least three of the five, often parade with her—including the one they say is too old for that ponytail. Sometimes my first cousins once removed join the march, one shy and tender from her latest break-up, the other bikinied and shimmering with confidence. Not my mother, not anymore. This is my father’s family. She collects my sister and me at the end of her business trips, ladylike shoes crushing brittle holly leaves as she advances down the face of the zigzagged, sandy stairs. “Brown as a berry,” she’ll say when she sees me, combing her soft fingers through my salt-tangled hair.

Summer visits to the Chesapeake are plagued with worries. Daddy longlegs embroider the boat shed and lurk in the corners of the canoe. Geese land brazenly, their sinister black beaks hissing and snapping at interlopers. A grove of rogue bamboo haunts the edge of the property, and the boy cousins say if you aren’t careful the broken stalks will pierce through your foot and shoot straight up your leg. Blue crabs infest the bay’s sandy shallows, pinching toes and forcing us to tread water even when we can touch bottom. Iridescent jellyfish, which the older folks call nettles, whisper through the water, noticed too late. Up in the house, my grandmother’s tone is sharp as barnacles.

She’s still lauded for the perfect back dives of her youth, but when my sister and I beg her to show us, my grandmother scoffs. “I’ve done enough back dives,” she says, rubbing a pencil eraser against her crossword. Every now and then she mentions her girl baby, who died. She always says girlbaby as if it’s one word. Her speech is crowded with compounds, clacking against each other like mah-jongg tiles. Backdive, crossword, cribdeath. “Now it’s only my boys,” she says.

The guns appear in the late afternoon. Their arrival is surprising and mysterious, like the final flourish of my grandfather’s card tricks. Yet they also seem to have been here all along, somehow—men and weapons as one in the manner of green plastic toy soldiers. By this time the women have gone up to the house, to shower and change and roll their hair as they did when they were girls. Pressing waxy bullets of pink and red against their sun-stung lips, they chatter about children and hope the crab catch is plentiful. Down on the beach, the air prickles and the shadows grow longer. The men talk loudly, tipping their heads back to finish off every last swig of beer. Someone has cigarettes, which they are all smoking, even my father who favors cigars. My uncle nestles a pyramid of cans into the hillside. Lined up at the water’s edge, the men take turns shooting. When hit, the cans make a sound just like in the movies, a quick, high peow.

My sister and I watch from inner tubes floating just offshore. Neighborhood men wander over, lured by the noise and scent of gunpowder: Mr. Miller, who rarely comes down to the beach, preferring his shaded, icy pool; and Mr. Jubb, who’s building an ark on his property. He talks about sailing his family around the world, but the unfinished hulk seems years away from its maiden voyage. There’s something awful about the gigantic trimaran hull, skeleton half-exposed like a beached and rotting sea monster.

Moving up onto the pier, the men test their skills. After they shoot, each steps back farther than the last. “Girls, c’mon outta the water and give it a try,” my grandfather says. He wants us to try everything, from five-card stud to the J-stroke, as if we could do anything. As if we were boys. My little sister volunteers to go first. She’s given the small rifle, but it’s too big for her eight-year-old hands. I’m three years older, still hesitant to step up for my turn. We’ve long ago been branded: she the tomboy, me the pretty girl. But my grandfather’s voice beckons like a sun-warmed towel. It takes the shiver out of things, even the psoriasis that coats his shins in papery white scales. In his Southern lilt, the ailment sounds mythical and lovely, just as all his words embody some ancient knowledge. Sook and creosote and Pleiades, he has taught us, pointing toward the crab trap, the pier, the sky. “I’ll show you how,” he says now, placing a pistol into my water-pruned hands.

The men cheer as I knock down a few cans. “The deadeye kid!” my father shouts, and I feel a surge of pride. My sister loses interest and heads back into the water, but when I finish my round, I ask if I can please try again. I know my mother would not approve—I can picture the corners of her mouth curling downward, as they do when she shuttles us into her car and leans against the hood to knock the sand out of her pumps. But the flavor of something powerful sits like an oyster in my mouth, salty and moist. My uncle shows me how to reload, the bullets sliding perfectly into their slots. They’re exactly as wide as the red scratch marking the inside of my thigh, the one I always get from the inner tube valve.

I take aim. Straddled on the beach, I feel the sand between my toes, the sun on the back of my neck, the hot metal in my grip—everything draws an outline around me, defining my position. I lick my lips, taste the salt, and squint at the red-white-and-blue cans. In my peripheral vision, the Jubb’s ark looms, waiting. “Steady,” I hear my grandfather say.

 

Brangien Davis is publisher and editrix-in-chief of Swivel Magazine, a print literary journal devoted to smart, funny writing by smart, funny women. Her writing has appeared in The Cream City Review, Rivet, The Village Voice, Wired, and elsewhere. She is a freelance journalist and writing teacher in Seattle. She regularly contributes humor columns to The Seattle Times. You can read her memoir pieces “Fingers Crossed” and “Ketchup Is The Lowest Form of Condiment” at Lime Tea.

 

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