God’s Telephone Lines
By Emma Wisdom
We drove out to Montauk late in March, a pile of wool blankets in the backseat, Lola, the greyhound, in my lap. Steven held the wheel and my hand, one grip loose, one tight, and I was thankful he could do both, my own hands were shaking. Dawn had hit earlier as we fueled up at a Shell Station just before reaching the Island, and now, almost noon, I saw the Clam Bar, the dusty surf shack just on the outskirts of “The End.” I motioned for Steven to turn in to its lot, empty in the off-season, but still full of yellow umbrellas and their tables. Steven cut the engine, reached into the back, and kissed my cheek as he brought around the bagged lunches we’d packed. I tried smiling. “Don’t worry,” Steven whispered, so that Lola’s ears twitched to hear, “I know this is hard.”
Taking Lola in my arms, who was still small enough to want cradling, I followed Steven to the farthest table, where he was setting out the lemonade I’d spiked with premonitions. Steven had seen, said nothing, maybe smiled a sad smile. Lola squirmed free, running to the shade of the bar to squat, smelling lingering shellfish juices all the while. The taut skin of her hind legs looked translucent in the glare of the sun.
Sand blew up quick as I stood, caught in the novelty of a familiar place seen in a new light. At seven years old I’d run between the broken barstools of the already vintage joint, ducking around sunburned legs and knocking off flip-flops. My mother, just turned forty, had laughed with the playfulness of a kid, holding a basket of french fries like a halo over her head, far out of my twig-arm reach. “Jolene!” someone had cried out from the back burners, a woman a little younger than my mother, but with a face aged by the endless summer sun. My mother broke my gaze then, tossing a hand to the sky, and I reached to grab her long skirt, soft in even my dewy grip. “Hey, baby, let’s go say hi to Amy. Where’s your sister?”
“You okay, babe?” Steven held my waist. I looked down, startled at his hands; hadn’t they been drumming the tabletop just now? I nodded, and allowed myself to be guided to the impromptu picnic he’d arranged, which Lola had taken the liberty of inspecting.
My favorite sandwich tasted like french fries.
“How long was she a waitress here? Five years?” Steven asked the answers he knew like they were questions, mindful of my locked teeth. In between bites he pushed items toward me: a pickle here, a bag of almonds there, clementines, cheese, lemonade, the vodka I’d spiked it with against my better judgement. Finally, with a sigh, he gave up and pushed his hand into mine. This, and Lola’s ocean-cold nose in my lap, I’d take.
While Steven ate, I watched the grass of this snowless winter as it swept east to west in surprised gasps along with the wind. The grey corners of my pea coat followed suit, dancing a mournful ballad. Everything, except the yellow umbrellas, was twisting shades of grey across the flat horizon. I thought of soiled wash water, turned opaque from t-shirts wrung out of it. Kids in patriotic dresses and plastic sandals had run through these surrounding fields the last time I had visited, and I had joined, my short eyes peering above the blades, my pale arms set on flame from hidden thorns and prickling tumbleweed. Now, only a time capsule remnant of those days remained, like a polaroid left too long in the sun. Lola whimpered and I squeezed Steven’s hand, pulling my head from his shoulder. “Ready?” I nodded.
At the cool sun’s height we reached the trickling finish of the highway, somewhere among the boat docks my mother had once known. “Just point when you see a good spot,” Steven said, his wide eyes scanning the salt-white homes and planked sidewalks. I was fixed on the beach, hoping to recall the dunes of twenty years ago.
“My girls! We’re here!” she hollered from the front seat of our Ford station wagon. I poked Abigail, asleep in the trunk seat next to me. She tossed her blond hair, my father’s hair, and pinched her eyes tighter. The jolt of the brake, and my mother’s healed flip-flops on concrete didn’t even stir her, though I felt her suck in hot breath, quick. Mom hated for anyone to spoil an adventure with stubbornness, she would glare until our own eyes bled if we even refused to go along to grocery shopping. But when my mother opened the trunk, there was only determination in her gaze, steady as the July heat. “I am just trying to have some fun with you girls while your father works out things back home. You can come if you like. It would certainly be better with you, but I am perfectly capable of swimming in the ocean alone.” This was a speech from her. We jumped up with our towels and dove out of the car, Abigail with a hybrid grin on her face, a mix of glee and fear. My mother took hold of my shirtsleeve as we ran through the dunes toward flecks of rainbow tanning-towels. “I knew you were ready,” she winked.
I caught a glimpse of my long face in the side-view mirror, my freckled complexion framed by my mother’s rich, chocolate hair that people who didn’t know her well called black. My mane was almost as long as she had kept hers, flowing past my shoulders with no sign of stopping. Only during her years as a Montauk waitress had she cut it, pixie and sharp, alluding to her personality. I liked it on her both ways, mysterious and frank.
With a sudden jab at the air, I motioned to Steven to park; the irregular dunes felt familiar and I was about as restless as Lola, feeling the ache of territory in my bones. Only a few homes scattered the streets here, and I imagined pieces of beach still unclaimed, etched out with driftwood property lines. Maybe Steven and Lola would claim one with me and remain forever, watching the sun change across the waves with the seasons, watching our skin salt in the years. Maybe my mother and I would claim one also.
Suddenly, I was aware of Steven’s eyes, green like the fresh winter seaweed, watching me from an arm’s length away, and I was aware of the tears on my cheeks. Nothing else existed. “Whenever you’re ready,” Steven assured, kissing a tear on my jawline, which surprised me. My mother never allowed us to wipe away her tears, we “should only kiss them or ignore them completely” she said. Not that they were often, only on the nights my father drank to his ears, drank until the alcohol flooded his fists. Even at my young age, those elementary school days, every tear I kissed was another strike against him, like in the baseball games he liked so much. No tears were kissed when we left him, none spilled.
A sigh escaped me, shaking out into the vacuum space of the car; I nodded. “Okay?” Steven waited, allowing me to unbuckle, reach around Lola into the glove compartment, and retrieve the glass Mason jar of what I imagined were my mother’s hands and hair, maybe a few flecks of that linen skirt she wore until her death.
The wind was all I heard running through the dunes, tunneling, a siren in the distance. It whirlpool-ed in the irregular spaces of my ears, a whistling more magnificent than my mother’s, louder than my father’s at five o’clock on payday. This was god’s whistle, as my cousin Maureen would later explain, and it filled me with Sunday glory. I charged the ocean, my mother an army behind me, Abigail our commander-in-chief, pointing out places to sit like they were battle plans. The water was so perfectly cold.
I fell to my knees. This was too painful, my mother’s last wishes clutched to my chest, digging a hole in my lungs. I wanted every piece of her back.
Steven knelt beside me, Lola wedged between his arm and side. “Maybe talking to Abby will help? She just got back from that spot in the Catskills, didn’t she? She might be able to shed some light on letting go.” When she knew him, my mother said that Steven was a good man, his heart always said the right thing. “Now, your father, he always said the right thing, but his eyes were empty afterward,” she’d told me, “Not this Steven of yours.” Steven held my gaze, sure, secure, good. I squeezed his hand and shook my head. I’d buried my mother with my sister, or at least the majority of her remains, and we’d taken separate jars for a reason: we had to let her go in our own ways.
I had thought my mother insane when I read those wishes beside her quiet hospital bed one night in November. Her two daughters were to take two separate jars of her to where they wanted? Why separate family like that? But here, in this temperate town, I knew this was always where I’d keep her, in an eternal summer. Abigail had been too young to know her here, choosing to see her tumbling down the bunny slopes, laughing with us, laughing with herself, just laughing. Our separate stories of our mother strengthened her, and kept her whole in all of the seasons. Except for maybe her pancreas, as Abigail and I both hoped for that vengeful organ to rot in the grave.
Steven’s kiss on my cheek turned cold and I felt the time. My mother’s weight was heavy in my hand, her thick hair wet from the spray, and I gripped hard, afraid of letting go before the right moment.
I kicked away my sneakers and headed steadily into the wake, until I was waist deep in my bluejeans. This had been how she stood that day after chasing me, beach cover-up and all, in the blue, Montauk water. I unscrewed the cap. Here, on this shifting sand, in perpetual waves, my mother had sunk into the ocean, letting the cold take her inch by inch, particle by particle. Her hair fanned out, tendrils of it spreading seamlessly into the earth’s enduring permanence, the incorruptible entity she and I called ocean. Both times, I imagined her hair stretching to connect the Pacific, looping the world together like underwater telephone lines. God’s telephone lines, chocolate brown and healthy, as alive as the fish.