sylvia_bond: (Smiling Sam)
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TItle: Shells
Author: N. J. Nidiffer
Rating: G
Word Count: 3,557
Summary: While cleaning the house, GIna finds a conch shell that Willie had given Polly on the last Fourth of July they shared together.
Author's Note: Nik and I had this idea about creating a story for every major holiday, so that Willie and Gina could share them. Naturally, in spite of the typically upbeat tone of the 4th, this particular holiday is laced with memories. Also, since I have only a single, undated printed copy of the story, I am unsure of the date Nik wrote it. But given the text, I believe this story takes place at some point after Home Among the Dead but before Stone.

*
Gina found the shell while she was poking for lost toys and dust bunnies beneath Polly Marie’s bed. She felt a click as the straws of the broom knocked something hard and roly-poly against the baseboard down there in the dark where she couldn’t see, and she shoved at it, using jabbing motions to push it along the floor until it rolled out from beneath the bedspread.

She expected a disembodied doll’s head, or one of Danny’s matchbox cars, or one of the fat wooden balls that baby Carla was learning to drop into corresponding holes in a wooden box, along with triangles and rectangles and squares. But what she found was a shell: a conch, no bigger than a spool of thread, the dome broken on one side and the whole coated with dust and spider webs.

Polly must have sat it atop her treasure box on the dresser, and not noticed when a bump to the dresser leg had knocked it off behind the bed. She’d be looking for it eventually, thought. Especially when Willie wrote again. The shell was a touchstone of sorts, one of the last mementos the children had of their friend. Polly always looked for it when a letter came from Willie, and once Gina had found the little girl weeping over it, the letter rolled in one damp hand and the shell clutched in the other.

“I miss Willie, Mama,” Polly had wailed, and buried her face in her mother’s apron.

Gina held her, helpless, until Polly was reduced to sniffling. Then she said, “You know, Polly, Willie is awfully busy. He’s working. But I bet he misses you, too. Do you think he’d like a new drawing, or a letter? He hasn’t had one in a while.”

“He got one last week,” Polly sobbed, indignant. “And last month, too. I never forget to send him one, Mama, how come he doesn’t write back?”

“He’s awfully busy,” Gina repeated, not knowing what else to say. “You remember how it was when we lived in Collinsport? We hardly ever saw him, because he was so busy. HE must be even busier now, if he doesn’t have time to write.”

Polly pressed her cheek against her mother’s knee, drying her face against the apron as her lower lip pooched out. “At least we saw him sometimes, then,” she said. “We never hear from him now. Not since he came to see me when I was sick, an’ that was a long time ago….”

“I know,” Gina admitted. “But maybe….” She floundered, searching for words a her daughter looked up at her with eyes both hopeful and wary. “Maybe we can send him another packet. A special one.” She took the shell from Polly Marie’s fingers, rolling its spiny crown across her own work-roughened palm. “Maybe you can draw Willie a picture of when he found this for you. Remember? On the Fourth of July? Maybe you could draw him a picture of that, and help him remember us. Maybe…maybe Danny could help.”

Polly had gone off then, full of big-sister bossiness, to help Danny figure out how to hold a crayon properly, and Gina had remained behind the hassock by the living room window, where she had shed a few quiet tears of her own. She missed Willie, too, as much as the children did. She worried about him all the time. She would get up in the morning and make her coffee and think, “Willie’s been up for hours now. He’s drinking water, not coffee. I wonder what he’s up to?” Or she would be stirring a can of Campbell’s soup in her saucepan, simmering the sludge of tomato paste and water into something more palatable while her Aunt Irene grilled ham and cheese sandwiches in butter, and she would think, “It’s dinner time for Willie now. I hope he’s eating something hot. Something as good as this, at least.”

She hoped that he was—but she suspected that he wasn’t. She knew that, barring a hot meal from the diner on the days that he made it into town, Willie had eaten little more than cold bread and cheese before he met the Logans. She doubted much had changed now that they had left him and moved west. But she hoped for him. She hoped Anne Pederson was keeping an eye on him, for Gina’s sake, and feeding him and apple pie now and then, or that maybe that persnickety old housekeeper at the Great House was seeing that he didn’t get too thin, even if, as Willie had once confided, she couldn’t cook for beans.

Gina wasn’t sure what Willie was doing now, or who was looking after him, if anyone was, because as Polly had said, he rarely wrote anymore.

But she hoped for him.

She looked down at the dusty shell in her hand, studying the dull yellow interior that had once been shined with seawater. She remembered as well as Polly the day the child had first acquired it. It was the Fourth of July, a shimmering, steaming Collinsport day, with the sky burned white with heat. Gina had packed a picnic hamper with hot dogs and buns and condiments, along with a few links of the spicy lincuaca that Willie liked, and had taken the children up the curving coastal road to the beach beneath Widow’s Hill. Most of the beach was stony, with the red pebbles popping beneath the waves like shrimp hitting hot oil in a fryer, but there were sandy places, too, and she led the children to one of these, spreading a blanket out on the narrow white crescent and lodging the hamper beneath a boulder so it would stay cool in the shade.

She sat on the edge of the blanket, feeling the sand warm and soft beneath her, holding Carla against her breast and breathing in the crushed spice of firs on the sea wind, while Danny and Polly played at the very edge of the waves. The children knew better than to get too close to the water without Willie there. Gina needn’t worry that they would try to wade. They played there on the beach, sun-limned and sun-browned, drawing in the sand with wet fingers and splashing their hands in the wavelets while they waited for Willie to come.

He came, but not until late afternoon, hours after he had promised he would. He came shame-faced but smiling, his hands still reeking of the turpentine he had used to wash away paint stains, a crumpled paper bag in one hand and the faint bulge of a matchbox squared in his jean’s front pocket. He kicked off his shoes at the path’s head, and walked across the sand to his friends.

Polly saw him first and shrieked.

“What did you bring us? What did you bring us?”

Gina frowned. “Polly, that’s….”

But the children weren’t listening to her. They were dancing around Willie’s feet while he kept the bag just out of reach, teasing them to laughter with whatever rattled inside.

“It’s a surprise,” he said, normal-voiced beneath their shouts. Gina had heard him do that before. His quietness quieted them, because they couldn’t hear him if they were shouting. He refused to shout over them, as another man might.

“A surprise for when?”

Polly wouldn’t be quieted, not all at once, anyway.

“For tonight,” Willie said. He looked at Gina. “Just before dark.”

She knew then that Willie had brought along a handful of penny sparklers for the children to light once the sun had begun to go down, but before the fireworks across the bay began launching up from the Collinsport docks. Willie had checked with Gina first, of course, to make sure that it was all right for him to bring them, and she appreciated that. Most people wouldn’t think twice about handing a child a firework that heated to 400 degrees at one end, but Willie had thought to ask, and had assured Gina that the children would be properly supervised while they played. He wouldn’t let them get hurt, he promised, his face more intent than the situation warranted. He’d keep them safe—and she believed him.

“Come on then,” she said, snugging Carla into her bassinet and shading the baby with a beach towel before standing up. “Help me get a fire going, or we’ll never get dinner made before the fireworks start.”

Willie smiled at her and sat the bag on a boulder, just out of reach of sneaky children’s fingers, Polly’s in particular. “Maybe you little guys can help me collect the wood,” he said. “See there?” He pointed along the shoreline, where scatters of driftwood sat in white humps on white sand. “Just bring the little pieces. I’ll bring the big ones. And watch out for crabs.”

“Polly, keep Danny with you,” Gina called, as the children rocketed across the sand to fetch the first sticks of wood.

“I will, Mama,” Polly called back, her child’s piping like a kittiwake’s in the wind up-beach. She and Danny came back a few minutes later, their arms filled with sandy sticks that they dumped in a pile by the blanket.

“A little further that way, thank you,” Gina laughed, re-piling the sticks several feet from the blanket. “You’re getting sand everywhere. Where’s Willie?”

“Right here.” Willie came from the shade behind her, lugging larger sticks and logs. “C’mon, kiddos, start diggin’. I need a sand pit to build the fire in.”

“Have we got enough sticks?” Polly wanted to know. “There’s lots more over there.”

“We’ll get more after I get the fire started. “Come’n help me dig this pit first. Ain’t you ready for lunch, kid? Jeez, I’m starving.”

“You’re always starving,” Polly said, mater-of-factly. She looked up, puzzled, when both Willie and her mother started laughing. “Well, you are.”

Willie didn’t answer her. He only scrunched down on his knees and started to dig, piling controlled humps of sand around the edge of what would be a shallow fire pit. Danny followed suit, his smaller hillocks piled next to Willie’s. But Polly waded in like a puppy, scattering sand between her legs until Gina called her up short.

“Polly Marie, will you watch what you’re doing!”

“Sorry, Mama,” Polly said, contrite. She ducked her head and grinned a wicked grin that her mother noticed but didn’t comment on, and Willie grinned back, keeping what Polly thought was a secret smile between them.

Gina caught herself studying him as she took a grill-top from its paper sack and prepared the hot dogs for roasting. Willie was easy on the sand, his knees tucked beneath him, no sign of stiffness in his back or legs as he reached across the pit to smooth out the sandy bottom; no sign of rushing to get done and get back to work, which meant his boss must be away. She realized what signs she was watching for even as she breathed a sign of relief that she couldn’t spot them, and she flushed hot with guilt, thinking that she shouldn’t be doing that, that Willie told her that he was all right, and that all was well at the Old House, that he was fine. He wouldn’t like it if he knew she was spying on him.

But I can’t help myself, she thought, as she sat jars of pickles and relish on a protective napkin. She worried about him. She had an idea of what must be going on up there at the Old House. She’d been through something similar once herself, back when Ez had been alive.

She’d never told anyone what was happening to her, not a soul, not once, and it looked as thought Willie would be damned if he would ever admit to such a thing, either. Gina could respect that. She understood the courage it took to keep silent. But that didn’t keep her from worrying about Willie. She wondered how he stood it.

“Finish up there, you three,” she called, with no quaver of shadow in her voice to spoil the day. “These dogs are ready to go.”

“Almost done.” Willie was laying wood in the bottom of the pit, building a pyramid that would fall into a flat bed of embers as it burned. “Gotta have some rocks to hold up the grill, though. I’ll get some, up above.”

“I’ll come too!” Polly yelled.

“Too!” cried Danny.

But Willie was shaking his head.

“I’m just goin’ right there,” he said, pointing at a tumble of rocks on the switchback of a path that led to the Old House rather than to the public road. “It’s too shifty for you over there, honey. Might twist an ankle or somethin’. Just wait for me, I’ll be right back.”

Polly opened her mouth to whine, but Gina silenced her with a look. The little girl thumped bottom first on the sand, black browns lowering in a sulk as Willie walked away from her, but she didn’t protest further. She only glared at her mother. Danny dutifully fell down beside his sister, always loyal in solidarity, thought he probably didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Danny always trusted that Willie would come back, while Polly always seemed to doubt it.

“Polly Marie, you keep that frown on your face and I’ll take you straight home,” Gina warned, once Willie was out of earshot. “You know Willie is only trying to keep you safe.”

“Don’t know why I couldn’t go anyways,” the little girl muttered darkly beneath her breath, but when Gina turned around in exasperation, Polly was struggling to her feet to stomp down to the water line. Danny joined her, and the next time Gina looked, the two of them were walking in squares up and down the beach, looking for shells.

Willie came back with the rocks, four hunks of reddish-brown granite cradled in the basket of his rucked up t-short. Each stone was partly squared off on the top, so the grill could rest on them without tipping over.

“Got what we need right here,” he said. He glanced over at the children while he compassed the corners of the fire pit, giving Gina a wry shake of his head. “Mad at me now, ain’t they?”

“They’ll get over it,” Gina said tartly. “That Polly is getting too big for her britches.”

“She’s a good kid,” Willie said quietly, tamping sand around the stones. “She’s just strong-minded…like her Ma.”

Gina busied herself with loosening the caps on bottles of mustard and ketchup. “She’s stubborn,” she said. Like her Pa. And a current of seawater, black as squid’s ink, scudded around her heart.

She looked up and found Willie watching her with his slate-gray eyes. Eyes that had gone hard with anger, and blue with understanding.

“She’s nothing like…” he started to say. And then hushed. He got to his feet, spilling a rill of sand into the fire pit. “Guess I’ll look for shells, unless you need me,” he said, his crimsoned cheek cupped in the warm palm of the sun, his blond hair ruffling in the wind. His eyes were on the sand, and he wouldn’t look at Gina as she said, “That’s all right Willie. Go ahead. I’ll call you when the dogs go on.”

He walked away without lighting the fire, and Gina let him go, thinking, How did he know what I meant? Does he know me…the children…that well?

He did. She knew that he did. Willie knew more than people gave him credit for knowing.

Just because he’s quiet and barely educated doesn’t mean he’s stupid. He knew what was happening with you and Ez. Just as you know what’s happening with him and that…that….

Gina couldn’t bring herself to finish the thought. She didn’t think of Willie’s employer as a man. He was too cold for that, too hard-hearted for that. He treated Willie like a dog. Gina couldn’t understand why Willie allowed it, unless that arrogant, prissy-voiced bastard at the Old House had some private information that might send Willie back to jail.

Stop thinking about it, she scolded herself. Here you are, ruining a perfectly wonderful Fourth of July, all because you can’t stop thinking about things that can’t be helped.

She found her matchbook and shook out a match, breaking the stick on the first strike across the sandpaper strip. Unwanted tears stung her eyes as she took a deep breath of sea air scented with fir and beach roses, listening to the crash and rush of the waves laced with the laughter of her children as she tried to regain her peace.

The second match found the fire. Salt turned blue, sand white. Crackles of trapped water split to wood and gave the flames a better purchase.

She waited until the embers were burning down before she placed the grill across the fire. The children were still hunting shells, shouting when they found a good one, while Willie just stood there at the shoreline with sea foam curling around his ankles and wetting the cuffs of his jeans, watching the horizon darken into blue—except when the children weren’t looking, and then he was watching them.

He never takes his eyes off us for long, Gina thought. We’re…safe with him. Not like we were with Ez.

Ez never took his eyes off the rim of his beer can. Gina made a disparaging noise deep in her throat and reached for the hot dogs, just as she saw Willie startle and look down at his feet.

Sand crab pinch him?

Gina watched, the hot dogs forgotten, as Willie reached down and scooped something out of the water before the wavelet could take it back. The children saw him do it and ran over to see what he had found, clamoring for him to share.

The murmur of Willie’s voice reached her across the beach as Gina got up to walk down to the surf. “It’s broken,” she heard him say. “Sorry ‘bout that, Polly.” He drew back his arm as if to boomerang whatever gift the sea had given him back into the waves, but Polly screamed as though it was her brother Danny that Willie was about to toss.

“NO!”

Willie stopped, startled, and turned to Gina as she approached.

“It’s just a shell,” he explained. He held it out to her. “Nothing much on this beach but oysters and periwinkles and clams. This’n here’s a conch, an’ it must have been a nice one once…but there’s only half of it left.”

Gina took the shell into her hand. It was sun bleached and coiled at the crown. The uppermost curves had been sheared away, leaving a pale yellow center where a snail had once curled. Gina dipped a forefinger into that smooth golden hollow, finding it silky and cold from the sea, while the crusty warmth of the crown pressed sharp into her palm.

“Willie’s right, Polly,” she said. “It’s broken. It’s been tossed against the rocks too long.”

“I don’t care,” Polly insisted. She took the shell from her mother and held it up to what was left of the sun. The yellow at the shell’s center brightened, warmed, showed a blush of pink. “Broken shells are keepers, too,” she said, as though any idiot with eyes should know as much. “I wanna keep this one special. Can I keep it, Willie, please?”

“’Course you can, kiddo,” Willie said, puzzlement still in his voice. He shrugged. “You can have anythin’ you want, if I got it.”

“Hot dog,” Danny announced. Plainly that was what he wanted.

Willie laughed, the strangeness of the moment broken. “I’m with you on that one, chief,” he said. “’bout ready to put ‘em on, Gina Lee? I’m starved.”

“The coals are ready,” Gina said, “and sos’s the fixin’s. Let’s get going, I’m pretty hungry myself.”

They walked back to the grill, the children hand in hand, with Polly skipping with happiness over her bright, broken shell.

“Got lincuaca?” Willie asked.

There was a twinkle in his eye as he asked it.

And that was the last time they had truly laughed together. A winter separated them after that, and then the spring, when Gina had announced the move. After that had come Polly’s accident, and that taunt, high-strung silences of Willie in the house in San Diego, with Gina dying to ask him questions and Willie equally determined to give nothing away.

And after that…after that, a long dearth of letters, with only one or two coming every other month. Short letters that said nothing except how are you and I’m fine and I bet the kids are growing big, tell them I love them, all written in Willie’s ungainly hand. Gina and the children sent him reams, but it seemed he had nothing left to say.

A splash of water landed on the shell in Gina’s hand, washing a clean spot through the dust.

Broken shells are keepers, too.

But what do you do if the sea snatches them back, before you can bring them home?


Gina took the shell into the bathroom, thinking she would wash it before she returned it to Polly’s treasure box.

Polly might need it again someday.

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