There’s something wrong with my family and it’s not just because my father blows up rockets for a living. If we’re normal, why are we driving down a road for a week of Christmas vacation on some Mexican beach I never heard of? Have we been bad children? Santa left plenty of presents, but I know my father has it in for Christmas. Our new Hanukkah menorah was huge, while the Christmas tree was reduced to a tabletop twig. As soon as we stop, I’m going to write in my diary about my plan to get away and find my real parents.
My brother Danny and I pinch each other for entertainment as our station wagon slowly moves across a dirt road through Baja, California. It seems as if we’ve been in this car since before the dinosaurs sank into the La Brea tar pits. By the time we stop, I’ll be a saber tooth tiger, melting in my own bones.
“Ow! I’m telling!”
My mother turns, her blue eyes grim.
He pinches me again.
“Let’s all sing!” she says.
She begins her favorite Navy days ditty.
“Hang Jeff Davis on a sour apple tree, down went McGinty to the bottom of the sea – come on, SING!”
Danny and I chorus, “She’s my Annie and I’m her Joe, so listen to my tale of – WHOA! Any ice today, lady? No? Gitty up.”
We sing it over and over, with no idea who Jeff Davis might be or why ice was needed. I wish to be at the bottom of the sea with McGinty, anywhere but shouting into the desert.
We start our own song.
“Beans, beans are good for your heart, the more you eat the more you fart,” we shout, off-key, in unison.
Mom turns and glares. We sing louder.
“The more you fart the better you feel…”
Dad’s eye in the rear view mirror narrows. We finish louder.
“So eat your beans at every meal!!”
Mom is not pleased.
“I told you!” she says, “Don’t upset your father!”
“Dad farts all the time, gross-out farts,” I say.
Dad thinks farting at the table is funny, so why he doesn’t like our song?
Mom wins. We are silenced.
“How soon till we get there?”
I aim my complaint at Mom’s neck, with her brown hair curling out of her bandanna.
“Pretty damn soon.”
I roll the window down because my father says it makes sand blow into his nose. I want to coat him and all of us with gray grit.
“You said ‘pretty soon’ an hour ago.”
The car suddenly swerves and we grab onto door latches as it skids across the gravel road. It comes to a halt.
“Mitch, what did you hit?”
Dad roars, “I HIT a bump in the road because of my fekokte children! Not to mention their mother!”
“You might have killed us!”
“I didn’t come all the way down here to listen to them whine. I spend seventy hours a week, seven days a week, putting together a rocket that can fly a thousand miles, and no one’s going to cheat me out of my vacation!”
Dad gets out and comes around to my side. He opens the door.
“What?” I try to scramble away but he grabs my arm.
“Get out. You’re walking behind the car.”
I stop resisting and let myself be pulled out.
“Mitch, this is ridiculous. You made your point –”
“Aw, Kee-rist!” Dad bellows and bangs his fist on the car. He goes around and gets in. “It’s too ga-dam hot for this!”
I pull my door shut and we take off.
Even prisoners have their own cells, and at home I have my room, but now I have nowhere to go. I finger my diary, making sure the lock is firm. As soon as this car stops, I will write whatever I want. I will write a mystery story, I decide, since my family is such a mystery. What planet did they travel here from? Must have been a desert one, or they wouldn’t take us here.
“When do we get there?” I dare to say again.
He aims me a look in the mirror.
“I’m having fun, so you’re having fun. Wonder Week,” Dad says, mostly to himself. “The Sea of Cortez—Good fishing every day! —Marvelous marlin in Old Mexico!”
“Fish chowder tonight!” he shouts. “Kim’s coming tonight, and Brenda and Harv in the morning!”
Dad’s fishing buddy Kim, captain of a San Pedro sport fishing boat, will meet us and so will Harv, an engineer on Dad’s missile project, and Harv’s wife Brenda.
The road becomes so rough he cannot talk. Another half-hour and we are in San Felipe, and then we emerge on the other side of the village and begin driving along what is now just a rut between the rocks.
We have reached the end of nowhere, and it’s on the edge of a brilliant stretch of aqua ocean.
Dad bursts out of the car, begins unloading our gear.
“Hop to it! Betts, get the mattresses and start blowing. Early start tomorrow on that boat. I’m going to catch me a totuaba. We’ll eat three hundred pounds of a real prize only found in the Sea of Cortez. Me and Hemingway. You brought the camera, right? Carry the ice chest. Rachel, help your mother carry that. Danny, go into the wanagan and get the fish-boning knife.”
Every word befuddles my brother, who does not move when ordered to get the boning knife.
“Scoot! Whatcha waitin’ for?”
Danny waits to find out what a wanagan is.
“What’s a wanagan, you wanna know? Well, it’s the thing you put the magooble-jubber into. Which you use with the widdlewafter. Ya know howta skin a fish, dontcha? Gotta learn how to skin ’em if you want to catch ’em. You want to catch fish like your Pop, don’t you? Your sister can already catch fish.”
He scoops up his bewildered son, sets him on his shoulders, marches over to a large green box and sets Danny down. He opens brass latches and lifts three lids.
“This is our wanagan, our camp kitchen.”
Danny giggles. Why are these instructions aimed at my little brother, who has barely learned not to eat pill bugs? I am the oldest.
“It’s my turn,” I say.
“It’s time for Danny to do things a boy does. Go help your mother.”
Walking away, I kick the water can.
Dad is soon surf casting, flicking his line into the water with long overhand throws. Danny’s a little ways away, throwing sand at sand. I walk down to Dad. He smiles.
” I’ll set up your rod. Want to practice casting?”
I nod, and we surf-cast together until dinnertime, when Kim Demetriou arrives at dinnertime. A dark-eyed, handsome man slow to speak and warm toward children, he offers to help my mother cook, which makes my father impatient. Dad dances around them both, explaining how the camp setup works, when the charter totuaba boat leaves in the morning, and where is the best place to pitch his tent.
That night around the fire, we sing songs. Kim sings two Greek songs in his warm, sweet voice. I want to write that I like San Felipe, but the lulling surf makes me fall asleep before I can unlock my diary and take out the little pencil inside.
The next day, Kim and Dad are up before dawn to catch the boat, returning only when sunset turns the beach dark and the ocean the color of flame. Around our campfire, with fish grilling, Dad tells their story.
“What a day! Couldn’t even stop to piss, the yellowtail were biting so fast. They were breaking the surface all around us.”
“You could have danced on their backs,” says Kim.
“We hauled them in so fast they looked like flying fish.”
“It was going great,” Kim adds softly, “until the boat sank.”
“That God-damned skipper! The moron kept us standing in water before he figured out that he should put us off the boat. By that time, we were nearly at the dock, AND THEN he transferred us to another boat. I told him I’ve got enough explosive charges to blow up his boat and send the pieces to the moon, Alice!”
Mom is horrified. “You don’t really have explosives, do you, Mitch? Tell your children you aren’t blowing up boats!”
Kim smiles and says, “Mitch, he was a no-good sonofabitch captain.”
The next morning brings us Harv, a short man with a sweet-smelling pipe and too-tan, blonde Brenda, with her strapless aqua bathing suit and blue shorts. Harv unloads the car while Brenda leans against their blue wagon and pours herself a drink from the Thermos.
“I got a real thirst from the drive,” she says.
“Great to see you, Harv!” Dad says. “Brenda, how’s my best girl? You won’t believe the fishing down here. So far we’ve caught yellowtail and a ton of snook. You could throw a piece of string and a hot dog in the water and pull something out.”
After they get Brenda and Harv’s tent set up, Dad pulls Harv down to the surf, leaving Mom with Brenda. We’re carrying bedrolls and duffel bags to their chosen camping spot, when Brenda stops and looks at us.
“Where around here do you …?”
Mom points to two folding shovels on the sand. “Pick a sand dune.”
Brenda laughs. “Roughing it, huh? Up at the lake, we’re civilized now. We got us an outhouse and barbecue.”
Mom does not correct her grammar. Instead she asks which way they drove down and then Brenda unfolds her campstool, sits down, and lights a cigarette. She undoes her ponytail and lets her pale hair cover sunburned shoulders.
She shouts, “Harv! Did you clean the reels? We got to be ready early.”
My mother and I look at each other in wonderment. Brenda flicks an inch of ash off her cigarette and crosses her legs man-style, dangling a sandal from her painted toe.
Each morning, I mound up a new sand fort using varieties of sand. I have just sculpted a soft white throne and bent the ballerina doll’s legs to sit her, when I see a flash in the corner of my eye. Brenda, in white shorts and a red bathing suit top, is heading my way.
“What cute dolls!” She peers over my barricade.
She squats and picks up the ballerina. “Look, the arms and legs bend. I’ll bet this is your favorite doll, isn’t it?”
I see Brenda doesn’t really care what I answer. Mom does not like her.
“What’s the matter, honey, are you shy?”
I bend my head, pretending to fix the doll’s throne.
“I thought you and I could be friends.”
I pick up Barbie and hand her over.
“This is my favorite.”
“Kinda looks like me, huh? Only no tan. Maybe next year they’ll make Tan Barbie.” She looks at my open diary. “I see you’re always writing. What do you put in there?”
She stretches out her hand, but I jerk the book away. She’s a grabber.
I leave Brenda looking startled and go to find my mother. Mom is napping under a tented book.
“Can you walk me to the tide pools?” I ask, desperate for her to protect me from Brenda.
She shields her eyes with a forearm and says to play with my dolls.
“Didn’t you want to have a daughter?”
The question hangs like a wasp in the air.
“Who told you to say such things to me? Your father?”
Her blue eyes freeze me. We look at each other for an icy moment and then she softens.
“Darling, I couldn’t have imagined how wonderful it is to have you.” I think I will be hugged, but she says, “That’s not why I can’t play with you.”
“Because I’m tired. I’ve been tired a long time. We came here so I could rest.”
“Do you need to rest from me?”
“Honey, you’re just going to have to be bored awhile.”
Tiny hammers of heat and boredom are banging in my head, but I return to my stretch of sand, take up my diary, and write, describing the planet my parents came from, an evil green place called Totuaba. Then I go off to find the tide pools Mom said were at the end of the beach.
What I find is Dad, his fishing rod propped in a sand spike. He is twisted away as if trying to reach around himself. I get nearer and see he is twisted around Brenda. Brenda’s eye appears around the side of Dad’s head, and then she skips away from him and starts walking away. Dad turns to see me.
“Sweetheart, come help your father fish!”
You can’t help someone fish, but I can’t resist him.
“I saw you,” I say. I expect yelling, but he holds out his hand. “Let’s walk.”
We walk down the white curve of sand, away from camp. He takes me to the tide pools. Peering in, Dad lets out a shout and scoops something up and offers it.
“Here, you hold it.”
I take the tiny, dark mass, afraid of its squirming tentacles, but Dad pours more seawater into my hands and it quiets, then wriggles, tickling my palms.
“A baby octopus. You can hold it just for a minute, then put it back.”
The purple-black creature writhes, its round body tickling me.
“Can we take it home?”
“Because we’d have to get seawater for it every day.”
“I’ll get it. I promise. Please!”
“No. Put it back.”
“Darling, I’ll buy you any toy. But this isn’t suitable for a pet. Put it back before it dies.”
Reluctantly, I set the octopus loose. It wriggles as soon as it touches the water and disappears.
As we walk back to camp, I ask, “Dad, why was Brenda …”
He squeezes my hand. “You won’t tell your Mom, will you? It was just a little fun. Let’s don’t upset her. It’s our secret, okay?”
But it goes into my diary, the squibbled letters taking the shape of my suspicions.
The next night after dinner the grownups celebrate New Year’s Eve. After dinner, Dad makes his special pineapple juice drinks, and Danny and I are told to go into the tent and stay there. We peek out as the adults sing, then sing louder and louder, singing a New Year’s song with nonsense lyrics: oldling cosine and some stuff about a cup of math.
They turn on a car radio and mariachi music pours into the night. They begin dancing, Dad and Brenda and Harv. Dad is staggering around with Brenda.
“Are you my girl, Brenda darling?” he shouts.
“You bet your ass, Mitch.”
“Hey, Harv!” Dad shouts. “Let’s get some dynamite and blast that skipper into orbit!”
Harv tries to dance with my mother, who lets herself be twirled and then backs off to the campfire, sits down on a campstool and crosses her legs.
Harv shouts back to Dad, “Let’s save the firepower for our rockets, Mitch!”
“Blow up the sumvabitch!”
From inside my tent, it looks as if the campfire is getting too high. Dad pours something into it, which should make it go out, but the flames leap.
“Brenda, darling, you’re sexy as all get-out,” Dad says and dances over to her.
I have seen him dance silly but this is different, he seems to be having trouble dancing at all. When he takes a spin, he falls backward and only prevents himself from falling flat on the sand by quickly putting a hand down behind him and then leaping forward to his feet. Brenda laughs hard.
Kim goes over to Mom and holds out his hand. She gets up and they dance fast. Mom keeps going even when she’s out of breath, until at last she twirls and races back to the campstool, sitting down, laughing. Kim follows, also laughing.
As she recovers, she spots me watching and points. I close the tent flap and lie down listening to the sound of mariachis punctuated by Dad’s occasional “Dynamite!”
“I’m scared of them,” Danny says.
“Go to sleep. It’s just Dad showing off.
“He never acted like this before.”
I don’t like them acting like kids. This is an alien landscape and our parents have finally taken off their human disguises. My brother and I have to be allies now.
“It’ll be okay in the morning,” I say. “They’re playing parts in a play. I wrote it for them and they promised to act it out. They’ll stop.”
“Okay,” Danny says.
Then he employs his talent for sudden sleep.
I am left alone staring at the stars through the tent flap. I have learned that the key to many mysteries is a pen, but only when I hold it at a slant. I decide to write a play with all the grownups as aliens on a beach planet where they speak in riddles. Only the children will understand what’s going on. I will spill the beans, and I have plenty. I will spill them in disguise so I never need a lock on my diary again. I have learned to observe them invisibly.
Rachel Dacus is the author of Gods of Water and Air, a collection of poetry, prose, and drama; the poetry books Earth Lessons and Femme au Chapeau, and the spoken word CD A God You Can Dance. A widely published poet, dramatist, and writer of fiction and non-fiction, her poems, stories, essays, interviews, and reviews have appeared in Atlanta Review, Boulevard, Fringe Magazine, Many Mountains Moving, Prairie Schooner, Rattapallax, and many other journals and anthologies. She is currently working on a novel, The Renaissance Club, a time travel romance involving the great Baroque sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. She lives in Walnut Creek, California where she raises funds for nonprofit organizations.
© 2014, Rachel Dacus