Editor’s note: This is Chapter 3, “Home,” an excerpt from a novel-in-progress.
I found my mother sleeping under the bridge, her arm slung over her eyes, the flies buzzing so loud I couldn’t believe she could sleep. The fact that she had tired herself out swimming across the sound the previous night, and had slept on the beach while I had spent the night in the car awake and smacking mosquitoes, spoke volumes about who was an island girl and who was not. No matter how much I wanted it, clearly I was the non-native species.
“Mama,” I tried softly before she woke up, and then, “Ellen,” and nudged her. She groaned and turned over, got a mouthful of sand, spat, and sat up. Her hair was sticking up in clumps, her face smudged with dirt, her eyes rimmed with salt lines from her swim.
“Get in the car,” she mumbled.
“Are you okay?”
“Just get in the car. We’ve stayed too long.”
What did she mean, we’d stayed too long? Fear ran through me. What if she started the car and pointed it north, taking us all the way back to Minnesota with me never meeting my grandparents? I waited in the car for what seemed like forever, smashing the mosquitoes I had missed the night before against the windshield.
But finally she was next to the car, motioning for me to roll down my window. “Isn’t there something to wash up with?” she asked, and I found the baby wipes I had stashed in the glove box and handed them to her.
After she wiped her face and neck and hands and combed her hair, taming it the best she could, she nodded toward the path we had driven down from the bridge the night before. “Let’s get this over with,” she said.
Coming off the beach to where the island began was a sign that said “Comfrey Island, pop. 899,” followed by a little white skiff propping up a second sign: “Keep Comfrey Clean and Green,” it said, and in parentheses, “(DO NOT LITTER).” I thought of taking the sign home with me. If accused of stealing public property, I could make the point that it had my name on it. “Hey, Comfrey,” kids would say at my parties, if I ever became the sort of girl who had parties. “Great sign. We like the sign.”
We stopped at a BP gas station, where my mother got out her brush and toilet kit and used the rest room to change into a clean tank top and shorts. When it was my turn, I looked at my face in the dimly lit mirror, gave it a quick scrub, and brushed my teeth. I took out a new pair of jeans and a T-shirt from my back pack, although they didn’t look any less wrinkled or more clean than the clothes I already wore from yesterday. My mother’s wild hair, as I followed her back to the car, smelled like seaweed.
As we eased out of the gas station, I couldn’t hold in my mind what was about to happen. Here I had been dreaming, asleep and awake, about meeting the family that existed for me beyond my mother, and as we drove grimly on, the bridge already feeling like centuries behind us, I felt my breath squeeze out of me. I looked over at my mother. She pretended not to know I was checking on her but her face was white, and her grip on the steering wheel was so tight that the skin on one of her knuckles cracked and started to bleed.
“Must have scraped it on the beach,” she said, dabbing the blood with an old tissue. She managed a feeble smile, said in a funny voice, almost as if she’d been sucking helium, “We’ll be there in a minute—” and then she pulled over into a little yard.
I straightened and tried to look presentable, which was impossible, and to see what kind of house my grandparents had. I tried to give it the benefit of the doubt, but what slumped before us was a small brown house with the paint badly peeling, garbage piled high in barrels along the porch. I braced myself to walk up the driveway but my mother had swung open her car door and was throwing up on the grass.
I waited, staring rigidly ahead, hoping no one was watching. Over and over the sound of her heaving cut across the quiet morning. If no one had seen, they certainly had heard.
Weakly, my mother slid back into the car. I fished out another baby wipe and looked away as she wiped her mouth with it.
“Damn,” she said. “Right on Georgia Albers’ yard. I’ll bet she tells my mother.”
Then she heard how that sounded and started to laugh. She laughed silently, furtively, as if that, too, were a crime. Finally, she wiped the tears from her eyes (new baby wipe), said, “I think I can do this now,” and started the car again. I was sorry for Georgia Albers that we left her house with a pile of vomit in her yard but not sorry that my grandparents didn’t live there.
The island road stretched ahead once more, and then suddenly there was a curve, and a crazily tacked up sign that said “Letty’s Carved BriDs,” and even though my mother was driving slowly, the road narrowed so quickly the car almost brushed the huge tree where the sign about the BriDs was tacked.
“Who wouldn’t know how to spell ‘birds’?” I asked.
“That’s a liveoak,” my mother said, not hearing me. “Biggest one on the island.”
And making the turn, we entered a tunnel of liveoaks, clustered so closely over the narrow road that they seemed to form a bridge of their own —
— and then we were out again into the scorching sun and pulling into a dirt driveway that led to a low, white house.
After all that show of trees along the road, this yard had no trees at all. From the front porch, the only thing stretching to meet us was the grass bleached white from the sun. On the porch were two old people, frozen in their chairs, watching us as if they had foreseen the appointed hour and minute we would arrive.
The man was wearing a short-sleeved shirt that buttoned. The woman wore a faded green cotton dress. They were framed on the porch like that, as if they had been there for years.
No one moved. We looked at them, and they looked at us, aliens looking at earthlings.
“They’ve grown so old,” my mother said. “I’d hardly recognize her.”
The man leaned slightly toward the woman, but he didn’t speak. The woman had more color than he did—even from the car I could see her face was flushed. She looked like a Labrador retriever who sat only because she had been told to sit, half consumed by her own energy, waiting for the signal to rush forward.
“Aren’t we going to get out?” I asked, sneaking a quick look to make sure my mother wasn’t going to get sick again. She managed a thin smile and clutched at two of my fingers.
“Here goes,” she said, her voice changing, shifting into something lighter, straining toward a niceness I knew wasn’t for me but for them. “I’m sure your grandparents are waiting to meet you, Ivy,” she said, and opened her door.
The groaning yawn of the car door was the only signal my grandmother needed. She shot off the porch and ran toward us in a sort of chugging motion, her plump arms pumping as tears streamed down her face.
“This must be Ivy!” she cried, taking my face in her hands and pressing me tight to her. A smell of lavender talc and sweet sweat came over me as she rocked me close. Then she fell back a little as my mother said carefully, “Hello, Mama.”
“Just look at the two of you,” my grandmother said, swinging around to include my mother in our circle. “My own dollbaby all growed up, and now she’s brung us a grandbaby.” She swung back around to me. “I was so surprised when I found out you were a-coming!” she crowed. “So surprised it’s all I’ve thought and dreamed of since. I’ve pictured you a million ways and now look at you — a hundred times purtier than anything I could conjure!”
All this time my grandfather had kept to the porch. He rose now so that he stood, both arms resting on top of the porch rail, but he did not move closer.
“Paul, come see,” my grandmother called. “Come look what our Ellie brung home to us.”
He scowled and started toward the door to the house. “Food’s getting cold,” he said. “Thought you’d be here yesterday. Made your mother do a complete dinner for nothing.”
“Car trouble, Daddy,” my mother called. She tried to keep it casual and light but it was as if a thundercloud had parked itself squarely across the sun.
“Oh, don’t mind him none,” my grandmother told us. “His arthritis is setting on him roight bad today — at least we know a shift in the weather is a-comin.’ How do you like our Carolina steam bath, Ivy?” And she fanned her face and wiped her forehead with a powder blue napkin she pulled from where it was tucked into her sleeve, and said again to my mother, “Don’t pay him no mind.”
She fluttered around us as she led us toward the house, where my grandfather had gone inside. “You look done in,” my grandmother said to my mother. Then — “Ivy, let me look at you,” dancing a full circle around me. “The mirror image of your mama at fifteen —to a T!”
My mother, still looking sick and pale, followed behind us.
“I made a big old breakfast,” my grandmother was saying, linking her arm with mine. “When you didn’t come for supper last night, I told him, ‘It’ll more than keep,’ and I just knew you all’d be here for breakfast. Do you like pancakes, Ivy? And some good sausage, I expect. Oh, you look good enough to eat!”
“Mama, we look like damaged goods,” my mother said.
“Not to me you don’t,” my grandmother answered, making a flitting motion with her hands. For such a large woman, she could move surprisingly fast, reminding me of a hummingbird despite her bulk. “When you’ve had some breakfast you and Ivy can take a nap and start out roight.” And she escorted me like royalty up the slanted porch steps, opening the screen door with a flourish.
Inside the pale green kitchen I ate as if I were starving, and the more I ate, the more my grandmother beamed at me. My grandfather watched my mother pick at her eggs. God, please don’t let them pass her the meat, I thought as he gripped his fork to bear down hard on his knife and cut off a chunk of ham. Please let’s not talk about who’s a vegetarian and who’s not.
“You seem to be doing poorly,” my grandfather observed. He announced this across the table to no one in particular, although it was obvious he was talking to my mother.
“It’s just the travel, Paul,” my grandmother said, trying to smooth things over by smiling big for me.
“Some things don’t change,” my grandfather declared. “It’s all you can do to sit in this house and eat your mother’s food. Well, I expect you to get yourself together at least in time for church tomorrow.”
With that my mother left the table, her footsteps pounding up the stairs, then the rusty springs of a bed suddenly groaning over our heads.
“More pancakes, Ivy?” my grandmother called brightly.
But I wasn’t hungry any more. I got up and started to clear the table.
My grandfather made a funny noise, almost as if he were trying to choke out a laugh. “That’s more than her mother helped those last few years,” he said, and he got up without looking at me and went outside.
I hated him. Within twenty minutes of being in that house, I was ready to find my mother and get back in the car.
But my grandmother — “I can’t tell you what a help you are,” she was saying, in the same voice you’d use to tell a five-year-old what a big girl she was, only my grandmother’s voice was trembling and she wouldn’t let me see her face.
After we cleared the table, she said, “Let’s go and see your room, then.” She dried her chapped hands on a towel with little black roosters strutting across it. “You’ll be staying with your mama in what we call the jump,” she said as I followed her up the stairs, “her old room. I’ve been getting it ready, and I hope you like it.” Here her voice got brighter. “Never dreamed my grandbaby would come home to sleep in the jump.”
She swung the door open and ushered me in ahead of her. My mother was lying on her stomach across a narrow bed. She didn’t look up when we came in.
“The bed’s a double,” my grandmother was saying anxiously, “but if that doesn’t work we could arrange for a cot or some such to tuck along the window. It’s just that I’ve not had the time. The news that I have a granddaughter is still making me try to collect my breath.”
“Or maybe collect your wits,” my mother said. “It’s obvious he wasn’t exactly happy about us coming.”
My grandmother turned to her. “Now, Ellie, don’t go on like that,” she said. “Things will work out. They just need time.”
She eased onto the bed alongside my mother and started to stroke her hair. I concentrated on the rest of the room. It was pretty, the walls painted an apple green, with gauzy white curtains tied back from the window. In the corner were a little desk and chair. Some of my mother’s books — Black Beauty, National Velvet, were stacked on the desk as if she had just been reading them. I picked up Black Beauty and smelled the musty pages.
It was a small room, tucked under the roof. Directly below me through the window I could see my grandfather’s long feet as he propped them up on the porch rail; beyond that, the bleached grass of the front yard; across the road, the house marked by the “Letty’s Carved BriDs” sign nearly walled off by the thick liveoaks; and beyond that, the ocean. There was no furniture in the room besides the bed, desk, and chair, no posters or art of any kind on the walls. But I liked how clean and orderly it was and how the pancake smells in the kitchen had drifted up the stairs to mingle with the scent of pine oil soap, and how the seagulls shrieked and laughed beyond the bedroom walls.
“You rest up,” my grandmother was saying. “You, too, Ivy. You’ll like it better once you’re caught up on sleep.”
“I like it now,” I said, but she just said, “Rest now,” backing her large frame out the door and giving me a tired smile. My mother never looked up.
When my grandmother was all the way down the stairs again, I eased onto the bed. “It’s going to be okay, Ellen,” I told her.
She pretended to be asleep — maybe she already was — and I watched the sunlight dance yellow flags against the white chenille bedspread. Outside on the porch my grandfather coughed and spat. I lay down beside my mother as close to the edge of the bed as I could so we would not touch, and closed my eyes. I wanted to stay awake until I had pressed it into myself that I was finally here, in my mother’s room, in my grandparents’ house on Comfrey Island, which I wanted to be my island, but I could not hold off from sleep to accommodate another thought, and when sleep came, it was long and hard.
Laurie Skiba’s work has appeared in Shenandoah, been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and was awarded a Minnesota Artist’s Fellowship. She has lived along the Outer Banks of North Carolina and currently lives in Northern California.