Gord Grisenthwaite

Writer ♦ Photographer

In My Mind the Sea

“‘In My Mind the Sea’ examines the turbulence of adolescence.” It appeared in the Spring 1989 issue of Okanagan Life magazine. This is the complete story as it was first published.

IMAGE: A naked Barbie doll on the shore of a sandy beach

I was alone and he was with me, but thinking of the sea made it all right, made everything seem as everything should be.

His fingers. Like a prickling at the nape of my neck that tickled and pinched and joggled the nerve endings as if five thousand pairs of eyes were trained on me, but I gritted my teeth and imagined it was nothing more than grains of sand tickling of my sun-drying body, as if the sea washed over me and tickled me with its froth.

I was alone when the stars came out. In the bath with G.I. Joe and Barbie, who'd lost her head. The sea was gone now. The only waves to calm me were the ones I made while sloshing. My mother’s presence warmed me, like that first blast of heat from the furnace in the morning. It was her house, now. But the walls were always her. Petit point: old and new and Home Sweet Home. It smelled of unfinished and unframed petit point daisies, warm kitchens, fresh baked bread, and a forest scene as long as the hall between the bathroom and the kitchen.

The forest was her favourite. It was an original. She had sewn old bed sheets together on her Singer sewing machine, and then drawn on it trees, mountains and the little cabin – where she’d said one day we’d live – then she coloured in the sketch with my Reeves watercolours. It looked almost like the store-bought kits she always got and never finished. She used left-over threads

My forest is nearly finished, she said. When it’s done it’s going in the P.N.E. Home Show.

It’ll win, I said.

It’ll win, he said.

O, Kenny, you’re just saying that. But thanks, anyway.

She giggled like a goofy kid. They kissed and cooed over her work. I’d said it first, but it was like I wasn’t even there. I wriggled in between them and told her again her piece would win.

Go to bed. She smiled down at me and pushed me toward my room.

So I went to bed and asked the sea to roll over me. He stayed with her and said again, It’ll win the blue ribbon, Marl.

The tide crept in while I slept, sucking in her petit point and beat it to death against the rocks. It got the beating. I got the pain.

Some days even when my mother was home the sea took over the house. Its tide rolled in and when it rolled out it left behind things so stupid and preoccupied they weren’t aware the water had left. They didn’t realize I couldn’t remove them safely to deep water. And even if I were able, I wouldn’t have.

I left them gasping on the sand as food for the worms and other creatures I feared; the monsters that lived below the surface, in the muck, and burrowed among the shells, bones and rotting seaweed. I was building a castle, then, packing shovelsful of sand into a pail to mould the castle I would call Home Sweet Home. And some of the creatures, thinking themselves prisoners in my dungeons, burst through the castle’s foundation. The walls toppled over, covering them once more.

The castle lay in ruin. I abandoned it.

There was a photo album in the living room table, hidden under a pile of Family Circle and Women’s Day magazines, and old Sears catalogues. Sometimes I dug it out and studied the faces. Sometime I remembered a face’s name: Uncle so-and-so. I’d thought it was great to have so many uncles; so many presents, mostly toys by now outgrown, or broken or both. I hadn’t seen any of those uncles in a long while. In the middle of the album – with a picture of my mother when she was young – was a rose between two sheets of tissue. I thought it was an awfully stupid place to keep a flower, and accidentally told her so once. Told her I want to hold it, sniff it. Play with it.

But it’s so delicate, she said. that if you took it from the album it’d crumble to dust. Anyway you’re far too young to understand its beauty.

My plump, clumsy fingers ached to touch that old red rose, ached to pull it from the album and hold it up for the wind. When the tide rushed in, that rose stayed dry, even though it was closer to the ground than I.

Sometimes I think my heart’s like your flower.

That’s nice, dear. Go out and play.

I’d thought it was great to have so many uncles; so many presents, mostly toys by now outgrown, or broken or both.

That night I bathed and her voice – singing along with Wanda Jackson or Loretta Lynn – didn’t make me feel safe. Barbie sank. She’d lost her arms.

His truck pulled in to the driveway and my heart shattered, crumbled and sifted low into my guts, ran down my leg. It was a pile of red dust at my feet. I froze, as if trapped for a minute inside a photograph. Then I ran to the door, kicking the piled red flakes of my heart, scattering them. They twinkled in a sunbeam like scarlet stars. I reached out my arms, stabbing the air around him with my eyes. He looked down at me, and the look stung, softened my arms until they fell to my sides. Then he smiled like Santa Claus, nodded toward the horse trailer attached to his truck.

My horse! You got me my horse.

I whisked past him and tried to peer over the tailgate. Either the horse or I was too short. I saw nothing. I fumbled with the catch, getting angrier and more anxious. Uncle Kenny and my mother’d come to watch. They laughed and urged me on. The smell of the sea was stronger than the horse’s. He, finally, came and undid the dead-bolt.

O, Kenny, you’re spoiling him.

My room was decorated with paintings my mother made on leftover panelling. Mostly they were Pluto, Goofy, Donald Duck, Mickey and Minnie Mouse. She’d copied them from a book she’d bought. The ones I wanted most were the ones she couldn’t draw: Peg-Leg Pete, Uncle Scrooge and the Beagle Boys. My room smelled like Bounce, rug deodorant and Charlie, or it smelled like Testors paint and model glue. But always, underneath those smells, I smelt the sea.

Some days it refreshed me. Some days it was like a blast of warm sun. Other times it was cold and scary; a nightmare that stayed with me even during the day

One wall was lined with books I sometimes looked at and the opposite one held shelves and shelves of models he’d bought me: trucks, cars, boats and planes. There was also a work bench he’d made for us to work at.

I’m delivering the trailer to the McDonald place, out past Mission.

In the trailer was another model, a Peterbuilt cabover tractor. It wasn’t my horse, but it was a truck I didn’t have. The trailer’s floor was as clean as my bedroom’s.

Me in my pajamas. Mother at work. It was late and a school night, but instead of being in my bed sleeping I was on his lap. I was enveloped in his arms, the vinegary smell of his armpits. His hairy forearms jabbed and irritated mine. His breath had a different smell to it, not the peppermint odour I was used to, and even though it was warm, blowing past my ear as he spoke, it made me seasick. And he spoke while he painted the small parts, handled them in his fat fingers as if he were holding my mother’s rose. I needed to go then, but I couldn’t, not while he was painting the door panels.

I would watch open-mouthed and silent when he painted the details, especially when he applied the little gold band to the captain’s hat. I would wonder how he always knew who the figures were and which was the captain.

O, I don’t know, son. It’s just a gift I’ve got. I guess if you’d spent as much time in the navy as me, you’d get where you could spot ’em a mile away.

I wished I had his gift.

We spilled hot chocolate and paint, mostly on me. He bathed me and eventually put me to bed. instead of bedtime prayers, he made me repeat the promise and tell him why we had the secret.

After good night kisses and turning out the light the tide stormed in. It engulfed me and beat me against the cliff. I awoke and fumbled out of bed, snared in wet blankets like a pig in python’s coils.

Even though I was wet I hiked up my pajama legs and ploosh plooshed over the dampened carpet, then tip-toed down the stairs to the fire. They snuggled like lovers on the couch, oblivious to the storm that tore at me. I hid in the deep shadow cast by the kitchen door, disquieted by their voices and the fire’s pops and crackles. A gale whorled inside my head.

He’s sure a good kid, Marl. We had another great time tonight. Sometimes it really feel like he’s my son, you know? The both of you could use a man around her full-time. Am I right?

She put her head on his shoulder and touched the tip of his nose with a finger. Fire twinkled in her eye.

Is that a yes?

A yes to what? She giggled, looking more than a little foolish.

I just asked you to marry me.

Is that what you just did?

That’s what I thought I was doing.

O, well then. A toast. To the next Missus Robinson.

They clinked glasses and then fell all over each other like professional wrestlers. Smacking noises. Laughter. Moans. And that cloying giggle.

Eek! The wine. It’s spilt all over everything. Be a love and get a damp cloth.

He got up, naked, and walked toward me. He couldn’t have seen me if he was looking because the shadow’d eaten me. The gale blasted, stronger now. It rocked the house, tearing at the siding and shingles. The shadow ejected me and I fell to the floor, huddled and blubbering like an idiot baby. When I saw them next, they were dressed. She wore a new ring, it sparkled with a light all its own. He said nothing at first because he’d turned to stone for a second. His face stayed grey. He smiled. It was grey, too.

Whyn’t we get you out of those wet clothes? You’re a little old to be wetting the bed, aren’t you?

He chuckled. He pulled me to my feet and enveloped me in his vinegary arms, smelling of Charlie and red wine.