What I’ll Tell My Children about The Little Island and Its Grey Lady

I know this little island. A slice of land that once belonged to a whole. One day, way back when the sea glowed green, it grew restless to explore and to find the place where the water met the sky. It shook and it rattled and it pulled and it pushed until finally it broke its way free. Floating on its back and sending so-long waves to the rocky coast it left behind. After some time it could no longer see land, what was once its home. It felt empty and sad and terribly alone, out there in the cold dark water. It was a still night and the little land, the island, floated on its back and thought about what to do next. It didn’t want to go back, admitting it was wrong, that it was too small to be out there in the ocean all alone. No island wants to be an island.

It was a grey morning and the little island let the fog settle across its belly, swirling around its corners and growing heavier with the day. It was comforting to have the fog there as a blanket or a silent friend. A little while into the afternoon, a boat happened to wander onto the bank of the island. It was a fishing boat that had untied itself from its dock and drifted out to sea. The boat apologized for running into the little island, but the little island didn’t mind in the least. It was happy to have company, and the little boat became its first friend. Soon after another fishing boat appeared, having heard about the little island from the song of the waves. This boat was much bigger than the last, and it carried in it a fisherman and his beautiful wife. She was modest and wise, with a smile that never left her lips. The most enchanting part about her was her waist length silvery hair that glittered like the moonlit water.

She was known as the  Grey Lady. She and her husband settled down on the eastern side of the island. She wanted to always be able to see the sunrise, and he wanted nothing more than to make his wife happy. He himself was a fierce man who spent 10 years of his adolescence aboard a whaling ship, chasing what the captain called “The White Devil” sperm whale. The island was overjoyed to have them there, and the Grey Lady and the whaler loved the little island right back. So much so they wrote to their family at home and told them to come to see the island. The wrote on a piece of parchment paper that the Grey Lady tied with a strand of her hair. They slopped it in an old glass bottle and sent it out to sea. The little island promised to have its waves deliver it safely.

The Grey Lady and her husband saw a bright future ahead. They could build their homes and raise their children in the middle of the ocean, and the men, they would surely become legendary for the whales they caught.

Soon more people came to the little island. And then more. They built their homes by the water and soon the laughter of children could be heard from shore to shore. The Grey Lady and her husband built a school and planted the first garden on the island. And the little island was overjoyed.

But after months of hungering for the sea and his spear, the Grey Lady’s husband could not resist any longer and announced it was time for a second whaling adventure. He had heard whispers of an even greater monster than “The White Devil” and was determined to hunt him down.  The Grey Lady begged him not to go, fearing for her husband’s safety. But his mind made up, he kissed her goodbye with his stony eyes already sunk down deep into the sea.  Before he left he ran his hands through her long shimmering hair one last time.

 

The Grey Lady was heart broken. She knew the dangers of whaling, especially when mixed with the ghosts in her husband’s eyes. She watched him from the coast as his little boat faded into the sky. It looked as if he was swallowed by the setting sun, and her fear was salty in her mouth. In her distress she ran back to her home, now as wind beaten and weathered as she, and called upon her neighbors for help. She asked them to bring planks of wood, hammers and nails, for she needed her house to be taller — she needed a way to see her beloved as he returned.

Working all through the night she erected a tower atop of her little home, a landing where she could stand and peer out to the see, her eyes straining for any signs of a little whaling boat. Often times her eyes would beseech her heart, tricking it into believing she could see a mast bobbing against the horizon— they were the happiest moments that were then followed by the crippling heartache when the rest of the boat failed to appear.

The villagers wanted to help their Grey Lady. The farmer down the road came with his son and joined the basket weaver and the baker. Together they added a little deck with a railing on top of the roof where the Grey Lady could climb too and see for miles.

And the island watched his Grey Lady. She didn’t sleep, but rather took to pacing atop of her home, searching by moonlight and praying to the stars. Time drifted by and the island grew cold. Snow dusted the trees and still she walked, back and forth, steady like the rocking of the sea.

Still, she waited. Her skin like seaweed wrapped around brittling bones. The life of the Grey Lady dimmed as her heart continued to break into bits of shells.  Her twentieth winter of waiting atop her home shook the Grey Lady with a fever from which she would not recover. The neighbors came to wash her feet and and hands and rub cooling balms into her temples. Still the Grey Lady longed to climb the ladder and look out to the sea.

 

The little island wept with her, as she pulled her hair and screamed with what was left, sending countless days of rain to pour over the mourners of their Grey Lady and her love. The evening she passed, all were silent. They tied her long grey hair, still with its silvery sheen, atop her head in a regal bow and pinned daffodils around her crown. They brought her up to the top of her home, the Widow’s Walk they named it, and said a prayer that she may finally find peace after her long wait.

 

The little island tried not to cry, as it wanted to be strong for his lady as they carried her down to the shore. They placed her in a small canoe, a single candle alight on its bow. They added a hand woven basket filled with the island’s red berries to sustain her on her trip. She would never have to strain to see the sea again. She would meet her beloved, where the ocean met the sky. They waved to her from the shore, the little island calling the waves to hold her and keep her safe as she floated further out to sea.

In honor of the Grey Lady, the villagers traveled to the most northern part of the island and spent many weeks laboring to build her a tall tower. At the top of the tower they made a fire, so that the lady could always have a light to guide her back to the island. They named it the Great Point and made sure it was forever lit.

Today the little island has changed. From one coast to the other they have arrived. They built a school and a local market. They paved the roads and planted crops. They built a town center and held meetings to discuss the growth of the island. Decades passed and  word spread about the island, and more and more people traveled to visit the little land, separated — it seemed — from time.

And yet even after centuries of comings and goings, they memory of the Grey Lady lives on. Only the little island carries her visage, but it is said that on a rare night when the moon is just right in the sleepy town of Siasconset where the Grey Lady first stepped foot, you can look toward a Widow’s Walk and see her there, pacing back and forth, her ghost gazing out into the black water and calling for her beloved to come back home.

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White Bread and Frijoles

She made him a latch-hook rug for Christmas to put in his dorm room.

He kept it under his bed and forgot about it.

When she thought of him she pictured his feet pressing into the places her fingers and hooked and pulled. The design was blue and green and she called it abstract.

If he would have pictured her it may have been with her feet on the ottoman, reclined in rocking hair with the lace drape on the back. She wouldn’t have taken off her white shoes, soled brown from shuffling around room to room all day, bending and placing and folding and hanging. She’d stay there like that watching the small television until it was time to make dinner. Chopping, stirring, bending, tasting, washing.

He was was lying on his floor looking up at the ceiling fan. Middle of May and already droplets of summer’s sweat stuck in his mustache. Smoking a cigarette. If he stayed on the floor with the window open and fan going, the RA never knew. Maybe he did, and just didn’t care. There was a lot that lethargy going around.

She smiled when she thought about her only son and imagined what it must be like for him there, surrounded by books and people talking with him about grand ideas. The way he beamed when she met him at the bus stop after school, he would read his top-marked essay as they walked across the underpass to their home. She blocked out the afternoons of bruised knees and soda can slashed cheeks.

He had been excited, when he got his acceptance letter. Noticed how his mama started crying again, but this time her face was too small for that damn grin. He told her as he wrapped her up that her face would freeze that way if she didn’t stop. She had to work that day, couldn’t help move him in but saw him off, all his stuff piled in Jerry’s hatchback, they couldn’t see her out the back window as they drove away.

She counted the days between Fall break and Thanksgiving. While she dusted under other people’s couches and matched pairs of argyle socks, she thought of each meal she’d make for him. His favorites of course: her poc chuc with mango juice, hot friojoles con puerco – “nobody knows spices like you, mama” – he loved it all so hot! She’d chuckle to herself remembering his own way of shoveling through their meals, he always had something he had to get working on. And there would be cakes! Maybe she’d bake him some sort of cheesecake in honor of his new Wisconsin home. He had said in his last letter that they had a lot of cheese around and some people even wore hats that looked like cheese on Sundays. She didn’t pretend she knew the world he lived in, but she liked planning his return to theirs.

The ceiling fan spun around, it’s drunk arms keeping it balanced. He wondered if it’d ever spin itself right off the ceiling, hitting his chest, splintering into a thousand pieces on impact. It wasn’t what he pictured, any of it. The people especially. It was high school all over again. It was kick down and dirt rubbed. It was you can’t make it here, nice try. It was even if you try harder you just weren’t born right. No one’s fault and no one’s making excuses. You got here, right? Ain’t that enough? You’ll get your paper and go back home and them do what they were born to do. Raised to do. Told every day that they were on top. Easy. Natural. White bread with the crusts cut off and too much milk. He didn’t even like the cheese out here. He let the smoke slip out of his mouth in a cloud, covering his face and blurring his sight, if just for a second.

She had all his pictures on the mantle. She said a prayer for him and touched the crucifix on the wall everytime she passed. Protect my baby. Bring him back in one piece. He’ll be good at whatever he does, only you know where he got those brains. My baby, the first one to go to college. Papa would be so proud to see him all grown up with his textbooks. They taught him how to use the computer, too. Everyone has to learn, they said. As long as he comes home. She made sure to wash his bed clothes once a month just to keep them fresh, just in case.

He didn’t want to go back. But he didn’t want to stay. Stuck there like a fly on paper for everyone to pass by, no one taking the time to peel him off and either let him go or throw him in the trash can. Too much of a not-matter to notice. Only thing waiting for him was his mama, only thing keeping him there was some belief it’d be different. But that was dimming faster than Mexican sun sets and he knew his Mam’d be fine. She’d got along without men most of her life. He took one more puff of his cigarette, turned his cheek and saw the latch-hook rug dusty under his bed. His eyes stung from what he knew wasn’t smoke.

She checked the mailbox twice a day. He’d be home for summer soon, but what day? What time? Why hadn’t he told her yet. Sometimes having a smart son was hard work. She’d smile, he’d just show up and surprise her. Maybe with a cheese on his head.

He rolled over onto his side. He pulled the corner of the rug towards him and felt the yarn between his fingertips. His favorite colors, the colors of his little room at home, were blue and green. Sea and sky. He stuck his cigarette into the rug and let it burn a hole. He watched as the red rim curled the orange paper and bled into the green string. Then the blue. A pattern of color. Burn hole set burning as he closed his eyes.

 

 

Excerpt from “The Joys of Birth”

The doorman raised an eyebrow as he opened the door for her. She knew his name was Martin, he saw her every time she came to the to babysit. He was a round man, big cheeks and squinty eyes that all but disappeared when he smiled. His collar, buttoned to the top squeezed his neck causing a layer of pizza dough skin spill over. He wore a pin on his the lapel of his uniform, gold-outlined Italy that was filled in with the color of the flag.

“A little early for a visit, eh?” Weak smile. The back of her teeth still tasted of sleep.

“Where are you going to?”

“21 C.”

“Ah, Stephanie, yes. Has she popped yet?” He let out a chuckle as a pudgy finger hit the buttons on the phone. She wondered if he was the type of man who could never use a touch screen, his quarter sized finger tips too large for a single icon.

“They didn’t answer, but go ahead. I trust you.” A wink, or perhaps a twitch. It was lost somewhere in the folds of his face.

Amy had received an email at 5 am, her phone alarm buzzing incessantly. The subject had read We Need You This Morning! It was from Stephanie, the mother for whom she had starting babysitting for a few months before, when Stephanie’s pregnancy had pained her so much as to force her to stay in bed. The email asked her to come at 7 that morning, saying they would double her rate and it would not be for very long, it had promised. It will hopefully be a very happy day for us all. Perhaps she would get to see a the new baby come home from the hospital.

She didn’t want to go, not at all, but the promise of quick cash made her push off the covers while it was still dark outside and cursing at the cold and the broken radiator, get ready to head to Stephanie’s large apartment on the Upper East Side from her. She could make up for the what she didn’t remember spending the night before, and maybe get to raid the fridge.

She counted the seconds as she rode from the lobby to the 21st floor. Thirty-six. Each floor silently passed. She thought about all the sleeping people she was so close to but would never meet, never know. At about the 11th floor she decided she didn’t really care.

The doors gave their annoyingly pleasant chime as they opened. As she stepped in the hallway she was hit with an odor so strong and sour she felt her tongue tingling. She coughed and pinched her nostrils. Something had surely died somewhere close by, perhaps a very long time ago. Rotten but sharp, she took to a light jog down the long hallway to 21C.

Nearing the door she stopped short. Coming from underneath the frame of the door, leaking onto the hallway carpet was a dark blue liquid, not much unlike the laundry detergent she used. She bent lower to examine it and as she did her eyes began to water by the growing strength of the stench. She backed herself against the wall as the to avoid the putrid puddle.

She was just about to turn around and leave, tell the chubby front door man to call 911, and then wait to read about the dead family in the Post the next morning.

But then from inside she thought she heard a woman screech, a banshee cry. Someone was being murdered.

“She’s here! Noah please stop with that screaming, think of your son.”

The door opened and out popped a frizzy frame of dark black curls around bloodshot eyes. Amy had never seen her before, though she looked like an older version of Stephanie, the mother of the house. The screaming from inside grew louder, and was joined by the sound of a something falling hard on a lacquered floor.

“You must be Amy, please come in. I’m so happy you got my email request in time. Hi I’m Stephanie’s sister Hannah.” She extended a rubber-gloved hand. “Oh, goodness it got out into the hallway. Noah, will you stop screaming and please come help clean this up?”

Amy walked into the middle of it. But she was not sure what it was. There in front of her was a large inflatable tub, not unlike the kiddie-pools that use to decorate the summer lawns of her hometown. Bright purple, about five feet high. And it was moving. Rocking and shaking back and forth, emitting a deep guttural grunting. There were tables set up on either side with candles lit. Hanna closed and locked the door and turned to Amy with wide eyes, a serial-killer smile pasted on her face.

“Pardon the smell, dear, you’ll soon get use to it. It means the baby’s almost here, should be any moment now! Please put your stuff down, maybe somewhere high, just in case.”

Noah, the father, was pacing in the kitchen, his hands moving from his head to his hips. He peered into the tub every few moments, at which time he would let out another high pitch squeal and turn away. He was naked except for a pair of plaid boxers, dress socks, the ones with his initials on them. Amy had seen his collection when she did their laundry and knew it to be colorfully extensive.

“Noah, please, you need to set a good example for David. He doesn’t know what is happening!”

There was another woman sitting in the living room, the biggest room in the three bedroom apartment. She was an older woman, wearing the same plastic apron and rubber gloves as Hanna, and she did not stir nor acknowledge Amy when she walked into the room. She was rapidly flipping through large binder.

“Where has David gone? Marcy-Ann have you checked if he’s come down? And the window best be locked. Amy’s here. Marcy-Ann do you hear? What are you doing now?”

“It-it says nothing in here about blue or this smell or anything. I never seen this before, either, Lord have mercy.” She blessed herself, and the frizzy haired woman huffed and rolled her eyes.

“You’ll have to excuse Marcy-Ann, this is her first of this sort of home-birth. She normally assists with more common deliveries, but she’s all we could get to come at this hour. And you! Thank you for showing up, we need an extra set of hands.” She pulled out another pair of gloves from her apron and gave them to Amy.

“You mean the baby is coming, now?”

“Oh yes dear quite soon! The leakage is almost complete. We had to drain the tub once already and someone”, blinking twice towards Marcy-Ann, “was unable to properly connect the hose. Please watch your step, it can be difficult to get off.”

Amy walked towards the purple tub, and peering inside saw what was making Noah scream like a pinched school-girl. At the bottom, in a pool of dark blue, lay Stephanie.  Her legs were raised and bent open, out pressing against the sides of the tub.  She could see tufts of pubic hair poking through to the surface of the blue liquid, clumps of black lilipads in the sludge. Her arms were spread to either side of her chest as her hands held onto the handles positioned on the side of the tub and their were straps securing down her wrists. Her eyes were closed and she was biting down on the rag tied around her mouth.

Amy couldn’t help staring at her breasts. She normally found breasts, her own and those of other women she saw, quick glances at women in the locker room or curious peeks at undressing friends, intriguing and attractive due to each pair’s unique shape. There were times, when she had wanted to badly to accidentally bump up against a woman’s bare chest, accidentally cupping and squeezing, softer than her own. Breasts made her giggle and blush.

But these breasts, these fat things that sagged heavy to either sides of her body, nipples adorned with crowns of black hair, these breasts she found to be the opposite. In fact she knew at that moment the romanticism of womanhood had been flipped over and pissed on.

Stephanie opened her eyes to see Amy staring into the inflatable birth pit and let out an indiscernible cry. She was sweating and breathing fast.

“First things first, Amy, we don’t want David getting into the tub with his father for the birth, do you think you might tend to him, keep him still and get him to come down?”

But, where is he?” She led her from the living room into the media room. David’s books and toys and remnants of snack time were strewn about, but he was no where to be seen.

Hanna pointed to the window. Sitting atop of the window frame, feet resting on the curtain rod, was little David. David was three years old and deemed a “special baby” by his parents. He refused to speak to anyone upon first meeting, and for the second year of his life refused all food except m&ms and salmon. He was known to break out into random fits of crying, vomiting, and interpretive body movement. One thing Amy had learned from her few months as his babysitter was that he loved music, particularly that which he could sing. He had become particularly fond of the Little Orphan Annie soundtrack and it had helped her pull him out of countless fits. But she had never, however, seen him on the ceiling.

“What, what, what is he doing up there? How did he get up there? David, are you okay? Why the hell is he on the ceiling!”

 

Excerpt from “The Five Cent Man”

He was approaching the entrance to the farm when he saw a man, sitting on a chair by the side of the road across the street. He looked odd, sitting all alone, as if he was waiting for something.  He had a big handwritten sign next to him, Stop here to find what you’ve lost. It was written on what looked to Oscar like a piece of a barn door.  There was nothing else around him, only a little table atop which sat a large tin can.

The man saw Oscar stop, and he waved from across the road, motioning for Oscar to join him. Oscar couldn’t see anyone else around, and though he knew he wasn’t suppose to talk to strangers, he thought the man, with his white beard and big grin looked like Santa Claus, and so he decided to talk to him.

The man was wearing a t-shirt with large blue and white stripes on it.  He had a captains hat on, and something about it struck Oscar as odd.  The man’s hands rested on his round belly, and Oscar noticed his arms were sunburned. As Oscar walked towards him he saw the piece of paper wrapped around the can on the table.  it read Put your nickel here and you’ll be just fine.

Hello young man!” The man opened his arms out and looked up at Oscar. Oscar couldn’t tell how old the man was, maybe he was someone’s grandfather.  “How may I help you today?”

Oscar didn’t know how to answer.

“Well, how about we start with names. I’m Perry, what’s yours?’

“O-oscar.”

“Well, Oscar, it’s great to meet you. Is there something I can help you with? If you’ve got a nickel to put in my can, I can help. That’s what I do out here!” He gave off a loud laugh and leaned back in his chair.

Oscar reached into his pocket and pulled out a nickel. He had a faint hope the man could help him find his dad. Why not, he thought as he placed the coin into the can. It clanked heavily against the bottom.

“My first customer,” the old man beamed, “I knew if I waited here a few seasons someone might need me.”

“You mean you’ve done this before?”

“This will be my fifth summer out here in this old chair. I’ve been waiting here, and you know what? You’re the first one to stop.” The old man gave the tin can a little shake a let out a laugh. Then he reached for something beneath his chair.

“Oops, almost forgot my thinking cap. Can’t very well do much without it.” It was a boaters hat, more specifically a white captain’s hate. The sight of it hit Oscar right in the chest, it was just like the one his father wore. He kept it on the hook by the door when he was home from flying. Oscar would come home from school and see the hat had returned to its rightful place.

Oscar felt something inside of him drop, causing the heaviness he had been holding to rise to his throat. He tried to stop it as soon as it started, as soon as his eyes had begun to burn, but the tears came.

Perry waited a few moments, letting Oscar cry and then said, “I’ve got a wonderful idea. Would you like to hear it?”

Oscar sniffled and nodded.

“Why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you.” He reached into the can pulled out the nickel. “And you know what? It’ll be on the house today.” Oscar took a seat and wiped his eyes. He started to talk and kept going. He told the man about his father leaving because of his mother, and how he was trying to find him, but he didn’t know where to start.

When he had finished, Oscar took a deep breath sat up a little straighter. His eyes and dried and he didn’t feel the tightness in his throat anymore. Perry scratched his head, and looked down at Oscar.

“You know, Oscar. You remind me a lot of my son.”

The clouds were slowly darkening the  sky. When Oscar sat down on his patch of grass, the five cent advice man handed him a heavy rain jacket.

“Put this on. It’s going to be too big but it’ll keep you dry.” Oscar pulled it over his head. “And that’ll be a nickel.”

A few moments later the rain began to thump against his hood. Oscar tucked his legs into the coat and looked at the five cent advice man, who was smiling under his umbrella. “Shouldn’t we go inside?” he asked, “It’s raining pretty hard.”

“No, sir. Nobody ever got rich or happy by running from a little rain.” He stuck his hand outside the umbrella to catch a few drops in his palm. “Besides, who will give them advice?”

Despite the rain and to Oscar’s surprise, the people came.  A few of them gave dimes and quarters, and told Oscar to keep it. The tin can chirped in satisfaction as Oscar dropped the coins into its belly.“You see, Oscar,” said the five cent advice man, “it’s rainy days that people need it the most.”

An Excerpt from “Girls in Rooms and Something Else”

“Are you with the guys from the Navy?”
Her skirt was so tight it might have been lipsticked on. She was wearing a man’s

suit jacket and leaned against the entrance to the bar, propping a heeled foot against
the wall. She opened her mouth to let the smoke snake out and looked over to the man on the pay-phone. His dress shirt was unbuttoned and he was pinching at the space between his eyes.

“Honey,” she spoke toward the man, “You’ve only got a few minutes of me left.” She looked at Pat and smiled. She had a gap in her two front teeth, just like Donna. “Just saw them go in.”

“How’d you know we were with them?” Dan, Pat’s brother, asked.
“Do me a favor, let em’ know now that the rooms are ten dollars a minute.”
Dan grinned and wrapped his arm around Pat and led him inside. The pick of this

place was his contribution to their brother Terry’s bachelor party. The first of the brothers to get married, they had all decided to pitch in something. Girls in Rooms was infamous for such celebrations, and Dan, being the youngest at 18, had told Pat he was more
than ready to go into many rooms with many girls.

‘What’s she talking about?” Pat asked Dan, who’d never been to the strip club before that

night.
“It’s the room part of Girls in Rooms. It’s for one on one strip dances, or at leastthat’s what they say. Keep it legal, ya know.” He winked. “This is gonna be great, man.” Breasts. That’s what the buzz was. Bouncing and falling and giving a little shake, a little

sway to the beat-box music. Men stuck to the bar like flies drowning in whiskey. The whiskey

they spilt as they tried to get to the breasts. The breasts walked by with trays of diluted drinks. The drinks kept coming and going and the women gave a little shake and stuck wads of money from outstretched hands into the lining of their skirts, in g-strings and garder belts.

“Isn’t this awesome? I hope I get picked for a room.” Dan was doing
that hopping thing when he walked, Pat noticed. Ever since he was younger, everyone knew when Dan was too excited.

“Picked?”
There was no touching outside of the rooms, that was understood. There were

tables, marked out by little red candles, where every twenty minutes you could pay to sit and sweet talk, flirt, make suggestive eyes with a pair of breasts. After that twenty minutes, only if the woman asked you, you could go into the back rooms for as long as you were willing to pay, or until she asked you to leave.

It was nine o’clock on a Friday night, and the place was already littered with loosened tie

holding empty glasses, waving single bills the air. They trickled in slowly, one or two at a time, making their way to the bar. Pat wondered if any of them had told their wives or girlfriends where they were going. Maybe they told them after, or from the pay-phone in the lobby when they needed a ride home and had already stuffed cab fare into g-strings. He wouldn’t have to call anybody tonight.

The breasts circled the bills with puckered lips and winking eyes, occasionlly swooping into let a bill or two join the dingy green plume decorating their waistlines.