Invisible Bumps by Rachael Maddux
At the Pawleys Island General Store, I bought a postcard of a ghost. He stood atop a dune in a wide-brimmed hat and overcoat, one arm raised towards the ocean, his body half-disappeared into the overcast sky. Some stories held that the Gray Man was the ghost of a colonial man who had been thrown from his horse and drowned in the marsh. Others said he was the ghost of Blackbeard, whose ships had once prowled just off the coast. Everyone agreed that he was seen on the island only before terrible hurricanes, a warning and a savior, sparing whoever saw him there from the storm’s destruction. It wasn’t hurricane season yet, but when we walked the beach that week I kept an eye out for him just in case, scanning the dunes and jetties. Not-seeing him was a certain kind of relief. But I knew it didn’t mean nothing bad was coming, just that we wouldn’t be saved if it was.
Pawleys Island was barely an island, more like a scab halfway up the shin of South Carolina’s coast. I was ten the spring break my parents rented the top half of a beachfront duplex on the marshy south end. On the drive from Chattanooga, my sister and I sat together in the van’s way-back, divided by a low wall of pillows and books. My grandmother slept in the middle seat, the ankle she’d broken two months earlier, two months into her widowhood, propped up on some duffel bags, her crutches rattling on the floorboard. My father drove and fed the cassette deck an endless stream of Nanci Griffith tapes. She sang about southbound trains and dime store clerks and troubled fields. Dad had been on this Nanci kick for a while. My mother called her The Other Woman. We arrived late on Saturday. The duplex was a Band-Aid-colored box hoisted ten feet off the sand by a forest of spindly wooden stilts. The stilts let the ocean come and go as it pleased, even when it was enraged enough to demand a name. The surging tides of Hurricane Andrew had knocked down half the houses on the block three years before, but not this one. Beyond the stilts, the million blue eyes of the ocean fluttered and winked, docile for now.
Sunday morning, my sister and I awoke to POGs in our Easter baskets, jelly beans and Cadbury Eggs and individually foil-wrapped Rolos. We filled our cheeks with candy and ran down the splintery front staircase to the sand and into the water, tepid and foamy at the edges. The first time we’d been to the ocean, half my life ago, on a trip to the Florida town where our mother went to college, I’d watched my sister waddle fast towards the water in her soggy diaper, arms flung out like she was running into a hug. I’d recently seen an old episode of Flipper which suggested that sharks lived not only in the deep, deep waters, where I knew we would never go, but also in the shallows, baby ones at least, baby sharks to eat my baby sister. “You wanna run out there too?” my mother had prodded, camera in hand, eager to document her daughters romping on the beach where she’d painted and partied and walked a shaggy dog half her own life ago. I’d shook my head and sat in the sand. Later, when I stood, I failed to brush the sand from my legs before pulling my shorts back on, and the chafing that resulted induced tears that persisted long after we left the ocean and its treacherous depths.
Now I watched again as my sister ran into the water ahead of me. Her skinny white arms flew up to greet every wave that rolled in to eat her legs. Beyond her, the water stretched out to infinity. I thought of the baby sharks. I thought of the grownup sharks. I thought of the lionfish with its stinging frills and the anglerfish’s horrible underbite, the jellyfish and the giant squids and the electric eels slurping in and out of their coral holes. All these strange terrors amplified by their obscurity. I waded in a little ways but stayed where I could see my feet through the water. When a low wave surged in, they disappeared. When the wave went back out, it sucked the sand out from under me in a greedy rush, and I could almost believe I was getting tugged back to land by some magnetic force, until I looked up, dizzy, and saw I was standing where I’d always been.
My grandmother joined me at the water’s edge and settled her crutches into the sand. Under her bandages, her broken ankle was fat and purple and green. She’d fallen at home just walking down the hall, landed wrong, snapped it. Alone in the house, she crawled to the phone to call her sister. When anyone asked what she tripped over, she shrugged: “An invisible bump.” Now she wore dark sunglasses and stared out at the ocean, shifting her weight from crutch to crutch, sinking into the sand as the tide washed in and out around her.
I stood and stared with her. I was watching for dolphins, the one good thing that lived in the ocean. I kept thinking I saw them, but my eyes were always tricking me.
Monday, at the general store, I saw the rack of boogie boards by the front door. Their wide foam smoothness, their blunt noses and tapered tails, their fast bright stripes. I found a pink one stamped with a smiling blue dolphin. “You sure?” my mother said when she saw me headed toward the checkout. I thought she meant was I sure I could afford it. I patted my Velcro wallet, fat with saved-up souvenir money. I had enough left over for the postcard of the ghost.
Back at the duplex, I took my pink board down to the beach and waded out what seemed like far enough. I lay myself down upon the smiling dolphin. I sank down to sand. I pushed out further until I floated. A little wave came along. I let it shuttle me back to shore and then I pushed out again. I did this for a while, in and out, in and out. I was practically surfing. Practically brave.
On one trip beachward, just as I dragged against the sand, I felt a mean pinch on the fat of my thigh. The shock of it propelled me out of the water, into the air, through the air, onto the beach. Later I pictured myself as a cartoon, legs spinning in a blur of frantic effort. While airborne, I saw my family hovering far above, their faces gaping over the deck rail. I landed in a heap on the dry sand. When I stood, I was sure I’d see the crab still dangling from my leg. But all that remained were two purple-red dots an inch apart on my pale flesh, the culprit lost once more in the waves.
Wednesday morning, I woke up late. The duplex was quiet except for the murmur of a TV down the hall. In the living room, I found my parents and grandmother staring. I stared too. On the screen was aerial footage of a big brown building, half of it carved away and smoking like a wet campfire, the other half falling into a hole in the street. The picture changed, then changed again, split in two. Now a man behind a desk was talking to a man with a microphone who stood in front of the smoking building. Now firefighters ran in and out of the smoking building and grownups in business clothes walked around dazed and bloody. Some were crying. The man behind the desk and the man with the microphone had crunched brows and drawn-tight faces. When my mother saw I was in the room, she shooed me outside, the brittle planks of the deck rough under my bare feet.
My parents spent the rest of the day trying to watch the news while keeping my sister and I from watching the news. I caught what glimpses I could on my trips through the living room to raid my Easter stash: the smoking building, the cascade of rubble, the hole in the street, the fireman carrying the bloody, flopping child I wasn’t sure was alive or dead. My collection of crumpled Rolo wrappers grew until the candy was all gone. When they showed Oklahoma City on a map of the United States, the red dot appeared square in the middle, right in the gut. Outside, up and down the beach, kids drifted in and out on the waves, parents applied and reapplied sunscreen, old fishermen reeled in their empty lines and cast them out again. No one else seemed to know, or care, that anything was happening on TV. If I stayed out long enough, I could almost forget too. I sat far back from the water on my pink foam board. I sifted through fistfuls of sand, searching for shark teeth. If I squinted hard at where the water met the sky, I thought I could see another country. I’d given up on the dolphins. But then someone said, “Look!” And there they were, slicing through the waves, black gashes through the blue.
Thursday my father drove us down the coast to Charleston, down an inland highway lined with piney woods and old women selling seagrass baskets from three-sided shacks. In town, among all the cars on the narrow streets, men with top hats steered black carriages pulled by dappled horses. We found the big red barn off a cobblestone alley by the harbor, and my father bought five tickets. With a tck tck! from the guide our horses clomped into traffic, dragging us along behind. My grandmother’s crutches stuck out the side.
The city looked like the set of an old movie, but all the extras were dressed wrong. The buildings leaned into one another, low and sturdy, pale and chalky like Smarties. The palmettos in the parks tossed their fronds in the breeze, and Spanish moss hung in globs from oak trees the guide told us were older than the city itself. He gestured with his crop at notable sites: the red-brick house occupied by the British army in one war and the Union army in another, the white-steepled churches and their tight-packed graveyards (I looked away), the old city jail, gothic and abandoned, so obviously haunted that he didn’t even have to say. He pointed out façades that kept their scars from cannonball fire, all the rows of houses built and rebuilt after wars and earthquakes and hurricanes. He nodded down a side street towards something he called The Old Slave Mart. I thought of the department stores at home, the clearance racks, the blue-light specials. “And that over there,” he said as we idled at a red light, “is home of the CEO of Piggly Wiggly!” We craned our necks to see the grand white portico and the bronze piglets flanking the stairs. Then the light went green and the horses clomped on.
We left the city at sunset. By the time we were back on the highway, the world was dark again. My father put on a Nanci Griffith tape. I sensed my mother’s eyes roll. My grandmother and sister immediately fell asleep. I tried to join them, but my head kept snapping forward and my seatbelt wanted to strangle me. Out the window wavered the distant shadows of tall, thin trees. When another car’s headlights hit just right, my own face stared right back at me. I felt sad and I didn’t know why, sad in a new way, nothing like all the other kids of sad I’d felt before. Something had got onto me, crawled into me, an itch I couldn’t find with my fingers. Part of me was still back there, rolling through the city in the back of a buggy, looking up at the same old buildings little girls in the backs of buggies had been looking up at for two hundred years. Most of those girls were dead now—dead five, ten, fifteen times longer than I’d been alive. They came and went, but the buildings remained, the cobblestone streets, the muggy breeze off the harbor. I knew the tears were on their way, knew I’d lose if I fought them, knew that if anyone heard and asked me what was wrong, I wouldn’t have known what to say. It wasn’t all the dead people whose lives we’d just toured like a museum or how we used to buy and sell people like horses or the war we had to fight because of it, not that war nor all the ones before or since. It wasn’t the building on the news, the bloody children and the smoking hole, or my grandfather and how he was dead, or my grandmother alone with no one to hear her fall. It wasn’t the sharks or the crabs or all the other terrible things in the ocean. It wasn’t the other kids who seemed to know how to be kids better than me. It wasn’t my sudden memory of our house back home, dark and empty and alone without us. It wasn’t and it was and it wasn’t.
“It’s a hard life, it’s a hard life, it’s a very hard life, it’s a hard life wherever you go,” The Other Woman sang, and I breathed steady, let my nose run instead of snuffling all the snot back in. Was it? Everywhere, just the same? The hot waves of strange sadness rolled over and over and over and I curled quiet under them, glad for the darkness and my easy-sleeping family, glad for my father with his eyes on the road. And the song ended and another began and we rolled on through the night towards our temporary home, the ocean in the dark, and everything else I couldn’t yet see.
Photographic response by Dario Kristić
Rachael Maddux’s essays, reviews, and features have appeared in The Oxford American, The Paris Review Daily, The Believer, Guernica, and elsewhere. She’s at work on memoir about growing up mortal in the American South at the turn of the 21st century. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
Dario Kristić, architect, born in 1980, lives and works in Sarajevo.
Published on October 2, 2017.
Click here to read more on The Borders Project.