By Louis Gallo

Once again we nestle in a luxurious oceanfront condo not one hundred yards from the beach.  In the past it was always Destin, Florida and the Gulf, but since BP’s ravage, we worry about pockets of crude oil and the even more toxic dispersants.  Apparently, sharks have fled the Gulf and the coral has died, neither of which bodes well.  So we changed our itinerary for the last three summers and now camp on Myrtle Beach.  The waves rush forth and break more ferociously here, which we love, but no more ultramarine water or bone china white sand; Myrtle water is murky and gritty, the sand dirty, smudge-like.  But neither must we contend with the vast colonies of algae and seaweed always plaguing Destin. 

            The CDC warns that e-coli and MRSA contaminate beach sand and the ocean itself.  Mothers, scour children who build sandcastles with Germ-X.

            My younger daughter Bee sits with me on another balcony overlooking the Atlantic.  I tell her stories about her ancestors, especially my father and grandfather, both dead before her birth.  Dusk stumbles in as we try to relax.  I say try because no one in this family has ever achieved pure, easy relaxation, a primordial state I associate with sponges and mollusks lurking at the bottom of the sea.  Must be nice.  But somewhere along the genomic line worry and anxiety and foreboding tainted our ganglia cells.  We co-exist in low grade panic most of the time which occasionally accrues and explodes into full blown hysteria.  Not healthy, of course, but how override genetics?  We have feebly tried yoga and meditation and visualization techniques, but they seem paltry, say, like trying to slay a dragon with spears constructed of crepe paper.  These seizures are no joking matter, but I often do in fact joke about them:  “Hey, girls, Renee, when do you think the voltage will scorch us again?”

Bee usually shakes a puny fist at me; Lea just laughs; Renee, who prefers to sweep the notion under some pristine Sarouk carpet, gives me the evil eye.

We scramble for horoscopes in the newspapers, women’s magazines, wherever we can find them.  We know full well they are bogus and invented by underpaid staff.  Nevertheless.  We scrutinize often ungrammatical messages in the Chinese fortune cookies we crack open every night when commencing supper.  We seek omens and portents in every insect and bird we come across when on walks; we relate our dreams to each other in ancient tribal fashion, hoping for collective insight.  Renee dreams of evil monks disguised as sharks and alligators. 

We have ordered miracle cures from the varied tabloids.  Holy water from Jerusalem.  Splinters of the cross.  Lockets of the Buddha’s hair.  Did the Buddha have hair?

Bee shoots up from her slouch in instant alertness.  “Daddy, look!”  She must have noticed that my eyes were closed and I had begun to drift into rare, sweet reverie.  Instantly they click open, an lo . . . right before us, hovering within the architectural frame of our balcony, hovering, yes, but impossible . . . three extraordinary pelicans so close we could with a hint of effort reach out and touch. 

“Pelican?” Renee stops her wrench work for a moment and puts on her thinking face.  “Pelican,” she repeats.  “Christian symbol.”  She rises from her crouching position on the carpet and makes her way toward the room where we store our luggage no doubt to return with one of our directories of symbols. 

Renee looks supple and voluptuous in her one-piece black bathing suit; she flips through pages as she returns to the room.  “The pelican,” she reads, “will feed her young with her own blood and is therefore an icon of ultimate sacrifice.”  She gazes thoughtfully at the ceiling.  “Hmm, like Jesus and the Eucharist.”

“A portent of sacrifice,” I mutter.  “Who’s the sacrifice?”
“You, Dad,” Lea laughs.  As does Bee who still remains in awe of the pelicans.  “I saw them first,” she has said a number of times.  Balboa, first to spot the Pacific – among his kind at any rate.
“Not funny, Lea,” I snarl.  “Though I guess you’re right.  I’m the old man of this tribe.”
“But it’s probably a good omen,” Rene says.  “Resurrection and all that.”
“Resurrection implies being dead,” I say.  And think . . . there are four of us but three pelicans.  Numerology counts.”

In our devotion to the hidden significances of quotidian events and spectacles, our family has become its own isolated fiefdom, a close-knit band of wary food-gatherers who monitor symptoms and symbologies and have thereby lost touch with the bustling world of mercantilism, portfolios, corporate mergers and shenanigans, politics.

“Well at least it wasn’t ospreys,” Renee half laughs.  The ospreys have bothered her a great deal during the last few days.  On the very balcony where Bee and I encountered the pelicans, Renee says she saw not one but three – the infernal trinity again! – ospreys, which at first she mistook for hawks.  Renee reveres hawks in totemic fashion, but these looked slightly odd.  She assigned Lea to look them up on the laptop, and Lea dutifully obliged and informed Renee that what she described were ospreys, not typical hawks.  Osprey, a new portent for Renee.  She commandeered the laptop only to discover that ospreys betoken imminent death and destruction.  And to spot three in so brief a span thus seemed horrendous indeed.  The ospreys so upset Renee that I myself Googled in “osprey” on Lea’s laptop (I, who otherwise refuse to go near a laptop) and found dozens of references to ospreys as symbols of abundance and good tidings.  I reported this to Renee, but she still insists that the most reliable sources spelled out mayhem, desolation, imminent devastation. 

            North Carolina is on fire.  Smoke from the blazes sometimes cascades our way; yesterday it was so turgid and noxious we had difficulty breathing.

            And yesterday morning as we frolicked in the surf (yes, we are still capable of frolicking!) Bee reached into the water for what she thought was a shell.  The girls, hell, all four of us, still collect beach shells, and we like those best that come straight from the sea, barring those still beslimed with living protoplasm.  These we toss back into their oceanic womb.  Bee’s shell turned out to be we later realized (thanks to Lea’s laptop) a mushroom jellyfish.  She tosses it away but not before it had sunken one of its talons (spikes?  teeth?  what do jellyfish have?) into the skin of her thumb.  That thumb, by nightfall, had swollen to twice its size, and we lathered it with Benadryl and gave her an Advil.  Oh, the perils that beset even modest frolickers!  Luckily, the mushroom varieties of jellyfish, however frightful (yet eerily beautiful), are not extremely toxic.  Another night, with our flashlights, we found dozens of dead ones stranded on the sand.  Bee, the most gentle and compassionate of our clan, wept a salt tear for them, despite her wound.  Bee has just made fifteen.  Just yesterday I pushed her to sleep in a little blue swing for toddlers that I found on sale at Sears.

During the trip down from the Blue Ridge we noticed that Little Debbie trucks saturated the highways.  Why?  No direct routes to Myrtle Beach exist; Googled directions are complex and labyrinthine, and one gets inevitably lost in varied little Carolina towns still encapsulated in the nineteenth century.  Yet Little Debbie sojourns the interstates and state roads and some old-fashioned mud roads, her cheerful face plastered on all the trucks. 

On either the first or second day after arrival I commenced my duty to seek out a rubber float boat at one of the many garish, fluorescent beach shops along the main highway.  The boat must be an exact replica of the model we have used for the last three years or else the girls will sink into petulant sorrow.  Ritual and repetition are important, nay, necessities for any family mired in nostalgia and semi-autistic tradition (to conquer time, you repeat it).  We christen this rubber boat/float “The Stooge” each year.  The next one, Stooge III

So as the early riser (I don’t sleep well on vacations and will harmonize the early rising with a delicious afternoon nap) I take it upon myself to make the drive and fetch a boat.  A shop called “Paradise” looks promising.  I am greeted at the desk by one of the most beautiful blond, blue-eyed Russian girls I have ever seen on the entire Southeastern coast of America. 

The store seems empty save for this exceptional beauty and her momentous smile, aside that is from the bounteous shelves and display units full of conches, sunscreen, t-shirts, baseball caps, beach chairs and umbrellas, jewelry, postcards . . . the trivial surfeit of America.  I scan the glass counter case since I’m also on the lookout for a pair of brass knuckles.  I bought a pair last year and feel compelled to purchase another . . . you know, for added protection, however illegal they may be in my home state.  I point out the pair I want to Nadya, as her nameplate reads, and she, giggling and smiling, inserts her own fingers into the holes.  Then she audaciously pretends she will smack me in the face!  Laughing flirtatiously, I might add, as she sizzles with radiant hormones.

“Don’t do it,” I laugh.  “It’s for defense, you know, in case I’m attacked by terrorists or deranged tourists.  And I’m looking for a rubber boat for my daughters.  Yellow, black and red, a two-seater.  Do you have those?”

Nadya holds up a finger as if in thought.  “Ah,” she says.  “Follow me.”

How can I describe Nadya’s scandalous shorts that I do indeed follow to the back of the store.  Surely I must not think on such things. 

We come to a display of the boats still packaged tightly in bright boxes, and sure enough, Stooge III beckons.  “This is it,” I say, “must be this one.  Can you blow it up for me?  The valves on gas station machines won’t fit.  Do you have an air machine here?”

Nadya looks at me and nods.  She gazes straight into my eyes, and I must describe this gaze as passionate.  “Your face is very handsome,” she says in highly Slavic-scented, broken English.  What ho?  What is happening here?  For a moment it crosses my mind that sweet Nadya might be a hooker.  Little Debbie, where art thou?  I’m a married man; I love, adore my wife, twenty years my junior and sexy and hot and wondrously beautiful. 

Nadya unhooks an air hose from the wall and squats forward slightly as if to pretend she will aim the air gun at my face.  Playful, of course. 

Within seconds Stooge III is alive and well.  Nayda shifts it aside to refasten the air hose to its hook.  I’m still squatting near the base of the Stooge.  She turns and I cannot help but gaze not at her smiling face but the sleek, svelte, Coppertoned contours of her long legs.  Eye level.
But all is not well.  Nayda’s body begins to twitch and lose balance, and before I know it I’m holding a beautiful albeit unconscious young Russian beauty in my arms, while still squatting!  She had simply passed out and I happened to catch her to break the fall.  I cry for help but no one else is in the store, no other clerks, no customers, no managers.  What the hell?  Too early for other people?  I must now decide whether to lower her onto a filthy floor – she smells clean and soapy as lavender – or attempt to rise with her and risk destroying what’s left of my lower chakras.  Sacrifice?  I refuse to sully the girl by depositing her on a really scummy floor; so slowly, cautiously, I begin to bear her weight (no more than 120 pounds surely), lifting as instructed by my chiropractor, with the legs only, not the backbone, holding the weight close to my chest and stomach.  And while ascending in such afflicted fashion I see that Nayda’s skimpy blouse, unhooked down to the second button, has pulled apart by the angle of her descent, and an exposed breast positions itself a mere head nod away from my, yegads, face!  And I, sinful, egregious I, become instantly aroused!  What a salacious cad I am.  The poor girl remains unconscious, her head dangling over the crook of my lower arm, and I, bad Samaritan, leer at her naked, exposed breast. 

I also note that Nadya wears studded pelican earrings.

I carry stricken Nayda toward the front counter and plan to slide her onto it between the cash register and a display of sand dollar jewelry.  Once I have secured the buttocks onto a thick plate of glass, I gently nudge the errant breast back into place within her blouse.  Braless, of course.  How to explain such firm softness?  Soon a heavyset, short Dravidian who vaguely resembles Deepak Chopra walks in and cries, “What is happening here?”  He carries a box of Krispy Kremes.  The manager, I assume, off on an errand to secure breakfast for himself and his employee.  I of course want no trouble.  “She passed out,” I say.  “I didn’t want to leave her on the floor.  She blew up my Stooge.”

He nods, a dark, low-browed man, and therefore serious and hopefully intelligent.  “Oh yes, she does that,” he waves the free hand.  “Some sort of low blood sugar, but not dangerous form.  Yes, just rest her onto the counter.  That will be fine.  A lovely, lovely girl.”

“Will she be all right?”
“Certainly.  She always is all right.  Just some dazed at first.  She will not remember fainting or anything about an hour before.  Have a glazed?”  He holds forth the box.
“No thanks, but let me pay you for a pair of brass knuckles and that rubber boat Nadya blew up for me.  Then I’m on my way.”
He looks puzzled.  “Oh, Stooge?”
“Right, that’s my daughters’ name for the boat.”

As he makes his way behind the counter, Nadya begins to moan a bit and shift her body toward me.  Slowly her eyes open and she blinks rapidly as if trying to focus.
She mumbles in Russian but I don’t understand.
“Are you ok?” I ask, figuring it will take a while for her to regain full consciousness.
I give the manager a hundred-dollar bill and he rings me up.
“You came back to see me,” Nadya whispers sweetly.  This time it’s clear, in English, and, I don’t know what to make of it.  I came back?  Has she mistaken me for some other aging dude?  Whatever . . . according to the manager, she’s tabula rasa for a while.

When I return to the condo Renee and the girls are still asleep, so I sit out on the balcony and drink some coffee and wish I’d taken that Krispy Kreme.  Not many people on the beach yet, some early joggers, some guys pitching sand tents.  No signs or omens to speak of nor do I wish to encounter any.  What I really want is more sleep, so I head for the bedroom and slide in and embrace Renee’s supple body.  She stirs gently and I feel her breath on my wrist.  Ah, two unconscious women in one morning.  Maybe that’s a sign! 

I must distract myself from perilous thoughts.  I must buy a box of Krispy Kremes and devour them one by one.  Or even a Little Debbie sugar concoction.  Anything sweet.

A commercial on the inside television proclaims:  Good news for catheter users!

            So launch we do, but the waves tumble in violently this morning and the girls capsize with every bout.  Then it’s all four of us lifting the blasted boat full of heavy water and draining it.  And this goes on for about an hour before I inform them that I need a break.  So does Renee.

“Ok, girls, you’re on your on with the Stooge for a while, so stay close to shore.  Not much of a rip tide yet but it’s there, it’s always there, like evil − ubiquitous.  Never have too much fun.”

Renee and I make our way back to the chairs and umbrellas and take turns keeping an eye out on the girls.  It’s so peaceful and pleasant when it’s not your turn.  Must parenthood mean relentless paranoia?  Sharks, mushroom jellyfish, typhoons, mere drowning, aquatic serial killers.  When one or the other of us fails to spot the girls as they gambol in the surf our hearts sputter and lurch.  Got to keep them in sight.  And thus vacationing means hard work  But how wondrous it feels to close your eyes and feel the sun rain down on you − and empty your head, if only for the nonce.

Didn’t Hamlet say that conscience makes cowards of us all.  He meant consciousness, not conscience, though either suffices.

Floaters wriggle across my close-eyed and thus obfuscated vision.  Bits or retina defecting.  Myopic pressure in the old vitreous humor.  Why not vitreous tragedy?

The image of Nadya’s breast crowds out the floaters.  I have resisted thinking about it, I don’t want to think about it; thinking on such things means suffering, for me anyway, though in some alternate world of possibility it could have meant supreme joy.  Why always these polarities?  Who thought up this tormented, convoluted scheme of things?

Renee raps me on the knee, my bad one.  My turn to climb the crow’s nest of observation.  Life guarding.  I open up to her sumptuous smile.  “Nodding off, Paw?” she asks.  “Your watch.”

“Close your eyes, babe, feels good.  We’ll soon be out there again navigating the wretched Stooge in deeper waters.”

She does close her eyes but murmurs, “We’re the stooges, Paw, all of us, haven’t you figured it out yet?”
I want the raise a finger, proclaim to the contrary, but it requires too much energy.

            A diet Pepsi explodes in the condo refrigerator.

Lea begins to sulk because the trip is largely over:  three or so days to go.  It does seem as if we just arrived, I agree.  But Lea lives for our trips, so it will be rough going for a while.  Bee too laments the swift passage of time but in her own quiet, melancholic way.  Renee and I just want to get home so we can take a vacation from the vacation.

When Bee and Lea have finished numerous revolutions, they head straight for our bench.  Lea looks green and ill.  “I’m going to throw up,” she mumbles, and does indeed vomit out her entire supper from Golden Corral.  We had steered her behind a large, rusted waste bin to avoid a scene.  She moaned and cried, “I feel terrible,” and we, of course, hurry her back to the van and head straight to BiLo for Dramamine.  I have often suggested ginger as a natural alternative, but the females complain it tastes like soapy water

Once again Renee and I take a break as the girls fiddle with Stooge III in the surf.  They drift out a bit farther than we would like, but we remind ourselves, after all, they can handle it. 

It’s so hot I take my time returning to the fifth floor for a sandwich.  I step onto the balcony and zoom in on the girls with my new Canon digital, click a perfect shot as if they were ten feet away.  I turn my gaze toward Renee, and . . . whoa!  I must have the wrong umbrella and chairs.  But no, Renee’s flamboyant copper hair is unmistakable.  And, yes, our ragged towels and crooked umbrella.  A man sits in my chair beside Renee!  I zoom to full magnification and steady the camera on the railing.  A man!  He and Renee seem to be chatting amiably.  He pokes her upper arm gently and cannot stop touching her.  At one point she clasps his wrist as she slouches over in laugher!  What ho, what ho!  She’s having a grand old time . . . my wife and this stranger.  And within sighting distance of our daughters.  I must retrieve the voo doo doll from my windshield and impale its groin with needles.  I gauge that he’s about her age, maybe even somewhat younger!  There are many young guys who prefer older women, but for me Renee remains very young   It’s all relative and your personal kink.

I can make out profiles – alas, the man has a full set of tawny, curly hair and a rugged jaw, and I estimate about twenty-nine or thirty.  Seems moderately muscular with a small tattoo on the neck, some sort of bird . . . yikes! a freaking osprey!  Imminent devastation?  Am I being cuckolded by a whipper-snapper who has followed us to Myrtle Beach to be near Renee?  How long has this been going on?  Who is this unknown despoiler?  Why is Renee having what looks like uproarious fun?  I shoot Mr. Curley’s head about twenty-five times with my Canon.  I had planned to tell Renee about my escapade with Nadya, but perhaps she intuited it, as women do.  Perhaps this is revenge.  But revenge for what?  Nadya, when she was conscious, merely flirted with me, and I must confess that I flirted back.  Harmless, right?  Or is the grand joy of flirting now off limits as well as everything else regulated by the myriad hyena committees charged with suppressing human nature?  Can’t even say “Eskimo” now without someone, somewhere accusing you of crimes against humanity.  It certainly looks as if Renee is flirting with this osprey dude, but what’s strange is that while my initial reaction was rage, hurt, shock, fear . . . it dawns on me within minutes, why not?  Why should Renee too not have the right to flirt?  Flirting is an upper!  Just as long as he doesn’t pass out and she must tuck his wayward schlong back into the Speed-Os.  Well, what of that too?  As long as he’s unconscious, so what?  Just don’t make a field day out of it.

I shuffle out the condo and make my way down the halls, across the wooden planks that pass as a pier of sorts and cross the scorching sand. 

“Hello,” Renee turns languidly as I ease myself in the chair.  Her smile ignites me, and the sunlight splashing her face brings out the freckles that I love.  She looks wondrously gorgeous.  Is it me or has her encounter with Mr. Curly brightened her up? 

“Hi,” I say, “where are the girls?  I don’t see them.  I see the Stooge but not Lea or Bee.”
“They’re old enough to venture out a bit on their own,” Renee says, and I agree.  I don’t want to agree, but I – we – must agree.  They aren’t babies anymore, sad to say.
I scan the water in the Stooge vicinity, and sure enough, see Lea and Bee leaping up as the waves crash over them.

Renee squeezes my hand tighter and sighs dreamily.  “I love you, Paw, you know that, don’t you?”
I’m tempted to retort with “Yeah, well then who was the bozo whose wrist you grabbed while I was in the condo?”
“Stooges in paradise,” Renee laughs.  “Who would have thought?”

Will I tell Renee about Nadya?  Probably at some point.  What is there to tell?  Will she tell me about Mr. Curly?  Probably not.  And what of it?  But right now no abstractions, no assessments, no apprehension . . .  only this, being here, absorbed in the moment, the fabulous, eternal, joyous moment that crests and ebbs with the waves.

A pelican swoops over our daughters who seem absurdly far away even as they begin to make their way back toward us with smiles and shells and infinite expectations.

About the Author:

Louis Gallo was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, and now teaches creative writing and contemporary literature at Radford University in Virginia.  He is former editor and publisher of the now retired literary magazines The Barataria Review and Books:  A New Orleans Review.  He won an NEA individual artist award for fiction and another NEA Poet in the Schools award from the state of South Carolina and has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes.  He has published poetry, fiction and academic articles widely in America and internationally. His chapbooks include The Truth Changes, The Ten Most Important Questions of the Twentieth-Century and The Fascination with the Abomination.