a short story by Margaret Barnes
About the Author
Margaret Barnes, 1940-2017
After a career as a food and travel writer, Margaret Barnes completed an MFA in fiction from Bennington College in her sixties, which began a later-in-life career as a talented and award-winning writer. She taught creative writing at several colleges, including Miami University.
A fist bangs on my door so thundering loud I think it must be the police. I throw a sheet over Leo, who is sprawled on the hide-a-bed, and crack open the door. But it’s only Mervin, the building superintendent. He leans against the railing outside my third-floor apartment, glaring down at the parking area, and shouts, “Don’t you know the rules by now? Visitors need a special pass!”
I know the violation has little to do with Leo’s pickup parked in the yellow zone and everything to do with Leo. I’ve seen Mervin sitting on his terrace at night, tapping his foot to the gospel music on his radio, surveying the apartment area through his binoculars. Last week, I’m pretty sure he saw Leo, barefooted, in his “Peace and Love” t-shirt, leaving my place at a suspicious time of the morning. I really have to worry about things like that. Snitches and high-nosed snobs have cost me everything I love in this world.
It’s hard for me to respond to Mervin’s accusations, wedged as I am in the door opening, trying to cover my body with a flimsy robe that’s no match for the Florida sun. “Gee,” I say, “I can’t imagine where that truck came from.”
The foul odor of Leo’s cigarette smoke drifts toward the door. Can a person be evicted for visitors’ smoke? I’m positive I read every nitty word in Mervin’s rental contract since legal papers spell disaster with a capital “D” for me.
“Well, little lady,” says Mervin, “consider yourself warned.”
Behind me, dishes begin to clatter in the sink of my one-room efficiency. Mervin frowns and squints, trying hard to see through my robe. I just grin and sidle into my apartment, which is fourteen feet from front door to back wall.
Leo’s bare, skinny butt sticks out of my refrigerator. “Hey, babe,” he says, “there’s nothing in here but Margarita mix and cheese. What are we supposed to do?”
“We aren’t supposed to do anything. It’s Sunday. You said you would leave last night, like I told you.”
He slams the refrigerator door and tries to untie my robe. Leo has an amazing talent for making me forget anything, for an hour or three, in that crumpled, pull-out sofa bed. He insists that he could work miracles on my shag carpet, but we both know there’s not enough floor space. So he gives up and says, “Okay then, I’ll meet you at Castaways later.”
“Fine,” I tell him, but of course I won’t be going to any goddamn hotel singles bar. Today is Sunday. The day I get Charlie and Rose Ann. It’s already eleven o’clock. As soon as Leo finally pulls on his jean shorts and ambles out the door, my heart begins to beat faster. Tick. Tock. One o’clock. That’s the time to pick them up. Can’t be late. Can’t do anything stupid.
Number one on my list is deciding what to wear. I’ve learned the hard way that appearance matters. I’ve tried to buy a few nice outfits with my employee’s discount at Feldman’s Department Store. I work in handbags and gloves. It’s amazing how many gloves I sell. It’ll be one hundred degrees outside, which is what it feels like today, but here come the jolly grandmothers wanting a pair of gloves. Mostly, they’re getting ready to fly back up north to see their “babies.” That’s what they always call their grandchildren. Invariably the old sweeties ask if I have any kids. I describe my shy, determined Charlie and enchanting Rose Ann, although I don’t have baby pictures to show off, like the older ladies always do. With their leather-gloved hands, they pat me on the cheeks. “You’re so lucky,” they say, “living in the prime of your life.”
At twelve-thirty, I’m wearing a red, strapless dress and heading down the beach road in my ’63 Fairlane coupe. Windows down. Breeze off the Gulf kicking through my hair. I feel good. I’ve got a can’t-lose plan for today. I’ve already told the kids about the movie on the phone. Even with their father’s five-minute talking limit, I had time to tell Charlie and Rose Ann about Song of the South. I told them it was their mommy’s favorite movie when she was a little girl. Charlie wanted to know if Micky Mouse was in it. Rose Ann didn’t say much at all. But just you wait, my babies. We’re going to have the time of our lives!
As I get closer to the house at Bradenton Beach Shores, I comb my hair, making sure to keep one hand on the steering wheel. The house where my children live has a very nice lawn. The mowing of perfectly even grass is a specialty of my ex-husband’s. The flower beds that I once planted with orange and purple hibiscus have been redone with reliable green shrubs, their branches clipped like butch haircuts.
It’s not quite one o’clock, so I drive on by. Sometimes my ex and his new wife won’t come to the door for a while, to make me think no one’s at home. Priscilla Priss-Ass is probably hiding behind my macrame curtains, peering out. She’s the reason I’m sweating like a thief, driving past the house where I used to live.
Joel told me he was leaving on July 20, 1969. The same night a man walked on the moon. Right after Neil Armstrong hopped across that alien surface, with the earth shining so bravely in his face helmet. Right when I thought there was so much good stuff to cheer about. But I guess Joel saw things differently; maybe he drew courage from that historic event. “Ginny,” he said, “I just don’t think marriage is working out for me.” Then he paused, “Can’t quite say what made me stop loving you.” He didn’t have the guts to say it was Priscilla.
All I know is this: after a few weeks of gritty, muffled shouting which I strove to keep from our six-year-old girl and four-year-old boy, Joel left.
While I interviewed for a job other than being a mommy, Joel (who worked as a bookkeeper at his father’s company) would come to see the kids and mow the lawn. Around Thanksgiving, Joel, looking paler than usual, sauntered into the kitchen and chugged down my last beer. “I’m getting married,” he announced. “I’ve been, uh, consulting with my parents, and we think I should have custody of Charlie and Rose Ann.”
I was so dizzy I had to lean against the wall. This was the man who had proposed to me in the seventh grade, the man I’d skipped college to marry. This man cried when our babies were born, laid his head across my breast and begged to suckle my milk. Now he wanted to take our children away from their mother? How could I grasp such a crazy-fool idea? But this spiteful new Joel kept right on jabbing, “So, the next time you see me will probably be in court.”
“You have nothing to worry about. The mother always wins.” This advice was from a tax lawyer, a friend of a friend who looked about twenty but had agreed to go to court with me, “just as a formality.”
It’s funny about that courtroom. I remember it as a dark, paneled room with high ceiling fans running too slow to wrestle against the mean, hot air. People rustling accordion-pleated paper fans staring at me. But it’s possible I have everything mixed up with scenes from old movies. So much of that day is unreal to me.
“It’s just a hearing,” my kid lawyer said.
He thought it would be quick, “a signing of papers.” I was prepared to be gracious, to give Joel plenty of visitation privileges. Instead, there was a judge, a man, staring down at me sitting behind a long, exposed table top. I wore a mini-skirt, vinyl but it looked like real leather, and my best white boots. Joel sat across the aisle, in a pin-striped suit I’d never seen, with his ritzy parents and two attorneys.
When the hearing began, my lawyer kept jumping up and sitting right back down. Especially when Joel accused me of sleeping around. My jerk of a husband pointed his finger right at me and said, “Just last month, Louise Elliot saw a car parked in the driveway all night long.” He explained to the judge that the revered Mrs. Elliot, who lived across our street, “saw a man leave the next morning.”
Joel’s attorney told the judge, “The mother has no job, not much education, and no living parents. The father, a professional accountant, is a pillar of the business community. So it is obviously in the best interest of the minor children for permanent custody to be granted to the father.” He paused, looking straight at me, and said, “Especially since there’s a question about the mother’s morals.”
“Morals,” I shouted toward that high bench. The judge’s robe seemed to expand like a fat, black balloon. “He’s lying through his teeth!”
My idiot lawyer tried to hush me up, but I was crying mad. “And who was it,” I shouted at Joel, “who stayed at home with the kids while you got your fancy Master’s degree?”
The judge kept looking at my skirt. So I told him I sang in the church choir, took the children to the library and had hugged them to sleep every night of their lives. That ought to have counted for something.
But when it was over I had Sunday afternoons and three weeks in the summer. I figured I might as well sign off on the house, too. I wouldn’t move my kids from the only home they knew.
Now it is finally one o’clock, and I am at the door of the house. Joel-the-Jerk is almost knocked over as Charlie and Rose Ann run to me. I am part of a tangle of little boy arms and little girl legs, the smell of tangerines, and everything I know about love.
“They’ve already had their lunch,” Prissy calls out from the kitchen. “Don’t bring them back so full of junk they won’t eat their supper.”
“Be sure they’re home by six,” Joel adds, his voice sounding higher-pitched, nothing like it used to.
“No problem,” I say, as the three of us skip across the flawless lawn.
We fill up the front seat of the Fairlane. “Why don’t you have safety belts?” asks Charlie. “Daddy says to buckle up for safety.”
Rose Ann pokes her little brother in the ribs. “You’re just fine,” she insists in her confident seven-year-old voice. “You’re not going to fly through the windshield.”
“Daddy just bought a new car with seat belts,” Charlie says. He is picking the stuffing out of a hole in the vinyl upholstery between his knees.
“My car is a magic car,” I say with spectacular cheerfulness. “It knows how we can keep each other safe.” But my five-year-old isn’t convinced. Charlie glances nervously at the windshield as I drag along at thirty-miles-per-hour.
“Just think about the movie,” I say. “You love the story of Uncle Remus and the Tar Baby. Remember when I used to read it to you?” I start to sing, “Zip a Dee Doo Da, Zip a Dee…” No response. “Hey, darlings, won’t you sing along with Mommy?”
“We don’t know the words,” says Charlie, sounding as if he is accusing me of something.
Rose Ann pulls down the visor mirror and puckers up her lips. “Mommy, can I wear lipstick? I’ve got some!”
A two-inch Avon sample comes out of her dress pocket.
“What shade is it?” I ask, buying time. God, I want her to have everything. If she asked me to buy her Feldman’s Department Store, I would agree in a second.
“You’re not supposed to wear that stuff,” her brother insists. “I’m going to tell Daddy and Mom.” Charlie’s last word starts out wide-mouthed and closes on a muffle. I hear the word like a shotgun blast to the aorta — MomMomMomMom.
Settle down, Ginny girl, I tell myself. He’s just confused. Don’t say a word.
“Hush, Charlie.” Rose Ann slaps his thigh.
“Dad and…her. Anyway, I’ll tell!” His pouty lip trembles below the bill of his baseball cap.
“Say, we’re almost to the Paramount Theater, the big one with fluffy seats. They’ve got tubs of popcorn.” I blather on and on while the word “Mom” still bobs around the car, and I want to scream, “Priscilla Priss-Ass ain’t nobody’s mom!”
“Hey, look at that,” says Charlie who is frowning and staring at my dashboard, “the needle says ‘E.'” Charlie was born with the intensity of an umpire. “We got to get gas. Now!”
He is right, of course. (I swear Leo must have driven this car when I wasn’t looking). Luckily, here on Gulf Shore Boulevard, in between We Ship Oranges and Neptune’s Shell Shop, I find a one-pump station. The heavily muscled attendant gives the kids lollipops while he tries to get my name, but I only say, “Fill ‘er up, please, sir.”
Finally, we pull up to the Paramount at twenty-five minutes after one o’clock. My kids jump up and down in the line. I hum the first lines of “Zip A Dee Doo Da,” knowing that pretty soon we’ll all know the words. This is Sunday afternoon at its finest. Plenty of other parents think so too, because the line is long and wide with smiling families. I step up to the window and talk into the round hole in the glass. “Three tickets,” I say with some pride, “one adult and two children. These two right here.”
The ticket girl asks for six dollars and fifty cents and rises out of her chair to admire Charlie and Rose Ann while I get out my wallet. In the folding part, the part where the dollars should be, are two bills. Each bill is only one dollar. Where is the rest of my money? I paid for the gas with correct change, didn’t I? How much was left? How can this be? The families in back of me begin to fan out and stare. The ticket woman practically shouts, “Six dollars and fifty cents!”
The kids have moved away from me. Charlie’s hopping on one foot. Rose Ann comes over with the Barbie purse I got her at Feldman’s and whispers, “Mommy, I’ve got two quarters.”
That is too much for the white-haired woman behind me who says, “Maybe you could write a check.” Jeez, who brings a checkbook to the movies? That woman takes on a social worker look, like she’s going to offer me the four dollars and fifty cents (I’ve got the other two!), but I won’t let that happen.
I gather up Charlie and Rosie who are looking at posters of Uncle Remus and the goddamn Tar Baby. “Hey, darlings,” I manage to say, “Who wants to spend a nifty Sunday afternoon in a dark ole movie house? Let’s go have some real fun!”
In the Fairlane they sit slumped over, waiting. The parked car has now heated to at least a hundred degrees. You can get arrested for leaving dogs in this kind of heat. We drive along, holding our faces out the car windows, trying to grasp a breeze.
“Why can’t we go to your house?” asks Charlie.
“It’s not a house,” says Rosie. “Daddy says it’s an apartment, and it’s too small for us to visit there.”
She’s right about that. I’ve never dared take anyone I love to the efficiency on the back canal in the old part of Bradenton.
“Daddy’s gonna take us to Disney World, a big park they just built.” Rose Ann continues. “We could go there now! It’s a really swell place.”
“I know, sweetheart. But—“
“Mickey Mouse! Mickey Mouse,” hollers Charlie. “There’s rides and all kinds of…”
“It’s too far away, baby.” My mind is racing while the car chugs along its programmed track along the beach road. As we approach the row of fancy resorts and hotels that hug the shore, I’m amazed to see a jillion cars parked in front of The Castaways Club. A sign posted on the cedar siding of the dowdy resort announces: “Sandcastle Contest Today! Cash prizes for Best Sand Sculpture.”
“Well, well, well! Who wants to see the ocean?” I know this afternoon is on an upturn as I park in the employee’s lot where I think I see Leo’s truck. We make our way around the crushed shell walkway to the patio behind the club. The children run straight to the beach, unconcerned about their Sunday clothes. “Take off your shoes,” I call, but it’s too late.
“Look, Mommy. Castles!” And there are, dozens of them. Pale pink, packed-sand castles. Beachcombers have constructed six-feet-high towers with paper flags from tropical drinks now flying on top of sandy turrets. “A fairy land!” I exclaim. “Maybe this is just like Disney World.”
“Let’s build one,” cries Charlie, “the wonderfullest castle in the world!”
Of course there’s an entry fee, so I have to take the kids with me to find Leo. He’s mixing vodka and tomato juice together with a celery stalk. When he sees me, a child on each hand, he comes out from behind the bar. “Hidy Ho, kidlings. Leo’s the name. Wanna build a pirate’s castle?” They smile, and I wonder how Leo learned to communicate with anyone under legal age. “First, how’d you two like a Shirley Temple?”
I tell them it’s just juice, and it’s all right. My darlings stand under an awning, silhouetted against the bright ocean, holding their little umbrella-ed drinks while I hiss under my breath at Leo, “I think somebody stole money from me. Maybe here, last night. Any reports of robberies? He shakes his head, but the look in his eye is peculiar.
The Gulf breeze picks up as we take our position, Number 58, on the far end of the hotel’s beach. All three of us begin to scoop sand using cupped fingers. Seeing that we have no buckets or shovels, Leo brings us plastic cups and pitchers from the bar. Charlie and Rose Ann are amazing architects. Fast and purposeful. In minutes, they mound together a gloriously fat castle and poke finger-hole windows. The judge with the megaphone shouts, “Thirty minutes till the end of the contest. First prize, twenty dollars.”
Sweat pours from Rose Ann and Charlie’s faces; sand clings to their clothes as they run back and forth from the shore to their masterpiece. Their laughter sings in my ears. I’m laughing too and calling to my knight and lady, “Get rid of those grimy clothes.”
Charlie strips down to his Captain Kangaroo briefs, and Rose Ann wears her underslip like an old-fashioned bathing suit. They leap into the water, then run around the castle with their battle cry, “Hurray for us! Hurray!”
People gather around. We have plenty of joy to share. Then, just as the prizes are about to be awarded; just as Charlie and Rose Ann are shoving sand as high as they can reach; just as Charlie is calling, “Look at meeeee,” a wave hits. He and Rosie are knocked down hard. They’re not hurt, but my giggling architects are almost buried in what is left of their fine, fat castle.
As the crowd backs off, hurrying to see who won twenty dollars, I hear my name called, “Ginny!” Maybe we really did win. Maybe the judge is coming with a trophy. But then I recognize the voice of a different judge. “Virginia, what on earth is going on?”
Joel’s parents walk so upright that their linen suits aren’t even wrinkled. “Goodness!” Joel’s mother peers over the top of her sunglasses. “Where are the children’s clothes?”
From inside the wet jumble of their fallen castle, Charlie and Rosie look toward me as if I had answers. They have stopped giggling. They struggle to stand, looking as if they have just washed up from the sea, and say, “Hi, Nana and Papa.”
“Why, hello, Charles and Rose Ann,” they utter in unison. “We’re really, really surprised to see you here.”
After stooping to pat her grandkids’ heads, Joel’s mother says, “We saw an ad promoting this sand sculpture thing; there’s even an airplane trailing signs about it. We thought it would be an art show, but back there is a sand figure that is, well,” she turns her head, “obscene.”
I pull the kids closer. “I suppose some people just see what they want.”
“Just look at these filthy children!” says their grandfather. “We should take them home. They need a bath. Priscilla said you were going to a movie. Christ Almighty, Ginny, why are you always changing your plans?” asks the man who used to claim he loved me like a daughter.
“Please don’t cuss in front of them,” I say. “And you’re not taking them anywhere! I have them until six o’clock.” I can see Leo coming over, and I try to motion him away. “It’s only ten minutes after four.”
“Wouldn’t you rather go back to Daddy’s?” asks Joel’s father. His bogus, toothy grin on his hateful head bobs back and forth from child to child. “We can stop for ice cream on the way.”
Rose Ann’s sun-hot little shoulder trembles under my hand. “You don’t have to leave if you don’t want to,” I tell them.
Charlie is starting to sniffle, and Rosie won’t hold up her head. “Listen, sweethearts. We can start over! We’ll build the wonderfullest castle in the world that no one can ever tear down.”
“Now, Virginia, that is exactly the kind of thing we can not tolerate,” says Joel’s mother, “You are telling these innocent children a bald-faced lie.”
“Is not!” screams Charlie. “My mommy can do anything she says. Can’t you, Mommy?”
Rose Ann pulls me down to her height and kisses me on the lips. “It’s going to be okay, Mommy.” It is the saddest thing she has ever said.
“I know, baby. I know.” The air seems to have thickened and will not fill my lungs.
The tall, straight grandparents start to rush my babies away, shoving them toward their giant black Lincoln.
“Hey, babe. Is kiddie hour over and done with?” I have no idea how long Leo has been standing there. He runs his fingers across the border of my red strapless dress. He talks toward my chest with his hoarse voice, “Come on back to the bar for a drink. Free Margaritas. All you want.”
“Go to hell, Leo,” I say.
My heels hit the sand. I run away from the beach on the Gulf of Mexico, past the castles melting into the sea, and I scream, “IT’S NOT SIX O’CLOCK!”
I am their mother, and they follow me. The wind is blowing harder, whipping Rose Ann’s beautiful wet curls onto her face. Charlie stumbles along, scratching his sandy legs. His lips mouth the words, “Love you, Mommy,” all the way to my car.
It does not take long to reach the apartment on the canal. After we shower and eat some very fine jelly sandwiches; after a treasure hunt to find all my cash money from chests of drawers; after tossing bread crumbs to the sea gulls, we leave.
I drive. I do not think about tomorrow or the day after that. I drive in my car with my own children.
Along the highway north of Bradenton, the light grows dim as storm clouds bear down on the sunset. We pass flat land with scrub palmettos growing wild and unruly orange groves left untended. The air drifts in from open windows, it begins to lose its salty, sulfur smell.
At the gift shop beside the toll booth, I buy my babies long pants and clean cotton shirts with the word ”Georgia” written across the front.
We crank up the windows when the evening breeze blows cooler inside our car. The radio plays a country music song. A clapping, foot-tapping song that sounds as sweet and new as evening rain. We three sit in the front seat, shoulders together, singing. And we all know the words.
“Sandcastles” Copyright ©2003 by Margaret Barnes.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles.