Among the Jellyfish
was driving the van. He'd bought it so he'd have something
to work on while his girlfriend Susan was at the office,
but he wasn't a good mechanic, and I figured we had as
much chance of reaching Buckroe Beach as we did of flying
to the moon.
On the seat behind us, oblivious to
the van's struggles, Susan's ten-year-old daughter Lucy
was whistling and brushing cherry-red nail polish onto
her toes. She'd been caught shoplifting a Playgirl
two days before, and she was still exultant
and high on the fumes. Neighbors said she had problems
because she was adopted and had never recovered when Susan
threw her adoptive father out. Whatever her excuses might
be, I'd never liked her—she seemed to go from a
sticky-faced brat to a budding delinquent in a single,
alarming flash. But all she ever talked about was her
cousin (and my girlfriend) Trish, and if Trish was going
to the beach, there was no way Lucy was going to be left
behind. So I sat up front, held onto the dashboard and
tried to ignore her whistling.
After the van stalled out at a few intersections,
Dick got onto the Interstate so he could keep the engine
revving high. He'd forgotten about the toll booth. When
we stopped to give the toll collector a quarter, the van
died. Dick kept pumping the gas pedal and cranking the
engine, but it wouldn't turn over. Then the woman in the
toll booth leaned into the van and told us we'd have to
push it to the side. The engine started.
The first exit after the toll booth
was the one we needed for Trish's house. Dick drove down
the emergency lane to reach it. Once we were off the highway,
he kept the engine revving high in neutral at the red
lights. At one light, he didn't race the engine fast enough.
When the light turned, we lurched and stalled out. A few
teenagers came out of a U-Totem and started strutting
across the street toward us like we were lambs caught
in a tar pit. Dick got the van started again just before
they reached us.
One of the kids threw his Coke can at
the van, and it bounced off the roof and rolled down onto
the wiper blade in front of Dick. Dick turned the wipers
on to throw it off. The kid who threw the can ran after
us. Dick popped the van into third, and we lost him in
traffic. After a few minutes, we passed the sign for the
There was a flea market being held on
the fairgrounds. A long line of cars was waiting to get
in. Dick drove up onto the curb in order to get around
them. The cop who was directing traffic blew his whistle
at us and signaled for us to stop the van, but Dick ignored
him. After a while, we turned off onto a side street and
started checking addresses. Most of the houses had sheets
tacked up over the windows for privacy. A few teenagers
stood on the corners and stared at us as we crept by.
The first time through, we missed Trish's
house because Lucy had spilled her nail polish on the
back seat and Dick was looking back to yell at her. Then
we turned around and saw Trish waving. She was sitting
on the roof, smoking a cigarette.
house was nicer than the others—the only brick house
on the block. A German shepherd was barking in the backyard,
and Trish yelled at it to shut up. Then she dropped her
cigarette down the chimney and climbed down a fir tree
that grew up against the front window.
"What's up," she said, smoke-breathed.
She was wearing a pink halter top with
tight jeans and sandals. I thought it was a little cold
for a halter top. I'd brought a windbreaker and a sweater
to wear over my Let It Be T-shirt, if I needed it.
"Aren't you cold?"
"Hell no," she said.
Lucy pointed at the cigarette pack in
Trish's jeans pocket. "What brand you smoking?"
Lucy smirked and gave us a peek at some
Salem Mentholateds she'd brought in her purse.
"Me too," she said.
"Those things are bad for your
lungs," I said.
"You've got to live tough, baby,"
Dick opened the hood on the van and
leaned over the engine. I walked back to him to see if
he needed some help, but when I leaned in beside him,
he started cussing and yanking wires off the distributor
cap. So I turned around and walked into the house with
first, it was so quiet the place seemed empty. Then we
heard a cough coming from the kitchen. It was Trish's
father. He was tying feathers and plastic worms to fish
hooks, and he had to lay everything on the table beside
him so he could shake my hand.
He was a nice man, I thought. Late fifties
with calluses on his finger tips.
"You fish much?"
"No sir," I said. "But
I'd like to."
"Good. I'll bring you a pole."
"We're not going to fish, Daddy,"
Trish said. "We're going to hang out."
"He seems like a good boy,"
her father said, as if I weren't in the room. "I'll
take him a pole."
I watched him wrap a thread around a
worm that had a bright or-ange feather glued to it. He
asked me to hold the thread while he cut it. I watched
him tie another one while Trish poured us some Sprite.
Then she led me into her room. She made Lucy stay in the
kitchen. Just as I was closing the bedroom door behind
us, she grabbed me and stuck her tongue in my mouth. I
was sucking on a Lifesaver and almost swallowed it.
"This is my room," she said,
wiping the saliva off her mouth.
I nodded and looked around. She hadn't
turned the light on, and the curtains were closed. It
took a while for my eyes to adjust. I spat the Lifesaver
into my palm. The room smelled damp like there were some
wet towels soaking into the carpet. I could see a lot
of square pictures on the walls. Then I realized they
were album covers. One album showed a woman getting whipped
by a guy wearing a dog collar. Another had a guy licking
his microphone with a tongue that looked like it could
reach his Adam's apple. Over the bed, there was a fish
net with a few starfish stuck in it.
She grabbed my arm and pulled me onto
the bed. There was a wet towel under me. I threw it onto
the floor and pointed up at the starfish.
"What are they for?"
She shrugged. "Momma did it. You
want to smoke a joint?"
She turned on some godawful music and
opened the window. Then she pulled some rolling papers
out of her jeans pocket and leaned over with her lips
against my ear.
"I'm not wearing any underwear,"
mother came home soon afterwards. I heard her pull up
in front of the house just as Trish was pulling her halter
top back on. I was lying on the bed and staring at the
starfish. When I heard the car, I lifted the curtains
an inch and saw her mother carrying a big box of Kentucky
Fried Chicken in her arms. She had tremendously wide hips
for such a short woman. She'd parked her station wagon
right behind Dick's van, and she had trouble slipping
in between the bumpers. Dick looked up for just a second
and nodded at her. Then he threw a wire onto the ground
in front of her and stuck his head back under the hood.
"Is she coming too?"
"Don't worry," Trish said.
She was lighting a stick of incense. Once it started smoking,
she dropped the match behind the bed. "We don't have
to ride with them."
"I don't mind. I was just wondering."
She turned the music off and opened
"Let's go," she said. She
licked my ear and wiped it off with the back of her hand.
gave us a knowing look when we walked into the kitchen.
I scowled at her, and she looked away. Trish's father
was still tying worms onto fish hooks. He gave me a nice
smile. He said he'd decided to take a fishing pole for
everyone but Trish and Lucy. I carried them out to the
van for him and propped them up against the side door.
Dick grunted when he saw them. I asked him how things
were going under the hood.
"Bad wires," he said. He pointed
at the pile on the sidewalk. "Luckily, I had a replacement
set in the back."
He straightened up and rubbed his hands
up and down his lower back.
"I was going to put them in tomorrow
anyway," he said.
He picked up the old wires and carried
them up to the back fence. The German shepherd wouldn't
let him get into the back yard, so finally he just threw
the wires at the dog and walked back to the van.
"There's a cooler in the back,"
he said. "Grab it and bring it in."
in the kitchen, Dick filled the cooler up to the top with
ice and then had to dig out a trough for the chicken.
He and I both took a handle of the cooler and carried
it back to the van. Trish's father walked out with us.
After Dick had climbed in to start the engine, her father
stepped up close to me.
"What grade are you in, son?"
I'd just leaned over his shoulder to
straighten a pole out, and I thought he might have smelled
the pot on my breath.
"Ninth," I said, trying not
to breathe on him.
"I'm glad you're seeing my daughter,"
he said. "She's dated some real trash, you know."
"Yes sir," I said, as he patted
led the way in the van, and Trish's parents followed in
their station wagon. He must have been right about the
wires. We cruised along at seventy-five once we were outside
Richmond. Trish and I sat in the back seat, and Lucy got
stuck up front. Trish was leaning against me, whispering
about what she was going to do to me under the pier once
we were able to break away from her parents. It felt like
my earlobes were on fire.
Dick cranked up the stereo when the
Stones' "Satisfaction" came on, and Lucy immediately
crawled into the back seat with me and Trish. Trish leaned
forward and pulled the curtain closed behind her. It was
a piece of white sheet that Lucy's mother had sewn together.
When the light was strong, you could see right through
it, but it still felt private, sitting behind it. Lucy
and Trish smoked Salems while I sat by the open window.
Lucy told her about the shoplifted Playgirl. They
threw the butts out the window, and Trish cuddled up next
to me. Lucy leaned across the seat and stared at us expectantly.
"When's your court date?"
"Worried about it?"
"Of course not." She took
another cigarette from her pack and lit it. "Have
you ever been caught shoplifting, Trish?"
I asked her what had happened. She shrugged
We rode for a few miles without speaking.
Then Trish sat up and lit another cigarette.
"When's the last time you've been
to the beach?" she asked me after she'd slipped her
lighter back into her jeans.
"Five or six years ago for Buckroe,"
I said. "We used to go there all the time, before
the jellyfish came in. Now we go up to Chincoteague on
the Eastern Shore."
"We're not going to do any swimming,
I nodded my head.
"We're going to take Lucy to the pool hall down the
street," she said.
"Great," I said. I watched
Lucy's eyes light up.
"That's where Bubba took me last
year," Trish said.
She laughed derisively. "Who's
Bubba? Bubba's the one who popped my cherry."
I didn't say anything after that. I
leaned back and watched her and Lucy smoke a few more
Salems and wondered who else she'd slept with. Dick was
singing along to some Beach Boys songs. After a while
I fell asleep and dreamed about being back home. Then
the van hit a pot hole, and I woke up with the smell of
sea water blowing in on my face. Trish and Lucy were sharing
a Salem. They hadn't noticed me wake up. I leaned over
and pulled back the van's side curtains. After a minute,
we passed the wooden roller coaster that was at the front
end of Buckroe Beach. It hadn't run since I was eight.
"Ever ridden that thing?"
Trish and Lucy were looking at some
photos Trish had in her purse. When she heard my voice,
Trish snapped the purse shut.
"The roller coaster," I said,
pointing at the back of the van. "Ever ridden it?"
Trish said she hadn't. Lucy said she'd
ridden it when she was two, when her father was still
living at home and used to take them places.
"Do you remember that?"
"Of course," she said.
I hadn't seen her father in years. He
had been in the National Guard like my father, and whenever
they saw him in the street, my parents would call out
to him, and he'd come sit with us on the side porch and
talk about where he was going to take his family on his
next vacation. After they divorced, Susan got a court
order to make him stay away from the house. I only saw
him once after that.
was hot out on the pier. I helped Trish's father carry
the fishing rods and lawn chairs. Trish dragged one of
the chairs against the railing and pulled her halter top
off. It wasn't very crowded on the pier, but the few old
men who were standing around in little groups almost dropped
their poles in the water when they saw Trish peel her
shirt off. At some point after we'd left her bedroom,
she must have changed clothes because she was wearing
a bright orange bikini top under her shirt. I was surprised
to see how tan she was. I'd never seen her torso in such
bright light before.
"This is your rod here, son."
Trish's father held a fishing pole out
to me, and I took it.
"We're not fishing," Trish
I kept the pole and stared down into
the water. It was brackish and green. Jellyfish were everywhere,
floating in stacks of three and four under the water.
I let the line plummet into the water and wondered how
I'd pull a fish out without snagging a few jellyfish as
well. It was like the ocean had given up after the jellyfish
came in and was just going through the motions of lapping
up against the pier.
"There's a lot of jellys down there,"
her father said. He leaned over beside me and let his
fishing line waver next to mine.
"Yes sir," I said. "I
used to come swimming here with my family before they
"We did too, son."
Trish held her hand up over her eyes
and squinted at me angrily. "You're not fishing,
"He's just talking to your father,
dear," her mother said. She was sitting beside Trish
with her shirt buttoned up to her neck. "He'll be
going with you in a minute."
Lucy said she wanted to see the pool
hall. Trish stood up and cleared her throat. I told her
father I'd be back in a few minutes. I started to pull
my line out of the water and managed to snag a fat jellyfish,
but it fell off before I could reel it in.
"Aren't you going to put your shirt
back on?" I asked Trish.
She gave me an exasperated look and
walked off down the pier.
ran into Dick at the van. He'd gone back to get the radio
and was smoking a joint in the back seat. He didn't see
us coming. When we slid the door open, he threw the joint
out the window on the other side and gave us a startled
"Where are you going?"
"To the pool hall," Trish
said. "I need to get my cigarettes."
"You shouldn't be smoking,"
he said. He climbed out of the van so Trish could get
"You shouldn't be wasting joints,"
"I don't know what you're talking
about." He shrugged his shoulders and grinned, looking
at Trish's breasts. "I'm just getting the radio for
"We're taking it with us."
Trish handed the radio to Lucy.
Dick looked at us for a second. "Sure.
We watched him hop barefoot across the
hot sand. Then Lucy walked around the van and retrieved
the joint. It was only half-smoked. Trish and Lucy sat
in the van and smoked it down to a roach while I stood
outside and looked around the parking lot. Before we closed
the van up, Trish set the roach on the dashboard beside
pool hall was closed. Lucy pressed her face against the
windows and stared at the dusty pool tables.
"Damn it," she said.
Trish patted her on the shoulder, and
we started walking down the beach road away from the pier.
There were only a few cottages facing the water. Almost
all of them looked abandoned. Trish put a heavy metal
tape in the radio and turned the sound up all the way,
and the music bounced between the cottages and the sea
wall that separated us from the beach. As we walked inside
the echoes, it seemed like I could hear the music fizzling
out over the water.
"This place is boring," Trish
said after a car filled with old ladies passed us.
"Want to turn around?" I asked.
Lucy shook her head. She was smoking
another Salem and nod-ding her head back and forth to
"A little further," Trish
We walked to the end of the cottages
and stared down the road. It kept going as far as we could
see without a single curve. We stopped, staring. Then
Lucy flicked her cigarette into the road ahead of us,
and Trish said she wanted to walk on the beach. We climbed
the sea wall and stared down at the sand. It was littered
with dead jellyfish and the shells of horseshoe crabs.
Some of the jellyfish were clumped up in piles above the
high water mark. Beside the tallest pile, there were a
few half-burnt logs and empty beer cans from somebody
throwing a party. Trish lit a new cigarette and jumped
onto the sand. I handed her the radio and jumped beside
her. I offered to help Lucy, but she jumped by herself.
Her feet slipped out from under her, and she landed with
her hand flat on a jellyfish. A red welt swelled up across
was a long walk back to the pier. After a while, we stared
at it like it was a floating mirage and trudged on top
of the beach trash as if we didn't care what we were doing.
The sun made me sleepy. I asked Trish to cut the music
off, but she didn't. Occasionally, Lucy walked down to
the water and stuck her hand in to cool off the welt.
When we finally reached the pier, I looked at the trash
underneath it and decided I didn't want to have sex under
there after all.
was sitting beside Trish's mother with a fishing pole
between his knees when we walked up. He gave us a scared
look, like we were going to say something about the joint,
but of course we said nothing. Trish turned her chair
to face the sun and lifted her face up into the sunlight.
Lucy sat beside her and lifted her face into the sunlight
as well. After a moment, I walked up to Trish's father
and dropped my line beside his.
"Not yet," he said. "But
a few've bitten. It's just a matter of time, you know?"
A big jellyfish washed up against my
line. I swung the line away from it and reeled in a little
to keep from cutting through it.
Trish's mother offered me a piece of
chicken, and her father took my pole so I could eat it.
"I used to love the Beatles,"
her mother said, pointing at my shirt. "People thought
I was crazy for liking them since I was so much older,
but I love their music."
I told her I liked them too and took
my pole back. Trish jerked her chair around so her back
was to me.
"What's that line out there?"
I asked her father.
There was a sheen on top of the water
out past the pier that ran like a thread of gold along
the coast. I hadn't noticed it before.
"Where?" He squinted at the
water with his free hand shading his eyes.
I pointed at the line. I traced its
path with my forefinger, and finally he spotted it.
"I'll be damned," he said.
"Never seen anything like that."
I turned around to point it out to Dick,
but he'd fallen asleep.
"I wonder if it's from the shelf,"
Trish's father said. "From where the sand drops off
under the water."
I stared at the line and thought of
how cold it would be on the other side of the wall, deep
"That may be it," I said.
A pelican dove into the center of the
golden line and jerked back up with a fish in its mouth.
"I'm going for a walk," Trish
said, standing up.
"Me too," Lucy said.
Trish told her she looked like she needed
to get more sun.
Lucy looked upset but she leaned back
in her chair and closed her eyes. Trish glanced at me
and raised her eyebrows.
I looked down at the water for a second.
I watched my line weave back and forth and felt for a
moment as if it were connecting me to two worlds. An old
man shuffled by with his fishing rod over his shoulder.
I turned around and watched him ogle Trish's breasts.
"I don't know," I said. "I
think I may stay here."
"I said I may stay here."
She gave me a look to remind me what
she was planning for our walk, but I shook my head.
"I'll go," Dick said, apparently
waking up quickly enough to under-stand the situation.
"Forget it," Trish said. She
sat back down in her chair. Her mother reached over and
patted her arm.
"He'll go walking with you later
on," she told Trish.
"I'm sure that's what that line
is," her father said. "That's the edge right
there, I bet."
I nodded my head and looked at my line.
A few minutes later, I got a bite. I
reeled it through the jellyfish and slapped it onto the
pier beside Dick's chair. It was a baby flounder. It kept
flapping from its white side to its dark side. Trish's
father held its tail and head so that we could see how
it was designed to lie flat on the ocean floor, dark side
up and white side down. Both its eyes were on the dark
side, and its white belly looked like how your skin would
look if you'd lived in a cave all your life. It gulped
in air and made a clacking noise each time its jaws opened
up. Trish's mother said we should throw it back in.
"It's too small to keep,"
her father said.
He helped me cut the hook out of its
mouth with a pair of pliers. I had to hold it tightly
as I carried it to the side of the pier because its scales
were getting slimy from drying out in the sun. I dropped
it over the side, and it seemed to float in the air for
a second as it kicked and turned. Then it fell onto a
jellyfish. I watched it jump once or twice like it had
forgotten which side was dark and which white, and then
it flapped its tail a couple of times and disappeared
in the water. I leaned over the rail and thought about
it lying on the bottom of the water, working its way out
to the edge of the cliff where the sand stopped. Then
I straightened back up because I was getting dizzy looking
into the water.
Trish's father tied another hook onto
my line and held the pole out to me. I shook my head.
It felt like I was underwater. I set my hand on Trish's
"Let's go for a walk,"
I said, hoarsely.