Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Thunderhead over Gulf Coast bay
Here's another installment of my Great American Lesbian Novel (in progress), Ginny Bates. If you are new to reading GB, go to the section in the right-hand column labeled Ginny Bates to read background and find out how to catch up.

July 2019

With great regret, Frances decided she could not spare the time off to go with them to the Gulf Coast for the Fourth of July week: She had too many out-of-town trips scheduled for planning the new restaurant in L.A. in the next few months. Thus, landing in Houston were ten adults and five children. They rented two minivans and a car to hold all the children's car seats plus luggage. Lucia had nursed during take-off and then spent the flight at a window, enraptured by the patterns of the earth below them.

Their charter had lifted them out of Seattle before dawn, so they arrived at Margie's in Galveston still before noon. Tables were being set up for the free meal at noon in the covered parking area under the restaurant. In the open air part of the lot, a Latina in her 40s was leading a tai chi class for an assorted group of folks, some of them clearly folks who lived entirely on the streets. The shade under the water tower held a nursery and kindergarten group of homeless children, and parked in the side lot was a mobile clinic van. Epifanio was downstairs and came to hug Margie when the family began pouring from their vehicles.

Margie introduced him as "the guy who keeps everything running". He was short, slight, and in his 50s, implacably calm and eloquent as he gave them a tour of the busy site. He said the medical van came twice a week, a bookmobile came once a week, and there was always at least one support group meeting in the mornings before the lunch hour -- for vets, anger management, AA/NA, adult education, art, anything somebody wanted to lead or teach for free. The work of setting up and breaking down for lunch, plus keeping the place clean, was hired out to homeless people at twice minimum wage, by Frances' edict. He pointed out the new bathrooms at the side, plus a public shower available in time slots for women, men, or those who didn't want to worry about gender. The fence around the site was opened at 7 a.m. and everyone had to leave by 2 p.m., because the upstairs restaurant -- "for the folks with money" he said with a grin -- began operating at 3:00.

At first, merchants in this historic district of Galveston had been vociferously opposed to Frances' dual use of her property, claiming that attracting the "indigent" would drive away paying customers and damage property. Epifanio, however, had lived here all his life and refused admission to anyone drinking, using drugs, or people who could not yet control their outbursts or tendencies to violence. "Other crazies are welcome" he said. The refuge was now also kept intact by the folks who were able to make use of it, especially women and mothers. Eventually, the hoi polloi of Galveston decided Margie's was trendy, a way to do good without any real effort, and the upstairs restaurant was constantly booked, the donation jar stuffed by middle-class guilt.

Epifanio said "You're welcome to eat down here, but it's a fixed menu and Frances called in a cook early to feed you whatever you want up in the air conditioning." Myra said "Some of us need the cool air" and regretfully led the children to the elevator with Chris, while everyone else climbed the spiral staircase. When the elevator doors shut, the children looked at her expectantly, but Chris interrupted any possible scenario by saying "I thought Frances' cousin Renata was in charge of this place."

"She runs the kitchen" said Myra. "Frances caused family discord when she hired Epifanio at a matching salary and gave him half the power, but she obviously knew what she was doing."

They sat at a long table in front with a bright view of the ocean. Children were strategically separated between adults and their water glasses were pushed out of reach, contents poured into sippy cups produced from Jane's voluminous shoulder bag. Margie insisted Epifanio sit with them, and he agreed to stay a few minutes, but said he had to get back downstairs before dessert.

Myra always found it interesting to eat Frances' recipes which had been prepared by hands other than hers: Her imprint was there, but the difference could be tasted. There was one gluten-free dish ready for Lucia, who wasn't particularly hungry and preferred to sit in Chris's lap staring out the window at the breakers. Epifanio told Margie the latest development, the contracting with a local bus company to make five buses automatically available in the event of another hurricane landfall in Galveston.

"Five buses?" said Ginny. "Not just for employees, then."

"Nope. No more poor folks left behind to drown" he said quietly. Into the silence that followed, he turned to Chris and said something to her in rapid Spanish. She grinned and answered in what Myra recognized as Nimipu, although she couldn't translate any of the words. His face registered the first surprise Myra had seen on it, and he said "You're not mestiza?"

"Native, but 2000 miles from here" she replied.

"Ah. My bad" he said.

After he went back downstairs, Chris leaned over to Myra and asked "What did he say to me?"

"The only word I caught was 'santos'" said Myra. Ginny filled in with "He asked you if you were new to this congregation of saints or if you were one of the grand old dames who began the miracles." The other grand old dames beamed at each other.

Five minutes before they were due to leave, Myra borrowed the keys and went to each vehicle, turning on the ignition and the air conditioning, so Chris and the children would be spared the blast furnace effect of closed cars at noon on a Texas July day. They drove the half hour to Jamaica Beach, putting off the kids' every-two-minute request to go to the beach now, and there Jane and Gillam peeled off their brood to go immediately toward the ocean. Ginny, Myra, and Chris took the car to the fish store and produce stand, while the remaining adults hit the supermarket.

Belinda, Harm's niece who managed the property for them now, was at the beach house when they arrived. The air conditioning had been on a couple of hours, clean sheets were on all the beds, and she was sweeping the front stairs when they filled the sandy driveway. Gillam immediately went to get the portable canopy from the shed in back while Jane began blowing up the three wading pools they'd bought this time to line up in the canopy's shade. Chris went upstairs to explore while everyone else filled the open-air lift at the side of the porch with luggage and groceries, saving endless trips up and down the stairs.

Allie and Edwina had insisted on taking the sleeper sofa in the living room, pointing out they got up before everyone else anyhow for fishing. They gave their room to Chris, who in turn insisted on sharing it with Margie. Myra told Allie that she and Edwina could have her and Ginny's bedroom for their afternoon naps. All five children were going to be on the sleeping porch this year, which they found exciting in a tribal sort of way. Jane and Gillam were sharing their bedroom with Carly and Eric, and jokes had passed among them about socks being hung on the doorknob which Myra tried to ignore.

Before Belinda left, she said to Gillam “I did a thorough check, and didn't find a one. The stuff they use really works.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Ginny.

“He calls me every year now to make sure there are no fire ants in the yard here” said Belinda with a bemused grin.

Gillam said, a little defensive, “I'm willing for the kids to learn how to deal with scorpions, tarantulas, snakes, and prickly pear, but fire ants are just plain evil.” Mimi was listening and looked at the ground around her with a worried scowl.

In the third wading pool, instead of water Jane shoveled clean sand sifted through a window screen. This took her quite a while, and the other children had been splashing and squirting each other with the trickling hose for half an hour before Jane finally put Lucia in her sand pit with a plastic fork and a strainer from the kitchen. Lucia immediately began drawing in the space Jane smoothed for her. Gillam, his face shining with sweat, stripped down to boxers and sat in one of the wading pools, inviting his kids to “turn that hose on me, go for it”. Jane said “Sunscreen check again in an hour” and he nodded as she went upstairs to change.

By that time, the groceries had been unpacked and ice stowed in the freezer. Carly was making lemonade and tea, Allie and Ginny had their art corners set up on the porch, and Eric was in one of the showers. Chris emerged from her bedroom in a T-shirt and shorts, announcing “I'm going to sit out in the sun.”

“You should put on a swimsuit, then” said Margie.

“The one I had is too big for me now” said Chris. “I'll roll up the sleeves and belly on this -- “

“I've got the two-piece I used for kayaking, it oughta fit you” offered Margie. “Except in the ass.”

Chris looked dubious and Margie said “An athletic two-piece, not a bikini. Come on.” When Chris came back to the kitchen, Carly gave a whistle which embarrassed Myra as much as Chris. It was not a provocative garment, but still revealed more of Chris than any of them usually saw. Her surgery scars on her belly were still red and angry-looking.

She put on sunglasses, tucked a magazine under her arm, picked up the glass of lemonade Myra offered her with one hand and a folding lounge with the other, and headed down the front stairs, sitting on the other side of Lucia. Gillam called to her “Don't you need some sunblock?”

“Melanoma is very low on my list of concerns” she replied. She didn't open the magazine, instead leaning the lounge back and, it appeared, dozing off rapidly.

After an hour, fighting broke out among the four older children and kept erupting no matter what Gillam did. He stood up abruptly, his boxers sheer and clinging to his frame. There was silence in the wading pool.

“Time for naps” he said shortly. Only David and Mimi found the gumption to argue, and he said “You were up before dawn and you'll be up late tonight, even with the time zone change you're short on sleep. Naps now.”

Jane stood from her Adirondack chair on the porch above and called “Come up here, kids, I'll towel you off and put you in dry shorts.” They dragged their heels but Gillam herded them ahead of him, carrying a wailing Lucia. Once they were all inside, Margie said “Whew.”

Myra came out a few minutes later carrying the lemonade pitcher. She refilled everyone's glasses, then walked downstairs and did the same for Chris.

“You're gonna burn” she said. “Sit up, I'll start on your back.” Chris shifted sleepily and Myra slathered sunscreen on her back and shoulders, handing her the tube and saying “You can get the rest. A burn will ruin two days of your vacation.”

Back on the porch, Ginny said “Where're the boys?”

“Napping. As is Edwina in our room. Jane's lying down with Lucia, and I saw Gillam drop onto the couch. It's siesta season all around.”

“What are you doing?”

“I boiled a big pot of chicken and picked off the meat for salad tomorrow, now the stock is simmering. For tonight I thought we'd have that snapper, potato salad, sliced tomatoes, three-bean salad which will come from cans, and there's two watermelons chilling down. All I really have to do is boil the potatoes and broil the snapper at the last minute. So I've been writing up some of the poems and songs I tell the kids. I think maybe I could make an anthology of those plus a few stories that we haven't ever published, make Mai happy.”

Ginny grinned. “Not to mention ill-mannered children everywhere.”

“Hey, will you double the potatoes?” asked Allie. “I'll use the rest for hash browns in the morning.”

“Deal” said Myra. “Don't let her go more than another hour out there” she said softly to Allie, “She's not used to the sun here.”

“I can hear you” drifted up Chris's voice.

At 5:00 Ginny came inside to help with dinner and discovered Carly and Eric were already on the job. Gillam's snoring came from the living room, and the sunporch door was still peacefully shut.

“Hey, lend me your brain” said Myra. “I'm trying to think of one more verse for my lav-lav-lavender poem, for Lucia, and I'm really stumped. There's just not many one syllable words in English for basic body parts that have a rhyming word for a current article of clothing.”

Decades earlier, Myra had dredged up a poem she'd read somewhere as a child and reworded it as a ditty she'd say when either Margie or Gillam was sick. The two original verses had gone:

My Margie, my dear
Had a pain in her throat
A kind woman gave her
A button-up coat
And little shoes of lavender
And little shoes of lavender
To keep her from the cold.

My Gillam, my dear
Had a pain in his chest
A kind woman gave him
A button-up vest
And little shoes of lavender
And little shoes of lavender
To keep him from the cold.

As the grandchildren had come along, she'd reworked these first two substituting Mimi and David's names. For Leah she'd come up with “nape and cape”, which had thrown Mimi into an uproar because she wanted the cape for herself. It had taken Myra a long period of digging through a thesaurus before Charlie's verse became “back and mack”, which Myra said was borderline because they generally said raincoat instead of mackintosh.

Ginny sat down and looked at the notes on Myra's legal pad. She cracked up over “rear and brassiere”.

“Does it really have to be one syllable?” she asked.

“Maybe not” said Myra.

“Well, how about 'belly' and 'wellies'?” asked Ginny.

“But the shoes are of lavender, she wouldn't be wearing both shoes and wellies” said Myra.

“So make her wear socks of lav-lav-lavender” said Ginny, filching a tomato from the plate already on the table.

“Done” said Myra. “I'll print this out and give it to you and Allie to fight over.”

“I've started a big canvas” complained Ginny. “She'll take all the good illustrations for herself before I'm done.”

“Up to you and her” insisted Myra, standing to carry her laptop over to the printer on the shelves by the door. She almost ran into Chris, stumbling in blind from the bright light outside.

“I cannot fucking believe how loud the cicadas are here” said Chris. “And the mosquitoes have arrived with the first hint of sunset.” She looked in good spirits, however. She walked flat-footed to the table, refilled her glass with icy lemonade, and said “I'm going to shower before dinner.”

“Yes, mah-dahm” answered Myra, handing her print-out to Ginny, adding “There's two copies, Gin, give one to Allie.”

After dinner, Carly and Eric took one of the vehicles to go scout wood for their evening campfires along the shore. Gillam rubbed mosquito repellent into preschool flesh and covered their little torsos with bright gauzy shirts while Margie and Edwina washed the dishes and Allie pulled fishing tackle from the locked closet in the back storeroom. Ginny carried in painting gear past Myra and Chris, side by side on the porch. Chris's eyes were focused on the distant line between ocean and sky, a shifting demarcation. She said languidly “I'm sorry I never did this with you all before now. It's luscious here.”

“How you feeling, Kash-Kash?”

“Sucked dry. But...better. I feel like maybe it worked. Don't go to town with that, now” she added.

Too late. Myra's heart was thudding hard in her chest. As soon as she and Ginny were alone in bed, smelling of smoke and Bullfrog, she repeated what Chris had said. Ginny squeezed her and they lay in silence until sleep arrived swiftly.

Chris of course accompanied the fisher-folk, carrying Lucia and a small pack with diapers, a bottle, and the strainer for making sugary sandheaps. Their second day, after a breakfast feast of fried fish, hash browns, and grapefruit, Myra and Carly excused themselves mysteriously, driving away in one of the minivans. When they returned, they had a rental ATV from a place in Jamaica Beach, complete with an expandable ramp to wheel it down from the back of the van. The children ran as a pack toward them, but Myra said the unbelievable, that it was not for them to play with: It was for Aunt Chris.

“I was joking” said Chris, flapping to Myra's side in her thongs.

“I know. But it's a great idea. You can go for miles up and down the coast on this. We've got an extra five gallons of gas here in a can.”

“Oh, puh-leeze, Aunt Chris -- “ began Mimi desperately.

“I'll be glad to take each of you for short rides on level ground” said Chris, “but only if it's okay with your parents.” She grinned at Gillam and said “No wheelies, no drag races, I promise.”

Jane and Gillam looked at each other. Jane said “Uh...Could I take it for a spin, too?”

“Absolutely” said Chris. “In fact, you can go right now, I need to go upstairs and let that last cup of coffee do its thang.”

Gillam and Jane took turns driving children across the road and onto the beach, carefully timing them so war did not break out among the troops. Gillam, the last to return, parked it under the house and said to Chris “It's alarmingly tipsy. But you can feel the horsepower.”

Chris settled into her lounge chair with her sunglasses and said “After while, when I've worked up a sweat and need a breeze to dry off.”

“Then can I?” asked Margie, not even waiting for Chris's nod. Myra, watching from the porch, wanted to yell down “Be careful” to Margie and managed to stop herself. She caught a glimpse of her beyond the south dunes a few minutes later, going entirely too fast and kicking up a line of spray in the edge of the water. She breathed out in relief when Margie returned intact, avoiding the wounded expression on Mimi's face.

“Goys and their toys” muttered Ginny.

On the Fourth of July, Harm and Gary drove in from Houston where they still shared a home despite having broken up years earlier. Gary brought his new lover with him, a much younger man who flirted with Carly. Belinda also came with her two sons, now 10 and 12, who were swarmed by the grandchildren as exotic beings almost within their grasp. David tried repeatedly to persuade one of the boys, Cody and Travis, to join in his made-up dances. They stared at him blankly for a long time. Suddenly the 10-year-old, Travis, broke into a frenzied modern hip-hop derivative, and within a minute his brother was scratching, making percussion with his mouth, while David hurled himself into enraptured imitation of everything Travis did. Eventually even Lucia tottered to her feet and tiptoed around in the sand, waving her arms and giving her extravagant grin at anyone who didn't meet her eyes.

The visitors had brought crab, hogfish, two kinds of bass, and an enormous slab of spareribs. They grilled these with corn, new potatoes, onions, sweet potatoes, eggplant, and cherry tomatoes. Dessert was homemade ice cream in blueberry, strawberry, and vanilla. After eating, they sat around, stuffed, until it was full dark, then walked to the beach to set off fireworks. It took five adults to keep the younger children from peril as they tagged after the older boys, risking life and limb with explosives, as Ginny put it. Eventually, having missed their nap, meltdowns overtook the little ones en masse, and the visitors tactfully took their leave as weeping exhaustion was brushed free of sand and put to bed.

The next day was Lucia's first birthday. Myra made a German chocolate gluten-free cake and Lucia was taken for several rides with Aunt Chris. They heard her laughter over the drone of the ATV engine. At the campfire that night they sang “Santa Lucia”, whose out of season appearance didn't confuse her in the least: It was her song, after all.

Myra found herself this year in a fever of desire for Ginny. She had made love to her every night since they arrived, and this night she woke again at 4:00 when she heard the toilet flush – one of the fishers, starting their day. She rolled over to face Ginny and whispered “You awake?”

“Mmm” said Ginny, not moving. Myra kissed her cheek near her ear slowly, then stopped to see if Ginny would awaken further. After a minute, Ginny said “You want to go a second round?”

“I do. I can't get enough of you.”

“I know exactly how you feel.” Several minutes later, Myra said “Oh god, Ginny, I'm dying to have your hands on me.”

Ginny went still. “Same here.”

“Maybe you could just kiss my breast, see how that goes.”

Ginny pulled Myra to her and tried not to devour her. A minute later, Myra said “No, no – it's too much. I'm shutting down. Goddamnit, goddamnit it to hell.” She rolled to her back, gasping.

“I fucking hate them all” said Ginny passionately.


“All of them who left you with this.” Ginny began crying. Myra wrapped around her and cried a little, too. They went back to sleep, finally, grabbing a couple more hour of their abrogated intimacy before it was time to make biscuits and squeeze juice for breakfast.

The next afternoon, magnificant thunderheads began to gather over the bay behind them, and a dark line was visible on the southern horizon. Gillam kept the children's naps short, saying “It's gonna blow tonight.” Carly and Eric offered to move onto the sleeping porch of the weather was severe, freeing up their bed for three of the children. Myra and Ginny said they'd take the other two in their king-size bed.

The canopy was taken down and put in the shed, along with the wading pools, well before dinner. Painters' gear was brought inside and Margie checked to see if car windows were up. The downpour hit while they were eating, and the lights flickered briefly a few minutes later. Ginny went to check on the generator, but it had not kicked in, they were still on local electricity. Because of the sudden drop in temperature, melons were left in the fridge tonight and instead Myra brought out her stash of Texas pralines, passed around while they sat in a huddle of chairs on the front porch, blown by stray rain as lighting crackled nearby. Lucia was deep in Chris's lap, and Ginny, beside them, had one of Lucia's feet cradled in her hand.

Myra, feeling the presence of David and Rosa, said during a brief lull, “You know, this kind of wave and wind is going to dig up all kinds of things from the deeps. A lot of Spanish treasure ships, and pirate ships, are sunk out there off this coast. If we go walk along the beach in the morning, no telling what we might find.”

She felt Leah quiver in her lap, and Mimi said “Instead of fishing?”

“No, you all can go fishing” said Ginny. “Me and Gramma will get up earlier than we usually do, though, and meet you to go beachcombing.” She looked tenderly at Myra.

Margie said “You know, when I was about your age, Mimi, my zayde David took me and your Daddy for a walk after a storm and I found a Spanish doubloon, a big silver coin.”

“And I found a piece of eight” said Gillam.

“I wanna go!” said Charlie.

“Then a treasure-seeking we shall go” said Ginny. Gillam said quietly “I still have mine in a drawer.”

“Can I see it?” asked David.

“When we get home” said Gillam.

“I don't want to go home” said Leah. “I want to live here forever.”

After a long, contented silence, Jane began singing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and the rest joined in. Once the storm broke, the children dropped off almost simultaneously – negative ions, Edwina proclaimed. They were put on the sleeping porch after all, which was now cool and fresh. Myra and Ginny retrieved the stash of large old coins from the around the world they had locked in the storage room, chose five of different shapes and metals, and polished them with Brasso until they gleamed. None of them were particularly valuable but “they do look treasure-ish” said Myra.

They found the fishing enclave by 7:00 the next morning and peeled off the children, Ginny carrying Lucia. Myra let them amble on ahead and dug holes in the glossy strand with her toes at intervals, dropping in the treasure and covering each partly with sand. After the fifth was deposited, she called out “Hey, I think there's something washed in back here!”

Mimi reached her first and began overturning seaweed, until Myra said “I saw a glint there” and pointed. The only one of the children who didn't have to be led directly to X marks the spot was Lucia, who spied her copper octagon immediately. Ginny and Myra marveled endlessly, declaring the finds to be a piece of eight, a doubloon, a real, a ducado, and an escudo. David and Mimi continued digging relentlessly, while Leah tried to read the Tamil markings on her coin and Charlie kept burying his and re-discovering it. When Ginny wouldn't let Lucia suck on her coin, Lucia thrust it at her and ambled off wobbily to squat and draw on the silky taut skin of the permeated sand with her fat finger.

On Sunday, Myra opened her creek girl file and re-read the book she'd begun months earlier. She began writing and worked all day, leaving meals and childcare to whoever else was available. Ginny finished her painting that afternoon, and Chris went out kayaking with Margie, a demonstrable return of some of her old energy. They all were heavy-hearted when it was time to leave on Monday, sweeping the porch one last time and returning the ATV in Jamaica Beach. Even chocolate bread pudding at Margie's didn't cheer them up.

Ginny wept hard at David's memorial headstone, next to Rosa's, and again made her children promise they'd place markers here for her and Myra when the time came. Lucia wanted to steal some of the pebbles on David's grave, and Ginny told Gillam “Let her. It means more to her than putting one there will at this age.”

It was raining when they landed in Seattle, but it smelled like rich loamy rain, and the children began talking about how glad Beebo would be to see them.

“And Frances” said Margie with hunger. “And the dogs.”

“And an avalanche of cats” said Myra.

“And the leviathan” said Chris. Leah looked at her with interest.

In the airport shuttle, Allie sat next to Chris and said “You bloodwork is tomorrow, right?”

“Yep. And a PET scan.”

“You sure you don't need me to go with?”

“Myra's on it like a duck on a junebug” said Chris. “But I would like you to come with me when I go back to get the results.”

Allie dropped her arm over Chris's shoulder. “We'll go out dancing afterward” she said.

© 2009 Maggie Jochild.


Jesse Wendel said...

Trying to remember names from the past of GB...

Harm and Gary. And Belinda.

Is Harm the person whom originally ran the cabin, way, way, way back when? And Gary his lover? His lover then, I mean?

But then who is Belinda? I don't remember her. Yeah, I know. I could do a search. But if I ask, you might end up telling us more about these characters. See. There is method to my loss of memory. Besides... I totally blow at names, and you know this.

k. Going back to working on the stuff you know I'm working on. Made good progress today. Have a call in to a close colleague of the person I was scheduled to talk with back in January whom I missed. We're getting there.


Oh! One more thing about this section of GB. The entire time I was very nervous. Worried that one of the kids was going to drown. Of course I'm ALWAYS worried that one of MY children is going to drown -- that's MY thing. I worry even with two or three lifeguards there, because the lifeguards are just teenagers and they're not really paying close enough attention, and none of them have ever had a life-and-death situation and I've had only the Gods know how many and these kids are just there on barely above minimum wages mostly paying attention to each other and not my children, damn them.

So the entire section I kept expecting you to put us through yet another perilous and scary FRIGHT like you did that one time. Or hurt someone on the ATV. Those things are dangerous. Don't you know these are little children!!! Grrrrrrr. You are reactivating and triggering ALL of my parent reflexes.

Grrrrr again.

Maggie Jochild said...

Yes, Harm is who owned the place the first time they came with the kids (and who upset them so much with his profanity). Myra couldn't tell if Harm was short for something else, like Harmon, or how a native Texas was pronouncing Hiram. They had not realized, or even assumed, that such a good ole boy might be a fag. His lover, Gary, is Vietnamese. The beach farmhouse had originally belonged to (and been the residence of) Harm's Meemaw.

Belinda is not mentioned by name until after Harm sells the place to Myra and Ginny when he and Gary move to Houston. She is only mentioned once since then, although in my mind she appears every year. She and her brothers (Dash and Jim) did come for a visit when Gillam and Margie were little, thrilling and scandalizing them with their own children's profanity. After that visit, Myra has to interrupt Gillam and Margie in the bathtub trying on how it felt to repeat some of the bad words they'd heard all afternoon. Belinda is not referred to by name in that incident, however.

She's a dishwater blonde, fat, extremely competent, now divorced, and crazy about her gay uncles who more or less raised her because her mother was an alcoholic.

The things I know...