The rain came, not hard, but consistent, more than a drizzle yet less than a downpour. The rain forced me to pay attention. I hadn’t driven these roads in over twenty years. And back then I was a passenger—oblivious to routes and road signs, attuned only to rows of corn melding into pinelands. My brother entered the old house address into his phone’s GPS, but I told him to mute it. I wanted to navigate myself—to test my memory.
I usually drive a minivan where all passengers have their own fiefdom; the driver and third row shout to communicate. Now, however, we were practically sitting in each other’s laps—my brother, Mom, Dad, and I—in my husband’s four-door sedan. Yet we were cozy in the car in the rain, weaving our way through South Jersey, pulled toward the ocean.
Ben, my brother, almost didn’t make the drive with us. I got the call around eleven-thirty the night before: my mom, whispering on her cell phone in her bathroom, afraid of being overheard. My brother and his family were staying at her house. Ben’s wife needed him at the same time as our errand. Her mom was arriving on an earlier flight, so Ben had to get her from the airport. Rachel couldn’t do it because she didn’t want to drive my mom’s car. So that was that. My mom’s voice choked.
After thirty minutes of texting, fugitive phone calls, and speaking with my brother—deliberately using “I” statements, as in, “I feel like Mom really needs our support right now,” instead of asking, “Why are you being a dick?”—and my husband rearranging his work schedule so he could handle our kids’ school logistics, Ben was back in the car with us. I would drive, and I would have him home in time to get his mother-in-law from the airport.
I pulled into Mom’s driveway the next morning to see Ben fiddling with Dad’s smoker—checking the flame, adding water. Smoke ascended though the rain, and the sweet aroma of wood and meat reached inside the car. My stomach rolled. We both walked to the house, shoulders hunched against the rain. “This some kind of morbid joke?” I asked him, nodding at the smoker. He laughed.
Inside, Ben’s younger son watched cartoons from the kitchen table, a half-eaten bagel before him, cream cheese on his upper lip. He wore pajamas and smelled of cocooning sleep. We played tic-tac-toe while Mom finished getting ready and Ben scuttled about. Then we left, leaving young Benjamin with cartoons until his mother and older brother came down.
We got Dad at nine and were on the road by nine-thirty. I brought rainbow Twizzlers since, technically, this was a road trip. Ben said they tasted like chemicals. For much of the drive we talked about when my parents had the place in Harbor Isle. We’d make the trip every weekend in the summer to clean the beach house between rentals. We all had our jobs and had to execute quickly; turnaround was only two hours.
Ben and I would spring from the car and attack bedrooms first before advancing through the house. Check drawers and under furniture for forgotten items, Windex all glass (especially the slider), vacuum, sweep, scrub, and then outside: sweep the porch of sand, sweep rocks back into yard, and weed the gravel parking bay. Mom had both bathrooms and the kitchen, which I now know is the short straw. Dad had their bedroom, some kitchen, checking for damages, and making any repairs. One year the renters blew up the microwave, so he had that task in a forty-five-minute window. We would stink so bad afterwards. And we’d be famished. That was Saturday for years. We would get the house two weeks around the Fourth of July and then the whole off-season. I grew to love winter beaches, the winter ocean.
After my folks moved from Pennsylvania to Vermont, we came to spend entire summers at the place. We certainly couldn’t make the drive to Jersey to clean every Saturday, and it was inconceivable to my parents to pay someone for what you could do yourself. And to have the house sit empty was an incontrovertible waste of money. So, starting after high-school graduation, I worked at the beach for the summer.
We created a new routine then. When Dad was in Harbor Isle, he was on the beach by 8:00 a.m. with a book. He’d return to the house to make lunch—usually deli sandwiches on fresh rolls with peaches or nectarines—then bring it down to the beach for us and whoever was visiting. Depending on what shift I was waitressing—and whether I was working at a breakfast or dinner place—I’d be down there with him. We’d park ourselves and read. We had bottomless supplies of Atomic Fireballs. They weren’t breakfast, but we’d just pop them all day.
Mom’s favorite time on the beach was late afternoon. The blazing midday heat had passed, leaving behind a warmth without punishment. There was more space as families had packed up. She would read or play paddleball with Ben or, more often, talk with our company. The rainbow arc of folding chairs rang with laughter. She probably would have stayed until sunset if she wasn’t compelled to feed everyone dinner.
The house was by 55th Street—the south end of the beach. There was a falling-apart fishing pier on the beach around 59th Street, the last numbered road in Harbor Isle. There were neither lifeguards nor houses past this point, and the beach was sparsely populated. The pier was a good distance for a walk. “Going to the pier,” you’d say when you needed to stretch your legs. We’d walk farther, past the pier—a line of decrepit catamarans lay tucked into the dunes; men sat beside each other on a single blanket; on lucky days, tide pools revealed their secrets—all the way to Gull’s Inlet and threaten swimming to Baytown, but the pier was our landscape, our orientation. Even walking north, the other way along the beach, you’d turn and see the pier in the distance and know about how far until home. After my oldest was born we took a big family photo there before sunset, all khakis and white shirts in front of the blue ocean.
There was a jetty beside the pier, too—rocks Ben and I would dare each other to scramble. Once I slipped and cut my foot and it became infected. I was surprised, since I believed salt water had magical healing properties, but the pools around the jetty were stagnant. We’d find mollusks around the rocks, would search for crabs and interesting seaweed.
My last year waitressing—college graduation and the real world loomed—I used my tip money to buy a painting of the pier at sunset. I thought Dad would object to using my hard-earned money on something frivolous (something that was not college textbooks), but he didn’t. He suggested I get a good frame. My parents have a different painting of the fishing pier. The colors in theirs resemble sunrise. I wonder about this—sunrise and sunset over the same pier—and realize mine is the one with artistic license.
The pier is gone now. My mom reminds us of this as we cross the bridge into Harbor Isle.
“Put the windows down,” I yell mid-span. “Can you smell it?” I leave the windows up, though, because of the rain.
“Smell what?” Ben asks.
“The ocean,” Mom answers. “Don’t you remember? Dad always put the windows down crossing the bridge.”
We tell her we know the pier is gone. We wonder if it came down during Sandy or if it was before that. My parents sold their place years ago. They had rented houses since then, bigger places removed from our old spot, but we couldn’t remember when the pier disappeared.
We’re on the island now. Farther north, Harbor Isle feels more like a small town—an old department store, bigger churches, town hall, and the boardwalk are up that way. The barrier island narrows moving southward. There’s a grocery store and a few shops where we cross the bridge at 34th, but that quickly disappears into neat rows of cottages, two-story rentals, and the occasional McMansion. There are no tall trees. You could bike this whole city in a few hours. Ben and I often did.
I drive past the old place and eventually park around 58th Street near a first aid station and public bathrooms. Nearby, there’s also a meager playground and a wooden pavilion people use for meetings and to wait for stragglers coming off the beach. A light on the first aid building shines through the rain. Because of the light, we’ll take that path through the dunes and down to the beach.
We brace ourselves.
Now we’re outside the car in the rain, huddled around the passenger door.
“We’re too obvious,” Mom chokes. Her wool coat smells from being wet. Her eyes do not match the coat’s snazzy elegance. Her head is damp, but she’s oblivious to the rain. Ben’s not wearing a hat or raincoat either. He’s in jeans, an argyle sweater, and dress shoes. My raincoat hood is up and pulled tight, making my face a small bread plate. I grab an umbrella from the trunk and silently thank my husband for his practicality.
“Here,” I say. “I’m blocking you. Come on. We’re just going for a walk.”
Dad’s ashes are in Mom’s purse. She’s clutching it like an old lady, like her own mother held her purse in public. “God, your father’s heavy,” she almost laughs. “Okay. So my son is in from Oregon. And we used to have a place here. And he was home, so we wanted to visit because it’s been years and—”
“Mom!” I cut her off. “No story. We don’t need a story. We can be on the beach.”
“In the rain? In December?” she whimpers.
We wind our way to the shoreline, walk south, down beach, guessing where the pier used to be. There’s no sign of it or the old jetty. I look for seashells as we weave toward the water.
We discussed with the funeral director how this should be done. The respectful way to distribute ashes. How to account for wind. How to rinse the bag so you’re not carrying a film of your loved one inside what is essentially trash. It made sense in his office. Here, on the shore, it’s another story. Mom’s the only one who thought to wear boots. Ben says he will do it; he will empty the bag, and Mom is okay with this.
We’re beside the water now. This is it. It seems there should be a ceremony, a something. I say a few words, read a quote from Saint Francis de Sales. Mom talks a little, but words come hard. We’re all crying when I notice two circles of light up the north end of the beach.
“Headlights,” I warn. “Headlights.”
Mom closes her purse to Ben’s outstretched hands. We walk up the beach toward the headlights, hoping to cross paths quickly so we can finish our job.
“What if they stop?” Mom asks. “What if they stay here? They know what we’re doing,” she declares.
“Nope,” I say. “Nope. We’re good. This will pass.”
Ben turns to say something, but the wind catches his voice.
I get beside my mother. “We’re doing our best,” I say, leaning in close. “Dad has to know we are doing the best we can.”
“We need to spread out. Look busy,” she says as she peels away from me.
The headlights are closer. Two shapes have formed. It’s a bulldozer and a public works car. We look preoccupied with the stormy winter surf. I still wonder what that beige sea-foam stuff is. Between the tide and the rain, I don’t know why it doesn’t dissolve. It just stays on the shoreline like some gross ring around a global bathtub. We sidestep the billowing foam. I look for shells. The rain comes down harder.
“Can you help us here?” I ask the sky. “We’re trying. We’re trying to do our best.”
Ben has stopped walking. We can see the truck and car down beach, but don’t think they can see us through the rain. Ben’s found a channel running to the ocean, a narrow inlet following an unseen curve in the sand. He declares that the channel will work. Mom is glad he won’t have to wade into the ocean wearing his jeans and nice shoes. “These aren’t really my good shoes,” he replies.
There is no time to repeat the words from before. Ben bends low beside the channel and I hear my mom’s voice, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” My mouth responds, “Hail Mary, full of grace.” Only neither of us is very clear. I know she said those words, but we aren’t speaking. We clutch each other near Ben beside the water with Dad. Keening. Ululating. We are not doing that, but I think of those words. We latch onto set prayers, but the noises from our mouths are not that either.
Dad is in the water and the moment passes.
As we stand and begin moving to the car, Ben nods toward the dune line and the first aid station slightly down beach.
“We were at the pier,” he says. “That station was just past it.”
“You’re right,” I say. “Yes—there’s the old pavilion. Yeah. That would have been near the end, too. We didn’t think of that.”
“So we got Dad pretty close, then,” Mom half asks, half states. “We weren’t there originally. We were going to do it farther down—we walked that way first.”
We pause to scan the landscape for any sign of the pier, the jetty, any memory to help our orientation.
“What are the chances that channel was there?” Mom asks. “That wasn’t where we were going to do this initially, you know?”
Small pumpkins and gourds dot the sand beside the path along the pavilion, the path we didn’t take down to the beach. It seems random, but Thanksgiving was days ago—Halloween less than a month before that.
We drip water inside the car. It smells of wet wool. I use clean tissues to mop Ben’s face as he talks to his wife on his cell phone. He bats me away with his hand, but he’s laughing. “Stop wiping my face,” he says.
“Stop dripping in my car,” I respond.
We have to get back to Mom’s so he can turn around and go to the airport for Rachel. I’m starving. I want a hamburger, onion rings, and a black and white. I would settle for a mega omelet and a pot of coffee. Mom eats the chemical Twizzlers. “I feel so much better,” she declares. She sounds it, too. Her eyes are tired, but not pained. Winding though backroad southern Jersey in the rain, Ben talks about his older son. I navigate home by sight.
Kate McCorkle received her master’s degree in Humanities from the University of Chicago and a bachelor’s degree in English from the College of the Holy Cross. She has regularly attended the Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio since spring 2012. In 2015, her essay “Laundry” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She won second place in tNY Press’s (formerly theNewerYork Press) 2015 bureaucratic writing contest. Her work has been published in The Anthology of Cozy Noir; Apiary Online; Crab Fat Literary Magazine; Diverse Voices Quarterly; free state review; Juked; Midway Journal; New York Press; The Penmen Review; The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society; RKVRY Quarterly; Sand Hill Review; and Westview.