I like to think of Sammy and me as living the kind of life that everyone would live if he had the chance. Some people call us bums, some call us beachcombers, some people don’t call us anything: they just look, sigh, and say, enjoy it for us too. Actually Sammy is an artist, a real one, who has a fix on the sea. I painted a little until I saw what Sammy did, then I turned to scavenging the fruits of the sea and the marshes nearby, doing arrangements of shells and driftwood with dried grasses, lilypods, and berries. I like my work and I’m good at it. I sell to the florists in town and this keeps the cans of beans and hotdogs coming in. Sammy doesn’t sell anything yet because an art like his takes a long, long time to perfect.
We live in a shack a few miles from the coast of Virginia. Our only luxury is a jeep that enables us to go miles and miles along the coast into Carolina. No ordinary car can make this drive; there are no roads, no stores, no civilization but the farther you go the better the painting, the better the scavenging for unusual materials.
That morning we started off in the usual spirit, bumping happily along over the dunes until we got down on the smooth runway of the shore at low tide. It was early morning. The water was spattered with fiery prisms of light that forced me to reach for the sunglasses1in the pocket of my jeans. Right away I got what Sammy and I call the cathedral feeling. It happens whenever there are big expanses of sea and shore or mountains and desert. It’s a simple universal reaction but in this day of row houses and crowded cities it’s hard to come by.
If I could show you Sammy’s paintings you’d understand the grandeur of what we saw. Before us was the proud pure sweep of white sand nobly indifferent, at low tide, to the flirtatious lifting of the sea’s foamy skirts. At the sound of our motor, gulls took to the air streaking white against a rose-blue sky. Clean air and boundless space surrounded us in a world newborn. I drew it in, seeing it, as always, for the first time, wanting to get enough to last forever if, by some mischance, I should never see it again.
“Let’s go further today than we’ve ever gone before,” Sammy shouted above the grinding motor of the jeep.
“That means no stopping off before one o’clock,” Sammy warned, “no oh-ing and ah-ing and turning back for drift wood or anything else.”
“I promise,” I assented weakly, immediately spotting what looked like the most interesting piece of driftwood I’d ever seen.
Sammy hopped up the speed and, determined to keep my word, I settled down and gave myself up to the drive. The hypnotic quality of air reflecting sun, reflecting sea, reflecting sky may have had something to do with what happened. I know we passed fishermen drawing in their seines, brown bodies with thick back muscles straining in the sun as they drew in the nets hand over hand. I recall miles of cypress stumps, ugly and black, pocking the water where once a whole grove of trees grew before the sea eroded its way in. I distinctly remember two buzzards standing guard over the corpse of a decayed fish, wings spread and threatening. I’m sure I saw the bleached hulls of the three sisters, as we call them, three wrecked fishing craft one right after the other, all in a row. I don’t remember falling asleep, yet I must have, Sammy says I did, because I do not remember the transition from the familiar to the unfamiliar.
When I awoke I was alone in the jeep, head flung back against the hot leather seat, mouth hanging open. The mouth stayed open in amazement as I rubbed my eyes, looked around me, then rubbed them again. Here was a stretch of beach that I had never seen before. It was as white as snow, smooth as velvet and wide as the whole wide world. But it was not the expanse of beach alone that made me draw my head back into the shelter of the jeep in superstitious awe. This beach was littered with conch shells, each one as big as a wash basin and in every variety of color. Conchs in any quantity or size are extremely hard to find. The only time I’ve had luck with them is directly after a good hard storm and even then there may be only a few and those imperfect, broken, or bored through.
There had been no storm for several weeks. I filed this observation away in my subconscious and then, being a practical soul by necessity as well as inclination, I climbed out of the jeep, hitched up my jeans and started to gather the conch shells. Each one, used in an arrangement, would pay for a week’s supply of food and fuel to see us through the winter.
Almost at once I lost my efficiency in a strange feeling that I had happened upon something left over from primeval days. Excitement gripped me and I began to run from shell to shell, exclaiming aloud to myself, looking no doubt like an ineffectual midget skittering among the giant shells on the vast white beach. My tension mounted as I rolled the great things over, running my fingers along the satiny in sides, thrilling to the beauty of coral against gray, honey beige against black. I would lug a particular beauty a little way toward the jeep and then leave it as I spotted another. The sun, a dot of fire high in the sky, beat down on my bare back and shoulders, heat and exertion pressed sweat out of every pore twisting my hair into wet snakes that coiled against my scalp.
Suddenly I felt dizzy, when I closed my eyes the image of red sunshine splashed against the lids. The warm sweat turned clammy between the waistband of jeans and bare stomach. Fumbling with the door of the jeep I managed to hoist myself in before I dropped limply against the steering wheel. I didn’t quite blackout, the hard bump of my head against the steering wheel served to bring me out of it the way a slap brings a person out of hysteria.
It was then, when I opened my eyes, that I saw the ghost blue jeep in the distance. I watched it come, thinking only of Sammy whom I had forgotten until now. I made the effort of turning my head, still wobbling on a neck that felt as though it might fold up like an accordion at any minute. Sammy’s painting gear was gone, all of it. He had probably wandered off while I was asleep and finding something he wanted to paint would be gone for hours.
The jeep came closer, a strange color for a jeep, I thought, like sea water mixed with sky. In spots the colors had streaked making the snub-nosed little machine look as though it had just emerged streaming from the ocean. The driver of the car nosed it carefully through the conch shells, stopping some distance from me because of the mass of shells piled between us.
“Hello there,” it was a woman’s voice and I was relieved that it was. “Are you stuck in the sand, perhaps I can help?” There was sympathy in the tone.
“No, not stuck, thank you, but I believe I’ve got a touch of the sun.”
She walked toward me and there was nothing unusual about ‘her. She was a very plain woman, her undistinguished features innocent of make-up, her skin burned brown from the sun, small, wiry body clad in a sleeveless housedress, immaculate but faded. She wore a pair of old tennis shoes and her tread was firm and sure on the sand as though she was used to it.
“Here now,” she exclaimed, opening the door of the jeep, “you look seedy and it’s hotter inside that jeep than it is out. I live close by, come home with me and rest a bit. Your husband will be painting for a couple of hours yet.”
I didn’t hesitate at all. “It’s very kind of you,” I murmured, accepting the support of the arm she offered me.
She opened the door of the ghost-blue jeep and I climbed in, marveling at the cool interior. “It feels just like the ocean,” I sighed. “I was going for a swim to bring myself around, this is every bit as good.”
“Sh,” she said, “rest for a little, close your eyes.”
We started up and I obeyed her, not looking about until the jeep stopped. When I opened my eyes I couldn’t help exclaiming, “oh, what a wonderful house!” I stared at it for a few moments. It was situated atop a high dune and it faced the sea and seemed to belong to it. It was a low house that hugged the dune and the exterior had the undulant quality of shallow gentle waves.
“I’ve never seen a house like it.” Walking closer I put out my hands to touch the weathered board of which the house was made. “It’s exactly the kind of house that Sammy and I want to build some day.”
“They’re juniper boards,” she explained, “just as they come from the saw mill without the wavy edges planed down.”
A grove of pines shaded the back of the house, leaving the big front window open to the view. She unlatched the door and preceded me in, turning to look at me with a smile on her face as though she anticipated my reaction. I could only stand mute, loving the big room and the beautiful riches of the sea that were its only ornaments. The enormities sold in little shops along populated beaches crossed my mind. Cigarette boxes and trays stuck with shells, hideous pins and earrings painted in garish colors. Here was a woman who loved the sea and knew that there was no fashioning its art into foreign shapes. In the center of a large coffee table in front of the window was one of the giant conch shells, pure white inside and out, the kind of white that only sun, salt and the long passage of time can bleach.
“An albino conch, I’ve never seen one before, not even a little one,” I exclaimed.
“You’ll find one exactly like it someday,” she nodded.
“And that piece of silvery-gray driftwood on the mantel,” I pointed.
“I helped nature out a bit there, not the shape but the finish. I sanded it down.” She turned toward the dining area of the room. “Look at these, what do you think of my col lection of bottles? You haven’t started on them, have you?” I stood next to her looking at the bottles, fascinating things in unusual shapes and colors, a fragile miracle of survival, proof that the sea can be gentle through thousands of miles, perhaps hundreds of years. She seemed lost in contemplation and out of the corner of my eye I noted that she was just my height and that her hair, where it wasn’t sprinkled with gray, was the same brown as mine. The cool freshness that she radiated reminded me of my grimy condition. No beauty at best, I had a sudden mental picture of myself. Faded halter that didn’t quite meet the beltline of my torn jeans, soiled, home-cut hair jagged in the back where Sammy hacks away at it, bare feet black with tar on the bottoms and sides. Feeling like a polecat I moved away from her and with the uncanny way she had of seeming to read my mind she said,
“You’re not comfortable. I’m being a poor hostess but I seldom have the chance to talk to anyone. It gets lonely sometimes,” she spoke quickly. “Please sit down. I’m going to fix you a cool drink.” She disappeared into the kitchen.
Waiting for her to come back I had a chance to let the room soak into me. Hanging on the fireplace wall were two blue bottles, hand-blown by the looks of them, with round bubble-shaped bottoms. She had crocheted a sling to hang them by and filled them with the tan feathery grass that grows near the marshes.
“You won’t have to wait long to start your collection of bottles,” she said as she came soundlessly into the room carrying a tray with a tall frosted glass on it. “In a few months you’ll live right on the water and then you can search every day with the tides. I’ve been many years finding these few, it takes patience.”
She put the tray down and motioned toward the glass. I picked it up and tasted it. The drink was delicious, cool as mint, green-white and tangy sweet. “Ummm,” I took a long draught. “What is it?”
“Things picked from my herb garden,” she said vaguely, “with just a few drops of sea water for the tonic effect.” Suddenly the sun dropped in the sky and purple shadows slid through the room like fingers spreading on a hand. I seemed to see Sammy in front of me beckoning silently. There he stood, not much taller than I, very straight, the level gaze of his green eyes seeking mine beneath thick sun faded brows. I put out my hand to touch him and half rose from my chair.
“My husband,” I said. “And mine,” she added.
“What do you mean?” I turned toward her and the vision faded.
“Mine will be home soon too.”
“Oh,” I started for the door but she made no move to accompany me. I felt a small wrench of panic. Suppose she didn’t offer to drive me back? I had no idea where I was or where I had come from for that matter. Her continued inactivity oppressed me. I must placate her, be diplomatic to get my way because I sensed that she didn’t want me to leave.
“I’ve had a lovely time,” I said politely, “I’ll never forget it.”
She didn’t answer and I fought down my fear and tried again, hands thrust casually into my pockets, fingers clenched tight where she couldn’t see them. “I certainly appreciated seeing your beautiful house and the drink was delicious.”
“You’ve forgotten one thing.” She spoke very slowly and she didn’t move from the chair.
I was baffled for a moment and then I heard myself asking, “who built the house?”
She arose immediately. “My husband, all by himself.”
“No, he had plans, don’t worry about that, you’ll have them too.” Now she moved swiftly toward the door, opening it and striding ahead of me. “We’ll have to hurry,” she called out, running toward the jeep, “or the tides will be wrong and we won’t be able to get through. You can’t spend the night here.”
The return drive was frantic and cold. I shivered against the dank mist that surrounded us, obscuring my vision but not seeming to bother hers as she drove ahead with a sure hand. Tulle fog streamed around us and the crash and rumble of the waves was so loud that they seemed to be breaking over the jeep. Icy spray cobwebbed my hair and plastered my clothes against me like a clammy second skin. I grew rigid with the chill of a sea-dead corpse, my lips drawn back against clenched teeth to keep them from chattering. When the jeep stopped, the door flung itself open and I leaped out not caring where we were as long as I was free. Without farewells she started back immediately, the open door banging and swinging in the wind, the ghost blue paint luminous in the dusk.
I stood without moving for a long time, until the jeep had disappeared entirely, then I gave myself up to panic with all the frenzy of a voodoo dancer. I could see nothing at all but tatters of fog swirling around me. Getting down on hands and knees I crawled and sobbed, feeling for the big conch shells that would be littering the sand if this was the place where Sammy had left me. There were no shells, there was nothing but smooth emptiness. I was in absolute blackness and I began to scream senselessly at the pandemonium of night things that surrounded me.
“Sammy,” I cried, huddling in primitive fear, knees drawn up, arms clutching my sides. Then it came, out of the dark.
“Where are you?” It was Sammy’s voice, shouting as loud as mine.
I flung myself on the figure that loomed up before me, digging my fingers into his arms, holding on against the tempest of my own tears.
“My God, you’re soaking wet.” He folded me against him, trying to still my shaking by the force of his embrace.
“It was the spray,” I gasped.
“Spray my eye, the water’s streaming off of you, you might have been drowned.”
I couldn’t argue with him, my knees buckled when he released me and I would have fallen if he hadn’t grabbed hold. It wasn’t faintness, it was sheer muscular inability to operate under my own steam. Sammy picked me up and carried me over to the jeep.
“Steady now,” his voice fought through the screeching of the wind. “We haven’t a minute to spare. If we don’t leave right away we’ll be stranded, tide’s due in.” He tossed me the blanket that we carried for emergencies and I wrapped myself up in it and fell asleep immediately.
I woke to the odor of kerosene that always pervades our shack whenever the stove is lighted. There was coffee mixed with the kerosene and the tinny vegetable smell of canned soup.
“Hi,” I felt Sammy’s long thin fingers stroking the hair away from my brow, “I’m a lousy husband, I shouldn’t have stayed away so long and I should have warned you to stick close to the jeep in case one of those fogs came up.”
“I didn’t get any conch shells, I’ll never find any like that again.”
Sammy went over to the stove and stirred the soup. “Huh, what conch shells?”
“Those great big ones.”
“There weren’t any conch shells.”
“Yes, there were,” I said positively, raising myself up on one elbow.
“There wasn’t a shell on that beach, conch or otherwise.”
I got up off the bed. “Listen here, I saw them, I even dragged some of them over to the jeep. They were as big as this.” I held out my arms to form a big circle.
Sammy rubbed his nose hard, a sign that the argument is going to continue. “There were no shells on the beach,”he repeated stubbornly, then he glanced at me and his hand stopped stirring the soup. “What’s the matter with you anyway? You look funny.”
I put my hand on his arm. “We’d never been on that beach before, had we?”
“No, it was about five miles further than we’ve ever gone.”
“Wasn’t it the widest beach you’ve ever seen?”
“I wouldn’t say that, there were dunes right behind it and a terrific wreck in back of the dunes, that’s what I was painting.”
“You mean you were within calling distance?”
Sammy looked abashed. “Yeah, I should have called too but I took some sandwiches and water along and somehow when I started painting it only seemed like I was there a couple of minutes.”
I shook my head in bewilderment. “There were no conch shells?”
“I covered that beach thoroughly searching for you and I didn’t see any.”
I hesitated, wanting to tell him all of it, the ghost-blue jeep, the house, the woman who lived there. I knew he wouldn’t laugh at me. Sammy knows instinctively when it’s something important.
He was watching me curiously. “Go on, spill it.”
I shook my head. “There’s nothing to spill. As much time as I’ve spent in the sun before, I honestly think it got me today.”
“Okay,” he ladled soup into chipped blue bowls and I knew there’d be no further questions. That’s another thing about Sammy. He respects your privacy, lets you have a secret in peace.
After we ate supper he got up from the table and began to pace the chipped linoleum floor of the little shack as he does when something’s brewing in his mind. “I need your opinion,” he said at last, opening the door without further explanation and going outside.
I could hear him taking things out of the jeep. He came in with some canvases, the painted sides held toward him. “What do you think of these?” He turned them around and lined them up against the wall. “They’re the last three I’ve done.”
I didn’t answer for a minute, the paintings filled me up leaving no room for words. Finally I said, “you’ve hit it.”
He studied the expression on my face searching in the way he has for any note of false enthusiasm. “I think so too but I can’t be sure.”
“That man in the city, that dealer, he-“
Sammy took it from there. “Yes, he said to bring some work in as soon as I thought I was ready.”
“You could leave tomorrow.”
We both slept badly that night on the sagging three quarter bed whose width didn’t leave much room for restlessness. I decided during the gray hour before dawn that I wouldn’t tell Sammy of my queer experience, for a while anyway. He had enough on his mind as it was.
We packed up Sammy’s things right after breakfast. “I may be gone a couple of weeks,” Sammy was struggling to load the jeep and keep up the running fire of orders, admonitions and instructions he was giving me. “Damn it, I wish you could go too.”
“There’s just enough money for one ticket and besides I have all those Thanksgiving arrangements to complete.”
“That reminds me, don’t dare go near that lily pond, it’s full of water moccasins this time of year.”
“And if you get scared or anything, go up and stay with Ira. You can help him out in the store. He always needs extra hands when the hunting season begins.”
I turned him off but pretended to listen. When Sammy gets a worry streak he never stops talking and repeats everything at least three times. He kept it up all the way to the airport, even shouting one final caution as he pushed the crated canvases to the luggage check-in. I worked hard during the next few weeks. Goodboy, our hound dog, went along with me whenever I hunted the cattails, berries, and puma grass that combine with shells and driftwood in my arrangements. I was happy and content as my jeans shredded into rags from daily contact with briars and thorns. The ghost-blue jeep, the woman, and the house at the beach were things I didn’t think about much. That was sewed up inside me and maybe the stitches would never come out, not even for Sammy.
Despite Sammy’s admonitions I did go into the lily pond, albeit equipped with hip boots, and saw nary a water moccasin. Once I had supper with Ira and his wife, enjoying the dry but pithy flavor of their remarks about the hunters who trade in the country store during the winter. As the weather alternated between summer and cool autumn my hands grew horny and calloused from grasping the reedy stems of the beautiful fronds that beckon invitingly from what inevitably turns out to be a most treacherous and inaccessible spot. There were no untoward incidents except a wild exhibition of barking from Goodboy when he happened upon a drunken hunter sprawled among the cattails.
We have no telephone but I had one letter from Sammy about ten days after he left. It was brief and unenlightening as I knew it would be.
“-things go along here. I had to laugh at myself today. Sammy, the kid brought up on the sidewalks of New York, jumping like a rabbit when a taxi driver blew his horn. I forgot to tell you that I think Goodboy has a tick behind his left ear. Love, Sammy.”
A few weeks after Sammy left I spent one whole day packing my arrangements for shipment to the florists. This is a tedious and exhausting chore, the only part of my work that I don’t like because of the finicking exactitude necessary so the arrangements won’t be disturbed in transit. After six hours of it my fingers felt brittle as dried leaves from crinkling the miles of tissue paper that has to be tucked in and around the fragile materials of my trade.
The sun had almost set by the time I was finished and I was hungry, surly, and sticky dirty when I heard the moaning bark of agonized joy with which Goodboy greets Sammy or me. Through the open door of the shack I saw Sammy’s familiar figure weaving carefully through the briars because of his good suit and to avoid the muddy paws that Goodboy tried to throw against his chest in a rhythmic dance of glee. As Sammy came closer I ran to meet him and saw immediately that he looked tense. He didn’t speak, he just grabbed hold of me and rubbed his cheek against my hair.
“How was it?” I asked.
“It would have been all right if you’d been with me.”
”Then it didn’t work?”
“Yes, it worked. I sold two pictures while I was there and the dealer took the other one on consignment. He says he’ll take everything I can paint from now on.”
“Then why do you look so down?”
“When the good news came I never needed you more.” Sammy gets a little lost sometimes when things happen too fast, not important things like fire, flood, or famine but high-geared city things that have to do with sophisticated people. I knew he was reacting now to having been out of his element. I hugged him close and began to chatter about the little inconsequential home events, not asking for any details about the trip until he was ready to let go. As he put away his good clothes and changed into dungarees I fussed around the stove regaling him with Ira’s tales about the hunters until I had him laughing.
When he asked me, “what’s for chow?” I knew he had begun to relax and when I saw the quantities of black-eyed peas he stowed away I felt that the complexities of the city had begun to recede from his mind.
After we finished coffee I sat down across from him and said, “now tell me about it.”
Looking down at his big hands resting against the table, he drummed his fingers nervously on the worn wood. His expression was that of a small boy caught in a fib. He looked guilty as the devil and I sat erect, sniffing the air like Goodboy as I tried to scent out the cause.
“How would you like to drive down the coast tonight?” He asked.
“Tonight? But you just got home.”
“I have a reason for it.” His mouth set in the straight line which meant that the argument could continue but that no amount of palaver would change his mind.
“Okay,” I gave in but suddenly felt tired and put upon as I remembered all the hard work and long hours I’d put in. Pointing to the heap of cartons in the corner of the room I said, “I did those today, I’m done in. When do we get to sleep?”
“You can sleep on the way down and cat-nap tomorrow.” He began to gather his painting equipment as I wearily packed food and all the other gear we would need. We worked in silence and I thought what a strange homecoming it was and what an equally strange way it was to take the biggest news of our lives. Sammy and success didn’t seem to mix any better than oil and water.
Sammy had all the tides figured out which made me realize that the expedition was planned before he had walked in the door. This knowledge didn’t serve to make me any more amiable as I tried first one position and then another, pretending unsuccessfully that the slippery little seat of the jeep was a soothing preamble to a night’s rest.
I was so preoccupied with my own resentment and discomfort that it was several hours before the beauty of the night and the sea made any impression at all. When I finally took notice I saw that the scene that opened before us gleamed eerily with silver light laid against black shadows. There was no wind, the sea barely moved, its voice hushed to a whisper hinting at many things. I listened, trying to catch what it was saying.
When we passed the moon-bright hulls of the three sisters I knew we were going on into unfamiliar territory as we had that day before Sammy left. We rode on and on. The dunes seemed to ride with us in a slow roll that mocked the panting haste of the little jeep. I glanced at Sammy now and then and he looked pale, a trick of light or was it the result of his tan having faded during his stay in the city?
We had traveled many hours when Sammy suddenly stopped. He drew a piece of paper from his pocket and spread it out against the steering wheel. I looked over his shoulder and saw that it was a map, inexplicable to me as all maps are.
“It should be very near here,” he murmured more to himself than to me. The moonlight was so bright that we had traveled without headlights all the way and he had no difficulty reading the map, pushing aside the flashlight I handed him. He started the jeep again turning toward the dunes and we began the bumping, floating, and grinding of gears necessary to navigate the slippery sand hills.
After a mile or so I began to have the feeling that I’d been here before and when I looked up and saw a grove of tall pines on the highest dune of them all, I knew where I was. The space in front of the trees was empty and open to the sea. We stopped. Sammy got out and took my hand, pulling me after him.
“I bought this piece of land,” he said, “while I was in the city. I wanted to show it to you and tell you about it at the same time because I’m not much good at describing things in words. I found the site when I was looking for you that day you got lost. I made a diagram of the exact spot and I decided then that I’d surprise you with it if I sold my paintings. But I got to worrying about it before the plane landed tonight, I was afraid you wouldn’t like it.”
“I like it,” my voice was barely audible.
“I’m going to start building the house right away.”
Sammy went to the car and dug around in his painting gear. He came back with something in his hand. “During the flight home all I could think about was us and our piece of’ property and how fast we could start living on it. All of a sudden I picked up my sketchbook and began roughing out some plans.” He opened the book and there was the exterior of the house with the juniper boards. Sammy flipped the pages and I saw a diagram of the living room just as I remembered it. “That’s all I’ve done so far,” he said excitedly. “It’s crude yet but give me a few days and I’ll really work it up.” He paused, obviously expecting some comment but I couldn’t think of a thing to say.
Was I wrong?” Sammy said impatiently. “Isn’t this the house we’ve always wanted?”
“It is,” I managed at last.
“You certainly haven’t said much.” There was a trace of irritation in Sammy’s voice but then his own enthusiasm took over. “But I know it’s what you wanted too.”
I nodded mutely. Sammy walked over to the pine trees with the map in his hand and began to pace out what I imagined were the boundaries of our property. I stood quite still watching him and then something made me turn around and look at the jeep. It was ghost-blue, a mixture of sky and sea water washing down its sides as though it had just emerged streaming from the ocean.
I began to walk slowly toward it and I was quite close when the door opened and she got out. I could see the gray in her brown hair the color of mine and she was wearing the same white tennis shoes and faded housedress. Her arms were wrapped around the huge albino conch shell but she balanced steadily as she walked through the moonlight toward the water, her wiry figure clearly detailed against the black sea and the black sky. Suddenly a shooting star slashed the sky and I glanced up for a moment. When I looked back she had disappeared.
I heard Sammy coming up behind me and without turning around I asked, “did you see someone get out of the jeep and walk toward the sea?”
“Sure,” he said, “it was you.”