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Claudia Smith

Galveston

They can drive all the way to Galveston if they want to, and they do. Mom ties a red scarf around her hair and rolls the windows down. The girls, Marnie and Jolene, sing songs they learned at their first Girl Scout camp out last summer. They argue over the words. John Jacob Jingle Hymber Smitts or Smith. His name is my name too. Is it Smitts or Smith? It's fun to argue. They can do it for as long as they want, when their Dad isn't there, and so they do. They make up Mad-Libs in the car, they use words like Bra or Fart or Sex to make the stories funny. Mom turns on the radio. They laugh about that song the old sleaze Conway Twitty sings, And as I taste your tender kisses, I can tell, you've never been this far before...

They take the ferry and throw a loaf of bread to the gulls. Jolene watches the dolphins follow the wake of the boat and Marnie stands at the mast because she loves getting splashed. They drive all the way out to the Bolivar Peninsula.

There's a beach house for rent. It's all one room, with a little avocado colored kitchenette and a bathroom full of seashells. They'll all share the big bed. The place smells musty but beachy, like wet sand. There's a balcony. If they'd come here in the summertime they could have slept out on the balcony. Maybe we can come in the summertime, Marnie says. Maybe we can move here. We'll put out crab traps, we can have a bonfire and make S'mores. We can plant a watermelon patch.

Mom puts it on the plastic. It's cold so everything's cheap. The ocean is gray and rolling. The best time for the beach, Mom says, we have it to ourselves. They walk to the corner store, they buy Corn Pops and weenies and canned beans. Mom buys a stack of paperback romances. They'll go out for seafood tomorrow. They'll go to the Strand and put tee shirts on the plastic.

The field around the beach house is full of stickerburrs. They run barefoot across the field, to test how much pain they can stand. They can't make it all the way to the beach, it hurts too bad. They turn back, pull out the stickers from the soles of their feet. Jolene makes monkey noises as she picks Marnie's feet. I'll bet we can harden up our feet, Marnie says. We do it enough and we'll be beach girls. It'll make hard calluses.

It's too cold to go barefoot on the beach, Mom tells them. She wears a light jacket, and the girls throw towels around their shoulders to keep warm, because they didn't pack properly. It's cold but the cold feels good, it bites them and keeps them awake. The girls dip their fingers in the water and shiver. They fill their jean pockets with shells. Mom watches, doesn't follow. Her mood is changing. She says she's pensive.

They eat Corn Pops when they get back. Mom makes them instant hot chocolate. She says the Swiss Miss looks just like her girls. The house has a radio with a cassette player, so they listen to their Dolly Parton tape, the one with "Jolene" on it, and then they listen to Crystal Gale.

It's too cold though, they can't sleep. Mom does the old trick. She opens the oven and they sit in front of it, treat it like a space heater. She makes more hot chocolate. It's fun, isn't it Mom? Marnie says, it's like a camp out but better, because we're at the beach.

Mom looks bad. She's too thin, and her veins stick out too blue against her skin. She doesn't look pretty now because her face is collapsed. When she's tired, and just with the girls, sometimes her face wrinkles up into grief. The girls can't see bruises, but Marnie knows if she took her shirt off, you would see them on her back.

They sing Mom's favorite song. They try to make it good, they know she likes it when they try to sound pretty. She loves Glen Campbell. They can't remember all the words. Galveston oh Galveston, they sing. I still hear your sea winds blowing. I still see her dark eyes glowing. She was twenty-one when I left Galveston.

Do you know what that song's about? Mom asks them.

It's a love song, Marnie says.

It's about a man in Vietnam. He's afraid of dying. And he's missing the girl he loves. Isn't that sad? Mom says.

Yeah, the girls say. Time for bed, she tells them.

The mattress smells of wet dog and the sheets are sandy. They sleep in their socks and pants. Mom puts the Crystal Gale tape in again. The girls watch her through half-closed eyes. She paces. She walks in and out of the house. She walks funny, like she's drunk, or hurt, but she's not. She needs to think. At home, when he's gone, she sits in the silver light of the television with the sound turned down, and smokes. But there is no television here.

She's going to call him, Marnie whispers.

No she won't, Jolene says.

Shhh. If she walks out to the balcony one more time, she's calling him, Marnie tells her.

How do you know? Jolene asks. But Marnie always knows.

She does go out to the balcony. They can hear the ocean, even after she closes the door.


Claudia Smith lives in Austin, Texas with her husband Nathen Hinson. Her fiction has appeared online and in print. She has stories forthcoming in Ink Pot and Night Train. You can find more of her work at claudiaweb.

Acknowledgements:
"You've Never Been This Far Before," 1973, sung by Conway Twitty, lyrics and music by Conway Twitty. "Galveston," 1969, sung by Glen Campbell, words and lyrics by Jimmy Webb.

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