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Camille Renshaw

Surfboards Like Coffin Lids

Surfboards are not unlike coffin lids when seen floating a hundred yards away. At least in the eye view of my aunt Jules. My mother, who even I call Frugi, says, No, and reminds Jules of what’s crazy by bringing out binoculars. Jules always says, I know, although she didn’t the moment before. She tells me to stay out of the water, if I can. My mother tells Jules to hush up.

She tells me to the side, although my aunt always hears enough to correct, that they were offshore for four hours, no five, swimming in ice water. She says it started as a joke, then a bet. Like all teenage sisters, they each wanted to do something different at the beach, we should have napped, but not alone. My mother begged to flip in the waves, rough for a Pensacola day. Jules wanted to rest and play cards. She was allergic to the sand dune weeds, oats, and had taken pills that made her sleepy.

Frugi, forever negotiating, agreed to play gin, but only if the winner could choose what they did next. They were only a year apart, but Jules had been winning at cards since Go Fishing and agreed. Then Jules forgot to play her ace off a two flush, your mother cheated with a last minute rule change, and Frugi got her way.

They held their noses and dove into the waves, spinning forward with the water, then springing up out of the salt. They were flipping in the waves not ten minutes when Jules’ feet couldn’t touch any more. When they noticed the dark clouds and rain like poker chips their futile swim back began.

Frugi said at first they held hands and practiced drills from a Basic Rescue class, I had been a lifeguard you know. They swam parallel to the beach and then tried to cut back in. They knowingly said single words to each other like directives, Undertow and Thunderstorm. She said that while they weren’t swimming forward, the tide pulled them further out into the channel. It felt angry, seething against them, and after only half an hour the current pulled off her bikini top with what felt like teeth. Soon waves were rushing over their heads, and Jules’ long hair was choking her mouth and blocking her view of shore. Still not quite believing, they took turns yelling for help from the beach, fairly ashamed at doing so. They yelled for nearly an hour.

The first time they caught air, being lifted by a wave, my mother began to cry. Jules said to stop or she’d drown, and she would have. Now the house was no longer a play toy or a dot along the shore but was absorbed into the continuous brown and green of the distant view.

Frugi said that when it was past lunch by her stomach she knew Gan was hunting for them in her slicker along the water. Her barrette was set on the overturned hull of an abandoned sailboat, and she wondered how long it would take Gan to find it and realize what happened. She wondered, if they drowned, would Gan keep that silver thing for long afterwards? Would Gan cry over it much as Frugi cried over herself out in the storm?

Near the end of three hours came the worst and the best. Jules braced Frugi against her chest and kept their heads above water. Despite the muddling effect of the medicine, Jules remained the capable one. Only once in her exhaustion did she show weakness to Frugi and said, Well, this is it. Less than I was told. I don’t remember that.

Then from behind, Jules was hit with a plank and she saw blood run down the front of them both. She was too tired to think it was her own, head was pulp-pounding. The surfboard scraped over them, and they never stopped treading water. A heavy object brushed her shoulder, and she realized a dead man was still tied to the board. The rope caught on to Frugi’s foot, and though she screamed and kicked, they couldn’t get loose from the tangle. So they used the man to help themselves float on the freezing water for an hour more, two it seemed, even though Frugi kept shouting about the buoying arms that felt her up.

Frugi takes me out of earshot and says a Coast Guard patrol out looking for the lost surfer was who heard her yelling. The dead man was taken in first because a knot had to be cut from the surfboard to keep his weight from ripping off Frugi’s leg. Jules washed against the side of the boat and banged her head again. She thinks the salt water’s what kept it from bleeding any more. They were grabbed by their waists and towed onto the open deck backwards, so that they blindly collapsed against the corpse. Tired, they woke to a voice not like Gan’s asking them to move so the men could bag the body. They were handed yellow rain coats and blankets. Jules crawled into a corner and finally cried.

All the men on board looked away while Frugi and a medic held Jules. The men either crowded around the wheel behind maps and CB mikes, or they endured the chips of rain and watched for more bodies over the railing. Occasionally they saw patches of seaweed and cried mutely against the wind, hoping to help someone more, someone still alive. Their raw hope spread, and eventually Frugi suited up in a lifejacket and limped over to the rail, her ankle permanently wrenched. She pointed to spot after spot, but even though these sightings weren’t fruitful, she didn’t stop. Another medic tried to bring her away from the rail and tend her leg, but Frugi knew as well as the men that if she stopped squinting into the crescents for more signs of life and huddled in the back with coffee she would share the rest of her life with Jules, unable to watch the ocean without seeing dead bodies and with no one there to correct their vision.

Camille Renshaw is a Senior Editor at Pif Magazine ( She is finishing her fiction thesis in the Bennington MFA program.

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