Story: Rope of Sand
By JP Miller
It was 1969 when my mother and I moved to Edisto Island. I had graduated from an insignificant high school in Charleston and we were suddenly poor. My father had left my mother for a younger woman. She was a colleague of my father and much younger than he. My mother was set on divorce from my father and became a feminist through and through. We never talked much about my father but I got the impression that he was something of a buffoon and womanizer. I never knew him that well as he and my mother had a tempestuous relationship and their cohabitation was a series of comings and goings. He left and came back and left again. I would hear horror stories by my older sisters and my mother. They would whisper amongst themselves about his alleged conquests and how ridiculously he presented himself. He wore a Dashiki with thick sandals, had a pierced ear, and got an afro perm in his blond hair. He looked like some Columbia or Harvard professor trying too hard to be cool although he was simply an English teacher at an inner-city high school in North Charleston. Apparently, he had fallen in love with a much younger, fellow teacher and simply left one night when I was too young to care. He was forty or so and the woman was in her twenties. And as I would learn in life, these affairs didn’t last. Eventually, she had left him and now my father was a cuckold, or so I heard.
Only once did I ask about my father after we moved to Edisto and my mother, being the kind of person who always told the truth, lied to me.
“Mom…Is there any chance that you and dad will ever get together again? I mean, I don’t really mind it, if you don’t…but will I ever see him again?”
“Matty, baby. Maybe. You never know. He is dealing with some things and I wouldn’t be surprised if he came to see you. Don’t be sad over this. Sometimes people just have to take a break from each other and it’s just our turn. But you know I love you enough for two or even three people. We will see what happens but don’t spend your time worrying about your father. You have so many wonderful experiences ahead of you.”
After we talked for some time I knew inside that I would probably never see him again and, well, that was OK. That was when I began to forget his face and his speech and his walk. And that was that.
This was the late sixties so divorce, cheating, and single mothers were still talked about as if a crime had been committed. The rumors mill tapered off but the stigma stayed with my mother for as long as it usually does on a tiny sea island. But at 18, and a young man with many other interests, I didn’t pay much attention to the whole thing and trusted my mother’s decisions. She was different than other mothers, kind and gentle, free-spirited and the first hippie I ever knew. She wore thick glasses with pearl like strings attached to hold them around her neck. She had long stringy hair that she occasionally pulled back into a bun. She wore bell-bottom jeans, peace sign earrings, and paisley blouses. She hung one of those huge “War is unhealthy for Children and other Living Things” necklaces around her neck. I used to catch a lot of flak about that from the men on the island but I became bored with the criticism and laughed with those idiots. The whole “war of the sexes” thing was a popular myth then and it permeated the everyday and so was tiresome. And, anyway, there was no way to change my mother’s mind. She was a crusader just like her own mother, although crusaders for very different causes. My mother was a crusader for many liberal causes while my grandmother was more of a traditional crusader, withholding her crusades for Jesus only.
I bummed around the island and quickly fell in love with the natural beauty of the place. It was a small land mass shaped like a rope of sand, jutting out into the Atlantic. It had a short but wide beach that curled upon its self to put the noose in the rope. And, with frequent tidal pools that became my mediational fellows, I lay in the sun contemplating such important things as girls and women. Although we were simply poor newcomers, we found a small red two bedroom house on the beach and I was hooked. The cottage style building was small but sturdy, having to weather backbreaking storms that rose from the tropics. Edisto was short on humans back then but the expanse of exotic birds, dolphins, fish, crabs, sea turtles and other fauna with the beauty of the flora really pleased my eyes and ears.
In those years, Edisto was a paradise not more than 70 miles from the jammed roads and streets of Charleston proper. I was happy where we lived, separated from the monotony and overbearing antebellum culture that the city had become by a single metal swing bridge that more often than not was out of order.
Some of the few younger people on the island became friends and we would smoke dope and lay on the beach, catching the spin of the earth and marveling at the outstretched arms of the Milky Way as it extended past our eyesight. The sand was powder and during the summer and warm as quilts. Edisto at that time was a sleepy village of fisherman who gathered their catch and some retirees that walked the lonely beach with their hands behind their backs thinking of past lives and children that never came to visit.
During the winter months, I could roam the beach without meeting another person. We had oyster roasts and bonfires at the point where the river emptied into the sound. We got drunk and told lies. We fought and made love on the beach under thin blankets stolen from our families. I became a local after only a few months and I made friends that I would never remember when I became a man. The next generation of Edistonians simply left the beach for better opportunities. We all were all poor. And, jobs, well that was the problem. On an island with only fisherman and barkeepers, jobs were hard to come by. That’s when I first met Marion.
Marion, a local legend for her rebellious ways, was a newly tapped shrimp boat captain on Edisto Island, and actually, the first woman to do so. My poverty left me without a girlfriend or money to buy weed so I needed a job for the summer. My mother suggested I go down to the docks and try to get on a boat but everyone I asked already had a striker for the shrimp season. Marion, due to being the first woman to captain a shrimp boat could not get crew. And so, thinking very little about the consequences, simply applied to her for a job. She asked me one question: Can you get here by five in the morning? I said that I could, not knowing how hard the work was or how early 5 am can become. So, I became the first striker on a female captained boat off Edisto Island. I didn’t know what was in store for the both of us and didn’t care. I was ignorantly happy when I told my mother that I had a job.
That day I asked Marion for a job, she was aboard the Ocean Able. She was working on the big Cummins diesel that shoved that heap through the water. I had to call out a few times before she heard me and responded. When I looked at her, I really couldn’t tell her age or even make out her features since her face was covered with grease and soot. She wore a baseball cap backwards and I could see that her hair was dark and long. It was pulled back into a long pony-tail. She had green eyes like mine but somehow different and she blinked solemnly before she acknowledged that I wanted a job. She did tell me soberly that shrimping wasn’t easy work and most young people had no taste for what it entailed.
Worst of all, Marion’s boat was the rotted, stinky, beat-up, and leaky “Ocean Able”. Such a name for that boat was a running joke and I imagine this was why she was allowed to captain the thing. I don’t believe anyone on the island, and there weren’t that many then, believed that we would catch a thing. In the beginning, I surely didn’t believe in that boat or Marion’s skills as a captain for that matter. But a job on the island was a rare thing so I began my short career as a fisherman with a little excitement and some reservations.
The Ocean Able was tied up at the docks belonging to a family of shrimpers who had been shrimping before I was born. To be honest, I was bit frightened by the family, whose in-bred sons spoke in an island lingo that I couldn’t understand as yet. Their docks were incomplete, broken and swayed with the tide. Walking down the dock was an exercise in avoiding mines. They watched me navigate the dock and laughed when I went to see Marion or square the boat away.
That first morning as I arrived at five in the morning was filled with confusion. I was sleepy and distracted by the quiet cacophony of sounds emanating from the boat. She instructed me to fill five boxes of ice from the shrimp house and for my thin, weak arms it was a herculean feat. I dragged the boxes to the boat and stowed them below. My first look at the wheelhouse was somewhat surprising. The large wooden wheel was fixed in place by looped ropes which I would come to realize was our auto-pilot. She showed me the bunks behind the wheelhouse and the simple galley with a gas stove attached to a freshwater tank. I had imagined a spacious and teak interior with brass fittings and private staterooms.
We then went out to the deck where the massive nets where affixed to cables and tied to the outriggers that were straight up and down. Looking at those nets made me consider how I was going manipulate them into the water. They were huge bulbous trappings that hung from a gallows’ rope affixed to the neck of an unfortunate sinner. The wench, that all important piece of equipment was beyond rusty except where the ropes had worn smooth the center. It looked like the wheel of a car minus the tire. She showed me how to use the wench with at least three wraps. That was the minimum if I wanted to raise and lower the nets. At first, I would have to add a wrap until my body developed the skill and strength to use the thing. I was instructed how to use the try-net which would be our indicator of where and how many the shrimp were below the boat. The large wooden doors sitting in an iron holder fixed to the boat were enormous. I learned that these massive doors would sink below and open the nets wide to gather the shrimp just above the ocean floor. She instructed me on how to clean and separate the catch although I wouldn’t really learn this feat until I had done it many times over.
We left that morning long before the sun was up and the smell from the diesel fumes and the rocking of the wide beamed boat made me queasy. But, I was in awe of the beauty of the river and as we passed the first buoy into the sound, I found a rhythm and my legs instinctively followed suit. The birds were already gathering and the seagulls became a crew of following opportunists. After passing the second buoy, we turned parallel to the beach and crossed the ominous sandbar that meandered out at the point to disappear into the sound.
She said to me: “Okay, pay good attention to that sand bar. It is our biggest obstacle. You have to give it a wide berth.”
“Okay.” I said but unsure of the whole thing.
“Come take the wheel.” She said. “Just keep it pointed to that buoy”.
And, she promptly slid into a bunk. This scared me a little. I had never had my hand on a wheel nor ever steered a boat. But I kept that boat pointed straight at the buoy and avoided it as we came to it. She promptly went to sleep and I was left alone at the wheel steering into the unknown.
While steering I looked around constantly for obstructions while she slept. And, I took a look at Marion while she slept in that box of a berth. I had not noticed before but despite her worn hands and strong arms, Marion was as attractive as any woman on that island. She wasn’t thick in the waist as all the fish wives were. Her legs, even in the ratty jeans were slim and without her cap, her dark hair shined in the oncoming light. Her hips were shapely and hugged the jeans. She couldn’t have been older than her late twenties. I caught myself wondering lascivious thoughts but shook them out of my head. On the window of the pilot house, I saw a picture of a family standing before a shrimp boat, the nets filled with shrimp. There was an older woman, short and squinting beside a boy and a girl with white rubber boots on their feet. The awkward angle of the sun made it hard for me to make out faces very well but I assumed this was Marion’s family. But where was the father? Then I thought about it and remembered what I knew about fathers.
When we reached the beach side, I could plainly see a person on the beach waving in the new light. I waved back and realized it was my mother. We were sufficiently close to the beach that I could make out her thick glasses and her hippie clothes. I could even see that she had a white belt and beads around her neck. Most kids were embarrassed by their mothers but I felt a singular pride at her solid beliefs and even her choice of attire. I was lucky in that sense, since all my friends had absent parents. At least I had one. I saw her turn and walk that straightforward lope as she left for the black school to teach the Gullah people about English Literature.
The Ocean Able was a creaky and complaining boat. It wallowed back and forth and gave off huge puffs of choking smoke. I settled into steering and began to enjoy the ride. It was so slow in the water it took two hours to arrive at the shrimping area.
As if she knew the exact point the boat was at, Marion roused from her sleep, took over the wheel and we prepared to drop the nets. She worked the try-net and gained a few shrimp so we were optimistic in our mission. Marion showed how to drop the outriggers, let out the doors and slide the nets into the green water. It wasn’t so bad I thought. We dragged those nets for over three hours, up and down the beachside, pulling behind great skeins filling with fish and crabs and hopefully shrimp. After around three hours we raised the nets and my heart filled with glee until we dumped them on the deck. There were few shrimp but loads of magical looking sea creatures like ribbon fish, stone crabs, and flat looking sucker fish mixed among huge looking horseshoe crabs with long jagged lances out their bodies. The shrimp were few and small and we both sighed.
Marion took the wheel and turned away from the shore while I cleaned the catch and swept the trash fish over the side. The seagulls flocked and squawked and fought each other over the catch as I poured it over the side.
Next we tried a spot about a mile offshore and set about dragging the nets. Marion took the wheel and told me to hit the bunk but I couldn’t sleep that day. I was too excited and oddly the bunk smelled like Marion. Her scent overpowered the fishy smell and I could recognize her soap, shampoo, and a slight whiff of perfume. I lay there and imagined a record catch for us and wondered if Marion was married or had a boyfriend. It’s true, at eighteen; the scent of a woman can send you into fantasies that are long and involved. Somehow, I knew she was single and knew that I was her destiny—a ridiculous and convoluted dream that was way out of reach.
That day we failed. There was no way around the whole thing. We dragged until the sun dropped and motored into the creek, tied up and licked our wounds. The Ocean Able chugged and coughed. It blew great plumes of grey and black from the exhaust and then finally shut down. Marion was disappointed but she gathered her strength from a red sky slipping below the horizon.
“Well, Matty…looks like we struck out this time. But there is tomorrow. And see that sky and that orange ball of sunshine. That is luck coming our way”
There was so few shrimp that we split the catch and ate them for dinner. She retired to her loft apartment and I went home empty handed to my mother.
The following day we went through the motions of preparing the boat for shrimping. After we crossed the sand bar, Marion hit the bunk again and I was left with the huge wheel and my thoughts. What if we never caught any shrimp? Would we be laughed off the docks as the men hoped we would? Oddly, I didn’t care if they laughed at me but the thought of Marion being embarrassed was too much.
That day would become our break-out. After hours of dragging, Marion pulled up the nets and we couldn’t believe what was before our faces. The nets were stuffed with large, plump white shrimp. I dumped the catch onto the deck and we cleaned that catch with a vengeance taking care to rescue each and every one of them. After shoveling the shrimp and covering them with ice, we saw five fully filled boxes. We had hit a vein of shrimping gold and both of us jumped up and down. Marion calculated the value of the shrimp and I was delirious with thoughts of my share.
We went back to drag the same area and after some time we hit a smaller but adequate pocket of shrimp. We filled two more boxes. Despite that it was still light and the other boats were still dragging, we made for the dock. We simply had no room for more shrimp.
Marion’s emotions opened her up to me. She began to praise the Ocean Able, the ocean itself, and praise me for being her good luck charm.
“Oh my God, Matty. Can you fucking believe this shit. We are shrimpers. We can do it. I can Captain my own boat. And, you..you, Matty are my talisman and my hope. Yeah!”
We reached the dock and Marion went to sell her catch to the shrimp house. I saw her come back out as I was washing down the deck and she was fuming. She told me the trouble.
“Matty, they will not buy my shrimp. As a woman, I am prohibited from bringing in a catch and selling it.”
For the first time, I noticed that her eyes had a slight slant to them. When she was angry, her eyes gave away her Asian features and this surprised me. I had never seen an Asian face in my eighteen years. But, as time and distance prove, I would eventually become surrounded with millions of Asians and face to face with one.
I thought about our problem and went into the shrimp house. After some time, I came out and approached Marion, looking into her Asian, cat eyes.
“OK. They will sell them to me if I say I am the captain of the boat.”
I knew this would anger her but I tried to mollify her sense of injustice with a strange logic.
“Marion, who cares. We both know you are the captain and so do they. This is only a way for them to save face and wiggle out of their stupid chauvinism. Let’s sell the shrimp and continue. I have faith in you and we will show those bastards what we can do.”
“Okay, Matty. I will help you off load the boxes and carry them inside.”
Man, I couldn’t believe the check we received that day. Who would have thought that shrimp, those ugly creepy crustaceans were worth so much money? My five percent share was more money than I had seen since living on that island. We went for a drink at the Dockside bar and drank drafts and shots, giddy with success.
And so our shrimping season began with a magical success that somehow steamrolled into a day after day of shrimping glory. As always, Marion slept while we ran for the shrimping area. I wondered if I would ever get a turn to sleep. I talked to myself while she slept.
“Is this fair. Don’t I ever get a chance to sleep. I wonder if I could fit into that bunk with her. Jesus, that’s just stupid. A woman like that would never allow me into her bunk or bed. If she wasn’t so beautiful while she slept, I would wake her up.”
Wherever Marion steered the Ocean Able, the shrimp came from the depths with increasing regularity. She appeared determined and confident as we steered for richer waters. I couldn’t help but marvel at her success. We laughed at the boats which began to crowd us and follow our lead, somehow trying to push us off our mark and scare us into deeper waters. Looking at Marion as she piloted that pathetic boat, I became deeply enamored with not only her skill but her confident beauty. She ditched the old baseball cap, spent time on her appearance and pulled me into a lustful dream. I noticed more and more of her Asian heritage. As we dragged the nets across the fitful ocean, I gave into my feelings and felt I just had to know her secrets and gain her affection.
“Yeah. What Matty?”
“Are you, well, part Asian or something like that?”
She turned from the wheel as I stood behind her and stared at me with big eyes and a bright smile. Something I never expected.
“ Matty, why are you asking me this now? We have a lot to do, you know. We’ll be pulling the nets soon.”
I felt as if I had overstepped my place and turned to the deck to ready the wench.
“Yes, Matty. My mother is Vietnamese. She married my father before the US war with Vietnam. My father is French-American. They were an arranged marriage—a promise from my mother’s family to my father. He was a soldier and was killed at Bien Dien Phu . I was born in Vietnam, raised in France and the US. My mother ran a shrimper out of Galveston with my brother. I suppose that’s where I got my education about these leaky bastards.”
“Oh. Okay, Marion.”
That was about all I could muster and I felt that was all she would tell, so I went to the deck.
That day was like any other day at sea but I felt a kind of sadness, not a feeling of grief but a mournful closeness that came over me. The questions I had asked and the responses I pulled out of Marion were her own secrets and her own chronicle of pain. Really, I had no sense of decency and regretted the exchange. I only hoped that she felt no pain because of my thoughtlessness.
The season came to an end around the middle of September. We both had made a record breaking amount of money and kept to our specific work roles but the boundary of work and friendship was met. I moped around the dock, head down and heart aching, looking for a final errand that I could perform for Marion. She sat in the wheelhouse looking straight ahead and I asked her if she needed me. I meant did she need me for anything to complete on the Ocean Able. She responded that “no” and I got the sense that she was unable to walk off that boat. As I said my final goodbyes and moved to walk onto the dock, she surprised me and took my arm in hers. Her strength and immediacy took me off the boat and into her old, red truck. She drove to her loft apartment that was a mere mile down the beach and pulled me inside. The drink she poured me was rum and coke and I downed it as well as I could.
Marion led me to her bed which was a jumble of blankets and pillows scattered about from head to foot. She cleared a place and gently, which was a new side of her that I rarely witnessed, and pulled me down on top of her. After a kiss and a hug, she undressed me and herself and I was taken on an erotic ride that to this day rivals any experience I would ever have. She lay on top and pulled me into her with a slight moan which only encouraged my lust. Her breasts were smallish and pouty and her hips were curved and delicate like an hourglass. We made love like it was the end of the world and in some ways it was. Afterwards, she lay beside me without a word but stroked my face and chest. I could see a trail of tears on her face and wiped them away.
“Matty. Listen to me. No matter where you are or what you are doing, I will think of you. I will be your touchstone. So if you are scared or alone, think of me.”
Marion became my one memory—a sexual union that I would compare to all my subsequent experiences. And comparisons to those shared moments would follow me to places where I had no idea I would ever be.
After the season was over and the beach became a lonely desert again, I rambled back and forth on that sand waiting for direction. My mother, pleased with my summer job, gave me a grand birthday cake as I turned 19. Even my sisters attended and presented me with small gifts that I soon misplaced. My mind was on Marion and I debated visiting her. When I did get the nerve to visit her apartment, I found that it was empty. She had left the Island, I was told. I suspected she went to Galveston to visit her family but I never received a letter or card from her and my heart was hurt by her absence.
In the waning months of 1969, I received the most unexpected correspondence and it scared my mother more than it did me. Our postman brought it to our door like it was a proud and mystical day. The Army, after the debacle of the TET offensive, sent me a draft notice. And, why wouldn’t they. I was not in college. I didn’t have a family to support. They had been scheming to snatch me up and send me to Vietnam, my mother said. She wanted me to go to Canada or simply burn my draft card. She advised that I tell them that I was a homosexual. She was terribly disturbed at the whole thing but I was somewhat relieved in a way. I couldn’t stay here forever, living off my mother’s meager earnings, my father was absent, Marion was gone, and well, I wanted to go to college. And, the Army assured me that after my three year enlistment, I could pick whichever college that I fancied. That was the only true thing the Army ever told me.
A friend, Willie, drove me to the bus station in Charleston. We said goodbye and I handed him a letter to deliver to Marion in case she came back to the Island. To my surprise, he handed me a letter. It was addressed to “Matty” and the envelope was a mild yellow. Where was she? I stuffed the letter into my pocket to read on the bus.
Willie was walking away but I opened the window and yelled.
“Hey. Willie. Where is she?”
He held up his arms to the sky like an outstretched bird. He had no idea it seemed and kept walking.
I tore open the envelope and a picture of Marion standing in front of the Ocean Able fell into my lap. She was standing, hands folded, with that same type of white rubber boots on her feet—the ones in the picture of her family. On her face was a forced smile and her hair ran down to her chest. She wore jeans and a worn out, red sweater that I had seen her wear before.
I unfolded the short letter.
My Dear Matty, I lied to you and I’m sorry. You know that picture, right. Well, my mother and brother did run that shrimper but it overturned during a storm. Mother survived and went back to Vietnam. She lives somewhere at Cam Ranh Bay and owns a shrimp boat. If you are ever in that area could you find her and give her this picture. When you get back we will take the Ocean Able out and scare away all our hurt. And, Matty, I will let you sleep this time. Sleep as long as you want, while I steer us to the horizon where we can be alone and watch the sun come up together. And, Matty, don’t ever forget what I told you. If you are scared and alone, think of me—someone who will always be with you. Marion.
I thought of Marion alone on that damn crappy boat and knew she would find the shrimp. I thought of how my mother, unable to watch the war coverage until now, would soon suffer the sights of Vietnam from a black and white television, always searching for a glimpse of her son. Body counts and battles on unnamed hills would be her struggle.
I learned that going to war is the simplest thing. An order to report for duty and a bus seat was all it took. With my eyes, I looked at the sights along the way but my inner eye was all about Marion. I lamented her absence even before I left and as we motored on, smiled at the memory that I held in my heart and groin. I loved her in a way that I only a lonely boy could love. She was my heart’s desire and my mind’s only succor in a world I didn’t fully understand at that age. My naiveté was an ally. But at that time, I could not possibly understand how Vietnam would burn that gullibility and that feeling of lonely love from my heart.
When I left the island for basic training at Fort Jackson, my mother cried and cursed and held my hand like she was holding onto a rope. But it was a false rope. It was a rope of sand that when released or tossed it loses its purchase and disappears into multi-million grains of sand. I had an idea what the war would bring and what could happen to me. I thought to myself that if only to see the two people I loved the most in this world, I would return and relieve their hurt. But that was a hope and a dream. And, I let go of that rope.