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The Sand Dollar
The headlights coming towards him on the lonely road reminded Peter of fireflies. He had never seen a firefly, but he remembered when a moth the size of a saucer had plastered its fuzzy body to the window next to his and Johnny’s bunk bed one night during a summer at Aunt Edith’s. The sheets on those beds were scratchy, like the straw they fed the horses every morning and that got stuck in Johnny’s tangled black mob of hair after they played in the lofts. It was Johnny’s fault that he had ever broken a bone. He had pushed him off the loft when they were playing pirates. The one sound Peter recalled with the utmost clarity was the sickening snap his ankle made when he hit the ground. It was like the noise Father Walsh’s dreaded ruler made when it struck his wrists.
The ruler was Father Walsh’s secret weapon, though not so secret after Peter’s thousandth punishment. Peter would write notes pretending to be Johnny’s mother, saying: Dear Father Walsh- Excuse Johnny and Peter from class this morning. They were helping me move furniture. Sincerely, Darla, or Dear Father Walsh- Excuse Johnny and Peter from class this morning. They had to repair a leak in the roof. Sincerely, Darla. Johnny would burst into his room every day at six o’clock, Peter would write the note, and the rest of the morning was spent stealing candy from Mr. Fitzpatrick’s shop or throwing rocks at Duke, the Higgins’ watch dog. One day, Duke had gotten lose and bit Johnny in the leg. There was blood all over and Johnny was yelling like a wounded animal.
Some days, when it was hot and their ice creams would melt into warm, thick puddles beneath their bare feet, he and Johnny would try to make animal noises to scare Eliza Cummings. Peter would roar like a lion and poor little Eliza would make a shrill squeak, stamp her foot, and stick out her tongue at them. She told her mother after the fifth time, and Darla had grounded Johnny for a week. When Peter’s mother asked him what had happened, he told her it was all Johnny’s fault and that night she had made strawberry shortcake with berries fresh from the garden.
They planted their garden each year on Mother’s Day. Peter’s bed had the peas and tomatoes, his mother’s bed lettuce and basil, and his father would never be there, so his bed would stay empty. One year, Peter decided to plant potatoes in his father’s bed. When he dug them up out of the warm, moist earth a few months later, he remembered thinking his father was like a potato. You didn’t really see him, but somehow, you knew he was there and if you did a little digging, could find him one day.
Digging made Peter think of Miles, his uncouth but loveable mutt. He and Johnny had found Miles by the side of the dusty road leading to the school. They didn’t know what color he was until Peter’s mother had given him a bath and his formerly brown body emerged white as a snow drift from a frenzy of soapy bubbles. Miles dug lots of holes all over the yard. The neighbors recommended getting gopher traps but Peter never really listened, because why would you want to kill gophers anyway? Johnny had tried to catch a gopher once. He sat by a hole in a field all day and then at random moments would launch himself like a torpedo at a little mound of dirt. But the gopher won the battle, and Johnny had come to dinner that night at Peter’s house with a fierce scowl on his face. He slammed the front door so hard it came off one of its hinges and the two of them spent the rest of the night trying to figure out how to fix it.
Peter had been so tired the next day that he fell asleep right before he was supposed to recite a poem. Father Walsh had slapped his wrists and assigned him two new poems for the next day. Aunt Edith loved poems. On the long, summer nights when the cicadas filled the languid and heavy air with their resonant chirping, she would read Lord Byron to him in her deep, sultry voice on the creaky porch swing.
So we’ll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.
That was the last poem Aunt Edith had ever read to him. The next morning, when he and Johnny went into the kitchen for hot waffles and scrambled eggs, she wasn’t there. Peter went up to her bedroom, and she was laying in bed, pale as a sheet, her lips almost purple against the ghostly white pallor of her frozen face. At the funeral, he thought someone had put lipstick on her lips. They were a kind of strawberry red. It made her look like some society lady who would gossip with her friends and laugh too loud at dinner parties. Peter didn’t think Aunt Edith had ever been to a dinner party, and he hated her when he saw her in that coffin. She had betrayed him.
He cried after the funeral under the weeping willow tree where he and Johnny would fish every spring just before dawn. Darla had found him there, sat next to him, and took his hand. She was wearing her pearl bracelet. The first time that Peter had come over to Johnny’s house for dinner, she was wearing that same bracelet. Whenever Darla made dinner, she would dress up in pearls and frothy lace. On that first night, Peter thought she looked like the Queen of England, and he was quaking like a leaf when he sat down. Johnny’s father served her first, and she sat upright, regal and serene as any monarch might. Then, seconds later, Johnny, and his little brother Tommy dove into the food like angry bees, piling heaping mountains of mashed potatoes and dripping rivers of gravy onto their plates. Peter didn’t feel so nervous after that.
He was probably the most nervous when his father came home at night and, burrowing under the covers and trying not to breath, he heard the noises at the front door. After a while, Peter learned to interpret the signs. A fumbling with the lock: bad. A slam: bad. Banging: bad. Silence: good. As he got older, the good nights began to come more often and he rarely saw his father. Peter knew he was gone for good after his twelfth Christmas. His father had always bought him a box of caramels for Christmas, but that year, there was nothing. His mother sat in her rocking chair by the dying embers of the fire, going back and forth, back and forth, saying, “I didn’t know what else to do.”
Peter and his father had made that rocking chair years back, before the bad nights and the empty beer bottles and the anger. On one of the armrests, his father had carved: To Caroline. With all the love in the world, Frank. On his thirteenth birthday, when Peter sat in the chair to open his presents, he realized that the inscription wasn’t there anymore. Instead, there was a jagged hole where it had once been. Peter got a splinter stuck in his thumb when he had reached down to rub his fingers over the words that he had watched his father so lovingly carve. The next day, he got some sandpaper from the garage and tried to smooth the edges. He was going to carve the words again when his mother came home from work, snatched the sandpaper from his hand, and sent him to his room with no dinner.
His room overlooked the ocean; they had always lived near the beach. Peter liked it—the sound of the waves, the smells, the squawking gulls, the occasional barge floating languidly on the distant horizon. He would often go shell-hunting with Johnny and Tommy. On one fourth of July, Peter had found a perfect sand dollar washed up on the shore. It was smooth, like the crimson brooch his mother wore with her white lace dress for fancy parties. He cupped it in the clammy palm of his hand, and it fit perfectly. It was warm and smelled like salt and sea air. Peter placed it in his pocket. When Johnny found him, they started to play tag, and Peter fell into a jagged rock. The sand dollar broke, and all that was left in his pocket were little shards. He kept the pieces, locking them away in a little wooden treasure chest he had bought from one of the tourist shops on Ocean Avenue. It always made him sad to look at that box. He would think about Aunt Edith and his father. When his mother was doing spring cleaning the next year, she found the chest and emptied it. He remembered coming home from school, unlocking it, and feeling the burning sensation in his eyes when he saw the shards were gone. It made him so frustrated— not at his mother, but at himself. He kicked the wall and threw his chair at the door. His mother came up, saw him, and began to cry.
Peter had never seen Johnny cry when they were growing up. He had seen him bleed and sweat, heard him wince with pain and moan with disappointment, but never he had never caught sight of a tear running down one of his round and usually dirty cheeks. One day when they were fishing under the willow, and it was quiet and still, Peter asked Johnny if he had ever cried.
“No, you idiot! I am not some cry-baby like you! Cry?! That’s for girls, crying! But I’ll make you cry if you don’t stop stealing my bait! Go find your own worms.”
Peter had just been with Johnny for the past three days at his daughter’s funeral. Johnny had sat there rocking himself back and forth at the window the entire time, crying with anguish, heaving sobs like a helpless child.
The headlights got closer, lonely fireflies penetrating the soft, gentle night. Peter saw nothing.