Wednesday, July 24, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Small Change by Richard Hartwell

Small Change
Richard Hartwell
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Empirical

Like so very many kids raised and suckled at the beach, particularly those reared in the Newport Beach of the early fifties–descendants of divorcees and married boredom–my cousin and I learned to build sand castles repeatedly. It’s too bad that relationships can’t be rebuilt as easily as sand castles. The lap and lapse of waves did not trouble or defeat us, as day upon day our moods changed in the early summer from the somber gray of dawn in May or June to the brilliantine of cobalt blue and then to gold by mid-afternoon in August and September. By then our rosette bodies were speckled with the whiter dots and dashes of the Morse code created by un-rinsed salt and sand.

Salt-matted blonde hair was usually strewn to the left of my cousin’s face, revealing her right-handed cowlick, balanced by a small mole on her left cheek that she tried to hide. My own hair then was always cut way too short to hang anywhere but straight up, like a severed shock of hay, each stalk raised in supplication to the sun and sky. Like my back and shoulders and nose, my scalp too was pitted with the itchy white shadows of sand and salt and the inner red glow of sunburn almost matched the outer beacon of what they called carrot-red hair, much too short to hide any of my outside blemishes.

I have no memory of our clothes; perhaps swimming trunks or bathing suits sometimes, but most likely cut off jeans for both of us and an old white tee shirt for my cousin’s blooming modesty. I only remember the bodies; both growing lithe and strong, chubby fat giving way to stretched muscles, elastic and elongated, pulled by years and adolescence, like taffy lying bulbous in the pan and then stretched out and thinned and fine and resilient.

We shared much together, my cousin and I: our interwoven dysfunctional families; our money-making scams; a love of the beach and sun and air and sea; and, of course, the company of each other, separated only by eight months in age. We had even been enrolled in kindergarten together until the educational power brokers realized that the dissimilarity in last names didn’t cancel out the similarities in build, features, temperament, or sanguinity. I was quickly hustled away and into another classroom. I remember we both cried. Still, other than at school, my cousin Jocelyn–Josh as she was called then–and I were most often inseparable boon companions; at least inseparable by others until the time when I created a chasm in our youthful camaraderie into which we both slipped and from which we never escaped.

That day of our distancing started much the same way as any other early summer day did for us at the beach. That dawn was inseparable from any other gray dawn. Our interests for that day were as like-minded as those of the day before, and, as far into the future as we could see; they were as alike as those expected of the days to follow into infinity. The only anomaly that seemed to mark that day different from all surrounding others was the fact that we had money.

Now, by money I don’t mean to imply we were flush and fulsome with loose spending change donated happily or begrudgingly by others, be they parents or guardians or other relatives or unsuspecting bystanders. No, what I am noting is that we had between us that day money acquired by ill means and, therefore, needful of immediate use. It was burning holes in our pockets!

Usually the two of us spent just enough time after surfing to scavenge the beach and collect the few overlooked bottles left by the tourists and daytime pleasure seekers, those too solvent or too hurried or too lazy to collect them and return them for the deposit. At two cents per bottle, we only needed five bottles each to cover the ferry both ways, the Island to Balboa ride and then back again. Anything else was donut and soda money. This was the era of only glass containers when both bottles and relationships could be easily broken.

But yesterday, the day before that last day, after we’d returned to the Island, we had cut down the alley behind the market intending to hit Turquoise Avenue. We’d spotted an open garage in the alley with stacks of empty Coke bottles in wooden trays on the side near the door. No one was around. The lure of found money was just too much for us. On impulse we grabbed a flat each and ran. We ran down the alley and then dodged down an unblocked walkway between two houses. We knew the Island well together.

We took the bottles to the Island Market, down on Marine, and cashed them in, acting furtive and guilty the whole time, so that the clerk had kept a wary eye on us but could detect nothing. He probably thought we were shoplifting. The total refund had come to a buck-ninety-two, plus twenty-five cents each for the bottle flats. That was two-forty-two, or a dollar-twenty- one each. We realized we would be flush for once and didn’t have to worry about change for the ferry the next day.

The next day, that last day, we followed routine. Josh tapped lightly on my bedroom window about five a.m. to wake up only me and get a start on the day. I didn’t need to dress. I was still in cutoffs from the previous day. I gently closed the back door then ran down the back alley to meet her on the corner. We walked down to the ferry, using Park and then cut over to the South Bay sidewalk, careful to avoid broken glass and dog poop, and careful to avoid the alley near the market across from the ferry landing. We caught the second ferry of the day, paid and passed across to the Peninsula without incident. The bay was a deceptive, oily calm.

We hit Mabel’s Balboa Donuts behind the Pavilion, as we always did, agonizing over our choices until I settled on the usual, not really fooling anyone but myself by my constancy. Only Josh made different choices from time to time. I settled on the cherry-filled and took it without the tissue paper or a napkin.

Rather than sucking the donut from the side with the filling hole, I bit the donut from the wrong side. The cherry filling oozed and dropped to my chest just above the left side of my chest near my heart. For a moment it appeared like an augury of things to come. I deftly wiped it off with the tops of the fingers of my right hand that still held the unfinished donut. With my tongue I lapped up the red jelly from my fingers and swallowed the remains of the premonition. Josh paid the tired woman behind the counter, not Mabel today, ignoring the straggles of hair that fell from under the paper cap and matted to the sweat coursing down her cheeks. She was pleasant, but not pretty.

“See ya tomorrow, guys. Have a good day,” and she turned her back to serve the next customer, a fisherman tourist, probably just returned from the midnight sailing of the Frontier.

“Yeah, thanks,” we chorused and Josh shoved her remaining change deep in the front pocket of her faded jean cutoffs.

I was thinking out loud, “Five cents for the ferry back. Ten cents for a soda later. And an extra nickel just for the heck of it.” I might have said “hell” in other circumstances, just to impress someone, but Josh wouldn’t have been much impressed, so I said “heck” instead. I didn’t know how much money Josh had left. She’d paid extra for a cinnamon twist today, as well as a jelly donut. Even at that, she must still have had thirty or forty cents left from yesterday’s bottles. I remember casually thinking she’d puke after eating all that and then going surfing. We headed across the two blocks to the beach.

We spent the rest of the lazy, overcast morning near the Balboa Pier. We surfed and sunned and talked and didn’t talk until we had our fill of our immediate environment. We were now filled with a need for a sense of movement, or passage, or relocation along the beach; a need for change. We took our bikes, and with the towels wrapped around the handlebars, we started pedaling north along the wide beach sidewalk. We pedaled slowly, soaking up the day and dodging joggers and skateboarders. We were past the Newport Pier, somewhere up around 17th, when I spotted Gail walking up the beach toward the boardwalk. It was early afternoon, perhaps about one, and the sun had burned off the overcast.

She was tossing her hair to one side, toweling it dry, and the beads of water glistened on her brown body and emerald-green two-piece. Her hair sprang back up in ringlets of black curls. I was captivated by the vision. I stood on my rear pedal, nailing the brakes, and skidded sideways to a stop. I heard a distant commotion behind me. I dropped my bike to the edge of the sidewalk and started walking towards Gail. 

Somehow I managed to stammer out, “Hi.”

I was totally unaware of my cousin’s plight behind me. She had swerved to avoid hitting me, struck a trashcan, and fallen against a concrete bench, cutting open her right leg with a long gash below the knee. To all of this I was oblivious. I only had eyes and thoughts for the girl in the sea-green suit, the new vision in front of me.

Gail was the first to notice the blood coursing down my cousin’s leg. Josh was stoic. Gail was politely concerned. I was, well, I was just stupid. I told Josh to go in the water and rinse off the wound. I never said, “Sorry,” or even showed concern or regret. I guess I was saving all that up for later, when it would be too late. I probably mentioned something about how the salt water was good for it and such. Such were the myths before polluted beaches and the contagion of televised news. Gail wasn’t so sure and suggested that Josh go to the lifeguard stand for some basic first aid. I continued my stupidity and just said, “Nah. She’s okay. Right?” never taking my eyes from Gail.

Josh didn’t answer and she didn’t go to the lifeguard. She went off, into the water, and left me alone on the beach with Gail. I don’t know how long we talked, perhaps an hour, perhaps a bit less. Eventually Gail stood up and said she had to go. She’d spotted someone in the crowd, a tall sophomore who was, so I was to learn much later, her boyfriend of many days. He was one link in a long chain in which I was to become entangled. Gail left me standing there and I could only stare after her longingly.

Eventually I closed my mouth, turned and scanned the surf line for my cousin. I couldn’t see her anywhere and, eventually, I walked back up to where we’d left our bikes, at least where I had left mine, as hers was nowhere around. She had gone. Like I had abandoned her, she had now abandoned me and left me to myself.

Somehow I had lost my money for the ferry. Somewhere it had dropped from my pocket. Perhaps I lost it when I was surfing. Perhaps I lost it sitting on the sand talking to Gail with my knees tucked under my chin. But the fact was that I had lost it. Because I had my bike, I couldn’t just swim across the South Bay back to the Island. I could have done it, had done it in fact on a dare from Josh, but I had my bike.

Slowly, over the course of that afternoon, I rode my bike down the rest of the Peninsula, past Lido Island and over the bridge to Mariner’s Mile. I turned south on the highway and eventually cut off past the bluffs and the Mummy and back over the bridge to the Island. The inside of my thighs were rubbed raw from the sand in my cutoffs.

I didn’t think to check on Josh when I got back. Perhaps that was a mistake too. It was late afternoon and my back was scorched with sunburn from the bike ride and I just sort of collapsed from exertion and disappointment. It was after six when I woke up the next morning. There had been no tapping on the window at five, to wake me up, to continue our routine.

I went over later to check on Josh. My aunt answered the door and said that Jocelyn didn’t feel like going surfing today. Instead, she said that they were going to go shopping for a new swimsuit. I didn’t see Josh, Jocelyn, for about a week after that and then only in passing. She was on her way to a pool party with some new friends.

She looked sort of strange, in a bright orange swimsuit covered by a white blouse with matching orange trim. Her hair was combed back in a ponytail. The scar on her leg was almost healed. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her, but something was different besides her calling herself Jocelyn.

Slowly over the next few months, perhaps even over the course of a year, I began to figure things out. My disappointment with Gail and then with another, sort of broke up my routine. I began to realize I had to change and Josh, Jocelyn, had just changed sooner. Sometimes I can catch my ideas before they get away. 


Sometimes I can’t or I’m too slow. I guess that’s as good as it gets. Most of the time I have trouble working in absolutes anyway. So, I guess I’ll just settle for–sometimes. I enjoy the suspense anyway.

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