Without heat pump, air-conditioner or swamp-cooler, Meliza Humbert Baker’s house was comfortable even in the summer. The surrounding trees cooled the breezes and the cement slab radiated a coolness Meliza could feel inside her thin feet-bones when she stood still. Her relatives, also aware of the comforts of the old beach house, showed up unannounced.
“We thought we could stay this week,” they’d say as they placed a cake, protected by an aluminum dome, on the kitchen table. Meliza’s grandmother had baked many poundcakes, establishing them as the family’s edible semaphore: let me stay at your house because it used to be mine or at least my daddy’s anyway.
Technically, Meliza was the only resident of the five bedroom spread. She had inherited it from her father, who had bought it from her mother’s father. The house had begun as her great-grandfather’s fishing cabin with a men-only, sometimes Masons-only, policy until his grandchildren came along. It had been added onto continuously for its first fifty years, when crowds of male Humberts and Bakers still vacationed together and liked to prove themselves athletically with both footballs and hammers. Rooms had grown like burls and were connected by wooden porches like covered bridges. The screened-in porches were the dampest spots, furnished with suspect upholstery and visible quantities of bugs. Meliza’s grandmother had asked her boys for bookshelves with a pickle finish to fit below the tall porch windows, and twenty years later the books bred more silverfish than literacy.
The street in front of the house, which was paved just a few years before Meliza moved in full time, lead east to the ocean, where she met her boyfriend Mike. That same day she had bought a Mike! pin (rather than the “Jimmy Carter’s Got Solar Power” smiley sun button) at the hippie store, a little shop squeezed between Georgio’s Pizza and a bathing suit boutique, Carol’s Swim and Fin. Mike! was the pin’s headline, over Mike Nesmith’s grinning face. She liked the simple statement proclaiming his simple name, and she liked to say it in a squeak, not even a word: mike!
They met on the sidelines of a volleyball game. When he said “Hi, I’m Mike,” she said “mike!” back at him, thrusting out the pin attached to her thin t-shirt as she said it. He nodded at her chest and said “Oh, the Monkees. Mm-hmm.”
Unfamous Mike was just as trendy, and even more homespun; sometimes he tied his long draggly hair with a piece of leather. He made a sunhat for himself, and eventually one for Meliza, from sheeted Budweiser cans stitched together with twine. One afternoon, in one of Meliza’s porches, beneath the bug-stirring blades of a wobbling ceiling fan, he spent a few hours tying his wornout neckerchiefs around Meliza’s pelvis and breasts, trying to make a bikini for her. She refused to go out in the cavemanish get up.
The first thing Mike liked about Meliza was that she lived alone, and in a house, rather than one of the shacks that during the season (when the town swelled from small to infra-structurally insufficient) housed groups of lifeguards or bevys of waitresses or clusters of arcade attendents. Mike liked to come over to her home to be in the different rooms: one for the food, one for the TV, one for the mammoth California king sized bed that made him feel like he took up some extra space, too.
“Mellllllizaaaa,” he would call out a few times while she was in the furthest bathroom, purposefully so that, as she stalked through the length of the house, he could listen to her huffs and grumbles preceeding her through the rooms.
Aunt Greenie and Uncle Colin’s sudden entrance into the house brought an end to a friendly boxing match between the two, just as Mike vaulted over the orange low-backed couch. He was confused to see Meliza accept the interruption so easily; later he asked a surreptitious, “When’re they leaving?”
“They’re not,” she told him. “They’re staying here. For the week.”
The house was stocked with her extended family’s cast-offs. The towels and bedlinens, rubbed thin and raggely ended, were from the linen closets of her relatives; the prints were cartoon characters, Dick Tracy and Daffy Duck, that she and her cousins had outgrown. The dishes were either of institutional thickness taken from local diners, or remnants of sets of wedding china chosen in the ‘30s. The furniture looked like it had just collectively exhaled. Paintings of dunes and beached dingies were signed by various Humberts but rejected from their primary residences. Almost every room was crowned with tremendous bamboo fishing rods curving under their own weight.
It was always Meliza’s older relatives, the ones she presumed old-fashioned and prudish, who persisted in their right to stay at the house. Her younger cousins chose to go to their friend’s beach houses, with air conditioning and pools, or took up communal living in the mountains. When they told her about the Blue Ridge, Meliza imagined herself spinning in the altitude and wearing an apron. She never suspected that long ago, before Aunt Greenie, Uncle Colin had spent a whole January in the same house, well before any kind of heating device was installed, with a woman named Letitia from Poland who was adept at keeping warm.
In the wintertime, when the houses of this neighborhood were motionless as shipwrecks, Officer Clyburne practiced his keenness by spotting cats darting around corners and slinking from dumpster to dumpster. In the springtime when the locals returned, he watched them unlock their doors and signaled hello to them by flashing his palm. Every spring he expected, and got, someone and something new. Often it was some kind of vendor, sent from headquarters in Atlanta, to promote chocolate-covered frozen whips of plastic air, or a distributor of Uppity-dips, a new hair pin, from Raleigh. Officer Clyburne had patrolled the town for the past fifteen years, and was only occasionally interrupted by calls, distressful or government-mandated. Usually around Memorial Day weekend he’d have to impound a few bikes when the rush of motorcyclers became too loud. Throughout the summer he maintained an even quota of arrests by waiting for drunk teenagers to stumble across the streets in front of him. It was simple for him to keep the order because the order was low; that’s what people came to the beach for.
Clyburne didn’t like the looks of Mike, or the new hippie place on Main Street. For twenty years his mother had been making a springtime visit to the bathing suit shop next door for a new suit with a built-in left breast. This was not a shopping trip to be crossed; his mother made the trip alone, and Carol, the owner, knew his mother’s new size every year without missing a millimeter. The hippies didn’t even really have a legitimate storefront, their wares were squeezed into a storage space which connected the units on either side. They had filled the space with colorful lengths of fabric and soapy incense. Clyburne felt that the hippies were just kids gone temporarily wrong; sympathy stemmed from memories of sneaking off in his dad’s lay-down Nash Rambler and feeling up Jennifer Bing, who’d been quite flat, and the comfort he took in his own manifestation from juvenile delinquency. But Meliza Baker, daughter of Lucas E. Baker (volunteer fireman, deacon at Tilly Baptist Church, level-headedly outspoken in the desegregation debate), should have known better.
While Meliza stepped towards the beach in bare feet, the morning passed quickly for Clyburne during surveillance of the #12 pedestrian beach access point, one of the busiest and largest. After a late lunch at Hardwick’s, where Mrs. Hardwick still supervised the stewing of the succotash, Clyburne decided to improve the peace by checking behind the shops. He found the hippies there, standing around as if the parking lot were as appealing as a meadow. When they saw him, they began to scamper and stuff, to conceal and obstruct. Mike got up quickly from his comfortable dent in the sand, and assumed he was the most capable. He got close enough to the driver’s side window to block Clyburne’s view, and said, “Afternoon, officer,” hopefully. While the patrol car idled, Clyburne watched Mike’s friends slink off between the buildings. On the passenger seat, Mike spotted Clyburne’s leadenly shiny Colt 45.
“Get in the back,” Clyburne said, and locked the door after Mike. He drove through the neighborhoods, a little faster than his usual trawling speed. Each man made his own associations with certain intersections and particular houses; Clyburne passed Meliza’s house and then went to the station. Mike wasn’t upset, until they pulled into the graveled parking spots of the station— the grinding and popping of the stones as they pulled in sounded bone painful. He tried to remember his rights, anything inalienably factual or legal that might help him. Clyburne opened the car door. He was almost solicitous as Mike clambered, long hair hanging straight down, out of the backseat.
The station was a cube of air conditioning units, drink machines and uncaged fan blades. Half the cube was holding cell, half was starting point for paperwork. Clyburne opened the front door also for Mike, then shoved him between the shoulder blades as he crossed the threshold. To officers Boudrot and James inside, this had the effect of a burglar alarm. Mike looked at the three men standing around him and felt limited by the cinderblock walls.
Behind him, Clyburne was stentorian: “You got to learn something.” When Mike spun around to face him, Boudrot and James scooped him into the rolling desk chair. Mike was confounded and fearful, tried to tell them to stop, but one of them— not Clyburne— grabbed his head from behind, wrenching his neck muscles. Mike gurgled out a scream, and opened his eyes to see Clyburne before him. He was holding something the size of a stout club, it was a hand tool, something with a cord, an electrified device, a cattle prod, a vibrating death inducer— an electric razor.
“Got to clean you up,” Clyburne announced, and proceeded to shave Mike’s head, and neck for a professional touch, while Mike’s fears of decapitation and strangulation changed into thoughts of injustice, the system, and Meliza.
To do the kid one more favor, Clyburne insisted he drive Mike home, to Meliza’s. As he pulled up in front of the house, he waved hello to Colin Humbert (Clyburne once helped him haul in a five foot shark from the Cherry Grove Pier, and shot it dead as it tried to bite them, bloodying the wood around them in its thrashings), who was standing in the front yard eating figs from the sticky, widespread tree. Mike scrambled around the house before anyone could talk to him. He burst in the kitchen door, saw Meliza standing at the fridge and wanted to hide behind her. Instead they sat at the kitchen table; he told her what had happened while furiously rubbing his hands all over his head, getting used to the bristley sensation of violation. Meliza listened, concerned and trying to decide how to comfort Mike after being wronged so— barbershoppishly. Her tactic was to agree; she said “that mmakes mme mmad,” each M messy in imitation of Droopy when he had to go right the bad guy’s wrongs. She was trying to cheer up Mike, but with her relatives scattered throughout the house she couldn’t be exuberant the way she liked.
“I like it better this way,” she encouraged. “Especially once these nicks heal.” She rubbed her palms over his stiff fuzz, enjoying the sensation.
Meliza was in the kitchen to take account of her raw ingredients. More family was due for supper that evening, and she had a hankering for eggs. Specifically spoon bread, which was to her a salty version of custard. While Mike stared bluntedly, she resumed poking through shelves, turning around cans of beans to see the depicted shapes and colors, and moving around boxes like checkerboard pieces. She turned back to him, a sack of Eversweet corn meal in hand, and said, “Big dinner tonight. Why don’t you go take a shower and get all that hair off of you.” Then she read the Eversweet promise of “Select Stoneground Corn with the Sweetness Sealed In.”
While Mike showered, and laid himself down on the bed to air dry in the dulling sunlight, he listened to the outside- and inside-sounds of the house; the plumbing, the birds, Meliza’s relatives arriving, bringing with them more ingredients, appetites for each other’s specialties, and the capacity to fill a house to maximum occupancy. While uncles talked about shingles in need of replacing and one significant spot of water damage, the meal was laid out on the dining room table. The spoon bread was pushed aside by mushroomed green beans, ham crystallized with fat, biscuits bound by butter and a dripping fruit salad, all for twenty and more. Marshall (who had at one point been a shop teacher) brought a mailbox shaped like a light house, which was placed on the kitchen table with the poundcakes, lemon bars, and miniature gelatin-coconut strawberries.
As everyone staked out their seats, Meliza rustled Mike from the bedroom, waking him with the scent of grapefruit on her hands and breath.
“Wake up, Buzz,” she said, and after waiting for him to rub his eyes, led him to his seat. When she stepped back from his chair to walk around the table to her chair, she noted how his straight back and sharp shoulders became narrow between the hulking trapezoids of her uncles’ frames.
“Mike! you got your hair cut,” she heard her Aunt Lyn coo.
After the revelry of plate-serving calmed, and once everyone had at least a bite of their most anticipated dish, conversation began like a just-pumped basketball bouncing around a small room. Elbows were a bit of a problem. Cary Dola, who had just dropped out of Wake Forest, told everyone that eating meat was wrong.
Meliza served herself some spoon bread, making the first push into the soft brown crust. Mike was seated across from her; she could see that the talk, so casually directed, was going around him too.
He looked sullen and scarred, and Meliza felt responsible. Mike was here for her, becoming a part of this long-standing house, a facet in this ritual on her sun-bleached coastline. She took small bites, feeling the metal spoon cool in her mouth. Instead of passing the brown stoneware dish down around the end of the oblong table and back up through many relatives to get to Mike, she handed the bread she had made straight across to him, her tan arm direct as an arrow.
Lisa Annelouise Rentz