Joyland

New York |

Sand Castles

by Alyson Foster

edited by Kyle Lucia Wu

The first morning we arrived in Grand Marie, Jeff and I hiked with the girls along the bluffs to look at the disintegrating houses. We walked through the empty doorways, brushed sand off the sills, tore Queen Ann’s lace from the foundations, and tucked the flowers behind our ears. Jeff stamped on the stair boards, then raced to the top to lean out the yawing bay window at the front of the master bedroom and smell the wind coming off Lake Superior. He mused aloud in lyrical phrases about waking up to the sunrises that burned across the expanse of the water, then fell silent as he rubbed the flat of his hand along the banisters. The seasons had worn away their dark finish and left each railing with a peculiar patina.

I stayed on the first floor while Patrice and Caitlin waddled around in the rectangles of light demarcated by the framework of studs and support beams. It was their first summer here and only their second summer in the world and therefore impossible for them to comprehend how much earth had fallen away since the last time we’d seen this place or know that somewhere—who knew where exactly—a developer had bitterly cut his losses. Erosion this breathtakingly swift could count as an act of God, like a storm or a stroke. Two steps off the porches brought you to the brink of the bluff. Even the long grasses and tenacious pines that leaned out into the empty space above the beach could not stay the crumbling. Every now and then, in the gap between the waves, the second before one rushed out and another crashed in, you could hear a clot of sand dropping from the clutch of a root and exploding on impact at the bottom.

Our own cottage sat safely away from the beach, and it took a five-minute trek through the sparse woods to reach the lake. The property lines were dubious; we trespassed unapologetically. After Jeff’s grandfather died and left him the cottage, we’d come every summer except for the last one, after the twins were born. We weren’t locals by any means since we turned tail and ran south back to Indiana when the first chill of September rolled in, but we’d transcended the tourist category to carve out our own niche. If our neighbors saw us in passing, they bobbed their heads in acknowledgment—the man with the waist-length beard and a feather stuck in his John Deere hat, the grizzled cashier who sold us produce at the town’s only grocery store. These natives resembled the local foliage—tough and fibrous, carrying within them through the brief summers the knowledge of the dark freezing winters when life must hunker down and endure. I occasionally overheard their predictions. The boy who threw rocks at the Newman’s dog would grow up to steal cars. The teenager who stared at her reflection in every window she passed was turning into a slut for sure. What they said about Jeff and me—the poet and his freakishly tall wife—I could only imagine.

And now there were the girls, one dark, one fair, fraternal fairy-tale twins. Snow White and Rose Red, Jeff called them although I complained half-seriously about the connotations these words carried. A poet, of all people, should understand the weight of a name. The tangles of cause and effect could not be teased apart. But even at this young age the differences between my daughters struck me. Caitlin’s sunny path stretched ahead of her: blonde homecoming queen, diplomat, easy traveler through the world.

My own nickname for Patrice was Frowny. I didn’t know babies were capable of looking so disgruntled. She brooded for a quarter of an hour on end thinking her own annoyed thoughts while Jeff and I studied her face and tried to determine whether she was going to have a single frown line in the center of her forehead like Jeff did, or one next to each eyebrow like me. It was difficult to tell; her smooth infant skin barely wrinkled no matter how hard she scowled. I suspected already that she was the child who would require our cajoling. Sometimes at night, when I checked on the girls, I leaned over and spoke into her ear, It isn’t that bad, Patrice. I knew she didn’t believe me. She sighed in her sleep and pushed away with both arms.

Maybe the flashing from the lighthouse disturbed her, like it did me. Despite the protection of the trees and the calico-scrap curtains drawn over the windows, rhythmic flashes bled through the darkness like lightning. When I couldn’t sleep I stared at the knotholes covering the walls and ceiling. By daylight, they were intriguing dark whorls in the amber boards. But obscured by shadows, they became more ominous, hundreds of little vortexes all around us, the shape of them more nebulous. Mornings, when I went to wake the twins, I would find Patrice already awake and worrying over the black concentric rings with her gaze.

An all-day rain shower occasionally made captives of us and forced me to concoct quiet diversions for the girls while Jeff paced around the loft and tapped fitfully at the keys of his laptop. By the end of his sabbatical he wanted to have a completed collection of sonnets and an essay on formalism. I kicked around a beach ball and Patrice and Caitlin chased it over the undulating floorboards, gaining their sea legs. Or they fingerpainted cumulus shapes in red and purple—the only colors in our pitiful paint set—onto the scrap paper that bore Jeff’s rejected stanzas. I hung the sheets on our lime-green refrigerator, a faithful hulk of an appliance, circa 1975, that would never give up the ghost.

For the most part, however, we passed the days and evenings out of doors where the rest of the color spectrum sparkled and shone in the sunlight. I took Caitlin’s finger and pointed to each pristine shade. “Blue. Green. Yellow. White. Brown.” Jeff plucked up Patrice’s hand and poked at the gradations. “Cerulean, Patrice,” he said. “Aquamarine. Navy. Saffron. Emerald. And don’t forget gray. That’s going to be an important one for you.”

When I rolled my eyes, he defended himself, telling me that adjectives were important and he wanted his progeny to have as many avenues of self-expression open to them as possible. He loved so many words; he had a difficult time selecting the one he wanted. He conceded that all the choices bogged him down. But that’s why he admired the stringency of the sonnet’s form. It disciplined him, he said, forced him to drop away his descriptors one by one. A painstaking process, but it left something honed and sharp on the page. According to the critics anyway. He waggled his eyebrows at me. I sighed again, and he yanked up a stalk of puzzle grass by the roots and affectionately whipped it against the back of my thighs while the girls shrieked, and gulls scattered up from the water’s edge.

*

On the third weekend in July, Grand Marie held the Sand Castle Competition and Sand Sculpture Exhibition. It was the town’s sole claim to fame, and people came from all over both the lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan to compete for the five-thousand-dollar first prize. RVs crowded the town’s single main street, and clusters of tents sprang up along the beach like nylon toadstools. The ice cream parlor stayed open until midnight, and the taps in the dingy pub ran almost nonstop. The air carried an odor of burnt sugar and beer that dissipated only in the early morning and collected again by noon.

I thought we should try our hand at a sand castle. Despite Jeff’s disparaging remarks about Midwestern culture or the lack thereof, I convinced him to fork out the ten-dollar entry fee, and the four of us rose early on Saturday morning to make our way down to our assigned patch of sand, designated by marker number 163. The contest organizers dredged up an enormous amount of extra sand from somewhere farther down the beach and then rolled out piles of it along the watermark. Presumably this was to keep the castles clear of the lake’s clutches until the next morning when the judging would take place.

Half an hour into the creative process, I gave up because the twins kept wandering away. Once they started moving, it was hard for them to stop, and I worried they would go crashing through someone’s moat or demolish a turret. So I left Jeff to fend for himself and lured them down onto the packed sand at the shoreline. The frigid water turned their feet blue, but they didn’t seem to notice or mind.

While the two of them flirted with the waves, I watched contestants attack and mold the sand with fierce concentration. Boys ran back and forth with buckets, men plied trowels, girls carved out elaborate curlicues with forks and sticks, and women patted damp bulges with their cupped hands, trying to smooth out any potential fissures, then reached up and patted them again. Adolescents fiddled with their swimsuits and pretended to be bored before they were harassed into participating.

It amazed me how fast the shapes rose up from the flat expanse of the beach. By noon some of the structures stood as high as my chest. It would have been possible for Caitlin and Patrice to walk through some of the archways if I had let them. The sculptures were no less impressive. A western and eastern hemisphere bulged up from someone’s plot, their geography detailed enough to include Sri Lanka, Madagascar, and, of course, Michigan. Another group attempted Michelangelo’s David, but the right shoulder had crumbled, and they were trying unsuccessfully to salvage it. Two other people worked away at an enormous hand. One of them hollowed out shallow trenches, bringing tendons into relief, while the other etched out the puckers over the thumb joint with a tire-pressure gauge. The skin on their backs was burned bright red, but still they kept working. Most likely, they just hadn’t felt it yet.

I brought Jeff an overpriced hot dog for lunch. I don’t think he’d taken more than a five-minute break from his castle since he’d started hours ago. Instead of block-by-block construction, he opted for the sand-drip method. He’d burrowed beneath the dry top layer of the beach to extract the wet sand pooling below the surface, then meted out the grainy brown liquid between his fingers in dribs and drabs, adding and adding. With the foresight that came so naturally to him he’d made the foundations of his towers ample enough to support their impressive height. There was something oddly organic about the tapering cluster of rippled towers that reminded me of a Gaudi cathedral or a rock formation sprouting from a New Mexico canyon.

Jeff bit off the charred end of the hot dog and then neglected the remainder. He was totally rapt. When the girls came too close he waved them back impatiently. The main construction complete, he proceeded to carve out niches with his index finger and dribble abstract gargoyle shapes and rainspouts. His hands worked deftly, and watching him amused me, but the girls needed a nap. They were becoming weepy. Even slathered in high-SPF sunscreen, their skin had absorbed too much light. They radiated heat; they glowed ominously. So I carried them back to the cottage. I stripped off their swimsuits and laid them down, and the three of us drowsed in the wavering shadows of the pine trees that shimmered in the window frames.

*

By nightfall, all but a few of the most ambitious builders had finished their creations. Jeff and I made shish kebabs on the grill, popped the girls into sweatshirts, and wended our way down to the beach through the darkness. Pit fires gnawed through piles of driftwood, and people wormed around under blankets. The flames traced orange and black patterns on the sand. Strange shrill whoops sounded in the distance. The girls wanted to walk, so I took Patrice by the hands, and Jeff took Caitlin, and we let them lead us. We inched across the sand, stride by stride, pausing only to swing them over a mounded pile or an unexpectedly long-reaching wave. To our right dark miles of empty water met the sky at an invisible juncture. Up ahead in the distance, the lighthouse swung its beam out and around in a centrifugal motion. Across the lake, en route to Escanaba, a freighter heeded the light and gave the shore wide berth.

Jeff turned away from the water and looked out over the shapes of the sand structures—buttresses, pinnacles, arches, courtyards, and drawbridges—that wobbled in the firelight. We tried to make out the sculptures. “Is that Bach?” He pointed to a lumpy form at our right.

“I think it’s Elvis,” I said. We were silent, then resumed our slow pace, passing one marker at a time.

“You know, it’s really very beautiful,” Jeff said, and I opened my mouth to point out the banality of his adjective, when Patrice let out a piercing scream.

Down on the sand at our feet a dark shape, long as my leg, stretched out just barely beyond the water’s reach. It was dead and had been for a long time; the inky skin torn away in patches, and the sharp outline of its fins pressed flat into the sand, but the way the tail curved back on the spine, and the gape of its broken triangular jaw, teeth bared, gave it a terrible three-dimensionality. A livid eye glowered sightlessly up at us in the inconstant light. The skin on the back of my neck tightened. Something like that, I thought—it came like a nightmare from an alien depth far away and was better left to itself—something like that should not see the light of day.

“What the hell,” Jeff said. Caitlin picked up the alarm and wailed along with Patrice, although I don’t think she knew at what or why. Patrice shrieked and flailed as if she were being electrocuted. I could barely hold her. Her scream trilled painfully along my nerves and vibrated in my eardrums with not even a pause for breath.

Clutching Caitlin to his chest, Jeff took a few cautious steps and bent as if to better examine the thing. “Don’t,” I yelled over the screams twining around each other and amplifying. “Don’t go near it, Jeff, whatever it is.” The hysteria was catching.

“I just want to—” He propped Caitlin next to my knee, and I almost dropped Patrice on top of her in my attempt to disentangle myself, to catch him, to pull him back.

“Jesus Christ.” He batted away my hand without turning. “It looks like it slithered up—that’s the worst—” The lighthouse beam swept over us in a wash, then plunged us into the dark.

I put my hand down and groped around for two heads, and when I did, I came up one short. “Jeff,” I said. I spoke so calmly and quietly I could barely hear myself. I had to force myself to say his name again, more loudly. A few feet away something unseen splashed into the water.

“Just a sec,” he said. When he turned and looked back the beach lit up blindingly again and told me what I already knew: Patrice had vanished.

In two slow-motion strides Jeff had reached and then passed me, heading down the beach at a run, flinging up sand with each step, retracing the churn of our footprints. He had his hands cupped to his mouth, bellowing Patrice’s name. I picked up Caitlin and followed. She was compliant even in her agitation, clinging tightly to me as she sobbed, but she weighed me down, strangling me with the collar of my windbreaker, slowing me to one stride for every three of Jeff’s. I could only fall back and watch helplessly from a distance.

He finally caught her, but not before she slipped through a gap in the sand pile and plunged into the midst of all that fragile architecture. For someone so tiny, so unsteady, a person still learning the physics governing her movements, her rampaging looked purposeful, deliberate. She held out her arms, and the buttresses, ramparts, and drawbridges of our fellow contestants crumbled in her wake. Jeff’s castle folded in on itself. The light came and raced away again. Jeff’s elbow struck a mass, clumps of sand sprayed into the air, and the loose grains, carried by the wind, stung my eyes. I could hear my husband’s curses hissing in the air.

Jeff plucked up Patrice from the western hemisphere. She’d fallen, I think, into the Pacific Ocean and created a crater that sucked in the coast of California. There were still tears streaked on her face, but she wasn’t crying; she was all done with that. I held out my free arm to her, but she only rubbed her knuckles against her eyes and turned stonily away from me.

Sandy rubble lay all around us. But nothing could be done, and so we left it and trudged on, trailing Caitlin’s plangent cries down the beach, past the bluffs where the empty frames of empty houses loomed just above our heads, hidden on the brink. Jeff might know a word for this, a precise and spare phrase to describe the point where everything hangs precariously in the balance, waiting to stay put or to fall, but then maybe he wouldn’t, so I didn’t ask, and we continued to make our way, step by step, through the dark.

Excerpted from HEART ATTACK WATCH. Used with permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2016 by Alyson Foster.

Illustration by Carolyn Tripp