Cottage by the Sea

I knew it was her because she smelled like winter– like pine– and a little bit like the sea.

I drifted into a memory of us at her parent’s cottage in Maine, early winter — or was it early spring?– wrapped in blankets on the old porch telling stories. Old boyfriends, lost friends, dirty secrets once buried deep, shared over two glasses of cabernet.

I had trouble seeing her face– a blur of familiar pairs of eyes, lips, the gentle curve of a collarbone that could’ve belonged to her, or another, or anyone at all. But that smell, I would’ve recognized anywhere. No perfume, not even a dab of lotion, just the season, dry and dusty and bitterly cold, lingering on her skin. The season I left her in.

“I was seventeen when we met,” she said and my thoughts floated back in, settling above us like fog. “Do you remember that day at the airport when Margaret introduced us?”

I thought hard. Her pause was excruciating. All I could think of was that old crumbling porch of the cottage, cold and splintered under our curled toes. Birds dipping low then soaring high above our heads, like dancers at first, then perfect arcs in the distance. The ocean pulling in then out, sucking what it could with it. Our eyes fixed on the sea, in hopes of spotting the tail of a dolphin or a whale, the green flash of a sunset.

“Do you remember what I asked you?” Again, the long pause, then shuffling, the crumpling of a sheet of paper. I wondered what had happened to that old cottage, if her parents had sold it, and then wondered if it had ever existed at all.

“I asked you to take care of me,” she sighed. There was a long pause before she said, “and here we are.”

I wondered if I could’ve imagined her, a collage of all the women I’d been with, some of whom I’d loved, others who’d only stayed awhile, out of boredom perhaps, or out of fear of ending up alone. None of their names or faces came to me, but each time I drew a slow and steady breath, I smelled the sea. Handfuls of sand and sea glass, shells chosen for their beauty, then left behind, forgotten on the railing of the wooden porch.

I heard footsteps, the breeze from the opened door as someone came in– a doctor, a nurse?– and they exchanged a few words. There was silence as the door creaked shut.

I thought she was gone until she whispered it again. “And here we are.”

I felt something on my arm, realizing it was her hand, cold and soft. Have we met? I wanted to ask, but of course I couldn’t. All I wanted was to pick her out of the blur.

“I’m going to go now,” she said softly. “I’ll be back in the morning.”

I fell asleep to the sound of her voice, its echo, like a wave spreading out onto the shore.




The first time I met my father

Maclean Avenue, 1 A.M

knees almost touching

under the diner booth

he told me

his mouth full of

frosted flakes

the corner of his lip



work hard and

be nice to people

I was seven

remembered the burn

from the cigarette

how she took my finger

and pressed it down


against the pulse

in the scar tissue

a kiss on my head

held there

instead of answers.

Bernie’s Burgers

By the time I was fourteen and Ma lost her third job at the mill, she told me I had a choice between a full-time job or the door. She said it in the kitchen, over a bowl of grits, with the same cool, collected tone she’d had the day she told Pops it was done, that she couldn’t spend her life split between work and the Billings County Jail.

And when it came down to money, between me and my brothers, Mama just couldn’t do it she said, and because I was the oldest, well… that was all there was to it. I knew it wasn’t worth the argument. There was no arguing, with Mama. I was the oldest and that was that. I’d get a job.

Everyone in town knew Bernie Parsons. He was the guy who walked into Dizzy’s Diner every morning, shouting “How are ya’ll doing on this fine morning?” purposely loud enough for everyone to stop—coffee mug or waffle bite midair—and watch him sit at the counter.

He had a scruffy salt and pepper chin that he scratched when he had to think hard about something—the stiff hair crunching like candy wrappers under his calloused fingertips–and always had white flecks of dandruff on his collar. He wore the same cognac leather jacket almost every day, and when he brushed past you it smelled like Montana—fresh and stale at the same time, like manure and pine, with a hint of sandalwood. Woodsmoke and sage. The dipping tobacco that Curtis—my brother—hid in his jean pockets, and the Jameson bottles that Mama stowed up high in the cabinet so none of us could reach them. In one inhale, I got all of the Midwest in Bernie’s old and faded leather jacket.

Sometimes I would stop him by the antique shop on 1st Avenue North, the street he took to get to work every morning. I would recognize him by his walk — arms swinging, steps heavy on the asphalt. I’d pretend I was walking that way too and meet his pace.

He usually gave me a mint. Or a tootsie roll. Whatever he had in his shirt pocket, the candy soft and shapeless from being nestled against his chest too long. I never told Mama that I kept the wrappers because they smelled like leather and reminded me of Pops — The Pops I’d seen in old photographs, his body thin and sinewy, shapeless under his old flannel jacket. The Pops sitting shirtless on a yellow tractor with his older brother, Uncle Curtis — seventeen and eighteen — all cigarettes and bravado. The Pops who, for as long as I could remember, came home with the smell of work on his hands. The one I’d watch in silence, scrubbing his palms raw with a bar of soap, muddy rivers forming down the rim of the kitchen sink.

Bernie was Ma’s man, at the time at least. Not that she’d ever told me or my brothers, but I wasn’t stupid and his chipped red Chevy was always outside on weekday mornings, so I knew that they weren’t just sitting around playing a game of Euchre. Ma never said much about those things and we knew better than to even ask. She’d suck her teeth and tell us to go on and mind our own business. We knew there was nothing worse than getting Ma upset over nothing.

Unlike what everyone in Billings liked to say about him, Bernie was always good to me. If anything at all bothered me about working at Bernie’s Burgers, it was the other girls. I heard them whisper in the back about Ma and Bernie getting it on, about him doing Ma a favor by hiring me. It didn’t bother me, most of the time, but I still couldn’t help but listen.

Those poor hicks, they called us, because they knew about Pops, and because everyone in town knew we weren’t from Billings, originally, but from Sweetgrass, up North.

Bernie, he was always nice when he came in to check up on things, and I can’t say I ever hated working for him, even if my hair always smelled like burger meat and my clothes deep fried. Ma bought me a pair of nonslip shoe because on my first day at BB’s I slipped in canola oil, bruised my knee, and ruined my only pair of work pants—one of Ma’s old ones that didn’t fit her anymore. That was where my first paycheck went. When I told Bernie about the new pair of pants he dug into his pocket but Mama slapped his hand away. There was nothing Mama hated more than pity.

The second, third, fourth, and fifth paychecks, I crammed under my mattress thinking, like the fourteen-year-old girl I was, that it could get Pops out of the county jail for good this time. That I wouldn’t need Bernie’s old jacket to remind me who my Pops was. That he could be real again, and not just a smell.

© 2014, Johanna Grea

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The Name is Perla

Back when I used to live with Mama in Tennessee, she told me:

Perlita, you might as well get used to it, you can’t get everything you want in this life. And when you do, don’t think it’s easy. For our family, nothing has ever come easy.

I don’t remember when I first began picking tomatoes or pickles or onions, because ever since I was born, it is all I can remember. Crops. Plucking them when the sun isn’t awake yet. Coming home when the streets are dark and quiet and the roads are empty. Crops. Buckets full of them. Bruises on my shoulders from where the plastic digs deep. Crops. All I ever dream about. Green. Everything green.

Back when I was little working with Mama, the cotton plants looked like skyscrapers. Then I moved up North in Michigan, where Papa is—for the strawberry harvest—then to Texas, with my Abuela, where I’ve been ever since. She often tells me stories about Guatemala, how she would pick corn and lettuce with her sisters—from when they were too little to enroll in school until they were all pregnant, round as watermelons, crouching in the field. Abuela carried Mama in her stomach through the whole corn harvest, painfully bending over her growing fetus. They didn’t have anything but family then, but Abuela says that in Guatemala, life wasn’t as bad as it is now. They treat us like animals here, she says, call us Mexicans just because we’re brown, tell us to go back to Mexico, where we’re from, even if we’re not. They tell us we’re not welcome here. I’ve always known it—that I’d never fit in here. The first time someone said that to me was in Tennessee. The son of the farm owner whispered it to me when Mama couldn’t hear. Go back to your country.

He didn’t know that I was born here too, in Tennessee, in the same country as him, except not in a warm hospital bed but in the back of Papa’s truck.

Abuela works in the onion fields, like Maria and Luz, my cousins. Luz always cuts herself with the big scissors they use to cut onion stems. She holds onto the gash for a second or two, then scoops a handful of sand from the ground and pours it over to stop the bleeding. I saw her do it that week I worked the onion field with them, when Maria was in labor with her fourth. Cuidado! Abuela had said from a few feet away, even if it happened all the time and we were used to it. She was crouching in the mud, surrounded by onions dismembered of their stems. Poor Abuela, with her bad knees, inches deep in the muck.

I used Maria’s name at dusk, when I handed in my buckets at the front of the line, even if I knew she’d have to cash in the check for me at the end of the month. I was only fifteen and couldn’t do it myself.

I know I’m stuck in the tomato fields because I’m a little bigger, stronger, than the rest of the women in my family. God gave you strong arms as weapons, Papa used to say, back in Michigan. I saw it as a curse. I envied my cousins, even if they were bent over all day ripping onions from their stems, their backs arched like bridges like mine. I wished I was smaller, that I couldn’t easily carry a bucket of ripe tomatoes on my left shoulder. That I wasn’t forced to work with a bunch of men who had no interest in talking to a girl they didn’t know, whose father didn’t work beside her, a girl who’d moved from Florida, to Tennessee, to Michigan, and now to Texas. A girl who wasn’t Mexican.

Sometimes the smell of the tomatoes makes me want to vomit.I slip on their rotten peels, the seeds oozing beneath my bare feet. After thirteen hours working in the sun, it dries like paste and clings to my skin like resin. Abuela uses bleach to get the stink off me. Even soap won’t do.

The doctors say it might be the bleach, or the pesticides, drizzled onto our heads from airplanes high above, that are to blame for the skin on my arms peeling back in layers. It’s gotten worst in the last couple of years, since I’ve been in the tomato fields. Sometimes I even get so dizzy I think I’m going to fall. Especially when it gets hot in the summer, with all thoses gases thick like fog in the air, you really can’t breathe at all.

I don’t tell Abuela this, or Mama, when we speak on the phone, because I know they would send me to school. School. Carrying books instead of broken buckets, sitting all day instead of crouching.

I don’t tell Abuela or Mama this because I know they need my sixty four dollars a week.  I stay because of that. I use the strength and the arms that God gave me as weapons, and I dig deep into the tomato plants.

© 2014, Johanna Grea

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