This is posted here as the request of Holly West, who edited this anthology.
Katherine watched from a picnic table as Ava seized control of the playground’s merry-go-round — or that’s what they called the thing in her childhood. And this was a playground from the eighties, she thought, eyeing the dented monkey bars, the finger-pinching swings. A thousand tiny feet pounding circles produced dirt as hard as stone.
Looking at Ava in the too-short dress she’d insisted on wearing, red-faced and panting as she ran faster and faster, Katherine was reminded of her mother's doggedness. Her daughter's stance when she huffed to a stop to let a toddler climb on was not a six-year old's. Even her feet splayed like her grandmother's. It was as if she too endured years of standing while she stamped metal in the Chrysler auto plant.
“Careful, Ava!" Ava's feet were lifting as the spinning disk's speed increased.
Katherine had visions of a child flying off, a limb getting mangled. She looked around, but the other adults seemed oblivious to the danger. Grateful, in fact, for a few minute’s peace, few of them even were watching the spectacle.
A woman sitting on Katherine’s right put her paperback down, saying, “She's a mama bird, isn't she? Your kid, right?"
"Still …” Katherine began, “she shouldn’t—"
“Watch how she slows it down whenever anyone wants to get on or off,” the woman interrupted. “What is she anyway—seven, eight?”
“Six!” The woman shook her head in disbelief. “Now my kid….” The woman looked in the direction of a boy on his belly pushing a hot wheels car in figure 8s in the dust beneath the speeding apparatus. “Billy,” she shouted suddenly, “you’re gonna lose a hand doing that." She raced off to rescue Billy from certain amputation.
Ava was helpful—helpful to a fault. Like her grandmother, she was always the first to jump in. Why did it rub Katherine the wrong way? Why did the similarities between them annoy her? Maybe she needed a therapist to figure it out. Her mother seemed born to be a grandmother and perhaps Ava was too. Bunny never had the time to be the mother Katherine longed for.
“About ready to go?” Tom asked, sneaking up. His new longish hairstyle made him look fifteen. He slipped in beside her, bumping his knee on the table leg and wincing. Looking up, he caught his daughter helping a smaller child off the ride. “No one has to tell our kid to play nice.”
“Don’t you think it’s odd she never takes a turn herself?”
Tom laughed, his face crinkling. “So what if she gets a charge out of running the show! I mean how entertaining is whirling around on a rusty old plate?”
“She did the same thing on the swings! And after that, she planted herself at the bottom of the slide to be sure no one got hurt.”
“She’s just bored by this outdated playground.” Tom's face shone with pride.
Ava, catching sight of her father, waved. “Hiya, baby!” he called, his grin wide. “Look, no one’s bothered to put down a measly layer of mulch to break a fall. I thought the city checked out that kind of thing."
“Maybe not around here. We should have waited till we got closer to home before stopping. It looks like the sort of place child molesters frequent.” They both looked around warily.
Tom stood and began gathering up the last items of their impromptu picnic. “Are you going to finish your sub?” he asked, holding it up.
Katherine shook her head.
“No, of course you're not. The calories might turn up on the scale tomorrow." Katherine looked at him quickly, but he was smiling. "Ready, kid,” Tom shouted to Ava.
“Can we stop for ice-cream?” Ava asked, dashing over and taking a hefty swig of a half-empty cup of lemonade. Avoiding her mother’s eyes, she added, “I’m gonna order a purple cow.” She squinted. “I like purple cows, don’t I?”
“Let me comb your hair first,” Katherine said, pulling a comb from her purse. Her daughter held still for a few seconds before tearing away. Katherine watched as she ran after Tom. She'd toss that dress in the Goodwill bin at church. Ava wouldn’t mind a younger child getting her outgrown clothing.
“Nearly a quarter of my patients are overweight,” the pediatrician said as he helped Ava down from the examining table at her checkup last month. “When we were kids, it was less than ten percent. We’re stoking our kids instead of stroking them.”
“Is anyone writing these pearls down?” she asked. Luckily, he was an old friend of Tom's and didn't take umbrage.
“She takes after me,” Tom said when she told him about Ava’s checkup. “I was a chunkster. She’ll outgrow it.”
“No, no— she takes after my mother. And it’s not the kind of weight that goes away!” At 5’4” Bunny weighed in at 170, tending to be soft and squishy through the middle, though her limbs were muscular.
“I wish you’d check with me first,” Katherine said now as she hurried after him toward the parking lot. “She’s already eaten half a box of animal crackers.” Drop it, you idiot, she commanded herself. Don’t ruin a nice day. Be glad she has a father who adores her.
"Anything for you, Kit?" Tom asked her when they got to the ice cream stand. She wrinkled her nose in response, and he turned to order two Purple Cows. "You don't know what you're missing," he said, digging in. "I've never saw a purple cow."
"I never hope to see one," Ava chimed in.
"But I can tell you anyhow," Katherine added.
"I'd rather see then be one," Tom finished laughing.
She wished she'd had a Dad like Tom. Katherine’s father took off when she was four, and after that, it had been just Katherine and Bunny. Or Kitty and Bunny, in Bunny’s parlance. Bunny didn’t badmouth her former husband much despite his desertion. She never shared much about her childhood either. She had a sunny disposition that pointed her toward the assets in her life—namely her good health, her loyal friends, and firstly, Katherine. Katherine had no doubt Bunny would give up her life without a second's hesitation for her. Such devotion was sometimes smothering.
“I don’t know why you can’t see the resemblance,” Katherine whispered to Tom later that evening, watching Ava tote the watering can from the faucet to her own garden. Ava’s flowers, Katherine noticed, were doing better than hers; the sunflowers, in particular, were nearly a foot high and the second planting of lettuce ready to eat. Except it would never be eaten.
“I like how it looks,” Ava had said when Katherine suggested harvesting the leaf lettuce. “Can’t you just buy lettuce at Krogers? " Wrinkling her nose, Ava pinched back her marigolds, her fingers already strong enough at six.
“I’ll have opportunity for a closer comparison next week,” Tom joked once Ava was tucked in, flipping the page of his Sports Illustrated. Bunny was coming along for their week at Cape Cod. She lived half a day away from them nowadays in Traverse City so it was hard to deny her an extended visit. But Katherine tried to for some reason.
“You know you’ll end up babysitting most of the time!”
“That’s exactly what I want to do.” Bunny sniffed. “Of course, if you don’t want me tagging along….”
“Ava would be crushed if you didn't come.” And that was true. Only later, she realized she should have included herself in that statement.
“Ava’s hired someone to water her garden,” Katherine informed Tom the next day, stifling a yawn. She was working too many hours at the design center but couldn't cut back. Not with the week at the Cape looming.
He put down the newspaper. “Who?”
“That kid who tags after her at school. Birdy something.”
“Berty. Berty Taggert." Tom was a school district social worker and knew all the kids. "How much is she paying him?”
“They have a sliding scale worked out—depending on whether it rains.” Katherine had heard the transaction from the next room, jumping in only when Ava was about to take the spare key out of the kitchen drawer.
“Why does he need to come inside the house while we're gone?” Katherine asked, sliding the drawer closed.
“He’s gonna feed the Little Mermaid,” Ava explained. “We’re gonna be gone nine days, Mom!” Berty, underfoot to look the place over, stared at Katherine disdainfully, no doubt thinking she was one of those mothers who flushed inconvenient things down the toilet.
“We can put aquatic plants in the bowl for the Little Mermaid. Just like we did when Aunt Helen died and we had to go to Ohio."
Ava nodded agreeably after a moment, but Katherine put the key in another spot anyway. She’d been fooled by Ava’s apparent acquiescence more than once. In this regard, Ava took after her father.
At the beach at Truro a week later, Bunny was digging in the sand with Ava, wearing one of those matronly swim suits that came in two pieces. A good idea, but the top rolled up to exhibit her sizeable breasts every time she bent over, exposing her slack and sizable belly. “Mom!” Katherine said, throwing her a spare tee shirt. Both Bunny and Ava looked up from their sandcastle. Bunny shrugged and pulled the shirt over her head, stretching Katherine’s size four to a sixteen in seconds. The crab on the tee shirt's front took on the proportions of something zapped by nuclear fallout in a disaster film.
Tom stood over them dripping. “Water’s great,” he panted. “Anybody wanna try the raft.” All three women looked toward the crashing waves, the necklaces of seaweed, the sharp stones and broken shells—and declined.
“I told you we should find a bay beach,” Katherine reminded him. “Ava’s not used to such big waves.”
“I don’t think Kitty saw the ocean till she was grown,” Bunny said to Tom, shielding her eyes. “Funny, since I grew up only thirty miles from the ocean in Maine.” She perked up. “But most years, my mom and me came down to the Cape to Dennisport to stay with my aunt and uncle and their kids. He ran a religious bookstore in town.” She wrinkled her nose. "He was a true believer. I guess everyone in my family was."
“I saw Dennisport on a sign we passed, Grandma,” Ava informed them, wetting the drying sand carefully with her pail of water. “I can read now, you know."
“And I loved the story you read last night. The one about the duck.” Picking up someone’s discarded straw, Bunny stuck it on the highest tower of the castle. “There!”
“Where did you go for your vacations when you were a kid, Mom?” Ava asked.
Katherine only remembered one—a weekend at Mackinaw Island in Michigan. She remembered eating enough pink fudge to make her sick and riding in a horse-drawn carriage with Bunny chattering away to the driver. The cost of a cottage for a week was too much on Bunny's salary. Vacations were for other people. But now she was one of those other people.
“We went to different places,” she answered evasively. “Daddy and I went to the Caribbean for our honeymoon. We spent every day on the beach.”
“When you weren’t busy elsewhere!” Bunny added, wiping her sandy hands off on her suit. Exchanging an amused look with Tom, she asked, “Want to go up for a clam roll?” She directed her question toward Ava. Then she glanced at Katherine and Tom, adding, “How ‘bout it, you guys?”
Katherine looked at her watch. “It’s not even noon, Mom. And we brought sandwiches along.” Bunny had actually helped prepare them, insisting on adding pickle relish to the tuna, lavishing mayo on the bread, throwing in the chips she had harpooned at the grocery store. “Remember?”
“How often do you get a chance to eat clamrolls, Kit? Why don’t you three go? Girls lunch out.” Tom nudged her and she acquiesced, standing up and jamming on her hat. Bunny and Ava were already half way up the beach, neither looking back.
“Can I bring you something?”
His eyes were half-shut. “I’ll eat the tuna. And relish it.”
“Very funny But you just…Oh, never mind.” She caught up with Bunny and Ava a few minutes later. Walking in dry sand was a chore and their progress slow since Ava stopped every few seconds to add another shell to her pail.
“Go wash your hands off, Ava,” she told her daughter as they approached the shanty, motioning toward an outdoor spigot. Both Bunny and Ava were covered in sand. She'd like to tell her mother to do the same. How could a grown woman stand it? Plus they'd get it all over their booth. It was one thing for a child not to understand, another for a grown woman.
“The trouble with you …” Bunny said suddenly, surprisingly her. She pulled her sunhat off and blinked blindly as they walked inside.
“The trouble with me… is what?” Katherine asked.
“No, go ahead.” Inside, they found an empty booth by the window. Katherine looked out and saw her daughter washing off every shell along with her hands.
“Okay then,” Bunny said, anticipating Ava’s seating preference and sliding over. “The trouble with you is—you don’t know how to have fun.”
“Oh, and having fun is spreading sand all over a restaurant, Mother.” The thought of adding that maybe she didn't learn to have fun at the right age flitted through her head.
Bunny rolled her eyes. Katherine grabbed a napkin from the holder and swept some sand off the table.
"It's all about the sand here, honey. You can't fight it." Bunny covered Katherine’s hands with her own to still them. “Maybe my idea of fun isn’t yours? Hey, did I ever tell you about the summer I became a beatnik?"
This was rarity. Her mother hardly ever talked about her past.
"You mean a hippie?"
"Nope, a beatnik." Bunny straightened up, preparing for a long reminiscence. "We were at some beach on the Cape--I don't even remember which one now. It was dusk and I was headed home from some activity--maybe just a walk, but probably eating ice cream. There was this great little dairy stand..." She sighed. "Anyway, I heard this strange music coming from the beach--music I'd never heard before--and I saw a bonfire lighting up a bunch of kids. Must have been ten or fifteen of them."
"Aren't you too young to be a beatnik?"
"Just listen to my story, Kitty. Hippie, Beatnik, who cares? Well, I walked out onto the beach and in that second, it was like there was some cosmic shift in the atmosphere. It was magic, pure magic. These kids were different from anyone I'd seen before. Dressed different, different hair, different music. I swear they even smelled different, but maybe that was the pot."
"What year was this?" Katherine was still focusing on the hippie/beatnik question.
"I was probably fourteen," Bunny said, after a few seconds. "So say '62."
"I guess it was beatniks then," Katherine acknowledged. "Hippies were more like 1968."
"So anyway, a couple of them had instruments. Guitars and some bongos. maybe that round thing with bells on it. I am drawing a blank on the name."
"Right. And castanets, I think. And this one girl--well, actually she was a woman more than a girl--was singing this song about the wind."
"Mariah," Katherine guessed.
"Maybe. Well, anyway, she had long blonde hair. People I knew didn't wear their hair like that yet. And she had a sort of Mumu on, an outfit I'd never seen before. The only thing I could think of was that guy on Dobie Gillis."
"Who's Dobie Gillis?" Katherine asked.
Bunny shook her head. "Never mind. Let's keep on with the story here."
"That's a funny name, Grandma," Ava said, rejoining them, hands clean and held out for inspection. "Dopey. Wasn't he one of the seven dwarves?"
"Dobie, honey, not dopey. You two can sure get a girl off track. Anyway, one of them wore a beret and another a porkpie hat. Now, never mind what that is, Ava. We can look it up later. Next, they were doing the limbo with a sand rake someone had found."
"What's the limbo?" Ava asked
Bunny rose, started to demonstrate, and then stopped. " I'll show you that later too. Or you might have to, Kitty. Limbo's a young person's game." She paused. "I forgot how different things were then. We had a president we loved, didn't know we were polluting the world, we all seemed to get along. Sorry, now I'm getting off the subject."
"And then what happened?"Ava asked.
"Well, actually, they did something bad next. They pulled out some grass and started passing it around."
"You mean like the grass on the lawn?" Ava asked, puzzled.
"Cigarettes," Bunny said, looking over her head at Katherine. "They were passing around a cigarette."
"I am never going to smoke," Ava said, crossing her heart.
"I certainly hope not," Bunny said.
"And I supposed you partook," Katherine said.
"It only seemed friendly."
"And you hung out with these beatniks the rest of the summer?"
"I did. When I could manage it. I was mesmerized. They treated me like their very own Gidget."
"That was Sally Fields?" Katherine asked.
Bunny blinked her eyes. "Or Sandra Dee. Wow. I just remembered the end of my story. Which wasn't so much fun. Remember, I told you we always stayed with an aunt and uncle in Dennisport? The bible hawker."
"Right, go on." Finally Katherine was engaged in the story.
"One Sunday night, my cousin and I were supposed to be attending a Luther League swimming party."
"What is Luther League anyway? It features heavily in your childhood reminisces. It sounds like a Hitler Youth group."
"Nothing that incendiary. It was a church group for teenagers. The Brewsters were a real religious family as I said. That always put a damper on things when we stayed with them."
"So you didn't go, did you? To Luther League."
Ava laughed. "Ooh, were you a bad girl that time, Grandma. Smoking and then not going to Luther League."
Smiling down at Ava, Bunny said, "Nope, I didn't go. They were having a luau on the beach that night. Roasting a pig or something crazy. So I talked Peggy, that was my cousin, into going. I didn't usually invite her to come out with me because she was barely thirteen, but it wasn't too hard to get her to ditch church. We went to the luau and that's about it. We ate some barbecue. Listened to music. Tried to get the older guys to notice us. Nothing really happened. Not then, at least."
"Then when?" Ava asked.
"Anyway, when we got back to the cottage," Bunny continued, "my uncle was waiting outside on the street. It wasn't late but he was pacing. 'Guess who I just had a call from?'" he asked Peggy, but I knew he was really asking me," Bunny said.
"Cause Peggy wasn't a good listener, right?" Ava had made a face on the table out of spilled sugar and turned the smile into a frown. "My teacher tells me that sometimes."
Bunny sighed and patted Ava's head. "No, he knew I was the one who convinced Peggy to ditch church and go to a party. Peggy would've have never done it on her own. " She looked at Katherine. "She was a lot like you, Kitty. Virtuous."
"Ava, you need to wash your hands again. They are full of sugar and who knows what else." Katherine pulled her daughter to her feet.
"But, the story..."
"You can hear it another time."
Giving a big sigh, Ava went outside to the spigot.
"Did you hear this story before?" Bunny asked. "Is that why you sent her away?"
"I remembered it suddenly. You must have told it to me when I was that age. Anyway, he pulled off his belt and whipped Peggy across the backs of her legs, didn't he?" Katherine looked white.
Bunny nodded. " I can still hear the sound of the slap of that belt on her legs now. And when I tried to leave, he stopped me, told me my punishment was having to watch. My mother wasn't there to stop him or she would have. She'd gone bowling with my aunt. And, of course, I stood there frozen. It seemed like it went on forever but it was probably only a minute."
"A minute's pretty long to have your legs switched. And you've always regretted not doing anything?"
"It's worse than that. That night, once Peggy fell asleep, I pulled the sheet down and looked at the back of her legs."
"And they were full of cuts?"
"Yeah, but beneath the marks from that day, there were lots of silvery scars. I was sure he beat her regularly. I thought about pulling the sheet up higher to see if her back was scarred too, but I didn't."
Katherine shook her head. "And this was your uncle?"
"Uh, huh. But it was his wife who was my mother's sister. We left the next day. I think that was the last time we stayed with them. Maybe the last time we saw them." She paused. "Peggy didn't cry out once, didn't try to get away, didn't even beg him to stop. I could never forgive myself for not saying something. For not telling my mom at least."
"Don't you think she figured it out and that's why you left?"
Bunny shrugged. "I never had the heart to ask."
"I wonder what happened to the beatniks?" Katherine said.
"Ha. I heard later they got caught robbing a house. I thought they were up to something because they never dressed the same way twice. And such food they brought to those bonfires. Fancy stuff." She took a sip of iced tea. "Not the kind of stuff kids buy. Of course at fourteen, what did I know?"
"I should've done something. Saved her somehow."
"Mom, you were a kid. You couldn't have saved her. Oh, here you are,” Katherine said as Ava slid in next to her grandmother. The waitress returned with their food a few minutes later. Bunny and Ava chattered on about making a tunnel from their castle while Katherine munched absentmindedly on her own clam roll. Ava was done soon and out the door.
"Day's been kind of exhausting, hasn't it? I forgot how tiring walking in the sand is. And the sun wears me out." Her mother rubbed a foot and stood up.
"And poor Ava getting the bum's rush."
Bunny looked sleepily toward the window."That spigot got a workout all right."
Katherine peeked out. "Hey, wait just a minute. Who's that going up the beach with Ava? It's certainly not Tom."
"Where?" Bunny said, on her feet at once.
But Katherine was already out the door, her flip-flops slapping the sand as she ran. "Ava!"
"Kitty, Kitty. It's okay," Bunny yelled. "It's the man we rented the cottage from. Ava's probably following him back to Tom. Kitty!"
But Katherine didn't hear her and before Bunny could catch up, Katherine had tackled the man from his waist and brought him to his knees.
"Just where do you think you are going with my kid?" she asked, her hand gripping his pony tail from behind. His head was pulled back far enough to make his mouth fall open.
Ava, dumbstruck from what she'd witnessed, stood frozen.
"Kitty, calm down," Bunny said, arriving at the scene."It's Jack Owens. The guy who rented us the cottage. Remember, he helped us carry in the bags. Guess being far-sighted came in handy for once." Bent over, hands on her knees, she struggled to catch her breath.
Slowly, Katherine climbed off the man's back, stood, and wiped the sand off her shins. "Sorry, Jack. Without my glasses, you looked like Jack the Ripper to me"
He rose, laughing. "Wrong Jack."
"You sure ran after us, Mom," Ava said, her speech returning. "You were like that old wind Mariah coming down the beach."
"My story put you in that kind of mood," Bunny said, "Seeing danger everywhere."
"I think I came to that myself," Katherine told her.
"You guys were gone a long time," Tom said, sleepily opening his eyes. "Were they out of clam rolls or something?"
"Daddy, you'll never guess what happened."
"What happened?" he said sitting up. The two women looked at each other.
"What happened?" he said sitting up. The two women looked at each other.
"Grandma met a bunch of beatniks on the beach near here. They sang songs, did the mambo, and wore funny hats that she's gonna show me later."
"It was a long time ago, Daddy," Ava said chuckling."When kids did olden things."
"But you got your clam rolls, right?"
The three of them nodded.
"Anyone up for some ice cream?" Tom asked.
"I sure am," Katherine said.
"Mommy, I've never seen you eat ice-cream," Ava shrieked. "What kind do you like?"
Katherine looked at her mother. "What kind do I like, Mom
Bunny paused. "Something green, I think. Maybe pistachio.""But if could be chocolate mint, right?" Ava smiled. "That's my third favorite flavor. I hope it's that flavor. You could take after me sometimes."