The Bearberry Elegies

Nick Ripatrazone

Old lobster traps piled in the backyard near the bearberry. Mold had marked the wood blue-green, the color of bay tide at dusk. After a rainstorm I would lay with my mouth open and wait for droplets to fall from the round berries. Sometimes bubbles enclosed the berries, as if water could hunger. I hated when droplets drummed my teeth but loved when bubbles splashed my tongue like cool lozenges.

Coleman stood next to me. He opened a brown paper bag, folded down the top, and collected bearberry leaves for my sister. It was the nicest thing he ever did.

Coleman heard that Rose got it from messing in the shed with Noll, one of the Hatchbrook brothers who lived on a farm along the Fore River. I knew she had something. I pressed my ear against the bathroom door and heard her pain, yet doubted it came from Noll, and certainly not in the shed. Frosted, dead bumblebees and sawdust covered the floor of the shed, and hammers, vises, and crooked nails littered the benches and shelves. Noll wasn’t attractive: deep lines ridged along his wide forehead. His lips were always chapped and his hair chopped in a perpetual spike, never growing long enough to comb down.

I never asked Rose about it. She stopped going to school, and at first Mom stayed home from her job at the antiques store and prayed a brown jasper rosary. When Mom’s leave ended, Rose stayed with Dad at the port. She shot Polaroids of him holding lobsters by the tails, the sleeves of his sweater rolled back to his forearms, pants stuffed into his boots.

Afterward she and I sat on the laundry room floor, dryer-hot sweatpants, towels, and thermals spread across our laps, and looked at the photos. Sometimes Dad’s eyes shined green, and sometimes blue, and we agreed that they were able to change colors. I heard the kettle’s whistle and knew it was time for her bearberry tea. While she drank she rubbed her abdomen, and her skin looked wet, like a liquid become solid. I was worried that she would never be able to keep her shape for long.

The three of us were a year apart from each other. Coleman is the oldest. He will finish high school next year, and then he will have a long talk with my dad about working at the port, and he will most likely say no, because he has been invited before and denied the offer. He will go off to college and come back with different haircuts and different words. He will smile at first, because he has not seen us for months and you always imagine that something is worth missing, but after a day or two he will sit at the table and pull the mashed potatoes across the plate with the tip of his fork. Dad will cross his arms and fold the newspaper onto his lap and let his beer sit there until the froth pops silently and settles down.

One day Coleman came back from the Hatchbrook Farm with spots of blood on his shirt. He told me not to worry about it, but I did, especially when Mr. Hatchbrook skittered into our driveway and demanded to see Coleman. Mom had tucked Coleman in her bed and locked the door, shut him away safe while she and Dad and Mr. Hatchbrook argued in the kitchen. Supposedly Noll’s bottom lip was split and half his face smashed purple. Mr. Hatchbrook pulled his lip down to accentuate the claim. His gums were gray and black bits of Skoal stuck between his teeth.

Outside Rose hung her bras on the clothesline. She clipped and strung them along. They swayed like a line of lights. She said she couldn’t sleep and I told her to imagine sliding down a big hill, imagine every inch of her body gliding on down. She said that never worked. I asked her if she loved Noll and she said no. She said his kisses tasted like smoke and that he squeezed her arm a bit too hard when they hugged each other. I imagined what it would be like in that hot shed, the bumblebees littered along the feathery sawdust, Noll’s grip pressing muscle against bone.

Dad usually dropped the trap fifty-five feet down and left it there for three days.

Everybody has a section of the bay to themselves, a place where only they can drop traps, so as to not tangle the lines. Yesterday we found a half-hitch knot tied to our buoy line and that meant we’d crossed lines. Dad called the guy a bastard. He said he knew him for years and felt betrayed.

We went back to the port to get Rose and found her playing cards with two men. They wore Carhartt jackets and backward hats and sat close to her. I knew she was beautiful from when she was young, from the way she raised a spoon to her mouth to the way she slept, all lost under the covers. I think Dad knew she was beautiful too, and I thought he would go in there and kick their asses, but instead he stood in the doorframe and watched. She laughed and flicked the cards across the table as if they were rocks across water.

Cleaned and cooked, lobster meat was served with brown bacon and eggs. The smell always made Rose sick so Mom would open the window above the sink. A thick draft always sidled inside. After Rose died Mom closed the window and that kept the smell in, and it was almost too much to breathe. We would all rather be cold than suffocated.

Dad kept lobster eyes in a jar on the coffee table. I wondered if they would make good marbles, and strained to open the cap, first holding the jar between my knees while I twisted, then tucked beneath my armpit. I dropped the jar and the black beads spread across the hardwood.

Dad’s friend from the port visited after the funeral. He wore wide boots and I could barely see his face beneath his beard. Dad wanted to show him the jar and went to the table. Only a white ring remained on the mahogany. He continued to look and I sat on the couch and watched. After a minute he asked me where it was, and I lied, and while I did I saw the friend’s dark eyes darting in his sockets, staring at Dad, me, Dad, me. I was so scared I ran outside and wanted to hide behind the traps but stopped when I saw Coleman tying string around a fresh bag of leaves and then walking back as if steps were an action to be learned.

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