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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 12: March 2022
Flash Fiction: 994 words
By Jacqueline Parker

Edge of the Atlantic

 

Crazy Uncle Ted lived alone in a little beachside cottage up in northern Virginia, just him and a catalog of trivia from myriad life pursuits. The official black sheep of the family, he was mentally and emotionally itinerant; nothing held his attention long, but everything piqued it.

Each summer he was a slightly different person. One year he fancied himself a seaside troubadour. In a lilting drawl, he’d recite poetry to seagulls, or to anyone who’d listen. When I was fourteen, his obsession with the occult impressed upon me a curiosity in the macabre, something my mother promptly squashed after she caught me summoning Kurt Cobain’s ghost in the basement. Last year, Ted took up painting and sat for hours in the sand recreating the ocean’s moods on canvas. So, it came as no surprise when he announced he’d found a new interest.

The electric blue of his house was unmistakable, but it was now accented with a sprawling container garden that ran the full length of his front yard. Tomatoes, strawberries, wildflowers, and herbs overflowed from vibrant pots. I parked on the road and met him on the lawn.

“Welcome back, kid.”

“I like what you’ve done to the place.”

“Ah, just some homesteading is all. Appreciating the quiddity of nature, you see. The essence, the vibe. It giveth and taketh, so we pay our respects.” He clasped his hands together and bowed to me, then to the yard.

We ducked through shell curtains adorning the doorframe between his porch and living room. It was a new addition since the last year. “I call it ‘shell-cramé,’” he said. “Took hours to make it. Hours. But now it’s official, I’m a beach bum.”

Part of Uncle Ted’s new lifestyle involved clamming, an activity he was more than happy to demonstrate. The wealth of quahogs native to the Atlantic shores meant he had a never-ending supply of his favorite shellfish.

The morning he took me out, a shock of orange-gold sunrise bloomed over the horizon. I squatted over the sand, waiting for the clams to reveal their hiding spots.

Uncle Ted handed me a shovel and leaned over. “When the tide rolls back, you’ll see their air holes through the sand.” A cigarette teetered on the edge of his lips, the gray ash trembling as he talked. In one hand he held a clam rake. In the other, a beer. “Scrape gently, don’t dig, otherwise you’ll crack ’em. They’re food but we treat them with dignity. Understand?” The cadence of his speech still held a hint of his Dylan years.

The tide receded and openings of tiny tunnels appeared in the sand. I did as he instructed, and carefully dragged the shovel deeper and deeper until it hit something.

Uncle Ted’s eyes widened in excitement. “You got one! Okay, okay, now scoop. Lift.”

The water rushed in and rinsed the sand away. Cradled in my open palms was one perfect clam. I rubbed my thumb over its white-gray shell and imagined its rings layered like that of a tree. With as much caution as I took to find it, I set my mollusk into the bucket and hunkered down to retrieve my second.

We spent all morning scraping and scooping until our hands were quobbled and pale, our backs sore from crouching.

Uncle Ted lit a cigarette, nodded to me, then toward the sea. “You’re having some trouble, I hear.”

“I guess.” I shrugged. “Just figuring stuff out.”

“Love life? Going away to college? Job market? Existential dread of the unknown?”

I shook my head and made an arc in the sand with my toe. “Everything. It’s all so big and impossible. I feel like a—”

“Clam?”

I laughed. “Yeah, like a really small clam in a really big ocean.”

He pursed his lips. Another cigarette went into the bottle, where it hissed into extinction. “Thought it might come to this. Let’s go.” He pulled off his shirt, threw it on the sand by the bucket, and grabbed my hand. Before I had a chance to respond he was running toward the water and dragging me with him.

Waves splashed up to my knees and we trudged deeper until it hid our waists, then our chests. My feet grazed the ocean floor, and then I was floating. Our belongings became colorful, shapeless dots on the beach.

“Feel that?” he shouted.

“Feel what?”

“Uncertainty. We’re swimming with sharks, kid.”

I whipped my head around, scanning the waves for a menacing fin.

“I mean,” he said, “shit’s big. Always will be. We’re all small in the world.”

“So what do I do?” I yelled back.

“Anything you want!”

:::

That night, after bowls of chowder, we sat on his porch and listened to the surf. We each held a clam shell, memorabilia from the day’s outing. He held his to the porch light, the violet markings reminiscent of the Atlantic at dawn.

“Clam shells were once used for tools and currency, you know. Jewelry, status symbols, lots of stuff.” He tilted his beer in my direction. “Layers to our bivalve friends here. Same with you. Me. What you’re going through, it’s just a layer.”

“A layer.” I thumbed the ridges of the shell. How old was the clam before we ate it? Was it seventeen like me? Five? Thirty-two?

Uncle Ted dropped his in a bucket with the others he had collected for local artisans to fashion into jewelry.

I went to put mine in the bucket, too, but his hand shot out and stopped me. “That’s yours. When you doubt yourself, think of the clam. Small doesn’t mean powerless.” He relaxed into his chair and smiled. “Be the clam.”

We sat that way for a while, the two of us, until his soft snores blended with the ocean’s white noise and my mantra became a whisper that slid with the tide, out to sea and back again.

 

 

Publisher’s Note:

This story was written in response to MacQ’s Triple-Q Writing Challenge (Issue 11) and contains three words from the Triple-Q list of prompts.

Jacqueline Parker
Issue 12, March 2022

obtained her undergrad degree at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina where she currently resides. Her fiction often explores loss in its many forms, but occasionally she comes up with something funny. Her work has been featured in Small Leaf Press and Prime Number Magazine. She was named Prime Number’s 2021 Short Fiction Award winner.

 
 
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