Pacifica, California 1960
When I am eight, the family moves from the Projects of San Francisco and into a house. The house is fifteen miles south down the peninsula in Pacifica. We live a block from the ocean. At night, the sound of the waves crashing on the shore keeps me awake. Unlike the Projects, there are no people noises in the neighborhood. Instead, there is the constant ebb and flow of ocean water marching up and down the slanted beach, ripping off chunks of the sand cliffs at high tide. The house has three bedrooms. The two boys share a room. I have a room of my very own. My step-father's daughter, Nella, her husband and four kids come out from Oklahoma to visit and see the new place.
Jimmy, Billy and I take Nella's three children to the beach. The path is south on the street and three hundred feet down the cliffs. The day is closed in and foggy, the sand bleached pale, the waves gray and foamy. Jimmy says we are not to take our shoes off. Jimmy is always being told by our mother that he has to be "the responsible one" because he is the oldest.
I don't know what the adults know and what Jimmy has probably been told, how the water can come up unexpectedly, knock you off your feet and drag you in the ocean so far you'll drown and be lost forever.
"Why would they let us go to the beach then?" I object. Because of the fog, the Oklahoma kids can't see how great the expanse of the Pacific is, how on a clear day it stretches west out for miles. We are a passel of kids on the edge of the great unknown, the world shrunk down to cliffs, a small beach, and waves breaking on the shore.
I take my shoes off anyway.
Jimmy says, "You're going to get us all in trouble."
I try to reassure him. "We'll just feel the sand with our toes and touch the water, then we'll put our shoes back on," I say. "They've come all this way."
Jimmy keeps his shoes on.
The rest of us walk shuck off our shoes and socks and leave them in a pile. We skirt along the edge of the wet sand. A bigger wave sloshes over our feet and slaps against our pants legs. The seawater is freezing. We run away from the waves, laughing. In the wet sand, we dig and find a tiny sand crab, which is new to all of us. The sand crab's pale legs gallop as it tries to dig down away from our grasping hands.
I hear yelling and I look up. It's Dirk, my stepfather, and Asa, Nella's husband. Jimmy shoots me his 'I told you so' look.
"I'm sorry," I say and I am. Jimmy was right. We're in for it now.
We scramble to throw on our socks and shoes. Suddenly, the men are on the beach. They get behind us, yelling, "You'd better run!" We dash up the cliffs, going so fast the sand spurts out and sticks to the back of our wet pants. The kicks begin then, Dirk zeroing in on me, lifting his leg and arcing it until it plants splat on my tail bone. Dirk kicks me half a dozen times on the way up the cliff.
May there will be a policeman at the top, I think. I've noticed in the short time we've lived here the police often check the top of the cliffs for people loitering. Maybe the police will stop Dirk from kicking me. But when we get to the top of the cliffs, no one is there.
We're all making so much noise, kids screaming, men yelling, I can't believe no one hears what is happening. Surely someone within shouting distance will notice and stop Dirk. Yes, I was wrong to disobey, but I don't think I deserve to be kicked like a dog.
We turn the corner and reach the sidewalk. When the family lived in the Projects, there was always somebody to witness what went on in public. Even in the buildings, the walls were so thin everybody knew when there was a fight. Here there are only two rows of houses down a straight road. There are pretty lawns with bushes and flowers. No one is in the front yards. The houses look empty, too, even with the curtains open.
Dirk continues to kick me. It feels like he's wearing his steel-toed boots, but he can't be because he only wears them when he goes to work. He kicks and I am tossed into the air. I am flying, but it isn't at all like I imagined it would be. I land on my feet and keep running, tears streaming down my face, snot sliding into my mouth.
'Wait until my mother hears what you've done,' I think. 'My mother won't let you get away with this.' I feel a thrill when it occurs to me that my mother might even throw him out of the house. After all, I'm my mother's flesh and blood. He's just a husband. And he's not even her first husband, at that.
We reach the house and burst through the front door. I head for my room and stand outside the doorway where I can't be seen from the living room, waiting to see what happens. My mother comes from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel. She asks the men, "What's the matter?" Dirk and Asa explain how they found the children wet from the ocean and how I was the slowest kid on the way back from the beach. My mother goes back to the kitchen to finish making dinner with Nella. I stand, gulping and swallowing tears, listening to the men laugh.
Eventually, my mother comes out of the kitchen, skirts around the edge of the living room and comes to me. "I'm sorry he did that," my mother says, not meeting my eyes. My mother turns away. I retreat to my room and close the door to block everyone out. I lay down on my stomach on the bed, burying my face into the pillow. When dinner is ready, I don't want to eat, but my mother says, "Come sit at the table." My butt hurts so much there's no comfortable way to sit. I pick at the food. As soon as I can, I ask to be excused.
At least, with all the attention on me, Jimmy hasn't gotten in trouble for letting us get in the water.
I slink back to my bedroom.
I am grounded.