“Oh. Oh. Look!” Ainsley is on her feet and pointing at the water.
“Whales?” Jaclyn, too, is on her feet. But she sees her error at the same instant the rest of us do.
“Dolphins!” Sissy says. “A whole school of them!”
“Pod,” Spinner corrects. “Dolphins are mammals, you know, not fish.”
Sissy turns an indignant face to the plebe who has dared to correct her. “Yes, well, mammals or not, school is certainly interchangeable with pod.”
Of course, Sissy would know.
“Although,” she concedes, “pod is the more common term.”
And Spinner, who must be smarter than he looks, gives a conciliatory nod to the woman who has fed him so well today.
Sissy and Ainsley have joined Jac and me on the starboard side. Or maybe it’s the port side. Who knows? Why don’t they call them right and left and make it simple for idiots like me? But I relinquish such immaterial thoughts in light of the frenetic activity in the water on my side of the boat.
“Six at least.” Ainsley’s voice is rich with excitement. “But it’s hard to count them!”
Their perfectly arced bodies breach the surface over and over, as if some unseen force beneath the sea is juggling dolphins. Their smiling faces come almost near enough to touch at times, as the water dances off the gleaming silver of their hides, and the sound they make is like laughter.
“They’re bottlenose, of course,” Spinner says. Maybe the most surprised among us, he’s as excited as anyone aboard his boat.
Jac digs in her pocket for her phone. “Can you believe this? Can you?” She begins to snap photos with a fury that matches the dolphins’ play.
Spinner holds up a finger as if to say wait a sec, then reaches beneath his dash and pulls out a big white bucket. “Lunch,” he says with a smile. He reaches in and pulls out something disgusting, something with lots of legs. Or tentacles. “Squid. Their favorite. Here you go, ladies, there’s plenty for everyone.” He tosses one overboard, and the frenetic activity in the water increases exponentially. “Don’t anyone be shy.”
Naturally, Sissy leads the way. She tugs up the sleeve of her sweatshirt and reaches in as though she’s mining carrots for a stew. And no surprise. Anyone who can mutilate a clam without so much as a gag, can toss a blob of squid to a hungry pod of dolphins.
Jaclyn goes next, then Ainsley. “Come on, Bree! Your turn.” They both urge me on. My sister touches a hand to the small of my back. “You can do this.”
“They’re waiting,” Jaclyn adds, with a push in her voice and an eyebrow hiked.
“Good Lord! They stink to high heaven!”
“Well, they’re not for you, love.” Sissy reaches past me and grabs another squid out of the bucket. “Let’s see who can throw the farthest.”
The farthest. As if it’s a softball-tossing match. Lord, will I ever get out of the sixth grade in this woman’s eyes?
She nudges me with an elbow. “Come on, love. LATSF.”
I stop half way to the bucket. LATSF. LA ...TSF. Launch a tasty squid, fast? I toss a frown over my shoulder.
“Look at their smiling faces,” she says. “Now, come on.”
I use my thumb and index finger like pinchers, touching as little of the slimy thing as I can and still manage to grip it. Then I reach back, careful not to drip anything on myself. On Sissy’s count of three I hurl the creature as far as I can. Which turns out not to be far at all. Because it splats against one of the aluminum poles that holds our Bimini lid up and bounces back at my feet, even squishier than it was before.
My audience laughs. Even Ainsley. And Spinner. And the dolphins. All of them laughing away. Well fine. I reach down, pick that puppy up, and send it sailing. It makes an arc against the crystal clear sky. Almost before it begins to descend, a sleek, silvery dolphin leaps and catches it midair, then does a cannonball. Right there in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a cannonball. “You’re welcome,” I say under my breath. I reach over the edge of the boat and pour what’s left of my bottled water over my hand. It’s not enough to rinse the feel of the squid away, but it’ll have to do. And while everyone laughs and claps, all I can think is, Kinsey would love this. The thought weakens my knees. I clutch the pole for support and lower myself to the cushionless pad.
“Mama?” I love how she says this. Not like a monotone baby doll’s ma-ma, but like she’s calling me to task. Come here and explain, that’s what she says in that one, sparkling word. She’s crouched down in jeans and purple-soled sneakers that light up when she walks. She never fails to stomp her feet when she wears them. Or smile. She loves these sneakers. Her bottom nearly touches the brick patio where she squats. “What do you suppose that is?” She points at a snail inching its way up the sliding glass door that stands between the patio and our kitchen. The creature is right at her eye level.
“That,” I say, “is a snail.”
“Snail?” She scrunches her nose when she says it. “Can I touch it?”
She’s fearless, this three-year-old female version of Sam.
“Well, I wouldn’t.” That’s what I start to say, but catch myself. “Sure, baby girl. Go ahead.” I hold my breath and stifle a shiver as she reaches out and presses her little index finger against the amber shell. It has reddish-brown stripes in a pattern that’s surprisingly pretty running the length of its fragile carapace. The snail stops the moment it’s touched, pulls its slimy body into its shell, and hunkers down.
Kinsey presses again. “Why won’t it go?”
Do I tell her it’s because she’s frightened the poor thing? No. Absolutely not. “It’s resting. Like you do in the afternoon.”
“Oh.” She pulls back and watches. Waiting.
Just then, David comes through the doorway. “Hey there, ladies.” He presses his lips against my forehead—as close as he dares to come to my lips these days—and bends down and scoops up Kinsey, who laughs and calls him Daddy, and holds tightly to his neck. “Ah, what’s that?” And before I can stop him, he plucks the snail off the window and tosses it into the shrubs. Kinsey’s eyes follow its path as the smile drops off her face. My heart sinks right along with it.
“Look! Look!” It’s Ainsley again, calling me back from the place I’d much rather be. “What acrobats!”
She’s right. The dolphins’ movements aren’t random, not at all. They’re planned. Designed. I wonder which among them is the choreographer. Probably not my cannonballer. I can just see her instructor, clearing its throat, tapping its wand against a fin, calling back to attention the frolicsome one. The pod prankster.
The sun has broken through the clouds, and now that the boat is still, the blazing star sheds a blanket of warmth on us. Well, the boat is still except for the raucous way it totters on the waves, as if Neptune himself is rocking our cradle. Sissy tugs off her sweatshirt.
“Sissy.” The concern in Ainsley’s voice draws my attention. She reaches a hand toward our stepmother. “What happened?”
Sissy looks to the spot on her underarm that’s garnered Ainsley’s attention, and mine and Jac’s, too, for that matter. “Oh, that?” It’s a bruise the size of a grapefruit, all purple and puffy.
“And that.” Ainsley points to the other arm, for there’s another one just like it in almost the same spot.
“I got it, them, um ...” She’s suddenly one of her students, explaining why her homework isn’t turned in. “I fell. Off my pole.”
Ainsley pulls back, the way she does when she’s surprised. “Your pole? What, what kind of pole?”
“The, um, dancing kind?”
It’s like we’re instantly freeze dried, Ainsley, Jaclyn and me. Spinner too, except for the eyebrow that hikes up his forehead and disappears beneath the bill of his cap. His eyes lose their squint, and he turns them on Sissy.
We’re in a vacuum. No sound, no boat, no dolphins, no sea. Just this crazy vision of Sissy. With a pole made for dancing. It’s a vision I can’t quite wrap my head around. And I wonder, Does Dad know? But the vacuum doesn’t last long. It shatters in the laughter that erupts from Jaclyn. It bubbles up from her toes, this tsunami of mirth, and explodes out of her mouth. “Dancing? You were pole dancing?”
Splotches of red appear on Sissy’s neck. Oddly, that’s where her embarrassment shows. “Well, not dancing dancing. It’s an exercise class.”
“You pole dance for exercise? Whatever happened to Curves? Or Pilates?”
frowns and does her best to appear once again like the teacher in charge. “It’s
quite a workout, really.”
“I bet. So how did you, you know”—Jac breaks into laughter again—“fall off your pole?”
“Oh, honestly, I don’t know. And I wasn’t even wearing high heels.”
Spinner’s other eyebrow joins the first one, deep beneath the bill of his soiled Marlins cap. Judging by how wide his eyes spring open, those brows would be up to his hairline if he had one. I can tell by the way his open mouth turns upward that he’s gained a new appreciation for Sissy that goes way beyond her burritos.
“That’s what some of them wear,” Sissy is saying. “That, and their hot pink sports bras and these booty shorts that don’t begin to cover their cheeks, if you know what I mean. They’re all skinny. And focused. I don’t even know why they’re there. The instructor, naturally, wears the highest heels, the tightest bra and the shortest shorts. And she has this rose tattoo on the small of her back that might look cute now, but when that thing begins to sag, she’ll have thorns in places ... well, you get the idea.”
“Oh, yeah,” Jac says. “Ouch. And what do you wear?”
“Yoga pants. Floor length. And my Betty Boop T-shirt.”
Sissy’s a big fan of Betty Boop.
“And Spike? Does he go?”
“Spike?” Spinner can’t seem to help himself.
“Now why on earth would I take Spike?”
Ainsley is laughing now, too, bent over at the waist, hands on knees, not able to suck in a breath. She just hacks out this laugh that takes me back to when we were kids. If, for example, she was about to get caught in tag, she’d just buckle and burst into laughter. So naturally, everyone always went for Ainsley in tag. Now, they just go for her, period. Ainsley, the joyful one. I never understood why she’d give in without a fight, but I loved it about her. Then, because it made life easy. Now, because it’s a tiny strand that anchors me to sanity.
“Okay. Enough said.” Sissy claps her hands in that attention-getting way she has. “Now that you’ve all had your fun, can we get back to feeding the dolphins?”
But they’re gone, without a hint they were ever there. Like so many other things in my life. I sit back, stuff my hands in my pockets. And touch my starfish.