I had just turned six the afternoon my father peeled off my water wings to show me I could swim. We were spending the last week of summer on Pawley's Island, and the August tide had built a gully four feet deep and almost twenty yards wide that was flanked by a sand bar on the ocean side and beds of crushed shells along the beach.
"Come on in, Adelaide," he said, motioning with his good arm as I stood at the edge of the gully, fingering the dime-sized mole in the center of my forehead. My jewel, Daddy had named it, and because of him I believed it was a precious stone that marked my distinction.
As I stepped ankle deep into the warm, salty water, I glanced back over the dunes to the front porch of the beach cottage where my paternal grandfolks, Papa Great and Mae Mae, were already sipping their gin and tonics while Mama spooned pea mush out of a little jar that Dizzy, my younger sister, refused to eat. And I imagined the pop and sizzle of Juliabelle frying up shrimp and hush puppies in the kitchen, though I knew she was watching me out of the corner of her eye.
"If you make the swim, I give you a piece from the secret stash, eh?" she had said. She horded bubble gum in a brown paper bag beneath her bed, and I hounded her for a piece whenever I got the chance.
Daddy was near the middle of the gully now, the murky green licking his washboard belly. He dove under for several seconds before turning over and floating on his back, his broad chest rising out of the water. He spit a fountain of green from his lips and said, "Sure feels good!"
I would have splashed right in after Daddy if I'd had a flotation device. A few days ago he had shown me how to paddle in my water wings over to the sand bar at low tide, and I had filled my bucket with bachelor buttons, hermits, and a horseshoe crab that was shuffling across the surface in its heavy armor. But yesterday Papa Great dared me to go on my own (no Daddy and no life jacket), and I had sunk beneath the dark, soupy depth at the center of the gully, swallowing what felt like half of the Atlantic Ocean until Daddy caught hold of my ponytail and yanked me to the surface.
Now I moved in to my knees and planned to take every second of the time he was giving me to get my courage up. There was a quick drop-off after the next bed of crushed shells, and I knew that in a few short steps the water would cover me whole.
"Don't push her too hard, Zane," Mama called from behind the screened porch. There was a murmur among them that I couldn't make out, but even at that tender age I could guess that Mae Mae was saying, "Let her try" while Papa Great concluded, "Fear's got her by the scruff."
Fact was, I wasn't afraid of what was in the ocean. Why, a man-of-war had wrapped its tentacles around my second cousin Randy's calf two mornings ago, leaving thin red burn marks, as if he had been caught in one of the wild boar traps Daddy set along the swamp. And even after Mama numbed Randy's leg with meat tenderizer and let me touch it, so I could feel the heat rising off of his seared skin, I still jumped right back in the gully that afternoon.
And just this morning, Papa Great had caught a sand shark longer than my leg on his fishing line, and I had touched its leathery belly with the tip of my big toe as he held it between his knees and pulled the hook out of its snout. But right after, I went back in with Daddy to venture to the sand bar and collect my treasures.
No, it wasn't fear of what was in the water. Seems to me I just didn't want that dark and covered feeling. Not knowing which way was up. Not knowing if Daddy would find me.
The water wings were swirling in the breeze along the beach now as I stood knee deep in the gully, and since I prided myself in keeping track of my belongings, I stepped out to chase after them. To pin them beneath Daddy's beach chair.
"Don't worry about those, gal!" he said as he stood back up in the water and shook his head so that his soaked hair looked like two fins above his ears. "Now, come on in."
The water was a gray-green broth, and when I stepped back in, I could feel the sand and shells stir up for a moment, but I couldn't see through the clouds to whatever was swirling around my legs now.
All of sudden, Daddy moved forward and pulled me out by my elbow with his only hand. He smelled like sweat and coconut suntan lotion, and I had to paddle quickly with my other arm beneath his fiery pink stump to stay afloat. The stump was wrinkled at its very tip from where a doctor had sliced his forearm off in an Army hospital in Than Khe, Vietnam. Sometimes I asked him what the hospital had done with his other arm, and he winked and said they fed it to the dogs before admitting that he didn't have the foggiest idea.
Now I was flailing my arms and gasping for air when we reached the gully depths and he said, "I'm going to let go, all right? I'll be here if you need me."
He released my arm, and I tried to touch bottom just to get my bearings. To get a nice shove up and out of the water. Some momentum. But as my foot searched for the sharp shells that lined the floor, I was already sunk, and when I breathed in the water, it stung my nose and throat.
"Easy now," Daddy said, lifting me above the surface for a moment so I could cough it out. Then, "Here we go again, gal." And he dropped me down and stepped back fast.
I tried whirling my arms and legs into a motion that would buoy me, but before you could say "boo!" I was covered in the black soup again and holding my breath.
Covered in darkness.
Water rushing into my nose.
He found my shoulder this time, pulled me up, and dragged me onto the shore where I coughed for dear life and rubbed my burning eyes. My heart was pounding like the wings of the hummingbirds that sipped from Mae Mae's feeder most afternoons. And the tiny bits of crushed shells were clinging to the back of my legs and gathering in the folds of my bathing suit.
"You're my little fish, Adelaide," Daddy said.
Papa Great had given him the month of August off so that he could vacation with us, and as long as I had his hand and a float, I'd go way out beyond the waves and let the current push us down the beach toward the pier.
"I know you can do it," he whispered now.
"Dinnertime!" Juliabelle called from the screened porch. I could see her long, thin neck craning to check on me. She never went near the ocean. Her younger brother had drowned in the surf when she was a girl, and she said it would do me good to know how to keep myself afloat. But I guessed even she was concluding that I couldn't do it. Not this year, anyway.
The porch door slapped once as Papa Great ambled out onto the boardwalk to holler down on us. "Maybe next summer, son," he called to Daddy as he caught a mosquito in his fist and examined the small heap of blood and wings in the center of his palm. "Y'all come on in for supper now."
The pink sun was sitting for a moment on top of the ocean as if it were a beach ball floating on the surface. A mullet jumped up from the gully, and Daddy squeezed my shoulder before exhaling, "Let's go in, sweetheart."
His first steps toward the boardwalk left a shower of wet sand along the small of my back, and a newfound fury started rising inside of me. When I spotted one of my water wings flying over the dunes toward a neighbor's cottage, the fury stoked itself into a hot fire in my throat as if I had just swallowed the popping grease from Juliabelle's iron skillet.
"No!" I said.
I wanted to cry and hit something, but I knew what I had to do, and when I ran back into the gully, I tripped over the shells and splashed clumsily to the deep center.
More salt water in my throat now. A burning in my nose. But still I twitched, thrashed my arms and legs with all of my might, and I managed to keep my head above water for a few seconds.
Twitch. Kick. Slap. Slap. Breathe.
Kick. Slap. Reach. Breathe.
Daddy turned back to see what the commotion was about, and then he called "Look!" to the porch, though everyone was already inside for dinner. Then he ran into the gully and stood feet in front of me as I made my way to his outstretched hand.
"That's a girl!" he said, as I paddled for him. "I knew you could do it!"
He stepped back a few times the closer I got to him, and when I had made my way past the boardwalk and the crab trap and Papa Great's fishing lines, he caught me, lifted me up onto his shoulder with his good hand beneath one arm and his stump beneath my other, and spun me around twice before plunging us backward into the murky water.
He was a former college football tailback for the University of South Carolina, and I loved his burly horsing around, so when his shoulder hit my lip in this celebratory pitch, I didn't mind the pain or the metal tang of blood on my tongue. And I laughed the sweet laugh of victory because I had proved us both right, and because I'd believed, like when my teacher had discovered I was seeing letters backwards, that I could force things back to where they belonged.
Mama handed us each a towel before we took our seats in front of two heaping plates of battered shrimp topped with a triangle of corn bread.
"Like to have fooled me," Papa Great said as he sucked the shrimp out of their tails and slurped his toddy.
He motioned to Mama's swelling belly and said, "Let's hope this third one's a boy. Then you'll see determination, son."
Papa Great. Ugh. He put the "pig" in "male chauvinist pig"; he even looked like a hog with his upturned nose rooting out the weakness in everyone.
"She's been swimming all summer long," Mae Mae said as she searched the table for the cocktail sauce.
If he was a hog, then she was a peacock, tall and here for no reason at all except to be beautiful. She had a way of looking down her beak at him, and I liked that about her.
"Somethin' for sweet in your mouth," murmured Juliabelle under her breath as she put a Bazooka square beside my plate and patted my back.
Then Daddy, the greatest cheerleader anyone could hope for, said, "Adelaide's got determination, Papa. You watch what I tell you."
That night, beneath the sheets of the roll-away bed that sat flush against a window opened to the porch, I watched Juliabelle smoke her pipe at the edge of the boardwalk, with a shotgun propped against the wooden rail. Spooked by the snakes and the remote possibility of a gator skulking out of the marsh and across the gravelly road, she had taken one of Daddy's old field guns and learned how to shoot it. And we all understood that no one and nothing should disrupt the pleasure of her evening smoke.
She was lanky, but strong, and I loved her as much as my mama, who was going to be even farther from me now, with the birth of a third child. I'd stolen a picture from Mae Mae's photo album of Juliabelle holding me as an infant and hid it in the lining of my suitcase. How I looked forward to curling up in her bony arms on the hammock in the early mornings and smelling her sweet tobacco smell as she rocked me on the porch and hummed "Eye on the Sparrow" before anyone else was awake. Her skin was loose and darker than the coal funneled into the furnace at the Williamstown steel mill, but her palms were a chalky pink like the tip of Daddy's stump or a square of Bazooka bubble gum, and she would cup them around my cheeks in those first minutes of daylight and say, "Good morning, my Adelaide."
I didn't want the summer to end. The guidance counselor had labeled me "learning disabled" because of the dyslexia, and I'd have to share a classroom with Averill Skaggs, the ring leader of a mean generation of mill village lowlifes for the first years of elementary school. He'd throw spitballs on me and trip me and asked me if a bird had crapped on my forehead. My jewel.
De-ter-min-a-tion. I had no idea what it meant then, but over the next twelve years I came to understand that it was something I must cultivate if I had any hope of getting out of Williamstown County and the open-air asylum that we called home. I had found it that day in the gully, and I would bridle it and use it to turn the letters straight, to help Mama raise up my younger sisters, and to body surf in the storm tide as the hurricanes gnawed along our South Carolina coast.
On the porch I could hear Daddy singing, "Like a rhinestone cowboy . . ." as Mae Mae shuffled the cards and dealt out another hand of Seven-Card Stud. He was humming the refrain to the rhythm of clinking poker chips, and I focused on his voice and the hammock creaking where its chain met the wall, until my eyelids were weighted and the dull roar of the ocean nearly lulled me to sleep.
I played possum a few minutes later when Daddy popped his head through the porch window to kiss me good night.
"You're my gal," he whispered as I pretended to sleep. He still smelled like coconut suntan lotion, but it was mixed with beer now, and the stubble from his chin tickled my cheek and nearly gave me away.
"You can do anything you set your mind to," he added before Papa Great called him back to the game. As he ducked out onto the porch, I turned back toward him, caught my swollen lip between my teeth, and grinned.