The Geography of Changing Course
Driving to work one day in 2009, I heard Kalas’ voice on the radio.
I heard people talking about his voice.
It was a radio tribute.
Kalas had collapsed due to heart failure, before the Phillies vs. Nationals game, in the broadcasters’ box. He was rushed to the hospital, and he died.
It took just two words, two of Kalas’ words, to throw me back to June of 1980 at the Jersey shore—to the summer my sister and I would stay with our grandmother for the entire three months without our parents.
The summer of great wins and great losses.
The summer of men–
the sort a girl can look up to,
the sort a girl should never be alone with,
and the kind that really lets a girl down.
You just have to know how it feels to have spent every summer of your girlhood under the spell of Harry Kalas’ “Outta here!” How with everything else going on, that man’s voice always did, and always will, fill you with more goodness than watermelon in July.
Every morning, Lacey and I walked through Grandmom’s woods, eating tomatoes for breakfast like they were apples, to Uncle Max’s marina, where he gave us small jobs. Mine were polishing boat rails in the showroom and straightening displays in the shop.
The marina was through the woods, across Route 9, just next to the bridge that spanned the bay and led to the barrier island my sister and I knew like we knew each other. That morning, we stopped where the trees ended and the sandy dirt turned to pure sand. Lacey pinched her nose at the egginess of the marshes. I squinted at the horizon. White sails were being hoisted and trimmed. Beneteaus, Trintellas, and Hinkleys merged with a wind that curved tight to the globe. The previous summer, Uncle Max had asked one of his employees, a boy named Roger Curtin, to help me find my sea legs. But I’d vomited crossing bay to sea, every single time, just like every other year, and all I learned were the names of types of boats.
Lacey and I turned our backs to the shoreline and my windbreaker fluttered and rippled against me.
“See those trees?” I said.
“I see lots of trees,” Lacey said. Our grandmother lived on ninety acres.
“The three that make a triangle,” I said.
Three ancient oaks stood on the edge of a cluster of pines. We ran to them for respite from the unusually brisk wind, to gather ourselves for the unsheltered mile-long walk to the marina.
“Put your arms around this one,” I said.
My sister hugged half the tree and I joined my right hand to her left, but could not reach her around the other side. “You know what these trees mean?” I asked.
“They mean birds have nests and deer have shade,” Lacey said. Her cheek was pressed into the bark, I could tell, because her voice sounded muffled like it did at night from her pillow.
“You don’t know what these trees mean,” I said. “But I do.”
Lacey let go and ran back to the outer edge of the woods, to where the wind hit her body. She shouted, “They mean ticks can see your frizzy red head coming from miles away and woodpeckers can peck all day until their peckers fall off. Get it?” She put her hand on her crotch and stuck her index finger out, wiggling it.
She wasn’t wearing a windbreaker, only a tank top. Her breasts were jiggling as she laughed and I could tell she was cold. “You better ask Grandmom to buy you a fortress bra, Floppy!” I said, running past her.
She chased after me, saying, “I’m going to peck you! I’m going to peck you!” until we had to stop, at the base of the bridge. A line of out-of-state cars with beach chairs, beach umbrellas, beach balls, and surfboards strapped to their rooftops, crawled along the road. “Watch this,” Lacey said, sticking out her false pecker. “I’m peeing on their parade.”
Uncle Max was leading two couples around the slips, so Lacey and I found Roger. Lacey found Roger; I just tagged along. He was doing inventory. The marina shop was divided into two enormous rooms: the showroom, which was clean and bright and shiny, thanks in part to me; and the retail room, which was a beautiful wreck. Skinny Roger stood facing a wall covered with nautical art. Muscular men on small boats plunged harpoons into whales, and sea captains in black hats stood tall under blinding rains, holding telescopes toward distant shores.
“Paintings like these should be up front,” I said.
“You want to move them to the showroom?” Roger said. “It’s all windows, there’s no place for hooks.”
“Teeny couldn’t even lift one of these paintings,” Lacey said.
Teeny was short for Justine. It had nothing to do with my stature. I was tall and thin, or as Lacey put it, “built like a stick of spaghetti.”
It was hard to tell how heavy those paintings would be. I’d stared at most of them so many times, they’d become weightless visions of the life I was destined to live once I conquered seasickness.
“They’re in this room for a reason,” Roger said.
“Because they’re creepy and dark,” Lacey said. “The opposite of summer.”
“You’re right,” Roger said. “These paintings hardly ever sell.”
Most of high seas history was not “summer,” I wanted to tell my sister, and stop always telling Lacey she’s right, Roger. But I just followed them to the nautical barroom aisle.
Here, Uncle Max sold magnets and ice buckets, shot glasses and tumblers, serving trays and napkins. Everything bore an anchor or a coiled line or a sea gull atop a piling. There were posters of sailing knots and enamel signs you could hang over your boat’s toilet—head—or over the stove—galley. Bumper stickers read, “My Other Car is a Sea Queen.” There were blue and green glass floaters and shells in baskets and ships in bottles. Yachtsmen’s wives spent a lot of time in this room. But as much as my sister thought she was going to be one of those wives, this was not her favorite place in the marina.
Lacey liked what I called the S.O.S. section: life jackets, fire extinguishers, bumpers, wetsuits, dry suits and bathing suits. I was counting fiberglass patches when Lacey told Roger she would model bathing suits for him. “It counts as doing inventory,” she said, smiling in the most disgusting way I could think of.
“I’m getting a juice,” I said. Usually I would offer Roger one. He always called me his little barmaid, and I’d ask if he wanted his OJ shaken or stirred. But I didn’t care this time if he gagged and dropped dead all bug-eyed over Lacey.
“She thinks she’s a Solid Gold dancer,” I mumbled, walking to the break room.
Just before summer break, Dad had caught us watching Solid Gold. He declared it off limits, calling it “garbage television.”
“They move like cats,” Lacey said. “Look at their haunches.”
Our father stood there watching garbage television with us for a few minutes.
The dancers looked into the camera as if we were bowls of milk and they wanted to lap us up.
He turned the set off. “Grandmom’s will do you both some good.”
For the first five days, he was mostly right.
The back corner of the retail room at the marina was full of weights and dials, astronomical rings, sextants, anchors, and depth finders. With a box of juice in my hand around this equipment, I could get in as much trouble as Lacey in a bikini, doing god knows what for Roger, with her haunches. I sucked the juice up through the straw, burped as loud as I could like a sailor, and then crumpled the box and put it in my pocket. I grasped a large antique compass and willed the dials to move by the sheer power of my mind. I closed my eyes and opened them, hoping to look down and see magnetic north turned south, or to see that my body had grown curves. When nothing happened, I moved to a ship’s wheel, grabbing the knobs and turning the wheel gently. I closed my eyes again, and was soon caught in dark rough seas. A thin stretch of shoreline glowed and I triangulated the secret signs between sky and earth to pinpoint the pits of buried treasure. I set course. “What is Zanzibar?” I whispered, mimicking my father watching Jeopardy.
“Where’s your other half?” a voice said. The sea fell and my stomach dropped. Uncle Max. I wasn’t officially on the time clock like my sister was, but I felt compelled to yank the sleeve of my sweatshirt out from beneath my windbreaker and buff the brass hub of the wheel.
“Nobody’s half of me,” I said. “Lacey doesn’t even want to be here this summer.”
“Your sister wouldn’t show grace right now if she were invited to high tea with the Queen Mother,” my uncle said.
It was weird he would say that, because just that spring my sister had compiled a list of the world’s most eligible bachelors and had declared herself the future “Princess Lace” to Prince Charles of Wales. “That guy looks older than Dad,” I had said, but that didn’t stop Lacey from forcing me to recite the vows she was writing in anticipation of her royal wedding. I played the part of the Prince, saying things like “until death do us part, through sickness and in health,” and an original line Lacey was particularly proud of: “I walk forever alongside You, my eternally everlasting most generously gifted confidante.” My sister had said these words back to me with such sincerity that I believed we would always be close.
Everlasting confidantes or not, suddenly I didn’t want my sister to get in trouble. It seemed we were already being punished for something that had made Mom and Dad mad enough to say, “See you girls at the end of August.”
“I studied geometry from Lacey’s math book all last year,” I said, trying to hold my uncle’s attention. But sure enough, there Lacey was in the middle of the room with her hands on her hips like a Price is Right girl showing everyone what they might win, wearing a navy blue bikini with white embroidered anchors all over it—and a little white canvas belt stretched taut below her bellybutton.
When we were smaller, hide-and-seek was our favorite game to play at the marina. I would shimmy into a stack of life rings and Lacey always chose the center of the circular clothing racks. She thought she could hide there now.
Uncle Max turned a shade redder than windburn. “This is what you do on my clock?” he said to Roger. “You’ll stay late this evening, counting key chains.”
There had to be five hundred key chains: Aruba, Bora Bora… Zanzibar.
Then just like that, he said, “I think it’s best you girls stay away from the shop this summer.”
I tugged at my uncle’s arm. “But I didn’t do anything!”
Lacey popped up out of the center of the men’s swim trunks rack like a girl out of a man’s fake birthday cake.
“She can’t do anything,” she said. “And you can’t fire me, Uncle Max. Mom said I need this job!”
“Far as I can see, you’re bringing an entirely wrong set of job skills to my shop.”
“I need the money,” Lacey said. “Dad’s leaving us and we’re all going straight to the poor house. That’s what Mom said!”
We all stood still holding our breath, except for Roger, who looked at me, and then started shaking his head at Lacey.
“Your mother’s got an exaggerated sense of abandonment,” is what my uncle finally said. “The three of you will be fine.”
“Three?” I said.
Lacey emerged from the rack of men’s swim trunks and walked up to where I stood, now firmly grasping my uncle’s shirtsleeve. “I scrubbed boats ten hours this week,” she said. Then she held one palm out in front of her and stuck the other right back onto that smooth round hip of hers.
“I’ll pay you what you earned,” Uncle Max said, reaching into his pocket and filing through a wad of cash. “And we won’t say anything to your mother. Now put your clothes back on and take your sister back to your grandmother’s. The popcorn place on the boardwalk is still looking for workers. Go and get yourself nice and plump there this summer.”
That was it for Lacey. “I’ll wear this bathing suit out,” she said, a hiss of spittle flying at my uncle. “Keep the lousy change.”
The bells on the glass front doors clanged like crazy behind her, then she popped her head back in and shouted to Roger, “Size 8. OP! Anchors Away. Note it.”
Roger scribbled the sale down on his inventory list and Uncle Max put his hand on my shoulder, steering me away from the S.O.S. section.
“No sense in crying, kid,” he said. “I’ve got something else for you this summer.”
“I can do Lacey’s job, I said, wiping my tears with my sweatshirt. “Plus, I’ll do windows.” I knew doing windows was a big deal because whenever that Windex commercial came on TV, Mom said, “‘I don’t do windows.’ You tell ‘em, sister.”
“I’m sure you’d work much harder than Mr. Hefner and his furious Bunny,” my uncle said. “But go on. Catch up to your sister.”
The trees in Grandmom’s woods were so tall, usually only the tips of them swayed, but that day every leaf seemed agitated. This was the last hold out, the largest tract of undeveloped land in this part of Southern New Jersey. My sister looked weird there, wearing a bathing suit. She was a creature the Jersey Devil would devour, not only because she was so exposed, but because she had exposed a truth—a truth reserved for the end of summer.
Brambles scratched at her bare calves.
“You didn’t let out the alert,” she said when I caught up to her.
Lacey stopped and turned to me. Her chest went bright red. This was the color she always turned before slapping me. But her arms hung like boat bumpers at her sides and her voice came out softly. “Don’t play little Miss Innocent,” she said. “You spoiled your summer too. Now you can’t play your stupid pirate games. You can’t pretend Uncle Max’s cowrie necklaces and bags of weathered old sea glass are treasures. You’re going to have to collect deer pellets off this forest floor and call them diamonds. The retarded deer-poop-trading pirate, Teeny Lincoln. No,” she continued, “in fact, Lincoln won’t even be our last name by September because Mom’s a feminist and that’s what she told me!”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “I know where real treasure is.”
She turned and started walking towards Grandmom’s house.
“I’ll have gold,” I said. “And me and Mom will use it!”
A swirl of dirt and leaves spun behind my sister.
“That bathing suit is the last pretty thing you’ll ever be able to afford!” I shouted. “And you are going to get too fat to wear it!”
I picked up a large stick and snapped it in half across my thigh. I went to the three oaks. In the center, I began to dig.
“Woodpeckers don’t live in these woods all year, Dummy,” I said to nobody.
A whippoorwill sang, “That’s right. That’s right.”
Being right about birds and the names of boats, things that could take to air or to sea, was fine. Land was for secrets I couldn’t get to—yet. Everything was a booby trap. If I asked my sister what was going on, she’d use my not knowing against me. If I called and asked my mother, it would make things worse, because then all she would do was worry, and we needed her to be stronger, not weaker. Of course I didn’t know the degree of selfless my mother would prove herself to be over the year that followed that summer. Mom never let us in on her pain. For a long time, I guessed that was feminism. When I was sitting there digging at the three oaks though, I couldn’t even remember my grandmother’s last name, so if it was true that Dad was leaving and Mom was mad enough to change our names, I wondered who Lacey and I would become.
When I got back to Grandmom’s with a pocketful of rocks and a broken piece of plate, Lacey was upstairs in our room. I could hear the music. Recently, she had started to play albums for me—backwards. “Hear the Devil?” she would say. “He wants us.” She would spin those records faster and faster until I didn’t know if it was just the needle scratching vinyl, or if there really was a messenger urging us to the dark side.
Grandmom was in her recliner with the radio on. The Phillies were playing the Giants at Veteran’s Stadium to a crowd of 30,000 plus. Harry Kalas was stretching vowels over a long ball to centerfield and tightening his throat on an inside pitch.
Kalas announced, the players played—Schmidt, Boone, Bowa, Rose, and Maddox. Bob Walk was pitching, and though I preferred Steve Carlton on the mound, I liked hearing “Walk walks Herndon” or “Walk is walked.”
My grandmother sat in her chair filling in crossword puzzles. She did not cheer or make commentary. Neither did I. She tuned my sister’s music out. So did I. I grabbed my sketchpad and box of colored pencils and lay on the Oriental rug, tracing maps of coastlines.
I drew the artifact I had found—a piece of what had been a blue and white plate—adding one more layer to the treasure pit I imagined existing far beneath the sticks and rocks of my grandmother’s woods, deeper than the old tangled roots of the oak trees themselves. I drew a trap door and false floors and a series of booby-trapped canals that would run from right under Uncle Max’s docks to the pit. I would have to review those tide charts if I wanted to get the gold.
Kalas’ voice was gold—liquid gold. I’d been in the woods when the Giants scored three runs in the first inning, and now it was the bottom of the second, Phils up. Kalas introduced our first batter: “Luzinski at bat with zero on and zero out, and it’s going long. It’s outta here!”
Luzinski had slammed the ball, but it was Kalas who put the Phils’ first home run of the game in my mind’s eye. My grandmother owned a TV, but she rarely turned it on, and never for the games. She listened to that big radio, and with her, I developed an appreciation for the purity of Kalas’ narrative, and for the rhythm of innings.
The score remained 3-1 Giants through the third and fourth innings. Larry Bowa turned a double play in each inning, but as retribution, Manny Trillo was caught out stealing second in the third, Lonnie Smith was struck out looking, and in the fourth, Bob Boone was “a swing and a miss.” The Giants looked strong, but Walk started the top of the fifth striking out their first two batters.
I put my sketches away and dug through Grandmom’s pile of Smithsonian magazines, looking for a cover photo that caught my eye.
Bowa was up first in the bottom of the fifth. He hit a single, Trillo hit a fly ball caught by the Giants’ leftfielder, and Walk got hit by a pitch and walked, advancing Bowa to second base. Lonnie Smith came up, walked, and loaded the bases. And then Pete Rose came to bat. I closed the Smithsonian in my lap. On the cover, a rain forest biologist hung high in the trees from a zipline, holding a butterfly net like he was ready to catch whatever Rose sent him.
Rose hit a sacrifice fly to centerfield and Bowa scored, making it 3-2 Giants. It would be Garry Maddox’s homer in the sixth inning, with Luzinski on and one out, that would bring about the final score: Phils 4, Giants 3.
After the game ended, my grandmother got out of her chair and headed for the kitchen. I followed. She prepared us each a bowl of Breyer’s vanilla ice cream.
“You should have come home with your sister,” she said.
“She walks too fast,” I said.
“She does everything too fast,” Grandom said. “So, Uncle Max is taking you for softball summer league tryouts this weekend.”
“But I’m on vacation.”
“Making new friends is part of vacation.”
“But it’ll be all local girls.”
“No it won’t. Besides, you’re blood here. I raised your mother and uncle in this house.”
My grandmother moved back out into the living room, to her recliner. I sat on the side table next to her and pressed and stirred my ice cream with my spoon, making soft serve.
“What about Lacey?”
“I’m putting her to work in my garden.”
“You don’t have a garden,” I said.
“But Grandmom, I only know how to play tennis.”
“Hand-eye,” she said. “Same thing. Your uncle is coming over this evening with some equipment. He almost went pro, you know.”
“Uncle Max was almost a Phillie?”
“He played in the minors. Before the mermaids lured him away.”
“I thought he never had a wife,” I said.
“He never did. He can only love legends.”
“Like his pirate stories?”
“Bring me that shard you found.”