By Madeline Gressman
Nahant’s algae was rotting. The entire town reeked of sea decay, with countless fish and one seal washing ashore, dead. There wasn’t an escape from the odor; it seeped through our walls and weaved in with our clothes. Fans blasted at all hours, swirling the air in circles in a hope to dissipate the unholy smell.
Today we were leaving the house for the first time since the algae bloomed. My mother, determined in her love of coffee and breakfast, had run out of eggs and grounds. She shook me awake in silence, frowning deeply. Sitting up, she tossed a scarf onto the bed and said “we’re going to Tiff’s.”
I hadn’t gone to school for a week; teachers weren’t willing to leave their homes and the very thought of boarding a school bus drove the drivers to lock themselves in, too. But my mother had become stir crazy within a few days. I’d find her at various windows, staring at the ocean with one hand pressed on the glass. She sighed as the black gurgling mass of toxic algae drew nearer to the shore. I could see it from the sliding back door, wiggling like a shadow creature.
My mother was a woman of breezes, thriving on deep breaths of salt. She wore nothing but floor-length dresses, their patterns always including flowers or paisley. When the wind picked up, she looked like the statue of liberty, with her train billowing behind her. She refused to leave the spindling shores of this Massachusetts island since she had first discovered it in the ‘70s.
“Here,” my mother said, spritzing two pumps of her perfume onto the scarf. “Get up, hurry, before the sun gets too high.”
I kicked off my comforter and changed into the dress she’d laid out for me as she bustled about the kitchen, filling her purse with necessities. She had lost her wallet and was cursing, but abruptly stopped when I appeared, holding the scarf limply.
“Sweetie,” she smiled, gesturing to my dress in approval. She liked to dress me like Stevie Nicks and tell me to never turn seventeen. “Come here,” she cooed and knelt down to my height. My mother was always gentle, her hands cracking at their seams from the dry air she surrounded herself with. She hated lotion and grease.
The scarf was overwhelming in its rose perfume, but my mother piled it around the bottom of my face, first the nose, then around and around and around until it settled softly on my collar bones. She winked, then did the same with hers. Armed, she confidently took her first steps out of the house in eight days. Floral curls decorated our mouths.
I had never seen the Nahant streets this empty on a Saturday morning. Usually, Mr. Patterson’s terrier was yapping, but even he preferred the indoors to this smell of death. My mother let me trail behind her without holding her hand as we strolled down the center of the street. She looked untouchable in the sun, her slippered feet crisscrossing the double yellow lines. I tucked my chin deeper into the scarf and faced the ocean; the blooming shadows were bigger out here.
We passed Tides on the way, its ocean-view porch empty for the first time. My mother used to snort at heavy-set women in white sipping champagne under their umbrella tables, a safe distance from the soiling sand. She and I used to roll around, drenched, near their pretty caviar dinners, and shriek at the tiny crabs that scrabbled beneath us.
Tiff’’s was only a block away, blooming steam coming from the metal chimney on its slanted roof. I was surprised it was open, but as my mother held open the glass door for me, I realized she must’ve called Tiffany herself and twisted her arm.
“Anywhere you want, dear,” she sang and disappeared into the back, where Tiffany was undoubtedly brewing the coffee she so desperately needed. I thought of coffee as my mother’s greatest weakness, a crack in the perfection I did not understand until I myself grew to coffee-drinking age.
I chose the spinning blue stools, because they were shiny and my mother hated them because her feet dangled. I lowered my scarf for a moment, feeling safe and taking in the silence. But the algae had overtaken here, too. I heard Tiffany laughing and my mother came beaming through the swinging door with two plates of pancakes. Tiffany followed with the full pot of coffee and the yellow mug I had made in a pottery class at the recreational center. She kept it in back for whenever my mother came to stay, calling her “Miss Caroline” and giving her extra sausage patties.
The three of us laughed over pancakes, my mother creating a tiny slip between the layers of scarf for her mouth. Her lips were small, the top one thin, and she was self-conscious enough to never leave home without gloss. That day, she and Tiffany were wearing the same gloss as they looked out at the bloom and leaned in.
Madeline Gressman is a fiction and copy writer who can almost always be found writing itty bitty stories, trying free samples, and obsessing over crime shows.