By Elizabeth Cutright
(Excerpted from “East Junction” – a novel in progress)
She often let her mind drift to her first decade of life, before the dust bowl and the war. A time when everything felt new and bright and safe. Just like a day at the beach in Santa Cruz. Before the Great Depression forced them from the Coast to the guaranteed work of the railroad, Bernice Pale and her family spent June, July and August sunning themselves next to the city’s famous boardwalk. Most of the time, the family landed on the sand in the morning and stayed there all day. Towels unfurled like the multi-colored flags of some exotic invading army. Straw hats and parasols their only weapons against the sun. Ice boxes slick with condensation glowed under the bright white light of summer. Mothers observed their brood through opaque sunglasses, their lenses reflecting the antics along the shoreline.
And the food! Lunch by the sea tasted like heaven, even when it consisted mainly of warm fruit and cold cut sandwiches garnished by small grains of sand. Bernice loved sitting on the soft terrycloth island created by her mother. Salt sticking in white patches on her skin, her nose stinging with a new summer burn that would pop up red that evening and fade to freckles by morning. Eyes bloodshot and itching from attempts to see underwater. In another context, these minor irritations could be considered hardships, but here on the beach they were tolerated and enjoyed.
And that is what Bernice misses most: the context.
She knew they were whispering about her around town. Knew they suspected her mind was going. At first, she convinced herself that the memory lapses were a conscious choice; a way to keep herself young. But now she is not so sure. Everyone around her looked familiar, and yet their names kept changing. The inflection in their voice was just a little bit different. Odd words thrown out with reckless abandon became indecipherable; the meaning seemed all wrong. How could a song be cool? How could a skirt be awesome? Those words meant something altogether different to her.
As a grade school teacher, Bernice depended on the straightforward definition of words. Now it seemed as if everyone around her spent most of their time sabotaging the English language. She didn’t understand the impulse and knew it made her appear dull and absentminded much of the time. But she never felt that way when she commanded the dispatch radio on Sunday and Monday nights. During the hours she recorded the movements of the town’s police force, directing cars and delivering messages, Bernice felt she could once again depend on the clear cut meaning of everything.