Palo Alto Weekly 31st Annual Short Story Contest
Second Place Adult

Small Change

By Margaret Young

About Margaret Young

Margaret Young was born in Berkeley and grew up in El Cerrito. She came to Palo Alto to attend grad school at Stanford and has been here ever since. After working as a journalist, she switched gears and ran a children's music program for several years. She's now focusing on writing again. She lives in Palo Alto with her husband and daughter. Her story "Ashes" won third place in the Palo Alto Short Story Contest in 2015.

 

Inspiration:
A long time ago, I spent a Spring vacation in Aruba. I'd never been to the Caribbean and was looking forward to a tropical paradise. Aruba was tropical and it did have beautiful beaches, but it was also a bit strange and desolate. And the wind never did stop blowing. I suppose "Small Change" is sort of a postcard run amuck.

 

Judge's comments

Touching, sad, and incisive, this story about a mother and daughter on a "girls' getaway" to a tropical island does a fine job of marrying the emotion of the tale to its events, objects, and characters. Though tinged with disappointment and loss, the story rewards the reader with its ability to feel into the complex nature of the two women's lives with an intense and rich acuity.
-- Mike Nagler

The trade winds never stop blowing here. The imported palms that fringe the shore bend leeward, though the native cactus remain upright, scarred, though I cannot imagine by what beast. I've seen only a few small goats, some donkeys and lizards with aqua spots that crawl about the coral. Bleached remains of shellfish litter the powdery white beaches. The island is too low to catch rain clouds and has no lakes, streams or other natural sources of fresh water. Nothing is native to this island, but the rocks, cacti and, perhaps, the lizards. Pelicans rests on the reef, but they do not belong here. We do not belong here.

- - -

What hotel are we staying at? It doesn't matter. There are five of them; all white, all miles from the one town, all sitting on the world-famous fine-grained beach. Our room overlooks the water. This saves us the bother of leaving it and getting sand on ourselves. We sit on the deck chairs, slapping the occasional mosquito, reading old Agatha Christie mysteries.

I ask if we should go to the other islands.

"We'll see," my mother says. "The ocean's a different color now."

I lean over the railing and squint obediently. "Kind of a dark blue. Almost ..."

"-- was aqua," my mother says, who's been speaking at the same time. "Now it's slate blue."

"Dad says the water of Tahiti is extraordinarily clear," I say. My father couldn't come on this trip because he didn't want to. I didn't ask him about it.

"The water's clear here," my mother says. She checks her phones for messages that aren't there. Our conversations are unimportant. The wind makes it difficult to talk, our words dissolve into it and our meanings are, at best, elliptical.

- - -

The second morning, I make a list of things to do:
1. Go around the island
2. Go to another island
3. Walk around the town
4. Horseback ride
5. Learn to windsurf
6. Send postcards
7. ?

- - -

The air-conditioning breaks down. Even with fans, I toss for hours, flipping my pillow when it gets too hot. I wait for the lightening of the sky and only then can I resign myself to rest. I think of college, graduation and wonder whether I should move into the city with friends or go home. I wonder whether I'll have a choice.

I sleep furtively for several hours, waking late in the day. We go into the island's one town. The shops sell pearls, rum and imported crockery. The postcards show bright blue skies, the beach and hotel swimming pools. I find one of a cactus in an overly red sunset and buy it. I never send it. I study the tourist maps.

"I still want to go around the island," I say.

"I'm not sure the road's paved all the way around," my mother says. "The rental car agreement..."

"I'm sure it is," I answer, though I do not know. We return to the hotel and get ready for dinner. We make sure never to eat in the same restaurant twice, but they are always the same -- cold and windowless. Men wear dinner jackets; the women are in bright colors and do not suffer from melting makeup. This restaurant is next to the casino, which is never full and never empty, even at breakfast. I shiver and put on my jacket.

"I'm glad it's air-conditioned here," Mother says.

"Only the wind makes the island bearable," I answer. The first day, I'd found myself on a street with no wind. The still, silent heat had been quickly merciless. I knew I had to leave, but the will to act was killed by the heat. To even close my hand would meld palm and fingers together. There was only the heat, until my mother had gently pushed me forward into the breeze.

At the restaurant, I feel parched. There is only canned milk for my coffee.

It is almost four the next day when I convince Mother to put down "The Secret Adversary" and try to go around the island. We pass by the town and the airport before turning and crossing to the windward side. There, we stop on a rocky beach. The water's rougher here, cresting in six rows of waves, ranging from a pale iridescent green to a dull, turgid gray. Near the edge, I see a child's shoe. I pick it up -- small, scratched white patent leather.

"Look at all this junk," Mother says. "They must use this side as a garbage dump."

We drive further on. There are no houses -- nothing but garbage, waves and beach. The road is dirt, sometimes rock, sometimes reef. Far ahead, I can make out a place where the ocean hurls and sprays itself against the rock, but we cannot get to it. Abruptly, the sun has set.

"We need to turn back," Mother says.

"No, let's go further," I push. "I'm sure we can get around, somehow."

"No," she answers. "I'm worried about getting back. There's nothing different than what we've already seen."

I watch the ocean hit the rocks. I want to see it up close. I want to know this island, to see all of it, to have done something and not wonder what I've missed.

"Can't we go on?" I ask. "I'm sure it's not much further."

"I said 'No.'" my mother says. "Don't be stupid." She shakes her head. "I'm just tired. It's too hot to sleep."

I walk back to the car. She's right. What could it possibly mean if I saw where the ocean hits those rocks? Nothing. It would only be more of what I'd already seen, none of which has made a difference. I am tired; my hair feels stiff and dry from the wind. Will I sleep tonight? Will either of us? We find the road and turn away from the rising moon.

I wear a pale green gauze dress. It is supposed to be cool, but it clings and feels heavy. We are to eat at another hotel. I try to brush through my wind-twisted hair and make up my face, ordering myself into some sort of coherency. Mother's outfit is more stern -- tailored pants, even a jacket. We are the same height. We stand tall, in closed rank, as we wait to be seated. We are too shy to practice bonhomie without my father. We nod only slightly as the waiter seats us. Somehow a mosquito has gotten into the dining room. I wince as it buzzes near me.

"Why are you so sour?" Mother asks, her tone sharp.

"It's nothing, just a mosquito" I answer. "It's gone now."

"Then stop looking like you're sulking," she says. "We're on a girl's getaway. Maybe we can go to the spa tomorrow." She smiles obligatorily and waits a moment. "So, how's the job hunt going? That PR internship sounded like a good fit. Have you heard from them?"

"I won't find out until I get back to school," I answer. I watch the patterns the condensation makes on the edge of my salad plate as Mother tells me to write to the company, thanking them for their time and of my deep interest in the field of public relations.

"That's how you get ahead," she says. "There are rules and you figure out which ones need to be followed. How the game is played." She looks away from me, not awaiting my agreement. We've said the required things. The main course is served. As usual, it is too heavy, too serious for the climate. I wonder if I can eat it. I place my fingers around the bowl of my water glass, but I do not lift it, I just hold on.

How cold my fingers are, numbing everything. Right before my 18th birthday, I'd had a tropical drink topped off with a swizzle stick in the shape of little round man in a hula skirt. Unused to much alcohol, I'd become tipsy. I'd broken off the swizzle stick's stem and told the waiter that I was drowning the little man as I turned him face downward in my pina colada. I'd kept the little man. I wondered where he was now.

I tell Mother the story. She laughs, but says nothing. I excuse myself and go to the restroom. I find a lounge there and I regard myself in the mirror, smooth down my hair, sit on a stool, lean over and let myself collapse until my back feels the strain. When I return, our plates have been collected, Mother's still there, phone on the table -- she's looking toward me, but doesn't seem to recognize me for a moment. And, for a moment, I see her as a stranger would. She's older, smaller.

"I'm done," Mother says as I sit back down. "I'm sick of the tropics."

She shoves the phone at me. I see the message from the lawyer. My father has filed. Yes, of course.

The water is treacherous at night; darkness-made material. In the distance, the crest of a long, flat wave gleams a dim fluorescent green. I do not know how long I've been standing by this tree near the water's edge. Foam folds about my feet; pebbles and sand grains whip my ankles in the undertow. The sand falls away with each beat of the ocean. All is being drawn seaward.

Where can I go? What can I do? It all seems to be nothing. This must be a sort of despair, but I do not feel anything. There is only the ocean pulling at me, asking me to be flotsam: drifting, bloated, then a sunken pile of bones . . . gone, gone, gone. Goodbye little man.

Enough, it is only my mind brewing its own drama. I have always been able to dream of the end. Only at the edge of the ocean, in this moment out of time, does it seem more than playacting. I tell myself to go back in, to lead an orderly life and put the fallen pieces back in place. I feel absurd clinging to a palm tree.

So I walk, but away from my mother's loss, away from my own. To the next hotel. There is always another hotel.

- - -

My Amex card is pale turquoise -- plain, courtesy of Daddy. The counter is high; I have to stretch up to sign the receipt. The cashier glances at my passport (dark blue), the Amex card and the receipt. They gamble in dollars here. One thousand dollars in fives, tens, twenties, fifties. The bills stack neatly. They are very new.

Green baize, a short dealer with a stern face in a dress suit. Blue-backed cards, there are six of us playing blackjack. The man next to me has a full, red face, his heavy body encased in a gray suit. American? Argentinean? I cannot tell. There is one other woman -- heavily made-up in a red dress. Thin and sinewy, she wears a simulacrum of her past beauty. She, too, looks stern. The room is quiet. The soft shuffling of the cards, the clink of the bidding; where are the voices? The cards make patterns. I mentally straighten the ones askew as I push forward my chips. Listening for someone to say something, to stop me. No one does.

It could be the gesture of a dancer's -- this movement of the hand as it bids too much. I can see the red-faced man watching me. Almost the end. Each moment and movement is crystalline; the touching of the hair, the brushing of cards, the piling of chips, a sip of sherry. A pattern, a story, all parts of what happened one night.

I'm out.

It is peaceful in the lobby, there is no murmur of disquiet, of shock or anger. Later on -- no, now there is only this room late at night.

"You took quite a beating in there," says the red-faced man. He won and his breath indicates a celebration. He reaches in to press my lower back slightly and I sense the implicit question, the one that leads to the oldest profession. "Maybe I can help you out."

Maybe he can -- because for I moment, I sense the utter stupidity of what I've done. My father will see the charge. My mother will know when I have no money for the train back to college. I wonder how long they will bother to be angry with me before they retreat to their own shared crisis.

"Thanks," I say, but shake my head. He hesitates as if he wants to help me out anyway. I wonder if he's married, if he has children. If I went with him, would he take care of me? But I am shaking my head. He turns and leaves quickly. There are other women who will say yes. Will I, one day, be one of them? Or will I be my mother and pretend as long as I can that such women and the men who ask them questions do not exist?

- - -

The wind still blows. The water reflects the blues and pinks of the early morning sky. I see sand, light and dark, softly shifting in the current. The moon has almost set. I wonder if Mother is awake or if, after receiving the news she'd known was coming, was finally able to sleep. I'd told her not to worry about me, that I needed to think that I'd be fine. Lies. What I'd needed was not to think, not to feel. And so here I was. What was left at me. I push my hands against my hips and feel a hard piece of plastic against me. For a moment, I think I've found the little man, but then I remember it's the Amex card. My father had given it to me freshman year of college -- for emergencies, he'd said. I'd felt taken care of with that card. Daddy had been good at making me feel he was there when he wasn't.

I bend it multiple ways, scratch its magnetic strip and rub its letters against a rock, Almost light, but the sun has not risen as I hurl the card's remains as far as I can into the ocean -- flotsam, jetsam. One floats, the other sinks. If I leave enough behind, will I make my way to another shore?

So I run. I spin and even leap. I pause and then there I am, caught in the quiet splendor of the rising sun. And suddenly, finally, I am tired. I will sleep now. I find a broken conch shell, pick it up and listen to its echo. It is time to return.

Asleep, Mother looks soft and defenseless as she stirs in her sheets. I carefully ease open the screen door and move to the deck where I place the conch shell. The sky is almost blue now. I undress and slip quickly into bed.

I awake later that morning, another day of wind and relentless blue. Mother sits on the deck. She cradles the conch shell in her lap, her fingers running over its ridges, listening for her own answers. She looks at me, but asks no questions as I move past her into the sunlight. The wind pulls my hair toward the ocean.

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