The Thing about Channels

Jeffrey J. Merrick
1996 Iowa Review : literary quarterly  
The Thing about Channels WHENEVER I REGARDED my mother's skin in those last few months on Wellfleet, I thought of the gardenia in the side yard, the way their petals would brown from the slightest touch of your finger like some thing bruised. The cancer fed on her color from deep in the marrow, leaving her landlocked that summer, whiter than a sand dollar and more fragile still. But even in dog-eared photographs you'd see how every long-distance swim left her one shade darker, skin polished to
more » ... sheen and smelling faintly of salt. She'd turn amber and finally bronze as I rubbed four pounds of goose grease over her then helped her suit up. I'd smear coat after coat around her stout legs, over her broad freckled back, shoulder blades hard and rounded as tortoise shells. I revered the goose grease for its water-resistant properties, the slip pery stain it left on my hands, the way water would bead on her chest as she rose from the foam grinning hard. It was the only way to keep her from freezing, to shield her from jellyfish venom and fish that bite. And it helped me keep sight of her as she crawled through steel blue tides three times her size, strong arm over arm, a water wheel, flesh flashing through the mist as though in distress. If only the sun would break through, I'd think when she'd fade from view, hands in my back pockets, rolling on the balls of my feet. Then I could plot her choppy wake with the brass telescope my father gave me. Then I could trace her even strokes for miles, keep time with her quick craning breaths, and her cap would gleam jade under a pale swatch of sky. "I knew you'd be waiting here for me," she says as I dry her shiver ing torso after she's crossed the English Channel for the last time, 1964, the Dover cliffs behind us huddling tall. "You always are."
doi:10.17077/0021-065x.4466 fatcat:invw7xmn3fh7tknjreqrpszzba