The Way the Waves Break
by Benjamin J. Law
Just off the beach, Fran leads Jack towards an average-looking beachhouse, expensive enough to be on the beach and cheap enough to be ugly. It’s two storeys, the upper storey being much shorter than the first, and Jack can only assume that the house’s painter was blind, judging by the uneven paint the color of a sickly frog. Fran climbs the front steps, leaping over a collapsed plank towards the top, and Jack grimaces behind her as he maneuvers around the immense number of wind chimes and hanging plants. “Grandma Genie, I’m home,” Fran calls out as she opens the screen door, allowing it to close just in time to hit Jack in the nose. “I brought someone for lunch.”
“Now, Rocco,” answers Grandma Genie, her voice like rich butter, from somewhere beyond the front room, which Jack shortly observes is decorated in a religiously bipolar manner. He gulps, averting his eyes from the shelves on the right, where a BaKongo mask rests against a Buddha sculpture and an image of Jesus still nailed to the cross. “Rocco, you hear me, girl? I told you to leave those mangy hounds — oh, you’re a person.” Jack snaps his head up to find himself alone with Grandma Genie, Fran having vanished into some dark corner of the house. Jack’s concern isn’t with Fran’s absence at this moment, however, as he’s immediately spotted Grandma Genie’s tiny round sunglasses and walking stick. Jack silently stares at her, continuing to collect an image he would rather forget of a frightening old woman with skin like syrup, hair like white seaweed, and a robe the same color as the house. “Well, I ain’t that blind, son. You can quit it with the starin’.”
“His name is Jack,” Fran declares from somewhere out of sight.
Jack blinks, remaining silent. Grandma Genie cocks her head to the side, a gesture which somehow convinces Jack to respond. “Nice home,” he mumbles. “I like the — uh — squid.” He limply points to a wooden sculpture on the left side of the room.
“That ain’t no squid, Jack.” Grandma Genie chuckles. “That octopus represents the Hawaiian deity Kanaloa.”
“Oh,” Jack breathes.
“Now, now, don’t go pullin’ a muscle tryna please me, Junior. Can I call you Junior?”
“I’m thirty-eight and my name is Jack–”
“Junior it is, then,” Grandma Genie claps and turns away from Jack to venture deeper into the house. Jack’s cheeks turn red, and he muffles a vulgar protest. “You hungry or not, Junior?” Grandma Genie hollers back.
Jack slouches and trots through the short archway that separates the front room from the combined kitchen and living space — a wall of books being the inner rooms’ only border. Grandma Genie is stirring a wooden spoon in a large pot with something like chili dripping down the side, and a small square table is pushed into the corner so that it’s diners can look out the large window beside it, which overlooks the ocean. Easily almost two-hundred photos are glued, taped, or pinned to the yellowish-green walls, each one sporting Grandma Genie or Fran with one of dozens of faces or board games. Jack even spots Kevin’s face among the fray, drawing back to his mind the rotund jogger.
“Sit, boy,” Grandma Genie commands without looking away from her uncleanly stove. Jack wordlessly obeys, eyeballing the stack of dishes towering from the rusty sink. “Milly’s or Crablot?” The old woman glances at Jack to see his puzzled expression somehow popping past his sunglasses.
“I — sorry — what?” He stutters, lowering into one of four wobbly chairs that rest by the table.
Grandma Genie smirks. “You ain’t from here, hm?” She questions him, snatching a smaller container from the stove and pouring a cup of tea from it, which she then places in front of Jack and raises her eyebrows.
“How did you–”
“Milly’s and Crablot are famous restaurants ‘round here,” she cuts Jack off and answers his question. Jack nods silently, his skin seeming to tighten around his neck. “You gonna keep an old lady waitin’ or answer me, Junior?”
“Oh, no,” Jack says quickly. “I’m just…passing through.”
“Hitchhikin’?” Grandma Genie presses.
“You and Fran are a lot alike.” Jack folds his arms and leans back, directing his attention to the sky peeking through the window. He can faintly see storm clouds rolling onto the coast.
“Not bad for a couple of gals with aspergers.” Grandma Genie sneaks a quick look at her guest before cackling to herself. Jack opens his jaw slightly, trying to gauge if his hostess is being sarcastic. “She was diagnosed at a young age,” she continues. “But me, my father believed in no such thing. He called it butt-burgers, bein’ the swear-intolerant Christian man he was.”
“You both have…” Jack trails off as Fran enters the room and plops down across from him.
“Sorry, I was pooping,” she breaths and mimics Jack’s posture. Jack closes his mouth and nods knowingly.
“Rocco, you know we ain’t allowed to talk ‘bout that in the kitchen,” Grandma Genie chastises. “Anyway, where you comin’ from, Junior?”
“Junior…” Fran whispers. “I like it.”
Jack grunts and clenches his fists in his lap. “I came from San Benito,” he grunts.
“Good Lord, boy, that’s a long ways,” Grandma Genie exclaims, shaking her head all the time. “Why would you do a thing like that?” Jack doesn’t answer, but only looks away. Fran patiently stares at him, her face expressionless. “I see,” the old woman says after a moment.
“He hasn’t said anything yet, Grandma Genie,” Fran observes.
“And I think we’ll leave it that way for now, darlin’,” Grandma Genie says calmly. “Get some tableware set up right quick — wanna get to eatin’ in time to watch the storm.”
Jack, having tasted Grandma Genie’s chili, can only admit to himself that it might be the best food he’s ever had. It was as though every spoonful was blessed by the woman’s odd sense of spirituality, which was an always present feeling that Jack accidentally tapped into. Despite being fed and given company by Fran and Grandma Genie, however, he hasn’t truly felt comfortable until now, as he watches them watch the first strike of lightning split the sky. It’s
not for hours that rain comes pouring down from the heavens, and Grandma Genie responds by glancing at the owl-shaped clock dangling from the wall and sending Fran to dawn her pajamas. Fran starts to obey immediately, though not without sticking her tongue out at Grandma Genie, and on her exit, Fran pauses and holds out her hand to Jack, revealing Jack’s crinkled up photo in her palm. “Who is she?” Fran attempts once more to pose her question, and Grandma Genie watches patiently from behind her small glasses.
Jack’s fingers move slowly and unassuredly towards the paper and unfold it in the same manner to reveal the familiar face of a strong-featured brunette woman. He breathes softly, making Fran wait longer than she’d like. “She’s…” Jack pauses, his voice shaky and higher-pitched than usual. “She’s my ex wife.” Fran squints, deciding if she likes the answer or not.
“All right, pajamas now,” Grandma Genie reminds Fran gently. Fran nods and leaves the kitchen without another word. Jack remains seated, staring at the photograph through his glasses. “You know, Junior…nobody is always strong. Even a sailor needs land now and again.” Jack nods. “You got a place to sleep tonight?”
“Yeah,” Jack says curtly, closing his fist on the picture and stuffing it back in his backpack’s side pocket. “Sorry to bother you today.” He stands, momentarily considering adding his bowl to the mound already in the sink before deciding against it, and begins towards the front room.
“You’ve been runnin’ for a long time, son,” Grandma Genie observes, bringing Jack to a halt. “Barefoot. Hidin’ your face. Ugly red shirt, more or less unrelated to your chosen lifestyle of hitchhikin’.”
“I’m not hiding my face,” Jack answers mutedly.
“You’ve been inside almost all day and you ain’t hungover. Nobody wears glasses under these circumstances ‘less they’re hidin’ somethin’. Trust me, Junior.” She pauses long enough for Jack to glance back at her. “I know all about it,” she adds, tapping her own glasses. Jack doesn’t respond. “You stayin’ at the Rockroof Cabin?”
“Yeah,” Jack says through his teeth before taking another step.
“Hold it,” Grandma Genie snaps at him. “Ain’t no such thing as the Rockroof Cabin, and I ain’t lettin’ you go homeless into that rain. Better get used to the smell up in here, ‘cause I’m givin’ you the guest bed.” She stands and passes Jack before curving around the stacks of books. Jack stays where he is, watching the screen door shake in the sudden and robust storm, until he hears the old woman beckon him with a clap. His foot wiggles forward as if fighting between two directions, and then he sighs and ventures past the books, past the misshapen brown couch in the living room, and into a dimly lit back room.
Grandma Genie finishes fluffing the pillow and flops it back on the bed. “It ain’t much,” she says softly, “but it’s a roof and a bed.” Jack scans the room, quaintly decorated and cared for. The walls are coated with pink, floral wallpaper, and a small square is cut out for the window. A petite lamp is set on an empty nightstand, lighting just its corner of the room, and beside the lamp is a sculpture of a muscular man holding a ship in his hands, similar in style to the octopus in the front room.
“It’s fine,” Jack says after a few seconds. “Different from the rest of the house.”
Grandma Genie lets out a big laugh. “You mean cleaner than the rest,” she jests. “Mhm. It was my baby girl’s room before… Well, never mind all that.” She subtly wipes a tear from her cheek and heads to the door.
“Is this a Hawaiian god, too?” Jack asks his question as he gently touches the wooden sculpture on the nightstand.
“Sure is, Junior; that’s Kāne. I don’t much care for it, but my girl Zetta believed those sculptures brought balance to the home when she was with us still.” Grandma Genie smiles thoughtfully, and Jack responds by looking down at the fluffy bed. “You got a home somewhere, Junior?”
“What? No,” Jack says flatly. “Nope. Haven’t for a long time.”
“Then where’re you walkin’ to?”
“I-I’m not really sure.” Jack sits on the bedside and looks out the window, seeing a small drop of water make it through the windowpane and the faint shadow of the ocean beyond it. “I guess I’m just doing some soul searchin’, or whatever they call it.”
“Given any thought to settlin’ down ‘round here?” Grandma Genie leans on the door jam.
“Grandma Genie has a bunch of houses all around town,” Fran says as she comes around the corner in a blue onesie. “Are you gonna stay, Junior?”
Jack stares at the two females, feeling his face work through a dozen different expressions, but he remains quiet. “Off to bed, Rocco,” Grandma Genie says, patting Fran’s shoulder.
Fran sighs and disappears again before her voice comes calling across the house again. “Better do what she says, Junior! Grandma Genie is a war vet,” she says.
Jack looks to Grandma Genie for confirmation, and the woman only smiles and nods. “Tell me,” she says after a moment of awkward quiet. “Are you lost, Junior?”
“Lost? No, I’ve got a map.” Jack doesn’t meet Grandma Genie’s eyes.
“I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout where you are on a map, boy.” Grandma Genie smiles and reaches for the light switch. “I’m talkin’ ‘bout your mind, your heart. Get some sleep, Junior, and I’ll show you a house in the morning.”
“No, no,” Jack stands, moving to collect his backpack again. “I don’t plan on-” Before he can finish, the light shuts off, the door closes, and Grandma Genie is gone. His lungs deflate into the dark, only the thundering rain and distant crashing of waves disturbing the silence.