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Stiff As Boards


The line of wash crackles in the freezing salt wind. "Stiff as boards," Ma says as she unpins the ice-encrusted flannel shirts, letting them fall like planks of cedar into the old tin bath she uses as a laundry basket.

How her fingers don't freeze to its metal handles as she hauls it back across the frozen waste that is our lawn in summer, I'll never know. But in she comes, cheeks the rosiness of the huckleberry pasture in the fall, lips as blue as Da's old coveralls, kicking the kitchen door behind her with her booted foot. She plonks the old tin bath on the floor and repeats herself, "Stiff as boards."

"Just smell the sea." She grins. "Smell Da's ole shirt, isn't that just the smell of The Narrows?"

Then she thrusts the stiff-as-boards clothes under our noses and we, as we know we must, smell. With loud sniffs to please her. Nicky snorts, he sniffs so well. Benny laughs at him. A broad laugh showing all his teeth; looking more like Da every day.

Then we sit around the table while Freda, good and steady Freda, butters the mountain of hot tea biscuits she's taken from the oven just moments ago. Arms reach, as they have done since we were little kids, in competition to reach the platter first. To grab the hot biscuits and cram them in our mouths before the butter melts. Before it trickles down our chins.

Freda smiles and pours steaming tea from the big brown pot into our blue enamel mugs that all say "Admiral" on the side.

Da won them in a dory race years ago. Back and forth across the gut, ten times. Middle of summer. Arms muscle-bulging. Face redder than the rosy knobs out on the island. Sweat pouring down his bare back like the Niagara Falls. Or at least like the pictures I've seen of the falls in last year's calendar. The day he won was a day for celebration. And he came home with the box of mugs, giving one to each of us four kids and Ma. "Well," he said, "I can only drink out of one at a time, cannot I?" And with that he turned to the jug of screech and poured himself a healthy dose, downing it in one before collapsing with exhaustion on the old swing chair on the stoop.

I can see him now, and I know Ma sees him every day too. We miss the old guy. Drunk or sober, we miss him. That's why we all still wear his shirts to this day. So we can feel him close, remember the good days, and forget the day he went out on the scallop dragger to the George's Bank. It was the 30thof January. The day it went down. Fourteen hours out so heavy with ice it just sank with all five crew. Including Da.

"Come on now Callie, let's not sit here dreaming. Help me give this lot a shake out so we can fold 'em," says Ma.

I get up from the table and as I shake and fold the frozen wash, I smell the sea. And Da.