Friday, April 07, 2006

story: selling seashells

In the summer of 1971 my family - all seven of us - piled into the blue station wagon and drove six hours to Woods Hole, into the car ferry, and onward to Oak Bluffs, Marthas Vineyard. We stayed in a rented house on Sengekontacket Pond, where I turned over rocks searching for eels most evenings before dinner. One afternoon I filled a bucket full of periwinkles and brought it inside at lunchtime, promptly forgetting about it when we went out to Edgartown afterward. We came back to find they had crawled out of the bucket and scattered; by the time we left that house, the kitchen smelled faintly of rotting shellfish from the ones who scattered the best.

One morning we went to the beach; there had been some sort of storm the night before, and I had never seen so many shells. I filled a canvas bag with them, my knotted shirt, my sneakers. I brought them back to the house and sorted them by size, by quality, by color. I imagined taxonomies and applied them, wondering what sort of storm could have separated so many creatures from their shells. My castoffs littered the strip of sand behind the house.

That summer I returned home with a collection of shells in a slightly damp shoebox I had begged from one of the merchants on High Street in Oak Bluffs. Even mixed up I knew their value, I knew which ones were the real treasures, and which were the curios. I didn't wash them as well as my mother might have wanted, and they still smelled a bit like seaweed and old periwinkles.

We lived in Red Oaks Mill on Lakeview Road, near Poughkeepsie, in the sort of neighborhood where kids rode bikes and cars drove slowly. Our driveway ran parallel to the Coffin's house next door, leaving a narrow strip of grass about three feet wide for the mailboxes.

That's where I set up a folding table, a folding chair, and an old white wooden drugstore display Eddie Coffin let me use. I organized the seashells in the alcoves of the display, keeping a few of the best hidden in a compartment behind a broken balsa door at the back of the display.

My mother has a picture of me sitting in that chair at the end of the driveway behind my seashell stand. There are two kids on bikes looking at the display.

They wanted to know why they should pay anything for stupid seashells, because they're free.

Yes, but these are from Martha's Vineyard, I explained. There was a storm, and these came up from the deep waters of Nantucket Sound. Shells like this aren't seen there, hardly ever, and besides, when are you going to Martha's Vineyard?

I sold a few, I forget for how much.

There isn't a picture of the old lady from next door who walked over and spent a good long while looking over the shells. She asked if she could pick them up, and I said sure. I remember she lifted them up to her nose and breathed them in, her eyes closed. They smell like sunshine and the ocean, I told her, and she nodded. They smell like summertime, Bobby, but they won't for long, she told me, and she put them back into the little alcoves of the display one by one.

I don't remember if I was able to convince her to take one, but in any event, my career as a shell salesman lasted for just that day, and the shells stayed in the box for about a week more before my mother told me to wash them or throw them out. I buried them in a hole down at the bottom of our backyard next to Sox's doghouse.


Camie Vog said...

That is a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing it.

Judith said...

The style of this piece reminds me of Pat Conroy's in The Prince of Tides. An (iffy) whiff of nostalgia...lovely.