Home Free Writes Prompt a Week Classes Events Contests For Kids Conference About Contact Us

Fiction First Place

Two Hundred Ways to Call Something Beautiful”

by Lauren Fasnacht

            Santi did not choose the beach because he thought it was beautiful.

            He did not choose it because he had heard good things or because the town was called the nation’s summer capitol or even because the girl on the front of the exchange program booklet was pretty and blond and he thought maybe all women in that country looked like her.

            When his cousin, Gordo, had come to him last January, Santi had just begun his second term of Industrial Design, and that day, looking out his small sixth story window down onto the bustling menagerie of life below, he thought his overcast city was a perfect antonym for the beach. There were no seasons here, just a spectacularly unpredictable forecast; some days blazed with a brilliant sun, some brought on a cool, gray damp that lingered like a bad guest, settling deep in the marrow. And most days were a perplexing combination of both extremes, so that one never knew whether to leave the house with an umbrella or sunglasses. Many people carried both.

            “Brother, we’re going!” Gordo had announced excitedly, slapping down the materials and tapping on the pamphlets with his fat fingers. “Pack your bags!” If anyone could convince anyone of anything, it had to be him. Their uncle always said that Gordo could get a piranha to give you his scales, and it was probably true.

            So Santi had applied for the program, had endured the tedium of paperwork and the hemorrhaging of finances. And when springtime finally came, his anticipation ripening into a bold excitement, just one thing was wrong: the government had denied Gordo his Visa and now it appeared Santi would have to travel alone. Solo.

            Maybe he should have ripped up his passport in a passionate display of defiance. Maybe he should have been noble and said, “If you can’t go, I’m not going either.” But he was too invested now to turn around.  And so, on the morning of June fourth, instead of doing any of these brave things, Santi quietly hugged his cousin goodbye, checked his bags with a nice attendant who wished him buena suerte, and watched the landscape of his country, the green cordilleras like twisted spines, growing small, smaller, smaller still, disappearing beneath a sugary swath of white cloud before becoming sea and islands and then, finally, land once more.

            “Hey Kid, why the long face?”

            “Excuse me?” Santi pumped juice into a Styrofoam cup. A month into his exchange and he was already pretty good at this. Not that Santi was particularly pleased with the arrangement.  In fact, it was July and he was still feeling hostile towards the entire experience. First, someone had taken his money in New York City, selling him a bogus Greyhound ticket. Then the exchange program had mixed up his original placement, promising to secure alternate employment, which had been this– a tiny Snack Shack on the boardwalk.

            The man repeated himself. “The long face. You know, it means you look miserable.” He tossed a quarter into the tip jar, and reached for his drink. People rarely talked to Santi, other than to say, “Doyahave  ketchup?” or “Got Gatorade?” and other than responding with a “yes” or a “no,” he didn’t talk much to anyone, which was partly why the man’s question had confused him.

            Santi studied the guy. He was old and heavy and a little bent, wearing a red polo, white socks pulled high, and a navy KOREAN WAR VETEAN cap. His fat cheeks were rosy with busted capillaries, and wiry hairs sprouted from his enormous, melting ears.

            “Are you miserable?” The man looked straight at him. “I mean, are ya sad, kid? You look sad to me.”

            “No.” Santi lied. He wanted to go home. He missed his grandmother’s ajiaco, and the familiar shadow of the Andes. Even the gray skies.

            “Good.” Then the old man looked at the ocean and in a soft voice Santi heard him say, “Too beautiful a place to be miserable.”

            The boy nodded. Maybe he would leave now.

            Instead, Santi watched him take his drink and hobble forward to the nearest white bench facing the sea. He planted himself and the beverage down, placed his two hands on two spread knees, leaned forward and exhaled one massive breath from all the exertion. After a moment, Santi observed him wrestle a small, black notebook from his bag, pull out a pen, and begin to slowly make some notes, looking up to the ocean.

            The next day the man was back and soon Santi began to notice a pattern. Every morning he would arrive at approximately 11:05 am, order an orangesicle soda, and then move to his bench to jot in the journal. And every day he would ask Santi, “How are ya, kid?” And every day Santi would smile and lie about being happy though he wished to be anywhere but there.

            Finally, after two weeks of this same ritual, the boy’s curiosity peaked, and when the owner of the Shack, Graham, came to give him his 10-minute break, Santi went and sat quietly on a neighboring white bench. He saw the man jotting in his periphery, and after a minute or so Santi edged closer, rehearsed what he wished to say, and finally built up the courage to ask, “What do you write?”

            “Oh hey, Orangesicle.” The old man turned to him, put down the journal and extended his hand. “Paul.”

            “Santiago” Santi answered, and then, after a few moments of silence, he tried the same question again, this time with different words, pointing to the journal. “What is that?”

            “This? Ah, just scribbling notes, that’s all.”

            “For what?”

            Paul laughed, “Can’t a guy take notes?”

            Santi retreated, but the man smiled. “Not for what, kid. For who. The notes, they’re for my wife.”

            Puzzled, Santi waited for an explanation.

            “Got the cancer, my Marlene.” He paused, shaking his head. “My girl loves the ocean, but all those damn tubes. Makes it awful hard for getting out.

            Cancer. Cancer. That word needed no translation.  It was a cognate in his own language, and Santiago knew it well. He thought of his own smiling grandfather, now dead and buried in the Chapel of the Buen Pastor. At all the roadside altars--bright with their colorful, porcelain Madonnas and fragrant tropical flowers-and at every misa, Santi lit a candle for him. He would have to light double that amount when he got home, the boy thought, to make up for all the unlit candles of this summer away.

             “So the journal…?”

            “I write for her. To tell her what the ocean looks like.”

            “But you come every day.”

            “It’s different everyday.”

            “How do you mean?” Santi asked. “It’s blue. Always. Only blue.”

            “Are you kidding? Kid, if the Eskimos have a hundred different words for snow they’d have at least two hundred for this ocean. At least.” Paul tossed his hand towards the water for emphasis.

            “And today?” Santi raised his eyebrows.

            “Today…” the old man thought about this. “Today’s the color of an old tin can in a junkyard, kinda dull silver, but shiny still in places”

            Santi looked confused and Paul pantomimed a cylinder and then some circular cranking.

            “Ah, una lata.”

            “Sure. A can.” Another moment of thoughtful silence, then, “Kid, why don’t you take the notebook? Really, I mean it. For your new words.”

            Santi reached forward and collected the black book gently from the old man. He knew how to say ‘thank you’ in seven different languages, but at that moment none of them seemed adequate for this unexpected kindness, even if the seven had all been put together.

            The next morning the man arrived for his drink and Santi already had his description: “Dark blue.”

            “Okay, not bad. But Marlene likes ‘em detailed. Look at it, really look at it for a minute,” Paul said, turning to face the horizon. “What does it remind you of?”

            Santi studied the ocean. It still looked dark blue. Suddenly he saw a flash from childhood, all of his family picnicking beside by the river. That was it! Yes, the ocean was the exact color of the soft, round pebbles he drew from the banks of the Rio Magdalena, dark and cool.

            “Good” Paul said, “Now you’re seeing it.”

            Their visits continued daily in 10-minute intervals during Santi’s morning break, and very soon the boy was waking up early to sit on the boardwalk and watch the ocean, the rising sun, the exact shape and shade of the waves. Sometimes he would even ride his bicycle to the North to see if the ocean ever changed from one block to the next.    

            Finally, one day in late July Paul announced, “My wife says your oceans are so good, she’s asking for sounds now, too.

            Sounds? Santi closed his eyes. He had never heard anything before, but now that he was still, he caught the shrieks of small children, and the spray of foam. Gulls laughing. The thundering crash of the waves.  He heard the pop of a ball volleyed into the air and thought, if they were still there after work, he might ask to join those kids for a game. Santiago told Paul all of these things, and the man smiled, nodding his head as he jotted in his own journal. “Good, good.”

            The next week Marlene wanted some smells, and soon Santi was serving up a five-course sensory buffet daily, so decadent that he was certain she could taste and hear it, smell and touch and see it from her bed. He liked to imagine her there, taking big bites, savoring it all.

            Then it was late August, and one morning Paul didn’t arrive. “I’ve got the best descriptions today, though,” Santi thought, making a note. The next day it was the same, and for a week thereafter. Finally, during one of his breaks Santi approached Graham. “Do you know where is Paul?”

            “Paul? Paul McClaren?”

            “Maybe. He comes every day and we write for his wife.”

            “Paul’s wife?”

            “Yes. La adora. He adores her.”

            “Nah,” Graham said, shaking his head and refilling the coke syrup. “Can’t be.” He looked at the boy.  A pause. “You mean Marlene?”

            “Yes! It’s her.”

            “Sure, I know Marlene. I remember they used to sit out here all the time before she got sick.  Always used to tell me I had the best view in town.” Graham shook his head. “Ah, but you can’t mean her now. Marlene’s been dead five, maybe ten years now.” He turned back and casually folded an empty paper carton in half.

            Santi looked at the white bench and forced himself to re-order all he’d come to know. Why? Why any of this? He felt duped. Confused. Angry. The boy had a million questions and no one to answer them, not in his own language or any other. He reached for the black book and marched toward the corner trashcan before realizing Graham was at the door emptying it.

            “Looking for this?” He turned, held the bag forward.

            Santi considered the book. His book. Paul’s gift. He flipped through the pages, gently acknowledging within them his own metamorphosis. He sighed and he knew he had just grown a little wiser. “No. No, thank you.”

            Santi did not choose the beach because he thought it was beautiful. He did not choose it because he wanted to scoop ice cream or get a suntan that summer, and especially not because he expected the universe to deliver him a most-unlikely friend. But now he thought he was meant to come here. Yes he was sure of it. Now, as he packed to go home Santiago knew that, in any time, in any place, if one but had eyes to see it, there were at least two hundred ways to call something beautiful.

Copyright © 2009 Rehoboth Beach Writers' Guild.  All Rights Reserved