Monday, August 29, 2011
I have spoken about Small Damages, due out from the incredibly terrific Tamra Tuller of Philomel next summer, as my Seville novel, and that is true; much of it takes place within a cortijo outside the city, and memories of the Spanish Civil War are resonant and haunting. But Small Damages is built on flashbacks, too, some of which reach back to a certain Philadelphia suburb and the nearby shore.
I am thinking about tomorrow as I post this excerpt, then. I am thinking about all the memories I have that led me toward this passage:
Ellie is wearing her same orange bikini from the ninth grade. She’s slicing the beach air with her skinny bones. She’s the first thing you see, across the wooden planks, over the sand dunes.
You don’t see ocean or umbrellas or sock kites let up into the sky. You see Ellie—the dark black fringe of her hair, the Popsicle orange of her bikini, the bright Barney flip-flops on her feet. You see the spinning disk of the flopped gold hat she’s been wearing since she was twelve. You see Ellie, beach artist, carving out her sculpture of the day, finding her spot at the high-tide line, where the sand goes from wet dark to light. She tests her mix, crumbles fistfuls, gets the sand all clumped together. “Oh, my precious mortar sand,” she says, and she shovels that sand out and piles it high, digging trenches all around so that she can win against the sea, and making you guess, making you wait, and you go out into the ocean and sleep on your raft, or you play horseshoes and Frisbee or toss, or you fall asleep beneath the tent of a paperback book, and all along, Ellie is working on her sculpture, like it is the most important thing there ever was, like she will never ever have to decide what to do with a baby she didn’t expect to have too soon.
“I need clamshells,” Ellie says. “I need those little twiggy sticks.” Whatever. Ellie is a sand sculpture rock star—carving out sand cars you can practically drive, packing out mini roller coasters, tattooing the beach with these funny cartoon faces, and going at it all afternoon. You can never leave the beach until Ellie is done. You can never see what is coming. You will never know where her ideas came from, or how she figures out the physics of the sand.