Jacob is sitting in the sand busily burying his toes. Near him, on a royal blue velour blanket, his mother is filing her nails and squinting at the sand-filled pages of a thick paperback book. Jacob has asked her to buy him one of the ice cream bars with a chocolate Mickey Mouse face, but she has said, later, wait till after lunch. It is almost noon, she has told him. He knows about noon from Miss Rose at nursery school. She has explained that noon is in the middle of the day, though he does not understand where a middle is. His mother has told him a middle is somewhere near his belly button, which she sometimes kisses, making funny sucky sounds. He whispers “middle” over and over, till it sounds strange, like “little.” Little is what his father calls him. Whenever Jacob wants to stay up late, or drink from his father’s coffee cup, his father says, “Not yet, Jacob. You are too little.”
Jacob wiggles his toes in the damp sand. He is pretending it is a monster’s foot. Yesterday he made sand cakes with Carrie. Carrie is not little. She is five and already in kindergarten. Carrie showed him how to take wet sand in his pail, turn it up side down, and make sand cakes. Then they took a piece of a shell and scraped out doors and windows to make it look like a house. “Let’s make a roof,” he told Carrie. “It’s too flat.”
“It’s supposed to be flat,” she said. “My daddy builds houses like that. They hold sunshine and that’s how you keep warm.”
Jacob doesn’t believe her. His house has a pointed roof, and a chimney, which his mother says is Just for Show. Jacob thinks Carrie is making up the sun house, just the way she told him that the red Jell-O he likes comes from dead horses. He had cried and run to his mother who was sleeping with one arm across her face to block the sun.
When he pulled her arm she peered up and frowned at Carrie. “Of course it’s not true, darling,” she said. “Jell-O is good for you. It makes your nails healthy and strong. Don’t you want to be my big strong boy?” She sounded like his father, who always tells him, “Grow up, Jacob. Big boys don’t cry.” He sniffled and stood up straight, just the way he did for his father, and his mother cupped his face in her hands, kissing him as she wiped the tears away with her thumbs.
His mother is dozing now, holding the book she has brought to the beach every day. His father doesn’t come to the beach with them anymore. “Daddy would rather work than visit us,” his mother says. Jacob thinks his father will visit more when he acts like a big boy. He loves climbing on the jungle gym with his father; his mother says it is too high. He misses his father, but likes being alone with his mother. She buys him lots of ice cream and gives him lemonade, scooping out the little pieces of skin in it she calls pulp. Then she rubs cool cream on his back and shoulders. Sometimes she makes him wear a funny hat. She is always pulling up his bathing suit, which is too big and droops. The sand in his suit scratches him Down There, but it goes away in the shower in the cabana.
Jacob digs his feet out of the sand. Next to his mother there is a big container. It has a spout at the bottom that you turn and juice runs out. The top is flat and smooth and painted red and black like the flannel blanket on his bed. It is called a Cooler, but it looks like a big drum. He bangs on it now, singing “Baba-loo” like a man named Ricky he saw on television this morning.
“Jacob!” his mother says, and frowns. Jacob giggles, then stops. He creeps next to her, and lies down in her shadow, where the towel feels cooler. She smells nice, like perfume and powder, but faintly sour too. There is a line of wet on the faint blonde hairs of her upper lip that he has seen her pull out with a shiny clip. Her smell blends with the fishy ocean smell. Her body is long and large, almost as large as his father’s, but different. He likes to look at the swelled out front of her suit, although it makes him feel funny. Her belly is very round now and hard, though it used to be soft. He does not understand why his mother wears two bathing suits, one like his, and one up higher. It looks uncomfortable. When she slides the straps off her shoulders, there are red pinch marks. When they first came to this place they took showers together, to wash off the sand. But his father didn’t like it. “Stop turning him into a sissy,” his father said to his mother. Jacob doesn’t want to be a sissy. Sissy is what the girls make in the bathroom in school. Now Jacob stands under the low faucet by himself. The water running down feels nice, like wetting the bed, although that is only warm at first.
Jacob squirms and tries to see the ocean around his mother’s back, but she is so big she covers it. His father is big too; when he bends over to kiss Jacob good night, his whole bedroom disappears. His face scratches Jacob’s cheeks, and Jacob looks around anxiously to make sure his room is still there. A long time ago this morning, his father kissed him good-bye. His father had to go back to live in the office in the city to make them food to eat and clothes to wear. First he patted Jacob’s head; then he took the big suitcase to the door and Jacob’s mother followed. Jacob was supposed to be eating his cereal, but his mother put too much milk in the bowl. He climbed down and went to find her. They were whispering in that hissy way they did when they thought he was sleeping.
“But we never see you anymore,” he heard his mother say. “This was supposed to be a vacation for all of us.”
“Vacation?” his father made a snorting sound like a horse. “You won’t even get a sitter for one night. I slave in that sweatbox of a city so you can sit on your ass and get fat out here, and then when I do come, you can’t spare five minutes from the kid to see me.”
“Paul, please, he’ll hear you,” his mother said, and then he couldn’t hear the rest, just like last night when Jacob was playing with the water pistol in the bathtub. His father had called his mother out of the bathroom. He’d heard their voices, and banging, and then his mother crying, a sound that scares him. She cries a lot. He’d wanted to squirt his pistol at his father to make him stop yelling, but he isn’t allowed to get out of the tub by himself, so instead he’d pulled the plug and pretended he was at the beach, pressing his ear to the drain to listen when the last bit of water disappeared, just like the sound of the ocean in a seashell.
“Mommy?” he had said, now standing in the front hall, his pajama top wet with milk. “Are you okay?”
His mother had whirled around. “Coming, baby,” she said.
“See? That’s what I mean,” his father had said. “He’s not a baby anymore.”
His mother crouched down and put her arms around Jacob’s neck. “You’ll always be my baby,” she whispered, and Jacob’s father picked up the bag and slammed the door. His mother leaned her head against his. Her eyes looked funny even though she smiled at him.
“Want to go to the beach today, doodlebug?” she had said.
That’s what she always calls him when his father isn’t there. He is the best little doodlebug in the world. This is what she said when they went with his father to the vegetable store that had a picture of a green thumb. Jacob’s father left them in the car a very long time.
“Is he ever coming back?” Jacob asked his mother.
“Sometimes I wonder,” she said.
Then Jacob said, “Well if he doesn’t can we go live on a farm,” and his mother laughed and laughed and hugged him so close he could taste her perfume.
Jacob knows about farms from television. He likes puppies and cats, but he isn’t so sure about cows. When they first came to this beach place, they stopped to let him pet a brown and white one standing near the road. It had big wet eyes and made a low, loud sound deep inside, and he was so scared he hid his head under his mother’s skirt. His father said he was Mama’s Boy. Jacob likes being her little boy, but the way his father said it, it didn’t sound right, so he tried to stand up but his mother’s red nails were pressing his head against her leg.
The sun is at the top of the sky. “Lunch, darling,” his mother says. She opens the picnic basket and takes out the red plates with the big flowers. Then she unwraps silver foil from his sandwich, and peels the crust off the bread the way he likes. “It’s the best part, Jacob,” she says, but he shakes his head so she tilts her face back and drops the pieces in her mouth. She cuts the sandwich into four pieces, places them in a circle on the plate, and fills the center with potato sticks. The purple jelly feels warm and makes the sand stick to his fingers. His mother is eating something she calls Pasta from a plastic container, but it looks like the noodles and cheese his grandmother makes him.
It is nap time. His mother takes a damp pink wash cloth from a plastic bag and cleans the sand from his fingers and face. She kisses each hand, and sits on the special chair with no legs. Jacob puts his head on her lap and she holds a parasol with butterflies to shade his face. She puts her cool fingers over his forehead and hums. “I’m going to take you swimming after your nap,” she whispers. “Just the two of us, and we’ll swim and swim across the ocean to a magic place.” He presses into her belly, which moves gently, and he hears the ocean lapping inside her, lapping around him, fading into golden warmth behind his eyes.
Jacob has to go to the bathroom when he awakes. He holds hands with his mother as they walk to the cabana. Jacob sees his friend, the vendor Mr. Ryan, and shouts to him. “Jacob!” his mother scolds, and Jacob skips around the vendor’s shiny box. “No ice cream yet,” she tells him. “First we swim. Otherwise you’ll get cramps.”
Jacob tries to imagine what cramps are. He remembers the time he was supposed to go to the doctor for a shot, and he hid in his mother’s closet behind the silky dresses, until he felt hot and sick. “Here he is, Paul. Poor baby, all cramped in the closet,” his mother had said. His father yelled for him to get out, and Jacob hid his face. His father dragged him out and spanked him until his mother made his father stop.
“If you ever do that again I’ll kill you,” she screamed, and he covered his ears to stop the sound of her voice. She rocked Jacob back and forth on her lap, whispering, “Doodlebug, doodlebug,” and kissing him all over, until her blouse was wet from his face.
“Why did you let him hit me?” he said. He hated his father, and maybe he hated her too. Jacob shoved her away.
“After the doctor we’ll go to the toy store and buy you a surprise, ” she whispered. “A String Racer for my best boy.”
“Go away,” he said.
“Please, Jakie,” she ‘d said. “You’re my sweetheart.”
He’d looked at her eyes a long time. “All right,” he’d said finally, but he’d still been angry, even when he snuggled up against her, rubbing his drippy nose back and forth against her cheek.
“I have a surprise to show Jacob later,” Mr. Ryan says. “Remember I showed you Gertrude last week?”
Gertrude is the cat who lives in the cabana. When they first came here Gertrude was small and friendly, but now she is big and likes to hide. Jacob likes Mr. Ryan, who is tall and has a beard the color of a chocolate bar. He sells potato chips and Coca-Cola and suntan lotion too. Mr. Ryan always talks to him and smiles at his mother, and saves Jacob the last Mickey Mouse bar, even from Carrie.
Jacob and his mother walk to the water. Sometimes Jacob tries to see how close he can get to the edge of a wave before it touches his toes. He likes being able to run faster than the wave. His mother won’t let him go in the water without her. He likes to feel the water rush out under his feet; the whole beach moves then. His mother has told him about the Tide. One night when there was a big moon, she took him to the jetty, and showed him how the water was gone. She told him the moon pulled all the water to the other side of the world; somewhere in China, she said, another little boy like Jacob was playing at the beach with his mother. Jacob worries the moon might forget to let the water come back, but it still hasn’t happened.
Jacob’s mother is a good swimmer. At home she likes to go to the pool. When she takes Jacob, she holds onto him and bobs up and down on the side where the steps are. The water smells funny in the pool. He doesn’t like to get his face wet; it makes his eyes burn.
“It’s choppy today, Jacob,” his mother says as they wade out behind the breaking waves. Every time one swells over, his mother says Jump, and they rise together with the wave. Here in the ocean she feels smaller to him, weightless; he wraps his arms around her neck and she kicks her legs. They are floating far out where the starfish and seaweed live. What if they float to China? He holds tight.
“Jacob, I can’t breathe. You’re choking me,” she says, as they hop up and down and up. He doesn’t like being so far out. Green stuff wraps around his arm and he thrashes.
“It’s just seaweed,” she says, sounding out of breath. Jacob hates seaweed. Carrie has told him that seaweed is really dead mermaids. Dead things are scary. He saw a dead bird once; the gardener showed it to him. “Gotta bury it before it smells,” the gardener said. That’s why seaweed has the nasty smell.
The waves rise higher than his head; the white foam blows in his eyes and stings. He swallows, then coughs. Each time the wave carries them closer to shore, then slides off the beach and pulls them out again. He starts to cry. What if she lets go? “I’ve got you,” she says, but she is kicking and coughing. Breathing hard, she carries him out of the ocean and sinks down where the sand is wet. “I’m just tired, darling,” she says. She feels solid again. Jacob won’t let go of her neck.
“Were you scared, baby?” she says, cuddling him. “Don’t be silly. I promise I’ll never let anything happen to you.” Jacob knows this, but knows too that the ocean is very powerful. Carrie told him Patrick’s father died in the ocean last summer. Can his mother die? Can he?
“Don’t die,” he says.
“No, darling, I won’t die,” she says. “Why don’t you go see Mr. Ryan’s surprise? There’s Carrie. Why don’t you go with her?” He looks back at his mother, then he and Carrie hold hands and run to Mr. Ryan.
“Ready for ice cream?” says Mr. Ryan.
“And my surprise,” Jacob says.
“You must be very quiet and not touch,” says Mr. Ryan, whispering. He unwraps two ice cream bars, puts yellow napkins around the Popsicle sticks and hands one to each of them. Then he leads them into the shed behind the cabana. It is cool and dark, and at first Jacob cannot see. He looks into the carton Mr. Ryan shows them, which is filled with balls of gray socks. But then some of the socks move and mew, and Jacob sees that they look like Carrie’s hamsters. He asks what they are and Carrie snickers.
“Those are kittens,” Mr. Ryan says. “They were born last week.”
“One of them is sleeping,” Jacob says. The vendor shakes his head.
“No, Jacob. That one is dead. It was too small and it smothered. See how Gertrude is moving it away from the others?”
“Smothered,” Jacob says slowly. That’s what his father says when Jacob cries at night and wants to get in the big bed with his parents. “No, Jacob, your mother will smother you,” he says, and carries Jacob back to his scary room where the night octopus hides under his bed. Then the angry hissy sounds start, and sometimes after a very long time his mother comes and climbs into bed with Jacob and whispers, “You’re everything to me,” and holds him so tightly it hurts. Jacob only gets to stay in the big bed when his father goes to the city. It is their secret.
Jacob looks at the kittens, and wonders how they can see. There are slits where the eyes should be. If they were born last week, where were they before? Mr. Ryan tells him, Inside Gertrude’s Stomach.
He wonders how they got there. Carrie is petting them, and Mr. Ryan tells her not to touch or Gertrude will worry and move the kittens away.
Gertrude’s husband made seeds, Carrie tells him, and Gertrude swallowed them. Mr. Ryan laughs. Jacob knows about seeds. They grow flowers on the window sill at school. He loves flowers. They smell like his mother after she takes a bath.
“That’s how your mommy got a baby in her stomach,” Carrie tells him. “Your father gave her seeds.”
Jacob doesn’t understand. There is no baby, just Jacob. “No,” he says.
“Did too,” says Carrie. “That’s why she’s so fat.”
Jacob’s mother isn’t fat. She’s pretty, even prettier than his teacher Miss Rose. Carrie isn’t pretty. She has ugly freckles all over. And she makes up stories. He hates Carrie. “I hope you die and smell bad,” he cries and runs to the blanket where his mother is talking in a low voice to Carrie’s mother. He climbs over his mother, getting chocolate ice cream in her hair.
“What is it?” she says. “Jacob, you’re being rude.”
He stares at her face, puts his fingers in her mouth, and tries to peer anxiously down her throat.
“What?” she says, sounding angry. “You’re choking me.”
“Carrie said you swallowed a baby but you didn’t, did you?” he says.
The women laugh.
“Of course not,” his mother says.
He looks at Carrie’s mother, then whispers, “There isn’t a baby?”
“Leila?” says Carrie’s mother. “Don’t you think . . .”
His mother shakes her head.
“There’s never going to be a baby?” Jacob says, still holding onto her.
“Not for a long time,” she says.
“Never?” He watches her face; her eyes are looking over his head.
“Not for a long time.”
Jacob isn’t sure he believes her. He will have to ask her again, when Carrie’s mother isn’t there. His mother hands him his pail and shovel.
“Won’t you go find me some beautiful shells?” she says. “I want to make a necklace.”
Jacob sits near the older kids who are making a castle, and begins to dig. Every time he digs a deep hole, water fills it from underneath. He looks out over the ocean, and near where it makes a line and the sky starts, he sees a crescent moon. He has never seen the moon during the day, so he stops digging and stares. He is waiting to see the ocean slide across the world.
Somewhere in China, he thinks, another little boy like him is waiting too.