When I was very small, I learned about my father's brother, George. In 1959, when George was 12 and my father an adoring little brother of 6, George drowned in the Raritan Bay near my hometown of South Amboy, New Jersey.
I obsessed about this story. To this day, I'm not sure why.
Maybe it was because my grandmother talked about his blonde curls and blue eyes. I was also blonde, with blue eyes. It made me feel like maybe he and I were similar.
Maybe it was because I was a swimmer, and his tale, of swimming too far from shore, was cautionary and terrifying.
Or maybe it was because it was just...so...tragic.
Regardless, I obsessed.
My obsession showed itself last summer when I wrote a piece of flash fiction, in which I tried to resurrect George, to send him (eventually) on an adventure with a fictionalized sibling named Rosey (I couldn't write about my dad as a kid...I just couldn't...).
It wasn't enough to exorcise my weirdo demon, though. I still think about George, a lot more than is probably normal. But since I've never claimed to be normal, and since I do have the imagination of a writer, I don't worry too much about it.
Still. It's maybe odd.
Then today, all of a sudden, my childhood neighbor's grown daughter (I know, right??) sent me a link to almost a century's worth of South Amboy newspapers (thank you, Kayla, you're AMAZING!). I found this. My uncle is the "youngster" referenced in the top story, beside the tales of drag racing and Board of Education contract negotiations.
It was so weird to read about my uncle, George. To read about how he died less than 150 yards off shore. That's more than a football field, but still...so close. So very close.
Knowing this was an event that shaped my father's life is weird; knowing how close I still feel to this boy who I never even met is weirder. It's renewed my obsession, yet again. Perhaps one day I'll write the rest of George's story. I almost feel as if I have to now.
But for now...here's what I wrote for George last year. I read it on stage at the Charleston Music Hall, if you can believe that. It was a crazy night.
I hope you enjoy it.
* * * *
The Origin Story of Midnight Rose,
And Her Brother, the Great Wizard George
By Leah Rhyne
November, 1960. South Amboy, New Jersey. One square mile of taverns and churches, with blue-collar Catholics eating stuffed cabbages and sauerkraut. Rosey is eight-years-old when she ducks into the dark alley, lungs exploding with knife-cold air. All she can think is: Don’t cough. Please don’t cough.
They are coming.
Footsteps drum a Buddy Holly beat as she squats behind a pile of fetid trash, abandoned between the Broadway Bakery and Soltis Butchery. Her hands clasp over her mouth to stem the tide of exhaled air as she stuffs her head between her knees.
It works, for a moment, as her body heat warms the air she breathes, quieting her achining lungs into non-betrayal.
The footsteps pass, but circle back. Bass voices fill the otherwise silent night. “Here. No, here. She’ssss got to be here.”
The “she,” of course, is Rosey. Sweet Rosey. Eight-year-old slip-of-nothing Rosey.
She risks a peek over piles of trash, the perfume of rotting flesh almost gagging her, and sees them, standing in the dim light of a flickering streetlamp. They are three men, their suits inky-black, their hats pulled low over eyes cloaked in shadow. They are identical, and in the wavering streetlight they grow. Stretch. Fingers extend to claws. Teeth protrude from mouths and shine like golden daggers. Forked tongues slither in and out between scaly lips.
They turn, tongues darting, tasting the air for whatever molecular flavors will betray the girl’s presence. What flavors are there, though, but the sharpness of yeast and the bitter tang of blood? Rosey has chosen her hiding spot well; the corrupt air is her security blanket.
“It’ssssss her. She already knowsssss.”
Rosey watches, holding tight to her malodorous disguise, wondering, what do I know?
“George isssss right.”
Rosey gasps, breathing in putridity and frozen air. She coughs, a tinny, hacking sound, and it’s enough.
They taste the peanut butter on her breath. The strawberry soda. They hear with ears invisible beneath low-slung hats. They see her, curls in disarray about her face, her yellow hair stark contrast to November twilit darkness.
Rosey should run from the alley, but this isn’t hide-and-seek. There’s no base awaiting her beyond the streetlamps. There is only an empty train-track littered with squashed coins and discarded candy wrappers. There is only a bay, sprawling deep and brown, waiting to drink her down.
No. Sweet Rosey will find no sanctuary by running. This she knows as well as she knows the streets of her sleeping town. This she knows as well as she knows the deeply-etched lines on her mother’s palm.
Sweet Rosey may never see those lines again.
The reptilian men smile their reptilian smiles. They inch closer, suddenly tentative, suddenly careful to silence their footsteps. They have her now. They can take their time.
Rosey scoots back on her bottom. Her PF Flyers slip on the damp cobbled stones. They are hand-me-downs from her big brother, George, three days before his death by drowning in the bay, his body never recovered, leaving Rosey with nothing but his tattered clothes and her gaping, broken heart.
Her back strikes solid wall. The wall of the bakery, infused with yeast, yes, but nothing helpful or protective. A tremulous cry pinballs around her throat, wetter than she’d like, and also more tender, threatening to escape.
Pressed against the wall, she gathers her legs beneath her. The knees of George’s hand-me-down blue jeans are torn and wet with the juice of decayed meat, their acrid scent a cloud around her. It’s not enough to hide her this time, though.
Her eyes burn as the men, the creatures, gather close, side-stepping her small barricade with identical motions as though they are one and not three. Rosey’s chin juts upward, small and sharp though it is. A tear slides from the inner corner of her eye, catching in the crease of her right nostril. The damp of twilight’s kiss condenses on her full cheeks. She is cold. She is wet. Her ears are full of thunder and blood.
She will not give in.
Her voice is small, but many big things start small. Her voice is one of them.
Repetition gives her strength. She steps from the wall. Her hands, she finds, are balled into tiny, rock-hard fists at her sides. She raises them, the way she saw George once raise his when Old Man Semasko insulted Mother. George was brave; Rosey can be brave, too.
She will not be taken.
She is Rosey. Not sweet. Not innocent. She is only eight-years-old but she has lived and she has fought. She has seen death and lived to tell the tale. She has weathered the weight of her mother’s broken heart, worn upon the old woman’s sleeve like a badge of dishonor. She will not be another loss for Mother to bear.
She will stand up to these men, these creatures with other-worldly essence oozing like wretched slime.
She will not be taken.
The creatures, with their black suits and hats, pause for a moment and smile reptilian smiles, admiring the tiny girl with Goliath strength. The girl who knows not, yet, what she can do. They watch her hold up her chin and begin her march to freedom.
The men, the creatures, allow Rosey to think she will escape. To think she will not be taken.
Until they speak to her.
“We will take you to George,” they say. “And then will you ssssssee.”
What else is left to do?
To George, Rosey will go, and tomorrow, perhaps, her mother will cry. Rosey will be another death, another drowning in the bay. Another body unrecovered.
If only they could all see: there’s no need to cry.
Not for sweet Rosey, or for her brother, George.