Fred and June: The Breakfast That Nourished AT WAVE’S END

A simple meal delivered by a young boy in time of need provided crumbs for a novel.

As I explained in my opening post in this series on the journey to AT WAVE’S END, many elements contrived to inspire this story.

The most powerful was Hurricane Sandy, which struck in 2012. I was polishing a draft of DELIVER HER at the time, but as our shore community reeled from the blow, the resiliency of individuals and businesses impacted by the storm struck me. I found their experiences so compelling that I set aside book one to capture them, sometimes as fiction.

“Fred and June” is the first such short story I wrote.

Later, some of these characters showed up in AT WAVE’S END in one form or another, knocking on the door of the fictional bed and breakfast The Mermaid’s Purse. (But did Fred, June or Spence? You’ll have to read the book to find out.)

As August 15 release day rapidly approaches, I wanted to share the seminal story that fed my second novel. An early version appeared online in Page & Spine in 2014 as a runner-up in its ‘Breakfast’-themed writing contest. (This was the first time I was paid for my fiction!)

The Bookends Review published the story two years later.

I hope you enjoy this humble beginning to AT WAVE’S END.

Fred and June

I didn’t want to go that day, but my mother said we were lucky and had to give back. I was fine with just being lucky, but she was feeling all do-goody and dragged me to the church where they were handing out cleaning supplies and clothes and old people in World’s Best Grandma sweatshirts were drinking coffee and telling kids to keep it down. In the kitchen, a lady loaded our summer cooler with hot food coming off a big silver stove.

We were runners, she told us; our job was to deliver meals to the beach, where the storm had hit hardest. At the barricade, I thought it was cool when the National Guard checked off our names and waved us through, but my mother didn’t think it was a list you wanted to be on. These people are in a bad way, she said, driving slow around curbside mountains of trash. “How’d you like to throw out everything you own?” she asked.

I was too busy holding my breath to answer; our car stank from the egg sandwiches in the back. I thought I was just keeping her company until we got to a small white house boxed in by walls of sand, its front door sprayed with a bright orange X. My mother double-checked her paper. “That’s it. 44. Fred and June.” From the back seat she stuffed egg sandwiches, bananas and bottled waters into a plastic bag and shoved it toward me. “Go on.”

I exhaled in protest. “Why do I have to…”

“Don’t argue with me, Spence. These poor people lost everything. And Spence: be polite.”

I was so annoyed I forgot to be nervous. Fred answered the door. He was old—my grandpa old—wearing layers of clothes against the cold: pants tucked into thick white socks that came halfway to his knees, a plaid scarf wrapped around his neck.

I tried to hand him the food at the door and go, but Fred made me come inside. Behind him, in the living room, sparks shot from logs crackling in the fireplace. “What’s your name, son?”

When I told him, he rustled through coffee table newspapers for a scrap of paper, writing down my name with a stubby pencil from his pocket.

In the kitchen, Fred had a saucepan going on every burner, a three-ring circus. “Say hello to June, Spencer.” I raised my hand to the lady at the table. Lit by the sun as she was, June might have been an angel. Everything about her shimmered: snowy hair, pale skin, white nightgown.

“June doesn’t go out any more.” Fred juggled saucepans, pouring this and that on a dish and setting it in front of June, whose clenched hands stayed on her lap. Jumping around the way he was, I was afraid Fred’s scarf would catch fire. In the car, after I said goodbye, I worried he’d forget and leave a burner going.

The next morning, I was in the car before my mother, ducking when she tried to ruffle my hair. I hopped out at number 44, holding my breath until Fred opened the door, taking the day’s offering from me: homemade blueberry muffins, orange juice, hot chicken soup my mother ladled into plastic containers. Fred remembered my name: “Look, June. Spencer’s back.” June, still shimmering by her window, turned to look at me, cocking her head, trying to place me.

School opened again after a couple of weeks. I could only go with my mother on weekends. By then, there were only a few volunteers left at the church. The food they gave us to deliver was store-bought: granola bars, boxes of juice. That Saturday at the beach, a front loader clawed through the sand walls between houses. When I knocked on Fred and June’s door, no one answered. Around the side, I peeked into the kitchen window. Two saucepans sat on Fred’s stove.

Months later, after the soldiers left, I rode my bike up to the beach. I pedaled up and down twice, checking the numbers to be sure I hadn’t made a mistake. All that remained of 44 was a rubbled lot.

Please stay with me on this journey to AT WAVE’S END August 15 release day. I still have a few great memories to share. If you’re not already receiving these updates, please join my regular readers by using the “Subscribe” form to the right.

Missed part one in my “Why Did You Write This Book?” series? Read it here.

Don’t forget to pre-order your copy of AT WAVE’S END.

Surviving Sandy: The Aftermath

In Transported, my novel-in-progress, a central character refers back to a pivotal moment in the story as “The Aftermath.” It’s her rock bottom, the moment at which she is galvanized into action. Surviving the week following the bully that was Hurricane Sandy, which smacked our Jersey shore at 6:08 p.m. last Monday, is a different sort of aftermath entirely.

On day nine, a mile from the beach, we are luckier than most, awaiting the restoration of power in the midst of yet another storm, but our home and lives mostly intact. As I write, a borrowed generator throbs in the background; we ration its use. I feel guilty and a little selfish, sipping coffee from my own coffee pot and giddily anticipating a hot shower while not far away, others’ belongings are strewn over several blocks, appliances and Christmas ornaments and Communion dresses blasted from homes by Sandy’s tsunami-like forces of wind and water.

We haven’t sat idle. We’re helping where we can, ripping sheetrock from salt water-soaked walls and wrapping dishes and glasses salvaged from dining room hutches and kitchen cabinets before they are carried to the curb. We will continue to do so. There is still so much to do, and it is only today, with the comfort of a little electricity and warmth in my own home, that I begin to grasp the enormity of doing without, this prospect that so many displaced families will face in the weeks and months to come as they rebuild.

There have been and will continue to be amazing stories: of trees crashing through roofs or narrowly missing them; of boats lifted from marina cradles and deposited a half a mile from shore where they perch tipsily in driveways and on railroad tracks. Of dramatic rescues, and of volunteers cranking out thousands of dinners on hastily rigged generators and strings of borrowed gas grills.

A friend stopped by the other night to inquire about the availability of an unoccupied home in our neighborhood. Like thousands of families here and elsewhere, she and her daughter are homeless, great chunks of her waterfront home having been ripped from their moors sometime between Monday night and Tuesday. Still in a self-described fog, she marveled at the water’s ingenuity: how it managed to fill refrigerator compartments and dresser drawers, even pocketbooks hung from door handles. She will have to saw open a waterlogged night table that Sandy has swollen shut to access the precious papers and letters she always kept close. In a one-story home, she did not have the luxury of moving things to an upper level for safekeeping.

Sea Girt, New Jersey: The Morning After

There are signs of life: utility trucks bearing Ohio and Alabama license plates, pockets of power resuming a half a mile away; a “hurricane bride” who relocated Saturday’s reception in the space of three hours when Sandy shuttered the couple’s original site. My office will reopen today in borrowed quarters. In the wake of such unimagined devastation, there are the usual blessings: the relatively few lives lost, neighbors opening hearts and homes to the displaced, the buoyancy of a seaside community determined to rebuild. The real Jersey Shore, not the Snookie version.

And for me, the writer, a grim reality that will help to inform the imagined ice storm in my book — the ominous darkness and silence of a region rendered powerless by the elements. That is a small comfort.