Seaweed Charlie’s off Route 1 in Maine, Which Once Existed

by | December 2020 A (Day 1)

His souvenir shack a mile from the beach smells of salt and tobacco. The ship bell greets you, and you and your mother are enclosed in a dark room. You hold her hand. Tiny lights shine on trinkets teetering high on shelves all around. Everywhere you look you see something new: a figure of a sailor dog in a yellow slicker at the wheel—a basket of white rope bracelets—small metal spoons in plastic cases—on the wall, ever-cresting waves trapped in gold frames.

You can pick out one thing.

Your steps on the wooden floor cry a lost whale.

You stop holding your mother’s hand. It’s like choosing between 100 ice cream flavors.

You go to the darkest corner to feel around. You read embroidered mini-pillows by fingers’ touch: Wells, Maine; Life’s a Beach. On the floor, you find a pail full of spider rings. They tickle your palms as you dig in. You try one on and wonder if anyone will notice if you walk out with it, because then you could get two things.

Mom’s silhouette is near the door, looking at puzzles.

Then, from the back, he ambles out. Burly, gray-bearded man in denim overalls with a pipe. Like a sailor who’d lost his job.

The baby whale crushed under his weight.

“Good day to ya.” He says to your mother as he sighs on his stool behind the register.

You crawl along the floor of the shop, feeling for more. You find a bucket of taffy, your favorite. You stuff your pocket with ten, keep three out.

At the register, you spill the three taffy next to mom’s lighthouse puzzle on the counter. “Just some taffy, there, kid?” he says.

He is so much bigger than you, even when sitting. And way smellier.

Yeah, you whisper. Hands in pockets.

He eyes you and presses the keys in the register hard like they’re stuck. They are stuck. “Wait,” he says. Your face is hot. “Something’s wrong.”

The waves in the painting behind the register begins to move, cresting in front of your eyes. The floor is creaking, like something coming alive. The room is swaying, like it’s all about to crash. His eyes pierce you like a knife in your back. You feel the spider on your skin, and it’s crawling inside. You put everything you took on the counter and the world is realigned.

17 Comments

  1. Janelle Greco

    Cheryl, this is such a wonderful story. I felt like I was right there in the store with this child and that tells me that your descriptions and scene setting are right on point. The line, “You can pick out one thing.” really stood out to me and not just because it’s its own line. It rings perfect in a story about taking more than what’s allowed. I also loved this: “Your steps on the wooden floor cry a lost whale.” What a fantastic line. I get so much just in this one bit and the use of the whale image here is perfect for the shop. The last paragraph is great and I wonder if playing around with what happens might be something fun to do. What if the child doesn’t put the taffy on the counter? Does the whole store just tip over and everything comes flying off the shelves? What if the store owner catches the child putting the taffy in their pocket? I wonder what the repercussions would be. Just some fun things to play around with if you wanted. That said, I feel like this piece is really tight so I hesitate to change anything up. I also wonder about the mother for some reason. We get glimpses of her–the lighthouse puzzle, her declaration that the child can get only one thing…but I’m curious if we could get some more details about her. Just a sentence or two that indicates what home life might be like for this mother and child. Really lovely piece. This stuck with me for a while. Thank you for sharing!

    • Cheryl Pappas

      Thank you so much, Janelle! That’s a wonderful idea to focus on the mother and their relationship a bit more.

  2. Bud Smith

    Hello Cheryl,
    Damn, this just kept building and building. I love how the tone shifts darker and darker as we approach the end of the story and then when we think the child is about to be condemned to Davy Jones’ locker or something, everything just dissolves and she admits the thievery and this happens: “His eyes pierce you like a knife in your back. You feel the spider on your skin, and it’s crawling inside. You put everything you took on the counter and the world is realigned.” I loved that. I was reminded of the move The Lighthouse and how ambiguous it is whether or not the character who is ‘evil’ is actually evil, as if the evil was in the hearts of all men (and even little girls). One suggestion I had for this story was to have it start out with sunny language and gradually have the tension of the language tighten and become more ominous and also I wondered if there was a way to be more symbolic with the item that is stolen. For some reason I wanted her to steal a sea faring map which she believes will lead her somewhere better, less boring or a compass of some kind, which for some reason I just picture in my mind when she is getting accused and nearly condemned, to be spinning wildly but when she admits the theft and puts it on the counter, the needle just calmly points to true north, where either lie, herself or her mother.

    • Bud Smith

      oh and also, I totally love the feeling I get of you as a kid maybe committing this crime in this real place. That is amazing. I once tired to steal a VHS of Drugstore Cowboy from the flea market but the guy caught me trying to do it. Haha. Imagine that, a kid thinking he’s cool enough to rob a pharmacy for pills and he can’t even rip off the guy selling used VHS tapes

      • Cheryl Pappas

        Ooh, Bud, I love the idea of switching around the object he steals (it’s a boy in my head). A map! And I was already thinking after I hit submit (of course) that I should blow up that last section a bit more. I like the idea of starting out sunny, too. Thanks so much.

        Seaweed Charlie was a real guy and had a real shop like this, which we used to visit when we stayed at a campground every summer in Maine. I never stole from him, though. The darker story is the real one: he was murdered in the trailer next to the shop. I’ve done some research and it seems they found his killer, but it’s in doubt. I also found out that he had a dark past (killed a woman in a drunk driving accident). So all that mystery is packed into the memory of this man.

        • Bud Smith

          Hi Cheryl, I think there’s some room at the end to do just what you’re doing here. Excellent

          “The darker story is the real one: he was murdered in the trailer next to the shop. I’ve done some research and it seems they found his killer, but it’s in doubt. I also found out that he had a dark past (killed a woman in a drunk driving accident). So all that mystery is packed into the memory of this man.”

  3. Neil Clark

    Oh I love this! Your descriptions are great at the start really capture that sense of childlike wonder, and the line “You can pick one thing.” brings me right back.

    I love how it gets more and more tense from there, and the way you convey the sense of guilt and panic at the end is genius. If anything I would have liked more stuff like the moving paintings, swaying rooms and spiders crawling inside. Or take that imagery that’s already there further. You could have some real fun with it!

    Great piece, Cheryl!

    • Cheryl Pappas

      Neil, thank you! I think I will take that suggestion! It happens too fast right now and can get weirder. I appreciate it!

  4. K Chiucarello

    Cheryl, your descriptors are always so tangible. I love the opening combination of salt and tobacco. Also the second person took me by surprise here, but really set the reader to feel quite small throughout the story. Just because your lines so dazzle, I’m going to pop a few of my favorites here: “Your steps on the wooden floor cry a lost whale. You stop holding your mother’s hand. It’s like choosing between 100 ice cream flavors.” (these two lines back to back stopped me in my tracks, gorgeous) “Like a sailor who’d lost his job.” The piece is so quiet for a bit and I so content in knowing that there is no resolve at the end, that the reader is left on this sort of back and forth motion. Because you do descriptors so well, I would suggest taking the very small pieces of dialogue at the end out. If you were to insert even more descriptors of the eyes shifting, the sweat (or not!) or heat that is escalating under the child’s sweater, etc etc,

    • Cheryl Pappas

      Ooh, thank you! I love these suggestions. I’ll see what I can do to add more sensory details to show that panic.

  5. Amy Barnes

    That title! Love it when a flash is extended through the use of the title as part of the story. The sensory details also add dimension: the smell of salt and tobacco, basket of bracelets, metal spoons in plastic cases, steps like lost whale, reading the pillows by touch, tickling spider rings, the vertigo sensation. There is something so immersive in your storytelling here that comes from the dialogue, presence, sense of space and those descriptions. While I love how the 2nd POV adds the immersion here, I almost could see this as a 1st person story especially in the ending paragraph. Such a memorable transportation through what might be usually an ordinary setting/experience.

    • Cheryl Pappas

      Thank you, Amy! I started out in one POV, changed it to this one, but didn’t try the first. I will. Thank you!

  6. Kevin Sterne

    wow. this is excellent. I love the tone, the world building. I can taste the salty air. I’ve definitely been in odd shops like this on the coasts. So much energy and spirit to them. You really capture this. I love the simplicity of the story, the lesson learned. My mind naturally wanders to an alternative world in which she doesn’t actually return the stolen candy and how that effects her. Like people who take rocks from the desert in Arizona and are struck with bad luck.

    Honestly, this feels polished and ready for a theatrical release. My only suggestions would be to hold onto the moment at the end, the teetering between returning the candy and keeping it. Draw out the tension, maybe?

  7. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    Cheryl, Love the piece, love the comments others have given. Your descriptions put us right there. I can smell the salt air. I have one suggestion– I think it might draw closer if you changed the Point of View, from you to I. If the “I” feels creepy to use, then I’d explore the source of that creepy. It might tell you even more about this experience, deepen it. It is a fine piece as it stands but I think you could effectively probe it for more.

  8. David O'Connor

    Great use of the second person, sucks the reader right in quick. Love the details, I felt I was in the childhood shop of my dreams. Also, love the subtle shift over to the dark side, like a storm front appearing, Well done!

  9. Janelle Greco

    Just a note, Cheryl–I’m still thinking about this story! And in your reply to Bud, I am fascinated by the back story of the shop owner. Wow! That would even be an interesting character study to write about him and what the older version of the narrator thinks about all these things. So awesome.

    • Cheryl Pappas

      Thank you, Janelle. I so appreciate you telling me that!

      I have definitely thought about writing a nonfiction piece about this man.

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