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Blackberries

by Michael Chin


Mike chased the kids on the beach in Wilkinson. His nine-year-old niece Dolly was eager to play. His four-year-old nephew Sam alternated between imitating her and wild, reckless dashes. Both demanded careful supervision.

The boy cried out. He’d stepped on a seashell.

Mike stopped to check him, check the shell. It was a smooth one, no jagged edges. No blood on Sam’s foot. The best Mike could tell, he was more surprised than hurt. 

“Uncle Mike! Watch this!” Dolly called. She did a cartwheel as the tide came in, starting with water at her ankles, landing knee-deep.

“Careful,” he warned. “Don’t go any deeper.”

Their parents, Rosaline and his brother Corey, sat beneath a great big sun umbrella, propped at an angle over their beach chairs, sipping dark and stormies discretely poured into travel coffee mugs. He marveled at how easily they trusted their kids with him, even standing at the edge of the ocean’s expanse. They worked hard, though—Rosaline, in particular, a high school guidance counselor. Corey did something with banking Mike had never wrapped his head around. He was sure they welcomed the reprieve from parenting responsibilities. But he also imagined a certain trust a person had to arrive at as a parent. There was so much to worry about, he could imagine being paralyzed with paranoia and neuroses. Better to surrender control over some things.

Still, Mike would have liked another body to watch after and corral the kids in the water.

Mike dreamed of having kids one day. The most intimate he’d been with a woman had, in fact, been at Wilkinson, before Sam was born, when Mike had charmed Rosaline’s friend Kate with how good he was with Dolly, and she’d gotten drunk and made out with him before passing out in his bed. She passed along word a week later—through Rosaline, who passed it through Corey—that she wasn’t interested in a relationship, so Mike should stop texting her. He was embarrassed and imagined Kate was too, because she never came along on another trip like that again, or at least not one they invited Mike on.

Mike was never an athlete, never well-coordinated, but he liked basketball as a kid, and defense was his strong suit for his speed and ability to focus. His muscles remembered the old motion, sliding side to side to block pathways, to stay with his man. Mercifully, Dolly and Sam stayed close enough together Mike could stop them both from venturing too deep. 

A woman arrived, in a big floppy sun hat, big sunglasses, and a muumuu patterned in red and blue. Rosaline got up to hug her, and Mike intuited this was Stacy, Rosaline’s college friend who was flying in to join them, whose flight had been held up so they’d gone on and settled into the rental house without her.

To Mike’s surprise, she wasted little time casting off the muumuu, hat, and glasses, foregoing refreshments to join them in the water. She was thin, a little gawkish, fair skin that only looked paler in streaks of sunscreen that she hadn’t rubbed in all the way. Her midriff was bare. The tide came in—a warm one, dense with algae. It took Dolly a moment to register Stacy’s presence, but then she shrieked and charged her, hugging her at the waist. Sam seemed less certain, but followed his sister’s lead, toddling forward and hugging her at the knee. Seaweed coiled around her calf.

Stacy reached out a hand and introduced herself to Mike. Then, as if they’d been planning it for hours, she fell in sync with him, defending the children from deep waters.

Maybe it was his history with Kate, but Mike intuited Rosaline had invited Stacy along to fix her up with Mike and couldn’t help feeling a little indignant about it. He also couldn’t help enjoying himself in her presence. Rosaline had a tendency to correct how he handled the children, and no doubt if Corey had joined them, he’d have devoted most of his energies to sneaking up and dunking Mike’s head underwater. But Mike found Stacy easy to share the space with. She had a youthful energy, even as her wisps of blonde hair were streaked with gray, making it difficult to place her age. She was pretty, though, he decided, as he willed himself not to look at her for too long, not to creep her out.

All at once, Sam stopped in his tracks. “New diaper!” he demanded.

Stacy stopped. “You’re not potty-trained?”

He shook his head. 

Stacy put her hands on her hips. “That won’t do.”

“Mom’s been trying for months,” Dolly said. “I told him he can pee in the ocean, but he doesn’t like it.”

“There’s pee in my diaper,” Sam said, a whine in his voice Mike recognized as a precursor to tears if he didn’t get what he wanted soon.

Then Rosaline was there. Maybe she’d heard. Likely as not, she’d read the body language. She ushered Sam over to the little blue tent she’d set up for the kids to stash their beach toys, then crawled her upper body in to change him.

#

Patio furniture populated the house. This wasn’t a home to anyone, but a place for beachgoers to leave their things and rest their heads at night, walls adorned with paintings of seascapes as if to remind anyone who lingered inside too long there was a whole ocean outside their door.

But Mike found himself inside. Stacy had insisted Sam needed potty training and should stay in with her until the job was done. Corey half-heartedly protested that it was a vacation and kids should have fun, but Rosaline didn’t argue the point. It surprised Mike she was OK with Sam being kept inside, but he read between the lines that she was ready to give someone else a try at potty training.

Reflexively, Mike offered to stay, too. “Out of solidarity,” he suggested to Stacy. “Besides, it makes more sense for someone with boy parts to help, right?”

Mike felt relieved no one fought that point either. He didn’t mind a break from the sun and genuinely liked spending time with Sam. 

And there was Stacy. 

“Good,” Dolly said. “I’m tired of babysitting.”

Mike’s instinct was to find it cute that she thought she’d been babysitting Sam outside, but Sam cried, be it at the insinuation or because it hadn’t occurred to him Dolly wouldn’t stay inside, too, and Rosaline told her to be nice. 

“You’re such a good big sister. You deserve a break,” Stacy said. Then, to Sam, “I’m so glad we’ll get to spend time together. I’ve been dying for you to teach me to play Chinese Checkers.”

Everyone seemed satisfied with Stacy’s validations, and soon enough, it was just the three of them in the house, Chinese Checkers on the coffee table. The two of them played, while, at Stacy’s instruction, Mike used a black Sharpie and six-inch ruler he’d found in a kitchen junk drawer to draw a series of intersecting lines on a sheet of computer paper—five-by-five squares. The idea was Stacy or Mike would draw the animal of Sam’s choosing in each square for each time he peed in the potty. If he filled a row, he could go out to the beach again. If he filled all twenty-five squares, she’d have a prize for him. (Stacy confided in him she’d packed a Transformer doll she meant to give him anyway; Mike wondered if he should have thought to bring gifts for the kids, too.)

Stacy was good with kids. Maybe a little too good. After Chinese Checkers, she facilitated a complex game of Red Light, Green Light that involved not only stopping and going, but a purple light that meant Sam had to dance, a blue light that meant he had to lay down and roll forward, a periwinkle light that meant he had to spin. He laughed at all of this and, though Mike admired the fun Stacy facilitated, he also wondered if it was all fun enough that Sam didn’t mind staying inside. Could she facilitate enough fun that he’d actually avoid peeing in the potty so he would get to stay inside another day?

True to form, an hour or so in, Sam stopped in his crab-walking, orange light tracks. “There’s pee in my diaper.”

Mike pulled down the kid’s pants to check. The diaper was sagging, heavy.

“You know, you can stand up to pee in the potty,” Stacy said. “Not like me, or your sister. We have to sit down. That must be nice. Right, Mike?”

Mike nodded along a beat late. He took the old diaper to the trash and fetched another.

“This isn’t working,” Stacy said.

So, they tried no diapers. No pants. Another strategy Stacy had Googled the night before.

“When you have to pee, you go to the potty, OK?” Stacy said. 

Sam nodded but had a goofy smile on his face.

A half-hour later, after they’d switched to coloring at the coffee table, pee dribbled down Sam’s leg, onto the carpet. A trickle at first, then the stream. It hadn’t even occurred to him to move to the toilet, Mike realized. His instinct, born out of four years of diapers, was not that the inkling of a full bladder meant he had to go to the bathroom. There was no need to react to the inkling. Only the sensation building, then the release.

“This isn’t working,” Stacy said again. Defeated.

Mike found a roll of paper towels in the kitchen and a spray bottle of cleaner from beneath the bathroom sink.

Stacy grabbed the baby wipes from Rosaline’s diaper bag to tend to Sam’s inner thigh and foot. She offered it to him to wipe his own penis, but he ignored it, focused on a coloring book by then, smothering the top of an elm tree in green crayon, well beyond the lines. A tree overflowing. A tree top too large for the base to support it.

He still colored while Mike and Stacy threw away the yellowed paper towel and wipes.

“It’s OK.” Mike tried to reassure her. “He’s probably not going to get it overnight, and it’s not your fault. If anything, it’s Corey and Rosaline.”

“It’s just—” Stacy sighed, a tremor in her throat. “You know what happens to four-year-olds who aren’t potty-trained? They become five-year-olds who aren’t potty-trained and they rush to learn in time for school. And then they pee themselves, and they’re the weird kid because once that’s the first impression someone has of you, you’re the weird kid forever and no one wants to sit next to you, and all you can think about is not peeing again so you ask the teacher if you can go to the bathroom all the time until kids laugh at you for that too because it’s weird and it reminds them of you peeing in the first place.”

Stacy didn’t have to say the last part, Mike thought. “It was me,” she said. “I was that kid.” 

#

They all went to the beach the next day, though Mike had stood ready to defend staying back another day if Stacy suggested it. Outside, Stacy still offered Sam alternating reminders she could walk him back to the house to use the potty or that he could pee in the ocean. In the meantime, the kids seemed content to play in the sand over going back out into the water, squabbling over the design of a large sandcastle. Sam lacked the requisite patience to see through any project that lasted more than five to ten minutes. Mike played with them intermittently and Stacy did too, but she also showed a disproportionate interest in peeling sunburned skin from Mike’s shoulders and back where he couldn’t reach to apply sunscreen two days before. It was odd, but he liked the physical contact, the intimacy.

She pulled an especially long strip of dead skin. “That’s a good one.” Corey cringed as he looked on.

After another day at the beach, after Corey grilled hamburgers and corn on the cob, and after the kids went to sleep and Rosaline and Corey retired to their room, Mike and Stacy walked the shoreline.

“My last boyfriend dumped me because I wasn’t parent material,” Stacy volunteered, apropos nothing. “We’d only been together for six months.” She took an elongated step, pushing sand up into a little mound. “How do you know something like that after six months, right?”

Mike hadn’t had many girlfriends. Few enough, short enough engagements, it was difficult to parse someone he had gone on a few dates with from a significant other. But he got ahead of himself on the regular, imagining futures, seeing wives and mothers in each of them. “Right.”

“But then I think of my potty-training experiment, and maybe Rusty was right. What do I know about being a mother?”

Mike wasn’t sure what to say. The tide came in, submerging their feet, cleaning the sand from them. The sand left behind sparkled, wet and packed hard. He might have mistaken it for snow.

“I think this is something like being a parent, right?” he asked. “Play with the kids all day, then put them to bed and have a little time after dark to be grownups. Take a walk.”

He wanted to hold her hand very badly. The mention of Rusty deterred him, but on second thought, had she emphasized ex over boyfriend to underscore she didn’t have a partner now? 

“That’s not how it was growing up for me,” she said. “I co-slept with my parents until  I was ten. All of us in a queen-sized bed, then Mom insisted on buying a king-sized mattress when I was six so we’d all still have room.”

“That sounds awful.” Mike couldn’t imagine sharing a bed with his parents—not after he was school age at least. His mind turned to claustrophobia, his father childing him for taking up too much space—he never remembered Dad even hugging him.

“I loved it,” Stacy said. “All I knew was having these two people around me all the time. And when I woke up in the morning, at least one of them was always there. And if I woke up from a bad dream they were there. No matter how deeply I fell asleep, wherever my head went, when I woke, I knew I was home.”

There were lots of ways to know you were home, Mike thought. The Aerosmith poster on his bedroom wall, or the pattern of his speckled green curtains that he could squint and see faces in—the kindly old woman in the upper left corner he could only spot when the curtains were closed; the scary old wizard with the long beard who always loomed like a terror.

Mike thought of other ways of knowing he was home too, though. The smell of turkey in the oven, pies cooling on the counter across Thanksgiving mornings. His father singing along, off-key with the oldies radio in the shower Saturday mornings. Was it so bad to imagine a touch that might feel like home, a family of bodies huddled close in the same bed?

Stacy took his hand, threading her fingers in the space between his, just off-center so his index finger and thumb hung loose and her ring finger and pinky must have too. They might have repositioned their grips, but he didn’t want to let go. 

#

The next night, the last night at the beach, after the kids went to bed, after having a nightcap with Corey and Rosaline, Mike went to Stacy’s room to say goodnight. He wanted to express something about what their time together that week had meant to him and how he hoped he could see her again after they left Wilkinson, after vacation gave way to ordinary life. He’d understand if they didn’t, though, and that wouldn’t diminish what he thought of her. He wanted to say something, too, about how he thought she’d make a wonderful mother, but he wasn’t sure he could say that without it coming out weird.

She came to him as soon as he knocked on her open door. She kissed him like she’d been expecting him, like he’d kept her waiting.

It was difficult to keep track of the rest. How the lights went off, but the door stayed open. It was hot in the room, and it felt good when his T-shirt was off, when the cool breeze of the fan hit his back, better when they were bare chest to bare chest. She was very smooth to the touch.

In a moment of stillness, her body pinned beneath his, a gleam in her eyes, it registered that the window was open and he could hear ocean waves. His mind turned to a time when he was very young, some family excursion to the beach. The grownups had rigged a white sheet up in the air—he couldn’t remember what they used to suspend it, only that everyone laughed at how it—their makeshift movie screen—rippled in the breeze. They played a movie that was impossible to follow because even though they played the audio over the speakers of the Jeep that was powering the overheating laptop and projector, the sound had to compete with the engine and the ocean waves.

Mike walked out into the ocean waves, waist deep, deeper than he wanted to in the dark but he didn’t want for anyone to see him peeing.  He watched moonlight shine over the waves and thought it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen and wandered back, oblivious, right into the light of the projector and realized a moment before anyone said anything that he was in the movie, a part of the action, bathed in yellow light next to some pretty young actress’s face when she closed her eyes for a kiss. At that moment, he thought he might kiss her. Corey yelled at him, “Down in front!” and shattered the illusion.

Stacy’s pale flesh built a light film of sweat, reflecting moonlight from outside. He thought she was more beautiful than the ocean, but there was no way of articulating that that wouldn’t sound cheesy, or that would even land coherently to her without the whole story. But who was to say? Maybe he’d have time to tell her his stories. Maybe a long time.

Stacy slid a pillow between their faces, confusing him momentarily, before he heard the muffled scream emerge from beneath him.

Afterward, he held her, thinking how nice it was to share a twin mattress with her, where there wasn’t enough space not to touch all over. Her hair smelled like fruit—like blackberries, he decided. Like a blackberry patch his mother had taken him and Corey to when they were little that smelled wonderful, and he’d thought to himself all he ever wanted to eat again for the rest of his life was fresh-picked blackberries. He had subsisted on them for a long time to follow—probably only two or three days, but it felt like much longer at the time. He ate them until the small stash remained molded over, and it felt like a tragedy, even then, when his father threw them away.

Mike remembered how the blackberries looked on the shrub. Maybe there was some morning dew on them. Maybe it was a trick of sunlight filtering through spaces between leaves. They sparkled. Maybe she’d want to see him again, and maybe one date would lead to another. Maybe they’d plant their own blackberry bush in their own backyard someday. He was getting ahead of himself, but in a space between his fantasy and sleep anything at all seemed possible.

On the cusp of sleep, he heard a floorboard creak. His eyes opened. They really should’ve closed the door. 

The footsteps in the hallway continued, though, and Mike thought to hide away, calculating if it would draw more attention to the two of them if he ducked under covers all of a sudden. But then, it would be odd for anyone to look inside a bedroom, wouldn’t it?

Sam shuffled past, hair askew, a little stumble to his step, facing forward. Mike turned to Stacy, and she was propped up on her elbows.

Then the sound. The trickle. The steady stream.

Maybe steady wasn’t right because though Sam peed steadily the sound wavered from piss on toilet water to porcelain to tile and back again. The sound of a boy unaccustomed to the endeavor, doing his best, unskilled, maybe distracted, too, by moonlight and half dreams.

Sam didn’t flush. The truth was, he startled Mike when he wandered back past the open door, back down the hall, back toward his bed. Mike would check on him, he decided. Not right away, lest he scare the kid, lest he inadvertently make a big deal out of him peeing in a toilet and louse up the whole thing by drawing too much attention to it. He’d go in a few minutes and make sure Sam made it back to the room he shared with his sister. Back into his own bed and under the covers, face up, breathing.

When Mike looked at Stacy, he found her crying. He was afraid he’d done something wrong.

But she smiled. “He did it.” She curled up, onto Mike, hooking his calf with hers, resting her head on his chest. “I can’t believe he did it.”


 

Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and currently lives in Las Vegas with his wife and son. He’s the author of six full-length books, including his novel, My Grandfather’s an Immigrant and So is Yours (Cowboy Jamboree Press, 2021) and his forthcoming short story collection This Year’s Ghost (JackLeg Press, 2025). Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.

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