Cabbage by Mary Breaden
One thousand steps to the boats they’d stashed away.
The cove where they’d stored the boats was only accessible by steps the men had hammered and pounded into the face of the cliff. Whether the night be stormy or fair, one thousand steps down was what it would take before the rescue could begin.
The cove had been named for the Coast Guard Captain’s daughter, a girl who was the curious type; the daughter had been the type to find a secret like this one. The green water beguiled whether in stormy or in fair weather. That green, but first you must sacrifice land to water.
Fishermen wait for their rescue a mile or more from the rocky coast. Waters rage, rescuers might be shipwrecked on their way to save the men because when the storm tore through, it did not make human distinctions.
A promise of light: a sailor might not even see his own hand before him, but he would see a burr of yellow through the watery air and know that he was close. A soft bed and a good meal and solid ground were just around the corner from that beacon if the crew could safely cross one last rough bar.
But the waves, they dance with violence once the rescuers were within them. A sluggish swell could sharply retract from beneath the boat, hurtling the men aboard to their knees. Or, waters could rise above the Captain’s deck and rain down while men hugged the sides of the boat and hoped the ship not be cracked in two.
Shit and piss swam inside their rubber waders. Bruises beneath skin that split when the ship bucked them onto its metal.
The men did not pray.
They were on their own now.
Bridget Miller wasn’t sure why she thought that as she walked down the beach with a crowd of friends from Port Orford High School. Sometimes it felt like the book of these wise verses contained her only thoughts.
They had graduated earlier that day and would end up around a campfire down at Miller’s Cabin. The cabin had been built by her great-grandfather; long ago, the bulk of the cabin was washed away by the tropically colored, but still icy, Elk River during a winter flood. A perfectly sandy beach remained in its place; young people had gathered and drank beer and built fires beside the homestead’s ruins for generations. Most graduated from the scene after they settled down in town, or even as far north as Coos Bay.
A few never made it past Miller’s Cabin. These were harmless. Just part of the scenery: leather-faced drunks who fished at the less-trafficked end of the beach and passed out in the shade by late afternoon.
Cape Blanco housed the siren. It was also the tallest lighthouse on the Oregon Coast, and the first beacon in Oregon to be manned by a woman. Tsunami signs dotted 101 – the figure of a man exuberantly flinging himself from the licking curl of the waves – and recently, bright blue waves had been painted on the roads throughout town to indicate where one was safe from water.
Class of 2016. Battle Rock Beach. June, but still freezing (it was always freezing), and the wind a loud hint of the winter to come. The Year of the Big Surprise. Trump. Not that the Millers spent much time talking about politics. Red was their default; Blue was too much of a gamble.
Some people thought otherwise.
The phrase “some people” made Bridget’s heart speed up and then crash like a diving bird into those waves out there. No one wanted to be perceived as “some people.” “Some people” were folks who didn’t take care of their land, who weren’t compassionate towards wounded and worthless animals, who were particular about their food, who left to go to the City, who came back from the City with affectations that would make campfire talks forced in the sparks that made a glitter of Port Orford’s watery air. The beauty of it all was shattered by these folks who broke things and who took more than their share and who never took the time to rectify a transgression.
Who among them would shift into someone else?
The group settled down with their backs against the large, round rock they usually settled against, choosing whichever side offered them respite from the wind. The rock had a gently roiled surface that was settled with brightly colored lichen and flowering Sedum.
Bridget selected a warm PBR from the paper bag her friends handed her and stored the beer discreetly under her legs after she cracked it open. Discretion was key among young people in Port Orford. “Young a-holes” the high schoolers were often called by local cops when they gathered en masse, as they did, by local cops who were forever eager to flex their muscles.
The wind was freezing, ever dampening, and the group disbanded for Miller’s Cabin after an hour.
Bridget had worn her father’s thick denim jacket, the one with a flannel lining, and she didn’t want to leave the ocean so soon. The sun had only just set, so the atmosphere was tinged a smoky blue-gray, her favorite color, and a thin gold line had been drawn along the horizon. The sea looked calm beyond the breaking waves, but it was just an illusion because out there were swells that could toss a girl like a popcorn kernel.
Alex stayed with her, as usual.
“What do you want to do this summer?” she asked him before he could speak.
He was always sighing before he spoke to her.
“Make some money out on the boat, I guess,” he said. His people were fishermen. Crabbing, mostly. Some rockfish. Easy pickings, Bridget could hear her father say. Bridget’s father went after steelhead, but that was for sport.
“Are you excited to move to a big city?”
“Corvallis isn’t that big.”
“Yeah, you’ll be close to Portland, though. I saw something online that said that it was one of the most visited cities. You could drive up there on the weekends.”
“That’d be something,” he said.
“I, like, love how you can become anonymous in cities. You could walk into a store and buy something without having to make dumb chit-chat.”
“I like knowing people.”
She felt him turn and look at her in the dark.
“Least you get to go somewhere,” she said into her beer can.
“That’s what everyone says.”
He was quiet for a moment. “It’s hard to explain,” he said. “Maybe I’ll just miss the ocean.”
The ocean won’t miss you, Bridget thought. Rocks won’t miss you. But she understood. The ocean was their common language. The storms that rolled up and over 101 to the Elk River were all a byproduct of these endlessly churning water, its powerful undercurrent, its encompassing fogs, and the 80 mile-an-hour winds that drove townspeople indoors for days at a time when gusts picked up.
Bridget wanted to stay, but it was the wind that made up her mind for her. The temperature was dropping with the impatient wet press of the air.
Her thick hair lifted a little as moisture set in –cheeks, ears, chins, eyelashes expanded. She wanted to be a woman walking through a sea storm alone, or with a lover, but not with this boy, and not on this beach.
Bridget stood, brushed the sand off her butt, and motioned for him to follow her back to their cars.
YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL.
Bridget’s tall bedroom mirror was set within a dark wood so heavy she could only really drag it across the floor if she needed to move it. Behind the mirror, she stacked her shoeboxes of precious things: pictures from friends, newspaper clippings of Port Orford swim meets, shells and stones and pressed flowers, and, now, the program from her high school graduation and the tassel from her mortarboard. She tucked the boxes back behind the mirror and scanned her face.
YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL.
Her mouth puckered with a sarcastic impulse every time she read that sticker, but the directness appealed to her at the same time. The mirror had belonged to a younger cousin, on the Miller side, down Elk River Road, where the peacock had moved in. Callie Miller was still in middle school, but had acquired nicer, more modern furniture from IKEA after she graduated from 8th grade. Neither Bridget’s dad, nor her older brother Dave, had noticed the sticker when they carried the heavy mirror inside and up to the threshold of Bridget’s bedroom, but it was the first thing Bridget had seen.
She remembered her Aunt Julie’s (Callie’s mother) words at last summer’s Fourth of July Miller Family BBQ. The cruel irony is that you have to pay for it, Aunt Julie had said. Wrinkles and sagging, just to have a little peace of mind. Bridget’s mother had nodded politely. But was beauty the price of wisdom or was aging the respite from beauty?
Outside the peacock screamed.
No one knew where the peacock had come from, though the Millers supposed it had broken out of Dixson’s petting zoo, up in Edgewater. What will it do in the winter? Bridget has asked her parents. Won’t it freeze? Most every winter by the Elk River would bring snow flurries and frost from November to March, though the snow was one thing that never really stuck around.
She started her summer job at the pro shop the day after the peacock tied with his hen on the Miller lawn. Dave drove the long haul up to the Tidewater resort compound. Mr. Miller was the only one up when they left and he handed the brother and sister a thermos of coffee and a few toasted waffles for their drive.
Bridget hadn’t slept more than a few hours the night before and that combined with the early start and the sips she was taking from Dave’s thermos made her jittery and anxious on their drive through warming woods.
“Everything looks different at this hour,” Bridget said.
Dave nodded. “I can’t quite put my finger on it.”
The darkness of the trees and stumps and undergrowth was textured in a way the woods just weren’t at night. The color tones reminded Bridget of the art class she’d taken as an elective that spring. Some blacks were a stopping point along a graphite-to-white spectrum, and some were suffused with magenta, blue, and yellow. If you weren’t careful, the colors beneath the black would ruin the crispness of a digital or printed image, but sometimes the rich black was just what an artist wanted. Bridget was not sure whether to find comfort or confusion in the muddled black of the pre-dawn.
Birds were riotous at this hour.
Dave flashed his worker badge at the security guard and pulled into an employee parking lot at the back of the lodge. He turned the car off and the siblings looked at each other. Dave clapped his hands as if he was about to start the Port Orford Pirates’ fight song. Bridget frowned. She hadn’t ever seen him this happy before. It wasn’t even 5:30 a.m.
“I’ll take you over to the pro shop,” Dave said. “You’ll meet Louise. She’s a sweetheart. There’s time for you to grab a bite at the cafeteria, or you’ll definitely get to eat there at some point today. All meals included! The kitchen staff know what to get you, just flash your badge.”
They climbed out of the car and walked toward the big building where the pro shop, a restaurant, and some lodging was.
“We leave at 3, right?” Bridget asked.
“Someone will be here to pick you up at 3,” Dave said.
“It’s been a long weekend and I should do a game before I head home,” he continued. “Hey, let’s
play one together?”
The lights inside the building were too bright.
Louise, the woman who ran the pro shop, was a mother of two young children whose faces were taped to the inside of the counter behind which she and now Bridget would wait for the approach of men. There were certain rushes of golfers, Bridget quickly learned: before sunrise, after lunch, and at the end of the day. During the lulls, Louise sent her out into the weeds of the store to refill displays of specialty golf balls and water bottles and she had Bridget straighten polo shirts and pullover fleeces.
Every sale was excruciating to witness as it unfolded from first consideration to its completion and the man’s exit from the shop.
By noon, Bridget had earned over $40 (she calculated in her head) and she had essentially stared ahead and listened to the woman talk for much of the morning.
“Your cousin was quite a character,” Louise said. “She had so many funny stories about the guys who come in here.”
“She golfed a little with Dave now and again,” Louise added.
Fuck Cousin Dawn.
“When she and her old man were on the outs, she certainly had her share of fun here.”
Bridget turned and looked down at Louise, who was half a foot shorter than Bridget, and was brushing invisible fibers from the plastic green counter.
“Like what?” Bridget asked.
Louise looked up in relief. “Guys come here from all over, sweetie.”
By the end of the day, it would be eighty, not counting taxes.
These men sucked air from the shop the moment they entered it.
Most of the men.
Women golfed as well. They shopped for speciality balls and cute polos emblazoned with the name of the resort:
“I’m taking this home for Bill.”
“Isn’t that darling?”
“And it’s not too expensive!”
“It’s cute. I love it.”
Bridget envisioned taking one sharp, sparkly knife and bringing its point to the outside of her ear once, then quickly inward, to make the definitive, deafening blow that would end her having to listen to their conversations.
The worst ones were the retired men who were somehow both the most loyal customers and the most impatient.
“They’ll never probably get fresh with you, but let me know if they do,” Louise warned Bridget. “I can handle them,” Louise said.
Over that summer’s weeks, their names would become known to her. Bills and Bobs and Davids and Ricks and the singular Kieran. He was so much younger than the rest, and so comfortingly hot, that he transcended the costume of golfing square.
Or maybe it was that potential for something different — a violet whorl of his senses — invisible beneath his navy and tan square.
A good-looking man could run any town.
Was Kieran the strutting preening peacock or the reluctant hen?
Immediately, she sensed him when he walked in, like an electrical current, a licking heat.
His eyes were dark blue, or gray, and his skin was summered already, only in June.
All the boys Bridget knew smiled and broke spells before they’d been cast. Kieran held her gaze and Bridget looked down at the counter as she drew a breath.
“Should be a nice one,” she murmured as she scanned his items.
“Always is when you’re out there,” he said.
She announced, “Sixteen dollars.”
He put a wrinkled, torn twenty-dollar bill in her hand. She held her hand as steady as she
could when she gave him his change.
“Thanks Bridget,” he said. (She was required to wear a pin with her name on it.)
That was the way she wanted a man to say her name.
Bridget was uncertain later, when she tried to replay this scene, if she had said anything else to him before he’d left, but before she fell asleep that night she imagined him saying her name beside her in the bed. He was pulling away, he was flying away from her, and she did not know how to follow.
Money, the kind that Kieran gave her, felt different when it passed from his hand to hers. Bridget wanted to rub his filthy cash across her arms, neck, face, and crumple it into a bite-sized ball.
Her brother popped his head into the shop before closing and told her to meet him after work outside of the Green Tavern, one of the resort’s bars, just off the 9th hole.
“Don’t be trying to sneak her in there,” Louise said.
“Just text when you’re off,” Dave said to Bridget.
“Big brother looking after you,” Louise said after he left. “Wish I had someone like him when I was you.”
Bridget’s shoulders raised as if her body was creating a turtle shell for her to hide in until Louise stopped talking.
When her shift ended at 3:00, Bridget stopped by the bathroom and looked in the mirror while she washed her hands. She touched her checks. There was always too much to do: The thick hair never curled tightly or loosely enough and now just seemed to be a frizzed mat; her face was producing more grease than her blotting papers could clean up and washing her face just produced more grease; her shoulders seemed too wide and her boobs too pointy (but how could she fix that in five minutes and why did she even allow herself to look); and, worst of all, she had dark circles under her eyes from barely sleeping the night before.
YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL.
She turned away.
Outside, the day had warmed up and the sun had broken away from the perpetual morning fog and cloud cover. Gulls squawked at each other as they cruised on the wind. The golf green and pale blue, creamy waves were motioning to her, but Dave said that they weren’t going to the course, they were going to hit some balls inside of the range’s cages.
It wasn’t her first time taking a swing at a golf ball; every school-aged kid in the Edgewater region grew up taking a few field trips to the resort. This was the trade off for ever-increasing traffic and impatient tourists who mostly only interacted with the town at the gas stations and liquor stores, which the resort had yet to open its own brand of. Once the resort compound had established all of its own services, interactions with tourists would dwindle even more for townspeople, unless, like Bridget, you had landed inside the compound itself.
By middle school, Bridget had learned how to hold a golf club, plant her feet — shoulder width, knees slightly bent — and take a swing.
But with her older brother yapping in her ear every other swing, she learned that her early familiarity with golfing was mostly cultural. The shifting and rotating of her torso and hips felt robotic. She missed the ball again. The rushing air of her golf club blew the ball off of its tee: merrily, it rolled away.
“Just watch some YouTube videos tonight,” Dave said to her. “I’ll get you out on High Dune before the end of the summer.”
High Dune, the most treacherous and spectacular of the five courses within the resort’s compound. Where wind disappeared golf balls from straightaways and suppressed their flight on hilly holes. Bridget just wanted to see that damn view that Edgewater kept for itself.
She knew every other lookout on the Pacific between Coos Bay and the California border; each one was a country within itself. But she did not know what the resort’s vistas held, though she had lived within 20 miles of these acres her entire life.
Finally, Dave turned away from the driving range and started packing up his bag. The lights had switched on without Bridget even noticing it. She’d been on her phone for the past ten minutes.
“You should give that Louise a little more of a chance. She’s a nice woman,” Dave said on the drive home.
“You think I’m not?” Bridget asked.
Dave grimaced. “Seemed a little tense in the shop when I walked in.”
Bridget looked at the woods and tried to figure it out.
“I fucking hate feeling like that,” she finally said.
“Like the poor girl from the other side of the tracks,” she said. “Just here to wait upon the rich lords of Southern California,” she added, though that was only a piece of it.
“You get used to it,” he said.
“Is it not that way for you?” Bridget asked.
“A little, but the guys are pretty decent to me. Especially when they hear I’ve been doing it since high school.”
Two hundred dollars a day working as a caddy.
Dave continued talking, more to the windshield than to her. “Actually, I love every second I’m out there.”
“Alright, now you’re just being a dick.” She leaned her forehead against the window and closed her eyes.
Shortly after the 4th of July, the chicks were born. Mrs. Miller wasn’t sure where the peahen had laid her eggs, but she started feeding the family as soon as she saw the dull-looking peahen being trailed by the brown puff balls. “They’ve got a routine,” Mrs. Miller said to the family at the supper table one summer night. “They swing on through our garden first thing after you all leave for the day and then they wander off into the Kelly’s property.”
The peacock moved on shortly after. He had lost his tail feathers for the year, anyway. Mrs. Miller picked the feathers up as she found them throughout the property and offered them to her children for their rooms. But the peacock was still said to be seen higher up Elk River Road. His scream was reported for miles around. Faked; no way the peacock had made it that far, Bridget thought. Now everyone in Port Orford was claiming they’d heard the call.
Word spread too damn fast.
He’d grow new, dazzling feathers to impress the next mate. Bridget wondered what the armory would look like as it came in — angry little spikes stretched to a Prussian blue point of no return.
Bridget woke up to a 5 a.m. alarm in August and felt the strength leaving her limbs.
The sun wouldn’t rise for another hour; morning was so cold before the dawn.
She saw her life stretched out with nothing she could control and no money of her own. She’d be bumming rides from her older brother for a while, then from a loser from town whom she would eventually marry. This man would take her home. They would eat together in silence with every light in the house turned on. Their family would sprout and extend beyond the two of them. Bridget, no longer a Miller, and the man would have the brood over for summer reunions. The men would be joyful, their women would be weary from years of stolen sleep.
A cawing crow was just outside her window in the highest branches of a cedar tree.
Bridget rolled out of her narrow bed. She went downstairs and told her brother she was too sick with her period to go to work. His eyes widened and he silently nodded with his lips pressed together.
Bridget returned to her bed and slept until noon; when she woke up for the second time, she had an idea.
August: she had almost three thousand.
Enough for six classes. Enough to get started. A jumpstart, sometimes, is all you need.
She registered that morning.
Computer Science 101 on Mondays and Wednesdays. Calculus on Tuesdays and Thursdays. General Biology for a long Saturday class. And then in the spring, she could take more while she worked full-time and put down savings. Maybe her dad could help her fix up a used car so she didn’t have to wait for Dave every day. (Bridget now realized that the early shift at Edgewater would be very helpful to her taking night classes.)
She hadn’t been terrible at science in school, she realized after she finished enrolling herself. So, why the fuck not try?
Online, Bridget found a copy of a beginner’s guide to mechanical engineering and started reading it on her phone whenever the store was slow. She told Louise she was reading for school and, anyway, Louise could peep over her shoulder and see black and white diagrams and numbers. Her supervisor’s withheld opinion was exactly the validation Bridget needed.
The occasional customer would make a remark about how young women are always on their phones. How could anyone live without their phones, these days, and how this and other things signalled the end of everything that had made the country great.
Bridget knew better than to respond, except with a noncommittal laugh.
One day, Kieran was standing at the counter before she even noticed him. He was looking down at the Gatorade on the counter and his hands around them, as if trying to understand how one object related to the other.
“That everything for you?” Bridget asked. She thought that she had asked in a gentle voice, but Kieran jumped. When he looked up, she saw that crying had marked his eyes and the skin around them.
The face will always give itself away.
Even with his eyes red and swollen, he still held her gaze. She thought he was asking her for something, but he answered, “That’s it.”
“His grandmother died over the weekend,” Louise told Bridget immediately after Kieran left the shop. “They’re such a close family, you know?”
“You don’t see that so much anymore,” Louise said. Her eyes grew watery and, for once, she shut her mouth.
That night, Bridget dreamed of putting her hand to Kieran’s cheeks, slickened by tears.
His salt could stain.
In the milky morning, she saw the stain of his red, blue, and greens when she opened her eyes.
Alex texted her in the afternoon of the day before Thanksgiving. He wanted to catch up and, if she was to be honest, Bridget was curious to see him. She’d heard a few other friends mention that they’d gained weight during the first term in college.
Would life finally break him.
She borrowed her mom’s SUV and met Alex at the Tsunami Cafe and Bakery on 101. She was disappointed when he arrived. He had matured for the best. His face, though still soft, was a little less so, and his hair was brushed back off his face. He seemed to sit up straighter. He paid for her mocha and held the door for her when they exited.
The sweet bitter. Bridget wanted to hug the paper cup for warmth and for a moment, she thought that if he would only kiss her, she might open up for more. But then Alex kissed her a few minutes later when they were walking on the beach to go sit at the round rock that blocked the wind. She thought she’d seen a whale spouting out there when his hand reached for her lower back.
His hard, hollow mouth.
Was it her above all others, her alone, the only road he saw before him? Even this boy, one of the few who had made it out?
They kept walking. For a moment, he tried to walk with his arm around her waist, but the sand was too uneven and he broke away.
Bridget saw it first.
The rock had split in two.
Bridget went straight to bed when she got home and slept immediately until a scream jolted her from sleep. The peacock had returned.
At Thanksgiving dinner, the extended Miller family went down Elk River Road to gather around Aunt Julie’s table. Talk was about “the Cabbage,” as the town was now calling the rock that had cleaved in half. Bridget had been one of the first to notice it: the rock had split right down the middle and revealed intricate curls and clusters. The town was amazed to find a cabbage had existed inside this whole time.
Dinner always ended around 5:00 on Thanksgiving and Bridget and her brothers started nudging each other. “We’re going for a walk on the beach,” Dave said. “Check out the Cabbage.”
But a crowd was already down on the beach and had congregated around the rock. Selfies. “I guess it’s a holiday and all,” Bridget said.
“I can’t handle one more conversation about nothing today,” Tyler said loudly.
Dave shoved him.
“Alright, let’s go to the steps, then,” Bridget said.
She said nothing as they drove back up 101 to the turn-off for Nellie’s Cove. Thinking about Kieran was like a blood-letting. The enormity of what she would never know about him seemed to be stretched out before her on the blue plane of the Pacific. The Millers reached what remained of the 1,000 steps and Tyler began to count.
Dave started to heckle Tyler, but Bridget shushed him and the two watched their younger brother count.
The steps had long since crumbled away before reaching the cove’s beach, but if a fisherman was in need of rescue out there, Bridget knew her family would find a way to him.
To reach him by herself, though. Over the undertow and the Pacific’s rise: Abandon the shore for the SOS of an unknown man.
Could she go alone, she asked the waters.
Mary Breaden recently moved home to Oregon, after spending five years working in New York City. Mary’s work has been published or is forthcoming in the Bennington Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Joyland, the Fanzine, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Persistent Visions, and The Mondegreen. She was selected as an Emerging Writer in the Lamprophonic Reading Series and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.