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Fall 1995 · Vol. 24 No. 2 · pp. 14–22 

Patricia Beach: A Short Story

Dora Dueck

Johnnie’s grandparents sat in Puerto Casado for eight months before they decided they had had enough. Every day for eight long months they told one another they would carry on. Every day they repeated their conviction that it was God who brought them to Paraguay, that the heat, the uncertainty, the problems with water, the fact that the land wasn’t measured or the train line extended, that the Chaco grasslands contained only Bittergras, that their own infant daughter (the baby Maria) had been laid to rest in the Catholic cemetery of the port, were tests. Tests of their faith. Tests they intended to persevere through, and pass.

Does Johnnie believe their meeting inevitable?

Johnnie’s grandfather, Johnnie says, was not a Prediger or anyone high up, but he was influential in his own way; people carried his statements from the evening conversations back to their makeshift beds for courage during a night of trying to sleep. His sentences swelled with hope; they sounded green, and so much cooler than the present circumstances. Perhaps he dispensed them too grandly, with the vanity of a man who has sacks of good seed hidden in his tent. But he knew how much they were needed.

Eighty-three people had been carried to the grave by September of 1927, and on the last day of that month, Johnnie’s grandfather emerged for breakfast and announced that he and his family would go back to Manitoba.

So they returned, not laying eyes on the {15} place they came to settle. They never got past the port.

Johnnie is not what you would call a talker, but the story of his grandparents takes some time. He begins when he and Luise turn onto Highway 59 out of Winnipeg, heading north. It uses up all of the hour to drive to Patricia Beach, where they are going on their first date. He pauses, sometimes, for miles, but Luise doesn’t start anything else; she realizes he’s not through.

“I wasn’t there, of course,” he says.

“Well, you’re only twenty-two.” But Luise is surprised how much he knows about it.

“I heard it often. I asked him questions. I got him going, as my mother would say. She couldn’t believe I was interested.”

Luise supposes Johnnie has chosen this topic because Paraguay is where she grew up; it’s only a year and three months ago, in fact, since she emigrated. It’s probably an obvious connection for him, and he seems pleased when she supplies a word, a name, a detail from her knowledge of the Mennos at Puerto Casado, something with a German or Spanish tinge. But she asks no questions.

Luise has never been in a car alone with Johnnie, or for that matter, with anyone she is this fond of. In Paraguay, youth courted on the church yard after choir practice, or if the relationship was heating up, in the fringes of the Bush. Or they drove off, pressed close, on their small motorbikes. She finds it strange and wonderful to sit on the cream-colored seat beside Johnnie, to skim effortlessly along the highway, just the two of them, in his large pale blue car. (He says it’s a Buick, but Luise’s friend Betty, who introduced them, calls it a boat.) The wind whistles in, pitched high and cheerful, through the inch of an opening Johnnie requires at the windows. Trees, fields, the wide ditches full of long grasses flow past in a steady line of pleasant green and brown.

Luise keeps turning to look at Johnnie, at his untidy mass of blond hair (he was in a hurry), the thick sideburns, his pale, handsome face roughened now with a hint of beard. He is wearing sunglasses, aviator style.

Turning reminds Luise to listen. She must anchor her mind from floating away in happiness. Every time she turns, his head and shoulders move toward her for a moment, grow larger, blur, and then recede again. It’s like watching missionary slides and waiting while the man at the projector presses or turns a button to focus the picture of lepers or white-shirted preachers at some convention or Bible school: the images surge in and out and then are found, as they should be, with the edges sharp, the colors clear.

From long habit Luise tilts her head slightly to loosen her hair, to run her fingers through first one side of it and then the other, to {16} check, casually, that the rims of her ears have not cracked it apart. Once, years ago when she was still in braids, and she and Mama and Tina were eating watermelon under the paraiso tree, her sister cried, “But Luise! Your ear’s on fire!”

Luise felt nothing, heard nothing, but she was terrified. She shrieked, she clapped her hands against her head. And Tina thought it amusing.

No, no, she wasn’t really on fire, it was the way she was sitting, the ear happened to be out of the shade, sticking out, Tina explained. It glowed like fire when the sun shone through the skin. Flaming pink, she said, and orange. Tina never stopped to consider what she had done, turning Luise’s ears into orbs—thin and translucent, flammable orbs, appendages she would have to be mindful of from that moment on, set at certain angles and avoid setting at others, depending on her position and the sun. And the work of keeping hair over them! Johnnie’s ears lie flat against his head. Luise has noticed them: perfectly even and oval, like apple slices, the half curl from stem to heart, the tidy round compartment in the middle, the hanging lobe.

“It wasn’t easy,” Johnnie says. “No one liked them for it down there in Paraguay. People felt betrayed, of course.”

“Naturally,” murmurs Luise.

“But then, same thing here. They come back to Manitoba subdued, you know, ready to agree with the Mennonites who were against their going in the first place. But they aren’t particularly welcomed either! Snubbed, is more like it.”

After a lengthy silence, Johnnie says, “It’s really strange how these things work.”

At Patricia Beach, Luise follows Johnnie along a narrow path, through trees, over a bit of a hill. And there it is. More water than she has ever seen.

Johnnie tells her Grand Beach is even nicer, but Patricia Beach is closest to the city; they have to take advantage because of the hour, coming after work and all. The nice thing is, there won’t be many people.

It’s true, they will have this part of the beach to themselves. An elderly couple is just packing up. The man and the woman smile at Johnnie and Luise in a friendly manner, as if they want to tell them that one is never too old for the pleasures of sand and sea, even if the hours for it have to be moved forward. A young woman carrying straw bags in her hands and an inflated pink tube around her neck, her mouth set in a grim straight line, pushes past toward the parking lot. Two small children toddle after her, whimpering.

Johnnie spreads a blue and red checked blanket on the sand. He takes off his tattered tennis shoes, sets them neatly behind the blanket. He opens the cooler. He stretches out on his stomach and sighs contentedly. {17}

Luise sits beside him, her knees pulled up and her hands crossed around her legs. Johnnie nods to the cooler. “Help yourself,” he-says. Luise glances inside, sees Coca-Cola, potato chips, and store-bought cookies. Since she has never gone to the beach before, Johnnie brought everything.

Propped on his elbows, Johnnie doodles in the sand. Luise watches him; he cuts in a square, a circle, a triangle. He links them with loops and wavy lines. (Johnnie’s hands are wide and the fingers seem muscular, if such a thing is possible.) Now that they have arrived at the beach, Luise is waiting for a new conversation.

But Johnnie isn’t through with his grandparents yet.

“Just think, Luise,” he says earnestly, “if my grandparents had stayed, I would have met you in Paraguay. Earlier.”

He looks at her and grins. “We might be having a picnic on the other side of the world! Is there a lake, a beach nearby?”

“No lake,” Luise says slowly. “Just a small park . . . Well, there are dugouts on the ranches . . . But nothing like this. Not at all like this.”

“I think it’s neat.” He emphasizes the last word, as if he chose it especially for her. “I mean, I find it fascinating, to think how my life would have turned out if they had stayed there.”

Johnnie begins to retrace his sand figures, in the same order he drew them. “Have you ever wondered what your life would be like if someone in your past had done things differently?”

Luise has fallen in love with Johnnie, so she wants to be careful. “Well,” she says, “I guess I’ve wondered . . . sometimes, what if my mother had won. For a while there she really wanted to pick up and move to Canada. My father wouldn’t hear of it though. I’ve thought about it. A little. Getting here sooner.”

“Do you think we’d be the same people? The same if we were, oh, say, sitting on a blanket in your little park there in Paraguay? Would our history have changed us, you know what I mean? Or is personality—or perhaps I should say, essential existence—the same?”

Johnnie answers himself. “For what it’s worth, I think I’d be the same, you know, anywhere! I used to daydream in school. I’d imagine myself in all sorts of situations—other places I’d read about, other times. Even thousands of years ago. And I was one and the same. That’s how it felt to me.

“We’d be quite different,” Luise says.

She meant it to sound light-hearted, but the entire sentence has come out in one breath; her answer is absolute.

Her failure frightens her, so she bolts on. “We would never have met there. I’m from Fernheim Colony, you would have been from Menno. Not there.” {18}

Johnnie rolls onto his back, joins his hands under his head and fixes his eyes on her. “Really?” he says. “Why?” He is smiling, interested, wants elaboration.

Luise turns from his gaze, hoping he will think she is thoughtful, considering her reasons. The reality is, she’s irritated. She picks up a twig on the sand, breaks it in two, then each half in two again.

So he’s fascinated. So he thinks it’s neat. History as a whim. Their near-connection. Their near-miss.

He thinks it’s neat, and she would love to say, if you really want to know—your past and mine, your grandparents . . . The expression for what I think, she wants to say, in German would be, Es gibt mir zu schaffen. It’s making me work.

Luise knows her Mennonite history; Johnnie doesn’t have to show off about that. Russia-Canada-Paraguay: his triangle on the sand. His family and hers, moving along the lines of it. His people, fleeing Russia half a century before hers were ready to leave. Running scared of the world again, just when they’re nicely established, in Manitoba, in Saskatchewan. But there’s the Chaco to run to. Huge and empty. Nobody there but nomadic Indians.

Her people, barely getting out of Russia. Not getting out soon enough and landing there too.

Luise’s mother complained that only Paraguay was left, so what choice did they have? Her father’s version insisted God knew in advance and wanted them exactly there. He had to admit, when pushed, that in this case God’s will required the Colony Mennos coming first. But that shouldn’t be construed as some kind of recommendation. Even the Pharaoh discharged the purposes of God.

So Johnnie believes their meeting inevitable? That they might have passed anywhere and found each other?

“Well, why not in Russia?” she says. “Maybe in some coal mine or forest of the high north. A picnic under the trees. If the guard doesn’t catch and kill us first.”

Johnnie’s smile retreats slightly; visibly. But Luise is unrepentant. She can’t believe he is so ignorant of, so unaware of the differences, the splits along the way. He can be thankful she hasn’t dragged out the words education, culture, progressive to hurt him. His speculations are plainly ridiculous. Only one point—only this one—is available to them.

“We wouldn’t have met anywhere else,” she says. “It’s because your grandparents left. Because I left.”

She’s thinking, we’re outsiders of sorts, your grandparents and I. Quitters. But she has no wish to be rolled into a lump of dough with them. “Can’t we talk about something else? . . . I was hoping we could, maybe, talk {19} about us. Our lives here.”

Luise is answered with silence, a light, unthreatening silence no heavier than a feather would be brushing over sand. But still, it is silence and it weakens her, makes her apprehensive. Now she notices the nearly white hair on Johnnie’s arm, and the smell of him, perspiration mixed with whatever he puts on after shaving. She wishes she could lean into his chest, the way she pressed her face into the screen of the kitchen door when it was storming. She watched the dark and light and rain through their stages and was rewarded at the end with that sharp fresh aroma of washed brick and damp soil.

“Okay,” Johnnie says, at last. “Canada.” His tone is even, he sounds fine, as if he did not notice her exasperation, as if his long pause was inconsequential. “Winnipeg. Manitoba. Canada. Why not?”

So he leads off: his job at Palliser. Then, hers at Donwood Manor. The weather, her aunts, their mutual friends. Luise is pleased. Very quickly the conversation has become animated and interesting. Luise finds the words she wants when she wants them; her English, she feels, is smooth and relatively free of accent.

Johnnie brought a ball too, so after a while they get up and pass it back and forth. It’s a soft yellow ball. They throw easily, not challenging one another, making it impossible to miss. Luise giggles when she sends the ball off to him and when she receives it. The ball makes a light slapping noise on their hands.

Gradually they wander towards the water. They move in, step by step, throw by throw, until the water is halfway up Luise’s legs. The lake is surprisingly warm.

Luise warned him before they left that she doesn’t swim. Johnnie told her that was fine, going to the beach wasn’t necessarily about swimming. She even told him she doesn’t have a swimsuit, though she has been looking for one, she said. That was fine too.

But now Johnnie wants to swim. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“No. Really. Let me see how you swim.”

He strips off his shirt, tosses it onto the sand. He wades into the water. When he is waist-deep, he leaps forward and swims away. He does not look back or say goodbye. Luise watches him until he is a speck on the lake surface, until she loses sight of him.

She slips back to the blanket, sits down and tries to find him again. Sometimes she is sure she sees him, but then she thinks she spots him elsewhere, and there is no thread between the two places. The sun lowers gradually on her left, and the water and sky are exchanging colors, textures. The water grows lighter, more luminous. It springs away from her gaze, shimmering. The sky darkens, becomes more substantial, a solid backdrop. {20}

But on the water she can see nothing.

It seems to Luise that Johnnie is swimming a very long time. Could something be wrong? She does not believe he is in difficulty in the water. He moved with too much power and confidence for that. But she wonders if he is swimming away from her.

Luise debates this. She reviews his expression and his bearing as he left. Her last comment was stupid, she decides, speaking as if Lake Winnipeg were a pond in which he would circle for her benefit. He doesn’t like her after all, that’s it; he regretted this date, paddled in a vast intentional arc to some other point down the beach and walked to his Buick. He could be roaring down the highway in his boat at this very moment, glad to be away from her.

Luise shivers. She eats a cookie. Then she takes Johnnie’s towel, wraps it around her shoulders and arms like a shawl. She raises her knees, puts her head down onto her towel-clad arms, into the warmth and soap scent of the nubby cloth.

It was her outburst. That’s what his absence represents. Her sarcasm. She let her annoyance show.

But don’t tell me, the argument immediately revives itself within her, there’s not an ocean’s voyage and then some between Brudergemeinde and Sommerfelder. Russlaender, Kanadier. Fernheim, Menno. The two of us are from other sides and social subtleties all the long way back to Russia, and who knows, one of us is probably Frisian and the other Flemish.

Can she help that she already envisioned marrying him? Can she help that the complications were immediately clear, that they confused her? Her father will have things to say, her mother will have things to say. People say things! These differences matter.

She isn’t ready for the past, that’s all. Not his, not hers. She wanted to drive away with Johnnie from the places they had been. Over an hour to Patricia Beach, and all she got was Abram and Elisabeth Braun. Or was it Peter, Maria, Heinrich, Anna, Martin, Jakob, Katharina? Had he even mentioned their names?

She hadn’t explained, it all came out wrong, and now, Johnnie refuses to come back to shore. Luise pushes her head harder into her knees, angry. How many times did her mother warn and scold and prod and say, “You have to learn everything the hard way, and then you miss what you really want.”

Luise tries to relax, tries pleading. I can live with it, she promises. I’ll find out why they changed their minds. I’ll tell him why I left. With the details, I’ll be able to connect it as simply as he does, locate us together as he does, anywhere. {21}

Anything, if I can have him back, she moans in a whisper. Anything.

She’s being melodramatic and she knows it, but her desperation feels genuine. It’s why I came, she moans. Go to Canada and find yourself a husband, girl. Remember?

Luise is startled by a sound, like a nesting bird frightened into flight directly in front of her.

She hears her name, “Luise!” She lifts her head.

Johnnie is walking out of the water, dripping, tugging at his trunks as if to realign himself. “That was great!” he exclaims.

Luise quickly unwraps the towel she has borrowed.

He asks, “Were you cold?”

“A little.”

“Keep it then. I’ll put my shirt over.”

“No.” Luise jumps up. “No. You need to dry off. Here.”

The brown towel remains between them. He shrugs it away. “I’ll dry.”

“Take it, Johnnie,” she begs.

Again her intensity has startled him. “Hey,” he cautions, “it’s not that serious.”

“Sorry.” Her hand with the towel drops. “Honest.”

He stares at her, then laughs. “At the risk of offending you, Luise, I don’t think we could have missed each other in Paraguay.” ’

Luise wonders, for a fleeting moment, what it will be like for them, neither one able to give in, but she can’t consider that now: her worries have been silly and needless. Johnnie has not swum away from her; he is back.

“Take the towel!” she orders. But her indignation is a pretense.

Johnnie understands this, and reaches for the towel. Luise grabs it away. He lunges forward, but she is too quick for him. He wants it now, and she will not let him have it. She holds it out, he tries again, she pulls it away. Then she runs.

Luise feels the strength and elegance of her legs, teasing swiftly away from him over the moist brown beach. She is well ahead of him, the towel tucked under her arm as a taunt.

Johnnie chases, his feet thudding behind her, gaining. He catches her, of course.

“Now I’m dry,” he says, swinging her around, “And I don’t need it!”

“And I’m warm,” she pants. “I don’t want it either.” She thrusts the towel under his arm.

With one smooth movement Johnnie flips the towel behind him and over his shoulder and pulls Luise into its shelter. “We’ll both use it,” he says.

Luise takes her end of the towel; he holds his. Their free arms circle {22} each other’s waists. They walk back slowly, and slowly they gain their breath. The sun is dropping away behind a wide bank of orange and silver clouds in the west. The water is a field of shining pebbles, the band of sand is a path. Luise will write her parents about Patricia Beach; she will describe it as accurately as she can. How beautiful it is. For herself she will remember Johnnie’s damp trunks marking one side of her, and his strong broad hand the other.

Dora Dueck is a Winnipeg writer, author of Under the Still Standing Sun, and with Margaret Fast, Willie: Forever Young.

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