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July 2023 Issue [Story]

The Castle of Rose Tellin

Silver Beach (Pink), a mixed-media painting by Isca Greenfield-Sanders. Courtesy the artist and Miles McEnery Gallery, New York City

Silver Beach (Pink), a mixed-media painting by Isca Greenfield-Sanders. Courtesy the artist and Miles McEnery Gallery, New York City


The Castle of Rose Tellin


Pen remembers it all. It was 1968. They took a family vacation to Sanibel. Pen’s father drove the station wagon. He held the wheel tightly and gritted his teeth and smoked cigarettes when he wasn’t gritting his teeth.

Pen’s mother sat in the front seat. She wore a blue scarf and black sunglasses and kept saying, “Slow down, Cal. What’s the point in speeding? This is a vacation, right? You’re supposed to be relaxing. That’s what the doctor said. Relax.”

Pen and her brother Thomas sat in the back seat.

It was a big back seat; but Pen felt crowded, as if there were more people in the car than there actually were.

Before they left for Sanibel, Pen and her mother had gone to the circus together, just the two of them, and Pen had watched in disbelief and horror as clown after clown climbed out of a very small car.

“Infinity,” Thomas had explained to her once, “is where nothing ever ends. It’s where everything just goes on and on.”

It was an infinity of clowns, and Pen was terrified.

She had started to cry.

Her mother said, “Jesus Christ, I’ve never seen a kid cry about the clown car. And I’ve seen everything.”

This was something her mother said a lot: “I’ve seen everything! I’ve seen it all!”

But at the same time, she kept having to say, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

It was confusing. Who knew what she had actually seen?

In any case, Pen couldn’t stop thinking about all the clowns packed into that tiny car. It made her queasy-stomached to consider them—their white faces and sad mouths and big, round noses.

“Pen looks funny,” said Thomas.

“Be more specific,” said Pen’s father.

“Her face is green,” said Thomas.

Pen vomited. And then she vomited again.

The seating in the car was rearranged.

Thomas moved up front.

Pen sat alone in the middle of the back seat with the windows rolled down. She forgot about the clowns for a while.

When they arrived in Sanibel, invisible flies were waiting for them.

The flies bit them as soon as they stepped out of the station wagon.

Pen and Thomas and her mother and father all slapped at their faces, their arms and legs.

“What the hell?” said Pen’s father as he twirled around, waving his hands.

It was funny, watching him, but Pen knew not to laugh.

The lady who was renting them the house came toward them smiling and slapping at her face. “You must be the famous judge,” she said, holding out her hand to Pen’s father. “What an honor to have you and your family here. I’m Mrs. Colwood.”

Mrs. Colwood shook Pen’s father’s hand. She shook Pen’s mother’s hand.

She patted Pen on the head.

“You get used to the flies,” said Mrs. Colwood. “And it’s worth it! Oh my goodness, is it ever worth it! The views here are unparalleled. You’re right on the water, as you can see.”

“Actually,” said Thomas later, when he and Pen were sitting together on the couch in the living room, “if you ask me, we’re too close to the water for comfort. There are enormous fish lurking out there. They’re man-eating fish and they’re just waiting for us to make a mistake.”

Thomas was nine years old—three years older than Pen.

He knew more than she did.

Or he pretended like he knew more.

Also, he made things up.

They ate dinner together at a glass-top table in the dining room. Pen found it disconcerting to look down and see her feet. They looked so small, too small for the job of carrying her through the world.

Pen and her father were on one side of the table and Thomas and her mother were on the other.

From Pen’s side of the table, you could see the water.

The sun was setting. It hung over the water in a thoughtful, reluctant way—as if there were something it had meant to do and hadn’t gotten done.

“Everyone to bed,” said her father when dinner was over. “It’s been a long day.”

“It’s been a long day is right,” said her mother as she laced a pair of boxing gloves onto Pen’s hands. “The days are always long around here.”

It was a rule—her father’s rule—that Pen had to sleep in boxing gloves to keep her from sucking her fingers at night.

The boxing gloves were orange. They had kangaroos printed on them.

Which was supposed to make them fun somehow, but the gloves weren’t fun at all.

In the middle of the night, Pen would wake up holding her boxing-gloved hands in front of her face and think: Who took my hands? How can I get them back?

It was a relief each morning when Pen’s mother unlaced the gloves and Pen found that her hands still existed.

“You’ll be grateful to me someday,” her father said at the breakfast table as Pen sat beside him facing the sea. “You don’t want to ruin the shape of your mouth, do you? You need to have a pretty mouth.”

Thomas said, “But how can you ruin the shape of your mouth?”

“By running it all the time,” said her father. “So why don’t you shut up for once? Learn to keep your own counsel.”

Pen looked past Thomas. She stared at the Gulf of Mexico. The water was so blue it had become green. It looked like a painting. She saw a dolphin leap out of the water.

“Can people ride dolphins?” said Pen.

“No,” said Thomas.

“But I saw a picture once of someone riding a dolphin,” said Pen.

“It was made-up then,” said Thomas. “Dolphins aren’t as nice as they look. They have teeth. Everything out there is dangerous.”

Pen’s father pushed his chair back from the table and lit a cigarette.

“Stop smoking,” said Pen’s mother. “That was another thing the doctor suggested. Give up cigarettes.”

Pen’s father blew a smoke ring above his head; when Pen looked up at it, he winked at her and smiled.

“Yep,” he said. “Stop smoking. That will help with the stress for sure.”

After breakfast, Pen went up to her room and crawled under the bed and sucked her fingers until she felt calmer.

“Fee fi fo fum!” her father shouted from downstairs. “Let’s get out on that beach and have some fun!”

Pen rolled out from under the bed. She got out of her pajamas and put on her bathing suit, but by the time she made it down the stairs and outside, Thomas had locked himself in the station wagon.

Her father was standing very close to the windshield shouting, “Unlock the door, you little shit! Unlock the door now!”

Her mother stood next to her father. She had on her blue scarf and her dark sunglasses. “Stop yelling,” she said. “It’s not doing any good.”

Pen’s father had a cigarette in one hand. The other hand was curled into a fist that he was using to beat on the windshield. Sweat was pouring down his face.

The invisible flies were biting. Pen’s father stopped pounding on the windshield so that he could spend some time slapping at his face and arms.

Meanwhile, Thomas sat in the car, in the driver’s seat, with his arms folded, staring off into the distance.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Pen’s mother.

After what seemed like a very long time, Thomas opened the door and climbed out of the station wagon.

“What is your problem?” shouted Pen’s father as Thomas walked past him. “Tell me. What is it? Huh? What’s your problem?”

“Let it go, Cal,” said Pen’s mother. “This is supposed to be a vacation. Remember?”

“Yes,” said her father. “I remember.”

“Why don’t you just do what he wants?” Pen said to Thomas later, when they were sitting on the seawall.

“Look,” said her brother. “I’m working on a way to get us out of here, okay?”

“How?” said Pen.

Thomas turned and looked at her. “I think I can make the car fly,” he said. “You know. Like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

“Oh,” said Pen.

They had watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Goldbergs’ house on the Goldbergs’ TV.

Pen’s father didn’t believe in TV, and so they didn’t have one.

Her mother didn’t believe in TV, either. Or that was what she said.

But once, Pen and her mother were downtown together and they had walked by a store with a whole wall of TVs, and all of them were showing the same thing: a bunch of ladies standing in a row, dressed in spangly costumes, kicking their legs up in the air and smiling.

Her mother had dropped Pen’s hand and stopped and stared at the TVs. She said, “That was me.”

Pen looked up at the wall of dancing women.

“I used to do that,” said her mother. “I was a chorus girl. A Darzy girl. This was a long time ago. Before your father showed up. He put a stop to all that, of course.”

“Oh,” said Pen.

“But my legs were made for it,” said her mother. “That was what Fred Darzy said. And he was the best there was.”

Pen and her mother stood in front of the TVs for a long time.

The smiling, kicking ladies kept smiling and kicking, kicking and smiling. They didn’t look like they ever intended to stop.

“I had a real spark,” said her mother.

“I’m going to start with the ignition,” said Thomas as he and Pen sat together on the seawall. “He hides the keys, so I need to figure out a way to start the car without them. I need a screwdriver, I guess. And some wires.”

“And wings,” said Pen. “You need wings. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang had wings.”

“One step at a time,” said her brother.

That night, before she went to sleep, Pen held the boxing gloves up in front of her face and studied them.

The gloves weren’t really to stop people from sucking their fingers. That wasn’t what they were made for. They were made for people to hit other people. The gloves were for hurting people.

You wore them so that you could hit someone and hurt them without hurting them too much.

One time, Pen’s father had gotten so mad at Thomas that he had picked him up by the hair.

“I did it so that I wouldn’t really hurt him,” her father had explained to her mother afterward. “It was a reasoned, calculated move, a way to get my point across.”

What had his point been?

Pen couldn’t remember.

But when she asked Thomas if it hurt to get picked up by the hair, he said, “Yes. It hurt a lot.”

Pen studied the smiling kangaroos on the boxing gloves. The kangaroos had on boxing gloves, too. And the kangaroos’ boxing gloves had kangaroos printed on them. And even though she couldn’t see it, Pen thought that the kangaroos on the kangaroos’ gloves probably had kangaroos printed on them, too.

It was an infinity of kangaroos and boxing gloves.

Which was alarming.

But not as alarming as an infinity of clowns.

The next morning, they all went to the beach together.

They sat on lawn chairs.

It was cold.

Little crabs went in and out of holes in the sand. The crabs were translucent, almost invisible. They looked like ghosts.

“Why don’t you two make a sandcastle?” said Pen’s mother.

“I’m reading,” said Thomas.

He was dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans.

“Where’s your swimsuit?” said Pen’s father.

“Leave him alone, Cal,” said her mother.

“I’m not bothering him,” said her father. “I’m asking him a question. A reasonable question. We’re at a beach. People wear swimsuits at the beach.”

“Make a sandcastle, Pen,” said her mother.

Pen got out of her chair and knelt in the sand.

“Am I bothering you?” Pen’s father said to Thomas.

Her brother looked up from his magazine.

A ghost crab ducked into a hole.

“Yes,” said Thomas. “You’re bothering me.”

Pen’s father stood and lunged forward. He picked Thomas up by the ears and lifted him up out of his lawn chair.

“Jesus Christ,” said her mother. “Put him down, Cal.”

Her father gritted his teeth. He held on to Thomas’s ears.

Thomas smiled a big, terrible smile. Tears rolled down the side of his face.

“Stop it,” whispered Pen.

Her father slowly lowered Thomas to the sand beside Pen.

“Pick up your chairs,” said Pen’s mother when Thomas was back on the ground. “We’re leaving.”

“Don’t worry,” Thomas said to Pen as they walked up to the house, “he can’t stop me. He won’t stop me.”

Thomas’s ears were red. It looked as if someone had tried to set him on fire.

Pen slipped her hand in his.

Later that day, they all got in the station wagon to drive to town for ice cream cones.

“What the hell?” said Pen’s father. “Look at this.”

Pen’s mother leaned over and looked where her father was pointing. She lowered her sunglasses.

“See that? There’s scratches all over the steering column! And something is stuck in the ignition. Somebody tried to steal this car!”

Pen put her fingers in her mouth.

Thomas started to hum.

“I’m calling the cops,” said her father. “I can’t believe this.”

Thomas leaned over and whispered in Pen’s ear, “I’m going to make a break for it. You should run, too. We should all run.”

And then he opened the door and he was gone.

Pen’s father turned his head slowly in the direction of Thomas. He turned his head back again and stared straight ahead.

There were only three of them in the car now.

For some reason, three seemed like a scarier number than infinity.

After the circus, Pen had asked Thomas about the clowns—about how so many of them could fit in one small car.

“They don’t,” said Thomas. “There’s a trapdoor under the car. And they climb up out of that.”

“What’s a trapdoor?” Pen had asked.

“It’s a hidden door,” said Thomas. “Hidden doors are everywhere. Hidden doors are all over the place but no one ever talks about them.”

Pen knew that her brother made up a lot of things, but for some reason she felt as though he was telling the truth about trapdoors.

“I’m going to kick the shit out of him,” said Pen’s father from the front seat.

“Oh, calm down,” said Pen’s mother. “Isn’t that the whole point of this trip? For you to calm down?”

Invisible flies came in through the open back door. They started biting Pen’s face and neck.

Pen’s father beat his hands on the steering wheel and then he got out of the car and slammed the door.

Pen and her mother sat and waited—one of them in the front seat and the other in the back.

“I suppose I’ll have to go find your brother,” said her mother. She got out of the car and then Pen was alone.

She sat there until the tow truck arrived, its yellow lights flashing.

The man who drove the tow truck had a patch on his shirt that said gene in cursive letters. When he saw Pen sitting in the car, he said, “Hey there, cutie. You’re going to have to get out of the car now.”

Gene gave her a yellow lollipop. “You don’t need that,” said her father. He took the lollipop from Pen. “It’ll just rot your teeth.”

“Okay,” said Pen, and she stood beside her father and watched while the car got hooked up to the tow truck.

“Your brother has some real problems,” said her father. He took hold of her hand. “He’s not like you and me, you know. He would never be able to appreciate a Picasso.”

The Goldbergs, in addition to owning a TV, had a painting by Picasso. The Picasso hung on the wall in the dining room. The painting was called Weeping Woman, but the crying lady’s face was not put together right. It looked like a face, and also not like a face.

Pen’s father had walked into the dining room once and seen Pen standing in front of the painting, staring up at it.

He said, “That’s a famous painting you’re looking at, Pen. It’s called Weeping Woman. It’s by a man named Picasso.”

“Oh,” said Pen.

“What do you think the painting is about, huh? Any thoughts?”

And Pen had said, “The lady is broken and she’s trying to put herself back together but she can’t figure out how to do it.”

“You’ve got a good eye, Penelope,” her father said. “You’re like me. You see things.” He had taken hold of her hand. “You know that I’m the one who named you, right? Penelope. Because Penelope was the one who waited. Penelope was the one who was faithful. I looked at your face when you were born and I knew you would never betray me.” He squeezed her hand.

Now, as the tow truck pulled away, dragging the station wagon behind it, Pen’s father kept hold of her hand. He squeezed it harder and harder.

The mechanic was able to replace the ignition on the station wagon. He made shiny new keys for the car, and Thomas had to stand on one foot in a corner of the house, staring into nothing with his hands over his head, for a solid hour. That was his punishment.

“Next time,” said Thomas to Pen as he stood in the corner. “I will succeed.”

“No talking,” said Pen’s father. “Penelope, leave him alone. He deserves to be punished.”

“But there’s no stopping me,” whispered Thomas over and over again, “there is no stopping, no stopping me, no stopping me at all.”

The next morning, before anyone else was awake, Thomas took the new car keys from the table by the door. He went out to the station wagon. He opened all the doors so that they would act as wings. He got behind the wheel and cranked the ignition and stepped on the gas and drove the station wagon out of the driveway and through a hedge and over the seawall and down to the water.

By the time Pen and her mother and father made it outside, Thomas was already out of the car and running down the beach. He was running very fast.

“I will kill him,” said Pen’s father in a calm and decisive voice, the voice he used when he talked to his secretary, the voice of reason and judgment. He leapt over the seawall and chased after Thomas. When he caught him, he punched him in the stomach again and again.

Pen looked up at her mother. She waited for her to say, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Instead, her mother screamed a loud, terrible, long scream; and then she was running down the beach, too, her nightgown billowing around her.

Pen stayed where she was. She was still wearing the boxing gloves. Her hands felt too heavy to lift.

The next day, Pen and Thomas flew back home to Philadelphia with their mother.

Before they left, they went down to the beach—this was after the car was towed, after Pen’s father had disappeared.

They went down to the water, the three of them, so that Pen could get rid of her boxing gloves.

It was her mother’s idea.

“Do you hate these as much as I do?” she had said to Pen when she was packing their suitcases.

Pen nodded.

“Good,” said her mother. “We’ll get rid of them then.”

Pen threw the gloves into the water. They floated, bobbing on the surface.

“It will take a while,” said her mother. “But they’ll disappear.”

It wasn’t as cold as the day before. They sat together on the beach, the three of them. Thomas read his magazine. Her mother held her face up to the sun.

Pen worked on a sandcastle. She collected tiny pink shells that looked like butterfly wings. The shells were strewn everywhere on the beach. They were infinite, and Pen used them to decorate her castle.

“That’s pretty,” her mother said to her. “That’s a very pretty castle, Pen.”

It turned out that Pen’s father had checked himself into a mental institution. Later, they went to visit him. A nurse named Linda led the three of them through a series of locked doors and down a long hallway into a room with a TV and armchairs and folding chairs and tables with puzzles on them.

Her father cried when he saw them. He pulled Thomas to him and hugged him.

“Penelope,” said her father. “Come here. Let me hold you.”

She went toward him. She let herself be held. Afterward, Linda the nurse gave Pen a striped piece of gum that tasted like fruit.

Pen chewed the gum as she walked down the long hallway through the doors and out into the world.

Her brother remembers none of this.

Or he says he remembers none of it.

“But you destroyed the car,” said Pen. “You tried to turn it into Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

“Well, I remember Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” said Thomas. “And the Child Catcher.”

“The Child Catcher,” said Pen.

“Yeah,” said her brother. “Because kids were against the law, remember? They all had to hide in the grotto of the castle.”

And suddenly, Pen was back on the beach in Sanibel, building a castle with a great hidden room beneath it, a place where the children could hide. She added pink shells to the exterior, making the castle as beautiful as she could—so beautiful that no one would ever think to look beneath it.

“Does this shell have a name?” she had asked her mother.

“It’s a rose tellin,” said her mother.

Pen liked the way the words sounded. She had used them to make a song.

“Rose tellin, rose tellin,” she sang to herself as she worked. “I am Rose Tellin, building a castle in the sand.”

Each time she looked up from the castle, she saw that the boxing gloves had gone farther away.

Soon, just as her mother had promised, she couldn’t see them at all.

They had disappeared entirely.

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December 2022

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