Nelson and Marge sit on a bench staring at the triangular bulwark of the Castillo De San Marcos Fortress, mosquitoes languidly floating towards them. They're on the last leg of the Florida Trip. Marge wonders if they should just give up the ghost, throw in the towel. Sweat blanches her blouse. She dabs her brow with a napkin, and sweat drips from the tip of her nose. She wonders: who are we kidding?
"Do you want to go back to the car?"
Nelson sits quietly, still. Marge slaps a mosquito and cusses the moat surrounding the fortress. Nelson doesn't like being rushed. He likes to mull. Marge's patience is evaporating.
"Well, okay," he says. "If you like." Marge doesn't look up. It's better this way.
Marge says yes, she does want to. She says she's hot and sticky and itchy, and she doesn't see what's so damn interesting about an old wall anyway. The Gonzalez-Alvarez House and the Plaza de la Constitucion were fine. Even the Cathedral of St. Augustine. But this is where she draws the line, right here at the fortress, right here at the mosquito infested moat. She doesn't need to see any more.
Nelson follows his sister as she walks through the grass fringing the water, and towards their car several blocks back. Boy, nothing changes, he thinks. Nelson wonders if things would be different if he was the older of the two. But then he's not sure if birth order accounts for everything. You have to factor in personality somewhere, he thinks.
When they reach the car, Marge slips the key in the ignition and blasts the air-conditioning. She turns two of the vents directly on her face and closes her eyes into the air streams. Marge hates the refrigerated smell of Freon, but she's willing to make the accommodation this time.
"You know, we should do this in the winter," Marge says. "What were we thinking?"
Nelson clasps his hands together and bends his head. He likes to use silence. Lots of silence. Air her out. It's the one strategy that works.
"Well," he says. "It's hot down here in the winter too."
"Yes," Marge says. "But it's cold up there."
Marge and Nelson made a tradition out of traveling to one Southern state each year. Marge and Nelson both live in Boston, but their parents were transplants from Georgia. Their parents also lived in Mississippi, Virginia, Alabama, and Kentucky at one point or another. George Miller was in insurance, and their mother was a housewife. The tradition of heading south each summer started five years back, as a memorial to their deceased father. Growing up, Marge remembers Virginia, but the other states were before her time. Nelson has only seen pictures.
"Now that they're both gone, you know we should do something to honor them," Marge said. "If we don't, who will?" Neither Nelson nor Marge has children of their own, though Nelson would like to be a father some day. He has to find a wife first. It was Nelson's idea to make a vacation out of it—to go visit Louisville Kentucky, where their parents lived for five years. Nelson thought while they were there the two of them might as well visit Lincoln's birthplace, and Shakertown, and The Constitution Square State Shrine, and Ashland. Marge enjoyed the historic sites and felt a greater connection to her roots, and Nelson felt it too. Sometimes Marge isn't sure "roots" is the right word, but she thinks it's the effort that counts. Marge likes feeling dutiful.
The next four years they went to the other three states where their parents lived, and then to Tennessee so they could visit Nashville and Memphis. Marge always remembered their father loved those towns.
But now Marge thinks they should have called it quits last year. What was their parents' connection to Florida after all? Nelson said that they used to go to the beach down here when they lived in Georgia, but which beach, and when? Nelson wasn't certain, but he thought it was somewhere down in The Keys. Marge wishes she could pick up the phone and ask Mama, but then she hasn't been able to do that in a decade.
Marge liked seeing where her parents used to live in Meridian and Petersburg and near Montgomery. She didn't mind the Lucas Tavern, and thought Gaineswood was beautiful and thought Ash Lawn and Monticello were a sight to behold. But she can only take so many tours, only digest so many "Jefferson slept here's." Nelson can use prodding, and initially she was the prodder.
Nelson didn't mind at all at first. It wasn't just about some kind of end goal, anyhow. No, for Nelson, the trips gave him a chance to spend time with his sister. Their lives became so hectic in Boston; they rarely had a chance to breathe. This was time in a bubble each year. During the school year Marge spent nearly every weekend grading papers and creating lessons, and Nelson's position at the life insurance company always seemed to remove him from the important things in life.
"I don't know, what's the point anymore?" Marge says. They are seated across from each other at the hotel restaurant. Nelson pushes his salad bowl away from him, and carefully wipes his fingers on his napkin. Marge bounces her right leg up and down, rippling the tablecloth.
"Well," Nelson says. He can feel the cool ribs of the chair against his back. "So what do you think of St. Augustine? I mean, it's something right?"
"I don't know. St. Augustine is fine, Nelson. My point is that this is it, this should be it."
Nelson folds his napkin along the crease and he looks out at Marge. He knows she is ready to settle down, that she is agitated about her place in life: the fallow time in her love life, her loneliness, her isolation. He knows his sister's position in life is not unique; he can relate.
"Is that what you want?"
Marge chomps on an ice cube, gulps the remainder of her water. She nods, and clenches her jaw. She fiddles with the empty glass, runs her fingers up and down the condensation. Nelson wishes he could do something to calm her down, to give her some peace of mind. He's trying here in Florida, but if she has had enough, there's no point in forcing her to enjoy herself.
They have already seen Seville Square, the Ringling Museums, and now St. Augustine, but they still had South Florida—Vizcaya and Key West, and if all goes well, a charter boat to Fort Jefferson for the day. Origins are a part of this, he thinks. Even imaginary ones. Who knows where their parents were? As far as he could tell their fingerprints are dispersed all over the state.
"I just don't feel it down here," she says. "They may have been here, but we're getting away from the point. I just don't feel the connection here. It's too remote." Nelson lets that hang in the air. He picks up his fork and watches the tines catch the light.
"Okay," Nelson says. He feels he has to accommodate, to make an adjustment. There's always next year, he thinks. "I guess you're right. We'll finish this off, and then we can go home. This shouldn't be painful."
"Okay," Marge says.
The waiter brings their entrees—steak for her, fish for him—and they eat in silence. Nelson carefully slices the tuna steak into segments, little parallelograms of fish. Marge can only wonder why she couldn't predict her boredom would happen before it did. Usually she has foresight, but not this time.
That night Nelson and Marge lay in their separate beds reading magazines. Marge reads a health magazine article on the dangers of liposuction. Nelson reads a National Geographic article on The Seychelles. Marge has her back turned toward Nelson, and Nelson flips the television on and turns the sound down for background noise. They always stayed in mid-range hotels, and this one is no different. The room smells faintly of disinfectant and mothballs, but otherwise it is comfortable. Marge thinks about how much nicer hotel rooms are now compared to her own childhood. Then rooms rarely had air conditioning and sometimes the sheets seemed dirty. Some things improve.
Nelson thinks about their family camping trips as kids, how he used to read comic books in the flashlight beam. He remembers their parents would sleep in a separate tent, a large orange contraption held up by aluminum poles and long yellow strings tied to stakes. The tent was garish enough to fit in a circus, and it would take them over an hour to stake the thing. Nelson would sleep in the smaller green tent with Marge. His parents only had one extra foam pad, and Marge and Nelson would switch off. As night fell Marge and Nelson would talk about UFOs and yetis and the Loch Ness Monster. Marge would argue that they didn't exist and Nelson would argue that they did. Nelson would open the tent window and through the screen he could see their parents' tent, aglow in the moonlight, an orange parade float. Their tent was always eerily silent. Nelson couldn't even hear rustles of movement or whispers. Nelson always used to wonder if, rather than sleeping, they were out walking woodsy trails in the moonlight.
Marge can't concentrate on her health magazine. She is flipping through articles on Botox and hair removal, merely glancing at the pictures. Nothing seems to stick; nothing seems to register. Somehow the world seems less exciting than it used to, but then Marge wonders if that's simply a result of growing old, of becoming a cynical adult. Marge remembers playing cards with her mother on the weekends, usually Go Fish or Old Maid. Her mother would pop popcorn the old fashioned way, and they would drink lemonade and sit on the shag carpet in the living room. Marge misses the flush of excitement and anticipation she would feel at the beginning of each game.
Her mother would watch Marge, and sometimes she would ask Marge questions about school, about life. Marge never remembers her mother talking about her own life. Now that Marge thinks about it, sometimes it seemed as if her mother was just killing time, waiting for her husband to get home from yet another long business trip. Marge is certain her father wasn't always faithful. He just never phoned home as much as she thought he should have.
Nelson slides the National Geographic across the bed, and it falls off the edge onto the floor. He kicks his feet up and props his head against the headboard of the bed. He looks at Marge and wonders if he should make nice, start a conversation. Marge can feel her brother's eyes on her; she can sense that Nelson wants to say something to her. Marge clears her throat. Nelson exhales deeply, almost a sigh. He doesn't feel discontent. On the television a young man with shoulder-length blond hair stands on a beach. Suddenly he kicks his legs over his head and flips into a handstand. The camera follows him as he walks on his hands, all the way to the edge of the water. The man is laughing and smiling all the way, and off-camera men make comments, and laugh. When he reaches the edge of the water, a wave hits the man, and he falls into a forward roll into the water.
"Did you see that?" Nelson asks. Marge turns her neck, and looks at Nelson over her shoulder.
"Do I have eyes in the back of my head?"
Nelson thinks this is an odd thing to say. It's just like his sister to say something like that, Nelson thinks. Marge clenches her jaw and picks at the stitching on the cheap bedspread. She wonders what the future might hold for her. She wonders if relief might be on the horizon for her. There must be more than this, she thinks. Nelson watches the man stand from the surf, dripping wet, sand coating his legs and stomach. His smile is as wide as the beach. He thinks the man is a show-off, but Nelson wonders if he was ever quite that happy. He closes his eyes, and in the darkness under his lids all he can hear is the unshackled laughter radiating from the television speaker.
"Yeah. Let's go home," Nelson says. He reaches up and flips the reading light off.
Marge bobs her head. The colors from the television leak onto the hotel floor, climb onto the comforters, onto the beds. Nelson shrugs and closes his eyes.
Nathan has been published in several literary journals and is the new editor of THE POTOMAC.