Friday, September 30, 2011

Dissecting the Short Story: "Beach Girl" by P. N. Elrod

This is the fourth in a series of posts (introduced here) which will appear every other Friday on my blog. In this series, a short story from a recent major fiction digest magazine will be analyzed in detail, to see what we can learn about how the author approached creating the story.

"Beach Girl" by P. N. Elrod
Published in:
November 2011 Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
Approximate Length:
5500 words
Third Person, Large Chunks in Flashback
Summary [WARNING: Spoilers Included!]:
Bandy runs a snack stall on a beach in South Carolina. One morning, the police are on the beach as she is setting up for the day. The person running the neighboring stall, Greg, tells her that he found a body on the beach as he was out for a morning walk. The deceased is a young adult from a wealthy family, the Fitzwalters. Greg reports that he heard the dead man had been kicked out of Harvard recently.

The young man's grandfather, Conrad Fitzwalter, comes to the beach with the chief of police. Bandy feels that Conrad is looking at her hardly when he arrives. Bandy considers the family history, which includes the death of Conrad's older brothers Harold from yellow fever during the Spanish-American War and James from drowning as a teenager.

The story eases into a flashback here, with Bandy remembering the summer she had met James Fitzwalter when "she was barely fifteen." Ever since she had been a child, Bandy had gathered shells and flat rocks from the beach to craft souvenir trinkets to sell to tourists. The public part of the beach has been picked over heavily by her during past collections. Occasionally she sneaks past the Fitzwalter fence on the beach and looks for shells and rocks on their property.

One morning, as she is starting to go through the fence, James Fitzwalter surprises her. He greets her as "Beach Girl." He is friendly to her and they look for shells together on his side of the fence. Before they each head back to their own homes, he says that he might see her the next morning.

The story goes back to its present-day with the chief of police buying a root beer from Bandy's stall. He questions her briefly about whether she saw anything that morning. Bandy banters some with the chief, irritating him somewhat. Once he has moved on, Bandy wonders if Conrad told the chief to question her.

The flashback resumes then, with James waiting for Bandy on the beach the next morning. Again they spend the morning in pleasant socialization. At the end of the day, he suggests taking her out sailing the next day. She happily accepts and dresses up in her best dress to meet him the next morning. When they meet the next day, everything seems the same as before until he knocks her over into the sand. James rapes Bandy. Afterwards, he goes back to his earlier demeanor. Bandy realizes that he must have thought that she was "simple-minded." She feigns compliance to get close to him and then attacks him with a trowel, slicing his neck.

She draws him out into the ocean as he tries to chase her. When he realizes how badly he's been injured, he tries to retreat but Bandy throws sand in his eyes, gets him down, and then kills him with a rock. She gets the body as far out in the water as she dares, expecting the tide to wash it away.

Bandy gets work for herself as a maid and saves up some money. Her mother tries to demand Bandy turn over her earnings at which point they fall out and Bandy goes to another town for some time. When she returns the next year, the landlady tells her that Bandy's mother has left "with some salesman who also liked to drink." Bandy rents a room at the same boardinghouse and within a few years rents the boardwalk shack where the story begins.

The story comes back to the present. The ambulance workers are carrying the body of dead Jimmy Fitzwalter (named for his great-uncle) away. Several young girls are standing, watching. Two of them are crying. The third is standing apart, her eyes are red but she is not actively crying. The night before, Bandy had seen her with Jimmy and sold them sodas and popcorn. Bandy came back by her stall late in the evening to check and see if she was low on cups. As she did, she heard sounds from the beach that reminded her of that morning when James attacked her; Jimmy was similarly attacking the one girl now standing apart. When Jimmy, drunk, staggers up the stairs from the beach to the boardwalk Bandy knocks him down the steps, killing him.

Bandy offers the young girl a soda and asks her where she's from. The girl says she's from Bellshore and Bandy asks if the "big ol' girls' home" is still there. The girl, Linda, says that her mother says that "bad girls live there to have their babies." Bandy tells Linda that "they ain't bad, they been hurt. Someone hurt 'em, they didn't ask for it." She encourages Linda to go there if she ever needs someone to talk to.

Greg, her stall neighbor, comments that she never mentioned being in Bellshore. She says that she was, a long time ago. He mentions that he's from Bellshore and she notes that his whole family is from there. He says "Not my whole family." Greg and Bandy acknowledge to each other for the first time that they are son and mother.

General Analysis:

I wouldn't exactly call this a "twist ending" story even though there are two late revelations (that Bandy killed Jimmy and that she was Greg's mother) that are not necessarily expected by the reader. I think this might be because of the very low-key way that these facts are revealed. Here is Bandy's murder of Jimmy:
"When he finally made his unsteady way to the top of the steps, Bandy rose from where she was crouched. Even an old woman could knock a young drunk over if she was angry enough. She shoved him hard, and that was that. Bandy left him down there and went home to wonder about the girl--"
And the revelation of Greg's parentage:
"I'm from Bellshore," he said.
"So you've mentioned, your whole family's there."
Greg's cheerful face went serious. "Not my whole family." For just a second he looked a bit like his uncle Conrad, then the second passed, and he said, "It's no accident I come here."
Bandy made no reply for the longest time. Then: "I figured as much."
In both cases, it's all very low-key (and I love the indirect reveal "he looked a bit like his uncle Conrad"...) but this doesn't work against the story. I think that if either of these had been too dramatic they might have felt jarring to readers, especially since the narration early in the story, from Bandy's point of view, explicitly ignores either of these facts.

In the first paragraph Bandy casts "an incurious glance" at the police and who are "looking at something below." Obviously Bandy would have known what they were looking at, but Elrod does not clue us in to this. She asks Greg if it was a drowning (which is perfectly reasonable for her to do as a means of diverting any potential suspicion from herself) but again the narration suggests Bandy doesn't know what happened with the comment that drownings "happened often enough."

On the other hand, there are hints early in the story that Bandy did something in the past and avoided getting in trouble. When Old Conrad looks at her on the beach: "She didn't let anything show, because that would have been foolish. It had happened a long, long time ago, and he had no proof, none at all. No one did." Later... "Bandy knew Old Conrad would have told the chief to question her. He would remember those stories of James, the family stories. Maybe there were some whispers he'd overheard in that big house as a child, or maybe he had seen something that day. Bandy thought not, else trouble would have come calling on her back when the favorite son had drowned."

Those hints that she was connected to James's death back fifty-plus years ago give the scenes when she is enjoying James's attention and company an air of foreboding. It's possible for the reader to deduce that James is leading her on and quite possibly had planned everything out in detail. He greets her in old clothes, which she finds comforting, a reminder that maybe they aren't so different. He shows interest in her shell-collecting, which he had seen through a telescope in his room before. Perhaps most tellingly of prior intentions, he asks her "Hey, Beach Girl, ever wonder where lemons come from?" and a bunch of similarly-patterned questions on the day of their second meeting. When he attacks her: "His breath was in her ear and he whispered. 'Hey, Beach Girl, ever wonder where babies come from?'"

As far as the revelation that Greg is her son, there are some subtle hints given. First, his age is correct, and there are a lot of references to time frames in the story. She has worked at this beach stall "for more than a half-century" and Greg is "past fifty." A more direct hint comes after Greg gives her some shells and rocks that he had found while walking on the beach that morning before finding the body:
[...] One especially large shell would easily get a dollar. Greg did things like that for her. He'd mind her place when she needed a comfort break, and she did the same for him. She thought of him as a kid, though he was past fifty. He acted like a kid, only not irritating, and that amused her [...]
"You're a good boy, Greg," she told him. That always made him grin and chuckle.
With these hints as foundation and the very low-key approach to the reveal, it felt well-earned to me, and not at all like I had been tricked.

Detail (Word choice, etc.) Analysis:

Elrod places the story in space and time explicitly at the very beginning of the story with a caption "Dipple Beach, South Carolina August 1955." This provides an anchor for all of the other time references in the story which tend to be less direct. As mentioned above, there are a number of references to time frames of about fifty years -- the difference between the time when James attacked Bandy and she had Greg and the present day.

There are a number of references to people underestimating Bandy because she looked plain. It stretches back to her mother who told people that Bandy was "hopeless and dim-witted[.] It helped sell more trinkets from the cart, pity the destitute mother burdened with a slow child." She plays off this herself when she feels as if Conrad is looking at her accusingly. "Let him stare all day. She'd stare right back, her doughy face blank and stupid, her eyes dull, and never blink once." She doesn't always play this card, though. With the chief of police, she flashes some wit. "She looked dumb and crabby, but wasn't, and enjoyed taking people by surprise." But when the chief gets irritated, calling her the "Dorothy Parker of Dipple Beach," she feigns ignorance of Parker, seeing "no advantage in showing off."

I mentioned earlier how much I liked the reference to Greg looking like his uncle. Another favorite line of mine comes when, in flashback, Bandy is informed that her mother has moved out. (The shell-and-rock souvenirs they sell have a hand-painted slogan "Souvenir of Dipple Beach.")
[...] the landlady told her about Mother running off with some salesman who also liked to drink. No, she hadn't left a note. Bandy thought that if Mother had, it would have read: "Souvenir of Dipple Beach."
I'm not sure I can put in words quite why that line worked so well for me, but I really liked it when I read it.

Did The Story Work For Me?
Yes, I really enjoyed this story. One interesting note comes from the little blurb before the story which notes: "Ever since, at the age of fourteen, she picked up her first issue of this magazine in a drugstore down the street, P. N. Elrod has wanted to contribute a story to our pages." This neatly matches my own history of having read genre digest magazines and wanting to see a story by myself someday in one. It also is a somewhat sobering reminder of how strong the competition is for spots in these publications. I don't know if Elrod has submitted many stories to this magazine before, but she's been writing actively for over 20 years and this is her first publication in EQMM.

Thanks for reading this dissection! If you've read this story and have comments, I'd love to hear them. I'd also be very interested to know what you might like to see done differently in future installments of "Dissecting the Short Story" and, as always, if there's a story from a recent issue of one of the major digest magazines which you'd like to propose I tackle, please do let me know.