Of Vanished Whelks

by Josh Jones

Mr. Algeria Touchwood ran the corner shop at the bottom of Canal Street, where he sold pornography—mostly videos—and (between shelves of toys and bottles of lubricant) tins of meat, eggs, and dry cat food. He rented out the room above his shop to a prostitute named Gloria who still turned tricks despite being twice the age of the girls in the town center. Some men need an older woman, she'd say, they don't like those young things with no meat on their bones. On slow days she'd come downstairs and set a pot of tea down on the counter beside Algeria's ginger tom. She'd stroke his fur, then run her nails through Algeria's wispy strands of gray until he'd duck away and grumble at her to go find a john. When will you marry me, and make an honest woman out of me, she'd ask.

Make an honest whore of you, you mean.

None more honest than us, love.

You just want my pension.

I can't work forever, dearie, and besides, you could use a woman's touch, and with that she curled her fingers into a circle and pantomimed a quick jerking motion in front of Algeria's trousers.

But he was immune to her flirtations. Chemical castration and years of yard beatings and muffled sodomy had seeped away all desire from him until he only rarely dreamed of watching boys shower.

* * *

It was Gloria who found Tommy Furpants lying by the curb. She scooped him up and carried his lifeless body all the way down Canal Street. By the time she reached the shop, her face was a blackened smear of mascara, like those inkblots that the doctors used to show Algeria, one after another after another. She laid him on the counter in his usual spot. Algeria ran his fingers along Tommy's flank, but he was Tommy no more, just something inanimate, alien, a hollowed out shell. Gloria found a lacy pillowcase to use as a shroud, and they chipped away at a dirt patch in the garden, barely marring the hard soil.

I'll call Rev to say a few words, and he can help with the shoveling. You look all peaky.

Can he afford to see you more than once a week now? He must be skimming the offering plates.

It's not like that, love. He only comes by for spiritual comfort.

Is that what you call it now?

He's a dear friend, and besides he's as queer as they get.

Algeria said nothing. He slumped down on the concrete bench with Tommy's wrapped body in his lap. His hands trembled as he pulled back the pillowcase. He felt himself wanting to cry, but the tears wouldn't come. Gloria sat beside him and pulled him to her, right up to her plump bosom. She stroked his fine hair and told him it would be all right, that she had cried enough for both of them, as if by touch she had absorbed all his fears and thoughts.

After the Rev sprinkled the last bit of soil over Tommy's mound, Algeria asked him to marry them.

* * *

The following week Rev brought his especial friend with him as witness, Algeria turned the Open sign round in the window, and Gloria pulled at the puckered seams of her navy dress (I thought wearing white would have been pushing it, she said). Algeria wore one of Rev's suit jackets—a musty, mothballed thing that threatened to swallow his scrawny frame—and a green velvet bowtie left by one of Gloria's gentleman callers.

You'd be amazed at what they'd leave, the ones who are in a hurry to get back to their missuses, she said. I prefer the ones who don't mind a bit of a cuddle afterwards, even if it's not so economical.

They exchanged rings behind the cash register while Rev's friend browsed the videos, frowning at the meager selection of gay titles and finally settling on a Swedish film from the 1960s. Algeria let him have it on discount, returned Rev's jacket, then reopened the shop.

* * *

On Saturday, the newlyweds climbed inside the parish minibus. Rev drove and tried to keep the conversation chipper, but the blue-hairs scowled at the two new passengers. Mrs. Nesmith almost refused to ride along in the same vehicle as a whore and a pederast until Rev relented to let her ride in the front with him. Algeria leaned his head against the window and watched the landscape flit by. He hadn't seen the sea since he was a boy, and nothing looked the same, not the highway, nor the billboards, nor the explosion of mini-malls that sprung from the asphalt like bedouin tents.

Gloria chattered with the other ladies, and even Mrs. Nesmith leaned her head back to listen as she described her methods of prostate stimulus. Better than Viagra, she crowed. I keep telling Al to give it a go, but I'm lucky if he'll let me kiss him.

* * *

Algeria did let her take his hand as they descended the steps of the seawall and stepped onto the scrabbly expanse of beach. A gray wind whipped the waves about. Gulls argued over scraps of bread and stolen chips. It was too cold for swimming, and the sandscape was nearly deserted. Algeria could almost taste the salt on the air—he'd lost all sense of smell decades ago—and he steadied himself on Gloria's arm as he removed one shoe and then the other.

Don't you go wading in the surf, love. You'll catch pneumonia.

Algeria ignored her and tottered toward the water. He walked with a slight limp, should probably have used a cane, and each gust of wind threatened to blow him away like a dried up leaf.

The beach curled away to a rocky bluff. Algeria's trouser cuffs were soaked by the time he reached the promontory. The waves crashed higher here, and the tide surged through gaps in the boulders seeking out the sheltered pools, filling them, then disappearing in a foamy retreat. Algeria looked back and saw Gloria eating an ice cream with Mrs. Nesmith. Gulls stalked them overhead.

In the tide pools ahead, a small boy knelt and poked at some unseen creature. The boy's sandy hair hung in his eyes; an intense blueness peered out from behind the strands.

When I was your age, I would look for whelks all up and down this beach.

The boy looked up and scanned Algeria's face with a fearless curiosity.

What's a whelk?

Sea snails. I would collect them and make little homes for them in the tide pools.

There aren't any here. Just minnows.

Algeria bent closer. His eyes weren't so good, but he could just make out the silvery flashes darting away from the boy's hand.

There must be some. I remember finding them everywhere.

Algeria knelt down across from the boy. A tidal surge dampened his trousers; he wondered if Gloria would accuse him of wetting himself. He swept the edge of the tide pool with his fingers. Empty shells eddied about in the water before settling to the bottom.

You're stirring up the sand, the boy complained, but then he too began feeling around the pool, crying in delight whenever he grazed a fish.

Algeria smiled for the first time in a long time. The sound of the wind and the waves receded until there was nothing but the boy's laughter and the splashing of their fingers.

Then the boy stopped. He turned and shouted, We're looking for whelks!

Beyond the boy's shoulder a woman strode forward, her lips folded downward. Algeria recognized her stare, her fear, or was it anger? His knees crackled as he clambered to his feet.

There are no more whelks. They disappeared long ago. The woman spoke with a crisp city accent, full of practiced efficiency. Let's go, she added, but her eyes were on Algeria. Suspicious, city eyes.

Algeria brushed the sand from his thighs and tried to conjure up an apology, an excuse. He felt withered. The woman looked disapprovingly at the soaked fabric clinging to his legs.

In the distance, Gloria waved to him. He lifted an arm as if to wave back but stopped.

My wife, he said, his voice broken and feeble, and then, It's my honeymoon, you know.

The woman followed his gaze to Gloria and looked back at him, her eyes softening. The boy ignored them both and kept his eyes fixed on the pool.

You're a newlywed at your age? That's rather sweet.

Algeria said nothing. He attempted some avuncular expression, but his face had already retrenched to the same lined mask he wore day after day in the shop, not making small talk, merely running the cash register invisibly. He wondered what kind of toys the woman used: probably a Rabbit.

She pressed her lips into a thin knife of a smile, then turned to the boy.

We have to go now.

Maybe you'll find a whelk next time, Algeria said to the boy, but he was already walking away, now running.

The woman turned one last time and gave Algeria a small nod, curt and precise, her smile fading as if carried off by the wind and time itself.

BIO: Josh Jones lives in Maryland. When not writing, he earns a living as an animator. Look for more of his work in Issue 6 of The Golden Key.