Excerpt: 'Penina’s Letters' by Joe Linker



From Separation:

Penina tried to grab a letter away from Puck Malone, but he was in a bully mood, and her protests fed his appetite for a tease. She looked around as if to go after another letter, but the letters quickly spread around. It would be hopeless and humiliating to scamper around trying to scoop them all back up. Penina retreated to my side, and we sat quietly and listened to the letters I had written to Penina while away in the war being read aloud at the reception.

“Penina, I love you,” Malone sang out to an encouraging cheer.

“I want to go surfing with you and get married,” Malone continued. I glanced at Penina. She had her head down, combing her hands through her hair.

“I want to lick the salt off your cheeks when you come out of the waves,” Malone read, but as he continued, the playful but sardonic tone went out of his voice. I recognized the letter as one of the first I had sent Penina after I had left for the Army. Malone’s false tone mellowed as he struggled to maintain a sarcastic voice while simultaneously discovering what the letter was saying.

“I want to lick between your toes,” Malone read, pausing as he scanned what was coming next, “and lick the soft part of the arches of your feet and around your ankles and lick up your calves and tickle your thighs and trace your triangle and stick my tongue in your belly button and tickle until you giggle, ‘stop, stop, stop,’ wiggling to get away but wanting more.”

Malone paused to gulp and swallow a swig of his beer.

“This is some salty dog stuff, Sally,” Malone bellowed.

“Were there no hurry, I would marvel,” Malone continued reading, “as the poet Andrew Marvell said three hundred years ago, two hundred years at each breast, or until the oceans again cover the earth, but here comes the drill sergeant with his whistle blowing his two minute warning so I’m on to your neck and brush your lips and lick the salt from your cheeks and close your blue eyes with my mouth and bury my face in your sun bleached hair. Got to go now. Love, Sal.”

“What god-awful mush,” Malone guffawed, to cheerful chortles, and he balled the paper up and tossed it over to Penina. She looked up and saw the ball of paper flying across the room and flinched as it hit her in the head and bounced to the floor.

The audience clapped and sent up a cheer after each letter, but applauding for the reader, the writer, Penina, the end of the war, one another, or the Easter Bunny, I wasn’t sure. The reception had turned into a party. Probably the cheer was for the eclectic, free and easy present. Albums of blues and jazz spun through the evening. We drank from coffee cups and tumblers filled from a large keg of beer in the kitchen. When someone went out or came in through the front door, or the revelry paused as an album was changed, the Santa Ana winds offered a reminder, blowing over and down off the dunes and through the Refugio streets and alleys down to the beach and out over the ocean, that responsibilities floated in the offing. But not to worry, it was a party, and on it turned, into the night.

“Should we be reading these private letters aloud?” Henry Killknot addressed the audience in general.

“Oh, I think they’re dear,” Peggy Ann said.

“What was that one about a drill sergeant?” John Humulus asked.

“Never you mind,” Mary Humulus said.

“Who’s Andrew Marvel?” Lucas Crux asked Penina.

“I’m marveling at these war letters, Salty dog,” Puck Malone said.

“It’s Sally’s feting,” Henry Killknot said in a loud, commanding voice, standing to address the general assembly, waving his arms about the room. “We are deep into a mythical festal surf feast for the soldier home, a postwar party game, Salvador’s resurrection from the war. Another letter,” Killknot called out. “Who will read the next letter? I will!”

It’s duck soup to suggest there were but two kinds of men in my generation, those who went to war and those who stayed home. The crucial question is what a man is to be, not what he has been, and how he experiences what he is, which is to say, the stories he tells about his life, if he tells anything. Most men are at least somewhat surprised when seize the day targets them with an “I want you.” No matter how much he may have been expecting it, some part of him is caught off guard. I was not impressed with argument, whether a guy went or stayed, wanted to go but could not, did go but did not want to go, went gut full of gung ho or hog-tied squealing. Of interest now was what happens if and when he went but returned, and that answer had to be unfolded. It did not surprise or matter much to me that Penina, as she said, had not waited. Waited for what? I could see a scalpel cutting across my skin, just below my navel, but I felt anesthetized. I could not feel the knife. I tried to reach for it, but my arms were tied down. I must have passed out.

Puck Malone was a surfer who stole waves, who took off in front of other surfers and cut them off. He had all the trappings of the local surfer hero, and the young kids apparently looked up to him, but he had no respect for what I foolishly described as the secret heart of waves. I thought that while Puck enjoyed surfing, the surf did not bring Puck joy. So I was not thunderstruck to learn that while he was away at war Puck had paddled about on top of Penina. The blast of the letters I had written to Penina being read aloud at the party may have taken me off guard, but only in that I was concerned for Penina’s feelings, and I had not expected to come home to find Penina’s emotions in such disarray.

I had been an indefatigable letter writer in fatigues, and there were plenty of letters to go around at the party. But how did Penina’s letters get to the reception? Was it a spontaneous, misbegotten idea, or someone’s calculated prank? I did not think Puck had seen any of the letters prior to the party, but Puck Malone was a trickster. The letters appeared out of nowhere and got passed around and read aloud, the music twirling within while the Santa Ana winds moaned down the alley outside. Penina looked beat. Someone put Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” on the stereo and set the turntable to repeat, and I kept hearing the “So What” cut over and over again.

Excerpted from Penina’s Lettersby Joe Linker, CreateSpace, 2016