No one picks up ugly shells. I spent a good portion of one Sunday afternoon on a beach in Jacksonville, Florida. People lounged, sunbathed, played frisbee, surfed, frolicked in the water, and all the other beach things people do when they’re on the white sand and kind-of blue water of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.
The young women I took to the beach with me, two of whom had never been to a beach before, decided they’d make sand castles. It didn’t even cross their minds right away to feel the rush of waves from the ocean. They wanted to build a castle, so they began. Their efforts didn’t take them very far. With no buckets, expertise or enough interest, it seems, they quit and decided to pick up shells.
“Happy Birthday,” one of them jokingly said as she opened her fist for me to see the shells she’d picked up.
The ocean’s natural litter was beautiful. Most of the shells she’d picked up looked about the same. Scalloped at the edge, the perfectly ribbed back of the shells gathered at a central point that sloped upward on top and scooped like a shallow, smooth spoon on bottom. They were shades of tan and pink, reminiscent of pearls and black like the rubber of the thong sandals some beach visitors wore.
“They’re pretty,” I said.
She walked off pleased with herself and the ocean’s gifts and put them in her bag.
I got up from the beach mat to get in the water. The nearer I got, the sand became less yielding underneath my feet. It didn’t give, but stood against my weight, and there were bits of broken shells hiding for protection. Water covered my feet, washed over my ankles, rose to my knees and creeped closer to my shoulders with every step I took.
“Wonder if I can find a pearl,” I said to no one, as I’d ventured out much farther in the water than any of my other beach buddies were willing to go.
The big toe of my right foot became a shovel, and the others assisted, as I bore my feet into the sand. With each wave, big or small, it was difficult to remain squarely at my excavation site. The waves ushered me left and right, so when I could, I burrowed deeper until I hit something. I couldn’t tell what it was, but it was expansive–at least two toes width.
A wave rushed me, and my finding was gone. With my weight in my left foot, I moved my right one around the Atlantic Ocean floor. Nothing. No shell and worse yet, no hole.
“I don’t know how you were going to get it anyway,” I said to myself.
At this point, ocean level rested at my neck, and I’d already decided I didn’t want to get the sarong I’d tied fashionably on my head wet. Plus, I’d done up my eyes with shades of shimmery brown eyeshadow, mascara then perfected my pout with the help of some red lipstick. (My intentions were never to actually get in the water.)
I moved inland a few feet and began again. Dig, dig deeper, find yourself a pearl.
My foot burying itself deeper into the sand, another wave, this time rather small, rushed. This time, however, though my body swayed some, my right foot was still squarely in the place it had dug. My foot was serving as an anchor, and I panicked a bit.
The decision was easy: Stop digging. It’s not worth it.
I waded in the water a while longer before I walked even farther inland and grabbed fists full of sand to see what I’d end up with. They were mostly broken, ugly shells. I moved in farther and did the same thing. More broken, ugly shells.
Defeated, I sat down on the beach, like a disappointed child whose toy had been taken away. My long legs stretched out to the water as remnants of waves occasionally rushed up to the backs of my legs which rested in the sand then recessed. There were hardly any shells worth picking up as souvenirs, though there were millions of pieces as far as my eyes would let me see.
“Just like people,” I thought.
There are millions of people who have been stepped on, are broken, too small, obtuse, misshapen, pearly on one side and rough on the other, who are overlooked, as suitors search for pretty shells. The pretty ones are rare, but they’re all made the same way. Mollusks excrete sodium bicarbonate which forms a shell that protects them from predators under sea. When the creature dies, the exoskeleton is set free. Those same broken shells have been shelter and camouflage, just like their counterparts who end up sitting in bowls and on bookshelves. The difference is, people don’t seem to appreciate their sacrifice.
So I began picking up unique-looking shells–ones with holes in them and jagged edges–as a reminder to myself of all the people I may have overlooked, looking for the ones who seemed to be dressed sharply without the pompous air, spoke intelligently with not too much slickness.
“Why’d you get those?” one of the young women asked about the shells I was holding in my hands.
“I think I like the ugly ones better,” I said. “They’re cooler.”
“And there a lot more of them, she said. Then she picked up an ugly one that happens to be roughly the shape of Wisconsin and handed it to me. I put it in my bag with the others.