My ex-husband’s new beach house has a killer view of Cape Cod Bay. It sits in the dunes like a big gray whale run aground. The crushed clamshells in the circular driveway were unmarked when I got here. Now they’re tire-tracked from the three cars coming and going the last couple of days. The only car left is mine, a shit box Corolla I rented for $39.95 a day at the airport in Boston. This morning when I took my walk along the beach I looked back at the house and laughed out loud. The second floor windows turned into eyes. The first floor windows, flanking the French doors, became a mouth. From that vantage point the house was no longer a whale. It was a giant, buried up to its chin in the sand, laughing at me – ha, ha, ha, ha, ha – through glinting buckteeth.
The cover of the binder on the console table in the entry hall says, Welcome to SeaFoam. A photograph of a scallop shell has replaced the o. Inside the first page is a letter, which begins:
And goes on.
We’re sure you will enjoy your stay. We know that our house will come to feel like home, and that you will treat it with the same respect you would if it were your own. To that end, please take some time to carefully review the rules, regulations, and responsibilities of your tenancy. Have a wonderful vacation.
Best regards, Hoyt and Diana Abrams
Their first names are handwritten. Hers is angular and bold, his loopier.
Diana is my ex-husband’s new wife. She’s almost as new as the house. She’s a shrink and an interior designer on the side. Inside, the house is all her, not a speck of clutter anywhere. Every piece of furniture, every vase, every dish, every bowl is one of four colors: black, white, beige, or blue. Last night, I sat on the black and white striped sofa in the living room and watched the sky change. Earlier in the day, I wondered why anyone would hang a pair of paintings that were simply rectangles, one black and one blue. Now I know. The paintings are the same shape and size as the windows. Tonight, when the sky turned from that blue to that black I had to admit I admired the thought that went into them, although for the life of me I can’t imagine how she ever conceived such a thing, which isn’t surprising. There’s a lot I can’t imagine. At the top of my list is: What am I doing here?
My ex owns a chain of sporting goods stores. I’m a thief. Wherever I go, I steal. In Madrid I dug around in the dirt behind The Palacio de Cristal and pocketed the pale purple chunks of glass I found. Then I moved onto the islands. On Symi I pried pebbles out of the decorative pathways. At Forio I roamed the beach, sat in the steaming fumeroles, and stole tile fragments that had been tumbled smooth by the Bay of Naples. All of these treasures I’ve saved. I carry them with me in plastic bags marked with the places and dates where and when I liberated them. The one treasure I haven’t been able to label and bring back to the States with me is time. All that time I’ve left behind. No way to bag it or display it. I stole it and now it’s simply gone. Boiled away into the air – one country after another, one island after the other.
I have a son, Bruce. Until three days ago I hadn’t seen him in five years. The last time I saw him he was a skinny four-year-old with bright blond hair. Now he’s nine, still lean, taller, a duller blond. He isn’t shy. He didn’t hesitate when he saw me.
“Hi mom,” he said, “What did you bring me?” as though I’d only been away a week, not years.
This afternoon, before he went back to the city with his father, I gave him a lump of lava I lifted off the top of Mt. Vesuvius and a bit of pink fresco I chipped out of a wall at one of the houses at Pompeii. He’s too old for show and tell, but at least it was something.
When he was out of earshot I asked Diana, “How did you do it? He seems just fine.”
She was cutting tomatoes with a titanium knife. The orange remains of Bruce’s macaroni and cheese sat in a bowl, soaking in the sink. Diana had fed him before she laid out the bread, tuna salad, and lettuce for us.
“Hoyt had him track your travels on a map, and he made-up stories to tell him about your adventures.” She looked up from the tomato and drew her eyebrows down. “Nothing too outrageous. It’s best not to mythologize the mother.”
I squirmed on the stainless steel stool and swiveled around in time to catch Bruce walking through, tossing a basketball back and forth from hand to hand. Diana lowered her chin at him and said, “How many times do I have to tell you. Not in the house.” She was stern, yet smiling.
Hoyt’s voice called out, “Let’s get this show on the road while we’ve still got the light.”
“Do I at least get a kiss,” I said.
Bruce stepped over to me and pecked my cheek before he bounded off. My boy, suddenly shy. I wanted to hug him. Diana and I sat and ate our sandwiches in silence. Then she left too. I should have thanked her. She never said a word about my calls.
Wherever I was I always called, every Sunday, at the same time, 10 a.m. their time, and always, always, Bruce was there. That might sound like a small thing to some people but it was a big deal to me, something I could count on – more important – something Bruce could count on, even if it was only a voice over the phone for a few awkward minutes. He never asked questions. Told me about school and soccer, their weekends on the Cape, what he got for his birthdays and Christmas. Never asked where I was, or what I was doing. Always ended by saying, “Got to go now. Bye” like he couldn’t wait to get off the phone to run outside to rejoin his friends or go play computer games or whatever it is that kids do to amuse themselves these days.
After I listened to the crunch of Diana’s tires, I opened all the closets, and drawers, checked out the basement, and then the tool shed. Everything is so orderly. No nasty snarls of string mixed up with plastic bags in the kitchen drawers. No blackened pots and pans mismatched and tossed into the cupboards. The cookware is all nested next to the corresponding lids. Hoyt was never such a neatnik when he lived with me. His stuff was strewn all over the place: boxer shorts on the floor, t-shirts hung over the backs of chairs, every inch of counter and table top covered with piles of mail and spreadsheets from the stores. Add to that my stacks of clean clothes sitting next to mounds of dirty laundry, the perpetually unmade beds, the toys scattered everywhere like a minefield: bristle blocks waiting to be stepped on, Tonka trucks rolled over on their sides waiting to be tripped over. I guess you would have called our old place a mess. Here there’s one of those valet things. A hanger built into the back of a chair sits in a corner of the master suite. For the past year, while I’ve lived in a one room flat in a fourth floor walkup in a seedy corner of London, Hoyt and Diana have built a master suite, in their weekend house, no less.
Leave it to me not to plan anything right. They had to head back to Boston today. My flight doesn’t go out until tomorrow and I don’t have enough money for a hotel. I’m sure it was Diana’s idea to let me stay, even though it was Hoyt who made the offer. Of course I accepted. What other choice did I have?
They’ve left me with a list titled, “Things to Do,” which includes how to lock up and set the alarm system, and how to put out the trash. It’s clipped to the top of the renter’s instruction manual. The binder is sectioned. It covers everything from lists of important telephone numbers (Police, Fire, the alarm company, the handyman, the neighbor), how to set the alarm, how to sort the trash, how to turn the inside lights off and on, to how to clean the windows.
Use only the products provided in the box marked “Window Cleaners” on the bottom shelf in the pantry as the windows are treated with a sunblock film to reduce the incursion of harmful UV rays,
And there’s a warning too:
Always stay on the narrow marked path when walking down to the beach. Our sea grasses are endangered and thus protected by environmental laws enacted and enforced by the State of Massachusetts, thereby making violators subject to steep fines.
Every morning I’ve been up early, beachcombing. It’s a pain in the ass to get onto the beach. The wide steps at the center of the deck lead to a thicket of knee-high sea grass so dense you can’t walk through it. The path is way off to one side. It runs along the lot line between the house and the dune shack next door. That place looks like one of those handmade houses straight out of the sixties, lots of driftwood and rusty iron lying around. To get to the water from this house you have follow a skinny boardwalk around the edge of the deck to the west side and then over to the lot line to an even narrower sandy path.
I’ve filled up a couple of plastic grocery bags with stuff washed in by the tides. I scooped several cups of sand into one. I’d forgotten how fine Cape Cod sand is, like the stuff that trickles through an hourglass. In another bag, I’ve saved a handful of gray limpet shells, which look like they could be the buried giant’s fingernails, also a half dozen purplish sea snails, a few thin pink scallop shells, a couple of small brown starfish with broken arms, and some bright orange crab bodies. In a bag I brought from London are some bright blue incense cones, a fat white candle, and a jar of Boots baby food, strained pears. I’ve stashed the whole mess in a drawer upstairs. Now I haul it all down.
In the center of the living room a round black coffee table stands on three steel legs that look like silver bullets. The only thing on the table is a large ceramic bowl decorated with black and white concentric stripes. It’s as big as an archery target.
I set the candle on the bull’s eye, sprinkle the sand around it, smooth the surface with my palm, arrange the incense, and some of the shells. I search the kitchen for a bowl and settle on a small glass custard cup for the pears. The jar top makes a faint familiar whooshing sound when the vacuum seal breaks. I tip the contents into the cup, set it on the table, dip my finger in and take a taste. They’re sweeter than I remember.
From another bag I pull my best find, a glossy horseshoe crab the size of a dinner plate. Its spiked tail looks lethal. Maybe I’ll break it off and take it with me when I leave.
“To protect you,” I say to the ghost in the air.
All that’s left to do is write the name. A handful of letters shouldn’t be so hard.
“Think of them as disembodied members of the alphabet,” I tell myself. “Nothing more.”
I take my time printing them on a thin strip of paper, fold it over, and stab it into the sand until it stands upright on its own.
I’m not surprised Hoyt didn’t remember. Why should he? He never was big on ceremony. It was always my idea to make an ofrenda for El Dia de los Muertos, my altar to honor the dead. I started making them long before there were any dead to honor, once every year since our honeymoon, when Hoyt and I were still in love and backpacked through Mexico. We slept in a bedroll under pinon trees, in broken down iron bedsteads in cheap hotel rooms with cracked plaster walls, on the beaches at Playa del Carmen and Tulum. We didn’t own furniture then.
I love the idea of The Day of the Dead. The imagery is so real. Papier maché skeletons dancing and riding bicycles remind me. This is what we all become eventually, a loosely connected collection of skull and bones, and once a year, a name on a slip of paper offered up by the ones who loved us – if we’re lucky. It’s also Halloween, which is why Hoyt and Diana have rushed back to Boston. So Bruce can trick or treat with his friends.
I can still taste the cloying sweetness of the pureed pears. A little for you. A little for me, I used to say.
As the day fades away, I settle on the sofa, lulled by the spot of light from the single candle and the glowing tips of the incense, spiraling their musty fragrance into the air.
Bells are ringing all around. Church bells. They’re pealing the same phrase over and over, clanging in my head. No. That’s the wrong word. Clang isn’t musical enough to describe the sound. It’s coming at me from somewhere outside of my dream. I’m not in Italy anymore. The mariner’s church on the point at Forio begins to fade away. The ship models the seamen made and nailed to the crown moldings in the white washed nave, sail away as I fight my way out of sleep. Oh God. I drooled on Hoyt and Diana’s sofa. I wipe my mouth and run my tongue over my dry lips, and listen to the bells ringing a melodious bing, bong, bing, bong, bing, bing, bing. The living room windows are black. The only light is from the wick of the single candle, still aflame in the bowl. The incense has burned down to a couple of curls of ash in the sand; the bells are still ringing. My brain brightens. The doorbell! Who the hell is it? Trick or treaters? All the way out here?
I sit up, shake myself awake, get to my feet, straighten my shirt and jeans, and cautiously walk to within a few feet of the glass-paneled door. It’s dark inside, but the doorstep and driveway are lit up like a shopping mall parking lot. There’s a guy framed in the glass, an old hippie, complete with the shoulder length hair, scraggly beard striped with gray, and leathery face. He looks me up and down and shouts, “I live next door. The lights. The timer turned on the damned lights.”
“Okay, Okay,” I say, “Hold on a minute.”
I step up to the door and fumble with the lock to open it.
The man standing on the stoop has a wrestler’s neck.
“The lights” he says. “Every time they rent the place out they forget to tell the tenants to turn off the lights. The damn things shines right into my bedroom windows.”
He points to the house next door. It’s lit up like a SWAT team is trying to flush out a hostage-holding criminal. It’s probably stupid of me, (for all I know the guy could be a long lost descendent of Jack the Ripper), but I step out into the driveway to get a better look.
“Why don’t they just angle them away?” I say.
He laughs, sticks his hand into the waistband of his jeans, and scratches his hip. I get a flash of his stomach, which is surprisingly ripped for a guy his age.
“You’ll have to ask Diana. Something to do with symmetry.”
His T-shirt says, Eat Fish Live Longer. Eat Oysters Love Longer.
He notices me looking at it, and says, “A little self-promotion never hurts.”
“Nice,” I say, “And you are?”
“Wade. The neighbor.”
“What time is it?”
Wade checks his watch, a black underwater sports model the size and shape of a small truck tire.
“Eleven fifty-two,” he says.
“Almost the witching hour. I’m sorry. Really I am. I’ll turn them off. Right away.”
“You know how?”
“What’s to know?”
“They’re linked to the timer on the alarm system. It’s tricky.”
“I’ve done it before. There’s a book somewhere.”
“Yea. A binder.”
He follows me into the house.
“You don’t look like the usual type,” he says.
“Renter. Their tenants are usually gay guys, or dykes, or Volvo families.”
“Well I’m none of those. I’m Hoyt’s ex-wife.”
Wade retracts his head an inch.
“And the kid?”
“He’s a good kid.”
“No thanks to me.”
I’ve been holding the binder with both hands. We’re still standing in relative darkness. Wade looks through the entry into the living room towards the glow. My ofrenda casts eerie shadows in the candlelight.
Wade says, “What’s that? Voodoo?”
I find a light switch on the entry hall wall and flick it. We both recoil from the blast of light. When my eyes adjust I say, “Here.” I hand him the binder. He rests it on the console table and pages through until he finds the section about the alarm and the outside lights. I stand back and wait.
“See,” he says. “There’s even a note. Right here.” He points to it with one beefy hand and motions to me to come over to take a look.
There at the bottom of the page, in bold letters, it says: PLEASE BE CONSIDERATE OF OUR NEIGHBOR. Our next-door neighbor is a commercial fisherman. He goes to bed early and gets up early. The exterior floodlights, which illuminate the drive, shine into his windows. Please be sure to turn them off no later than 10 p.m. The lights in the doorway may remain on as late as you need them.
“They’re pretty decent people. Brucie likes to hang out with my kids when they’re here. Hoyt’s a good Dad. And Diana, despite all this,” he looks around, “she’s good people, too. I’ve never heard her say an unkind word.”
I don’t have to ask about what.
“It’s past your bedtime,” I say.
“Not tonight. I’ve got to drive to New Bedford tomorrow for some new gear.”
Close up he isn’t bad looking. Clean. He smells like soap. Ivory soap.
“Can I get you something?” I say. My hesitation is brief. “ A glass of wine? Or a beer?”
“I wouldn’t want to impose.”
“I’d be glad for the company.”
He hesitates and looks toward the candlelight again. “So what’s with that?” he says as he follows me into the living room. Then, “Ahh. I used to fish off of Mexico. Makes it look a little homier in here.”
He scans the table. His eyes stop at the bowl of baby food.
“A long story.”
He squints one eye.
“That’s what they all say.”
We laugh together. From the living room we move to the kitchen. He settles on a stool. I start to go for the Budweiser. What the hell. I pull a pair of Sam Adams’ out of the refrigerator instead. We drink it straight out of the bottle. Every cell in my body says, “Hello. Where have you been?”
“Hoyt won’t like you drinking his beer,” Wade says. “Especially if there’s none left the next time they come down.”
“Screw Hoyt. He won’t like me drinking anything.”
“Do you have a name?” he says.
“Miss Becky Sharp? And have you gotten your just deserts yet Becky?”
“A fisherman who reads Thackery. Ain’t that grand.”
“I had another life before I hit the high seas.”
“What would that be?”
“A bachelor’s, then a Master’s Degree. I taught English Lit for a while, until my old man died and left me the beach house. Thought I could come down here and relive the Cape Cod summers of my youth year round.”
“I should have known. Old money.”
“You know what old money turns into?”
I shake my head.
He says, “You didn’t answer my question. Did you get them?”
“Your just deserts.”
He isn’t joking.
“And then some,” I say.
He’s burly, with lots of chestnut brown hair and eyes so dark I can barely make out the pupils against his irises. I never know how I end up doing what I do next. It just kind of happens. Like it happened with the guy who took me to Symi the first winter and the one I followed to Italy after him. One someone always leads to another, a different season, another country, another man, until a year ago. I went to London alone and stayed put. Did three, sometimes four church basement AA meetings a week and not much else, until now. Hoyt invited me, sent the plane ticket, but I suspect it was Diana’s idea, wouldn’t want to mythologize the mother, let the kid see just how much of a fuck up she is before it’s too late. I can’t believe it’s been five years and here I am in Hoyt’s house wrapped around another guy I don’t know. We drank the beers, then a bottle of wine. Then he went over to his house and brought back a bottle of tequila, the good stuff, Cuervo Gold. In honor of the holiday, he said. The end result is that we’re in Hoyt and Diana’s king-size bed tangled up in their oh-so-fine sheets. Wade has propped his lion’s head on one elbow and is staring at me.
“Last place I expected to be tonight,” he says.
I pull the sheet up and clear my throat. My mouth has gone dry and I have the beginning of the tight ball of a headache forming behind my right eye. He reaches out to smooth my hair. I start to pull away, but his touch feels honest, so I don’t stop him.
“So who’d you leave him for?” he says.
“I didn’t. He left me.”
Wade looks surprised.
“No. For Bruce. I was a mess. It was better that way.”
“When my ex left she said she had to go find herself. Took the kids with her. She found herself all right. With an accountant. And it isn’t just her taxes he’s doing.”
“It wasn’t anything like that.” I say. “I was a thief. Still am.”
“All kinds of things. Other people’s air mostly and bits and pieces of stuff I should have left alone.”
I stand up. Naked, I walk to what Hoyt and Diana call the Cabana Room, pull the stolen goods out of my bag and haul them back into bed. I root around in the mismatched paper and plastic bags and hold up a seedpod shaped like a brandy snifter. I shake it. The seeds inside the dry brown pod rattle.
“This is a lotus pod from the Gardini Mortella on Ischia. There were signs all over the place saying to leave the plants alone. But I couldn’t resist.”
“You could have saved yourself the guilt. They sell those things in the flower department at the Stop and Shop. I’d call you a scavenger before I’d call you a thief.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
“A souvenir hunter then.”
“What’s important is, I know where the stuff came from. It’s proof. I’ve been somewhere. For a long time I didn’t go anywhere. Couldn’t. I could barely get myself out of the house. When I tried to explain to Hoyt he said it was my own fault that I was someone who sucked all of the oxygen out of a room, that I didn’t leave any for anyone else. I don’t blame him. That was after the worst of our shit. I think he knew then. The only way out for any of us was for him to leave and take Bruce with him.”
Slowly I roll to the side of the bed and sit up. I hold the sheet to my chest as I retrieve my clothes and while I dress. Wade pulls on his pants and T-shirt and follows me downstairs. I’m relieved to see the candle is still burning. It’s meant to burn all night long. Outside, daylight is just beginning to brighten the sky.
“Do you have anyone you want to add?”
“Thanks for asking,” Wade says, “Some friends gone before their time. Their own fault, but gone too soon anyway. Chris dove for lobsters, hung over. Went down and came up too fast. Blew up his heart. And Sonny. Wrapped himself around a tree on Route 6A in Eastham coming back from a night with some girl he was head over heels for. And of course my mother and father. They were good people.”
He tears a piece of paper into strips, writes their names on them, folds them over, and sticks them in the sand. I’m glad that my little loss has some company.
“Who’s yours?” Wade says.
“We had another baby.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Why would you? Four months old. A heart thing.”
I lift the slip of paper and hold it to the candle flame. It catches right away. I let it burn until I can feel the heat and have to release it. By the time the last bit of paper lands in the sand it’s no more than a pale flake of ash.
Wade says, “Something like that would send anyone into a depression.”
“It wasn’t like that. She was sick right from the start. What was I supposed to do? Say, “She’s not perfect. Take her back.” Nothing prepares you. I was never that kind of a saint. I didn’t suck the air out of the room. That poor little thing sucked it out of me. To be perfectly honest, when she went it was a relief. Later was when I started to get angry. I was just so damned mad, not just about the baby, about everything. About how predictable our lives had become. About being cooped up. About Hoyt, and his damned stores. About everything being about everyone else. Everyone except me. Bruce spilled some orange juice on the kitchen table. It soaked a pile of newspapers, and dripped down the table leg. When I went to wipe it up I started to slip in the puddle. Just as I caught myself he reached over and tried to stick his hand in it. I grabbed him by his upper arm. His right arm. My whole hand fit around it. As I yanked him away I felt the pop. And he screamed. The doctor in the ER said it happens all the time, that kid’s joints are easy to dislocate, an unfortunate accident. Hoyt didn’t say anything, but he knew the truth. He wouldn’t leave me alone with Bruce again, and after a couple of weeks I knew what he was going to do. I’ve wondered sometimes if I would have had the strength to do the same thing if it had been the other way around.”
Wade is staring at me. I light another match and hand it to him. One by one he burns his losses, too.
“Bruce seems to be okay, no harm done,” he says, but he’s looking toward the door. I rake my fingers through my hair, pulling it up away from my face before I let it fall again.
“I worry about all the rules,” I say, “If you can’t clean the windows, or put the trash out whenever you want to, or even make a path you’d rather take from your own house to the beach, what kind of rulebook do they have at home?”
Wade thinks a bit before he answers. His dark eyes narrow as he searches for the right thing to say. I don’t blame him. I wouldn’t know what to say to me anymore than I know what to say to him now that I’ve spilled my guts. I concentrate instead on the S-curve of his eyebrows and try to imagine how it would feel if I reached out and traced them with my fingertips.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “Those are all reasonable rules if you own a house that other people are willing to pay a couple of grand a week to rent. I doubt that they live like this all the time. From what Hoyt told me, the house in Newton is big and old. He’s constantly complaining about the upkeep, about all of the antiques and puffy drapes Diana buys, about stuff breaking down. You don’t want that kind of clutter in a rental house.”
I surprise myself. My eyes burn. As hard as I try not to, I start to cry. Beer and tequila and this man. He has a name. Wade.
“You need to take a deep breath,” Wade says, “and count yourself one of the lucky ones. Seems to me everything turned out just fine…” He closes one hand over my shoulder and kneads it. “…for everyone else.”
Abruptly he lets go and I stagger a little. When he heads for the front door, I don’t try to stop him.
I climb the stairs to Bruce’s room, and lie face down on his bed. He’s a good boy, a really great kid. Hoyt and Diana’s kid. His bed is a bright blue fiberglass Ferrari. His sheets are a black and white racing flag checkerboard print. The bed juts out on the diagonal from the corner of the room, which is wallpapered with a wraparound mural of the Indianapolis Speedway. The rest of the furniture is sleek and modern, enameled black and blue, of course. On one of the side-walls there’s a map of the world. There are little pins with round colored heads stuck in it. The Greek Isles. The Bay of Naples. The Mediterranean coast of Spain. Jamaica. Vieques. London.
Who am I?
World traveler. Barfly. Man-eater. All of those titles I’ve earned, and more. But not mother. For that I’d have to stick around.
Maybe that’s what I’ll do.
Who the fuck am I kidding?
I fall back to sleep remembering my baby girl’s face the last time I saw her, lying in an isolette in the pediatric ICU at Mass General. Her little mouth was as sweet as a blueberry. I could read the pale purple veins pulsing at her temples like they were a map of back roads to a place where there was no pain, where she’d be free of all the tape, electrodes, tubes, and wires. In my dream Bruce is riding his yellow big-wheel around the room, making a noise, bzoom, bzoom, bzoom, and in my sleep I hear the buzz.
A big-wheel? No softer. Something smaller. Something farther away. A mosquito? A bee? A muffled buzzing, outside behind the wall of glass. As I awaken the sound becomes more mechanical. Some sort of machinery, buzzing. And there’s the taste of stale booze. Can’t think about that. Mustn’t. Live and let live. One day at a time. All that bull shit. One hour. One minute. One second at a time.
The light in Bruce’s room is bright, but grayer than it was the last couple of days, as though he and Hoyt and Diana took the light with them when they left. There are no curtains or shades on the windows. The view is as minimalist as the house: grass, beach, water, and sky. I shield my eyes with my forearm, walk over and look out the window.
It’s overcast. The bay is broken by thin diagonal rows of foamy white caps. There’s a breeze. And there’s Wade. And there’s the noise. He’s all hair and shoulders and swinging arms, wielding a weed-whacker, sweeping it back and forth. He moves slowly but steadily through the tall sea grass. A fine spray of mangled leaves and stems showers his feet and the bottoms of his jeans. He looks like he’s wearing a pair of furry boots. When he’s finished, a crude path connects the bottom step of the deck to the beach. Wade releases the power switch and the buzzing stops. He puts the weed-whacker down, leans on the handle, and looks up at me. I press my hand to the window. The tips of each of my fingers make contact first. I press harder until my palm touches the glass. It’s warmer than I expected it to be.
Wade smiles. His smile is big. His teeth are white and even in the pleasant ruin of his weathered face. Behind him the bay has calmed to a gentle roll. The haze has burned off the morning. The sky is lemony at the horizon, bright blue above. Wade cocks his head and I force a smile of my own. He nods, swings the weed-whacker over his shoulder and steps off the path. Without looking back, he carefully picks his way home through the sea grass.
I wash and dry the sheets, quilt, and pillowcases, and remake the beds. I draw a goofy picture of Queen Elizabeth, wearing an oversized crown. She’s waving the Union Jack. In a word bubble I write Come on over sometime! and tuck the drawing under the front edge of Bruce’s pillow.
One after the other I check off the items on Diana’s to-do list.
- I place the kitchen trash bags in the large covered can in the refuse bin on the south side of the house.
- I check to make sure that the stove burners are off and the small appliances unplugged.
- I reset the alarm system and the timer for the lights.
- I shut and lock all the windows and doors.
I cross out number five.
- Leave receipts for your rental car, other expenses, and sundries so that we may reimburse you.
Sundries? Ha! Diana must have written that.
Outside, across the bay, where the water turns into open ocean, a distant storm roars although the sky is clear. A gray and white gull hovers overhead, watching patiently for a shimmer of fish. I drag a wooden ladder out of the tool shed. Like everything else of Hoyt and Diana’s, it’s a beautiful thing, silvered from sitting out in the weather, not the sort of ladder you’d pick up at Home Depot. Each rung is doweled into the sides and expertly reinforced with artfully twisted copper wire. I position it under the floodlight that shines into Wade’s window. I have to stretch to reach it. I angle it in, away from Wade’s house. Before I leave I unlock the front door, disable the alarm, and flick the switch for the outside lights. I turn them on and off, and on and off, and on and off again.
Joan Wilking’s short fiction has been published in The Atlantic, The Bellevue Literary Review, The Barcelona Review, Other Voices, The Mississippi Review, Ascent, Hobart, Clackamas, The MacGuffin, Elm Leaves, and others. She has also contributed creative nonfiction to The Manifest Station, New World Writing, and Brevity. She was a finalist for the 2010 Nelson Algren Short Story Competition of the Chicago Tribune, and received special mention in the 2016 Pushcart Prize XL Anthology. Her book, Mycology, which won the Wild Onion Novella Prize is forthcoming from Curbside Splendor Publishing. She lives and works at the edge of the earth overlooking Plum Island Sound in Ipswich, Massachusetts.