|Jan/Feb 2017 Fiction|
© 2016 Elizabeth P. Glixman
Frank Farrell came to my door to tell me he loves me. No man not a relative had ever told me that. And I had to tell him, please, to go away. Frank Farrell, who Mother says is handsome as a Wallenda on a trapeze. He asked me when we could meet again. And I said, "I see you behind the meat counter."
"Not at the market, or church," he said. "The way we met that time is what I'm talking about."
As if I didn't know.
Mother was somewhere in the house, and I was scared to death she'd heard Frank come up on the porch and could hear us talking at the door and would come in on us, or ask me later on who that was at the door. And I'm a terrible liar. I shake all over when someone asks me a question I don't want to answer. Mother has a way of looking right into me and divining, if not the truth, then at least that I'm hiding something.
I'm 36 and still live at home. I'm going to vote for Kennedy, and Mother will vote for Nixon. That should tell you everything. Her soul is dark.
That wasn't nice. She is tenacious as a bulldog, I should say. I'm giving a bad impression of her. I don't mean to.
We are different, let me just say. She would not have done what I did. Nor would she at all forgive someone who did... what I did. She is a pillar of strength and of Christian faith and virtue.
And I thought I was, too. But even before that day on the island—the hottest day of summer, the hottest day on record, maybe—even before that day, I would have forgiven someone who did what I so suddenly, so uncharacteristically, so regrettably did.
"On the hottest day of summer, three persons entered the pine woods at the center of the island. But later that afternoon, when it had all happened and was finished, only two of them came out."
I wrote this and threw it away.
I teach civics and language arts in middle school grades. But in my summers, as Clark Kent turns into Superman when he enters that phone booth, or Bruce Wayne turns into Batman when he dons his mask and revs up the Bat Mobile, I transform into "Amelia Ridge, would-be novelist!"
The summers come and go, so many of them. Mother comes to me like the devil to Faust and says, "Sixteen summers, Amelia. Show me what you've got. How many chapters so far? " And I go back each fall to doing what I have to do, as I soon will again, a little more detached and desperate each time.
"It takes time, Mother."
"How much do you need, Amelia? You've been trying to write this thing since WWII."
I began writing because I love to be told stories. I decided I could do for myself and others what great authors have done for me. I could begin a journey on page one that would take me far from where I didn't want to be and deposit me at "The End," a wiser, better, stronger, calmer person than I'd been.
But I never get very far. A chapter or two and I run out of steam and throw it all away. Or I run out of time and summer ends, and when I come back to the story the next summer it strikes me as boring or amateurish. I literally laugh at myself and say, "Amelia, how could you have fooled yourself into thinking you had anything in this? What kind of person were you last summer that you thought this was worth keeping all winter?"
I'm trying to get somewhere, but I don't know where, or how, or who or what to take with me when I go, and anyway I have to come back before I've gotten any distance, to attend to my real duties as a teacher.
But I wrote this, this summer. A few days ago. And I saw what I had written. And I saw the whole thing, beginning to end. In those two sentences. And what I saw was so horrible. The complete journey. From beginning to end. The terror of it. The full sweep. Nothing left out. Saw everyone and everything I would have to take along with me to the end, or discard on the way to the end, that I actually cried out, "No!" and tore the page out of my typewriter and took it to the garbage can and laid a brick on the lid as though this piece of paper had a spirit in it, and muscle, and could force its way out of the garbage can and take on a life of its own, independent of my will to control my imagination.
Mother rescued it from the trash. Come to find out, she'd been doing that all summer.
"How do you expect to make any progress if you don't keep what you write?"
She'd put all my aborted efforts in a box in her closet. Read them all. But this one she gave back to me. This one "gripped" her, she said. And so it would anyone who could do simple math.
"Three in, two out, leaves one unaccounted for, Amelia. There is not a person alive who would not be eaten up by curiosity over the math."
As am I.
So, Mother has given me back my beginning and demanded I go on with it. I told her it was impossible. I don't know why I wrote even this much, but it's as far as I can go.
"You wrote this," she said, "because of what's happened to that that student of yours, Roberta Sookey,who was last seen walking uphill from the Peak's Island ferry terminal two weeks ago, talking to two other persons, a man and a woman, also disembarking from the ferry that last day of July, the hottest day on record in 36 years. The hottest day, Amelia, since you were born. Now, you, as a writer, a person who has cultivated her imagination, you of all people, and knowing this girl and her character as you do, should be able—given a few pertinent facts, even those few dribbled around in the newspaper—should be able to take those bits of information and weave them through to a plausible conclusion. And I'd bet my good dollar that what you come up with in your so-called fiction turns out to be darned close to the actual facts of the case when they're found out. And why did you specially weight down the garbage can lid on this piece of paper? Were you afraid it would leap out and get you? It only piqued my curiosity the more, to find out what was so potent you'd want to hold it down with a brick."
I am so stupid sometimes. The last thing I want to do is pique my mother's curiosity. Then, again, I didn't know how she was riffling through the garbage, rescuing my lost masterpieces.
"You, you yourself, Amelia, went over to the island that day. The hottest day of summer. The hottest day in 36 years. Amelia. Amelia. You've not been yourself either since that day. You've been skittish. Nervous. Odd. Look at you now. Your hands are trembling."
"Odd, Mother? Exactly how do you mean, 'odd'?"
"You just don't seem your usual calm, collected self, that's all."
"Mother, I get this way every year, as summer draws to an end and the last day of vacation gets closer and closer, and the prospect of going back to teaching for another years looms overhead. When I had such high hopes."
"High hopes? What were your high hopes?"
"Of writing a novel that will start me on a new path and rescue me from ever having to set foot in a classroom again."
"Nonsense. You don't get this way every year. I've never seen you like this before. Nervous. Your eyes all red like you've been crying. Wringing your hands. Sighing, twisting this way and that like you'd like nothing more than to tear away from yourself and run mad down the street."
"I guess I've finally lost my faith that anything will ever change. I'll go on this way till I die."
"Is it such a bad life?"
"No, Mother, in many ways it is not."
"Then, what do you want? Tell me! Count your blessings like a good girl, and stop fussing."
"Mother, people with good lives, with much to be thankful for, go crazy all the time."
"That is because they are self-indulgent and self-pitying. The ugliest of human traits is self pity."
I have never yet, not once in my entire life, been able to carry a point with Mother. And when I give up, she calls my acquiescence "sulking."
I don't know. I really don't. I sometimes wish I could just disappear. That's a terrible thing to say. I'm sorry. Truly, I am.
Roberta Sookey was in my lower level eighth grade language arts class this past year, though she is capable of doing middle or top level work. She's clever, but lazy, remarkably well-developed physically for a girl her age. Which is a great misfortune at this point. Her physical development gains her a lot of attention, but of the wrong sort, and from the wrong sort of persons. Men. Boys. Do they know how they can hurt her? Do they care? Her home life is such that she receives no direction, moral instruction. Her mother brings a new boyfriend into the picture every few weeks, and in between boyfriends, Roberta's father makes his appearance, stays a while, and disappears again. Her brother, Donnie, well, that's too sad a story to go into. Disappearing is a family habit, let me say.
Which is not, I'm sorry, meant to make light of what has happened to Roberta. Whatever that might be.
She's actually a rather likable girl. She has an eagerness to win friends, but, then, I'm afraid, to dominate them, to keep them or impress them, through lies. Many of us will lie if we are forced to, as a way of eluding the grasp of someone or something trying to gain power over us and carry us away. But Roberta seizes on lying as a way to dominate. To win and maintain control. She thinks through lying she will consolidate her power and create her little empire. But her peers see through her. They challenge her outright, which, rather than causing her to tuck tail and run, or to examine her method of trying to win friends, only goads her to new heights of fibbing.
It's really sad. She's a very lonely girl. And loneliness at that age, her desire to be liked, even loved, her lack of parental guidance, and her striking physical maturity: it's all an unfortunate combination of ingredients. One doesn't like to predict these things, but if I'd been asked to name one of our students likely to go missing under suspicious circumstances, I would have named Roberta without a moment's hesitation.
If she had once turned to me this year and said, "I am lost, Miss Ridge. I am lost," maybe none of this would have happened. Maybe I could have helped her. Been a mother-figure or a sister-figure to her. But I needed her permission. If I had gone to her and said, "You are lost, Roberta," as I felt so many times like doing, she would have laughed at me. Or thought I was crazy.
We are so much alike it turns out. And that is why we appear so different. I know how not to be known for the worst I might be. But no one has ever taught Roberta how to behave with reticence or self-control.
"Ginny Farrell's pregnant again," Mother tells me. "Had you heard?"
"Yes, I'd heard."
"Good Lord, what does this make? Number five? Number six?"
"This will be their fourth child, Mother."
"And their youngest one, what, seven months now?"
"Their Charles was born just before Christmas."
"What's wrong with the man? Can't he leave her alone? Your father and I, thank God, appreciated other things about each other. He wasn't at me all the time, like Frank Farrell is at his wife."
"Did you ever stop to think, Mother, it might be her after him?"
That shocked her to silence for a second. But then, "No woman wants to be in that shape continually," she said. "No woman would go after being in that way on a non-stop basis. Not even if she was in love with her husband."
I made the mistake of answering that I thought it would be very easy to be in love with Frank Farrell. Mistake, because after that, every time I saw him in the grocery or met him in church, I could feel Mother watching me. I'd perspire. I'd become so self-conscious, I could barely look the man in the eye, even when I did business with him across the meat counter. And I'd blush terribly. As surely as if I had a fever in my cheeks. If I hadn't admitted that to Mother, I could have kept everything hidden. And maybe none of what's happened this summer would have taken place. If I had just kept my feelings to myself.
Mother waited a moment, and then she said, "Amelia, some men test women. By being married to them, and by being unavailable to the rest of them. Do you understand what I am saying? I am sure that Ginny lets him because she knows that if she doesn't he'll quick as that—she snapped her fingers—find some other women who will let him. Beauty of his kind is a disaster. It absorbs and takes what it wants, because it can. He is a walking, talking temple of worship. He is one of those who tests our goodness, our loyalties, our sense of duty and purity. Purity is the only freedom, our only freedom, Darling."
Then she touched me very tenderly on the cheek, and I could have screamed. But I answered softly, "I know, Mother."
Frank is not at all stuck on himself. He is not a swaggerer, or a braggart. Fine old word: braggart.
He said to me once, "A mystery is not a mystery unless it goes on and on. A so-called mystery that can be solved is merely a dressed-up problem. People are mysteries. You're a mystery, Amelia."
Are those the words of a swaggerer? A braggart? A Lothario?
We are not problems to be solved. We are mysteries that go on and on forever. People like Roberta, who do not feel and respect the mystery within themselves, and accept that it is there and of infinite worth, in and of itself, people like her invent tales, become habitual liars, trying to create a mystique that could as easily be formed by telling the truth. Telling the truth does not solve the riddle of existence. Does it? Honesty does not exhaust mystery. We are all mysteries. We are not problems to be solved. We go on and on.
After we die, we are as mysterious as we were in life. Moreso.
Where do we come from? Where do we go? Are we just dust? How absurd. But if true, how does dust become this? That can talk and think and plan and hope and touch and love and contemplate its own unfathomable nature? Loving, thinking, troubled dust. Troubled. At war with itself. With others. And what in the world, anyway, is an emotion in something that, in its final state, oozes and turns back into dust and mites?
Where does an emotion come from? Where does it go?
And so, not accepting the fantastic, the marvelous nature that is her inheritance by birth, that lives inside her and is only deepened by honesty, Roberta tells her lies. For example, on the ferry over that day, the hottest day of summer, the hottest day in 36 years, the length of my life so far, Roberta told me she was heading over to the far side of the island, to Steele Battery, to have a picnic with Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. That was supposed to make me respond with admiration and envy. As though she had opened a further door into the jeweled vault of her soul. Instead I found her blatant attention-seeking repulsive. I felt as though she'd shown me a room filled with the stench of corruption. But she smiled, and the wind blew through her beautiful blond hair. And I said nothing.
We met by accident. Quite by accident. On board the ferry. The ferry was crowded. I was alone. We were all alone. Traveling separately. And we found each other. Roberta was hanging over the railing on the top deck, looking for harbor seals.
"Yes," Roberta said, after we'd got to talking, "Natalie is my cousin. Her father and my mother are brother and sister."
I've read that Natalie Wood's parents are Russian immigrants, but I didn't say anything.
My friend Melinda and I had a date to go to the island for lunch. When Melinda didn't show up for the 11:15 ferry, I called her from the terminal. Her baby sitter had canceled. She was having trouble finding another. If she could manage, she'd come in time for the 12:15 ferry. If not, we'd have to forgo our excursion. She didn't show. I should have gone home, but it was so unmercifully hot, and Mother was in a fussy mood, and her bridge ladies were coming. Given the extreme heat, I didn't think I could endure the long afternoon at home with them. So, I decided to go over on my own.
When I met Roberta on deck, I toyed with the idea of asking her to have lunch with me, my treat, but then she told me her ridiculous story about meeting Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, and I was suddenly so disgusted by her, that she would feel it necessary to lie to me, that I thought, "I can't bear you. I can't bear the thought of sitting across a table from you for an hour or more, listening to lie after lie. And if I dare to confront you, you'll just sidestep me. It's all a game with you, to be at one and the same time in complete control and elusive, too." I hated her, as much as I pitied her. And at the same time a terrible dread came over me. For her. I felt very strongly that she was... doomed. That each lie she told added another burden to her soul, and that the sheer weight of her lies would finally crush her. Though she appeared lighthearted and had no idea what she was doing to herself.
I told her I was meeting a friend. Small lie, since the meeting with Melinda had been intended, though it failed. I told this—alteration of the facts—to stop my tongue and keep myself from asking Roberta to lunch.
At that very moment, Frank Farrell came up behind me and said, "Is that you, Amelia?"
When I went on board, I'd prayed a little prayer, to myself, not to God. God would never honor such a nasty wish as I prayed—but I prayed, "Please, let me go and keep going, on and on, out past the horizon, and never have to come back to this place."
I love Mother, but it is possible to love someone and still imagine an alternate life for yourself. Whether or not this is a great evil, I don't know. I only know it is possible, without intending malice toward another person, to wish for a life in which that person... does not exist.
That day, hot and stifling as it was, I felt summer drawing to a close. I knew I would not escape. My escape would consist of my trip over to the island and whatever the trip contained. "This is it, Amelia," I said to myself. "Fly, fly, fly so hard, for two or three hours, that your heart bursts. Come back the same woman, but completely changed inside, so that they mistake you for yourself, those people who have always known you. The happiest you will ever be is being mistaken for the old Amelia when you know very well the diamond has been cut. The jewel inside you will have been mined and cut to perfection and—"
I knew I would not escape. Knew with finality it was all over. My summer, my would-be career. I might very well return to my old way of life, it might very well appear that I did, but something fundamental changed in that moment, as I looked into Frank Farrell's chilling blue eyes, at his wide jaws and blue-black hair and dimpled cheeks and cleft chin and muscular hands. Suddenly nothing was of any consequence but that I was desperately in love with Frank Farrell, who was married, whose wife was pregnant with their fifth child, who was our butcher, who needed a shave, whose face I wanted to touch, who made me blush, who was a member of our church. And whom I could never have. Never.
Unless I wanted to enter into mortal sin. But, to return to my dwindling life later that afternoon, and for the rest of my days? Ah! That was punishment already for a mortal sin, I felt.
My feelings. How many times had I told the children in my Sunday school classes not to be guided by their feelings alone, to stop and question them critically, using the Bible and the teachings of our Lord Jesus as their ultimate guide?
Hypocrite. Though I guess one cannot be a teacher without being a hypocrite. Teaching presupposes hypocrisy.
But I felt that to live my life was to live condemned to that life. Condemned to it. Not privileged. Condemned.
Sometimes you'll see the sun flash off the mirror of a car as it turns the corner. Or you'll look up and see the sun flash off the wing of a plain a mile overhead. Just for an instant everything is that brightness hurting your eyes.
I had one of those moments of madness great criminals or great saints talk about, had it there on the top deck of the ferry, standing with beautiful Roberta Sookey, with even more beautiful Frank Farrell, as we pushed off from shore. That I could give up everything, everything, throw away my past life, for one great life-changing experience. And had better do so within the next hours or the impulse would never come again. Never.
It must have been a moment very like Roberta's decision to start telling lies, if she ever consciously made such a decision. To create her life, the one she wanted, and never look back and never listen to the jeers of those who did not believe a word of what she was saying.
"Oh! That's what I'm really like," I thought with a mild shudder that forced itself out as a grudging smile. "I could commit a murder and not care because it's all the same if I do or don't and Frank Farrell will always belong to Ginny Farrell. He is the only man I have actually fallen in love with, and he knows I have because I'm blushing and blinking and turning away and don't know what to say. And his well-watered and well-fed male ego is flattered to know that the maiden lady in front of him is eaten up with passion for him.
"He can tell. Roberta can tell. Frank Farrell is so beautiful, he is like a sharp flash of light that causes me to wince, showing me in an instant that Frank Farrell is not mine. And that knife thrust of light and beauty and denial makes me reckless. Daring."
"Frank," I said, "What are you going over for?"
"My brother has a house on Peaks. I'm going to help him dig a pit for a barbecue."
"On this hot day? My goodness."
"We've had it planned for a while. Besides, I don't mind the heat."
"She's fine. Her sister is with her today."
"That's good. I imagine she has her hands full. I imagine she can hardly spare you for a second, these days."
"Oh, I don't know. She's probably glad to be rid of me for an afternoon."
God forgive me, now and forever. When Frank said that, he smiled at me, and the would-be author in me, the failed author who is always superimposing a narrative on whatever is happening, wrote this message into his smile: "And what a good thing Ginny wanted rid of me today, so that you and I could be together, Amelia."
I had to make something, everything, of this day. It would be my last chance. Somehow, instinctively, I knew that. That thought lodged itself in my way, and I could not go around it: my last chance. I would go home, and I would be old; my future would be what my past had been, and I would always remember this day as the day my last chance swung by.
Frank asked me what I was going over for. I lied. And as I did, I looked Roberta directly in the eye, and I felt she was helping me lie. She nodded slightly to encourage me. "I am going over to have lunch with a friend. Actually, he's a cinematographer in the movies. He's got a summer home on the island. His name is Shep Huntleigh. Maybe you've heard of him?"
"I don't get out to movies much," Frank said, "and I never read the credits anyway."
"Well, one of his big assignments was to film James Dean and Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo in 'Rebel Without a Cause.'"
"Yeah, yeah, I heard of it."
Roberta grabbed my hand and threw her head back and laughed triumphantly to the hot white sky and the wind whipped her long blond hair and I felt a bolt of excitement and adventure and license and—lewdness—pass from her into me, like we'd become sisters or the liquid substances of our souls mingled together for a moment. She approved of my invention. Somehow her approval pleased me. I'd wanted it. It mattered, and I had it, and I began to feel free and happy. I almost began to feel beautiful as she, beautiful and free enough to be in the company of these beautiful free people going to the island, and I thought of mother at home at her card party with that gaggle of old biddies she has in on Saturday afternoons, and I bid her farewell in my mind. Mother grew smaller and smaller in my concerns, faded fast in influence and importance. "Good riddance," I thought. "Good riddance to you and your biddies and all the traps laid for me. Go to hell. All of you. All of it."
What can I say? I was growing dangerously profane under Roberta's influence. Was it her influence? Or was it convenient to blame her? Roberta said, "That's the wickedest story I've ever heard."
"It's the god's honest truth!" I said.
And we both laughed hard, like conspirators. She still held my hand.
"The days drip by like Chinese water torture!" I shouted. But she broke hands with me and turned hard and said, "That's disgusting," and turned aside to lean her tanned arms on the railing and look out over the harbor.
"Oh, look at you, pouting," I said, and I tickled her to try to win back her mood, but she swatted at me.
I was upset. I didn't know what I'd done to offend her. I was afraid of her disapproval. I'm sorry," I said. "I don't know why I said that about the Chinese water torture."
"Because you don't know how to do anything except by example," she said, and she was right, and that shows you how perceptive she is. A smart girl. But lazy. "When you do or say anything without following someone else's lead, you look crazy. You come out with these weird things. Out of the blue. The kids at school all think you're crazy, but I liked you, even though you're crazy. I even told them once you were my aunt and they'd better stop making fun of you or I'd lay them out in the dirt. I stood up for you. And now you say something crazy about water torture. Leave me alone. You're ridiculous. Hopeless."
She said all this to me. I didn't understand why she'd turned on me. And I was especially embarrassed that Frank could hear her say that all the kids at school made fun of me.
"Let's go over there," he said, and he touched me on the shoulder and led me to the opposite side of the deck where there was space by the railing.
I laughed out loud, and he must have been surprised to see me happy so soon after having that strange go-round with Roberta. But I laughed because in the story I was writing in my head around this experience, as it was happening, I had myself say to him, "Yes, let's go over there, Darling. You'll be as handsome over there are you are over here, and that's all that matters."
"You women are mysterious," he said, and I laughed again, because it is guaranteed funny when a man handsome enough to kill for tries to say something profound in the process of seducing you.
Was he trying to seduce me? Did I make that up? Wishful thinking? Or was I trying to seduce him?
He jerked his head to indicate Roberta sulking on the other side of the boat. And he said, "What's her game anyway?"
"She was staring holes through me over there, in places in don't want holes. Did you notice that? How old is she?"
I told him she'd just finished eighth grade but she'd been held back a year somewhere along the way. I said I thought she was fifteen.
"She'd better be careful," he said.
"That's all I'm saying. Just, she'd better be careful. She's got the moves, the look. She's alone."
I didn't like the way the conversation was going. His mind was on Roberta. Yes, she was alone. Lonely? Maybe. Probably. No wonder she made up stories. Lies. To keep herself company. I wanted to tell Frank how alike Roberta and I were, that I hadn't even known till the past few minutes how alike. How much was it possible to explain to a man whose profounder thoughts tended to "Women are mysterious"? So, I said, "I feel a kind of maternal, let's say, sisterly concern for Roberta, as one of my better but less-motivated students. She has no home life to speak of. She's virtually on her own. I'm terrified she'll run into the wrong crowd."
And then Frank said in that casual way that cloaks the piqued interest of the opportunist, "Yeah? Yeah?" he said and turned ever so casually over his shoulder to give Roberta a look, and then away, because even the most hardened opportunist pays homage to propriety beforehand.
Was that jealousy in me that made me tinge an innocent glance with something sinister? Jealousy writes a wicked narrative.
So much happens when nothing is happening. I sat there motionless, breathing in the salt air and the aroma of the basking rocks and the scum of low tide and his bitter aftershave from his iron filing growth of beard, that black-haired pirate with the gleaming teeth and the thick lower lip, his fists on his thighs.
Power is about walking out, placing a burden on someone, and then saying, "I'm going. Good-bye." Did Frank know he'd placed a burden on me? He had mercy on me, too, mercy in the midst of power. He leaned over and shouted in my ear over the rumble, "I know a place. In the pine woods. Jesus. It's silent in there. Like a cathedral. Huge pines, like a vaulted ceiling. The sun slants in and buttresses the whole place. I could show you. No one ever goes there. It's too far in. Off the beaten track."
"Show me this place," I said.
"You have your lunch, and we'll meet around four. Can you wait that long?"
"Yes, I can wait."
"I'll show you where to meet me. It's very still in the center of the island," he said. "You'll be surprised. You'll hardly hear a bird or see an animal. There's one place the pines form a ring, and there's a bit of a clearing. When I'm in there, I'm sure there's no one else in the entire world."
When we docked and headed for the stairs, Frank took my elbow, and he held onto me all the way down two decks. We went up the ramp in a confusing crush of people with strollers and dogs and babies and bicycles. Everyone escaping in a rush from the mainland, in search of a breeze. Frank moved his grip from my elbow up my arm and held tighter. In a little under four hours, I was going to meet the man I'd fancied for years, a man whom I could never call husband or lover, though I might call him "god." I was going to be alone with him in a sacred and silent place, and neither of us was going to bring up the existence of any other human being.
I don't know how she did it, but Roberta had somehow gotten off before us, and as we walked the steep ramp to the street, there she was, leaned back against the railing, chest arched, head thrown back to the sun, one foot on the railing, her beautiful slender leg pointing out. When we got close to her, she opened her eyes and looked at us and smiled and tossed her beautiful blond hair.
"That was rude," she said. "But I forgive you. See? I waited for you."
And before I could protest or press my free arm to my side, she'd hooked arms with me, and we walked like that, like three intimate friends, up the steep street into the center of town.
"I don't hold grudges, Auntie," she said to me. "Frank," she said, "in case you hadn't heard, I am going to a Hollywood party at Steele Battery. Natalie and Sal will be there. They are the big stars that Amelia's friend photographed in 'Rebel Without a Cause.' That's why they're here on the island as a matter of fact, to visit Amelia's friend, the movie photographer." She tugged on my arm. "Your friend Shep Huntleigh, he's coming to the party, too, out at Steele Battery, after he has lunch with you, and I am sure he'll want you to come along, too, Auntie."
"He didn't mention it," I said.
Frank was about to break ranks. "Oh, if you already have something planned," he said to me.
"But I don't," I insisted. "I have no intention of letting Shep Huntleigh drag me to a boring Hollywood party."
"I just wanted to be sure," he said, and he squeezed my arm tighter.
"Sure of what?" Roberta cut in.
Neither of us answered her, and that mutual silence brought us so close together, I waited for a cue to breathe. The sun didn't provide it. No one in the line of the people queued up to board the ferry provided it. My own tense body didn't provide it. It was only when I looked at Frank and he winked at me that I found a way through the terrible closeness we'd formed in not answering Roberta, to a place where I could breathe. And I used that breath to lie, of course. I'd come to the conclusion, because I needed to protect myself and my little afternoon of life, that Roberta didn't deserve anything but to be lied to. How quickly all moral boundaries dissolve when honesty might rob you of the most precious minutes of your life.
I said to her, "Frank and I are planning to take the 4:30 ferry back to the mainland. We'll probably ride inside, below deck. I'll have had too much sun."
Roberta would get on board, look for us, and by the time she realized we hadn't come, it would be too late for her to get off. The ferry would depart, she'd figure out she'd been tricked, I'd have gotten her out of my way. And the island and whatever happened on it would be mine.
I'd have 20 minutes, an hour. Roberta, with her beauty and ease and forwardness, would have a lifetime. But I'd get her off the island, out of the picture, and have my 20 minutes, my hour, my clandestine life-sustaining hour, whatever it might contain.
Now that we were on the island, the air was deathly still. I thought, This is a place where nothing ornamental can exist. If a thing were made to beautify or amplify or dignify its surroundings, it would surely die away here, on this island.
The few houses at the top of the hill were sagging, with crooked porches, porch swings with chains broken and one end resting on the splintered floors, windows flung open, screenless, curtains spilling out as if they too were looking for a way of escape from the stifling atmosphere.
There at the crossroads you can continue straight on up into the center of the island on a dirt road, or you can turn right on the paved road past a small hotel, a bakery, a restaurant called The Nor'easter. The main part of the town is to the left. In that direction are several more restaurants, a bar, a grocery store, the post office, a sign pointing to the public library and the elementary school. I saw a shop that rented bicycles for pedaling around the island.
"It's been years since I was over here," I said, and Roberta, still holding my hand, stretched as far as she could to run her hand along the top of a leaning picket fence while Frank put his mouth against my ear and said, "Meet me down there, four o'clock, in the alley beside the bike shop. You see where I mean? Get rid of her."
He smelled like leather. I thought of a boxing glove, recently removed from the hand of the champion in a title bout and flung by him into the crowd of spectators like a bouquet flung by a bride, and caught by me. And there I stood, in the jostling, beery multitude, sniffing that glove as if it were a bunch of roses.
I smiled from the eyes and tipped my head so slightly only a lover would notice. Frank would notice from the distance of a mile as surely as if I'd set off a cannon.
"I go this way," Frank said, nodding at that dirt road that ascended toward the dark center of the island. "The place I'm headed is a quarter of a mile inland. Where's your friend live?"
I threw my head back and laughed as I scanned the sky for the sun, which was both hidden and everywhere at once. "Ah! You believed me."
Roberta had broken from my grip to steal a rose that was growing just inside a yard fence and chose that moment to come back to us, picking the thorns from the stem before pressing the rose into my hand. She angled her head and squinted at me. "Of course he believed you, Auntie. You're a school teacher and a Sunday school teacher, and people believe you when you talk."
"Thank you for the rose," I said.
"Don't lose it. Feel my pulse! It's like somebody is beating me from the inside with a broom."
I told Frank, "I am as free as a bird. I have nothing to do till we meet for the 4:30 ferry. I was supposed to come with a friend for lunch, but at the last minute she couldn't. I'm going to enjoy wandering and having no one to answer to."
Roberta put her fists on her hips and screwed up her face. Why did I feel challenged to do or say something out of character for me?
"That's fun?" she said. "To have no one to answer to?"
Her gaze left me and fixed in angry concentration on a distant point. Her nostrils quivered. She gave her shoulders a quick hike, sighed, and turned on an impulse and walked off down the paved road to the right as though we'd never met. Her neck as she lowered her head to watch the road in front of her had a lonely curve to it. I felt sorry for her because, really, she had no one to answer to in the world, and that must be confusing and heartbreaking for a 15-year-old. To have no one to tell her she's late, that they'd fretted and worried and thought about calling the police when she hadn't shown up at such and such a time. At 36 I despised being in the position she yearned to be in at fifteen. I called after her, please, to wait up for me, I wanted company for lunch, couldn't she put off going to her party that long?
She skipped a few steps with her hands clasped behind her head, and when she turned her eyes were full of glee and mockery. She kicked a stone at me and laughed and said, "You'll have to catch me if you want me, Auntie."
Frank had gone a few steps up his road but stopped to hear how Roberta's and my plans would flesh out. He was like a statue of Ulysses raised against the boundless white sky. What journey was I about to embark on, and to what peril to my soul? I might have been a suppliant begging Circe to make that statue come to life for the span of an hour on the hottest day in 36 years.
He watched, alive somewhere inside that stone mantle, intent on plumbing something within me that no man had ever cared to explore. He listened with a still expression to Roberta's shrill giggle as she pointed at him and said, "Don't play sport with her. She's not a ball."
He was lashed to the mast to hear the siren singing. Her song was not lovely, but she was fresh as the air wasn't, young and blond and cool and about to go away and leave him an old maid in her place. She socked the air as she swung around and went bounding down the glittering road, singing, "Go, ye heroes, Go to glory." This was Mabel's encouragement to the men of Penzance to face the pirates bravely. So, all had not been in vain in my effort to introduce my eighth grade classes to a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan.
I turned to Frank, who still had his chilling blue eyes on her and said feebly, "I taught her that. That song."
He flexed his cheek, and his dimpled floored me. "Four o'clock, then. Are you sure?"
It was the only way to lose Roberta. To hide. Give her the slip. "Yes, yes, I'm sure. I'll look forward to it."
I watched him go, bits of sun flashing off his tight blue T-shirt. His thick shoulders rolled and flexed like those of a man straining at the oars. I thought again of Ulysses at large after the Trojan War, rowing and winning conquest after conquest, and I prayed to my profane god, not the sacred God, but the god of the pine woods at the center of the island and the heat and the hour, "Let me be conquered only to conquer."
How easily I dropped those words and traded my soul on concepts beyond anyone's reach: conqueror, eternity, soul. What was this thing, the soul, I was bartering? This span of time, eternity, that I was stretching my soul out on, like an untearable sail, to be a conqueror? Conqueror of what? A man's heart. Had anyone ever been the conqueror of a man's heart that I, a too-tall, too-toothy, too-nervous, too virginal Sunday school teacher, should presume I would bend that Iron-Age man to my desire?
The sun was so relentless and pounding, I reeled after only a few steps alone. I'd never before been drunk, neither on heat nor wine. I retreated to a round umbrella-ed table on the patio of the Nor'easter and sipped glass after glass of iced tea and ate a big green salad and a piece of blueberry pie and tasted none of it. I watched the ferries slip back and forth between the island and the city on the flat glittering water. The wakes closed not ten feet behind the ferries, the sea was so calm. The few gulls that followed circled low but flew only a short distance before gliding back to the shore to stand half-submerged among the rocks.
About then the ladies were arriving and Mother was greeting them at the door in her orchid taffeta dress and apologizing for the heat, for everyone knew the hostess was responsible for the weather the day of her event. I was brought up to feel that the behavior of the elements was my fault or glory on the day I called anything to convene.
Should I have apologized to Frank for the heat?
I spotted Roberta twice in the course of that long uphill afternoon. The first time was from a distance as I walked Shore Road around the southeast perimeter of the island. It was low tide, and she'd made her way to one of the outermost boulders and was sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest, arms clasping her lower legs, staring, just staring out onto the wide open Atlantic, like Penelope done with her weaving for the day and come down to the blue Aegean to watch for the masts of Ulysses' boat to gouge up from below the horizon and mark his return.
She hadn't made it to her party at Steele Battery. There was no party of course. She was a liar, but for a good reason, perhaps, like Penelope, to ward off investigations into her loneliness. So, she'd come here for this. To look onto the ocean and dream of what lay on the other side: Paris, Venice, Spain, like a child looking longingly into a candy store window.
I sat down on a bench at the side of the road and watched her for several minutes. She remained in that attitude, absolutely motionless. Several time I almost called out to her. But the heat had sapped my energy and will. My voice wouldn't carry that far. And anyway she wouldn't have heard me over the water constantly breaking against the rocks at her feet.
Maybe she was wishing for a mother or a sister or caring brother, not a Ulysses. How stupid of me to assume that beautiful people wished for a lover. It is probably only the unlovely who do that.
I finally decided I didn't want a conversation with her, she with whom I had more in common than I cared for her to know. Champion liars have the uncanny ability to see the well-guarded truths in other persons. And so I continued at a slow pace, under the umbrella I'd bought before leaving the main part of town, along Shore Road, stopping to look at various cottages with yards filled with brambles of sea roses and stiff stunted shrubbery that resembled a variety of miniature palm. The vegetation was wild and profuse and completely unlike what you find on the mainland. I was in a different world altogether, an enchanted one.
Close to the point where Shore Road curves north, I came to a dirt road and decided to follow it to the interior of the island. The only sound was my feet plodding on packed earth soon giving way to dry grass. I heard nothing else but my feet crunching down the grass, no voices, no birds, no wind, no animals breaking through the undergrowth. The air grew hotter. Sweat stung my eyes. I saw no ants on the ground, heard no bees buzzing or wasps swarming. My life was the only life in this place. I found myself moving more slowly, almost reverently, as I went farther and farther in.
At a clearing, which was still dark green under the glaring sky, I came to massive concrete fortifications, Steele Battery, I guessed, from which huge guns had once been trained on the open waters to protect the mainland from German naval attack. The guns had been removed long before, of course, and I looked on the massive structure that had housed them and protected the gunners, a huge concrete hallway about 25 feet high, with a concrete and grass ceiling that ran perhaps the length of two city blocks. I was terrified at the sight of this abandoned fortification, as though it were a sleeping giant I'd stumbled across, the familiar spirit of these woods. If I roused him, he would raise himself up on his elbow and turn to glare at me, then crush me under his massive hand as though I were a fly.
And this, this eerie forsaken place, the temple to the god of preemption, was where the wild party with Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo was supposed to take place.
In Roberta's head.
This was it. I was inside Roberta's head. This was all there was: stillness, more-humid green and black heat. Nobody. Except me. I was in her head. Auntie was there.
Roberta is a mystery that goes on and on, a question that will never be answered, but I had suddenly found myself in the setting of her fabulous lies and saw the encroachment of root and soil and grass and fetid darkness upon it, the utter silence and loneliness of that place where she arranged parties for guests who never showed up.
I had come into the clearing near a passageway through the battery works and could see daylight on the other side. It was like seeing safety through the belly of the darkest night. I was in a place as light as the place I saw lying on the other side of that belly of darkness, but for some reason the place where I stood didn't seem as safe or as desirable to be. I must walk into that dark passage and pass through it to the other side. I was excited by this primitive pull to enter. At the same time I felt it was dangerous to yield to the impulse and stood for some time in the pressing heat, vacillating, but finally settled it by telling myself it must be cooler inside the battery than where I stood. I moved.
Once inside, I took several steps and then stopped to let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Looking down the long hall, I saw there were several passages through the gallery at regular intervals, and at those openings smudges of light penetrated several feet before they were trammeled to total darkness. The distance through the battlement was about 25 feet, so that the structure was about as wide as it was tall. The air was appreciably cooler inside, damp. Dripping water echoed through the long hall, but I had the sense that because of some structural peculiarity, distant noises sounded close and close noises sounded as though far off, and the dripping was coming from the opposite side of the battery. The ground was moist under my feet, almost muddy inside, and when I touched the wall, I found it cool and damp. The corridor dead-ended in a rounded, natural stone abutment about ten feet to my right, and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw the charred remains of a campfire and near it wall crevices and ledges serving as natural seats around the fire.
I had time to kill, an hour and a half before I was to meet Frank Farrell, so I took a seat on a ledge, thinking to myself, "You know, Amelia, someone could walk through that entrance and approach you and completely cut off your avenue of escape. You'd be trapped like an animal run to ground in its lair."
I tried to worry myself, but I grew comfortable in my little spot, glad of the cooler air, the cool stone I leaned against, and I paid less and less attention to that nagging voice in my head. I was mortally sick of listening to my own voice, all those warnings I broadcast to myself day and night, the voice of caution I had adopted from Mother, from ladies' magazines, perhaps. I was comfortable. I needed to rest, to empty my mind and merely let time pass. I was not going to move, come what may. The silence that had so alarmed me when I first entered the woods did not seem so daunting now. Neither did the echoed dripping from the far side of the battery. I was still, inside and out, as Roberta had been on her perch overlooking the great Atlantic. I was still as the stone at my back and under my buttocks. I ceased to move. Time meant nothing. I knew time had passed only because I grew uncomfortable and had to shift my position, but once I was comfortable again, I stopped caring whether ten minutes or 30 had gone by. If the passageways sealed over with darkness, I would know it was time to sleep, and I'd lie on my back on the cool ground and imagine I was below deck on a ship sailing away away from the mainland on the high seas of adventure. Mother would grow blind, coming down to the edge of the water every day to stare at the line where ocean and sky zipped shut on the secret wanderings of bad daughters.
I could luxuriate in all these wicked thoughts, knowing they were thoughts only and I'd never act on them. I was having my day, my one day. Summer, my summer, that is, was ending. Out there in the bright day, time was ticking like a bomb. But in here, in my cool cave, on my lizard's rock, I controlled time, fate. I could make Mother forget she'd ever had a daughter. Yes, I could. I could remove my every belonging from the house, my name from everyone's lips, and I could conjure my own little cottage on the edge of these woods, one with a view of the ocean and a yard full of thorns and sea roses.
I could will Ginny Farrell out of existence. But in doing so I would also have to will the three children and the one on the way out of the picture. Could I go that far? Was I that wicked? Jesus said anyone who sins in mind and heart has as good as committed those imagined sins. Until that afternoon, I'd always thought that was going a bit too far, but sitting on my rock in the dark, contemplating the removal of Frank's wife and children from the scene, I did grasp the point, that the beginning of crime is the ease with which you could restructure the world to suit your own passions.
I was wicked enough to think of it for five minutes, of my world without Ginny and her children in it, but not for ten. I would settle for one hour, maybe two, of possession. Of what was hers. Her Frank. What would it hurt? Would she ever miss that hour? She would probably spend it nursing swollen ankles and an aching back. She wouldn't have wanted to love him during that hour anyway.
So ran my thoughts as I hid in my dark corner from the insufferable heat and glare. But in time both heat and glare come to me in human form, on Roberta's gray-blond shining skin as, soundlessly, she appeared at the second opening into the battery. I'd heard nothing, not even my own breathing. But the instant I saw her, I heard myself gasp, and then I sealed in the breath by placing my hand over my mouth. In all my cave-dreaming, I'd forgotten to eliminate Roberta Sookey.
The light clung to her smooth skin and her long blond hair and made a faint pink reflection on the ground at her feet. She turned briefly in my direction, but before her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, apparently, for she didn't see me. She glanced all around her and up as one in awe of the vault of a great hushed cathedral, and I was terrified of her. If she discovered me, a carefully braided cable inside me, woven of fantasy and hope and desperation, would break, and I would plummet to the bottom of the shaft and break 80 bones in my body and cry like a child separated from her mother. I prepared what I would say in case she caught me: "I didn't come here looking for a party, you can be sure of that. I knew it wasn't real. Nothing about you is real." I prayed to my profane god, the god of damp dark places, the god of summer, "Don't let her see me. Let my summer go on four more hours, just four more hours, that's all I'm asking of you."
He heard me. He made Roberta Sookey wander slowly through the battery, away from me. She strolled at a leisurely pace like one admiring the paintings in a gallery but not enough to stop before any particular one. She hummed Mabel's song from "Penzance," and by that trick of acoustics she sang it directly in my ear. She ended the song suddenly, in mid-phrase, and for the life of me, I swear I heard her whisper, "Auntie, Auntie, Auntie, Auntie."
I got up as quietly as I could and kept to the wall until I reached the opening and slipped out, not the way I'd come in, but on the other side. The sudden change from darkness to full daylight was so shocking it took my breath away. My vision blurred in the gray-yellow light, but I had enough acuity to follow a path that led steeply uphill to a group of massive boulders putting me immediately out of sight of the battery. I crouched there for several minutes. The rocks burned my hands. It was hard to breathe. The air was filled with a fine gray dust, visible in the broad shafts of sunlight cutting diagonally through the trees. The dust drifted diagonally, too, through the light shafts, with terrific slowness, part of the debris from a massive explosion.
I felt and saw the destruction in that stillness. Roberta was the most destructive part of it all. Somewhere nearby she moved with entitled indifference, packing youth and beauty and audacity. I must escape her at any cost. I left my place of safety and crawled further uphill on my hands and knees through the burning dust until I'd reached a shaded level area with a bed of dried pine needles. I used a miserable scrub sapling to pull myself to my feet, and while I dusted myself off, I looked back along my path of escape to find that I'd come nearly on level with the grass-covered top of the battery. If I'd wanted, I could have taken a short path around a thicket on my left and mounted onto the roof. As I watched, Roberta appeared, bent from the steep ascent, at the far end, so perfect and polished in the sun she might have been the source of all the oppressive heat and light. Though the air was dull and weighty with heat, she was bright as a mirror. She straightened up and raised and opened a small orange umbrella I recognized as my own. I hadn't missed it until that moment. She must have ventured to my corner inside the battery and claimed it, returned to the bar side to mount the battery so she could display herself and pretend not to notice me. In a moment of indignation, I considered coming out of hiding and crossing the battery to demand my property back.
But this happened:
She put the open umbrella upside down on the grass and spread her arms, hands cupped upward. Then she leaned back until her throat pointed at the merciless sky and shouted what I could only call an incantation, in a language I'd never heard, addressed to the Unknown with the assurance and virility of a military commander ordering his troops to throw themselves into battle in his name. She rolled her head from side to side as she chanted, paused, and then repeated the incantation, but this time in a piercing shriek like a wild bird soaring down on its prey.
At that very moment a hot wind blew in. It swirled through her beautiful blond hair and caught the open umbrella, rolling it in a jerky ellipse toward the edge of the roof. It fell, turning end over end, but not many times. The wind soughed through the tall dry pines, slightly oscillating but never resting, and the silence that had been so pervasive an extension of the heat was replaced by a high muffled whistle and Roberta's strange hooting. She had stopped chanting but remained with her back arched and her arms outspread, making a weird "hoo-ing" sound like the call of a mourning dove, an interval of a fifth, pause for a beat, and then two short "hoo's" to finish. And again.
Though the wind was strong, it did not break the heat. The sky remained cloudless, and the air, if anything, grew hotter. The wind did not appear to come off an approaching storm. I saw no explanation for it at the time but Roberta's witchcraft. Looking back on it all now, from the distance of several weeks, I see it as mere coincidence, but at the time I was so mesmerized by her theatrics and so in awe of her beauty and minimized by the inexplicable power she had to dominate me from afar that I thought and reacted only as though threatened by her. She must be the cause of whatever disturbed me. She was Circe the witch, there on the hidden battlements. In the next instant she might conjure up the ghosts of the soldiers who'd served there, straining their eyes on the look-out for enemy ships.
I never knew for sure if she realized she had an audience for her wind-raising, but I suspected she did, else she was far stranger in her private behavior than I'd ever have guessed. But which of us isn't? I would not like an audience when I've drawn the shades, but unlike Roberta, I would draw the shades.
I made my escape while her back was still turned, descending rapidly to a dry-bottomed culvert that streamed now with rattling leaves instead of water. My heart burned like a kettle of boiling water. My neck throbbed. I could scarcely see my way for the sweat in my eyes. I comforted myself with this thought: "Ah, well, he will be sweaty, too."
In a time of panic you never know whether a voices comes from inside you or from without. But it was her voice that I heard on the rhythm pounding up from my neck: "Grandma. Grandma." She was working an incantation to age me from old maid Auntie into Grandma, and by the time I'd found my way out of the woods and back to Shore Road I did feel ancient, weathered, wrinkled, and shrunken from long exposure to the elements.
There was no shade along the road, but I was too frantic to seek any if there had been. I was intent only on getting beyond the dirt road I'd first taken into the woods, fearful Roberta would intercept me there and cut off my path of escape. I hobbled rather than ran. At some point I'd twisted my ankle, though I had no recollection of when or where.
Scores of gulls were perched on the boulders to my left, at water's edge. A few had taken off and hovered over the ocean, suspended on the wind, but none of them made the effort of actual flight. How I could have used a pair of those wings. One particular gull, standing on the low stone wall on the ocean side of the road, peered with his yellow insidious eyes, even turning to keep me in his gaze as I passed. Roberta was watching me through his eyes. Witches had that power. That the gull was her familiar was confirmed when the bird began to cackle as I hurried past him. And then the others, scores of them on the rocks below, joined in. I heard them over the rising wind and the waves beating the rocks long after I'd passed the dirt road I'd taken in and rounded a bend that put the nasty gulls out of sight.
By the time I reached the crossroads up the hill from the ferry landing and passed the leaning picket fence where Roberta had plucked the rose I'd left on the table at the Nor'easter, it was 3:45. The wind had died or had never risen on this part of the island. Roberta's demonstration of power had been a purely local phenomenon. My heart was beating twice as fast as it should have, and had been ever since Roberta had walked into the dark shelter of the battery. I was aware of my heart at every second, pounding from my chest into my neck. I felt my cheeks. They were furiously hot. Whenever I heard laughter from a distance, I flinched.
The ladies would be finished with their bridge game by then and adjourning to the dining room for coffee and the lemon chiffon cake I'd gotten up early that morning to bake for them. They would trumpet, the eight of them, like the gulls who'd laughed at me as I'd passed. If any of them brought up my name, it would be to mention my goodness, and there I was, across the bay, hating the thought and the sound of them and wishing the cake I'd baked for them would turn to foam rubber in their throats and choke them all. Mother excepted.
I've wondered many times what it was about the island that day, the heat, the anticipation of meeting Frank Farrell, the anticipated premature end of my summer, my meeting my most troubled and vulnerable student, that generated such vicious thoughts in my head. I can't connect all the dots and see it in a straight line. The uncustomary heat brought rapidly to corruption the ferment long brewing in me. I was so far from Roberta's carefree youthfulness. I was so far from her level of beauty. These things were true, and so was the fact that I felt the specter of "last chance" breathing down my neck. But why any of this would cause me to focus my animosity on Mother's bridge ladies remains a mystery. Maybe it happened because I imagined them singing my praises when there I walked, head bent, along that miserable main street, toward a meeting with another woman's husband. And there was my goodness. Just for the next hour or two I could punish anyone but myself. If Roberta, by her witch's wiles, somehow managed to intrude, I would smash her skull with a rock. I actually pictured myself in the act.
In the Victorian novels I love so, they blame this sort of unaccountable change in personality on over-heating, brain fever, and let the lady off the hook. I like it that way. I read my life and what I did with it, on the island that day, in that way.
Thanks be to Victoriana.
Frank was early, but so was I. He was pacing, smoking a cigarette, when I found him in the alley by the bicycle shop. His back was to me at first, and a warning jolt when through me. There was a moment when I could have run. I had seen this man in a bloody apron, and I had seen him in a suit and tie at church with his arm around his mousy wife. I had seen him dressed in a white shirt, with a red, white, and blue arm band and a white straw hat with a red band, singing in a barbershop quartet at the church Fourth of July ice cream social, and he'd stared right at me when he sang, "I've carried you far from the place where we met; I've carried you here in my breast." But last chances also concerned final things, and without so much as putting the matter into words, my heart received the signal that translated, "Final things pertain to death, not life, the kind of death you will have. Go no further."
In the next instant Frank turned, and he was handsome beyond scruple. Beyond fear and philosophy and all prior training. I had always seen him when he'd had to veil the cool possessive cast he had now to his blue eyes. He tossed his cigarette aside as he might any moral or physical impediment between us.
"Don't worry, I've had a shower," he said.
"I haven't, of course," I said, and he moved closer and put his face close to my head and shoulders and neck and walked behind me, sniffing all the while, and said, "It's all right. You're perfume hasn't worn off yet. This way," he said, and he flapped his filthy work T-shirt he was carrying to indicate we should walk further into the alley. I'd half expected him to hold my hand and was disappointed when he didn't. I wanted him to do with me everything he'd done with Ginny when he was courting her, but I didn't know how to say so without sounding desperate, stupid. Everything that might happen in a year's wooing must be compacted into the next hour or two.
The alley opened at the far end onto a dirt street. Shacks and cottages sat in haphazard relation to each other and the road itself, which seemed to meander through their yards. We'd walk up what appeared to be the drive to a particular cottage when in actuality it turned out to be a continuation of the street. The dirt was kept down by a thin coating of oil that smelled like tar and made bits of gravel stick to the soles of my shoes. I stopped once to lean against a post and pick off the largest pieces of gravel, but Frank said, "It's not worth it."
The criss-crossing network of roads we traveled ascended toward the center of the island, and it grew hotter, hotter than it had been all day, hotter than I'd ever felt it in my life.
"The thermometer on the side of Jack's garage read a 102 degrees," Frank said. "Jeez, it was killing us. We probably got only two hours' work done in three and a half, we had to stop so much."
"I've just this instant started composing a story in my head."
"Oh, yeah? What? You a writer? I didn't know that."
"Nobody does, unfortunately."
"You, a writer," he said with some amazement. "My, my, you're full of hidden talents and things, aren't you? How does it go?"
"This way: 'On the hottest day of summer, two people entered the pine woods at the center of the island.'"
"Call it 'the heart' of the island, why don't you?"
"The center is better," I said.
And then he said, "What about her?" and I knew immediately who he meant, but my instinct was to play dumb.
Play dumb, and she would go away. I wanted him to forget her, too.
He hitched his shoulders and half smiled as though the thought of her was no big deal to him, when I knew it was. "Her. The girl. Roberta."
"What about her?"
"What? You're not going to make her part of the story?"
"Why should I?"
"You could change it to 'Three people entered the pine woods at the center of the island.' Easy."
"But, she's not with us. Why would I?"
"I thought that was the point of a story. You added things in."
"Not this one."
How could I make him forget her? What must I do to make him forget her?
The bright hot sky emitted the dying harmonics of a huge bell that had tolled and tolled and fallen silent. The sound from the heat and sour gold of the distant sky pressed into my ears and muffled every other sound and muffled the clarity of my thoughts, too, as though they emerged from my sense of hearing.
As we left the populated part of the island and entered the pine woods, the oiled road leveled off and narrowed to the width of a path, wide enough for three people at the most, and I told myself unconvincingly that he'd thought of Roberta, because there was room for her beside us. I could not hear our feet on the path. I concentrated and tried to make myself hear our footsteps, but I could not. I could hear my labored breathing, could hear the scratching sound Frank made as he rubbed his rough hand over his beard growth. But for some reason I could not will myself to hear the sounds our feet made. We went deeper and deeper into the woods, and that brought about the first wave of panic I experienced. I heard the call, distant and forlorn and high, of a mourning dove. Roberta. She was making that sound. She was somewhere in here. She would intrude somehow and alter the course of everything that was meant to happen to me in this ancient pine forest under and among the 100-foot-tall trees and the dying sky.
I caught my breath, and Frank stopped and looked back at me. He'd taken the lead by several steps without questioning my slight hobble. He studied me in a way that struck me as strangely clinical for a man of passion and said, "Are you scared? I heard you gasp."
"It's my ankle," I lied. It was frightening how swiftly I had become an expert in lying. "I was in the woods earlier, in another part of the island, and I must have turned my ankle slightly. It's not too bad. Funny thing is, I don't ever remember doing it."
"You must have left the path."
"You shouldn't leave path in the woods unless you're with an expert guide. Like you are now."
He'd been eyeing me hard, almost accusingly, as though he were about to berate me for leading him astray to deceive his wife. The moment was sobering, and I thought of those seconds in the alley when I had considered running. I was about to suggest we go no farther because of my ankle but instead turn around right there and head back to the terminal. I suspected he was in conflict and blamed me for leading him on and holding him back at the same time. I didn't know which way to go. And then he smiled. The dimples gouged into his cheeks, his thick, black eyebrows spread, his white teeth gleamed, and gladness shone in his eyes. He held out his hand, and I took it. "Come on. We'll go slower."
We hadn't spoken of the suddenness of our being together, of that moment in which we'd both known in a flash, without exchanging a word, that we both wanted to behave with one another as if there were not a tomorrow. I was completely untried in these matters. I didn't know if people did speak about such things. I wanted most to ask, "Why me?" He was so deadly handsome. Why me? I wanted to know what it felt like to be treated tenderly, even if it was a complete fake. I dared to go that far. "Treat me tenderly," I said.
And he put his arm around me and brushed my lips with a kiss as we kept walking and said, "All the way, Darling."
He called me "Darling." That was enough tenderness right there. Any more, and I would lose my identity forever. My identity was that of a straight-laced maiden lady. I mustn't forget it, I would have to return to it later, or have it returned to me.
"You're going to change the names to protect the innocent, I hope," he said.
"In your story."
"Or, to protect the guilty," he said and squeezed me tighter.
I didn't want to be guilty. But I couldn't have the tenderness I wanted without being guilty. "Maybe I just won't write it. I'll write something else."
The mourning dove sounded again, closer this time. We were walking toward it. I tensed my back, and Frank said, "Does that sound bother you?"
"It's brooding. It's—mournful, like its name. I wish we'd go some other direction."
"We're almost there."
The path was thick with long, brown pine needles. The carpet of needles sent up a copper glow, suffusing the woods with an almost mythical light as though we were coming into a storybook land where gold might be buried or where we might encounter magicians or fantastic half-human, half-animal creatures. The heavy aroma of the pines made me drowsy. I closed my eyes and leaned my head on Frank's shoulder for what seemed only a few steps, but when he said, "Here we are," I opened my eyes on a place I hadn't glimpsed from the path, a circular clearing in the woods, like a cauldron or a well, filled to the tops of the pines on one side with that gold mythical light. The pines on the other were untouched by the sun, nearly black in contrast. A slice of light fell on a flat gray stone, about five feet in diameter, in the middle of the clearing, and I said, jokingly, still feeling too light-headed to stand alone, "Is that where they sacrifice the maidens?"
Frank gave me a gentle push and whispered, "Go stand there. I want to see you stand there in the light."
I went toward the stone and stepped up on it and turned and spread my arms as though the woods were my domain and I were welcoming him into it for the first time. I felt perfectly hidden. The clearing was so closely guarded by the trees, you might skirt it on the path and never know it existed. It was only about twice the width of the stone I was on, the ground smooth as though hard-swept with a broom, lightly coated with fresher more limber pine needles than those on the path outside.
I expected to be burned when I lay on the stone, but I was pleasantly surprised. It was warm against my arms and through my light cotton dress. Frank came and sat beside me and rolled onto his left hip, wedging his right knee between my knees. He folded and placed his work shirt, the one he carried, under my head like a pillow, and he smiled at me and stroked my cheek and said, "Listen, Roberta, I really do think you're beautiful. I thought so for a long time. It's a sin, the things I think looking at you in church, sometimes. It's a wonder God hasn't struck me dead before now."
He ran his index finger slowly over my lips and through the crease above my chin and down my chin to the curve of my neck. I tried to swallow but couldn't. His eyes looked down into mine for a long time. He was still. His finger had come to rest just inside my dress, at the edge of my bra. I was paralyzed, my arms and legs rigid. "You can touch me," he said. "I'll show you where," he said.
I said, "Help me."
Without taking his eyes from nine, he found my left hand balled into a fist, tight as a stone. If I'd brought that fist down on his head, it would have cracked his skull in two. But he stroked my hand until it opened, saying, "Here, here, relax." My arm grew limber, and he wrapped it around his waist. And then we were together, pressed against each other like two pieces of wood nailed together, each of us struggling to sink in beyond the boundaries set by our physical bodies.
And that was what it was, the trying to take on everything that was his, to take it into myself through the most secret avenue, the avenue no one had ever traveled, that no one else ever would, his path, the taking on of his burden, his guilt and shame and the full weight of his passion, all the way to the end, to the dying shudder and the final eye-avoiding, the wild look of the fugitive at the corner of his eye. In those minutes I took on the most grave concern for the welfare of his family and a most tender feeling toward Ginny, pregnant, broken-backed, broken-spirited, over-worked Ginny, whom he must now return to with this on his conscience. If anything ever were to happen to my Frank, I would become his family's benefactor, to the full extent of my ability. I would take them into our home, if need be. I would insist on it. I would override Mother's every objection.
I'd do anything for him, because in those few coiling minutes I had become him, all of him and the co-owner of his every concern, even if he had called me "Roberta." We were one, he and I, now, in the terrible, beautiful secret of what had happened at the center of the pine woods at the center of the island at the height of summer on the hottest day in 36 years.
We sat naked beside one another on the flat stone, he with his legs drawn up so that his chin rested in the crevice between his knees, and I looped my arm through his. He gave me a perfunctory kiss on the cheek and patted my hand and looked away. Then he got up and walked around the stone behind me, and in a moment I heard him urinating. The wind began to blow through the tops of the tallest trees with a sound as though they were being enlisted to scratch the blistered back of the sky. The air was not really any cooler, but I felt cold all of a sudden and shivered. It was a strange thing to know that the temperature hadn't dropped even as I felt the chill on my skin.
People never know how beautiful they are. Often I have wanted to go up to this person or that, a random stranger, and say something like, "Please, don't think I'm crazy or that I want anything more than to tell you this, but I don't know if anyone else will ever say this to you, and it's a shame if you never hear it: You really are beautiful." I'm not talking about persons who are classically beautiful, no, but those with perhaps a single arresting feature, an unusual jaw structure or shape to their ears, say, or whose hands are beautifully shaped or especially graceful, someone with a dignified bearing that sets him apart, looks aside, from every other person around. But I never have done that, of course. I think it and let it pass. But I said it that afternoon, to Frank, over and over as I watched him dress, as I shivered and my teeth chattered and I rubbed my upper arms and I rubbed my legs together like two sticks to start a fire. I said it with a grieving, almost as though it were a tragedy how beautiful he was, a curse on the world, and I didn't know until he leaned over me and used his index finger to wipe the tears from my cheeks that I'd been crying. He sighed heavily and gave a smile that wasn't a smile but a line of demarcation between now and everything that had come before, a signal to snap out of it and return to the world that moves on swiftly and leaves such talk in the dust. He stretched his hand out to me and said, "Come on. Get dressed."
I stumbled trying to get back into my underwear, and he caught and steadied me. I became aware then that my back ached. In a place or two it had been rubbed raw against the stone, and I thought of old women who lie forever in nursing home beds and get bed sores, and I cried again. I asked Frank to help me with my bra clasp after I'd fumbled several times getting it closed. He said, "Don't cry. You're shaking, and it's hard to do this when you're shaking." He said it in a quiet, steady voice, but there was an edge of impatience to it. "Don't cry. Don't be sad," he said monotonously. He zipped my dress once I'd dropped it over my head, and he stroked and smoothed my hair, which was nice of him, as he could have left it for me to do. I thought that was an awfully tender gesture. I bet he never smoothed Ginny's hair anymore.
"It's cold. I feel cold."
"It's not cold."
When I was dressed, all but for my shoes, he led me to the rock once more, and I sat. He sat close to me and held my hand and took a big breath and said, "Look. You're going to be okay with this, aren't you?"
I bit my lips and nodded. My heart was bursting to say, "Okay with it? My god, you are my god. I'm so in love with you, how could I take it? It's destroying me to go back to who I am." But I could not bring out the words. All I could do was nod my head faster and faster until he frowned as though I were going into a seizure and took my head in his hands and said angrily, "Stop!"
And I did. Like that. Just because he told me to. He knelt and slipped my shoes on my feet. He pushed my dress up above my knees and kissed each knee and began to run his hands up under my dress, causing me to shiver uncontrollably again. I placed a hand on either side of his head, and he rose from his crouching position and moved forward to kiss me as I lay back again on the rock. If he would lay hard on me, I would stop shivering. I felt the wind. It was moving along the ground now, not just through the tallest trees. And I heard the laughter also.
Frank pulled back swiftly, leaving the wet and warmth of his mouth all over my lips and chin. I propped myself on my elbows and suspected from the warming along my sore spine that I must be bleeding through my dress. "Help me," I said, extending my arms. I felt too weak from all the shaking and shuddering to pull my weight from the stone. But Frank ignored me. He left me to fend for myself. He was standing, legs spread, fists ground into those powerful hips, between me and the laughing person, telling her to shut up, go on now, leave us alone. And then he turned to me, fury and disgust in his face, and gave me a dark look (and the sky grew darker, I swear it did, a cloud, the only one for a thousand miles around, found us, found the sun and spread itself over it like a blanket because Frank was angry and nature heeded his moods, my powerful lover). He leaned over to give me a hand and above his leaning head I saw Roberta, who had found us and come in to be where we were.
"Come on, Amelia," Frank was urging. "Let's get out of here. Come on. For Chrissake! What's the matter with you? You're like a rag doll."
I only half listened to him. I was staring, fascinated, at Roberta's gleeful face. "I saw the whole thing," she said.
"You did?" I started to laugh, too. I shook my head to slough off the impulse, but it crawled over me like an army of insects, at once horrifying and tickling.
"How you groaned," she said. "How you writhed there on the rock, Auntie."
Frank shook me, and I think I growled at him. He looked so surprised. He finally got me to my feet, but I immediately doubled over in laughter. My abdominal muscles cramped. The most awful thing that could have happened had happened. The trumpet of King Middle School had looked on as Miss Amelia Ridge had won over her man, and all I could do was laugh at the way I'd done it and the way she'd watched.
Frank stepped back from me and gave up. Folding his manly arms over his dark, manly chest, he glared at me and tensed and untensed his eyes while Roberta, laughing along with me, circled behind me and mounted the stone. I turned to watched her. She stood with her arms spread exactly as I had to invite Frank to me. I felt like her puppet. I laughed because she did. I wanted desperately to stop, for one of them to bring a stone down on my head and end it all, end the beauty and the disaster both with one powerful smite.
Frank took me roughly by the shoulders and said, "Come on. She's not worth listening to. Let's get out of here."
I shook him off. "Wait." I hit my fists against my forehead, waiting for a question I felt gathering to form itself. "I want to hear something." I echoed the words, waiting for clarification from myself: "Hear something. Hear something."
Frank was pulling me backwards when the question reached me. "How did you find us? How did you know we were here? Roberta?"
She gathered her beautiful, long blond hair in her hands and twisted it and laid it like an adored pet over her right shoulder and kissed it several times. "Oh, he told me where you'd be."
"He did." And she pointed.
Frank's voice boomed. "That's a filthy, dirty lie. She's lying. I've never spoken to her except in your hearing. You've heard every word I've ever exchanged with the liar. Tell her!" he shouted at Roberta.
"He invited me to come watch the disgrace of Miss Ridge on this rock in the middle of the wood. Oh! Look! I spy! I spy! There's a bit of blood. Blood on the rocks."
"I don't like you," I said. How feeble a response that sounds now, these many weeks later, to Roberta's nasty, trashy lies. They were lies. Lies. A liar knows lies when she hears them. All right. She was lying. She made the whole story up, about their having a partnership to do and watch.
"I found him where he was helping his brother fix the barbecue, and we planned the whole thing, how he'd take you, and how I'd watch from behind the trees."
When Frank spoke there was a kind of sobbing futility in his voice as if he knew he were outclassed. "Why? Why would you make up your goddamned story?"
"Because it's true," she said lightly, and she gave a ho-hum roll of her eyes and patted her hands soundlessly together. "Because I can tell you're the kind of man who'd want a girl like me to watch. I can see through you. I can see what you want, what you like. It's nasty and dark in there, and it smells funny, but not bad. And now there's going to be a reckoning."
"A reckoning?" I said. There was a ringing in my ears.
The trees around us shuddered in the strong wind. The forest was darker but no less stifling for the wind. My chills had passed off, and so had my giddiness. If I were her puppet, Roberta had just thrown me to the ground, done with me, and I was supposed to lie there, unused, until she decided to pick me up and toy with me again.
She smirked. "Yes. The day of reckoning. The day I tell." She tapped her index finger against her chin, figuring. "Maybe the first day back at school, when I have to write my essay about what I did last summer. About how I watched Miss Ridge get ground into the rock. All prim and proper and clawing at his back."
Frank stood his ground, but I moved farther away. "You wouldn't dare," I said. "Everyone knows you're a liar. No one believes you, and no one likes you."
For the first time, for the only time since I'd known her, I let down my adult guard and said exactly what I was thinking to Roberta about her character, and it was vicious and petty of me and too bad, and I immediately hurt inside as though someone had said those words to me and meant them, and they merely confirmed what I'd suspected all along was true about myself and answered the burning question of why I was still so lonely. I went further, deeper, into the role of one of Roberta's peers, regressing to the spiteful age of 15 or 16, and said, to rub her nose in it, "Frank likes me, not you. He likes me a lot."
So there. Take that.
My God, how, in those few short hours on the island, during which she and I had spent at most half an hour in each other's company, had Frank become the prize in a contest between us? For the first time since I'd know the girl, I spoke my mind to her, and the quality of what I brought out, this, the sum of my education and refinement and striving for culture and elevated things, was disgusting. All I could do was insult and taunt her. In what might have been her final hours. Her final minutes. No one knows for sure. No one is saying. She is not saying. She's unfound. And I might as well say it: Frank's not saying.
For the first time ever, I'd spoken my mind to that beautiful, unloved, deplorably lonely girl. And for the first time since I'd known her, I saw a shudder, a spasm of hurt run lightly over the beautiful tanned skin of her face, as though I'd hit a sensitive spot in her heart and traveled down an avenue no one had ever traveled in her and set off a reaction that shamed her in front of us. She reminded me of a three-year-old in the second she realizes she has become separated from her mother in a constantly shifting crowd.
I was sorry but not sorry. If she took the truth of her absurdity to heart, maybe she would keep her mouth shut. That was all I needed to concern myself with.
But then she rallied. Sly, sleek, the impish twist crept back to the corners of her mouth. Her nostrils flared in amused defiance. Nothing amused her as much as defiance, unless it were the surprise attack of a lie or a threat. Mirth flickered in her eyes. The old faithful Roberta rose out of the mud of momentary embarrassment. She tittered, loose at the knees. She beat herself with the mane of hair, and then fixing Frank with a challenging gaze, she drew her head back and pulled her blouse sleeve down far enough to expose her smooth left shoulder. If she'd had no other beautiful feature, the silk gold roundness of her shoulder would have been enough to arrest flying motion in its tracks.
"I'll tell," she crooned. "Unless I get something I want."
The next instant came as an explosion, and I thought, "It's happened because the sun's back out." The sun just then dissolved the only cloud for a thousand miles around, and Roberta stood, hands on her hips, her back arched, nose wrinkled, both disdainful and beckoning, in the center of the light shaft that speared the bramble of pines. And there was Frank, springing on her to do the dirty work of wiping that dirty look off her face, his hand made into a fist.
There was time enough for a dozen thoughts to spill through my head and for me to see in my mind's eye a score of alternative worlds that would and did and might grow out of what would happen next. The mystery described as seeing your entire life flash before your eyes is a true experience. But you see everyone else's life, too, not just you own.
Two thoughts, one really amplified, remembered from the half second it took Frank to reach Roberta:
1. Please, Frank unmake your fist, open your hand, or you will hit her too hard.
2. She's making him do this, he is snapping, behaving like a wild man, but she is still in control, see that little tug, that smart twitch at the tail of her smile, the tail of a minnow twitching there, it's by that little tug that she's working the strings; and that growl he's making, she's throwing that from her voice box, the smooth little ventriloquist.
He hit her, and I screamed. She didn't. I did. I screamed for her that day. Her eyes remained fixed on him, cool, unencumbered, with not a trace of surprise or anger or pain from them. Her head barely moved when he struck her.
"You're not going to tell anyone!" he said. He tried to steady his voice, but it shook. I didn't like the edge of desperation it had to it.
She merely looked perturbed as a baby-sitter would at the insistent whining of a child who hadn't yet understood who was boss. "Hit me all you want. That won't stop me. I do what I want. I say what I want and go where I want. Anyway, this is what you want, too. You want her to watch now."
"Us." She looked around his shoulder at me. "It's your turn to watch, Auntie. Only I won't be as messy as you. I'll be a lot quieter, too. It won't be screaming, 'Uh! Uh! Uh!' like he's cut out my tongue."
Frank hit her again. As I write this, I know I should hate him, but I don't, and I'm ashamed to admit that, more ashamed than I am of anything we did in the woods on the island that day. He hit a young girl, a student of mine, a girl much weaker but much stronger in some ways, than he. This time he drew blood. She put her hand to her lip and looked at the blood on her fingers, and her forehead creased as if she didn't understand what the blood was or why it came from her. And while she was still vulnerable, questioning the blood and putting her fingers back to her mouth to see if there was more where that came from, he pushed her hard. She stumbled backward, slid down the back of the rock and wound up on the ground in a seated position. Frank moved toward her, gripping his belt. I remember seeing the blood gorged veins running up the backs of his arms and thinking it was horrible how large they'd grown.
I turned and ran. Because I didn't want to watch. I was not like Roberta. I didn't watch. There was nothing to watch. Nothing happened. There was nothing to watch. Not ever.
Anyone who saw me on the return ferry, the 6:15, would have said to himself: "Now, there is a woman who is mourning herself. Look how she twitches every second, turns to look behind her, turns on herself like she's trying to catch herself in the act and stop herself from making a fatal move; or like she's trying to catch a glimpse of the person she's shed, the person she was much happier with, recently departed, dearly departed. She's like one of those damned jar flies, screwing up the quiet evening air this time of year, walking out of her shell and mourning her shell. Shedding those tears for her empty shell. She left it back there on the island. Or left something dreadful. But now she's dreadful. Look at her. She's crying and trying to turn a way no one can see her, but there are people everywhere on this crowded boat. Why doesn't she lean over the railing, or go into the bathroom. She's a strange lady. She's got a little chain of blood down the back of her dress. I wonder if she knows it."
I didn't know how I was going to face Mother, but when you have no other home, you simply go to the one you have. And when the truth is strange, possibly sordid, but in any event not the sort of account with which you interrupt the silver glow of "The Lawrence Welk Show" thrown all over the dark living room and your mother's face that turns to you in the dark and wobbles before you l like a pinkened jelly fish in its livid electrical field, you lie to the question, "Where in the world have you been all this time? I was about to send out an all points bulletin."
As soon as I'd made sure she hadn't phoned Melinda's house to check up on me, I told a little fib and at the same time made a mental note to enlist Melinda to back up my alibi, in case Mother came to her. This, of course, would entail my telling Melinda a different set of lies regarding my motive in lying to Mother, but I was up to it. I was up to whatever I had to be up to to keep my day on the island my own.
"Oh, we had our lunch over there."
"Where?" She kept her eyes on the program but all her mind on my story and its continuity. I would have to be canny.
"At the Nor'easter."
"Never heard of it."
"It's there. I swear," I said. I must have sounded desperate to be believed, like a suspect being interrogated by police in a tight smoke-filled room, because she turned to me with a fleeting frown of suspicion and said, "I wasn't doubting its existence. I don't need it notarized. I was only saying I'd never heard of it. I am in ignorance, if you will." She settled back into her cushions.
I wanted to be angry with her, even fight with her. I needed a fight right then, to say, "You always make me feel like a criminal. You always have, not just tonight." But I've never brought on a fight with her. I'd never win, or, rather, any fight begun would only end when I'd kneeled in apology and begged for forgiveness, and so in this at least I've never yielded to temptation. I've always held my tongue though I've wanted to lash out plenty of times. I could not see myself on my knees before any human being. Other than Frank Farrell.
"We rented bikes and rode around the island after lunch."
"For how long?"
"Oh, for hours."
"In this heat? You're kidding. You must have been out of your minds."
"I—we—stopped a lot and got in the shade."
"But the heat! How did you keep from dehydrating?"
For this I had no ready reply, truth or lie, but it struck me as odd, too. Even now I wasn't thirty. Had I drunk and not remembered drinking? Had I bought water on the boat? I simply had no answer other than, "I can't answer that question."
"You can't answer that question," she repeated in a tone designed to make me feel inadequate. "I couldn't have had a scientist for a daughter who could give me answers to simple questions like these."
"It's a mystery, Mother. You'll just have to accept it as a mystery."
She snorted softly and dismissed me by saying, "'It's a mystery,' she says," and returned her full attention to the ragtime pianist on the program.
I wanted a bite out of her. I did not pass on through the room and leave her to her entertainment, which was what she wanted from me now. No. Instead I probed for the wound with my sugar coated tongue in squishy tones of sympathy. "Mother, I sense your peevish mood really has nothing to do with me and is only directed at me as a scapegoat. I sense something happened today in your bridge club, something dissatisfying or unpleasant, and you're taking it out on me. I don't blame you. But would you like to talk about it?"
Without taking her eyes from the glowing screen, she gave me a furious wave of dismissal, clenching her jaw and huffing primly. "I never have less than a highly satisfying bridge club. I just don't like eating supper alone, that's all. I don't see why you had to stay over there so long. Fooling around. Riding bikes. Acting like a teenager."
I locked myself in the bathroom, glad for the running bath water to drown out my sobbing. The next day was Sunday. I'd have to convince Mother I was ill. I couldn't risk laying eyes on Frank Farrell in the church sanctuary. What might happen? More than likely this: he would walk up the aisle to his usual seat, holding Ginny's hand, and I'd see his neck stiffen at the hint of my presence. He would avoid the eye contact I'd gladly make, and it would hurt me to know that I'd risk what he wouldn't. I would sit there three rows back on the aisle on the opposite side and see nothing the entire service but Frank's shoulders and neck and pirate's wild blue-black head of hair and placate myself by thinking, "Yes, Amelia, he is cutting you, treating you as if you and the island never existed, but it's only because he has so much more to lose in this than you do."
It was a peculiar thing I had to console myself with, that what I had was so very little.
I would be sick tomorrow. But Monday, Monday I would go buy meat.
I'd waited 25 minutes at the ferry dock, hoping, praying to my new little god, the pagan thing, that I'd see Frank round the corner by the general store and walk down the hill to the landing to join me. But he'd never come. I told myself, "You know he left the woods right behind you. In fact, he walked back to his brother's house to get a cold drink or pick up a tool he'd meant to borrow."
That was what he did. Surely.
After my bath I rinsed my dress out in the sink as best I could. I had indeed bled into the back of it, but not as badly as I'd feared. I hung the dress up in front of a fan in my room and then, after make sure Mother had fallen asleep in front of her television program, I tip-toed to the kitchen, looked up the number, and dialed Frank's house. I wanted to make sure he'd gotten home safe. That was another worry among the many that had sprouted in my crazy mental garden since that afternoon: that something terrible would happen to Frank to prevent my ever seeing or speaking to him again.
Ginny answered. I almost hung up but decided to wait. She repeated her greeting like a goat butting a reflection of itself. And then I heard Frank say in the background, "Who is it, Honey?" and he sounded so like his usual, robust self that I felt chastened. Why was I so fearful and anxious when he sounded at his ease? What had I done that he hadn't, that I should bear all our guilt and sorrow?
"Give me the phone," I heard him say. "Hello? Hello, what do you want? Look, whoever you are, don't call my house and disturb my family again."
"All right," I whispered and hung up.
On Monday I bought an unneeded pound of hamburger. Frank seemed glad to see me. We moved to the end of the counter, away from his blockhead assistant with the parted red nose. My hands shook from gladness, and I had tears in my eyes. Frank leaned his hairy arms on the glass case and said, "I missed you yesterday. I was worried."
I glanced in the assistant's direction, and Frank said, "Don't worry about Jack. He's square with things."
"I'm sorry I ran off, the other day."
"Yeah, why'd you run off?"
He hiked his shoulders and ducked his head as though dodging a missile. He flinched and looked to see if it had hit Jack. "Sh! God, Amelia. Don't say her name."
"I had to get away from her," I said.
"Here. Wipe your eyes with this. You're crying."
"I have been since Saturday night. Since I had to leave you, I've been crying."
"I left right after you."
"I didn't see you."
"I went a different way."
"What difference does it make?
"You didn't make the ferry. I looked for you and prayed and prayed you'd make it."
"I took the 7:15."
"Will Ginny ask your brother what time you finished and why it took you so long to get home?"
"Naw. Ginny doesn't ask any questions. She's got other things on her mind about now. Besides, Cameron is square with it all."
"Everything. Life. Love."
When he said "love" and looked into my eyes, the question shifted from how ever would I adjust my shroud of decency to cover what had happened on the island to when could we ever again arrange such a meeting? When ever could I remove that shroud in the woods again?
He could read my mind. "Go on, now," he said. "We'll figure something out." And he handed me over the unneeded package of meat and stroked my hand underneath it and whispered, "I'd wanted you for so long, Amelia. It's not going to end there."
He walked over to another customer, but I stood there, mesmerized. Unable to think, I stared at the package of meat, wondering what I was carrying. But then Jack come to where I stood and said, "What else?" and raised his eyebrows in a way that struck me as leering and suggestive, and I said, "Nothing."
When I came in the front door carrying my purse and the wrapped meat, Mother's gaze slip over the top of her glasses. She looked straight at the package and said, "What's that for?"
"It's all I could afford."
"I'm thawing steaks for supper. What is it?"
"Goodness, Amelia. Haven't I always said when I am reduced to eating hamburger, I'll give up eating altogether? Why did you all the sudden develop this taste for cheap diner food? Hamburger!"
My voice was harder than I meant it to be: "Did you hear me? It's all I could afford."
"You didn't need to afford anything."
Her dumbfounded expression suddenly arched into one of smug knowingness. "Oh, I see. You missed him yesterday. It was just so necessary for you to get a look and exchange a few pleasantries with Killer Frank."
I twisted my shoulders and played up the sarcasm so she wouldn't guess how squarely she'd hit the nail on the head. "Yes, Mother, that's it. I think nothing but Frank Farrell, all the living day."
She crowed, loved being able to pinch me from afar. "You and every other woman in the neighborhood."
I was alone on the porch that afternoon when the paper came. The heat had passed in that one sweltering hurrah, without thunder or storm. The sky was now a hard, polished blue laced with shirred bands of cirrus clouds. The air was cool and still. I was content with my life, and hopeful: I had seen my lover; he'd spoken the word "love" in my presence and had promised we would meet again as we had that day; he'd told me that our time together was the fulfillment of a long-held desire. With the elimination of a few key persons, which could be achieved mentally, this was the stuff of high romance. The only nagging concern I had was Roberta, the witness. The pathological liar.
The pathological truth-teller.
She was there, like an aching tooth that bothered only when you bit down. I relaxed my jaw.
When I opened the paper there on the porch among the red and pink geraniums and the hanging begonias, my white sweater on my lap, I saw the headline and the picture: GIRL MISSING SINCE SATURDAY TRIP TO PEAK'S. Girl missing. Girl missing. I clenched my jaw and felt the pain of her. My first thought, my first crazy thought was, "Who is she telling in the place where she's missing? Do they talk in the place where she's gone?"
I said a prayer for her safety. To God. Not to my pagan self-serving god but to the God Who presides over selfless concerns, over the welfare of other persons despite how they might harm one's unearned good reputation in their wellness. "My God. Thank God Frank left her right after I did. But he hit her. Why did he hit her? Did he more than hit her? He wouldn't have had time to more than hit her. He left the center of the island right after me. Though he went a different way."
What should I do? The story mentioned a massive search was underway, the dragnet over the island, the plea for witnesses to step forward, anyone who'd spoken to her, had knowledge of her movements, activities on the island that day. She'd been seen leaving the ferry dock in the company of a young couple.
A young couple. Is that what Frank and I were? Is that what we looked like? I cherished that description of us. We'd made it into print. My heart went cold. I couldn't come forward and tell one thing without telling more and more and too much and dragging Frank into the arena. No. And I knew he wouldn't step up. No. He had too much to lose. Far more than I did. My little and his much I would protect by silence. The shroud of decency and the shroud of silence were the same thing.
Roberta was such a beautiful girl, she wouldn't pass into oblivion without notice. She always attracted attention wherever she went. That loud voice, those flamboyant gestures, her infectious laugh. Someone would come forward with a bit of information, surely. Surely someone saw which way she went after she left the woods. I would leave it to this theoretical person to do his or her civic duty. I would not make a move, a sound. The island, that day, what we knew, must be Frank's and my secret entirely.
And so, in the same breath I prayed, "Oh, God, let her be safe," and, "Don't let it show in my face."
I carefully folded the paper back into its paperboy knot and laid it back on the step. A few minutes later when Mother came to retrieve the paper, I let her believe she was the first to read about Roberta's disappearance. She loves to break a story.
"Oh, my! A girl went missing Saturday on Peak's. The day you and Melinda were there, Sweetie. You might knew her. She's a 15-year-old. A student at King Middle School. She might be one of your students! Do you know her?"
"Let me see that, Mother. Oh, my goodness. Roberta Sookey."
A hard rock breaks a weaker one. Mother doesn't know that we are rocks and that she is constantly bashing into me. About to break me. To her it is nothing but a glance, an extra long gaze into my eyes, the question why I am so unusually nervous, why my eyes are red, why I am up all hours of the night roaming the house. "You frighten me," she says, casually, yawning. "I hear you and think it's a burglar." And then she guffaws, and her eyes sparkle, and I want to cry because she is powerful enough to make me feel inside like I am still five years old, and she says, "But I think you are a burglar, a strange reverse kind of burglar, Amelia. The kind who wants to break out, not in. Well, just do me this one favor, Daughter. When you do break out, please leave me a note saying to what specific place you've gone, so I won't report you as missing."
"I'm not breaking out, Mother. I'm not going anywhere, except back to school."
"On the hottest day of summer, three persons entered the pine woods at the center of the island. But later that afternoon, when it had all happened and was finished, only two of them came out."
What did happen? When I asked Frank at the meat counter several days after the news came out, he told me, "Amelia, you know as much as I do. But we can't say anything. You understand we can't say anything. If we say a word, the whole thing would come out. You understand what I'm saying? The whole thing? And, Man. I can't carry off a lie. You can see it in my eyes when I lie."
"Do you love me, Frank?"
I watched his eyes. Mother was going to break me, though she didn't know she was working on it. I could hold out and be stronger than she ever dreamed of being if I knew Frank Farrell loved me. I could turn her a hundred years old like that. I told him that not even under torture would I spill a word if I knew I had his love.
He brought his face so close to mine over the counter I could smell the mint on his breath, and he said, "Oh, you know I love you so much, Honey. So very much." I read it in his eyes. He wasn't lying. Or he was lying as skillfully as our Roberta had ever hoped to.
Mother found my story in the garbage can. I'd thought a rubbish pile was an excellent place to hide the troubled musing over a secret, but she investigates the places where rubbish goes and should stay.
Did Frank hit Roberta? I wonder. Did I really see that, or am I adding to the story? We are mysteries that go on and on, to ever greater depths. Love falls from depth to depth, never reaching bottom. It has that in common with treachery and with confusion and sometimes loneliness.
I watch Frank in church, and I visit the meat counter more often than I should, though when I go to the grocery with Mother I avoid the back of the store altogether. Whenever I do manage to catch Frank's eyes, I see that the love, or a very convincing semblance of love, by now I don't care which, is still there. I am lonely, and I am fulfilled. There is the promise of a future for me in those eyes. Not today, or not this week, but sometime. Maybe a month from now. I am able to feed on the meat from that bone. Ginny has just had her baby, and Frank is much occupied, and so for now I can content myself on that rock in the clearing in the center of the island on the hottest day in forever. And, oh, my raw, aching back.
I am from pole to pole, the most happy and the most unhappy woman alive. If we take it on faith that we are unhappy in direct proportion to the meanness inside us, then I am bound to be one of the meanest women around. But this is not true all the time. Sometimes, in anticipation of the future, which feeds on that beautiful memory of the past, I am happier than any woman born of woman has a right to be.
And so Frank did walk by the house three nights ago, Friday night, to tell me again he loves me. I begged him to go away. Mother was in the kitchen mixing a cake and could have walked in at any minute. And the neighbors, who are well aware that no man ever visits our house, might see and ask, "Was that Frank the butcher who came to your door?" If Mother happened to hear that nosy neighbor's question and asked why Frank Farrell would come to our door, what did he want, I'd have no recourse to anything but the truth. I saw so quickly, with Frank there on the porch, how ugly the truth would appear in the wrong eyes. That is, in anyone's eyes but his and mine. We will have to bear the truth of this thing alone. We alone can make it beautiful.
"Go away! Go away!" I said to him.
"When?" he said. "When can I see you? Say when!"
"I'll see you in a month."
Frank has four children now, and God's knows what else is weighing on his mind. My back has continued to hurt. I'd have Mother take a look at it, but I don't want the questions. In a few weeks I might take it to the doctor, but I'm not sure I want the doctor's questions either.
This is Labor Day night. Summer is officially over. Tomorrow the prison bars come down on me and won't rise again until mid-June.
I would like to disappear, too, Roberta. And I'd like to tell the truth about Frank and me, too, shout it from the rooftops, I'm so very proud of it sometimes, but the story would be ugly in most people's eyes. And my telling of it is partial. Perhaps implicating and incriminating. No one knows whether or not a crime has taken place. I don't know whether or not Frank hit you. I wrote that he did, but I don't know whether to believe myself.
No part of you has been found. What? Will you wash up next summer when the parts of me that I am drowning tomorrow wash up too, all water-shriveled and fish-nibbled? Maybe we'll wash up together, in the same place. I'll go down to the water where I spied you gazing out like longing Penelope did once over the dazzling Aegean and find sections of you drying there. Or perhaps by being where you were when I saw you longing to be gone, I'll know where you went. Who knows.
Maybe when school starts tomorrow I'll decide to write your essay on what you did this summer. I've been trying.
If not, I could make it a project for next summer, and for the next 40 or 50 summers, until I die an unknown, unremarked, unmourned old maid.
Tonight I take out the garbage and this in it, where it belongs. And so, Mother, ha, ha, I've learned the many uses of a zippered pillow. You had no idea, these past two weeks, where I'd been stashing my writing.
But if despite my cleverness at concealment you dig in the garbage can and find this, you skunk-like, rooting thing, I just want you to know, it's all made up. Every last bit of it. And if your portrait strikes you as unflattering, well, it's not really you anyway. You were just the inspiration. I've embellished somewhat. That's what an artist does.