Emily slept late that day, no reason to get up. She couldn’t seem to get past the fading late-August days. They felt stalled to her, bloated with boredom. So little to do in this picture-perfect town by the sea. This yawning land of ghost homes and Cypress-lined boulevards. At six thirty in the evening, she slipped on the dress with red poppies and walked the mile or so to the Rockport Liquors, a package store across from the pier. She was thirty-four, too thin, and had recently hacked off her hair. There was no breeze and the long hot walk left the silk dress clinging to her body.
Entering, she noticed someone had taped a lost cat flyer to the front counter. “Evening, Mr. Harris.” Mr. Harris, who sat on a high stool squinting at a Maine fishing guide, knew her, knew she hadn’t come for liquor. He no longer asked if she needed help. She walked straight to her favorite section, handling the bottles of vodka. The bottles of Jamaican rum. She liked thinking about what they could deliver. A few minutes later a sound of bells at the door announced another customer. A man in a dark gray suit, shirt open at the neck, walked over next to her and reached for a bottle of Gray Goose. He wore mirrored sunglasses and smelled of cigarettes.
“You don’t want that one,” she said.
“You want Gordon’s.”
He removed his sunglasses, looking annoyed. As if he had been up all night and half the day losing at the gaming tables. “Oh, yeah?”
Emily was often mistaken for a clerk, or perhaps the daughter of the owner, and asked for advice. Which tequila had the most kick? Of course, absolutely, she was more than happy to help. The reason being she had found her calling – she became adept at misinformation. Subterfuge. She sent each of them off with the worst possible brands. Would he go for it? She doubted it. She felt short of breath, as she often did. Sometimes dizzy. “Guaranteed.” She imagined a tumor attached to one of her lungs, in the shape of a pomegranate. Her mother had had them.
He stared at her breasts, visible under the damp fabric of her dress. “And maybe you’re full of crap.”
Seconds ticked by. There was an “ahem” from the register. Hoping the owner wouldn’t ask her to leave, she glanced back at the flyer on the front of the counter, wondering why anyone would advertise a lost cat. Cats always knew exactly where they were.
The man with the sunglasses stepped closer to her.
“Know what? Who cares what you buy?” she said.
“What’s your name?”
“Belle,” she said, over the drone of the air conditioner. She’d known a Belle in school. A melancholy girl of exceptional beauty. There had been a letter received a few years back from Belle’s mother, Belle had been committed to Pond House, a facility for the deeply depressed.
Outside, on the sidewalk, they smoked, each with a purchase wrapped in brown paper. Emily leaned against the fender of his car, a dark-colored Lincoln with a New Jersey plate, and spoke for a moment about the absence of colorful birds that summer. She held the collars of her dress close, as if a punishing wind was about to strip her open to the waist. His dark hair fell across his forehead and he had a nose that had been broken and hadn’t properly healed. She spoke of the limited culture in Rockport. No theaters that featured sub-titled films. No Chinatown. No tiny women selling life-enhancing herbs the color of green poisonous snakes. Such a shame.
He told her he’d left part of his leg in Guatemala.
She said she dreamed of leaving Maine. Flying off to Mexico, traipsing through dusty villages in bare feet, followed by boys hawking necklaces certain to turn her skin green.
“Mexico’s a shithole,” he said. “Further south, you go there.”
Across the street was Marina Park, past that lay the harbor. Choppy water, a handful of buoys outlining the shallows of the bay. Men with their shirts off shouting obscenities as they lowered the sails. Children on the docks chased imaginary foes in the early evening heat. She suddenly stopped talking at the sound of running feet, imagining her son flying down the pier, full of laughter and eager to wait beside the deep water until nightfall. She’d told him that was when the seals surfaced to play. He was small for his age, and fearless. His name was Joey, he was five years old and followed everywhere by a small shaggy dog named Bo. He believed each and every story she told him about the creatures of the sea. She was forever pulling him from the edge.
She stood very still for a moment. She could smell haddock being unloaded onto the dock, the odor of perspiration coming from the man by her side.
His name was Ben. Ben, she said to herself, the paper bag pressed to her chest. He drove with the radio playing, under the train trestle and past the deserted convent, the old cemetery, the abandoned quarry, far from the any connection to the town. He turned off onto the Old Country Road and parked by the reservoir, deep within the dark covering woods. Inside the car, the summer air close and stale as cat’s breath, they smoked a little grass laced with opium and passed his bottle of Gordon’s back and forth. Ben lowered the windows and turned the headlights on low, creating a path in the approaching darkness. A possum started across the road, stopped to look up, them ambled on.
“They call this Madman Road,” she said. “But maybe you know that since you seem to know your way around.”
“I know my way around a liquor store. Enough to know about Gordon’s.”
“So why’d you buy it?”
“Playing the game.”
The liquor and drugs had taken hold and Emily imagined she saw fireflies inside the car. Maybe she’d carry them home on her clothes. Ben placed his hand on her throat, his tongue deep inside her mouth, and she thought of wafers and communal wine. Altars of red-petaled peonies coaxing her to slice open her throat. Ben began to pull her around, arranging her for what was coming. Her foot hit the horn. Wings rattled in the brush. He unfastened the buttons of her dress to get to her breasts, and his hands were rough. The stubble on his chin hurt her skin. With his pants pulled down, the smooth chill of the prosthesis was creepy. There was a sound of creatures in the background, crickets in the grass, all calling out Mayday. As he pushed inside her, she held him fiercely, then drifted loose. When it was over, Ben switched channels on the radio and reached in the glove box for a cigarette. He lit up and took a long, deep breath, followed by a fit of coughing. Side by side in the front seat, their faces were blank as unrecalled dreams.
Ben let her off back at Rockford Shores, reaching across the passenger side to pull the door shut. He lowered the window and tipped an imaginary cap. His face suggested he was already miles away. He drove to the intersection, waited for the light to change, and rounded the corner.
She wished they could have gone somewhere. Chicken-in-a-Basket maybe. Why hadn’t she said something. She wished she had asked him for money. Or robbed him. She wanted to peel off pieces of her skin and shout out, my name is Emily. And I’m a Wellesley girl. Waiting in the deepening shadows for someone, someone with a contagious disease that no one had ever heard of, to enter the harbor on a wooden ship and kiss her on the mouth. Hand her a bouquet of purple blossoms. She walked the blocks in her thin brown shoes, oblivious of where she stepped, glancing down alleys in search of an anchorage, past the small hotel where she’d left part of herself more than once. By then it was near dark and she walked beneath the soft yellow pulse of street lamps, her childhood in her pockets.
Inside the garage was just enough light left from outside for her to see several spiders, finely attached in silver webs that glistened in the warm air. They were perfect. Against the wall were numerous rakes and a blue bicycle with training wheels.
Frigid air had blown down from Nova Scotia last November when her son disappeared, delivering a foot of snow to the area and hampering the search. The men returned from the fields after three days and nights, their heads down as they had nothing to report. She told them, go to the docks, where the water was slick and unfathomable, and that was where they found him, his face blue as Artic ice. He wore his Red Sox jacket and just one boot. When the sheriff came, she stood with her back to the steps and told him they’d made a mistake. It wasn’t Joey after all.
Now, at the door to the kitchen, her hand rested on the knob, she listened with her face pressed against the wooden panel and, hearing nothing, pushed through the doorway. In her stoned condition nothing looked familiar. The polished tile floors and pale yellow walls were lovely but were they hers? Past the kitchen, soft rugs and tables filled with photos, of family seated at long tables under an arbor.
Walter came down the stairs in white socks. In spite of the heat, he wore a sweater over his pajamas. The stubble on his face erased the delicacy of his past appearance. The boy’s dog came with him, his toenails clicking on the wooden steps. He followed Walter as he had followed their boy, and she had grown to resent it. She had tried to give him away, to someone in another town, but Walter said he needed him. In the kitchen, she walked past them without a word, placing her bottle of vodka on the counter, opening the refrigerator to remove the leftover ham and a jar of pickle relish. She put together a sandwich and ate it standing at the sink.
Walter stood by the doorway and watched her eat. “Where’ve you been?” He paced most nights and his sagging face reflected that. He’d always been the one who had no problems sleeping. “You all right?” She’d envied him that. “I was worried.” He walked over to her, clumsy with affection, and she smelled the staleness of his breath.
Finished with her sandwich, she dusted her hands of crumbs. When she saw his eyes fill, she brushed by him and went out onto the porch and sat in the glider. Headlights from an occasional passing car lit the trees. Walter joined her, followed by the dog. She moved over, making room for him to sit beside her. He had brought two glasses of vodka from the bottle she’d brought home.
They swung back and forth, feet dragging across the flagstones, sipping their drinks, as if, in this ordinary domestic moment, nothing had happened. “I need to fix the birdfeeders. Get the orioles back. Oh, Richard called,” Walter said. “They want us to plan a skiing trip together for next November.”
“Really? The Simpsons?”
She had slept with Richard Simpson.
His wife Virginia stayed with her those days of waiting, preparing meals, cataloging the casseroles brought to the house. Answering the phone. Clutching her rosary during the long hours of dealing with questions. Why was the boy allowed to play at the docks without supervision? She held on to Emily when Emily began to scream. He just ran off.
“Richard Simpson wants to go skiing?”
The swing slowed, then stopped. “Are you leaving me?”
Kate ran a hand through her hair. “I’ve thought of it, but I have no memory of how to be brave.”
After a long silence, Walter said, “Remember how he loved your stories about the sea sirens?” He examined her face for a reaction. “How he would sit here, on this swing, trying to recite their names?”
She remembered everything. How he studied his books with a deep sweet concentration. Tracing the illustrations of mermaids and selkies with one finger. Glancing up at her with that curious grin. Perhaps some evening someone on a distant bank would look up and catch a glimpse of a small boy with tousled hair riding the waves in search of the elusive Ligeia.