It was the eight-mile drive to town; to the silent post office, to the dingy grocery store, and to the barnacle-encrusted steel columns of the ferry terminal. And with less anticipation it was the drive back; a snaking, houseless journey, scraping the muffler over frost heaves, a trance of solitary skid-outs, hedged in by black drip sand castles made of pine. It was a means to an end.
Helena wrestled the Chrysler over muscular, sleeping roots as the driveway narrowed, blackberry thorns clawing at the doors. She gassed the car up the wooden ramp into the yawn of one of four hulking garages, each one filled with blanketed antiquities, and killed the lights. Hurriedly, she drew the large, wooden doors together, leaving the useless tools and dark machines inside, and set down the path towards the lights of the house. The land fell away into shadows on either side of her. She knew where to step to avoid tripping on jagged rocks. The sky was every star, and those forgotten. Helena paused. She listened to the tide lap against the hulls of the moored ships, where the rocks met water. She heard the ships' halyards clank against their masts. The screen door of the house was covered in June bugs.
Inside, she found Edward in the mudroom, with the duck boots and orange hunting gear, slumped on top of his friends – ship to shore radios, coast guard band radios, and high frequency weather bands. One of the six illuminated radios was pealing static squelches of sex stories that two lobstermen, drifting drunk in their boats, had all the time in the world to tell. Their voices, in between the fuzz, were thick Down East and knew their course, full of Yes Sa's and God Damn right's.
"Helena, you have to hear this, it's fabulous," he blurted. His balance was in the drink. His sea legs betrayed him. His gray fingers were like moth wings, pointlessly flapping around the bare bulb above his head.
"Hear what? You're a fucking mess. I go to a town meeting and come back to this." Helena's body was poised. Her hands were at her hips, quivering slightly.
"Shut up, you're gonna wake the dogs," he said, waving her away. The four strays had long since lost interest, their ears mute to this routine, they snored and twitched in the next room, lost in the reverie of glorious rabbit hunts.
"Why are you doing this?" she asked.
"Doing what?" he looked all around, smirking. "You mean dealing with your interruptions from my one joy, doing what makes me -"
"I hate you when you're like this. It isn't you." The lines around Helena's eyes pinched and then released. Her lips pursed to show him there was nothing more he could take.
"I'm lost, you've lost me. How long am I gonna hear this shit," he grumbled.
"As long as you want," she said.
"What I want is gone," he said.
"I'll be too. Do you fucking hear me, Edward?" she asked. Her chest was heaving under her coat.
For a moment it appeared as if Edward had passed out. He crumpled in on himself, and his breathing was shallow. Helena went to shake him.
"Listen." And with that one word, Edward rose up, and pushed past Helena, she fell back into the corner, crushing a bunch of rolled up nautical charts, and sending different hats from their pegs onto her lap. The overweight beagle, partially crippled (from a venomous frog bite) mutt, and his graceful, bitch mother scraped claws on the wood floors, leaping to her defense, and opened their throats wide. Edward kicked the beagle. The dog yelped and bolted for the door. Helena's eyes fought back the salt, as Edward hovered above her. Then he turned into the kitchen, and ice cubes were heard falling into glass. The dogs were spinning in circles, and out front the channel maker was warning only ghost ships, on an empty thoroughfare, past this peninsula of rock. Edward was bracing himself against the kitchen sink, nauseous with vodka and the saccharine taste of the wedding cake from two summers past; behind his eyes arrived mountains of shrimp, Helena's New York City faggot artist friends coming on to him (and the hidden pleasure it gave him), being naked and picking uncooked rice from Helena' wiry, Jewess hair, and the gold sun, and how it struck Cabot's Cove that day. He dry heaved into the sink. He was losing everything.
"You're killing me," she sobbed. "You're killing yourself. I can't do this. I'm going to my mother's and I'm taking the dogs."
Edward heard the screen door slam, a familiar punctuation in his song. The howling faded, an engine turned over, and the smutty jabber dissipated into white noise. Edward filled his glass, and then knelt down to see his reflection in the silver side of the toaster. "Fuck you, who the fuck are you anyway," asked the contorted face.
He scuffled across the threadbare Chinese rugs through the living room, by day a room with windows full of the ocean's roily expanse, by night a black fishbowl. In the bedroom he knelt by his record player and let a shaky bluegrass number rattle the oil lamps sooty. A sharp draft blew in from the Northeast and snapped the plastic sheet, his third wall in the bedroom. Edward had big plans for an addition off the bedroom; new cedar to encase elaborate tubs and a game room, but the reasons why, and for whom, were a mystery even to Helena, who had been sharing that cold bed. The scruffy locals building it, who loved to talk, smoke, and sometimes work, just shook their heads and took their time. Edward, meanwhile, had been sleeping fitfully, with all his treasure piled high around his bed: fur coats, shotguns, top hats in boxes, and his favorite clocks and barometers. Timepieces spanning centuries ticked away in a drawer, and collectively rejoiced on the half hour and hour. All else was dark wood and musty. Half models of ships, sickly green oils of waves engulfing archaic schooners hung on the walls. Shelves held spyglasses, hourglasses, magnifying glasses, and hundreds of books – adventures of the sea that only tiny red spiders braved, manuals on seamanship and the knots that bind men stationary, and leather-bound classics more for display.
Ice hits glass. Edward stretched out by the fireplace, breathing noisily, and the flames crept over his pockmarked, thirsty skin. His eyes were the blue inside an iceberg, but his face as far back as he chose to remember had always felt heavy. With the warmth from the hearth and the song's ambling nearby, Edward traveled backwards.
He was a child in a stucco mansion, where everything was gilded, embossed, or silken. He saw his father, drifting in and out, hiccupping, the last of the America playboys, or self-professed "gentlemen." The severe collars to chin portraits of colonialism, and stuffed songbirds behind glass allowed all the intimacy of a museum or mausoleum. Edward recalled how his teeth grew crooked as his stony mother doted on his brother Michael, the heir always grinning in his tennis whites. Childhood had hung delicate and fragile, and just out of reach. Edward let out an incantation of laughter. The flames were oxygenated.
It was this blood that helped guide him to this island, a place where ivy and silver tangled with rope and steel. Edward kept falling backwards. The first one he knocked up was a tender 16 – they had two kids, he tried to get his shit straight and did an army stint, then one belligerent night, he threatened her life with a loaded gun. She disappeared to Colorado, and the holidays he got with the kids, were at best, forced. Edward writhed remembering his second. She was a sailor and an athlete, and stood eight inches above him. She was radiant and adventurous. They had two and tried to raise them on the sea, but then the dark clouds rolled in, and Edward saw only himself, the brave man behind the wheel. One muggy night, moored in the Bahamas, the sailor and athlete found him fucking an island girl in the captain's quarters. She curled up inside a bottle till they floated up north. The two babies became amphibious, summering and splitting holidays with the old man, spending most of the time together on the water, and staying clear of the house at night. He didn't know how many cigarettes they pinched from him, or how they would scratch letters home in the dark, as bottles were breaking in the next room. He didn't know where they were now, or what they loved.
Edward thought of the studio, down towards the shore, that he had built for Helena. Tucked in, behind a line of fragrant pines, he built her that solace, where she used to hum, and sift and soak. The place she filled with driftwood, bones, and empty wasp nests. He thought of the mice that had taken over, chewing on owl feathers, and making nests out of her watercolors. He thought of algae collecting under his sailboat. It made him rise from the floor.
Edward filled himself one more vodka and water, and slouched down in to his chair, next to the giant, black safe he kept his secrets in, and the phones on top of it. He wore his everyday desperation; his favorite moth-eaten L.L. Bean sweater that rolled over his paunch, his faded blue jeans with iron-ons, and top-siders, with a 60-year-old big toe popping out through one shoe. He picked up the phone to dial David, an understanding soul, since when life was game, and hurt was scrapes and bruises. David was a chef who put a little too much booze in every dish. He was a hefty, walrus of a man, constantly shifting and snorting, with gentle bones and a skull cluttered with melancholy webs. He was a rock in Edward's choppy seas. David picked up.
"What the hell, old boy, what's cookin'?" Edward asked.
"Sleeping, or trying to, what's up?" he replied.
"We need to get outta here. Let's pack it up and go cruising up to Matinicus for a couple of nights, or somewhere. I know you got the time," Edward said.
"You're smashed," he sighed to his oldest partner in crime.
"I need this, right now, more than ever. I fucked it up, David. I've pushed her away," he said. Edward shifted in his chair, his free hand absently doodling till the pencil snapped at the point.
"Edward, what have you done?"
"Everyone, they're all gone. Nothing left, nothing, I'm so bloody tired," he trailed off. "I'm so tired." The clocks all rejoiced. It was half past two in the morning. The plastic sheet ruffled from a gust coming up off the dark waters.
"Tomorrow, I'll come by, we'll work this out. Just go to sleep, okay?"
"We'll sail tomorrow, just you and me old boy," and with that Edward placed the phone on the receiver. He sat motionless in the chair, wanting desperately for some cannon blast to come galloping across the thoroughfare, for some box of letters to appear before his feet, that he could pour over with his eyes, and feel between his fingers. He grew weary waiting, and soon sleep crept over him, his glass falling to the ground, and its contents soaking into the carpet.
The morning came in leaden. The fog rolled in and lingered in the treetops of Quaking aspens and frosted deciduous. Ospreys circled in and out of sight, through the cloaks of moisture, silent and hunting. The wakes of lobster boats could be heard crashing against the shores, and the smell of diesel mixed with bait brought flocks of ghosting seagulls in close pursuit along their sterns. The foghorns issued, both soothing and ominous.
Helena stood in front of the house and watched David's car as he pulled up through the blackberry thorns. Helena ran towards his car, and up to the steamy window. He had his radio on a low volume, and public radio was caressing him out of slumber. He lit a cigarette and unrolled the window.
"Jesus, David, I can't find him anywhere. I'm worried," she said.
"C'mon, you know Ed. This shit has been going on for years," David said.
"He was a mess last night," she whispered.
"I know. We talked."
"And things are off down at the house, please come down there."
They made their way down the foggy path, Helena guiding David so as not to have him trip and fall. They entered through the screen door, and stopped. All of the windows were open, along the front side of the house, sending in the chilling condensation. The furniture was crystallized with frost, and yet the low burning embers still glowed in the fireplace. Yellowing photographs were strewn everywhere along the floor, and it pained Helena to see the Kodacolor grins of the women before her. She kicked them to the side as she ran from room to room, calling out Edward's name. Silence. They ran into his bedroom and only found his made bed. Then Helena noticed Edward's wristwatch on the dresser, the first and last act of his every day.
They hurried out onto the porch, and it was then, as they peered out into the obscured water, that they saw the boat was gone. In its place on the mooring, feebly smacking up and down on the choppy, gray ocean was the wooden dinghy, looking dejected and cold.
Helena sat down slowly in one of the twin canvas chairs on the porch. David quietly went inside the house, and soon came back out with hot tea, wool blankets, and Edward's favorite pair of binoculars. They sat there in the fog in total silence, with just the sound of the waves against a shore full of smooth green glass, shards of blue porcelain Chinese wares, and empty periwinkles. David lifted the binoculars and pointed them out into the gray. Helena thought how Edward spent most of his life, in this very spot, gazing at the birds soaring over the islands, a few times at his children out in tiny sailboats, close-hauled spraying water into the sun, or admiring the grand schooners that would arrive in the thoroughfare once every summer, to glorify times long passed.
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