First, Ellen’s letter to Willie:
My sweet guy,
I hope everything’s continuing to go well for you and that you had a great Fourth. You can tell me all about it when we talk Tuesday night. I’ll be by the phone at 9:45, so if your plans change, get your counselor to call me and let me know the new time.
July 4 was the day when your grandfather always celebrated his birthday, you know, so I’ve been thinking about him this week. I talked on the phone to Bonnie, who’s still in Alabama, and we admitted to each other that we were missing him and feeling a little sad. It’s odd, because Daddy wasn’t the best company in the world. Of course, he mellowed quite a bit before he died. Anyway, I was very aware of his being gone this past week.
I went to the pond yesterday, and the crazy lady who lives in the house on the other side was playing some New Age music—what your Uncle Morris calls “ear candy.” Soon she glided down through the trees in a long white robe, promptly let it fall to the ground, and entered the water naked, like a big white bird in a dream. I believe she was having some kind of special New Age moment. Just when I was thinking I would have to leave, she went inside and stopped the music. Then it was really beautiful. You could hear the ocean over the dunes, and I swam all the way around the perimeter.
It’s lovely being down here, but I think you would be bored. I work in the mornings. Then I go swimming, read, eat dinner, listen to the ball game if there’s one, and go to bed. Dull. But I’m getting a lot done. I think by the time you come home, I’ll nearly have enough poems for a new book.
I love you and miss you and can’t wait to hear your voice Tuesday night. If you need help with anything, be sure to ask for it. That’s as much a sign of maturity as not needing help—if not a greater sign. Most adults still don’t know how to ask for help, and they get themselves into a lot of trouble because of it. I know this, because I’m one of them from time to time.
Have a blast, my sweet guy. Drink some milk, eat an apple (or other fruit), brush your teeth, blah blah blah.
I love you very much,
And Morris’s most recent e-mail message to Ellen:
Is it a conversation if only one person is talking?
You’ve probably noticed that Ted Williams’s remains are back in the news again. An artist has created a shrine of some kind to Williams’s severed head (on display in a NYC gallery), rekindling the endlessly fascinating cryogenics debate. Is this what people mean when they say, Dead but not forgotten?
What do you hear from Willie? I still don’t understand how you and Dan could send him away like that. I HATED camp as a boy. As far as I can tell, camp takes everything that’s already hard about life and makes it harder. If Willie’s miserable, just pull him and send him to Richard and me. I know I said no before and now I’m saying yes, which is probably annoying, but some things have unexpectedly changed and Richard’s not going to Chicago after all. We’re here in Ipswich through the middle of August. Willie could come up and go canoeing with Richard, which would take some of the pressure off me. Come to think of it, what’s husband Dan doing for the next few weeks? I’m sure by now he’s manicured most of the hillside, straight to the edge of the marsh. There are only just so many weeds that can be whacked in the world, and besides, don’t they have environmental laws about such things on the Cape? Send Dan to us. I’ll stick a canoe paddle in his hands and make Richard very happy.
I had an idea: When we come down for our long weekend on the 19th, why don’t we swing by Willie’s camp and bring him with us? Do you think they would release him for three days, or do they have ideas about how contact with the outside world might affect his incarceration? It would be so nice to have a thirteen-year-old around for the weekend, an ally when Dan’s onslaught of shellfish dinners begins. Somebody to eat cheeseburgers with while the rest of you all are cracking open crustaceans and sucking out the innards.
Are you getting any work done? (Sorry. Idle curiosity.) Did you think of Daddy this past week? It would be gratifying, someday, to learn whether or not he was really born on the Fourth of July. I don’t know why it matters. Somehow it does, though. Would also be nice if Bonnie would someday make known her intentions (I refer here mostly, but not solely, to Daddy’s ashes). Will you please send me something to read, or at least recommend something? I find everything I lay my hands on disappointing this summer (I refer here mostly, but not solely, to books).
p.s. Cafe Martelle finally reopened on Saturday, and there’s a big sign in the window that reads under “new management,” further evidence that most people think quotation marks are for decoration and don’t have any particular meaning.
Ellen Owen, middle-aged poet of Marsh Light and Mirror in the Woods, sat at a battered drop-leaf table by a triptych of double-hung windows and stared at her brother’s message on the screen of her laptop until Morris’s words began to go blurry and jumbled. She closed the lid of the computer, shut her eyes, and saw in the darkness a clear image of herself at the table in the small room: wearing a baggy white T-shirt, pink jogging shorts, and sky-blue trainers, a possibly too-thin woman with a bad haircut. A reckless pre-vacation visit to the beauty salon and an untried stylist had resulted in straight chin-length hair, unflattering, matronly, the color of dark mahogany, much too red, and entirely artificial-looking. The last few days, she’d noticed herself avoiding mirrors—both here in the little cabin, where she came in the mornings to work, and in the main house a hundred yards up the hill—and she hadn’t quite managed not to interpret this symbolically, a cowardly evasion of truth. Now she opened her eyes, turned toward the window by her right elbow, and asked herself why oh why had she begun her letter to Willie—already mailed yesterday—with My sweet guy? She should have avoided a salutation that would embarrass him, should any of his buddies be looking over his shoulder. At least, she thought, she’d had the presence of mind to sign the letter M rather than Mommy.
She gazed down a tunnel in the locust trees to the lime-green grasses of the marsh. This view, meticulously tended by “husband Dan” in summers past, boasted a ragged periphery, a change Ellen thought she liked, even with its gentle threat of occlusion. She’d withheld from her brother the fact that Dan was not with her at the Cape house—that she and Dan had decided to spend the six weeks apart—for she wanted to spare herself Morris’s voluminous opinions. Willie did know his father had remained in town, but not why. With Willie you could say, Daddy’s staying behind to take care of some things, and that was enough of an explanation. With Morris the result would be twenty rapid-fire questions and an hour of debate.
Across the cabin’s small central room, three other windows looked onto an expansive slope of lawn that led up to the main house, an antique Greek Revival so essentially Cape Cod with its white clapboard walls and roof of cedar shakes, its rambling side porch, wide parson’s door, many dormers, and clothesline stretched between whitewashed posts, it had been featured over the years in no fewer than four coffee-table books of photography. Some two hundred years before, a half-dozen acres had been cleared of trees in this spot, providing most of the lumber for construction of the house, but only a small portion of the acreage—a circle hugging the house and the long slope to the cabin—was still dedicated to lawn. A perennial garden had been planted near the porch, which faced south, and beach grass about two feet tall had taken over the rest of the original clearing, so that the overall impression was one of fields, which changed in color with the seasons and gradually rolled to the edge of the abutting salt marsh. A single towering horse chestnut stood in the side yard twenty feet from the parson’s door and—happily, to Ellen’s thinking—humbled the house on its hilltop. A small grove of locust trees provided shade around the three-room cabin, which had been used by previous owners as a place for guests but which was now Ellen’s private retreat. She loved everything about the cabin, its weathered shingles and unpainted wooden interior walls and black potbelly stove, but she valued most its artistic usefulness: Something about its removed position, in this larger dramatic scene, she found encouraging to poetry. This was especially true when the main house was filled with people, and music and voices drifted down the hill, or near the end of a day, when an upstairs window ignited with the sudden yellow fire of a light switched on inside.
Beneath the chestnut tree was a turnaround of crushed clamshells, where now, to Ellen’s surprise, sat a black pickup truck beside her own car. She moved to the cabin windows and could see, indecipherable from this distance, gold lettering on the driver’s door. Few unsolicited visitors found their way to the house, at the end of a long driveway through the woods, marked by homemade private signs; the drive itself was at the end of a narrow dirt road, whose sharp ruts and heaves discouraged explorers. Ellen felt in her stomach what she gauged to be a normal flutter of butterflies—a woman alone in a remote place, encountering a surprise visitor—but in the next moment she recalled having scheduled a noontime appointment with the local chimney sweep. A kindly man in his sixties by the name of Gaston, he would have knocked at the front door, let himself in, and gone about his business of inspecting the flues. It made sense that she’d forgotten about him, for the weather had been unusually and consistently hot; the thought of an evening fire hadn’t crossed her mind.
Up the hill and five minutes later, she found Gaston kneeling at the cold living room hearth, resting on his heels and holding a clipboard, already making out the bill. “I’m going to have to order a part for that damper upstairs,” he said by way of a greeting, when she came in. “But both flues are clean enough, good for another year. No need to waste your money on that. Just give me forty-five dollars for the house call.”
He tore the invoice from the clipboard and passed it to her, smiling, a dot of soot at the tip of a very red nose. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ll write you a check. Gaston, are you sunburned?”
“Can you imagine that?” he said. “Spent my whole life out here and still can’t tolerate more than a minute of sun. Had to be up on a roof yesterday and forgot to bring my hat.”
He began to push himself up from the hearth.
“You should wear block,” she said, moving across the hall and into the kitchen, where she kept her checkbook in a drawer and where, now, she noted in herself an impulse she often disparaged in others, the impulse to adopt a maternal air with older persons.
She’d taken a chair at the kitchen table and was writing Gaston’s check when he appeared in the doorway. “Easy for you to say,” he said. “Can’t tolerate sunblock either. Makes me break out in a rash. You’ve done something to your hair.”
“Yes,” she said, not looking up.
“And where’s Dan?” he asked, as if he were ticking off items on a list of changes—new hairdo, absent husband.
“Dan didn’t come down this time,” she answered, still not looking up. “Too many things to do in town.”
“You mean you’re out here all by yourself?” he said.
She stood and handed him the check, which he fastened to his clipboard. “Yes,” she said. “All by myself.”
He turned and took one step into the hall, then returned to the kitchen door and said, “You don’t get lonely?”
She looked at him as he stood in the doorway holding his clipboard with both hands against his chest, expectantly, like a schoolboy, his shirttails hanging out of baggy blue carpenter’s jeans. Sunlight fell onto the broad planks of the hall floor behind him and cast a glow that lit up the short wisps of white hair at the back of his neck. The bank of windows to his immediate left offered its usual spectacular view of the marsh, a shimmering blue-and-green tangle of water and odd-shaped islands. Now Ellen recalled that Gaston’s wife had died a year ago last spring. “Well,” she said at last, “if I did get lonely, I could just go home. It’s only a two-hour drive.”
She meant to show sympathy by alluding to their very different circumstances, their different sorts of solitude, and something in the way he paused and then nodded pensively made her think he understood. “I guess that’s true,” he said. “I like that husband of yours. I hope you’ll give him my best when you talk to him. I’ll be back when the part for that damper comes in, but it’s likely to take a few weeks. And now I’m headed to the harbor, to get myself a bite to eat. Hot as it is, I think I’ll call it a day.”
“Gaston,” she said, as he turned again to leave, “you’ve got soot on your nose.” His remedy, swatting at his nose as if he were shooing a fly, accomplished nothing, so she shook her head and said, “You want me to get it for you?”
Gaston signaled his consent by craning his neck forward. Beneath the kitchen tap, she wet a corner of a paper towel, then wrapped it around two fingers. Approaching him, she thought she detected apprehension in his eyes. “I’ll be very careful,” she said softly, but he stood in the hall and kept his head so perfectly still, it was as if he really did think that any slip he might cause her to make would result in injury.
In the ten seconds it took to wipe away the soot, she saw his eyes fill with tears. She pretended not to notice and simply said, “There you go,” allowing him to turn away quickly and leave through the screen door.
She followed him as far as the front stoop. “Is that a new truck?” she asked. “I don’t think I recognize it.”
“Bought it around Christmastime,” he called matter-of-factly, without turning back. With the distance of the side yard between them, he waved, then climbed into the truck and drove away.
As she returned down the slope to the cabin, she thought, Of course it isn’t true. She couldn’t “just go home,” as she’d so glibly put it to Gaston. She’d isolated herself by design—in truth, Dan had acquiesced to the arrangement with some bitterness; you couldn’t honestly call it a mutual decision to separate—and she’d been lonely and generally out of sorts almost every day since she got there. Contrary to what she’d written Willie, she hadn’t got a lot of work done, and her time alone on the Cape hadn’t been especially lovely. Though the shady cabin stayed cool enough during the day, and she’d been able to sleep all right in the house with the help of an electric fan, the weather had been so hot that the water in the bay was unpleasantly warm; if you wanted to swim you had to go to the pond, which was nearly always overrun with people and a pestilence of biting greenheads. Yesterday, after the New Age woman had finally stopped the horrid music, Ellen had swum around the perimeter in an effort to escape the screaming and crying of unhappy children. She missed Willie, missed Dan, and loneliness had been the reason she’d impulsively asked her brother Morris down for a visit on the nineteenth, which now she regretted, not least because it would mean explaining to him the nature of Dan’s absence.
It also wasn’t true, as she’d likewise written to Willie, that her father, dead now ten months, had mellowed; he’d suffered a series of mild strokes, had been very ill for a year before he died, and had been heavily medicated. Now Ellen was worried about Bonnie, who, more than a year ago had abandoned an acting career in New York to go to Alabama and help take care of their father near the end, and who had still not returned, apparently kept in Alabama by a new romance, a subject on which she’d been uncharacteristically mum. In their telephone calls, Bonnie’s chatter had had a disquieting dreamy air. Ellen had told herself that her younger sister was in love, cause enough for alarm, given her track record with men, but that dreaminess: Was it born of Bonnie’s being lost or found? Ellen couldn’t tell. When they’d talked on the Fourth, Bonnie had said she thought the well water at the Point Clear house was making her sick; Ellen told her to buy bottled water and Bonnie had said, “Oh . . . oh, yeah . . . I didn’t think of that.” And yes, it was extremely annoying that Morris first said no and now, too late, was saying yes to Willie’s spending some time with him and Richard in Ipswich. Willie hadn’t been thrilled about going to camp but had chosen it over spending six weeks at the Cape house with little to do; Ellen would have liked to have had the option of his spending part of the time with Morris, who had a swimming pool, whose house was walking distance from a town full of amusements, and who evidently had nothing better to do with his summer than to pester her with e-mails. As she entered the cabin, the room’s cool dark shade seemed an immediate comfort, but she couldn’t help but think—as she took up her station at the table and gazed again down the tunnel through the locust trees—that her great need for a change, and her selfish pursuit of it, had spoiled the summer for the people she loved most in the world.
“I have an idea,” said Morris Owen, somewhere in the middle of the tidal portion of the Ipswich River. He was speaking to Richard’s back, since Richard was perched at the front of the canoe. “I’ll say a few words and phrases descriptive of a visit to Wellfleet, and you just free-associate.”
“That’s funny,” said Richard, meaning it wasn’t.
Both men—each forty and fit for his age, darkly tanned, not tall, not short, not heavy, not thin—wore only swim trunks, Richard’s green, Morris’s yellow. In the modest hold between them, a liter of Evian, two orange life vests, and a squeeze bottle of sunscreen. It was late afternoon, a solid blue sky overhead, and very hot.
“Okay,” Morris said, his paddle balanced sideways across his knees. “What comes to mind when I say The restorative fellowship of family?” After a silence in which a gull glided low over the water alongside the red canoe, Morris said, “Nothing at all? Okay, what about Three days of free lobster, bluefish, oysters, clams, and champagne?”
“Paddle, Morris,” said Richard, in a monotone. “Please paddle.”
“Hmm,” said Morris, “that’s an odd association, but all right. What about A pleasant change of routine, a refreshing variety of canoeing partners?”
“Morris, I’m not playing.”
“I’m only trying to help you understand your feelings.”
“I don’t need any help understanding my feelings,” said Richard. “I feel that I don’t want to go to Wellfleet on the nineteenth. I feel that I’m happy where I am. I feel that you shouldn’t have accepted the invitation on my behalf without checking with me first, and I feel that now you can just go by yourself.”
“Rich,” Morris said, his tone shifting suddenly, “do you realize that we’re the only fools on the river? Did you check the tide table?” Morris leaned over the side of the canoe, peering into the gray-green water to see if he could see bottom. “I agreed to go canoeing,” he added, “not portaging.”
“Yes, I checked the tide table,” said Richard. “It’s just the heat. Most people can’t take the heat.”
“All right,” Morris said, straightening up. “Let’s see. What about Shy in groups even when unconditionally fond of individuals?”
“Okay, okay,” said Richard, “I’ll go with you to Wellfleet already. Now will you please paddle? I’m breaking my back here.”
Morris smiled, kept smiling, as he returned his paddle to the water. As they moved forward, he concentrated for a while on a narrow strip of untanned skin above the waistband of Richard’s trunks. Presently he was distracted by a second seagull, the briny smell of the water, a fiery breeze, and a single white cloud like a small mistake near the horizon. He stayed silent for such a long time that Richard was obliged to turn and look at him. Morris smiled again, still, after fourteen years, in love.
Back at the house in Ipswich three hours later, Richard fired up the grill on the deck for steaks. Morris took him a cold Bass Ale, Richard’s favorite despite what Morris considered its very unfortunate name. A gin and tonic in hand for himself, he descended the short flight of wooden steps to the swimming pool and took a chair at a glass-top table; from this lower plane, he gazed upward and observed Richard’s ribbed undershirt and his seersucker Bermuda shorts, mid-thigh length, very unfashionable. People sometimes said that he and Richard looked alike, a remark he couldn’t fathom, given Morris’s own full head of thick brown hair and Richard’s salt-and-pepper fuzz with sunburned landing strip on top. Morris sipped his drink and soon turned his attention, bit by bit, to the physical hour—it was his favorite time of evening, when the pool, as if it had stored light in its depths throughout the day, now began to emanate a pale aquamarine toward the dusk under the maples and birches; when the venerable shiplike house he and Richard had bought together a decade ago seemed to stand taller, cool white in a landscape bullied all afternoon by the sun, and the wrinkled leaves of the rugosa roses along the western fence turned nearly black, a perfume like cloves wafting clear out to the road. At last he contemplated the tomato plants beyond the pool at the end of the lot, which, despite the recent heat, were evolving too slowly to suit him, and for a moment this delay on the part of the tomatoes seemed to him his most serious complaint. Sometimes, as now, he inquired of himself whether or not he felt any guilt in the face of his extraordinary good fortune in life and love, and the answer always came easily back the same: No.
This particular no invariably led to an angling for substantial grievances, and after about a minute, he called to Richard, “Ellen’s been on the Cape now for ten days and she doesn’t answer my e-mails.”
“But I thought she wrote and invited us down on the nineteenth,” said Richard.
“I mean besides that,” said Morris. “That was one measly logistical e-mail.”
“How many e-mails have you sent her?” asked Richard.
“I don’t know, it’s not like I count them,” said Morris. “Fifteen, I guess.”
Richard stepped to the deck railing and peered down at Morris. After what felt to Morris like a thorough viewing, Richard said, “Maybe you should cut back a bit.”
“Why would I do that?” said Morris. “Are you suggesting that if I wrote less she would respond more? That doesn’t make any sense.”
Richard took a wire brush to the grill, producing a terrible screech. “It makes sense to me,” he called, over the noise.
Morris waited for the rasping to cease, then said, pensively, “No, something’s up. I can tell. I can feel it.”
“They’re on vacation,” said Richard. “Willie’s away at camp and the two of them are alone. They’re probably having fun. Not focusing on things like e-mail.”
“No,” said Morris again. “Something’s definitely up. If I don’t hear from her soon I’ll put in a call. I mean, I know it wouldn’t come as a shock to learn that Ellen was unhappy, but if she’s so unhappy she’s not answering my e-mails, it means that something’s definitely up. Something big. I should have phoned her on the Fourth.”
“The telephone works both ways, you know,” said Richard.
“Does it?” said Morris. “Is that what it means when it makes that little ringing noise?”
“She’s only been gone ten days,” Richard said. “Bonnie’s been in Alabama for a year, and how often do you hear from her?”
“That’s different,” said Morris. “It’s a given that something’s up with Bonnie. Something’s always up with Bonnie. Any day now we’re going to find out what kind of a jam she’s got herself into, what’s really detained her in Point Clear. And besides, they don’t have e-mail in Alabama. The state legislature passed a bill banning the Internet.”
“That’s not true.”
“Well, it very well could be true. Places doesn’t stay as benighted as Alabama by accident, you know. You have to enact laws.”
Richard made no reply, a pointed silence with which Morris was familiar and which said, Don’t be such a snob. It was true that he took satisfaction in having escaped the state of his birth, even though the escape hadn’t been his own doing—his father had sent him and Ellen to boarding school in Connecticut when they were adolescents. But Morris figured he could take credit, at the very least, for having had the good sense to stay away. He believed that if a person had spent the better part of his boyhood in Alabama, he would not be enchanted, as so many Yankees apparently were, with the hideous sanctimony known as southern hospitality: a kit of pleasant manners that included a knife for backstabbing. He found equally revolting what seemed to be a growing body of lightweight literature that portrayed the South as chock-full of characters who couldn’t be more colorful if they tried, who never uttered a phrase that wasn’t picturesque, and who, despite the unmentionable crimes of their bigotries, were good-hearted folks through and through. Thank God Ellen had escaped Alabama as well, for Morris wouldn’t have been able to bear it if she’d taken up writing poems about the charms of crawdaddies and mimosa trees and swamp-side shanties, Spanish moss and the like. At least, if she had to be so enthralled by the natural landscape, she was enthralled by one worthy of Thoreau rather than Faulkner. He reminded himself to go gently with Ellen, even in mental exercise, as she had never quite forgiven him for remarking that the title to her first book, Marsh Light, sounded like a lo-cal dessert topping. The sad truth about Ellen, Morris had decided, was that if she worked hard for the rest of her life, she might attain the status of a tiny bubble in the overly inclusive waters of American verse. Her poetry was pretty, usually formal, often rhymed, which Morris had never held against her. He actually admired that about her, that she clung to such lifesaving devices in a lagoon of flotsam and jetsam, but the poems were often—well, one might as well face it—a bit decorative. In an effort to render justice to nature, she went after this dangerous and beautiful thing with the sharp weapons of her word painting, captured it, by God, and then invited the reader to view it in its new confines. Morris wouldn’t have begun to know how to fix the poems. He wouldn’t have made Ellen’s choices. To have continued to reject the writing of poetry, as he himself had done since the age of sixteen, was in his opinion the afterglow of an ineffable wisdom.
He sometimes thought Ellen should never have married a man as wealthy as Dan Kepperstan, despite Dan’s good looks and kindheartedness, when she already had money enough of her own; it had had the effect of removing a thread that bound one to the rest of humanity. At his most cynical, Morris thought her turning to poetry after Willie was born smacked too much of a rich lady’s taking up an improving hobby. Morris—who, like Ellen, had come at the age of twenty-one into an equal share of a trust established by their paternal grandfather—had taken pains, for the betterment of his character, to keep one foot in academia. Teaching put him regularly among people; he liked to think that, by instructing college students to read and write sensibly, he helped produce grown-ups better equipped for life; and happily he was spared, as Ellen was not, a product that lingered within sight. Of course Morris tried to keep such criticism and self-congratulating to himself, out of the reach of the dreaded snob watch of Richard, who sometimes chided Morris, unfairly, for being too disparaging of friends and family.
As Morris finished his drink, he returned his thoughts to Ellen’s recent mysterious silence. Whatever was wrong, he imagined it somehow connected to the unnaturally protracted period of mourning she had been putting everyone through since their father died last autumn. Morris could only guess what life had been like these past ten months for Dan and Willie; he doubted that either of them could have been sufficiently sensitive, not in the face of so important a grief as Ellen’s. Granted, it was sad for one’s father to die, even if the father happened to be Roy Owen, drunken, narcissistic, and not especially interested in his children. But for some reason, Ellen had to be the saddest, had to grieve deepest and longest; there had been something, Morris thought, decidedly proud and exclusive about it.
“Hey, Morris,” called Richard, from the deck. “How about coming up here and hooking up the radio. I want to get a score in the Sox game.”
When Morris gained the deck, Richard smiled at him and said, “Why the long face? What have you been thinking about down there by the pool?”
“I’ve been thinking about something you don’t understand,” said Morris.
“That’s not surprising,” Richard said.
“What you don’t understand,” said Morris, “is that my view of people I love is actually more balanced than it appears.”
“Okay,” said Richard, “but why do I have the feeling I’m coming in on the middle of a conversation?”
“I think I have a fairly firm grasp of what’s good about people,” Morris said. “I can’t help it if their faults are more interesting than their virtues.”
Richard reached for his beer, upturned the bottle to his mouth, and drained it. “Well,” he said, “thank you for clearing that up.”
Copyright © 2007 by Dennis McFarland. All rights reserved.