By Karen Brown
Esme told him when she was twelve three things happened of notable significance: her grandfather presented her with a car, and then died in it, her grand- mother had a pool installed in her basement, and her father put on his pale blue pinstripe suit, custom-made for a previous trip to the Bahamas, and left, never to be heard from again. These events meant something, finally, as Dean motored her out among the Thimble Islands. It was April, a day with the unfulfilled promise to be warm. The wind did its own kind of dance with the Sound. Dean wore a straw hat anchored under his chin with rawhide, his hair in a ponytail, and shorts. Esme avoided looking at his knees exposed to the chill. He piloted the boat between the rocks, quiet and purposeful. She almost loved him for his disinterest.
An hour ago they’d sat in the seafood restaurant lounge on Main Street, the only patrons at eleven a.m. The place was dim, the chair she sat in damp and sticky with the sloshed liquor of uncountable drunken mishaps. The light came through the front window and made her feel dissolute and pale, like someone who might, according to her grandmother, have crawled out of the gutter. She wore her mother’s pearl earrings and a too-small T-shirt that her grandfather bought for her in a gift shop in Rio de Janeiro the fall before he died. She’d found it in a drawer in the upstairs bedroom of her grandmother’s house, a shirt she’d worn and abandoned years ago as a teenager. She’d left the house early that morning, and stopped at the bank. In her bag was enough cash to create a stir, to provide five times the yearly salary of the bartender, a girl whose sharp wrist bones made her seem fragile and terrible all at once. Esme could barely look at her lifting the bottle of J&B.
Dean slid his drink alongside hers, pulled up a stool, and offered her his hand. When she mentioned his ruddy cheeks he said that there was a lot of wind on the water. “Oh, do you live on one of the Thimbles?” she asked him. He shook his head no, and stared at her.
“What are you looking at?” she said. She was drinking the whiskey with ice, and had asked the bartender, Patsy, to add a few maraschino cherries. The TV was on—a news channel showing a white car being pulled from a river.
“Are you married?” he asked her. He bit his lip, waiting for her answer. His eyes were the color of slate. Esme hated to disappoint him if he was trying to pick her up.
“Officially,” Esme said. “My marriage is in a state of limbo.”
She thought she might divorce her husband, Douglas. She’d driven the day before from Boston and the house where they lived with their three-year-old son to her grandmother’s house in Connecticut. Douglas had already tracked her down on the phone.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he’d asked her. Esme imagined him saying young lady, like a chastising parent. Behind him she could hear the muffled anguish of the hospital’s waxed floors, fluorescent lights, and life-support machinery. She heard him paged on the intercom.
“I want to see my Nana,” Esme said. “Why make it out to be something it isn’t.”
“I know what this isn’t,” Douglas said, suspicious.
Esme was a little surprised that he’d guessed. “This is nothing,” she said. She began to laugh, something she could never help doing when she was caught. Even as a child playing tag on the front lawn. Later, in lies with boyfriends. Douglas grew grave over the phone and said something about Robin, left be- hind with the nanny, and she hung up on him.
Dean set his drink on his white napkin. Patsy swiped her towel near them, the undersides of her wrists like the musculature of a dissected bird.
“Good enough,” Dean said to Esme’s admission of a dissolving marriage.
“For what?” she asked him, winking, a little ashamed.
Esme’s grandmother had left her grandfather years before he died, and she lived on dividends from stocks in one of the suburban neighborhoods built from the dissolving of the old Connecticut dairies, on pasture land and orchards and pine woods. Once, cows trod stony paths across her front lawn, through the place that was her living room. Her house was a 1950s colonial, with aluminum siding, shutters, and bay windows. Alice was an avid swimmer. As a young woman she’d swum in amateur competitions around the country, and aspired to qualify
for the 1936 Olympics. She had trophies and photographs that Esme saw each summer at the Thimble Island house—her favorite was of Nana in a white bathing cap, thin and long-limbed, diving from the island’s granite outcrop with the house behind her. She swam in the Sound when the weather was warm enough, or in her backyard pool, but in the winters she missed her exercise, the buoyancy, the light and youthful feeling of moving through water. When Esme’s grandfather died her grandmother received a small inheritance, and with this she commissioned a local company to install an above-ground pool in her basement. She had to call all of them in the phone book before one would comply. She had to pay extra for them to do it.
The pool was a model called the Astura, the sides fashioned of redwood like a barrel, eighteen feet in diameter, and fifty-two inches deep. The effect of the pool on coming down the basement stairs was one Esme would not forget. The ceiling flickered and shimmered. The smell of chlorine mixed with mildew. Her grandmother decorated the basement—strung old postcards from Hawaii and the Bahamas on a wire, draped faded leis and the hollowed-out halves of coconuts. People gave her plaques with sayings: The Ole Swimming Hole, Swim at Your Own Risk, and a vintage one made of tin, The Plunge, Admission, 10 cents that showed a bathing beauty and her boyfriend poolside, the woman dangling her feet into the water. There was a lamp on a telephone table, but also an overhead bulb at the base of the stairs, and a strand of small paper lanterns. The pool pump hummed. Children were not allowed to swim in the basement pool. Esme could only sit on the gritty stairs and look down while her grandmother swam in a circle around it, her arms long and thin, her gray hair tucked under her cap. Esme sucked on a toffee, stolen from the silver dish in the dining room. Later, her grandmother’s bathing suit would hang over the upstairs shower rod—a paisley print, paled by chlorine.
In her nineties now, Esme’s grandmother spent afternoons watching soap operas, and smoking cigarettes with her live-in caretaker, Caridad, whom Esme paid to stay with her. At four o’clock they had aperitifs. Recently, her grand- mother had given up the basement pool—the stairs, the ladder in and out, were too hard to maneuver. Esme told Caridad to let her grandmother do whatever else she wanted. They listened to piano sonatas on the record player, the recordings scratchy, the tones of the instrument eerily magnified, its hollow sadness entering all of the rooms. Yesterday, Esme had visited a doctor and been given a startling diagnosis. The man was a respected colleague of her husband’s, some- one she could not doubt. Everything following this disclosure seemed different, overly vibrant: the path leading to her car littered with apple blossoms, like torn confetti, the sky filled with birds and their sharp little song. Like her mother, her own ovaries, once small almonds nestled in her pelvis, were under siege. The doctor had discussed stages, and plans of action. Esme had gone home and packed a bag and fled. When she arrived at her grandmother’s the lawn was painfully bright and green, and the dogwood blooming showy. She was aware that these things used to please her, and now all of that had been lost. Caridad met her at the door.
“Who is it?” her grandmother called out from the depths of the house. “Who is it?”
Caridad called back in Spanish.
“For the love of God,” Esme heard her grandmother say. “Say something I can understand.”
Esme saw her come into the room, holding onto the back of a chair, then a loveseat, moving among the furniture for support. She had grown portly. The tops of her feet in her flats looked bruised. Her hair, all white now, wasn’t done. Usually, Caridad got her dressed for company, but Esme hadn’t let her know she was coming. Her grandmother paused by the bureau with the lamp. She looked at Esme in the doorway. She didn’t have her glasses.
“Well?” she said. “You’re letting in the Japanese beetles.” She didn’t know who Esme was.
“It’s me, Nana,” Esme said.
Caridad had on a pretty skirt and low-heeled pumps. Her hair was dark and curly and she wore familiar emerald earrings. She smelled of Esme’s grandmother’s Chanel.
“Look, Alice. It’s Esme.”
Esme’s grandmother wore her old swimming robe that snapped up the front. She hadn’t acknowledged Esme at all, but instead had groped along the top of the bureau for her cigarette box and gotten one out. She stood with it in her fingers.
“It’s not time for a smoke,” Caridad said. “So you can forget about the light.”
Esme thought her grandmother might curse Caridad. Instead, she threw the cigarette at her. Esme went up to Alice and put her arms around her. The old swimming robe smelled of the mothballs they’d scattered in the basement to ward off chipmunks.
“How are you, Nana?” she said.
“Why are you here?” Alice asked. “Where’s your mother?”
When her grandmother had begun asking this question Esme would feel lightheaded, as if some terrible mistake had been made, and her mother was still alive and she was responsible for her whereabouts. But then she had grown used to saying the words. My mother is dead. Her grandmother always ignored her.
Today, she seemed to think Esme’s mother was at the shore. This set her talking about the Thimble Island house.
“I hope she knows to bring enough kerosene,” she said. She moved over to a chair. The sun came in through the sheers and patterned the carpet near her feet. “She needs to tell the Grandsons I won’t be coming this summer.”
Caridad told Esme she would make her lunch. “I have just what you want, querida,” she said. Then she disappeared through the butler door into the kitchen, and Esme sank into the couch’s down cushions. She put her head back and sighed. The sun fluttered around her grandmother’s bony, crossed ankles. Her skin was the color of uncooked pastry.
“Light my cigarette,” her grandmother said. “And I’ll tell you a story.”
Esme closed her eyes. “Not now,” she said. She let the sun move across her eyelids. She smelled the new grass through the open window. She pictured her mother at the Thimble island house, sweeping sand, turning the broom to get between the floorboards. The sea air blew through, heavy with salt and the smell of the seaweed caught up on the rocks, drying in the sun. Her mother swept. Her father’s footsteps sounded above them. There was the opening of old drawers, and then his footsteps descending, and his pause, a shadow in the doorway. Her mother continued with the broom, ignoring him. Esme watched her sweep and cry, sweep and cry. This was the time her mother had awoken her father in the middle of the night and told him she needed a doctor. Her father had put them all on the dinghy and they’d motored in, a treacherous ride, her mother doubled over, her arms folded and pressed to her stomach. They’d waited in the hospital emergency room for word, her father clutching Esme’s hand. The doctor came out and told him her mother had lost the child.
“What child?” her father had said. He’d let go of Esme’s hand.
She’d been five. She remembered it all now—the white glare of the small hospital waiting room, the vinyl cushioned seats. She’d been in her nightgown, and it was wet at the hem. She saw again the dark look in her father’s eyes, the eyebrows drawn together. He had been handsome, tall and heavily built, a football player in college. That night he’d sat hunched and small. He rubbed his hand over his eyes, over and over, as if he might wipe away something dis- agreeable. The doctor had cleared his throat, and walked off in the wake of his mistake.
Esme remembered the terror of the nighttime dinghy ride, and her mother later washing the sheets, the blood on them turning the water a rusty color. They had been cream-colored, patterned with summer flowers. She had been afraid of sleeping on similar sheets after that, always seeing the splotches of dried blood among the phlox and nasturtium and iris.
In the kitchen, Caridad sang a song in Spanish. Esme heard her heels on the linoleum.
“What is all that noise,” her grandmother said. “Who is in the kitchen?”
Sitting on her grandmother’s couch, Esme ate the sandwich Caridad brought her on one of her grandmother’s china plates.
“This is the Wedgewood,” her grandmother said, drawing on the trustworthy details of the past. “Your grandfather gave me this set the first time I caught him having an affair.”
“Oh, Nana,” Esme said. The bread was soft and white and stuck to her teeth.
“I have eight sets of fine china,” she said. She held the long cigarette in her hand. Occasionally, she brought it to her lips and inhaled, and then realized it was unlit. On the tip was the imprint of her lipstick. “It was what he bought me when we fought. Not flowers or candy. China.”
Dean—surprise, surprise—was a songwriter. His hair was a fine red, held back in its ponytail with an elastic band decorated with pink polka dots.
“Is that your daughter’s?” Esme asked him, pointing, chewing her ice.
He gave her that flustered, frustrated look she’d grown used to from men. “I don’t have any children,” he said. He shook his head, his hands out. He’d been in the middle of telling her about his band. Now, he turned away with his drink.
“Aren’t you going to ask me if I have children?” Esme said.
“No,” he said, annoyed.
She told him her plan had been to have lunch at the Pine Orchard Yacht and Country Club. Her grandmother was still a member.
“Those were her explicit instructions,” Esme said. “I was to order clams casino.”
Dean glanced over his shoulder at her, his eyes slit, doubting her. “Let’s head on over,” he said. “We’ll hit the links after.”
Esme smiled, unsure. “So you like golf?” Dean gave her another look, and hunkered down over his drink. He had a habit of spinning his red plastic stirrer around and around in his ice. Patsy kept replacing the napkins beneath his glass. When she did she’d glance up into his face, briefly, intimately, as if she were relaying a secret message.
“We played last night at the Puppet House Theater,” he said.
Esme remembered the theater and the shows there. The puppets were rare, made by an Italian craftsman. They stood five feet tall—knights and peasants and kings in robes and armor, their wooden faces hand-carved and painted with fiercely distinct expressions. They fought with swords and killed each other, lop- ping off heads. Esme told him the puppets frightened her as a child. She didn’t say that her father loved them and the medieval stories they acted out.
“It was a perverse fear,” she said. “Every summer I begged to go see them.”
Dean said he’d forgotten the place was once a real puppet theater. The performances had stopped long ago, and he’d never had the chance to see one.
“What’s the name of your band?” Esme asked him.
Dean finished his drink. “Godspeed Nelly,” he said, sounding pleased.
She reached across the bar and took his hand in hers and pushed up his shirtsleeve. On his forearm was a tattoo of a mermaid. “You look like someone who enjoys an adventure,” she said.
He smiled at her with his silly wet lips. “That depends.” Patsy stopped her noisy stacking of the bar glasses, watching.
“Do you have a boat?” Esme asked him.
Often, when she was a child summering on the island, her father motored her about in the dinghy. They would go inland to pick up something that Esme had usually wanted on a whim. Strawberries for shortcake. Watermelon candy. More Nancy Drews, because she had finished the ones she brought too soon. Then, they’d go to the Blackstone Library, and she’d check out all the ones she hadn’t read. Her father would stop, sometimes, at one or two of the islands on the way back. Cocktails at Cut-in Two, or Potato Island, with a friend. Esme sat on the rocks, reading, the pages dampened by the sea. She’d have the mystery solved by the third chapter, or she’d have the story better than the one that Carolyn Keene ended up telling. Nancy would kiss Ned. They’d make out in the moss-covered mansion, in a room quieted by cobwebs. Esme would stare out at the sun setting, kick the brown snails off the rocks into the green water. She was a good waiter, her father told her. He’d nearly upset the dinghy getting back in.
Esme paid the bar tab, fumbling with the thick stack of bills. Dean looked at her, and looked away. She slid off her stool and he followed her out of the bar. They stood in the sunlight and blinked at each other. His boat, he claimed, was at the Pine Orchard dock. He didn’t have a car, so Esme drove the two miles to the country club. Dean sat stiffly in the Mercedes, and in the light Esme saw that his khaki shorts were grubby. His wide-brimmed hat hid his expression. She pulled into the dock’s gravel lot and parked. The dock was quiet. His boat turned out to be the yacht club launch, a long antique wooden craft with oars and benches with life vests tucked underneath.
“This is yours?” she said.
“In a manner of speaking,” he told her. He helped her into the boat and explained that as a teenager he ran the launch as a summer job. “There you go, pretty lady,” he said, like a Southern gentleman. The wind was different than she remembered it—harsh, and cold. The sea flipped up little tail-like waves. They slipped between the moored sailboats, the small islands of bedrock, stealthy and sleek in their stolen boat. Her father had told her the stories of these islands. They’d been named by the Mattabeseck.
“Kuttomquosh,” she said. Dean looked at her from under the brim of his hat. He smiled, nice even white teeth. “Beautiful sea rocks,” she said. In this place a man once took off in a hot air balloon. A tiny circus performer fell in love and left initials in a rock. A pirate was rumored to have left his gold. There were crevices and hidden places, tide pools plundered by cormorants, paths overrun by poison ivy, diving boards anchored into the granite, cottages on stilts connected one to the other by wooden footbridges.
Esme remembered the dinghy dipping, and her father singing on the way back, Will you go, lassie, go? And we’ll all go together, the song her grandfather sang when he brought the car on her birthday, an emerald green Austin Healey. One of her grandfather’s neighbors had it in his garage, and wanted to sell it, and he thought of her eyes when he saw it. He’d driven the car to her house himself against the wishes of his team of doctors, who’d ordered him, after his bypass surgery, to recuperate longer, to take it easy and read or take walks in the fields that were his property—woman’s activities, he’d said, a little disgusted. Standing there beside the car in the driveway, he’d sung her a bit of a song with a fake, lilting, Irish accent, the words of which she’d tried for years after to remember—Oh the summer-time is coming and the trees are sweetly bloomin? Esme’s mother had come to the doorway of her studio, and stood with her hand on her hip. “What’s going on out there?” Her voice held that suspicious tone she used when she tried to assume some authority about things that should have mattered to her, but didn’t really. How many cupcakes did you eat? How late did you stay up last night? Did you do your Latin homework?
The car sat shining on the black tar drive. Esme’s grandfather did a kind of jig around it. Esme felt anxious about the incision in his chest. He’d shown it to her in the hospital, peeling away the loose covering to reveal the sutures, harsh and sore, and she’d turned white enough for the nurse, who came squeaking back across the linoleum threshold, to wonder what was wrong with her and offer her a chair, and place a palm to her forehead.
Esme had thought her grandfather’s skin looked like the flesh of a plucked turkey, the kind her father got at the game farm for Thanksgiving, that sat on the counter in the kitchen, the flesh gaping where he stuffed it. Her grandfather wore a suede coat, and one of his lambswool sweaters, and a shirt under that, and maybe even an undershirt, the scar held safe beneath the layers of clothing. He was thin, and his slacks bagged against his legs. The snow had melted from the driveway, and the lawn showed wet and yellow and muddy in patches. The river water moved in the distance with the sun on it—a pearly black. It had been a mild winter. Esme had been reading e. e. cummings, and thought every day seemed like just-spring. Her grandfather sang, and the wild mountain thyme grows around the bloomin’ heather, or something like that. Will you go, lassie, go? Her father was at work, assuming more authority at her grandfather’s old New England rubber company. Her mother had been painting in her studio, a cottage-like structure covered in dead vines, the gnarled wood wet and black against the siding. The studio sat separate from the main house, under a stand of ash at the end of a pebbled walkway. Her grandfather told Esme to get in behind the wheel.
“What are you doing?” her mother called out, her voice a little higher pitched now. She stepped out of the doorway.
Her grandfather gave her mother a disdainful look. “I want her to sit in it. Get the feel of it.”
Esme slipped onto the leather seat. It smelled of her grandfather’s cologne, and cigarettes. Esme looked up at him. “You’re smoking,” she said, softly.
Her grandfather’s eyes were merry and black like the river. He sang part of the song for her. He put his finger to his lips.
Esme thought later that she had played a role in his death. Hadn’t he brought the car for her? Done the jig? Hadn’t she kept his secret about the smoking? He had asked her mother if he could take her for a spin, and she’d said “No,” flatly, unwavering. “No,” she said. Her voice dull and hard as the frozen ground. Esme’s grandfather sighed. He looked at Esme and winked.
“Slide over,” he whispered. He’d moved his chin to the side, a slight movement.
Esme would have done it, quickly, before her mother could stop her, but the stick shift was in the way. Her mother stepped down the pebbled walk, angry now. “I said no, I said it,” she called. Her voice was panicky.
“Don’t you have an attack, now,” Esme’s grandfather said. He looked at her with concern. Esme’s mother came over to the car and grabbed Esme’s arm and pulled her out. Her hands were splattered with paint—the color turquoise, that clashed with the car.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “The car is lovely, really lovely.”
Her grandfather seemed hurt. Esme had wanted to climb back in. Her mother turned away for a moment, and Esme saw his face change. A quick switch, from a pained expression, to one of canniness, and mischief.
“I’ll take it back to my house,” he said.
“She’s twelve,” her mother said, softer, nearly pleading. “She’s twelve.”
Esme’s grandfather got into the car. Esme felt the shaking of her mother’s hand clasping hers. She did not know who to protect. She was forgotten for a moment in their exchange, one of silence and glances she did not know how to read. Her grandfather backed the car up out of the long drive. The sun flashed weakly on the shining body. On the way home he drove the car off the road and into a large tree by Mills Pond that crumpled the hood and flushed out the starlings and wrens and sparrows gathering colored Easter grass, human hair, dryer lint, bits of yarn and twigs for nests. Esme was never told if he died from his heart giving out, or the force of the blow, and she didn’t tell anyone what she knew—that she might have been with him, and died, too. That if not for her, he might not have ever bought the car in the first place. This was the mystery that Esme believed, at the time, was never revealed. Later she would come to learn there were other things her mother kept quiet.
Dean told her he hoped they were going to dig up some buried treasure. His voice echoed off the water and the rocks. The motor whined and churned white. Esme glanced at him, but only out of the corner of her eye. The cottages were vacant, the islands still. Dean’s bare knees made her squeamish, like her grand- mother’s body in her bathing suit—vulnerable veins and creases made by sagging skin, exposed parts that shouldn’t be seen. On the occasion of her grand- mother’s seventieth birthday, Esme’s mother brought tuna and egg sandwiches cut in crustless triangles, a small cake, and champagne down to the basement pool. There were folding chairs set up around a table with a linen cloth. Her grandmother’s friends stopped by, some of the same people who had been at her grandfather’s funeral. This time, the women wore brightly colored dresses, and the men wore Hawaiian shirts. Esme watched the women’s delicately mottled legs descend the stairs, listened to their noises of surprise. Their faces were tan, from Bermuda, or Tortola. Their jewelry, their silver hair, shimmered in the reflection from the pool, in the lantern light. The snow piled up against the basement windows. Upstairs the house was quiet and closed off. Someone, a nephew, had contacted the newspaper, and there was a column written about Esme’s grandmother’s pool, and her swimming, and they talked about that. Her grandmother, in her dry way, had told the columnist, “Oh, I splash around.”
There was a record player, and the music of their voices. Esme went up to the pool’s edge and put her hand into the water. She wondered when her father would get there. She asked her mother, twice, how much longer. Her mother, the last time, turned an angry face toward her.
“Stop it,” she said. She’d given her a glass of champagne. “Don’t ask me any more questions.”
On her hands was the turquoise paint, small remnants of it under her fingernails. Esme looked at it with horror. She sat at the top of the basement stairs and drank the champagne, which made her cry. She believed her father would find her there, and pity her, and take her home, but he never came to the party. In the weeks after her grandfather’s death, Esme’s father seemed to fade. She thought now that was only how it seemed. He was setting things right at the company, fitting into his new responsibility. He was out nights, meeting with customers at the Officer’s Club. His presence was felt, sometimes, when she rose for school. She’d hear his music early—Melanie, and Gordon Lightfoot. In the bathroom, the smell of his shaving soap. In the kitchen, a glass coated with tomato juice in the sink. Sometimes, the garage door left open. This may have been how it always was. The boat hit a bit of wake—a fishing boat passing out beyond the Thimbles, and she noticed Dean glance at her, watching how she rode it. If she had been tossed in she would have swum the distance.
“I’m a good swimmer,” she called to him. “I have my grandmother’s genes.”
After Esme’s father left, Esme and her mother had driven over to her grand- mother’s house to tell her. Three weeks had passed, and they hadn’t heard from him. He was officially a missing person, but one who had set things in order first—seen to the functions of the company, settled his affairs. It was a gray day, threatening snow. The pools of water from the previous snowfall’s melt froze over. Out in the cornfields the broken stalks showed through, brittle and flayed. Esme’s mother had spent the weeks without her father baking, and on Esme’s winter break from school she joined her. They rose in the morning and left the beds unmade. Her mother brewed coffee, which she drank all day long, the cup clutched in her hand. Her slacks, her sweater, were covered with flour. They’d made pastries, turnovers, cobblers, tortes, and an apple cake that they wrapped up to bring to her grandmother. Esme’s mother’s family, German immigrants, had once owned a bakery in Philadelphia. Esme’s mother had found the old recipes when she cleaned out her father’s house after her mother died. They were written out in ink on yellowed paper, folded into a hatbox with a woman’s silhouette on the lid. Esme’s mother talked, as she baked, about opening a bakery herself with the old recipes. Esme stirred and licked the spoons and watched her mother grow thin. The more she baked, the less, Esme decided, she ate. Each day would bring a new recipe.
“I think today we’ll try out these cream puffs,” her mother would say. Everything was a preparation for the new bakery.
“We’ll rent that place in town next to the tailor’s,” she said.
Esme knew of the dusty storefront window. She and her friends would go to the center after school and walk the sidewalks of the outdoor mall. They’d slip into gift shops that smelled of scented candles, and steal earrings and small tubes of fruity lip gloss, hiding them in their parka pockets. The empty store used to be Munsen’s, a confectioner’s. She’d gone there with her grandfather to pick out chocolates for her mother. “Which would she like?” he’d ask her, relying entirely on her judgment. His eyes would twinkle. Esme could not choose. His cheek was beside hers—rough, smelling of cologne. The place was hot, and close. The glass case held white doilies covered with chocolates, all the same to her. She didn’t say anything about the store to her mother when she mentioned it. She put the bowls in the sink to fill with soapy water. She cleaned off the spoons. She wondered what might happen next.
Esme’s mother hadn’t talked about her grandfather after he died, and now she didn’t talk about her father. Once, Esme asked her when he was coming back. She’d assumed he left on a business trip. Her mother had said she wasn’t sure. She said it as if she believed his returning was inevitable—offhandedly, without concern. Esme wondered then if her parents would get a divorce. She hadn’t ever heard them fight, but the house was big enough to conceal any angry tones, to muffle any sharp movements, or thrown objects. Large enough to hide what might have happened. In the afternoons, Esme’s mother spent time on the phone, papers spread out on the dining room table, her cigarette smoke spiraling up into the spokes of the chandelier.
At her grandmother’s, they climbed out of the car and Esme still smelled the baked fruit and crust on her clothes. Her mother walked ahead of her up the slate walkway to her grandmother’s house. Her heels clicked. Esme knew that beneath the camel coat her mother’s slacks hung around her hips, and bagged in the back. Her arms were gaunt, the elbows large and pointed under her shirt- sleeves. Her hair was dry and colorless on her coat’s collar. They stood at the storm door, Esme with the cake, her stomach tight with anxiety, her heart racing with sugar. They rang the bell and waited.
“It’s not quite her nap time,” her mother said. Esme saw she fidgeted with her pocketbook snap.
They waited, facing their reflections in the storm door. Finally, her grand- mother came. She looked at them through the glass, the ends of her hair wet from her afternoon swim. Esme could tell her grandmother was annoyed to see them. Behind her the house was warm, the lamps lit. Esme held the heavy cake, and believed her grandmother might not let them in. But then she did. Once her mother had given her the news, her grandmother lit a cigarette. “Where’d he go?” she asked.
Esme’s mother seemed to think she hadn’t understood. “We don’t know, Alice,” her mother said, calmly, carefully.
Esme’s grandmother gave her a knowing look. She had gone into her bed- room and put on her earrings and lipstick. “Just like his father,” she said. She exhaled. She looked at her daughter-in-law as if she had just really noticed her.
“Did he take the money?” she said.
Esme thought her mother would cry. She saw her eyes fill, like a child’s. “He left it for me,” she said. “All of it.”
Her grandmother’s eyes widened in surprise. “Not like his father,” she said quietly. She stubbed out her cigarette. Outside the living room window Esme could see the pasture across the street, the grass in frozen yellow tufts, the poles of the farmer’s barbed-wire fence, and above that the gray sky dotted with birds seeking cover. She understood then that along with the money, and her grandfather’s rubber company, they had been abandoned. To cheer her, Esme’s mother promised her that they would open the bakery. They would spend the summer at the Thimble Island cottage. They would visit the puppet theater that Esme loved. But her mother had soon felt the effects of the cancer that Esme had learned she’d inherited. Esme was almost thankful they never did any of the things her mother had promised.
The boat’s movement was lulling. Esme felt the scotch settle in her limbs. Her mouth was numb. They came around a small turn and she pointed out the is- land, the house its only structure, surrounded by scrub pine, granite, and thickets of blackberry. “That’s the place,” she said. Her great-grandmother’s wild roses climbed a trellis. Two beech trees, brought over as saplings in the dinghy, flanked the house. Dean made a sound under his breath—“Oh,” he said, and then the unspoken recognition. The attorney who met with her long ago had mentioned the developers and investors interested in the property. But Esme had no real need for money. Dean, who lived in town, probably knew that about her. She was comforted by the assumption he knew more about her than she could know herself. It was easier than having to explain.
Her grandmother had sent her to the Thimble Island house on an errand. The night before Esme had opened a bottle of sherry, and poured her grandmother a glass that remained untouched on the coffee table, and she’d told Esme to go back.
“You’ll want to check the sideboard in the kitchen first,” her grandmother said. “Then the breakfront, if it’s not there.”
“What am I going to look for, Nana?” Esme asked. She was humoring her at the time. They’d been sitting in the living room with one lamp lit. “Just look,” her grandmother had said. She wore her glasses on a chain. Her breasts were large and soft beneath her blouse. Esme remained perplexed. “Is it bigger than a bread box?” she asked.
And then her grandmother said a very odd thing. “Your father is bigger than a bread box.”
Caridad stood on the downstairs landing. She wore a peignoir decorated with tiny silk roses, one of her grandmother’s that Esme used to dress up in as a child. “Nighty-night time,” Caridad said.
Alice squinted at Esme. “Who is she talking to?”
Esme helped her grandmother up off the couch. Her clothes smelled faintly sour. Esme didn’t inquire any further about her grandmother’s request. She didn’t want to ruin her own hopes of what she had meant. She felt the mystery of the house on the island, a place she had allowed herself to forget. She believed in it now, felt it sustain her as Dean tied the boat at the dock. He would have helped her but she was out before he could. Then, there was the awkwardness of the moment when they both knew her use for him had ended.
“No picnic lunch?” he said.
“I won’t be long,” she told him.
She started up the path to the porch, and glanced back. Dean stood resolute by the launch and made no move to follow her. The cottage was a Victorian, built in 1870. It was never leased to renters in the summer. There was someone to make sure the property didn’t succumb to the elements. Esme stepped up onto the porch and fumbled with the key. She opened the red-painted screen door. She felt a little twist of apprehension, tightening with the spring’s squeak. Behind her on the dock Dean waited with his arms folded, pretending not to watch. Esme imagined he’d report all of this that evening to the patrons in the lounge where they’d met. It would be a story made interesting only by his embellishments. Inside smelled of oil paint. The furniture was draped. Esme remembered the way the reflection off the water bounced around the living room. The house was clearly empty, and everything else she remembered was colored by her disappointment at finding it so—the old flecked bathroom mirror, the chip in the sink, the smell of kerosene, the sag in her bed, the sea slapping the rocks. The books on the shelves moldered. The fireplace mantel was lined with clam shells and periwinkles, jingles, arks and slippers, pale green sea glass, angel wings.
Esme had never understood her father’s leaving. She saw him again that morning, smelled the shaving soap, saw him there in front of the mirror in the pale blue suit. His face was reddened, and bloated. He smelled, too, of whatever he drank the night before, the liquor still coming off his skin. Her mother was asleep. It was only Esme and her father up at that hour. Outside the sky lightened. On the front lawn there was a little snow. Blackbirds came to peck at the places where the grass showed. She told him the suit was the color of the sky. Just-spring, she said. She was still very sad about her grandfather, but she could not say that.
“I’m a rich man,” her father said. His shoes were polished, he looked dashing. She could not imagine where he might be heading in such clothes. He did not put on “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” She watched him go out the door into the garage. His leather soles tapped across the concrete. She watched him back out the car and smelled the exhaust, the way it came into the house, along with the smell of apples rotting in their crates, and the melting snow. The car left in a spiral of whitish fog. Esme thought of her grandfather in the Healey. She felt a terrible fear, standing at the bay window, watching her father leave. Don’t hit a tree, she thought. Don’t hit a tree. There was never any report of her father’s death. The money, saved for years by her grandfather, and her grand- father’s father, acquired from the eventual sale of the rubber company, became Esme’s mother’s. The two of them waited four years and never heard from him. Esme, the sole inheritor, waited eighteen more. Beyond the cottage windows the Sound churned black and green. The mist burned off under a pale sun. She went to the kitchen sideboard and undid the latch. Inside were mousetraps and wet matches and candles. There was an old bottle of sherry, the label peeling. On it was a gift tag dangling from gold string. For Mother, with love and absolution, 1973. Esme heard footsteps, and knew that Dean had come into the house look- ing for her. She stood up with the bottle and turned to face him.
“That what she wanted?” he said, chuckling. He had his hands stuffed in his pockets. “Must be a good year.”
Behind him the wind tapped the screen door against its frame. The water sloshed the rocks. Esme shrugged. “I don’t really know what she wanted.” She stood there with the bottle in her hand. Her father wasn’t here, hiding out, waiting for the money she’d brought. There wasn’t a boat tied in a hidden cove, its motor rumbling, ready for their escape. She found her legs were tired, and she sank to the floor with the bottle. She saw Dean’s furtive glance to her bag on the floor where she’d dropped it. Her eyes were even with his knees, young and knobby, with a limited sense of the world. She had not bothered to find out what he had been doing in the seafood restaurant lounge that morning, but she saw now, clearly, that he’d been there to see Patsy, that the two of them were aligned, that when Esme had come in with her cash, wearing her mother’s pearls, they had hatched a shaky plan to steal from her. Maybe they wanted to run away together, escape the little town with its briny smell and desperate, wealthy islanders. She remembered the look Patsy had given Dean at the bar, so like those her mother once gave her grandfather. Caution and love.
Esme motioned to the bag on the floor. “Just take it already,” she said. And to her surprise he did. He bent from the waist and snatched it up, keeping his eyes on her. Esme heard his footsteps retreat across the wood floor. She heard the spring on the red-painted door. But the door didn’t close, and she waited, imagining him hesitating, one foot on the porch. Then the door banged and she heard him return. He eased himself down on the floor across from her, and leaned against the plaster wall. He took off his hat and set it beside him. He kept the bag secure in his lap. Esme saw he was waiting, watching her.
“I tried for once to be the person who was gone,” she told him, “rather than the one left behind.”
He considered this. He tipped his head up and stared at the ceiling. “Someday,” he said, his voice steady and low as if someone might be listening, “there will be nothing left but the rock the house stands on.”
“You think I should open the sherry,” she said.
“I think that as far as you know, after all this time, your father might still be somewhere,” he said.
Around them the drapes on the furniture flapped. The sea breeze flew through, heavy and damp. Without looking underneath, Esme knew the tables that stood on turned wooden legs, the chairs’ upholstered laps worn to the shape of the people who’d sat in them. Maybe her father had chosen to live a life that had forked off, like a path, or a tree branch—the way leading to others, to narrower branches, to twigs and stems and then, untraceably, the blissful confusion of leaves. Dean, despite his mutinous heart, was trying to be kind. He’d assumed the worst thing would be to die. But Esme knew otherwise. Around her the swept sand filled the floorboard cracks. The knife that cut cocktail limes had left its imprint on the Formica counter. The tide rose up to the marker on the rock. The mattresses waited for their stained sheets. Her grandmother dove from the granite ledge in her bathing cap, slender legs straight, feet lifted, caught in mid-air by a camera’s shutter. Outside clouds moved and the sun blinked like a faulty bulb. Not quite there, not quite here.
Karen Brown’s collection of short stories, Pins and Needles, won the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories, and in such literary journals as American Short Fiction, TriQuarterly, Epoch, and Five Points. She teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida.
Originally appeared in NOR 8.