My great-grandfather’s grandfather bought the island and built
the house. Before that, the island was nobody’s. There was evidence
of Indians, great piles of clamshells near the southern tip,
but by then the Wabanaki had fled to Canada to be among the
Jesuits. I don’t know whom he bought the island from.
The winter was so cold that year that the timber and stone
for the house were dragged right over the bay by horses. The ice
was six feet thick. I’ve never even seen a skin of ice over anything
but the tide pools.
I have a good life on the mainland. I have a family. I swim
at the city beach each morning while everyone else in my house
is still asleep. Some days I rinse off after. Other days I watch the
shifting track of powdered salt along my arms. Cooled blood
races through my veins.
My husband and I paint houses. It’s good to be together,
even if he’s mostly writing poems in his head. At least they’re
poems about the line of my body as I stretch to do the trim. He
stares at me from across the room, his brush resting on the edge
of his bucket, its bristles dripping excess paint. It’s almost always
blue in these vacation houses, one shade or another; these people
can’t get enough sea and sky. Then he comes out of his daze
and really sees me. If it’s a weekend job, we have our two kids
with us. But if it’s a weekday, I let him run his brush where he
On the weekends we don’t have jobs, I drag the boys with
me to estate sales where we hunt for old snapshots. I paint miniatures
of the unfamiliar faces under a magnifying glass fixed to the
table my husband built me. The key to selling is to keep it small.
I use latex left over from jobs—a kind friend called my palette
“provocatively limited.” Every time I need to buy a new brush,
Ken jokes that I should just drive to the country and pluck a single
hair from a horse’s tail.
Sometimes I feel bad, setting up my booth on the fringe of
the farmers’ market. I know people come with only so much cash
in their pockets. Most of the time—if I sell anything at all—I
blow my earnings on strawberries, while the season lasts. Then
I’m back to garlic.
I used to wait tables before I joined Ken in the painting
business, but I never felt at ease. I watched people eating money
off their plates. I watched the money disappear.
Everybody hyperventilates some time or another, said a
generous colleague—the one who’d ushered me into the walk-in
cooler and made me breathe into a paper carry-out bag she held
to my face—after I’d been let go.