Ken keeps adding to his argument: we could get a mattress that
wasn’t dragged in off the curb, afford a vacation, advertise for the
business. He leaves the kids’ needs out of it. Ultimately, he’s
scared of something. How do you face a mother—a wife—who
consciously denies her children better anything?
The man who owns the house now wants to pay me to
paint his sixteen bedrooms. He is feeling, suddenly, in the mood
for blue. Here’s the thing I didn’t tell my husband: the man said
we could stay there for as long as it took to get the job done. His
own family was going to Puerto Rico that summer. We’d have the
island to ourselves, rent-free.
Where am I keeping these secrets from Ken? I think of a
house with pantries God can’t see into.
If I dangle my arm over the edge of our bed I can touch
the floor, I’ve learned. The floorboards are wide pine, and I can
run my fingers over the cracks between them, which must be getting
wider with the years. I realize that I don’t really give a shit
about these floorboards but I resolve to polish them in the morning,
to give them a chance to win me over, if I can only get to
At low tide, my brothers and cousin and I used to press our bare
stomachs against the float’s sunbaked planks and watched over
the edge for crabs to fall for our hotdog bait. We gave them
names like Lunatic and Roxanne and kept them in tide pools until
the creeping water reclaimed them.
Rev kept the woodstove going on chilly nights and burned
popcorn over the fire in the living room. He burned it to the
point that no one would eat it but him. the joy of burning one
thing led to the joy of burning another, and soon enough he was
tossing in clots of dog fur collected from the corners of the
rooms. We pinched our noses dramatically and ran out into the
woods. Rev prodded the fire and sang louder, bawdy hymns from
his seminary days.
Our house glowed through the trees. Sap-sticky pine needles
clung to the soles of my bare feet as I resisted the urge to run
back inside, where everyone else was returning, one by one, to sit
again by the fire, to deal out cards. I stood alone in the woods.
Voices carried over the water, from people in boats, and even
from the mainland. the sounds were loud enough, but the syllables
were hard to translate—voices of people without islands of
their own. When mainland dogs bayed at night, our own dogs
answered them. But listening to these human voices, I kept quiet
and still among the trees. I am an island, I thought.
The dogs acted funny sometimes, the little ones growling at
the woods and the bigger ones disappearing for hours before
coming back with ferns matted into their coats. That’s how we
knew we had deer on the island—that, and later, droppings, or
hoof prints in the mud. My dad told me there was a spring they
could drink from, which is how they got by. I felt the heat behind
my skin; I knew of no such spring on our island. “Deer can
swim?” I said, which was the other thing that shocked me.
And as I went searching, alone, for the gurgle of fresh water
(which I never found), my brain kept asking why a deer would
want to swim, to set out from the mainland into the unknown,
and in such an awkward fashion, when it must have had what it
needed across the bay. It could not have known we had a spring
on our island, or hollows filled to the brim by ferns, perfect for
bedding down in.
Those summers with the deer were the ones when we had
to pick ticks off our dogs, and each other.