I’m supposed to be keeping this cottage up, taking care of the place. It’s the one thing my brother and sister asked, and it’s not much, considering I live here rent-free, year-round. They’re afraid to push me too hard. Our parents taught them that.
I live alone on this craggy, pine-dotted island off the coast of Maine, a sixty-two-year-old man without a whole lot to show for his life. A boy from such a nice family—who’d have guessed? I know this is where it’s all going to end for me, but what I can’t escape lately is this nagging sense, this needling insistence, that there is something I need to do, something I need to know, first.
A dull pressure builds behind my eyes as I step out onto the front porch. It’s starting to sag in the middle. Floorboards need to be replaced. I squint in the sunshine. A drink with lunch, that’s what I’d really like. But I follow one rule these days: no booze before noon.
The sky above is a cool hallelujah blue, cloudless and clean and soaring away. The lilac bush at the corner is covered with clusters of purple trumpet blossoms that release a sweet, honeyed wave. It reminds me of the lotion Maggie used to use. She’d sit on our bed, working the lotion into her elbows, watching me like she was seeing a ghost, her eyes lingering on the bottle of scotch on the nightstand.
One night, she said, “I’m not going where you’re going.”
We didn’t have any kids. Maggie wised up before she made that mistake. I have no idea where she is now. We were never married, just perennially engaged. That got to her, too.
I was still painting watercolors then. Landscapes mostly. I had a scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design. I lose myself in landscapes; that’s what drew me to them. Only, one day—or was it a night?—I discovered it was easier to lose myself in alcohol. A lot quicker, too.
Cars snake along the narrow roads downtown, and a procession of tourists, loud and glued to their cellphones, clog the few sidewalks. These “summer people” bring money and a whole lot of headaches. But I’ve got a roof over my head because of them.
The booze, a half-dozen earnest therapists over the past thirty years have told me, is a symptom of a larger problem.
I pull into a parking space a few blocks from the hardware store. I step on the brake just as a text message chimes on my cell. Old Dr. Gloom-and-Doom down at the harbor.
I glance at the text: “Call me NOW. Lab results in.” I delete it.
“The liquor is killing you,” Gloomy said last week.
“What can I say?” I shrugged and buttoned my shirt.
“Look, it’s my job to tell you.” Gloomy dropped his stethoscope on the table. “I’d bet your liver has more scars than Frankenstein. This isn’t a joke. Cirrhosis can get your lungs, your brain, snuff out your heart.”
I shrugged again.
“Henry, your parents were some of the nicest people I’ve ever known. Let me send you to the mainland. There’s an excellent rehab facility not far from the ferry. They pick you up, drop you off, everything.” Gloomy’s voice dropped. “No one has to know.”
My parents were summer people. They loved this island so much that they bought the cottage, tucked in a hillside above the town center. It’s a seasonal rental now, with weekly leases that I nominally oversee. The rest of the year, I’m a squatter. My siblings don’t object. My parents would have wanted it this way. Take care of Henry, they would have urged.
My parents weren’t people who dealt with hard things.
The air is full of sunshine as I make my way down the sidewalk. Whitecaps wink on the harbor. The breeze carries the faint whiff of sea spray, of cool moss-covered boulders and fallen brown pine needles. I haven’t touched a paintbrush in years, yet I feel the urge to capture such moments, to save them, on canvas.
A woman with a gaggle of little kids passes by. Each kid— wide-eyed and giddy with joy —holds a little fishing pole. We were those kids once, my siblings and I. Sun-kissed, loved, full of promise. There was an invisible bar we were groomed to reach. I just couldn’t reach high enough. So they lowered the bar, my desperate, confused parents, again and again. When I dropped out of college, they embraced my woodworking business, a hobby I planned to take beyond birdhouses and bookshelves. Fine, fine, they said. Only I never took it anywhere. Same with the deep-sea fishing tours. And then the landscaping business.
Island Landscaping, I called it. I thought I could turn people’s yards into works of art. When we landed the golf course account, I drank a bottle of champagne. Acres and acres of undulating green turf to maintain, a three-season big-ticket job to set everything right. Just when everyone had given up on me, I would prove them wrong.
Then the golf course turned brown. The grass withered and died in shocking bands of beige defeat. We had mixed the weed killers and fertilizers wrong. One of the guys—not me—screwed up the ratios. Every day for a year, I had to drive by that dead golf course. People averted their eyes when they saw me on the street.
The cottage sustains me now. And when tourists rent it, I take a room at the Piping Plover Motel on the harbor. It’s a bare-bones place, no pool or restaurant, but it’s got a rock jetty that reaches into the cove and a strip of sandy beach, which isn’t easy to come by up here. Something in me shriveled last month when I heard a new owner had bought the Plover and was making changes. Why can’t anything stay the same?
The windows in old Gloomy’s office reflect the passing traffic in a jumbled kaleidoscope as I walk past.
On the next block, a table is set up on the sidewalk outside the Scrimshaw Gallery. There must be a new exhibit. I had a show here once, long ago, watercolors of the harbor. I even sold a few.
I stop at the table. A photograph of a woman’s pale face, a black and white, stands in an easel. A lean older woman, gray-haired, wearing a simple white dress. I stop breathing. Maggie.
The questioning tilt of her head, the hint of mirth tucked in the corners of her mouth. I would know her anywhere. In one shot, she stands in a meadow, a breeze lifting her long hair. The land swells in a grassy wave behind her. A stone wall in the distance, and beyond that, the twinkle of a body of water, a deep brooding lake ringed by trees.
In another shot, Maggie sits at the end of a long wooden dock; her bare legs hang over the water, a wreath of holly leaves crowns her head. Her face is in profile, her eyes trained on the dark water. This one has a title: “Lost to Time.” I glance at the photographer’s name on the attached business card. “James Wright.” Clearly, Mr. Wright saw in Maggie what I saw in her, only he knew what to do with it. He loves her. Maggie has gone on. Everyone goes on.
My hands are shaking. I shove them in my pockets. I force my feet to move. The harbor bell tolls. I focus on the pavement, nothing else.
A family books the cottage. They’re coming the following weekend, so I make plans to de-camp.
Traffic’s not bad downtown. I turn right before the center, avoiding the Scrimshaw Gallery. My hands are steady. I want to keep them this way.
The Plover’s parking lot is packed with out-of-state plates, SUVs, and minivans mostly. The place is always crawling with kids this time of year. From here, the motel looks pretty much the same.
The first change hits me in the lobby. This new owner has painted the walls a breathy sea foam green, a color so full of light and effervescence it seems to rise. The ceiling above is a replica of the blue summer sky streaked with trailing clouds. In the center, a giant skylight filters a stream of sunshine. The owner had this custom painted. I wonder who did the work. A twinge of envy hits me.
Behind the check-in counter stands a guy staring down at a ledger. His dark hair, trimmed short, is receding.
He glances up. His gaze rests on me as I step closer. I’d put him in his early fifties, but his face is disarming, smooth like a younger man’s face.
“Are you the new owner?” I ask.
He smiles, offers me his hand. “Dom Falloni.”
“Welcome to the island,” I say.
“Made it through my first winter.” He chuckles. “I’m practically a native now, right?”
“Nice job with the lobby. I hear you’ve got big plans.”
He nods. “Place will never be the same.”
Never the same. The words pierce me. “It has always had a certain charm.” I push down the edge in my voice. The Plover is my seaside anchor.
Dom smiles. “Yes, of course. That’s what drew me here—the good energy, clear, guiding, like a well-lit path. It’s just not all that it could be.”
“Yeah, well, is anything?”
Dom raises his dark eyebrows. “I don’t know. You tell me.”
I step back from the counter. “Is room twelve available? The one at the end of the hall?”
“You are a regular, aren’t you? Been on the island long?”
“Fifteen years. Don’t ask me how I got here.” My words hang in the air, faintly damning. “Hard to believe.”
“What’s so hard to believe?” Dom’s eyes are pale blue with a navy strip, almost black, ringing the irises. They penetrate, they invite.
I force a smile. “It’s just not where I thought I’d end up.”
“How do you know this is the end?”
This guy gets straight to the point. But I like that. A family crosses the lobby, and a little kid asks, “Can we feed the seals or just look at them?”
The Seal Watch Tour. My parents must have taken us on it a dozen times. They thought they were educating us, preparing us for a bright future. The old sickness stirs my gut.
Dom clicks at a keyboard. “Listen, I thought I was going to be a church pastor twenty years ago,” he says. “Only I ended up dropping out of divinity school.” He chuckles. “I wasn’t clergy material—at least not in the way they defined it. Only it wasn’t the end—more like a new beginning.”
I clear my throat. “So, is room twelve open next Saturday night for a week.”
Dom looks up at me. “Yep, you’re in luck.”
“Then let’s see how far this good energy can take us,” I say, pulling out my wallet and handing him my credit card.
His eyes probe me. “I love a good skeptic. Most clergy drop-outs do.” He winks. Coming from another man, this might feel weird. But not this guy. “The right energy makes all things possible, friend,” he says. “I see the proof every day.”
And that’s where I have him. All things aren’t possible. They never were.
At the cottage that night, I’m sick. My body feels stretched and tender, swelling with something that needs to get out. The ribeye I picked up for dinner never makes it to the grill. But I make it to the couch, where Mr. Jim Beam gets me through dusk, and darkness does the rest. This is all I ask. Dom’s “possibilities”—he’s the sort of man who chases redemption—are a catalog of delusion. When I close my eyes alone, I find release. I see Maggie’s silver hair, lifted on the breeze. I see her quick green eyes, unfazed, staring out to sea.
From my window at the Plover, I watch Dom walk the labyrinth he has built on the lawn—one of his new additions. He walks in the early evening when the sun is fading in swipes of gold and amber. Dom moves at a slow, purposeful pace in the labyrinth-like someone who’s not sure where he’s going yet can’t wait to get there.
A couple of nights ago, I joined Dom. The harbor rippled as I fell in step behind him. It felt good, winding along the narrow path with the darkening sky overhead. Dom glanced back and said, “Shhh, I’m in the zone.” Which was fine with me. We’d been talking up a storm since I arrived for the week. He had my whole life story.
I pour myself a refill from the bottle on my nightstand. Dr. Gloomy has been texting all week, wanting to talk. He won’t text details because of privacy laws. But I’m afraid he’ll track me down, knock on my door at the Plover.
Dom has done a good job updating the motel rooms. A sand-colored carpet covers the floor. The walls are painted a soft baby blue, with crisp white wainscotting at the bottom. An abstract painting, overlapping splashes of rose, mint green, and buttercup yellow, hangs over the bed. The colors are distinct, yet they fuse in a blurred alchemy where they come together. My breathing slows when I look at this painting. Something lays a quiet hand on my heart.
I wish I could stay at the Plover all summer, feeling the shifting sea, watching the light dissipate as Dom walks his labyrinth.
I wave from the window. Dom doesn’t see me. He must be “in the zone” again. I put down my glass and pick up my room key.
Outside a cool current stirs the air. I walk down the stairs to the back patio. Tourists sip drinks and clink silverware.
At the patio’s edge, a few stone steps descend to the lawn. I pause at the top. A woman sitting alone to my left clears her throat.
“Hello, Henry. I thought I might run into you.”
I grip the wooden handrail.
“How are you?”
I manage a nod. “Maggie.” The silver hair of the Scrimshaw photographs sits atop her head in a loose, shimmering bun. Her face is lightly tanned, smooth, and lively.
“I’m only here for the weekend.” She says this too fast, like an apology.
“I saw the photographs,” I say.
“There’s a reception tomorrow night for my husband’s exhibit.”
I knew the photographer loved her. The truth settles with mocking certainty. He is the husband I should have been. There is a silent beat.
“It’s nice work,” I say. “I’m sketching a new landscape series, just got started—all morning light and parting clouds.”
Maggie looks down at the table. She doesn’t believe me, but this isn’t her battle anymore. “You were always so talented,” she says.
“Yes, I was, Mags.”
Maggie flinches at the old nickname. She gazes out to sea, like it hurts to look into my face. “Is everything good with you now?”
A quivering fills my chest, a rattle deep inside. Is everything good with me now. “You’ve got some nice weather for the reception,” I say. “Enjoy your stay, Mags.”
My legs carry me down the steps. If I can make it to the lawn, I’ll be all right. What I will not do is look into her pitying face.
“Take care of yourself, ” Maggie’s voice falters. “Henry?”
I flash a thumbs-up. I don’t look back. The sea rises before me in frothy disappointed peaks, reaching and dissolving.
Dom leads me down the pier the next night after we finish walking the labyrinth. “I’ve got a new hobby,” he says when we reach the end. A couple of kayaks are tied up, bobbing against the dock. “I call it night drifting—you take a kayak out, lie back, and fling your questions to the eternal sky.”
The eternal sky. Dom’s the only one I know who goes around saying things like this. He belongs in another century. “Do you get any answers?” I ask.
He laughs and tosses me a life vest.
“Hey, it’s getting cold.” I want to be back in my room. I want to disappear into the TV screen and the clink of ice cubes in my glass.
Dom unlashes the kayaks, one red and one yellow, their sleek fiberglass bodies like colorful seals. They remind me of my old sailboat, a little yellow Sunfish that’s been collecting cobwebs in the cottage basement for years.
“You ever look into the sky over the sea at night? Really look into it?” Dom asks.
“I can’t say that I have.” I pull on the vest. Dom has been listening to me drone on all week over lunch—Maggie and my aborted painting career and the cottage and Old Gloomy and how it all just makes me tired now. Dom’s a good listener. I feel like I owe him.
I lower myself into the red kayak. It dips and rocks. I grab the sides.
“Relax,” Dom says. “Balance in the center.”
Farther out, the harbor is smooth and glassy, but the darkness of the water disturbs me. The cauldron of unseen life bubbling just below the surface frightens me. The sea is so unfathomable in its depth, in its variety, its secret predators, and vicious currents.
Dom pushes off the pier with his paddle. We don’t go far. Just enough to feel detached from the land. Dom lies back, holding his paddle across his chest. “I’ve reworked the seats, so they slide,” he says. “Pull yourself forward with your legs.”
I do, and the seat moves, making space to recline. My head comes to rest against the fiberglass edge.
Dom sighs. “Let the water carry you.”
We drift side by side. The sound of laughter from the patio travels across the water. The shore feels suddenly distant as if we have broken a cord, a tether, to the solid world.
“Do you feel it?” Dom says. “This energy, this force, humming just beyond us.”
I don’t know what he’s talking about.
“It breaks through every now and then,” Dom says. “It’s like we’re all behind a veil, and this thing is on the other side. I see it move sometimes. The fabric ripples, and it shines through for an instant.”
We bob in silence. And then Dom says, “I hope you don’t think I’m nuts.”
“Like I’m anyone to judge.” My kayak rises in the soft shush of a wave. Then something clicks inside me. There is a loosening. Something is emerging. The dark sky calls it forth, and alone here, freed from the land, I see no reason to stop it. “Do you know what really happened?” I say. “With me, I mean?”
Dom stares into the sky. “Why don’t you tell me, Henry.”
“I didn’t show up for my own life.” The words are pathetic leaving my mouth. They are also true. “I had a plan, a calling you might say. A place where I belonged. But I didn’t go there. I couldn’t hold up my end, and now it’s too late. There is no one else to blame.” I exhale, and it’s like a poison is leaving my body. “That’s all there is.”
“Is it?” I feel Dom’s urging. He has turned his head to me. I can tell by the direction of his voice.
“I know there are people who overcome things,” I say. “They’re celebrated, right? People write books and make movies about them. But there are a lot of people like me, too. We’re not looking to be celebrated. We just want to survive. We’re not looking for forgiveness, either.”
The dark absorbs my words, carries them off. They are out there now, a ping in the expanding universe. A quiet murmur, like the ceaseless beating of the waves, fills my ears, and I close my eyes. I see bands of lavender and fuchsia dissolving into each other. I see a glittering ruby gem studded with points of light that reflect an endless sky more mysterious than the living sea.
“God save me from myself. That’s my prayer,” I say. “The only one I know.”
“Let it go, then,” Dom says. “Give it up, brother.”
I laugh and shake my head. Then Dom says something else. It sounds like “Amen.”
I don’t make it back to the cottage the next day until late afternoon. When I step inside, the spirit of the visitors still hangs in the air. A couple with two small children who “fell in love with the photos” of the cottage and weren’t put off by the shortcomings of the real thing.
I skip dinner and head to the couch. A heaviness fills me, a fatigue too heavy to fight. Dom is probably out on the harbor again now, night drifting. I can feel the rock of the kayak and the whisper of the sea. Maggie and I used to take out my old sailboat. Maybe I’ll clean it up. I’ll join the Island Yacht Club in town. My parents would have loved that. And the next time Maggie returns, if she ever returns, she’ll see me skimming over the sea. I’ll wave, and she’ll think, Henry has found his way. Just that moment would be enough.
A faint jingle comes from the lilac bush outside. It’s Maggie’s old wind chime. It’s rusted and crooked, but when the wind blows just right, it still sings. On windy nights, I hear it from the bedroom. On the nights when I’m sober enough, I go to the window and in the bleary wee hours when it seems anything is possible, I half expect to see Maggie standing in the yard, her upturned face seeking mine.
I have a sudden urge to see my sailboat. I stand, and the room rises with me. The basement door is just across the hall. When was I last down there? Winter, to check the furnace. I cross the hall, open the door and snap on the light. My heart is skittery, jumpy, but I take the steps one at a time.
At the bottom—in the light of a naked overhead bulb—it’s all as I remember. Nothing changes down here. The sailboat rests on the concrete floor against the back wall, beneath a squat hopper window. I walk over and lower myself to the concrete beside it.
Dust coats the yellow paint. The mast and sail are gone. I don’t know where I stored them, but the little hull is intact and waiting for me like a secret friend. I run my hand along the edge. A gray film covers my fingers. It was a shame to let the boat go to waste like this. There was a time when it took me places and showed me things.
I get to my knees and clamber into the hull. It creaks but holds steady. I find the seat and push myself upright. I close my eyes. I can feel the rock and tilt of the waves. I can feel the cold spray of the sea on my face. I grip the sides and lie back, the way I did with Dom in the harbor.
Another jingle comes from the yard. The lilac bush with the windchime is above me now, just outside the window. The chime’s ringing melody wraps around me, lifting me from this body that I’ve forsaken for so long. A tightness grips my chest. But I am not afraid.
Then I hear something else. A rising tone, soft and lovely, a greeting. It brings a ping of recognition. I’ve heard this before. I saw it in the inky sky over the harbor as Dom and I drifted. I’ve felt it in the blurred tones of a landscape, and in the colors on my canvas as they emerge, as from a fog, to reveal something pure and knowing and forgiving, something hidden until this moment. It sounds like the music of angels.
Karen Guzman is a fiction writer and essayist. Her most recent novel, Arborview, was published in 2021 by the Wild Rose Press. Her debut novel, Homing Instincts, was published in 2014 by Fiction Attic Press. Her short fiction has appeared in a number of literary magazines, including most recently Gargoyle magazine, and her story collection, Pilgrims, was a finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award. She’s also a regular contributor to the Collegeville Institute’s Bearings Online magazine and the recipient of a 2021 writing fellowship at the Collegeville Institute.
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