Nikki Helmik, forty years old, huddled her face in her coat collar, far enough away from the black-clad mourners gathered in a dark clutch near the pit of the grave so they wouldn’t notice her. She lowered her umbrella until her view of the burial was compressed. Her nose and mouth were red-lined with grief as she clutched in her pocket the stump of a dried rose the dead man had once given her. As an unusually warm January mist was veiling softly, the mourners held their umbrellas uncertainly, some aloft, some folded at their sides. A great wintery oak clawed the massive air above the grave, blasted grey, its bark slick as a seal in the mist. Nikki watched Rose, Ernest Eveless’ widow, head bowed, toss a red rose into the grave on top of the descending casket. It was the most ornate—gaudy, in fact— casket Nikki had ever seen, made of cherry wood with curlicued, solid-brass handles, hinges, and medallions all over it. But that was Rose all over—ostentation. Let everyone in Gloucester know you are rich, even if (assuming the rumors were true) your dead husband had lost most of his money when his fishing business went under and left you with only that huge granite house on the hill.
Even with her face stained—was it the rain or sadness? Nikki wondered—even so, Rose was beautiful, her dark mass of Portuguese hair pulled back, eyes deeply highlighted, lips blood red. Tiny droplets of rain glistened in her hair—she was aware of the effect she produced, Nikki could see. She knew her friend, her enemy, intimately.
Beside Rose stood a younger man whom Nikki knew immediately as Rose and Ernest’s only child, Philip, lately home from France. The winch rumbled softly as the casket disappeared into the wet ground; Nikki thought of her own father’s burial, a short month ago, in this same cemetery not far from Portuguese Hill, on a bluff overlooking the slaty, brooding waters of the restive Atlantic. His casket was almost the cheapest one they could find, even though her sister Cynthia, concerned with appearances, insisted they spend money on a pricey one. When Nikki and her other sisters suggested Cynthia spend her own money on a more expensive one, Cynthia had suddenly agreed it was a waste of money.
Should she speak to Rose? No! Pursing her lips, Nikki kept her eyes on Philip, his lean face and bowed head making him look, in profile, very much like his father, even to the glasses his father had worn. The sight of him sent a thrill through her. She had not spoken to Philip since they were fifth-grade classmates, when he was sent away abruptly to boarding school in Europe. She hadn’t known him well then, but he had grown now into a beautiful man, beautiful like his mother, the great beauty of Gloucester, yet stern with the thin, set mouth of his father. His face like his father’s was long and pronounced, strong-boned especially in the jaw and cheek, his Adam’s apple prominent and narrowly vulnerable. His hard, intense expression was markedly like his father’s as well. Even from a distance she was struck by his brooding air, which intimidated and attracted her.
The priceless casket sank, and a sigh rose from the little knot of people. The great Ernest Eveless dead! By his own hand, according to gossip, although Nikki was too frightened of Rose after their recent fight to ask her the truth. How terrible that the one woman who had been mentor to Nikki, teaching her everything, now was her enemy!
Nikki watched Rose solemnly close her prayer book with voluptuous fingers, red-tipped nails moving like soft snakes. Rose looked up, tears carefully staining her eyes; everything she did was rehearsed, Nikki knew. Rose had instructed Nikki carefully:
“Every move you make as a woman, if you want power, must be calculated and directed. The men of power are always watching.” And power was what Nikki had always wanted, like her heroine Rose. Nikki shivered; she was still overawed by Rose, still afraid of her, still seeing her as all of Gloucester did, as the great and powerful beauty of the town. And there was Philip beside his mother; Nikki would have to talk to him some time. Not today, but soon. She was patient, for she, too, was confident of her own power with men. Hadn’t she hooked any man she ever wanted? Rose had taught her well—Rose, who had climbed to power in Gloucester not only by means of her husband’s wealth but by her own steel heart and willingness to use her sex to make men tremble. There was an edge to everything she did, a hint of desperation that drove men mad. In fact, insanity lay in Rose’s Portuguese family; her uncle had long been institutionalized as schizophrenic, and her father like Nikki’s had been a hopeless drunk.
The gravediggers were sopping wet, leaning over in their heavy, dark coats to dismantle the winch, hauling the straps up and out of the pit. Nikki did not dare move closer.
Ernest! The thought that he might have killed himself terrified Nikki. Could it have been over her? So soon after the wrenching fight between Nikki and Rose, when Rose had accused Nikki of sleeping with her husband?
Nikki bowed her head as the rain slid down her cheeks. No, it wasn’t true, though how often had she wished it were! Ernest, the man she had grown up around, idealizing him for his strength as she had idolized Rose. The richest man in Gloucester, owner of the largest fleet of fishing boats anywhere on Boston’s North Shore. Nikki had spent her youth in the Eveless house as Rose’s assistant and companion, sitting many evenings with Ernest. She saw how cruelly Rose treated her husband, Nikki’s heart going out to him. He was so silent, so powerful in his own grim way, with his set jawbone and piercing stare, such an anodyne to Rose’s wildly passionate Mediterranean nature. Rock-hard, self-contained, he was a Puritan Yankee fisherman from a poor family who through force of will had bested the sea. His knack for finding the fish was legendary; no one in Gloucester was ignorant of the stories of Ernest at the bow, staring ahead, motioning back at the helmsman, two points to starboard, one to larboard, a quick nod with never a smile. He always navigated with a sixth sense to the exact spot where the cod were running.
How had Rose and Ernest ever loved each other enough to marry? Nikki stood musing. She recalled the thrill it had given her as a girl to be in Ernest’s presence, bringing him a message from Rose in his high-ceilinged library, standing shyly by his leather chair and watching his craggy face as he spoke slowly and carefully to her, peering through her with bright, hard blue eyes behind his glasses. Then she would hurry back to Rose. How she had loved Rose, those years growing up! And how much Rose had given her, teaching her all the secrets of how to be a powerful woman, to disdain men but for their usefulness—for sex, money, and power. But Nikki had secretly loved Ernest too.
For no matter how gruff his manner, his eyes invariably sparkled at her with a flame of recognition. Nikki felt, as she grew to be a woman, that they naturally understood one another. When Rose was out or in bed with a headache, as was often the case, Nikki as she got older sat with Ernest in his library talking over love and the sea and life. Many nights at home Nikki lay in her narrow bed weaving stories of Ernest and herself, which as she matured descended from fairy-clouded castles to increasingly take on dark sexual shadings. Then when her father climbed into bed with her, first touching her as she pretended to sleep, staying until she shoved him off her at the end, she imagined him as Ernest come to love her, and so had found a path to follow that made it not hurt. For Ernest had been protective of her, soothing her and taking her side whenever she caught the storm front of one of Rose’s infamous tantrums, joking that at least she didn’t have to live with Rose. But for all that, Nikki adored Rose so much that life apart from her was bleak and colorless. Ernest patted her and protected her through it all.
After all, nothing came of her crush on Ernest. Nearly nothing—Rose had a witch sense about her; how else could she have known of the one embrace between Nikki and Ernest, a short two months before the funeral? He had grabbed her in the library and held her close, pressing his hard lips against her softer ones. Too late! she had cried, for she was now too old. Years had passed since her girlhood crush; she had traveled, gone to school in Boston, become a lawyer, rarely returning to her hometown. Except when her mother had died, two years before. And then again when her father was dying two months ago. She had been stuck without any help from her sisters to care for the man she despised with all her heart. Her father was dying of alcoholism—a bad heart, they said.
While she waited for her father to die, Nikki had gone to see Rose to catch up on old times and renew their affection. Seeing Ernest looking so old and haggard at first did nothing to stir her heart, but as the weeks passed and Nikki’s father sundered and floundered closer to death, Nikki realized that she still loved Ernest.
She found out on the day her father died. Nikki had entered the kitchen at the back of her father’s yellow-shingled house, as she always did. She peered through the dining room into the living room, where she could see her father’s huge white tee-shirted back blocking a blaring TV. His scotch sat untouched on the armrest.
“Father?” she called, but there was no answer. Perceiving a shudder pass through him, she drew slowly closer. “Father?”
Her entire life she had been terrified of the enormous, cruel tyrant, afraid of his clutching hands, afraid of his temper that rose and fell like the wind. Afraid of his bellowing, the traps that he laid for all four of his daughters and his wife.
“Father?” she repeated; again no answer. She slowly drew parallel with the green overstuffed chair. Her father was slumped over, breathing stertorously like a beached whale. His bloated body shook with horrible spasms, one fat hand clutching at his heart. Oddly, she thought of how clean he had always been, going like a good Finn to the steam baths nearly every day. How clean and what a monster! The house roared with the echoes of his rages.
As his eyes looked up at her, Nikki backed away, stumbling on the braided rug, turning, racing from the house. She plunged into the dark wooded paths of Dogtown, the deep woods that lay behind the Helmik house. She pressed her hands over her ears, hooting and whistling to herself so as not to hear the echoes of her father’s alcoholic rage. It was early evening; the wind was coming up snapping and lashing through the tall maples and oaks. Hurrying deeper into the dark thatched forest, she was unable to return to do what she should: call an ambulance. There is still time, a voice called out to her. Leave him to hell! cried another. Clamping her hands over her ears while crying out, she fled right through the forest until she found herself on the doorstep of Rose and Ernest’s mansion.
Shaking, she raced into the library where Ernest sat turning the pages of a history book, drink in hand. Turning a lined face to her, he smiled with his eyes. “Rose is out,” he explained softly. In such contrast with his salt-creased face, Ernest’s voice always caught Nikki off guard. His Adam’s apple bobbed.
“You look a sight,” he observed, rising and going to greet her. When she shied, he stopped, then indicated a seat across from him. He rang for a servant to bring her a snifter of brandy.
“A cold November night to be out without a jacket, Nikki,” he remarked, laying his book aside to study her. “I—it’s my father,” she mumbled, gulping hotly at the brandy. It went up her nose, burning briefly like a brazier. “What is?” Nikki stared wide-eyed in horror. “I’ve killed him!” she whispered, as a thrill rang through her.
“More slowly,” Ernest insisted, holding her steady with his eyes.
“He’s dying—I should help,” she coughed. “I have to help, but it’s probably too late now. I went to the house—he was in his chair, wheezing—heart attack—I know it!” She looked up at him pleadingly. “Do you know that fear? When it’s too late for anything?”
Nodding, he set his mouth. “My entire life has been too late.” Putting his drink down, he stood and came over to her. “Your father will die with or without you, when he wants.”
“How would you know? You don’t even know him.”
Ernest said nothing, studying her. As he offered her a horned hand, she accepted it and stood up close enough to him to smell the alcohol as he breathed. He took her in his arms while she cried like a child, mumbling, “I’m forty years old, forty years old.” He kissed her softly over and over as she sagged in his arms. He tilted her soft head back, pressing his lips against hers. She instinctively wrapped her arms around him.
Abruptly she pulled away. “Too late!” she cried, fleeing the room. Running, she reached the yellow-shingled house in time to see medics heaving the whale body through the double doors of a waiting ambulance. When she approached a medic to ask, he looked up in surprise, looked into her eyes, decided she could take it, and shook his head.
“An hour ago, maybe,” he murmured.
A thrill of panic flashed in her wide eyes. Waiting only long enough to see she wasn’t going to faint, the medic hopped lightly into the back of the ambulance as it wailed away into the gloaming, down the hill to Addison Hospital. The same hospital in which her mother had died.
Not long after her father’s funeral, Nikki received a call from Rose inviting her to tea. Ever since Nikki was a young girl, she and Rose had a tradition of taking tea together, like proper ladies, so Nikki didn’t suspect a trap. They sat on Rose’s great stone balcony overlooking the Dogtown woods. Rose would not live in a room that faced the sea. Bees swarmed in the cool November air and made small talk.
“So coming full circle you now want to steal my husband?” Rose casually dropped the words while looking out over the woods. Classic Rose, Nikki thought. Never direct but always hard, demanding her needs be met, putting her audience on the spot. Yet what did Rose mean by “full circle”?
“I—” she began, as Rose held up a gold-ringed hand. “It’s all the worse that you betray me in my own home, Nikki. I understand that is your fate, but it does not excuse your conduct.”
“Nothing happened,” Nikki mumbled, sitting with head bowed. Rose was beginning to rant, her voice rising; Nikki cowered in her chair. Then unexpectedly, deep down in herself, Nikki felt a flame—and smiled. She was in love with Ernest still after all these years!
“You don’t love him,” Nikki cut in.
Rose stopped, fixing the younger woman with a long stare. “You will not cross swords with me, my child,” Rose threatened, her voice husky. “You have no idea of my power,” she intoned, softly scraping the arm of her lion-headed chair with her sharp red nails. In the stately quiet the soft rasp was sinister and persistent, like the conqueror worm eating slowly at the armor of life to let death in. Nikki caught the gesture and the intonation; she had never heard Rose use such a dark tone with her, threatening doom. It frightened and bewildered her.
Rose’s power was real. The insinuating stories with vague details that Rose used to relate with such relish to Nikki—real estate deals she had closed by bringing her adversary, usually a male real-estate magnate in Gloucester, to his knees. “Strapped his balls to his back” was her crude expression. She had always been crude—no amount of expensive clothes and elegant perfume could completely hide the peasant Portuguese behind the Gloucester veneer.
Armed with her rediscovered love for Ernest, Nikki felt strong even if afraid of Rose’s revenge. She stood suddenly and left the balcony, hurrying for the door. Rose screamed after her.
“Come back! I haven’t given you leave! I’ll pay you—” the voice was muffled. Nikki silently closed the French doors and exited the sumptuous room.
Nikki went straight to the library but found it empty. She left the house—for the last time, she felt certain. As she pulled away from the house in her red Miata, Ernest walked stiffly past, hands in his pockets, looking much older than sixty.
She gave him a smile that said, “Perhaps it’s not too late after all.”
She drove to the yellow-shingled house, there to indulge in the luxury of remorse and regret. What had she been thinking when she and Ernest kissed? What was she thinking now? Of a love affair with a married man? Her torture was voluptuous and deep.
They did not meet, the two lovers, for Ernest soon sailed off on his boat for a long trip around Cape Cod and down to Martha’s Vineyard. Nikki read New Age self-help books about actualizing her potential and waited. He would return, she knew—and he knew she was waiting.
Six weeks later the media reported Ernest’s body found dragging on the end of a long line that drifted astern of his sailboat, the Lamia Claire.
Now as the gravediggers pitched dirt into the hole, Rose nodded to Father O’Malley and turned away. Nikki had positioned herself so she could not be seen by Rose, but Philip, looking bewildered and young, caught Nikki’s eye as he adjusted his glasses nearsightedly. He glanced puzzledly at her. As she returned his look, a dark flame shot up through her from womb to throat. Yes, a voice whispered in her, so that her umbrella slipped. The drizzle wetted her blond hair, and it clung to her forehead.
The little mourning party dispersed, staggering down the muddy slope to the waiting limousines—first Rose holding her son’s arm, then Rose’s ancient parents, the cousins, nieces and nephews all trundling awkwardly behind, all with the same secret hope for the reading of the will. At the end went the haggard, smug priest followed by an altar boy with a tattoo on his right forearm, swinging the incense censer as he walked, which sent damp clouds of white smoke rolling over the muddy hillside.
The late afternoon sky already darkening, the gravediggers hurried to finish and get out of the rain. Nikki huddled again under her umbrella watching them, the impact of the clods hitting the casket thumping in her chest. She was feeling girlishly sentimental; forever after there in the ground lay her pure love, the man whom she had at last found, after all her years wandering through brief affairs with men old and young, countless dark meetings in bars that ended in drunken beds where she awoke a stranger. She had found Ernest only to lose him to a darkness where the frightening questions crowded in on her. Were the rumors true—did Ernest kill himself? For her? The papers called it an unfortunate accident.
Spades of dirt piled up over Ernest until it was done. The two diggers gathered their tools and rolled up the tarp, clambering downhill. Through the falling rain Nikki watched the dead mound, her mind dull. She stared a long time, then walked to the grave, looking downward at the muddy mound. Suddenly she felt sure the grave was empty, a vast yawning maw of nothingness. Ernest was not there, she was certain. Something was terribly wrong; she began to breathe hard. It seemed so clear to her: The ornate coffin was empty. Nikki dropped her umbrella and fled panicked, slipping and staggering down the hill, digging wildly in her purse for her keys, hands shaking as she fumbled and ran. Breathlessly reaching her car, she jabbed the key in the lock, flipped the door open and dove inside.
There she stopped, feeling her heart thudding behind her eyes. The windshield was smeared with rain. She started the car and swerved away, desperate to find someone living, desperate not to be alone.
The April evening three months later was unusually warm when Nikki Helmik pulled the red sports car up to her friend Claire’s house for a party. She twisted the steering wheel easily in her long-fingered hands, flicked the key off and, flipping the overhead light on, leaned close to the rearview mirror to examine her face. Her friend Alexandra brushed her dark hair and waited.
In repose Nikki’s face had a serious, intent expression, her jaw line slightly jowly, an effect that was accentuated when she frowned over her reading bifocals. She was a child of Gloucester, half granite hardness, half fire. Her temperament was given to outbursts of anger, which nevertheless were as controlled and delimited as a fire in a glacier. Yet like all people who live fundamentally by their emotions, Nikki was often swept away, her feelings calving off her as if from an iceberg, to float away from her control. Even while she trusted her feelings, she was frightened of them. In love she gave herself always with a slight turn of self-conscious hesitation, as if her desires might not be met; but she had steeled herself against love, for it, above all feelings, threatened to take her wholly out of herself. “Think there’ll be guys?” Alex asked, looking at Claire’s door. Nikki was wearing a red-flowered summer dress of light cotton with narrow straps that left her shapely shoulders whitely exposed. They glided to the front door, walking in the slender moonlight across the scraggly seaside lawn. Nikki paused and looked up.
“Look at the moon!” she exclaimed, pointing at the fingernail moon hovering and watchful as a cat above them. She smiled and said a silent prayer, as if the moon were waxing for her, for she was an idealist and in the way of all idealists believed that the world would give her perfection. She had always believed it was possible to find the perfect man, although her search had led her to hate anyone who fell short. And they all had, except Ernest.
A breeze brushed the bangs from her eyes. They pushed the door open, swam into a sea of pulsing sound, dancers, and conversation, and there stood gazing and stunned like everyone who enters a noisy party.
Nikki had washed her hair, and it sparkled golden in the party lights and looked like fine, flat threads of gold flax. She was made-up but not too dramatically, with little curls of blue shadow at the corners of her eyes and mascara with clots you could see only if you were staring into her eyes, and then you would miss them staring at the expressive roundness of the eyes themselves. A tiny bit of color on her full mouth and a hint of pink shadow along the underside of her high cheekbones was all.
To Philip, glancing up from the far side of the room and who saw her from a distance, she was beautiful and the familiar someone he had once known. Yes, Nikki Helmik, he whispered, and his heart was as pierced as when for a moment he had observed her from a distance at his father’s funeral. This depression brings its own beauty, he mused.
Her blond hair shone in an arc like a halo, and she had deep-set eyes blue-green like the sea, always in motion. She wore a wry smile with enough mystery in it to rival Philip’s new love, the ocean. It hurt to look at her, he reflected as he stood talking to one of Claire’s friends, a lanky woman named Geraldine who was studying world religions at Harvard Divinity School. But then, everything hurt since his father had died. He was amazed at this new land, America.
Born in Gloucester, he had been sent to Europe for school and lived there ever since. Returning for his father’s death made Gloucester seem melancholy and beautiful, and this golden-haired woman seemed to him to be standing at the heart of the heart-aching beauty he had so recently found in dark Gloucester. Where had all this feeling come from? he wondered. In the past weeks he had been wandering the streets of Gloucester, marveling at the old brick buildings, standing in silent recognition of the old waterfront while the ancient seamen, sitting in chairs, in turn pointed recognition at him. He had relived his boyhood adventures, finding the old paths through the deep woods of Dogtown, nosing out the wharves where his father’s vast fleet of fishing trawlers once lay, now all sold and gone. It was all ghosts after all, he thought as he walked, all the ships gone, the childhood hiding places built over with new houses, trees cut down. The people themselves were ghosts of those he had known as a child. When they uttered exclamations of amazement and fright as he introduced himself, he wondered whether he too seemed a ghost to them.
But she had come, this woman who at once coalesced all his disparate feelings, as if knitting together in one person his frayed heart! Such a small town; where had she been hiding all these weeks? He had almost missed Claire’s party, but he happened to have called a few people he once knew in school, Claire one of them. How was he to know that Claire and Nikki were great friends? He knew Nikki, of course—he remembered her from his childhood, for they were the same age.
Over his glass of beer he kept up his stories about Europe to Geraldine. But he was watching Nikki. Her face had been in him since the funeral, and he had asked his mother about her.
His mother’s answer was so fraught with complex emotion—her eyes darting in their familiar way, her voice growing husky with feeling—that instead of his staying away from Nikki, which had been his mother’s intent, he looked for the beautiful blond woman in long walks along the harbor and up and down the cobblestoned, slanting streets of the seaport. Thirty years he had been away!
Yes, it hurt to look at Nikki in the flesh after carrying an image of her around. As if she were too large for his eyes, or too present. As if her hair, reflecting the party lights, was shooting back a crown of sharp-pointed lights, glass shards of stars that pierced his knowing like a sudden, hurtful realization. He felt dismayed, and confusedly tried to attend to the tall minister’s disquisition on the relevance of Wicca to a feminist view of Christianity.
No, it couldn’t be love; he was married and loved Françoise deeply. It was just one more manifestation of his old attachment to Gloucester, nostalgia and her soft contours that turned perception into vague longing and indiscriminate, searching feeling. This woman was but the latest in his weeks-long encounter with the lovely ghosts of his past; an infatuation, and why shouldn’t he feel seduced by his old home? It was his mother’s doing, talking with such animation about Nikki. That propelled him to find out who she was, what had brought her back home to Gloucester.
Nikki did not let him catch her eye, giving him only the briefest of glances and turning to look for Claire. She smiled and laughed at the music and hubbub in Claire’s living room as she spied her friend across the crowded, noisy room, then took one of the proffered glasses of white wine that Claire knowingly carried to her and to Alex, over the heads of talking and dancing friends.
“Nice party,” Nikki said happily, smiling and speaking over the throbbing music, her eyebrows dancing.
“You saw him too,” Claire replied, leaning close to Nikki and flicking a glance at the dark-haired Philip, still in conversation with their friend Geraldine and three other women. “He’s got them all entranced by his stories. You should hear him talk!
Look at them—like groupies,” she laughed. “Remember him from—” Claire began, but Nikki hushed her with a nod that shook her blond bangs. Claire reached a platter from an end table and held it before Nikki and Alex. One end of the oval held brownies, the other strawberries and grapes. Claire rotated it so the fruit was in front of Nikki, who frowned, took a strawberry, and began to make her way across the room toward Philip, stopping and chatting with friends along the way. All the while she had her eye on the man, though, regarding him with sideways, quick glances. He was talking, but not concentrating on what he was saying. Her forehead felt warm.
What she saw was this: A man as tall as she, perhaps an inch taller—? Dressed all in black, he stood with slightly hunched shoulders. Black shirt—of silk, was it?— open at the collar and showing dark chest hair; his hair brown and straight and worn longish, just like she imagined they wore it in Europe. He was beginning to grey at the temples and wore an intent, slightly intellectual frown. She could see the bones in his jaw flexing as he spoke and his Adam’s apple bob. Looking slightly Italian, he had a thin, intelligent face with a look of high seriousness and intentness, especially in the creased brow between his eyes. His eyes were set close together, an aspect heightened by his black thin-rimmed glasses. The effect was of a casually elegant, educated man, comfortable, sophisticated.
Yes, this was Rose’s son all right; he had the mark of Europe all over him—she could almost smell that wonderful indefinable perfume of the continent. Nikki had never been to Europe, but she had had European lovers, and she remembered their ineffable scent, their fine clothes, how their jackets slid easily over their shoulders, their particular way of loosening their ties with a short, slow pull to the side and then down. Stylish.
Philip had his mother’s beauty, too—pursed, thoughtful lips and narrow, well-shaped chin. Nikki fingered her own small, rounded chin as she nodded a greeting to her friend Dawn.
She looked intently at Dawn’s frail frame that showed through her long sleeves and pants. Her body was merely a coat hanger. Her face was one longish bone, her eyes enlarged like a child’s. Big blue rivers ran engorged along the back of Dawn’s narrow hands, which she fluttered like starving birds as she spoke.
“You should have the brownies, Nikki, they’re great!” Dawn was beaming up at her. Nikki stared.
“Well, OK, I didn’t taste any,” she continued defensively, “but I can smell them from here! They smell heavenly!” Dawn waved her hands around. She had lost more weight since Nikki last saw her. Nothing any of their friends said to her worked. They tried to get her to eat; it was no use. Dawn always insisted that she was full after one bite, then got bitchy if they pressed her too hard. And now she had become a walking corpse. Nikki looked with pity at her friend.
“How are you feeling?” Nikki asked seriously. She wanted to get away from Dawn as soon as possible, although really she was quite pleasant to be around, for the most part, if you could ignore her always talking about food.
“Fine, fine,” Dawn smiled at her. She waited, then nodded. “Yes, I’ve lost more weight. I don’t know, I just feel better without it. It drags me down,” she finished in an almost pleading voice.
“Anyway, my art’s going good,” she pouted.
Nikki looked down at her friend. “Yes? What are you working on?”
“Oils—you can scrape them off to get them just right. Start over and over if you want. You should come visit. The water’s right there, lapping at the door.”
Nikki hadn’t been to Dawn’s studio in East Gloucester in years. It was too depressing: everything neatly in place, all the brushes clean and a clean white canvas clamped to the easel, waiting for nothing. And Dawn standing in the middle like a hesitant reed, looking like a starving child in a grown-up smock, about to collapse. It was a perfect spot, and Nikki was vaguely jealous that Dawn’s mother had the money to buy such a studio for her, right on the old East Harbor. A perfect spot where everything was waiting in white for something to happen. And it made Nikki self-conscious of how bad a housekeeper she was herself; the dirt and mess had to become monstrous before she was moved to clean.
“You’ve got to eat,” Nikki insisted. “How’s your mother?”
Dawn frowned suddenly. “I’d rather not talk about her,” she said abruptly, looking around. Good, thought Nikki, just what she wanted. She was sure that mentioning Dawn’s mother, Boston district attorney and great friend of Rose Eveless, would shut Dawn up.
“Go look at the moon—it’s huge!” Nikki said, not quite knowing what she meant by it. But she was smiling and listening now to Philip, who stood just to her left.
“… it’s the same old thing, isn’t it?” Philip was remarking to Geraldine. “More monotheism, which is the problem no matter how you dress it up. It’s laudable you incorporate these feminist ideas into your understanding of Christianism, but do you think the pope will OK making women into priests?”
“Christianism—?” she asked.
This was Nikki’s chance, and she smiled a goodbye to Dawn and bowed toward Geraldine’s side.
“I have an aunt in Salem who’s a priestess,” Nikki smiled, looking at Philip. Could this be the little boy she remembered from fifth grade?
“Philip, this is my friend Nikki,” Geraldine began. “Nikki, this is—”
“Philip,” Nikki nodded once, still smiling. “Rose’s son; I know. You haven’t changed much,” she observed, letting a glance of hers flash in his eyes.
“Nikki—yes,” Philip said, the crease between his eyes narrowing slightly. “Nikki Helmik—I knew you in fifth grade.” His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed.
There was a brief pause as both recalled their past, and Philip smiled in silent recognition as Nikki nodded at his smile. They shook and the touch of her long fingers was cool and expressive, like an artist’s. She was expecting the soft, cushioned hands of the pampered rich boy who had gone to private school in Switzerland. Instead she was surprised to feel that his hands were hard and full of calluses.
“Haven’t changed much! That must be the understatement of the new millennium. It’s been thirty years,” he observed dryly. His voice was curiously high for a man, and he spoke with a slight accent. Altogether there was something effeminate about him, Nikki thought. Yet that made him seem more mysterious and attractive.
“Yes, but I recognized you immediately. You have the same intellectual look you had in fifth grade. You had glasses then, too.”
Philip cleared his throat diffidently. “My mother told me about you.”
Nikki did not let the jet of fear play on her face.
“Good things, of course,” she said wryly, pulling her mouth up at the corner.
“Only,” Philip smiled, showing white teeth. But he was troubled by Nikki’s look of fear and by the recollection of his mother. Why had his mother been so emotional when he asked about Nikki?
“Welcome back to Gloucester.” She would take him to bed tonight, a voice in her spoke. She wanted to hurt him, and she didn’t know why. Because of Rose? Because he looked so much like Ernest? And she did not know that she already had hurt him. A great anger and fear welled up in her, the desire of her heart for love and the fear of loss. The welter of feelings made her talk.
“Gloucester!” she exclaimed in a girlish, singsong voice, waving her hands around. “And the moon!” she sang, as if it were a child’s song. “Thanks—I’m glad to be home,” Philip said hesitantly. “Although I can’t really say it’s home—or can I?” he asked, looking at Nikki.
“You said thirty years, right? Thirty years. Can it be thirty years?” Nikki asked.
She turned to Geraldine. “Since you’re not from here, Gerry, you don’t know the story that everyone knows in small-town Gloucester, about how poor little Philip was suddenly packed off one day by his parents and sent away to Switzerland.”
“And your parents are—” Geraldine inquired.
“Rose Eveless,” Philip answered, keeping his eyes on Geraldine.
“Oh,” Geraldine said, recalling the rumors of Ernest Eveless’ suicide. “I’m so sorry about your father,” she frowned, switching into the comforting minister’s tone she was working on perfecting, using every chance she could get to practice.
“Thank you,” Philip bowed slightly, which Nikki found charming and so European. Her girlish heart fluttered. She wanted to reach and touch him softly, and she felt as if an invisible hand of hers did. She was certain of her power as a woman. Yet there was something held back in him, kept in reserve, that he didn’t show. It troubled her. He smiled with his mouth, but his eyes were watching all the time. Nikki shivered; it was what Philip’s father used to do: always watch from behind his round glasses.
“Philip and I need to catch up on all the years,” Nikki explained, glancing at Geraldine, who excused herself. “Very smooth,” Philip smiled, speaking softly so that Nikki barely heard him over the music. Still, she had good ears and caught the inflection.
“Let’s go into the kitchen,” he motioned with his beer. He followed her, and they found a quiet corner where the din was not at their elbows. “I lied—you have changed,” Nikki corrected, as Philip leaned against the wall and looked at her.
“Indeed! And you!” he smiled and clinked his beer against her wine glass.
“Beer? You?” she asked.
“It’s a bad habit I picked up in Germany,” he admitted. “I drink wine with dinner; I used to have such a good time at Oktoberfest that I guess every party reminds me of it.” “I’m so sorry about your father,” Nikki murmured. “It was sudden, wasn’t it? He had a heart attack?” Philip frowned and nodded finally. “I saw you at the funeral—it was kind of you to attend.” “Biggest event in Gloucester in years!” she exclaimed, then regretted it when she saw the pained look in his eyes.
“I’m sorry. You must be very upset. How can you be at a party?”
“Quite all right—although it is strange,” he smiled. “I never saw my father much all these years. I’m not sure who I’m missing now, or brooding over. My mother told me your father died just a few months before mine,” he added. Nikki felt the old fear snake through her. Murderer! a voice shouted in her head. She shook her head. “I was never close to him.” He nodded. “It hurts anyway. And then you learn one of those distillations of life when someone dies.”
“What did you learn?”
“To speak your mind when you think of it. Otherwise the opportunity is gone— forever, usually. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s a complex thought, like most true things.”
“Don’t miss your chance,” she mused. “A good idea. Are you going to take over your father’s business?”
“Maybe,” Philip evaded. “I don’t want to talk about that, though. Tell me about yourself—what have you been doing all these years?”
“I got out of Gloucester as fast as possible after high school—”
“Good move,” Philip acknowledged.
“—though I didn’t go as far as you.”
“You weren’t sent away—or were you?”
She smiled at him and raised her glass to his questioning glance. “Take a walk?” she asked. He smiled back.
They scooped brownies and strawberries from nearby platters, wrapped them in napkins, and with their drinks left through the back door. The evening was warm and humid still, the crescent moon riding high overhead. They went through the backyard, the noise of the party dimming behind them. The wind was coming up through the grass, a warm breeze from the land kissing the ocean. They came to the causeway and hurried across it, then ducked past the statue of the mariner looking out to sea, leaning heavily on his stone wheel. They hopped off the low stone breakwater and walked in the sand and sat upon a pile of granite rocks at the edge of the beach, setting out their booty.
Before them lay the great ocean growling softly in the dim moonlight. Concentric ranks of breakers hurried like soldiers toward shore. Overhead the curved bowl of stars was a spangled geode, and the crusted jewels winked and nodded in quiet and self-absorbed conversation. The queen moon rode ankled in the dim, her twin horns charging smoothly through the black cloth of heaven, and the dark oriental carpet of the sea lay rippling at their feet.
Nikki wondered at the indifferent miracle and smiled up, leaning and giving her face to the moon. A long time she sat, eyes closed, smiling and sighing deeply, feeling the pulse of the white goddess upon her cheeks, and she was far away and whole for a spell, neck arched back like a feeding chick.
Then she recovered and her soul split again into life’s unmanaged pieces; she opened her eyes and caught Philip staring at her. He looked away and straightened his glasses. She leaned with a secret smile and took a strawberry, red as a planet, and bit the crimson, bloody fruit. Cars passed from time to time behind them, but otherwise they were alone with the crescent beach dancing with the moon. The tide was coming slowly in, long curls of waves crackling along the shore and spilling foam in softly blown cotton webs about the moonlit sand.
“Are you back for a while?” she heard herself ask, then regretted it. No, she mustn’t second guess herself, she thought. “Is it possible I’m drunk after one glass?” she wondered out loud.
He smiled at her, understanding she wasn’t looking for an answer. “For a while… I don’t know what I’m doing. My father’s death—my mother—” he groped for the thought, frowning.
“Your mother,” Nikki nodded.
“You’ve known her a long time, she says,” Philip remarked, looking at her.
“A long time. I always loved her—everyone here does. You know that,” she stopped. “Or is afraid of her. The same thing, after all.”
“Do you think so?” he peered at her. “Fear and love—aren’t they supposed to be opposites?”
“Not in my experience,” she said.
They were silent a moment, both digesting the thought.
“I know very little about Gloucester because I’ve been away so long. When they sent me away—it was my father—I was eleven and loved it here. But Europe became my home, and I only remembered the sea and the smell of salt. Whenever I got homesick one of my parents would come and we’d go for a holiday on the Italian coast, then later the Côte d’Azur. But it was bluer there than here—I remember the whiteness of the sea here in Gloucester. And you can tell it’s bigger than the Med.”
“You never came for a visit in all those years?”
“You weren’t allowed?”
He laughed. “It’s not as insidious as you make it sound. They made it seem normal for me to stay over there, and they came so often and said such great things about Europe. I came here sometimes for holidays, but then we never spent much time in the old house up on the hill. We were always running off to New York or the West Coast to spend holidays with relatives or friends of theirs. I think my father wanted to keep me away from my mother’s adventures in the demimonde, and my mother wanted to keep me away from my father’s hatred of her. So I grew up in Geneva and later in Marseilles, and I made friends and fell in love…”
“That changes things,” she agreed.
“That changes things. So now I’m here because my father decided after all this time that my mother’s affairs had finally become too much for him, so he said farewell—”
She gasped. “Said farewell? Affairs?” The thoughts piled into one another like cars on the freeway. She was confused with the wreckage.
He studied her in the half-light. She was so charming, with her hand over her mouth, staring wide-eyed out at the sea! Yet as he watched he felt a thrill of fear shoot through his heart. He did not know why, but he knew she was dangerous. He smelled it with his mind.
“It’s true, anyway,” he said finally, looking away. My father killed himself. I think it was because of my mother’s—life, her lovers. She really was throwing it in his face toward the end, if I can believe his letters.”
“That’s a cruel thing to think of your mother.”
“About her having affairs? She was the cruel one. That’s what bothered my father. Did you see her cruelty? Or was it reserved for him?”
She glanced once at him. Yes, it was a real question. And she was caught now between the two, her loyalty split between Rose and Ernest, even in death. Yes, even in death she loved Ernest, and now that he was dead, she could dream freely of the love she wished they had risked.
Despite her fight with Rose, she had some lingering loyalty to her, too, and Philip’s criticism of his mother was an implied criticism of her, wasn’t it? When she was in high school, she had modeled herself on Rose, taking lovers old and young with the whim of the virgin huntress. Yet the whole world of men made her lungs heave, as if she could not catch her breath. She felt suddenly ready to run, fast and far. She could not think about her lovers, her secret, dark life of men found in bars, of men.
Another thought clouded her mind: Philip knew nothing of her connection with his father. It was a odd combination of relief and disappointment she felt, that Philip did not even consider his father might have died because of her. Because, after all, she was certain that he had, and had been strangely satisfied when Rose accused her of his death. It meant she was as powerful as Rose, if she could be the cause of Ernest’s death.
“I—feel loyal to your mother,” she said at last, looking at the waves. She was wondering whether she had loved even that in Ernest … the critical, discerning lines in his forehead. Had she loved that Ernest hated Rose? Didn’t she have to love his hatred of Rose in order to draw close to him? Nikki breathed hard with the dangerous thought, and shivered.
“So you stand by her,” Philip commented. “That’s admirable.”
“You don’t get along with her?”
“In my own fashion—or should I say, in the fashion that she allows.”
Nikki laughed shortly.
“So you do admit that about her,” he observed wryly. They were silent.
“We’re both fatherless now,” Philip said sadly to the waves.
Nikki looked at him, and he looked so much like his father in the moonlight profile! Her excitement and fear grew, and her ears pricked up to distant sounds around them. Was someone coming? She glanced quickly behind them in the dark, but the beach was empty. Yet she was sure someone was there!
“Do you miss him?” she asked.
“I didn’t know him well. My mother insists I’m nothing like him. I don’t know— they say fathers and sons compete for the mother. I don’t know about that, but it’s true my father and I competed, maybe not for her, but for some other female.”
“The blue-robed one,” Philip explained. “Men are close to their mothers, or lovers. They’re in search of the original one behind them all; yes, even those ineffectual boys who come home to help their mothers…” He arched an eyebrow at her.
Nikki looked at him curiously.
“I can’t even tell whether there’s still the old competition, now he’s dead. I hear him still. He used to call my mother and me ‘the procrastinators.’ He referred to us as ‘you people.’ Odd, eh?” Philip looked at her. “There was nothing I could do to keep up with him, was the clear message I received. Even when he decided to open a branch of his export business in France, and put me at the head of it, he always made it clear to me that he could have done better. When the business began to go to hell, it was as much my fault as the fact that the seas were drying up, according to him.”
Now Nikki’s loyalties were strained in another direction. As a fellow child of a tyrant father, she felt on Philip’s side. But this was Ernest, after all!
“… so I came back, to help my mother,” Philip was going on. “It’s like returning to a lover you had when you were twenty. There’s something so sadly familiar, and so distant about the place—maybe that’s the sadness, too. Gloucester is so beautiful in the moonlight, the waves rocking and wearing away, patiently, working and working the ground out from underneath us … as if, as if I can’t quite grasp the spirit of this place, even while it’s in my bones and my blood.”
He stood up and the flat waves gabbled near his feet like little hungry animals. Nikki watched him, fascinated. Might he walk right out into the sea? But he merely stood and gestured out at the expanse of white-lined foam waves.
“As if it were some sea nymph staying just out of my reach,” he waved vaguely, his voice growing huskier with feeling. “I’ve been back only a few weeks, and the sea-remembering has taken me over. I’m filled with an ineffable longing for some beautiful maid who lives far out there, a mermaid or a silkie, I don’t even know her name…”
It crept in on him like the foamy tide coming in at his feet that he was speaking of Nikki, of her beauty, of her taking the ground out from underneath him, and he turned to look at her. How could this be? Her golden hair and deep-set eyes, so thoughtful, so hard and cold, too. Her voice was like a little girl’s, but she was an old love of his, wasn’t she?
“Do you remember me?” he asked suddenly and softly, tilting his head.
She recovered herself, for she had been floating on the tide of his words. She knew, too, and shivered feeling the power of this man, his self-possession, his worldliness, the wings in his words. But this was not the son, this was the father! her voice cried, and she looked with fearful eyes at Philip.
“Yes!” she blurted finally. “Yes,” she repeated more softly. She was panting a bit, and patted the rock so Philip would sit and look less like his father, standing and squinting slightly through his glasses at her. She flung herself at a random memory.
“Um—we were in fifth grade together, in Miss Heasley’s class. Remember her?”
“I do,” he responded. “With her horn-rimmed glasses and those little clasps with the chain that held the sweater together at the collar. I found out all sorts of things in fifth grade—Charlie somebody…”
“Luntzel,” she put in.
“Charlie Luntzel, hmm. Charlie Luntzel. He was the smartest kid in class—and he got hold of some book and showed me pictures about sex. I couldn’t believe it. I thought my parents would never do something like that. Although that was the year I kissed my first girl, on her hand. Peggy somebody.”
“Pekkala,” Nikki noted. She remembered it all, even little Peggy giggling and telling Nikki how Philip had bowed in front of her just like a knight of the round table, then kissed her dainty little hand. And Peggy was Finnish like her.
“I was the tallest one in class, including you,” Nikki declared.
He looked at her again. A picture was beginning to form; he could half see her at the edge of his memory, standing a long way off and watching, it seemed. A tall girl, awkwardly self-conscious, standing slumped at the shoulders with arms folded. She had golden hair and was beautiful, even as a twelve-year-old. Like an Amazon, Philip was thinking. He recalled distantly feeling threatened by her size and her beauty, like there could never be enough of him to hold her. He frowned.
“Anyway, you got taller finally,” she stated, as if reading his thought. “Do you remember the picnic?” Nikki asked, wanting to save him from whatever dark-winged bird had flown into his heart. She liked gay, powerful men with broad-spread wings. This man, so serious and self-possessed, was a vague threat to her, and so her thought was to vanquish him, to have him as soon as possible, tonight if it could be done, and then be done with him. And why shouldn’t she have him? If he was Ernest come to her in a different guise, then why not? Was it not fate?
“At Halibut Point?” he asked.
“Sally fell in the water, and then Johnny Sparrow jumped in to save her.” She stopped suddenly, her face flushing in the dark. She remembered what she had done, sneaked off with the older boys into the woods…
But Philip was laughing now. “And Miss Heasley yelling and snapping like a dog until she slipped on the rock when a wave came in, and in she went too!” He stopped and grew serious. “And that’s where poor Charlie fell off the rocks and nearly killed himself. I remember we were at the top and fooling around. We had been talking about love, girlfriends, all that stuff we knew nothing about. It was weird—he got dizzy and just fell.” He was meditative. “Wonder what happened to Charlie.”
“He’s in the same cemetery as our fathers,” Nikki intoned.
“Oh my god!”
“Drugs,” Nikki nodded. “I remember you from then,” she said, because it was the truth and to change the subject. Even then she had known about Rose, and this was Rose’s son. She had tried to talk to him, but he was one of the smart kids who always spoke up in class, who didn’t talk to her. And anyway, she was beginning her wild life, playing hooky and running around with the older boys, smoking and driving to secluded places with them.… The more fearful she became, the more fiercely she adventured with the boys, all the while hating her tyrant of a father, his great wagging head in the background spitting at her that she was a whore…
“What do you remember?” he asked, looking at her and smiling.
Nikki recovered herself. “You were kind of—pretentious,” she observed, whereupon he coughed. She looked at him and smiled. “I felt inferior to you—all that money and your mother and her beauty. You were so smart—won the prizes—and you had your best friend, Charlie. You two used to have all these private jokes and make fun of everyone.”
“We did? I was that bad?” he was genuinely mortified.
“Kid stuff,” she shrugged. And felt a certain satisfaction recalling that she knew what had happened to Charlie. She had had sex with him a few years later, after Philip went away. That had brought him down a few notches, to get him to do that, to let her teach him what she knew and let him make a fool of himself in his inexperience. It was in the basement of Charlie’s parents’ house, in the pine-paneled game room, underneath the pool table that smelled of lemon furniture polish. Charlie had known nothing, she now thought with sudden venom, and her mouth curled as she recalled the lost years. With his limp and his ignorance. And his death that she had predicted to him and to everyone else for years, and then felt such satisfaction to be proven right when he died in an abandoned house down near the docks, a needle in his arm and his bloodshot eyes staring at nothing…
Now she remembered as well her conviction that she would sleep with Philip and felt the seed of her power seeping back into her.
“Well,” he began, “I hope I’ve outgrown my youthful rudeness—I suppose it was just self-conscious clumsiness.” “No trace of clumsiness left,” Nikki said.
He smiled as a light danced in his eyes. “Tell me about yourself—what have you done? What are you doing in Gloucester? Or are you not living in Gloucester now?”
“As a matter of fact, I moved back only a few months ago, into my parent’s old house. My mother died two years ago, then my father in late fall. None of my sisters wanted the house, and I was sick of my job, so I quit it and moved back.”
“What were you doing?”
“Lawyering in Boston,” she replied.
“A lawyer!” he whistled.
“A corporate lawyer—even worse,” she laughed, and her face lit up. “I hated it—it was soul-sucking.”
“What a wonderful phrase!” he exclaimed.
She felt vaguely annoyed and pleased with herself. “Well, it was. I worked for an insurance company, with doctors.”
“Why a lawyer?”
“I could make money at it, and get out of here, and then I had my daughter Alice,” she explained, and felt a little sad. “Really! How old?” “Nineteen. She just moved in with her boyfriend.” She sighed. “And he’s not good enough for her,” Philip guessed, raising a shrewd eyebrow.
Nikki looked at him. “It’s that—but more. A fundamental connection between us has changed. It’s sad. It’s just happened, so I’m not over it yet—guess it’s empty nest syndrome.”
“And your husband is with you?”
Nikki laughed. “What a thought! Husband!” She shook her head and twisted a smile. “We were never married, Alice’s father and I. No, he’s married in Vermont now, with kids of his own. He never visits or calls Alice.”
“That’s terrible!” Philip said, so that Nikki turned suddenly to see whether he was serious. She was touched to see that he was, and yet she remained cautious and skeptical. What man ever had stood by a woman for all time? Yet hadn’t Ernest stood by Rose?
“Do you—have kids?” she asked hesitantly.
“No kids. Married fifteen years, no kids.”
Nikki felt a pang. “Your wife is European?”
“French—Françoise is her name. She’s in Marseilles.”
They were silent a moment, Nikki thinking what did it matter, she only wanted to sleep with him, not marry him.
“So you’re going back soon—to France.”
He frowned at the sea. “Not soon…” he glanced at her. “Françoise and I live apart some of the time—she travels—we go our own way. So I plan to stay for a while—I can’t tell.”
“What are you doing living back here?” he asked suddenly.
“You mean, why did I come back?”
“Yes—and more. You’re looking for something.”
She regarded him and his dark look, as if he were looking through her. “I—was tired of that fast life. Cell phone, beeper, faxes, long days, everything hyped and speeded up. Drinks after work, home late. Life was seeming unreal the faster it went. Five years of therapy didn’t help, nor did all my trips to the Southwest; I did it all—hypnotism, chanting, meditation, the whole works. Nothing really slowed life down for me.”
“I understand. Even in Europe everything’s speeding up, as if hurrying to its doom before the end of the century. It will come anyway,” he murmured, looking out to sea.
“And Gloucester seems more real,” she declared. “Something after my father died. The house sort of landed in my lap, and I was ready, I guess. It’s quiet here; a different life.”
“A different life!” he exclaimed softly. “But the old anger accompanies you even here, eh?” He observed her; she started, then looked away.
They were silent while Nikki munched a strawberry, then picked at a brownie. She looked at the small pile of them, wanting to devour them all, suddenly angry at her appetite, wanting to pitch the plate into the sea.
“I was feeling powerless in my job—working for doctors who were callous, selfish little boys. Men in charge of everything; I was supposed to do some good, get bills passed in the state legislature. The doctors thought I was helping them—that was my job, anyway. But really I was undermining their power, as much as I could.”
“Making them accountable,” Nikki said with finality.
“What did they do to you?”
“Killed my mother. Oh—what does it matter?—they’re boys in their little kingdoms. Isn’t that enough?” Philip looked thoughtful. “Killed your mother—?”
“She had cancer, and they wouldn’t tell her, wouldn’t give her the option of choosing what to do with her life. Cavalier and imperious—and I tried to make them pay.”
“But it didn’t work.”
“I got exhausted, burned out on that whole manic world. You asked what I came back for—I think it’s to find my power center again. I have a feeling it’s here somehow, somewhere, that I’ll find it. Like things fell into place for me, and I ended up here again.”
“Power…” Philip mused. They sat in silence.
“Tell me about everyone else—the old gang,” he said finally.
“Well, you’ve seen Claire,” Nikki hurried on, glad to be smothering her feeling with talk. Talk usually worked best. Yet every time she looked at him, Philip seemed to be his father, and a thrill ran through her. She reached and touched his jacketed arm softly, as if to reassure herself. He glanced at her quickly, and she hurriedly took another strawberry.
“Claire’s father left when she was a kid, remember?”
“I do, now that I think of it. He just walked out one day?”
“Right, and never a word since, leaving Claire’s mother and her brothers in that little dumpy house down near Pavilion Beach.”
“So what’s she do now?”
“She’s a nurse. Funny, huh? There was a report that her father was killed boar hunting in Vermont. Claire never got over it, even though the story was never proved. I don’t think she even remembered what he looked like, she was so little when he left. And for a long time she would only go out with men old enough to be her father. She even went to Vermont once and got a couple of boyfriends there.”
Nikki nodded. “She spread out after a while,” Nikki mused, thinking of how many times she had warned Claire to get her lovers in Boston, which was far enough away so no one at home could find out. That’s what Nikki had done, from the time she was in high school. Taken the train with girlfriends down into Boston to the rock concerts on the Common. Plenty of boys there who had cars or houses empty of parents.… Later she moved to Cambridge, and that was far enough away from Gloucester that she didn’t even have to think about anyone finding out. And the singles’ bars were all anonymous faces and lives, flesh-and-blood ciphers of desire. Their faces and bodies remained in her only as long as their seed, drying slowly or absorbed into her soul until their images faded and she was left with only herself again.
“She still dates strange guys, though—cops and army guys.” “And you—did you date them?” Philip asked, displeased with himself for asking. “A long time ago I went through that phase,” she said abstractedly. “You know— protesting the war, dating army guys.”
“You were against the war and yet went out with men in the army?”
“Well, they were officers!” she exclaimed, then fell back into thoughtfulness.
“So you got out of Gloucester to become a lawyer and have a child, and then came back to this small town,” Philip continued.
Nikki looked up from the food, relieved to have something to say, to get herself out of brooding. “It’s small, but once you’re older you can see it’s beautiful and unusual in its way. I love it here.”
“I think I love it here, too,” he agreed. “Though it feels presumptuous to say.”
“Why? It’s your home, too.” She wanted it to be his home, she thought. She was disturbed by these gentle feelings. They felt unfamiliar, but she felt them. Was it because this was Rose’s son? She felt vaguely incapable of playing the seduction game; or at least she could not play it easily. Then there was the business of his wife; deeply disturbing.
“Thank you for the welcome,” he bowed his head slightly, and again she thought how European he seemed, so cultured. She was a little intimidated by his manner, by his self-containment, even as she felt a tug toward him. She wondered what the source of his power was. Well, it was all right to be attracted to his power. Yet she shivered. Of course she knew the source! She could see Rose in the soft curl of his underlip.
“And how did you get to know my mother? She spoke of you with some passion when she was filling me in on people and events in Gloucester.”
“It’s—a long story,” Nikki sighed. “What did she say about me?”
“That I should watch out. That you had magic you didn’t know,” he said evenly.
Nikki laughed in spite of herself, frowning at the absurdity. “That’s your mother.”
“Of course,” he observed wryly. “There’s something going on here I don’t know about, but I wonder if it could be as simple and complex as that she feels jealous of your looks. My mother is getting older, you know, and afraid.” He stood up and straightened, then stooped and picked up a handful of stones and proceeded to skim them in the surf.
“Losing her beauty. She’s quite vain, but you know that, of course. I suppose you could say she has had reason to be.” He aimed and threw a stone, watching it disappear skimming into darkness. “Except that now with my father dead and most of the money gone, she’s feeling terribly vulnerable. That’s why she insists I stay here. That and with the business gone to hell, there was eventually nothing left for me to manage in Marseilles. No money; I closed the office and came back.” He had been thinking out loud and now turned to Nikki.
“But this comes after whatever it was that brought you two to part, so your argument couldn’t be due to my father and money.” He sat again, silently watching her, waiting politely. She stared at the black surging waters.
“OK,” she said finally, taking a deep breath. “I’ll tell you. I guess I trust you enough to tell you about your mother and me. Of course, it’s just my side of the story; you’ll have to get the rest from your mother. Loyalty is important to her.”
He pursed his lips and nodded, straightening his glasses.
“Your mother was always a heroine of mine—I guess for her looks and the way she asserts herself. I admire her style—I did when I was a kid. Who didn’t know her? You must have felt that—the whole town is aware of her.”
“I knew…” he said quietly.
“She dresses well and looks exotic and has—class. When I was a girl—when we were all girls—we used to play at being her, like dress-up.”
“I remember,” he said. “It was embarrassing, and I couldn’t understand it.”
“It made you popular—and feared. The game was ridiculous—all of us white girls, white skin! Then there’s your mother—her dark skin, dark eyes, dark hair. Most of the Portuguese here are ugly, but your mother—she was to all of us just so beautiful. With all that money and her flair, her picture was in the paper everyday. She is Gloucester’s Princess Di and Jackie O all in one. So I dressed like her one Halloween— Gloucester’s probably the only place on earth where a little girl could dress up as a local character and be recognized.”
“What did you do?” Philip asked, smiling puzzledly. “Wear a black wig?”
Nikki nodded. “It drove my mother crazy. She worked at Michelle’s, the salon where your mother gets her hair done, so even though she complained the whole time, she did a great job. I was a miniature version of Rose.”
“Lots of jewelry,” Philip added.
“Tons! And a red ball gown and rouge and eyeshadow.”
“You must have looked like a little vixen.” They both were silent a moment at the pregnant thought.
“I kept a scrapbook,” Nikki went on, a little sadly now. “Full of pictures of your mother. Rose at the Fishermen’s Ball, Rose at the governor’s for dinner, Rose with the Kennedys. We were all crazy about her, but I was especially so; as if I knew that somehow my fate was bound up with hers. I began to dream about her as my fairy godmother. I made up stories while I walked in the woods in Dogtown, about how one day she would come to see me and take me to live in that big house on the hill, and I would be a princess and have clothes and cars and lots of boyfriends…”
“Was it her beauty?”
Nikki thought. Rose had been such an assumed part of her life for so long that she no longer knew, if she ever had. “I guess so—her beauty, and other things. She was independent. She went her own way, had her own friends. Your parents seemed to have an unusual relationship. All I knew about men and women came from observing my parents and my friends’ parents. Father out of the house all day, mother doing housework and cooking and raising kids.”
“Your mother worked.”
“That was later, after I was eight or nine. I’m the youngest; when my sisters were little, she stayed home. And my father was a horrible drunk and used to beat her and have terrible fits. He controlled her, gave her money to buy food for the household. Some weeks he wouldn’t give her money, and she would be frantic.… Anyway, your parents seemed different. They had their own lives, and your mother had her own business. She was the head of all the important clubs and committees in town, and was a friend of the mayor. She used to advise him, you know.” Nikki looked at him, wondering how much he did know.
Philip was thoughtful. “So how did you finally meet?”
“It was while my mother was working at Michelle’s. My father was home that day getting drunk, and he suddenly insisted that she come home. He wanted her to bake him some nisu—some Finnish bread. That was my father, the old tyrant,” she said, shaking her head. “Up one day, happy and spending money like there was no tomorrow. Piling all the neighborhood kids into the car and driving all the way down to Fenway to see the Sox play. Then the next day mean and angry, throwing things and having a fit.” She stopped and thought. “The worst part was that I believed him for years, every time he was in a good mood. I loved him like that, and I’d sit on his lap and memorize all the batting averages of the Red Sox players just to please him. I fell for it,” she shook her head, staring at the black water.
“Then he’d change, every time, and I’d feel like a fool. The day I met your mother was one of his mean days, when we all knew to stay clear of him. He had these huge hands like mitts and he’d sit and sit in front of the T V, one big mitt around his scotch, grabbing at us with his free hand as we went by. My sisters and I avoided him as much as we could.”
Nikki mused. “The old man. Such a tyrant! He was so easy to fool,” she giggled. “I happened to be home—it was a Saturday, and he grabbed at me and screamed at me to go get my mother and tell her to come home.”
“You obeyed him?”
“I wasn’t going to—” She shook her head, and her gold bangs coruscated in the wan moonlight. “I didn’t care what he wanted. He used to make all sorts of wild demands on us, jealous as anything, and my sisters and I always tricked him. We usually got our own way. I just put on a coat and left.” She shrugged. “I stopped at Michelle’s just to let my mother know that Father was about to wreck the house again. When I got there they told me my mother was up the hill at your house, doing your mother’s hair. Your mother always had Michelle herself do her hair—you know they were girlhood friends?”
“Aunt Michelle—yes, I knew.”
“Michelle was sick that day, or something. She used to walk up the hill from the shop downtown, and cut your mother’s hair and get it ready for Saturday night. This time my mother was doing it, and so I went up the hill, my heart pounding.”
“And you were how old?”
“Twelve—same year you left. I was terrified—this was my big chance. But I was ashamed, too. What was I going to say, in front of your mother? That my father was drunk again, and going crazy at home? That would pretty much seal any chance of making a connection with your mother. And that’s what I wanted so badly, what I had dreamed about. For years I begged my mother to take me to meet your mother, but my mother was a little mouse, and she never would. I went up and knocked on the huge door with that big anchor door knocker. I was nearly as tall then as I am now, but I felt about two feet tall standing there waiting for someone to open—a bearded giant with a sword, I thought.
“Instead, this little hunched-over Hispanic woman opened the door and motioned me in, hardly looking at me, and turned and led me upstairs. I guess she assumed I was from Michelle’s. And then, with my heart in my mouth, I went into your mother’s bedroom, the big one at the back of the house that looks over the fields and down toward the forests in Dogtown. She kept the room the same for years—up to the last time I saw her there, six months ago or so…”
“When your fight broke out.”
“Right.” Nikki paused. “I’ll get to that eventually. I think I should tell you the background, so it will make sense.” “Yes.” “It’s a great room, with the tall windows looking out on the woods, those window seats where I sat and talked with your mother for hours on end. The biggest four-poster bed in the state, I’m sure, and with those huge damask curtains all around it. The fireplace—I’ve always wanted a fireplace in the bedroom, and with the same carved lions. And those mirrors! Tall mirrors reaching to the ceiling, with rose cherubs etched all around the edges, so when you look in them you’re surrounded by adoring angels holding rosy mirrors and playing flutes. Mirrors within mirrors! So many mirrors it makes you dizzy to be in the room. That great balcony; she used to sit out on her stone balcony when the weather was good, leaving the big casement doors open. There were always lots of bees buzzing around. Does she still keep them?”
“The apiary is still functioning, yes.”
“She said they kept the flowers blooming brightly, the trumpet vine and the hibiscus, all of them creeping around the balcony and growing right into the room, laying their long tendrils along the carpet like lovers in a faint.”
“That’s quite poetic. You’re making a fist,” he remarked casually, indicating her left hand in repose on her lap.
She looked down quickly, surprised to see her hand indeed making a fist. She unfolded it slowly and finished her wine, set the glass down carefully beside her and nudged herself a little closer to Philip. He adjusted himself, sitting next to her and looking at her. She looked out to sea.
“It was my favorite room in the world, from that first time I saw it. I could barely speak when I first went in; it was too big, and Rose—your mother—was too large a presence. Even though I saw her from time to time in town, I was a little thing, and the pictures of her I kept were more real than she was. And I was scared, I guess. I heard a story from Michelle, who never minded gossiping. She was the one I used to visit to keep my connection to your mother. Michelle told me a story that years ago your mother’s gardener fell in love with your mother—she used to keep those balcony doors open when it was warm, even when she was dressing. I guess he caught a glimpse of her, and wanted her. So he snuck into her room when the house was empty, climbing up the vines, and he later caught her naked by her dressing table near the balcony. The way Michelle tells it, he went to grab her, but right then a whole swarm of bees came in and stung him in his eyes, and it made him blind.”
“This is a factual story?” he asked, looking at her as if she were telling him something important. As if it had to do with her. A fleeting thought of what he was thinking made Nikki uncomfortable, and she hurried on.
“Well, one of the gardeners was blind—I remember that. Anyway, when I first saw her, she was sitting in her favorite chair on the balcony, looking out over the woods and the vines and those bees buzzing around her. Her black hair was all piled up, and my mother was leaning over her with a comb in her mouth, pinning your mother’s hair and snipping at it. I stopped and couldn’t breathe. I wanted to rush over and collect the little black curls that had floated to the floor. Your mother turned to me and called me over to her. I stood in front of her and my mother introduced me, and then poked me with the comb when I didn’t say anything.”
“‘She’s a real beauty!’ your mother said, looking at me with those huge, dark eyes of hers. Then she jumped up—she can’t sit still—and went to one of her tall mirrors and examined herself closely, looking her hair over, I guess to make sure my mother was doing it right. Then she raced to her end table, grabbed a cigarette, lit it and ran back and plopped in her chair, talking the whole time while she ran around. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, just stood there like a stump.”
“Frightened of my mother!” Philip exclaimed softly.
“Everyone’s afraid of your mother!” Nikki explained, turning to him. “She’s such a—force—something elemental, out of the earth, or heaven. Her dark face! And those eyes! They just radiate power!”
“She can be disarming.”
“That’s an understatement! Well, but I worshiped her, so that was that. For some reason she took a liking to me and invited me to tea the next day at four, if my mother would allow it. Of course my mother said yes. Then I gave my mother the message from my father, that he was yelling for her to come home and cook him supper. That’s when your mother spoke up.”
“ ‘Leave the bastard, or kill him!’ she insisted, flicking her cigarette out the window. And then my mother just stood there like me, mouth open, unable to speak. I mean, my sisters and I always fooled our father and kept out of his way, but our mother was a martyr. She doted on my father. Now your mother kept talking, telling my mother what she would do if any man mistreated her. She jumped up and went back to one of the mirrors and continued muttering, half to herself while she examined her pores. ‘Men are brutes, and it’s up to us women to stick together and tell the little shits when to go to hell!’ she yelled in that throaty voice of hers. My mother was scandalized hearing Rose swear. It was wonderful! I broke out in a grin, and my mother swatted at me with her comb, but I dodged away. I knew my mother would never have allowed me in the company of anyone who swore, but she didn’t dare stand up to your mother.
“I could see my mother considering how to refuse letting me go the next day, so I excused myself quickly and ran out of the room, knowing I’d be back. As I ran back down the hill I kept saying to myself, ‘the little shit,’ ‘the little shit.’ It was so funny and naughty. Awful, really. But true, to the point, like fresh sea air.”
Nikki stopped and breathed. She lifted her glass and tilted it, saw it was empty, and set it back down. Philip reached in his jacket pocket and pulled out a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.
“Where did that come from?” she asked, delighted. He bowed and poured for her, pulled an unopened bottle of beer from his other pocket, opened and drank. “So anyway, that was the beginning. Tea was awkward—well, I was awkward. You’ve got your mother’s manners. Well, sort of. You do everything with ease.”
“Sprezzatura, the Italians call it,” Philip observed. “It means something like ‘effortlessness.’ The idea is to do something difficult, like ballet, and make it look easy. Anyone can make it look difficult. I believe my mother taught me the meaning of the word after I read it in a book,” he said wryly.
“I guess it was important for her,” Nikki nodded.
“How do you mean?”
“Well—she grew up poor—” Nikki glanced at Philip, hesitant.
“It’s all right, go on, speak,” he said mildly.
Still, she hesitated. “I don’t know—I’m sure I could be wrong, but sometimes I get the feeling your mother is still trying to get away from her roots.”
“Appearance,” Philip nodded.
“I didn’t mean anything negative!” Nikki blurted.
Philip looked at her and smiled, nodding. “Well, go on. This is all quite fascinating.”
Nikki looked at him, startled. That was exactly the expression Ernest used to make when they talked. Her heart raced. But that was to be expected, wasn’t it? He was his father’s son, wasn’t he? She gathered herself back into her story. “Tea the next day was like being in heaven. We sat on the balcony with the bees buzzing around. I remember the table loaded with all sorts of cakes and pastries, all this rich food! She has always seemed to eat like that—it’s been a wonder to me all these years how she can eat so much fat and stay the same.”
“Maybe she has a thin soul.”
“No—not thin—womanly. I was jealous for years of her womanly figure—but she’s Mediterranean.”
“With the Mediterranean temper to go with it,” he observed.
“What a tongue on that woman!” Nikki nodded. “I learned all sorts of curse words I never knew before. And she carries a gun, did you know? This little pearl-handled thing your father gave her, after the incident with the gardener. She used to wave it around when she was talking about getting revenge on someone for a bad business deal. Scary.”
He frowned. “Go on.”
“After tea I was invited back again, then again, and soon hired as your mother’s sort of personal child. I thought at first that she was using me as a substitute for you, but later I didn’t think so. Or maybe I was; I don’t know. I didn’t care, I loved her so desperately. Then she caught me in front of her mirror one day, trying on her lipstick. I nearly fainted! I thought she had gone out for the day. But she sat me down and looked me over carefully, then told me she was going to bring out my real beauty. I was going to your house every day by then, working in the hothouse or with the bees, doing small errands for your mother, and now I began a course under her instruction on how to be beautiful.”
“You graduated summa,” Philip said simply. It was good not to make too much of women’s beauty. Leave that to everyone else. He did not feel cutting; rather that compliments were unnecessary beyond the obvious. Nikki’s beauty came from a place strange and familiar to him; it spoke a different language and it worshiped a red-sulfur goddess. It was like his mother’s, but went deeper.
“You’re very kind,” Nikki bowed. “That’s something an old lover taught me to say at compliments.”
“It’s a line from Casablanca. Ingrid Bergman is told by Claude Raines that she is the most beautiful woman in the city, and she simply replies, ‘You’re very kind.’ Instead of making a protest in the face of the compliment.” “I see. A smart man, this old lover.” Was he feeling jealous? he wondered. What a fool! He coughed once. “So you grew up at my mother’s knee.” “Oh, I didn’t mean it like that,” Nikki hurried to explain. He smiled openly and shook his head, gesturing for her to continue.
“So I grew up a kind of protégée to her, and I learned all sorts of things about her, about where she went, who she saw. I tried to carry myself like her, and as I grew she gave me her old clothes, so that overnight I was dressed in all these expensive clothes I had absolutely no use for. But it impressed my girlfriends, and I was seen as becoming like your mother. I spent most of my time at the house, and it used to make my father furious and my mother sad, but I didn’t care. I was in heaven. And when it came time to go to college, she paid.”
“Good!” Nikki looked at Philip. Was he serious? “Well, it’s not like I assumed—it was a complete shock, and I never took money from her again. I paid for law school myself.” “What about my father, what did he think?”
Nikki hesitated. “I never saw him much, at first. He went to sea a lot, and your mother and I ate meals in her room, in the little alcove near the fireplace when it was cold, where I would sit and pet the stone lions. Or we’d eat out on the stone balcony when it was warm. I loved her like a mother—I loved her more than my mother, because she wasn’t afraid to use her power.”
“Is that what caused your break with her?”
Nikki thought a moment. She breathed deeply again and held her glass out as Philip reached and poured. She was feeling dizzy, full of wine and Philip’s warm, strong presence, and full of memories of Rose.
“I moved back here, as I said, just this year after my father died.”
“How did he die?”
“Alcoholism—actually, a heart attack, but it’s the same. I found him when I came for one of my visits.” She was suddenly back in the house, and her father was wheezing horribly. She breathed heavily, staring out to sea.
“That’s the house I live in now, with my dog. It’s a little yellow cottage perched on the side of the hill on the other side of Dogtown.”
“Yes, Dogtown,” Philip mused. “I went walking there with my mother the other day. She said she was thinking of doing some building down along the side of it. I hadn’t been in those woods for thirty years—I would have gotten lost by myself.”
“Your mother—?” Nikki asked, suddenly stiffening.
“Did you know my mother was involved in developing?”
“Yes, she’s had a company for years—Cleavage Builders.”
Philip laughed out loud.
“It is kind of funny, though I laughed so long ago the joke is almost lost on me,” Nikki said. “It’s your mother all the way—right out there. She’s always worn the most provocative dresses, really made a few scenes. I could never wear those dresses she gave me—not those. She looked like the women in the magazines—well, more voluptuous, but just as elegant. She was crazy about magazines, and owned more makeup and hair spray and gel and every sort of beauty product.”
“She has even more these days. But you were telling me about your house and what happened to your father.” “The old house—yes.” She was thinking again of Rose building in Dogtown. She was afraid to think of her father. “After my mother died—are you sure you want to hear all this?—I feel like I’m jabbering.”
“It’s delightful,” Philip said, pouring wine for her.
“OK—but stop me if I get boring. Wine makes me talk and talk. OK, so the house— right! My mother died two years ago, and my father went downhill fast after that, sitting around and drinking harder, quit his job, never went out. I used to drive up from Cambridge to make his meals and clean the place.”
“What about your sisters?”
“They all live far away—Florida, Chicago, West Virginia. It was all left to me, the youngest. Guess that’s what happens. So I came, and it was horrible, watching that big whale, all blubbery, sitting there in front of the TV. Every once in a while my brother-in-law was there—he would fly in from Chicago to work on my father’s will.”
“He is a lawyer too?”
“No!” Nikki exploded, as the old anger filled her as if being pumped into her. “He wasn’t a lawyer; I’m the lawyer. It’s because he was a male, and also not in the family. You have to understand my family—my father, in particular. He hated women; well, he was threatened by them, by us. Then he had four girls—what a laugh! He never trusted us. No—my job was to fill in for my mother—cook, clean, bring him bottles of scotch. He got pretty wild talking in those last days. Used to talk about ghosts in the house—mainly my mother’s and my grandmother’s. He was really crazy!” She breathed heavily. “Then one day he died. But he was such a large presence, overwhelming our little house, controlling everything. How could he die?” She shivered.
“People do,” Philip said quietly.
“Not someone that big,” Nikki snorted. She looked at Philip. “Oh, I’m sorry! You had a different relationship with your father.”
“So then you moved into the house?” Philip asked, moving on.
“Yes, no one wanted it. I was sick of lawyering and ready to quit. Actually, they didn’t renew my contract, but that’s another story. I broke up with the man I was seeing and moved here, back home where I never thought I’d ever come back to.”
She slumped her shoulders, and Philip looked at her. It was getting late.
“Are you cold?” he asked.
“A little,” she said, distracted with the wine. It was like all the other times, she thought vaguely. Getting slowly drunk. What was she doing talking so much? She never talked like this—not about herself. Philip’s wonderful aroma of Europe enveloped her like a warm fog. Then he was sitting right next to her, lifting the food and drink away, putting his arm around her shoulder, rubbing her upper arm softly. She snuggled against him and leaned her wagging head on his shoulder.
Her perfume wafted into his nostrils, and it was a scent of smooth cream and gliding. Stretching limbs flashed rainbows before him like glittering salmon in the stream, and then they were gone, leaving only the wake of the dark, emotional sea.
“You didn’t tell me how you and my mother fought,” he murmured, not really wanting to disturb her, wanting to disturb her. She sat up, and her eyes were blurry. Philip kept his arm about her shoulder. She might as well tell him, she thought, and get it over with.
“We fought—over your father.”
“What?” Philip sat up.
“It’s not what you think,” Nikki said hurriedly. “Or what your mother thought— that’s the problem. She thought your father and I—”
He looked at her wide-eyed.
“But it’s not true!” she cried.
“Then—why did my mother think that?” he frowned.
“Because she knew—with that witch sense of hers—that I did have a lot of affection for him. I guess I had a crush on him when I was a girl. I didn’t tell you—actually your father and I became friends through the years, and he would listen to my stories while we sat in his library. I loved him, like a father, I guess. Then the day my father died, I went to your parents’ house, and saw your father, and he was a comfort to me—but that’s all!” she finished quickly, seeing Philip’s eyes widen again.
He laughed softly at last. “Well, I can see my mother reacting, if she had any inkling at all. What did she do—threaten to kill you?”
“Not exactly, but we fought horribly. I’m so sorry.”
“That nothing happened?” Philip jabbed. Again! The old competition.
“No!” she pleaded, and he looked in her eyes and believed her. Yet there was something else in her he could just discern over the horizon of her consciousness, some secret she was keeping, and it made him wonder. He reached his arm around her, and she slumped against him. “My mother is the wrong person to tangle with, that’s for sure,” he murmured, rubbing her shoulder. “Still, you may be better off now. My parents—both devourers.”
She waited, glancing at him.
He was thinking out loud. “I came back because my father’s business failed. He swallowed the ocean. It’s not just that he’s dead; the fishing industry is dying.” “The fishermen are all getting laid off,” she said. “Even before his death, the business was going downhill. Oh, if it was my mother who drove him to it, it wasn’t only my mother! Too much greed; too many fishermen vacuuming the ocean floor.”
“Your father was the biggest.”
Philip looked at the top of her golden head. “Yes, he was. He made it a point to be. And so he was the hardest hit. He left no note; maybe it wasn’t my mother after all; maybe it was the seas drying up, and he had no idea what to do about that. He opened up to me, in his gruff way, when he came to visit in France. He used to tell me that no matter how bad he felt about my mother, he always had the sea.”
“So now what happens?”
“The fleet is all sold, did you know?”
“So I heard.”
“The business dying has made my mother frantic. She’s feeling her age; and now with the money gone, there’s no cushion.”
“She’s still got her looks.”
“Not as she sees it. You know, the American ideal—the young woman is the ideal of beauty here. Past twenty you’re over the hill. That’s what I meant when I wondered if you were just too much competition for her,” he said, smiling at her and arching an eyebrow. “So the poor thing is working harder than ever to rebuild the family fortune. The other day, as I said, she walked me through Dogtown—it must not have been very far from your own back door—and told me how she planned to build houses there. She’s trying to drag me into the business.”
Nikki sat up and looked at him. “Dogtown is protected land.”
“When did that ever stop my mother?”
Nikki nodded. “But—it’s the green heart of the town. Where the witches and prostitutes used to live, you know. I grew up playing games there, imitating the old women who had lived there. I remember their names,” she said wistfully. “Judy Rhines was one… What’s your mother’s plan? I used to help her out when I was first a lawyer, and some of her tactics put me off, so I made an excuse not to do any work for her.”
“That was smart. And I don’t know what her plan is. But it scared me to walk along with her and listen to her talk and talk—one minute about how ugly and old she is getting, the next swearing to squash anyone in Gloucester who tries to prevent her from building houses in Dogtown. She kept muttering and railing in that way she has, half to herself, as if the world doesn’t exist around her until she admits it to her presence. She was swearing that she would find something.”
“I have no idea—and she clammed up when I asked.” Nikki shivered, and something deep in her quailed. She was not finished with Rose, the voice said. But she would think about that later.
She looked at him and then slumped back against his shoulder, partly hiding her face. Men had always seemed weak to her, little boys when it came down to it. So easy to manipulate, to seduce, to get rid of. But Philip had a power about him; he knew things, and even though it was clear he was attracted to her, he wasn’t acting in any way she could predict or work with. She had been trying things all evening with him, and nothing was working. When she spoke in her little-girl, spacey voice, he just looked at her as if she were an alien. Even now, leaning against him, him stroking her hair, she felt that he could take or leave her. Not indifference, yet. Something else; a quality of distance about him. It began to make her angry, and again she resolved to take him to bed and so make him vulnerable.
But Nikki was unwilling or unable to see how like paper his heart was. Philip sat stroking her beautiful flaxen hair, hair like beaten gold, the long strands coursing over her shoulder like sea currents. His jacket was around her, close to her. He trembled a little.
She sat up abruptly, her eyes bleary. “You’re cold,” she said.
He looked closely at her and then leaned and put his face next to hers and their lips touched. He felt about to faint, and the miracle of touch was upon him faster than he could think, and everything was lost, a catastrophe flowing over him and taking him. The world turned slowly over on its axis, and everything was changed in an instant. She felt the great presence as his face swarmed up to hers, and she smiled and murmured as they kissed.
But a strange, deep sadness overcame Philip, and he cried out, “Too late!”
Nikki drew sharply back, for in looking at Philip she had looked over his shoulder, back toward the causeway. A dark figure walking toward them at the water’s edge.… Her eye was certain in an instant; it was Ernest. She clutched Philip’s arm and stared over his shoulder in horror.
He turned to look as the wind came up and blew sand in their faces, and he ducked and turned back to her. Nikki ducked her head, too, and bowed toward Philip’s chest. Her heart was racing in terror. In a moment Ernest’s ghost would be upon them!
Yet when the wind died down, Nikki looked, and there was no one. She was spellbound, again at the graveside, witnessing that awful heave in the ground. She stared blind; what had she seen? Had it been real? It could not have been; she had pushed the image out of her mind for months, had nearly forgotten.
“No, it’s not too late!” she whispered, grabbing at Philip, and they left their glasses and the half-eaten brownies and strawberries to the tide, rushing away arm in arm across the causeway and back to the safety of Nikki’s red Miata, parked in front of the party still going on.
She shivered and they kissed, and he wondered that she was all business.
“Your house?” he asked, eyeing her closely.
“Can’t—my dog hates men.”
He smiled grimly, and remembered his feeling that she was dangerous.
In the end they drove to the Wingaersheek Motel, just off Route 128 on the outskirts of town, and all night the intermittent sounds of highway traffic accompanied them. A flare of fear shot through her as they approached, but it had been her idea; and the old time she remembered, that was years ago.
Philip put his hand on her stomach, and Nikki groaned with the weight of desire. They had gotten their room from the tee-shirted manager who came out of the back room, TV blaring, scratching his big belly. Together, silently, they found their room upstairs around the back, then locking the door they fell into the bed as soft and lumpy as an old lady.
Philip put his hand on her stomach and leaned and brushed his lips against the left side of her neck, and her mouth fell open a little.
“Only if you mean business,” Nikki whispered, her voice going raspy. He pushed her hair back away from her forehead and ran kisses along the curve of her neck, and now she arched her body to him, and he put his hand behind her, fully clothed, and pulled, softly and steadily, her back to him, then moved his hand and pressed her hip, then pressed her stomach with his palm. Her body was coming apart; he unbuttoned the front of her dress with the exploding flowers and, spreading the seams, brushed her stomach with his fingertips. He leaned and kissed her belly, but it was far too much, and she clutched his dark hair and pulled his face up to her lips, where they kissed and touched, whispering to one another in fragments of a secret language.
She was rising to him now; kneeling before her, he pulled her dress up and over her hips, and she closed her eyes and let him look at her; even the little quiver of loose flesh on her stomach. He lifted the red-flowered dress over her head slowly, as if enacting a sacred ritual, and unhooked her bra, she sitting up now and pulling half attentive at his shirt, at his belt; dazed with desire and waterlogged with wine. She could not undo it. But miraculously Philip stood up and was naked in a flash, the muscles in his chest and arms rising over her like a wave.
He lay softly upon her and she felt his sex press softly against her belly, and she stretched her legs and he lay between them, stroking her long blond hair and taking her head in his hands and kissing her gently, as if he were weeping into a flower of delicate beauty. She never cried except now, soft and her whole being thinned into a rose-hued petal. He kissed her tiny pooled eyes, and she knew he would not tease her for the tears.
Flames licked her, and she wanted him. She was a warm spring waiting and he plunged his muscle into her so that she jerked and arched her back, groaning and opening her mouth, her eyes closed. Far, impossibly far inside of her, into her far, distant darkness he pressed, until she felt he would touch her heart, and he gathered her up and raised her to him, and she felt as if they were clenched hard around an excruciating softness, so soft, so rising that she panted and began to cry out. He patted her head softly, brushing strands of her gold hair back from her face. Tiny droplets of sweat gathering on her brow and lip, and he looked long at her, and together they moved up and up and up and up in the eternal rocking of the cosmos, as he lay back down upon her.
God, how he pressed her! Her hands were confettied birds and her mind was going, scattered in fragments like her body, the wonder too great to bear straight on. She flung her arms out and he caught them at the wrists and pressed his arms around them, holding her as they rocked. Her head arced back over the edge of the bed and still he drove her on and on, her desire rising and she crying out like a child, like Wise Woman herself, until the cries caught themselves and she split herself upon his rock and went tumbling down in jagged echoes into the dark sea, dark sea…
Very soon he raced after her, methodical, crouched like a cat, stroking her, his hardness growing and overmastering him; she could feel him grow harder than he was capable of growing on his own, as if a mountain were emerging from inside his body. And then she knew it was time, and she smiled from a long way off, seeing in closed eyes his own open mouth, open in surprise and awe at the miracle of being taken, though he was never taken, she knew, taken now by her and he was dragged along the edge of the rocky cataract until he was plummeted over and fell spuming into her earth, her body, her womb. She smiled sadly, triumphantly glistening along the starry curve of birth and death, and there they lay like gods splayed across the heavens.
She smiled through closed eyes as he whispered to her and his voice was soft and the words were good medicine. She caught them leaning back and away, in her left ear, feeling still the warmth of his silken thread pulsing like a newborn nebula deep in the space within her.
For a time they lay quietly, Nikki listening to the thud of a loose shutter in the night wind.… She felt very close to Philip, but now in the dark and quiet he seemed to sleep, and everything came back to her. He lay with his arm draped over her, pressing down on her, pressing on her heart. She was suddenly afraid in the dark. Who was this man? Always in the past she had gotten so drunk that it hadn’t mattered which man it was. Tonight she was not drunk, only her heart was stirred, and she was frightened. Images of Rose in a fury pursuing her floated over the bed; then Ernest came as a flash of red, pointing an accusing finger. Her father looked at her with one great fish eye from the dark corner, and her heart raced as she stared at the shadowy image.
Philip was unconscious of it all. Where was a safe place? Nikki wondered. There was a great danger before her, and it was Philip, she knew.
Yet she knew she was already caught under his weight; she wanted to ease herself out of the bed and, dressing quietly, hurry home to be safe. Home! Where the ghost of her father roamed, looking for her? Where could she go? Could Philip save her? Or was he the culmination of all the dead and threatening living come to capture her at last?
For hours Nikki lay under Philip’s heavy arm, miserable with fright and worry, while the lonely window shutter, crusted in the salt air of Gloucester, banged forlornly in the dark.
Copyright © Thomas Kaplan-Maxfield. All Rights Reserved