Marlene arrived unexpectedly. The door was locked. Her father kept the key in the elephant ear plant, but she felt like she was breaking and entering, trying to get inside and stay. She picked up a little bundle and her carry-all where the taxi had dropped them and started toward the back. Her father had sent her odd notes, a scrambled message in an envelope; she held that curiosity and worry way back in her mind. She didn’t even get to the corner of the bungalow before she stopped at a casement window cranked open like a small door, and peeked into her childhood home. Inside were old cherished pieces of furniture—her father’s belief in forever. The furniture crowded in between her mother’s potted plants, as much greenery indoors as thrived outdoors. “Your mother’s gone wild with gardening. I’m living in a jungle,” her father had said.
Would there be enough room for her? Though her father had alarmed her enough to bring her here, it would trouble him that she’d come home looking like she planned to stay. Each time she did, it broke his heart. Marlene, at thirty-two, had twice left serious men she fell in love with and she’d left a serious man just now. But she had kept three long time best friends by laptop and smartphone, one friend halfway across the world. She kept in conversation with her parents with scribblings on paper through the mail. Last month, by mistake, she’d sent fragments of poems she was working on. Her father took it wrong. He read her fragments as true—her confessions. He answered by return mail—he sent his confessions to her.
Quickly, she’d cut her ties to the lonely inland city where she lived. She left her serious boyfriend in her loft space, shut down her laptop, blocking contact from him on that and her phone, to get back to the beginning again—home.
Inland she wore her hair knife-sharp, smoothed into a French roll. But now she came back wearing her hair down, part of it braided at the crown and pinned in a circle. Her father taught her to plait her hair, like one learns agile boat knots to stay safe at sea.
At home, she had to watch where she was going. The look of the stucco bungalow a few blocks from the water kept changing. Adam was always busy adding architectural quirks. Her father wanted her mother, Allie, to have one of everything. Using the Gulf breeze as a tail wind, she passed a new pale lime courtyard, a slanted glint of skylight, awnings fluttering scalloped shadows, and an odd door painted blue. Now she was on a stone path that took a blind turn through tropical plantings and at the end through the greenery she came upon a separate tiny hothouse with blurry Lucite panes. Allie grew orchids in there.
Hidden in the bushes, Marlene felt so alone. She could see her mother moving among containers with an old mixing spoon for what orchids loved—bark, peat, loam, sharp sand. These strange blooms needed a house of their own, too strong to be inside where her parents slept. The orchids stiff and tall on their sprays and spikes grew way up from their leaves, whiskery, toothed, and tongue-ish. Marlene thought orchids, though beautiful, looked like genitalia, and her father treated them cautiously, too.
A sea cloud blew by. The sun slipped free. Allie was softly visible in her old worn gardening togs. The panes of the hothouse took a draught of daylight and like water can magnify, turned the view into a sonagram. Marlene shut one eye to focus hard and was shocked. Light let her see past her mother’s outer layer, down to her underwear and beyond. What was her mother doing in such awful clothes so old they were onion slice thin. Between her mother’s breasts a huge old safety pin glinted on a broken bra, her underpants were sprung, elastic gone, top knotted at the waist. The skirt had a drooping hem. She wore ‘old’ for gardening but this was absurd.
Marlene stepped past the blood-red-tips of Dahlias, and heard the sound of her father’s canvas fishing shoes with their soft grip and slight suction; he was maneuvering on backyard stepping stones, looking down—he’d set the stones to Allie’s stride. His late morning shadow appeared restless behind him. His hair freshly wet was parted for beginnings, his clothes crisp as a uniform. He looked fine. Yet she was reluctant to call out to him.
What he’d written her—the reason she’d come. Those sticky notes he’d sent through the mail had stayed with her. Truly. They’d stuck to everything—her elbow, her knee, caught in her hair.
The notes said Allie didn’t love him anymore. She’d taken to gardening like mad and wouldn’t stop. He was lost. Twice he’d spent the night away somewhere. Now disturbed, things were broken. He’d sold his successes, little shops downtown, to give him more time. But time hounded him. He’d started picking up strays. A lonely woman lived in a messed up, unfixable house, she needed someone. He was her handyman, in return she helped him. Things got confusing on land. He didn’t want Allie to guess he had stepped on the last quarter of his life, his foot slipping. He’d found a new fishing friend, named Eli, so decrepit his weekend buddies couldn’t stand him. When a funny pain came on, surprising his brain and traveling his body, shooting up through his jaw like guilt, he’d seek Eli, always hunched over a coffee-to-go somewhere, and they’d set to sea. Out in the Gulf, the pain would leave him, his balance caught on the salted sea. He was so greatly relieved that each time he decided he was just acting out bad daydreams. Could his daughter, his only issue, read his daydreams for him?
Marlene could see it all too well: her mother left on shore alone; her father in a small boat with someone too old, in the middle of the flat gulf, ahead the simple line of horizon. And above him a couple of clouds that could be drawn by a child.
How could the spirit her parents shared fail this way? After she’d stuck his confessions together in their strange order, she’d looked down at her true poems and saw her own spirit was paper thin. . . .shimmering glass/invisible flaw/drinking from the rim/the drinker unaware/of loss/in the well of the hand. . .
What did the receiver of confessions do with them? Once given, you couldn’t forget them, and you couldn’t give them back.
“Daddy,” she stepped forward with all her belongings, and called her mother’s name, too, so neither would get jealous.
“Marlene!” Both of them were surprised and then pleased. Her father’s hand went up to his smile. “How the devil did you get here?” Then his fingers tapped on air, “By mail?” acknowledging the power of the written word.
Her mother was beside her now. The humidity of the hothouse left Allie’s hair in a white bundle piled on top of her head, like a pillow thrown into the yard. But her hands felt dormant cool when she put her hand in Marlene’s and said, “Oh, Marlene, I willed you here, but I didn’t know you’d arrive bringing everything.”
Adam got closer. Allie backed up, “Come inside with me.” Marlene turned. Adam waited on the stepping stone. Allie started into the hothouse through the small door. Adam hitched his slacks. Allie stopped. “Adam, don’t you bring that thing in here.” A cell phone hung on his belt. He left it on a bench outside and entered unarmed.
The wet bottom ground of the hothouse edged up to hold Marlene’s shoe soles. Steps softened. Mist fell. Aromas climbed through the air. The hothouse aspirated. What a strange thing the hothouse was; her father had given it a humidostat and thermostat that monitored the dampness and temperature inside. A life of its own between blurred panes. It made small stirring sounds—snuffle, snort of air, whisper of a turn. So close, Marlene thought it could be the sound of her spirit awakening. The heat of them together again changed the hot house temperature. A slow levitation—foo-whoosh. The hothouse’s louvers lifted, surprising and delighting her as much as watching the actual changing turn of a weather vane. Home always gave her spirit back to her. Outside the Lucite, she saw a patch of plumbago canes shaking azure everywhere, marking a disturbance in the garden.
Suddenly, at the hothouse door, a knock of breath, wet panting. It was a dog. Size large. Black. Gold eyes, it seemed. The dog’s sleek fur shone. Its body molded like an acrobat’s, its muzzle had a black lower lip grin. The dog was male. It gave a bow, hindquarters up, forequarters down, it wanted to play. But something was off here. Allie sprang toward it. “You nasty beast. You’re not allowed in. You’re a stray. Don’t sniff me. Who knows where you’ve been. You obscene dog.” The dog came out of the bow.
“Mother!” This hit Marlene with anger and hurt entwined. Her mother had taught her to care for all creatures. “You told me dogs were a metaphor for love.”
Allie turned, her hair slipped, hairpins loosened like darts, her face in dismay. “Your father brought him here.”
“She won’t let me tie it in the yard or fence it in. She’s hoping it will just disappear. Well the dog’s a great runner,” said Adam. “It’ll run but it won’t run away.”
The dog watched Marlene. She went out to it. It rose carefully on its hind legs, damp paws tucked delicately against its chest like a rabbit, its long head close, it sniffed her hair. Bright eye to eye, for a moment she thought it was a dog suit with a man inside. She felt herself falling for the dog.
To keep its balance, it put its paws on her shoulders. Adam sighed and traced its strong spine with a funny tremor to his hand. “Take him. He’s yours.”
Her father loved to give presents and get them, as much as he had as a child. He came from a family huge as an orphanage. But Marlene knew to watch what he gave, because sometimes he couldn’t stop himself and he took it back again.
The cell phone on the bench blinked brimstone red. The minute it started a tune, Allie escaped past them, aimed for the stepping stones and the back door. In her wake a sea of outdoor flowers shook their heads, hollyhocks, foxgloves, anemones, petals so blue they were night-color and thin as skin.
Adam hushed the cell phone and put out its red eye.
First one inside, Allie’s face was hard behind the screen. She said, “Adam’s dog can’t come in.”
The dog leaned his side against Marlene’s leg. “Living out in the yard must be as lonely as living out in the world, Mother. And he’s not Daddy’s dog now. He’s mine.” She knew the passwords that worked at home. “Thank you for teaching me to love dogs,” and brought her belongings and the dog in with her.
Adam whispered, “Know what the dog’s name is?” Her mother said, “Once you name a thing, it can’t be undone.”
“Black Jack,” he said.
“The bludgeon?” asked Marlene.
“No, the game of chance,” he said.
The kitchen was a platter of spilled sun shot through a glass brick wall, built by her father, translucent for Allie to have the outdoors inside, so he could keep her with him.
In her old bedroom, the extra room now, Marlene waited for the tip end of the dog’s high tail to float past, then she slid the pocket doors closed. Her belongings sorted out, she staked her claim with bottles of sunblock and freckle faders, bath oils called ‘china rain’ and ‘floating lily’, a tube of clear gleamer for her mouth and her cheekbones, a stick of eye kohl and a blusher called burgundy glaze. Next she found places for mind things: gel pens, huge paperclips, heavy notebooks, blank bright-white paper and a staple gun. She fitted a soft stack of dog-eared books to guard the side of her bed; at the foot she pulled up a table to receive her ‘traveling’ gallery: photos of her parents young, herself as a child, and precious pets, long-lived, now gone. She marked her place with things from the past, wherever she was. She reached for the man’s comb she’d taken from beside her city loft bed, and set it close by. The comb belonged to her serious boyfriend. Their friendship had turned intimate fast, though sex got there first and had been as thrilling as bouncing on a trampoline with a strong spring. She ran her fingernails along the teeth of the comb, they’d had so many invigorating conversations and they’d given each other good dreams. She slipped the wide comb through the loose part of her long hair, it raised a running charge, her pale skin felt warm. Then she put down the comb and shoved her silenced smartphone and laptop under the bed; she’d retrieve it when she had to make money again.
She slid the pocket doors back open, enough to stick her head through, and heard a tiny tune on her father’s phone; unanswered. Under that, equally small, she heard her parents’ voices. They were arguing in that indirect way they had—to release worry but keep back the catastrophe of confrontation, a safe way of saying what they thought they believed. Marlene knew you learned more if you guessed what was between the lines. It was how Marlene had found the language of poetry.
“Are you going to keep acting crazy now that your daughter’s watching you, you hear?” Her mother was under the skylight with a Q-tip, approaching a short, fat house plant, she began to swab its green ears. “First you mess up my garden with that dog. Now he’s inside to upset my household. You’re ruining everything.”
“I know,” Adam said.
“Like you did with those concrete blocks you carted in and left in a pile, killing the grass right off the ground.”
“You made me cart them away and it hurt,” Adam said.
“You hurt yourself,” Allie said.
Their voices were still soft but they’d picked up speed, so Marlene popped up from the pocket doors. “Daddy, was it muscle strain?”
“No siree, higher up. My head. It made me see double.”
“You mean back in memory and forward in time?”
“No, double vision. Sometimes I can see two of everything.”
Black Jack took off, went whirling in and out of rooms.
Allie approached the yellow-striped throat of a bromeliad. She said quietly to Marlene, “He’s got a girlfriend. He disappears there. I know it, as good as if it’s true.”
Adam said equally quiet to Marlene, “I help this woman twice a week. Handyman things.” He gave a little snort. “I thought I’d help O’Neil, that’s her name, and make your mother jealous at the same time. It was a test to make Allie love me or leave me. I figured she’d love me again. But she tricked me. She didn’t do either one.”
What were confessions but worries one gives to another to have them solved? The dog bumped past, scenting a trail over her shoe. Marlene shivered. “So simply get rid of this O’Neil. Don’t be her handyman.”
Allie drew closer, under the baskets of hanging ferns, feeding them with a long curved plastic thing.
Adam said, “O’Neil admires your mother. Her hair.”
Allie gave a snap of a nod, her hair went wild. Fuschia, hanging above, swung glistening red bottoms. “She comes up to me on the street, says ‘oh I just want to thank you for Adam, and could I please have the name and address of your beautician.’ Never mind, I say. Adam’s not yours. And my beautician’s not on the bus line. Poor old thing, hasn’t got either a car or the hair for it. This is all full of phooey, I say.” At the delicately fuzzed African Violets, she lifted the potting soil like rich rugs to be aired.
Her father said, “Ever since they met downtown and O’Neil praised me, your mother’s let herself go. She started wearing clothes she’d thrown away, and let her hair go thick as a hedge.”
Black Jack, like a dog on stilts, passed stiffly with claws clicking against the tile.
Adam said, “Things are different here between your mother and me. I guess it won’t be too much fun for you. You might ought to get on back to the big world.” He was wanting her to do what was best for her. What’s best had often spoiled her plans. “You can’t continue your talent at the beach.”
The thought of having to leave soon shuffled through her heart. “I can write poetry anywhere, Daddy. And I advertise and edit freelance manuscripts through the internet. I’m completely floatable, totally free.” His eyes looked odd, his balance a bit to the side. “The world is boring, Daddy. It’s much more exciting here.” She felt like a child, about to beg. She touched where her braids had been wrinkled like ribbons on top of her head.
Her father was puzzling it through. “Wouldn’t any of the men who fell in love with you do? Couldn’t you go back and try one of them again?”
Marlene took a quick change of subject. “Let’s talk about you-all, what’s next—what do you two generally do for the afternoon?”
“Argue on and off right straight into evening. It’s what we do in place of having sexual intercourse; it’s your mother’s idea.”
A shock of a laugh ran through Marlene’s nose. The dog peered at her past some ferns.
“You’re going to ruin your face if you start snorting like your father does. You’ll end up with a nose like his,” said Allie, coming round again.
“You don’t like my nose anymore?” he said. “If I’m not still handsome do you want me to leave?”
Allie’s mouth was fluted as a cupcake holder.
Suddenly, Black Jack whined, fell down on his back, four feet stuck up in the air. “What’s happened to the thing?” asked Allie. “Did he get into the Angel Trumpets, eat one, they’re poison, every single part of them, did he die?”
“Oh, Mother, he’s turned belly up because he wants you to pet him.”
“Well, he’s in my way,” Allie said. The dog didn’t move. “Somebody pet the thing.” Finally she stuck out the worn, turned-up toe of her gardening shoe, gave the dog one stroke.
Black Jack shook a hind leg in the air, and sighed.
Her mother’s old self was back in the room. She was always the one to care and take it on.
“Let’s go to the gulf, Mother. We’ll walk along the shore.”
“Lord, what will she wear?” said Adam.
So they toured the front yard. Her father’s jealous gaze pinned them from the window, each one. Marlene and the dog no closer to the beach but both sniffing the salt sea air. Marlene tried soft talk. “Do you think something’s wrong with Daddy? He takes things so instantly to heart. I’m afraid for him—that something’s wrong and that some day he really will get hurt.”
“Someday he really will. He’ll die. We all will. God will hurt us.”
“By our dying? That’s the way God hurts us? I don’t believe that.”
“I’m sure you don’t. You haven’t lived with God or Adam as long as I have.”
Marlene had one hand lightly on her mother, one on the dog. “Mother, please, you and Daddy be careful. You two are just too close. When one is angry and the other confused, I don’t think you have an idea of how much harm you can do to each other.”
“We’re at an age where things change. That lonely woman’s caught hold of him, intruded into our time. He keeps secrets with her on that cell phone. What kind of emergency is a broken hinge? I’m afraid now. There’s so much I don’t want to know. I’m afraid when he’s out there.” She point across herself toward the Gulf. “I fear he’s going away. I fear he won’t return. I can’t stop it, and I don’t want to watch , but in my sleep I dream and see things—that he’s gone. I’m trying to prepare myself for that end.”
Marlene couldn’t ask more questions. Her mother looked too fragile. From her pocket, Marlene took a tiny paper and a miniature pen. Scribbled. An insomniac/awake in my dreams/a daytime sleepwalker/cutting close/to paper’s sharp edge. . . Her mother chuckled at words tiny like insect tracks, “Are you writing poems for ants?” Marlene knew her mother was proud of her words, and told her friend “my daughter’s a poet and she’s published in journals only she and her friends read.”
Her father was out in the yard now, rattling the elephant ears, a chameleon bobbed on one, stuck out a red throat flag. They went back inside. Adam, the shape of the cell phone in his pocket, his eyes tiny, resin colored, hot-eyed he tracked Allie who began to shoot him looks and turn away fast before he could look back. Who can understand parents. Was this flirt or flight?
Finally he ran his eyes half-flagged toward Allie, “In the morning early, I take my daughter fishing.” He was jealous; that’s what it was.
Bedtime. Marlene, lights off, had pen and paper with her, face turned to the open casement window. Moon/you are the sun’s/blind eye. . . she would sleep nose to the keen salt air outside, and the aspiration from the hot house. The dog beside her, nose wings lifting, they were in the whisper of the Gulf, no louder than their breaths, the Gulf was a good sleeping companion. Out in the world she had a fine time but there’d never been enough love she’d freely given or received to sustain her. Where was the personality who needed her kind of personality to companion? She just couldn’t let go of home.
During the night in her sleep she heard deep moans, a padding, padding of steps. She tried to wake but felt herself go out of one dream and into another.
It was already late when she sat up in the hushed dark before the sky peeled to pale, waking to the aroma of her father’s coffee—his special—Cuban for strength. Un Buchito, he named it, a mouthful. She dressed quickly. Get to the sea soon.
With no day showing through, the glass wall in the kitchen looked like night still pressed its back against it. Black Jack was rattling his dog food in the bowl. Her father’s voice soft, sound only, not distinct words. He handed her a warm biscuit, and began cutting the others in half, making sandwiches for the boat. She watched him. “Daddy, are you feeling like yourself?” Usually he made sandwiches while standing because he couldn’t put up with staying so still. He sat down. “I’m feeling funny. Kind of staggered, but coffee before fishing, that will fix me.” The coffee dripped darker and darker.
“We better not go,” Marlene said. “Last night someone moaned in my dream.” She got shooed out to walk the dog. She carried her luke warm biscuit and Black Jack followed it and hesitated only to put his marks along the road so he’d know the way to bring her home with him.
She and the dog returned, covered with cool, and stepped back inside a warm cave of savor: Cuban coffee and baked biscuit. Her mother’s voice came from the bedroom door, open it showed only one side of the bed unmade. “Dressed for fishing?” her mother’s voice was too sharp for morning. Marlene had on years old long loose pants, shirt with long sleeves, and her hat to deflect the sun when it came up. “Did you hear Daddy last night? I think he was up all night walking around.”
“Oh, I sleep all over the house. Sitting up,” said Adam.
“Can you beat this? He says lying down gives him a great big headache.”
“The Gulf ‘s going to blow it away,” said Adam.
“Tonight, Marlene, when you come back, I’ll make a surprise dinner,” Allie said.
“No,” said Adam, “We’re bringing back dinner. Fish fry.”
“Be careful out there, Marlene, please. Watch where you are. Don’t lose sight of shore.”
She thought her mother might weep but she sniffed instead. “I wouldn’t get in the same boat with someone who keeps disappearing.”
“Well, good luck Adam,” he told himself and off they went leaving Black Jack, waiting, paws up on the windowsill, looking fairy tale wolfish.
After a short stretch, something in the car poked Marlene from underneath, bony as the finger of a prophet. Once, twice it caught her. “Daddy, how many umbrellas are stuffed in these seats?” He was keeping his head low, to ward off the headache. “A few. I keep finding them, lost, left at doors.” She sighed, “For heaven’s sake, that’s where people leave them. Daddy, you’re stealing umbrellas.” Adam hunched to the wheel and said, “I’ve got to stop at you-know-who’s. She doesn’t like me to be in the Gulf without saying goodbye and giving me some of her luck.” Marlene shuddered. He pulled into a side road, parked on a hard packed spot, blew the horn, turned the motor off.
Night had weakened, day was trying to cut in.
“I’ll go inside, too,” said Marlene. She might have to protect him.
They were met at the door, O’Neil in a robe huge and soft wrapped around her. Marlene’s first thought was she’d grabbed the bedspread. There was toothpaste on her chin. She swayed in the robe like she’d dance away. Her hair was in gray tunnel curls all over her head. Marlene changed to sad. This woman, her feet bare, her voice high, was pretending to be young.
“Going fishing,” Adam said. “This is my daughter, come for a visit.”
Marlene held her hand straight up, a stop sign for a wave. She was afraid now of this old woman’s unfilled need.
“Take off your hat and stay awhile,” said O’Neil.
“Nope.” She couldn’t, it was caught on her plait crown to thwart the gulf breeze.
Then O’Neil went into a little voice, “Gifts, gifts,” she said at Adam, just what he loved. She had a box ready, little bitty cookies waited inside. “Have some?”
“Later. You all munch,” said Marlene. “I’d like to see my father’s handywork.” O’Neil pointed with a cookie to the whole house. Marlene walked quietly past an empty looking guest room with a Bible standing wide open, probably at ‘ask and it shall be given.’ She passed a shut door then backed back, squeezed the knob into a turn, it almost wobbled off. She looked into the room, and wished she hadn’t. Duplicates—in the bedroom of this woman. O’Neil had made duplicates of Adam. Soft fishing shoes, and matching the color of his eyes a windbreaker waiting on a closet doorknob. White skivvies fresh, neatly stacked on the dresser the right way to get in. Was everything he had at home here copied by O’Neil? She could never tell Allie what she’d seen. She had more now to not say than say.
She shut the door, and automatically wiped her fingerprints off the knob. In confusion she turned into the kitchen. It made her sick. Who has time to fix things while having an affair. The sink dripped. Dirty dishes were everywhere. She pictured O’Neil licking the platter clean. Next stop, the bathroom smelled wildly of her father’s lotions. O’Neil must open the tops and sniff when he was at his real home. A crooked toilet seat left in up position for his convenience. In the cabinet, what? Medicine in her father’s name, nasty little latin words on a torn label. When was he seeing a Live Oak doctor? Doctors always left him feeling sick, he claimed. This dosage was empty except for an odd pill in the container. Then she saw the joke—this pill looked exactly like a vitamin, B12 for sexual vigor, the old fashioned cure. She took it with her. Her father on display for this woman who was lonely to the quick. O’Neil had him here even when he wasn’t here. She’d made a set for herself.
In a get-away past the snap of the back screen, she found herself in a fenced yard, the fencing looking mean, and next to it a thrown together concrete block one-room, perhaps with a door to get her back to the outside and the car. Then she got stuck in amazement—this is where he’d taken the concrete blocks Allie made him throw away. Her father had never built ugly before. She poked inside, a laundry shack for her, a mess. The impulsive creature must use the dryer and then snatch the lint from the filter and throw it down at her feet, piles of it, discarded crazy in every direction and all stuck with bristles, white and brown—dog hair.
Just then she heard a hinge squeak, wood flap, another way in, and claws on concrete came up behind her.
A bull dog, white and brown, freckle lipped, wet eyes, bludgeon-shaped nose, who might once have been a puppy but now his head doubtless wouldn’t fit in the dryer. Another of her father’s strays grown too big?
She and the dog waited to see whose was the next move. It took all the air in the little laundry shack for the dog to breathe.
Her brain went mute. Before she could shut her eyes and pray to die of natural causes, Adam was there. “Why Bob,” said Adam. “You got my daughter cornered.”
Her brain jumped back on. “Why should anything be called Bob, big and naked as that thing is.”
“He’s not naked. He’s sleek haired.” Her father looked offended. “Anyway,” he said, “I’ve come to show you an historical spot,” as if drool weren’t dribbling along the dog’s double-chinned jaw. O’Neil peeked into her own laundry room. “Black Jack was the first dog saved. And this is where Back Jack ran for his life from Bob.” Apparently the story was Bob was found and rescued from a garbage bin, so little he rode to this home sitting in Adam’s hand. Black Jack was already saved and here and Black Jack cared for puppy Bob no more than a toad in the yard to poke with his nose, until Bob metamorphosed into thick on bowed legs, a hundred pounds of mean. The chasing began. “One day Bob wouldn’t stop,” said O’Neil, “I could rightly tell that Black Jack was at the near end, the last gasp, round and round the fence, they’d go. I thought his heart would burst. So I called Adam and he walked all the way from downtown to save Black Jack. He opened the gate and let Black Jack free.”
“Stop!” said Marlene. “Why didn’t you simply open the gate?”
“I never thought of that.”
“See how bright my daughter is?” said Adam. “And here comes the best part. I ran all the way back to save him. I was the hero.”
“The dog lived. He’s the hero. Why didn’t you take the car? There’s your flaw.”
“Oh,” said O’Neil, catching up to the talk, “If a man doesn’t have any flaw—then he doesn’t need a woman.”
Fury made Marlene draw air deep but this left an aftertaste of bulldog across her tongue. What if her father really got sick and took a last breath in this woman’s house?
Adam stuck his hand out the shack door. “Time to go,” he said. “Light in my hand. Early is best for some fish.”
O’Neil said, “I can’t come with you. Even bending over long enough to get my panty hose on makes me dizzy. Washing around in water would make me a mess.”
They followed Bob out the big door. His two high bounce balls behind him, she knew now why Black Jack was such a runner.
Where the Suwanee River ran out into the Gulf, they pulled up at a dock. She held the pill high and dry in her shirt pocket. “So what’s O’Neil for? Where does she fit in the sticky notes?” She watched a look cross his face. He said, “O’Neil’s the one who knew what I knew.”
But he wouldn’t take the bait. “Now we’re finished talking for a while. So as not to spoil a fishing trip.” Adam headed for the boat. “It’s a relief that you’ve come to my call. But I can’t talk about such now, not in all this salt air breeze, sunshine, and a horizon full of blue water.”
Sand ran straight through her sandals; rough.
Down the gently swaying dock, the out-going tide making the pilings creak softly, the little outboard four-seater sat slapping water.
Eli was waiting. He took off his cap for Marlene, collapsed it and stuffed it in a big pocket. His head was completely bald. “Get in that boat, Eli,” said Adam. “Make it settle for my daughter.” Eli turned full toward her. He was more than ugly. His face on one side held the disfigurement of surgery, scars. The shock of this made a gust of her breath. Slow as if blown, Eli turned away; his pants already low in the back, his behind sagged, tail between legs position.
“Why him for a friend?” she asked against her hand.
“He’s a fighting man,“ said Adam. “Being around him makes me feel better, that man’s beating the odds.”
She looked away and up, this and the visit at O’Neil’s had seemed to unsettle the sky. She got in the boat, her heart on a yo-yo string. Thin moon/stuck west/looking flammable/watch out moon/sun’s too close behind. . . A wad of words—all she had was pieces.
They loaded on live bait, tackle, an extra gas can to get back, and in case they lost their way the emergency rations—Vienna sausage. She hated the sight of it and recognized the same four cans years old.
Her father checked for warning flags: none, the wind: off-shore, the clouds: stratus and smooth. They untied, shoved off, and Adam skippered them from the dock out the channel. From their seated balance on the boat, the Gulf could have been a slightly tilting roller rink, waxed, empty, domed, blue.
Eli took over and got an itch on his back so they crossed their own wake. The trail they left disappeared behind them. Ahead the horizon dipped. The Gulf water swallowed in slow swells.
Finally, land was gone, but for a thin trace of green. The motor was cut and they drifted in simple scenery, between water and stratus clouds coming apart into mackerel. In the rocking boat, currents running under, Marlene watched her father for signs of wrong love, as if she might have to save them all from it. Then she succumbed. Dozing/ into the deep/waking to see/where life went/when no one was steering. . .
Adam, nimble with pliers, quick fixed his line. Everything just so. As a child, she’d broken her doll house, her temper a tornado, she punished herself because she couldn’t play the right way. He couldn’t stand to see the mistaken ruin. With terrible patience, he glued it back like new. Her father made a miracle of glue on a toothpick.
She dipped into the bait box, got hold of a horned shrimp and barely threaded him under his clear armor. She slung the line, let the reel sing, and in the last minutes saw him flying toward the water, he had slipped free of the hook. Pleased and lulled by the shrimp’s life continuing, she let her line and sinker dangle baitless. She’d felt a shower of bait water. She pulled out paper and pen from her shirt, wrote “Sword/crutch/paper poker/shield/put out an eye/more lost than owned/ irritating/most hated but most sought—The Umbrella.”
She could write with ease on these smooth rolls of deep water; she was intensely at work with the way poetry made her think and see. They fished. Hit luck. Ran out of luck. Fired up the motor. Took off through the calm, bow lifted like a dorsal fin for a long time. Cut the engine. Set into the right drift, and fished some more. Fishermen were so quiet. They were afloat on three shades of blue. Watercolor class/is a swimming lesson/in a wet prism. . . The water did relieve. In this moment she ate the last half of her biscuit sandwich, salt air on her lips against the chicken. Something so special she’d save a bite for Black Jack.
Time happened on land, it was washing away out here—the sea was a drawn long, continual time. Everybody but Marlene was catching fish, and with the spray from their lines, her hat was wet. All felt good, the sea had salted her.
“Pouff- whoo- Oh!” Noise came quietly from Adam. Eli had been stirring around, taking Dramamine, aspirins, tic-tacs, whichever. “Daddy?” “Ooooh!” This one longer. “Is it the weight of the fish—are you tired of hauling them in over your head?” Fishermen could never catch just one.
“Not that,” said Eli, first thing he’d said, his mouth showed full of tiny tic tacs.
Then after another Oh! “Are you getting sunburned, too hot?”
“Sick.” Eli said, alert thick eyebrows raised high on his hairless head. “Sicker than me. Hurting.”
Marlene was somehow stuck behind the bait box and her pole.
Adam got mad at the word sick, sat stiff in anger and pain. “My head’s squeezing, killing me.”
Eli startled again, “Jack it all, I knew it,” he popped his hand to his mouth, spit his tic tacs, scales flew off his hand and his mouth glittered, his scars, too. “You’re going to die,” he said.
“Okay,” said Adam, his words slipping through catches in his voice. “Please. If it’s time for God to take me, He will.”
“Yeah. But I’m in the boat with you,” said Eli, “And I don’t know the way back.” All around them was the same as the inside of an egg.
Marlene kicked the bait box, dunked her pole overboard, lost the reel, it fell deep, fast. She got to her father, held onto him by his clothes. He squirmed. “I’m not letting go of you,” she said. “Get down into the boat bottom.” If God was hunting him, she’d hide him. The bottom could be a bed for him, except there were fish in it.
She felt around in her pocket. Eli gave up two aspirins, shot them into Adam’s hand. Marlene gave all she had. “Thank heavens I took the pill from O’Neil’s bathroom,” and put it on his tongue so far back, he swallowed before he knew. “It’s a B12,” he said, “for sexual vigor.” A breath heaved in him like a balloon. “Quit real medicine awhile ago. Couldn’t make sense of it. Put that vitamin in to fool O’Neil, so she’d think we still had real medicine against the worst, one to go.”
“Real medicine? For what? Sex?”
“Too far gone for that. But what’s got me, I won’t say its big old name out loud.” Sea breeze filled his lungs again. “I passed all the bad tests. It’s in my cells. Sneaked in.” Talking in little snatches, like reading the sticky papers again, he got it said. He wanted pain to hear him and know it hadn’t won yet. “I couldn’t tell your mother the truth and watch her taking my hurting on, for however long. O’Neil got me by Greyhound for a look-see at the Live Oak doctors.” He’d been calling her by cell phone when he couldn’t drive, lost right in town, too blinded by a pain in his head. “I looked on the bright side. But being optimistic made me wait too long. Cancelled me out. I’m past the cure.”
Sex and love had cures. Why couldn’t it be one of those? This was too close to her father, a terrible thing was part of him.
“Shore’s not visible anywhere,” said Eli moving side to side, making them flounder. “We’ve got to get in. And Adam can’t even stand.”
“In a minute, it will pass from me.” His hands that had been electric with pain were now folded into Marlene’s. She thought he smoothed his face with patience, not to disturb her. Her father, in suffering which he called a weakness which he hated, was still powerful. Great drops of salt water clung to his face. It reminded her of travail, and hope, and undying love—those three Sunday school things.
“Too soon to try to rise,” Adam said. His face was up, mystically, “I’ll read the sky and find the shore.” Breeze, cloud patterns, the run of currents and tide against the boat bottom. The mackerel sky looked now like far-flung stepping stones. “Eli, you handle the outboard and I’ll bet I’ll get us back by looking up.” Eli hit it on high and they were a beater of bubbles. “Oh! Don’t let me say goodbye to my daughter now, and without Allie. Make the boat outrun the pain,” Adam said.
“Please, don’t hurt, Daddy,” her breath leaving her like it had been pulled out and thrown away.
“Oh!” cried her father. “I just had a sharp picture of your mother.” Then he wasn’t gone, but blacked-out.
Suddenly, she, too, had a sharp picture of her mother, alone—in half a bed—in grief—with no match for her anger or her joy.
In the sound of the slitting, sliding Gulf, Marlene worked and got him back, revived in fish water. A breath or two, a little color returning. She understood his affair was with illness. Disease had fallen for him. Out here where only Adam knew where they were, he said to her, “When I do go and leave your mother alone, Marlene, are you going to bloom, and give your mother a little companion?”
“Do what?” she said.
“Fall in love. So we’ll all continue. Have a child. I know a child can give strength. If he’s a son, he can take my name.”
At one point years back, she thought she was going to have a baby. Her father bought complete sets of soft clothes, tiny up to huge toys and a little bitty baby bed—news brought on by reading over Allie’s shoulder the letter to her from Marlene. Next letter, months later, Marlene wrote she’d guessed wrong. For a time, he stored the baby things he bought. Then he took them to the poor edge of town and gave them away.
“Daddy, I don’t know why I don’t love anybody that’s not bloodkin.” She held onto her father and slid a little on the fish and that lotion they always had on. She comforted her father, rubbing his face and shoulders like he had when she was a child and afraid. There were days now she gave up on herself. Her childhood tantrums had matured into thought, and inward harm. She quit her own good company. Divided self upon self—so who could win—nobody. She abandoned herself and that made her feel hidden crazy so she couldn’t catch love.
The boat, powered by fright and hope running through Eli and guided by her father went well until Eli stepped past with ‘pardon’ and got in the bow, double-handed grasped the gunwale and leaned over in the posture of vomit but did not, he wanted to be a passenger now. Like the first prow figure, a living victim strapped to the front, he would also be the first one home.
The boat still ran straight but slowed. Marlene took over, rooted power up under them and lifted the boat toward speed.
Adam said from the bottom. “Get me back to your mother.”
Her head bent, watching Adam, her hat towed in the wake of sky.
Adam was the first to call out, “Home, our inlet ahead,” and then she blinked salt spray and saw the thin string of pines curving close to the water and the channel markers bobbing black numbers. She pulled herself together, her poem pieces stowed in her shirt were a little wet, might run. She was ready to call the medics.
“No,” said Adam. “Pain’s gone. What a relief. It always feels like something has me in its beak and is about to swallow me whole.”
“Must be God,” said Eli, encrusted with salt from his forward position.
“But the pain’s gone and I’ve only got backache from the boat’s boards and a little of the blackout left from looking into the light. Those dead fish slipping all over me like I was sinking; now that was uncomfortable.” Marlene looked skyward to say thank-you but the sun reversed in black against her eyes.
In the boat’s bottom were twenty fish. Marlene had come close to getting them all counted to keep down her panic. The fish lay, cold sticky ingots, not flashing silver anymore.
Docked, unboarded, their skin was tender from sun right through their clothes. They tried walking calmly but had trouble with a straight path. Marlene wished the truth told on water would leave them on land. But it stayed.
They gasped when they saw Eli’s face and head; it was blood red over brown, only the scars pale. “Your hat!” cried Marlene. “You didn’t wear it; you’re burned,” said Adam. Eli said, “You can’t wear a hat in front of a lady.” He pulled the hat from his pocket, only to fan.
A man on the dock started cleaning the fish, a big dog and a cat sat beside him, waiting. Adam gave the fish away to the man and the beasts, and took the Vienna sausage home.
At the car, Adam looked at her and said, “I don’t want to be around medics when I feel fine. That would bring on bad luck. I just feel tired from where the pain was. Do you understand I’m fine?”
“I don’t want you to die.” She knew he wanted to do things natural, his way.
“Now that I’ve told you, I think I can tell your mother.”
He took the car, drove it with both hands. Eli wasn’t with them. He wanted to walk home; he loved the ground, he said.
They rolled over crushed shells, clicking and clacking.
O’Neil had gotten hold of a sick man. And then had taken responsibility for him. Given him an emergency cell phone to call her, listened to what he said that would have hurt Allie to hear. He told the truth again—what part he wanted to tell. “Can you believe my own body made it. Its name means stars—astrocytomas—my cells made stars, I have too many stars in my brain. The doctors tell me that I’ve got a 20% chance of living they don’t know how long. I’m getting worse, Marlene. Losing myself while living. All the time. The doctors said no operation possible. The cells are too close, I got the quickiest kind.”
Day was almost over. “I wanted to see you first to get courage to tell Allie.” Marlene kept scared watch of him sideways. Saw blood. Red from the traffic light. He’d stopped for green, and went on red. She thought of the stars crowding his brain that had protected them from other fears all the time. “If you don’t go to doctors anymore, do you go to church, Daddy?” Adam looked straight ahead. “No siree,” he said, “When you go to God, you go to a force of nature. It was in the Gulf today. Allie is right. I will be disappearing. What upsets me, I won’t know but the minute I’m gone, will I, and not thereafter? But she will.”
Marlene’s thoughts jumped too far ahead. All her life she’d needed her mother and her father. After death, would her father no longer need her or miss her?
They’d forgotten all about O’Neil until they saw down the short road her house, concrete laundry room and Bob’s run that trenched the fenced yard. Adam pulled to the flattened sand spot. “In the first days when I couldn’t believe it was real, when I was in the grip and confused, O’Neil was the stranger who could listen. I could get mad or sad with her until I believed it.” The car idled, he got out, used an umbrella tip to write in the hard packed, drawing a box and an X—You Are Here. Then—I’m gone—with an arrow. The is phone is off.—And signed his name.
They turned their faces together to avoid O’Neil coming out her door, her voice full of need chilling them. How can you leave somebody whose problem is loneliness?
“O’Neil knew I’d go. But what to do about your mother suffering last and long?”
“Tell her,” Marlene said. “Then you both will know what to do.”
When they pulled in, Black Jack was waiting, ready to protect them. Allie right behind wearing a fussy, confused look. “You’re late. What happened? Something awful? Where’s the fish?”
“There were twenty fish,” said Marlene, talking but thinking of the submerged.
“I smell them but I don’t see them.”
“We left them at the dock,” said Adam, starting out of the car with the emergency cans.
“What are you doing with that Vienna sausage? Don’t you bring that nasty stuff inside.”
He turned the other way, Allie stopped him again. “I was worried about you.”
“Which?” Adam asked. “That I would or would not come back to you? I’m tired of teasing, Allie.” There they stood—no anger to help them—open to hurt.
What are we going to eat for the surprise dinner now? Allie waited, very still, but her eyes moved like she was reading. Marlene couldn’t find a word. She wanted them to talk but now it terrified her.
“We’ll eat my garden,” Allie said. Her mother’s face skin now satin, showed its strength deep down. Ready to step free of unknowing, she could always sense a sea change. “I’m going to cook from my garden for us all.” They washed up and Allie placed a small table with a rippling cloth in the breezeway, gave them pillows and chairs. Adam brought the platters and bowls. “Enough,” Adam said, “to feed us this day and the hereafter.”
He ate with a big spoon. “Allie, you should have been there. Your daughter wrote poetry while I fished.”
Marlene let Black Jack get up in a breezeway chair and fed him his piece of saved chicken sandwich. His love came out in hot breaths though his nose remained cold. It got her through dinner.
They ate fried corn, fresh tomatoes, green leafies, and little bitty butter beans, all with a pitcher of sweet iced tea nearby.
Allie brought an orchid out from the hothouse. It was called Tiger Butter, its yellow stripes rolling down its petals, its throat deep, pistil and stamen fused. Her parents whispered, the orchid in the middle, Allie’s intuition showing, helping her get to the knowledge. Marlene on the other side. She had brought her parents together, and now she was excluded. Black Jack wouldn’t leave the orchid alone. He kept poking its lower lip with his nose, then touching his humans.
Later the heat of the whole day left, the worry stayed. In a far room, her parents talked. Her mother cried out and cried out many times as if a stranger wounded her. This was the wounding. The actual awful thing not yet to come and be a familiar among them. Marlene, sore from the start of shock and grief come before its time, just stood under the spinning ceiling fan in the sun room. Allie came out and looked up through the skylight, softly praying beside her. Then Allie spoke earthly words, “Marlene you’ve given us what we needed—us together.”
Adam said, “Let’s go out where we can see far.” They went into the hothouse and stood in its mist, and its soft roar of aspiration, drawing in the currents of the dark Gulf breeze. Through the Lucite’s curve, between the orchids, under the deep sea of night, her father read the constellations to Marlene, even though some they saw blinking had died before she was born, he said, its light just now getting to her. He kissed her twice on the nose, the way he always had each night after she’d said her childhood prayer to him.
Allie held both of them in a clear calm that she could bestow even when she was in pain.
In a week’s time, Marlene was pulling out her smartphone and laptop to make money, when they told her, she could go back to the world now. They were their old selves together again. They gave her a car, “We have two, we’re so close now we only need one,” Allie said. Adam gave her the dog. “For keeps,” he said and kissed the dog.
He wanted her to let go, her physical hold that they had both enjoyed. He wanted her strong before he had to leave.
When she left, it was half confused. She was sure she couldn’t go. A half block away she turned around, almost went back. She watched them standing stock still under a towering cumulus that was sitting hard on its anvil bottom. Her little bundles and carry-all in the back, Black Jack huffing and puffing at the new air. She did have a loft big enough to fit this dog. She did know she had to go back into the world.
By the time she got to her former inland city, the rain was coming down, sweeping in, the radio said, from the Gulf, a long and dangerous squall line, small craft warnings had been up all day. In the dark, in the rain, parked at the curb, her loft had a light on. She wanted to cry and call home, see if her parents were safe in the storm. She sat for a time, her lights on and then off, then on, trying to decide when she didn’t know the question, the radio weakly reporting, and her battery running low. She pushed the weighted car door to make a break for it. There were so many old umbrellas in the car, she didn’t even choose one, didn’t even bother to turn the car off, she’d let it run down. She stepped out in the swords of rain, drops that long. Black Jack did not leave her side but blew his breath at a man with an umbrella who stood there. She slipped under the umbrella with him, the dog, too. He’d come down from where the light was on. “Marlene, it’s you. Where’ve you been? You wouldn’t let me find you.” They could make each other laugh at odd times and he did, “I was afraid I’d never see you again—or my comb.” She thought he said. She was always talking to herself, saying those same things. The man and the dog were in some kind of kinetics. His voice soft, kind, too, “Are you a wolf or a dark dog? I’ve always wanted one.” He held the umbrella over her and the dog; he waited in the dripline. She was here, at night, inland. She heard the U. S. Coast Guard report come over the car radio. At the coast, their night skies were clear. She was in the squall.