Tim, the motel owners’ son, checked in the movie star but thought he was just a dead ringer, not the real thing. The movie star arrived mid-week with no reservation, and Tim was glad he didn’t give the guy any grief. “He looked kind of flat in person,” he explained to a reporter later. “He didn’t pop off the page, you know, like they do in magazines.” Not that he read those magazines. Also there’d been the dinky rental car. A marble. Who would drive that if you had any money at all?
The movie star carried two duffel bags into his room, Number 6. There were ten rooms at the Sea Island Cutter, the maximum anyone could imagine needing back in 1955 when it had been built. The place was shaped in a curved “V” like the hull of a ship with five rooms on each side and the office in the back, facing the road. There was a wedge-shaped pool in the triangular common area between the rooms, which had been considered very modern and stylish at first, before the Sea Island Cutter went from being The Place To Stay to “decent,” then “a bit worn,” then “sorry looking” and then, after a major renovation, “retro.” It sat on one of the most valuable lots on the barrier islands, right next to Charlie’s Historic Pier Bar and Grill, a cinderblock affair of slightly older vintage that was, in fact, next to the historic pier, where visitors were charged a dollar apiece if they wanted to walk on the pier for the view.
All the rooms at the Sea Island Cutter had small patios which provided a glimmering strip of ocean view over the dunes, where you could cross to the beach via a wooden bridge. The newer hotels and condos were jacked up on concrete flood stilts so everyone got a full-on view from their narrow balconies. And of course there were the massive houses going up on every postage-sized piece of land remaining. But the people who stayed at the Sea Island Cutter had either been coming there for years or had been brought as children and now came back for nostalgia, or had tripped across it after it became retro, and none of them would think of staying anywhere else. This was a real place, after all; family-owned, unique—a plus in these days of superhighways and franchises and planned communities—what Tim’s father always said. In the high season, you had to renew your registration for the following year when you checked in. There were no openings from March to September. This week they’d had only the one empty room, until the movie star’s last-minute registration. Not bad for mid-October, Tim thought.
When the movie star went to Room 6, other guests were either on the beach or out golfing or shopping. It was likely that the two older couples in Rooms 9 and 10 were napping, as they had every afternoon since they’d arrived, and there were also the first-timers with the toddlers in Number 8. Tim walked briskly past the door of Room 6 so as not to appear to be snooping. He noticed a gap in the curtains. He heard snoring, even over the hum of the room AC unit. He went back to the office and grabbed an armload of extra towels, then acted as if he was going to knock on the door, just in case he was being watched. He leaned to the side just enough to peek in the curtain gap and he saw the movie star lying face-down on top of the shell-patterned bedspread, mouth open and eyes closed, his bags on the floor next to his dangling arm. And oddly enough, it was this view of the movie star, sacked out in the half-gloom, which convinced Tim he was actually the real thing. He took a deep breath, and the scent of bleached and boiled terry cloth filled his nostrils. That was the guy, definitely. This was no look alike.
Tim told the old man when he got in from the golf course—Tim Senior played daily like it was his job, like God commanded it—and the old man sighed and shook his head. “Damn,” he said. “Traffic’s going to be a pain in the ass.”
Traffic. The deepest of Tim Senior’s concerns. The two-lane beach roads jammed with summer tourists gave him fits even though they conveyed his wealth. He talked about traffic the way other people talked about sickness or war—the ebb and flow, the unexpected moments of terror or quiet. In summer he went on about how he couldn’t wait for schools to start back so people would go home and he could get to a tee time.
“We can keep it quiet,” Tim said.
“Won’t matter,” Tim Senior said, wiping his face. “Some kid snaps him on his cell and the whole goddamned world’s gonna know anyway.” The loose red skin under Tim Senior’s jaw jiggled and Tim thought, Don’t let me get that wattle.
“Probably’s already happened,” Tim Senior continued. “Goddamn traffic.”
It was dusk by the time the movie star emerged, hair slicked back, smelling of soap and cigarettes. He asked Tim where he could find a grocery store and a good place for oysters. This time the movie star seemed to be watching him carefully, possibly, Tim thought, to discern whether Tim recognized him. Tim decided to pretend he didn’t, and he wondered how good his acting was. I am pretending to be a man who is oblivious, he thought. He found his character, the character of Tim, the owner’s son, unmarried, affable if a bit shy, not a smiler but not a grump. The kind of guy who knew words like oblivious and affable but didn’t let on. “The best place for seafood is the Blue Heron, right before you go over the bridge, on the sound side. You’ll see it. And the grocery’s just over the bridge on the right.”
“They do take out?”
“Sure. You want the number?”
The movie star nodded. He wore a T-shirt with some faded words on it that Tim couldn’t read, and those man-sandals that Tim and his father had always snickered at. It was one of the few things Tim and his father could agree on. Man sandals. Yes, they lived at the beach but they didn’t wear sandals and none of the other locals did—meaning true locals, not the transplants—for the simple reason that sandals were for women and little kids and it didn’t matter if you made the straps and heels thicker, they were still sandals. They were like skirts. You could cut them from Astroturf and call them something else but they were still skirts. Same thing with purses. Satchels, his ass.
Tim wrote the restaurant number down on a Sea Island Cutter notepad, ripped off the sheet and handed it over.
“Thanks.” The movie star took it and smiled, and then it happened: He expanded in the room, a gleam whirring off of him. Tim tried to get a handle on what he was seeing: a smallish guy, lean but muscular, dark straight hair, a little age in the eyes, though Tim thought of him as young, having seen him playing earnest kid roles years ago. Had it been that long? You couldn’t just call him good-looking, or even handsome, which was a word Tim was pretty sure he’d never said out loud unless talking about horses. The guy had an appealing face, no question. But what was it—energy? Sparks?—spun from his skin as he turned.
Tim had never seen anything like it, not in person. “You’re welcome,” he heard himself saying, and the man pushed open the glass door and the little bell rang and Tim put the phone book away and pretended to stack the notepads. He felt watched, self-conscious—the way his father still made him feel, and here Tim was forty-nine.
He waited until he saw the marble’s headlights swing out of the parking lot and then pulled from under the counter the box of magazines from the previous week just to give himself something to concentrate on. These were the sunscreen-smeared, torn beach reads that the guests left behind. He gathered them along with anything else that was left before Marcy came to clean the rooms on Saturday mornings. He did this not because he didn’t trust Marcy to do her job. Hell, he’d dated her when she’d first started cleaning for them something like twenty years ago. She’d broken up with him but had kept the job.
That was back before he’d resigned himself to taking on the family business. He’d been coming and going, pissing the old man off and making his mother cry, all the while trying to convince himself that he could come up with any better idea of what to do with himself. He’d dropped out of college, partied around. Then Marcy showed up at the Cutter, and she was twenty-five and hot as hell. Not sweet pretty, not a bombshell. Long-legged and dark-eyed and quiet. But crazy. You could feel the hum off of her. You came to realize that she was quiet not because she was shy and certainly not because she couldn’t think of anything to say. No, exactly the opposite. Her mind was going a mile a minute, and she was just trying not to alarm anyone.
He found out later that his father had hired her to lure him home. Or keep him home the next time he wandered back, out of money and asking if he could help around the place again, and sure, maybe this time he’d stay. He walked right into it. He worked up his courage to ask her out within the week. He made out like he’d been off doing important work but now his father was getting tired and needed him. What a gem he was. The heir apparent. What an asshole.
But they had been in love for a while. He was pretty sure of that. She had loved him, or thought that she might. They’d made love in every single one of the Sea Island Cutter’s deluxe kitchenette suites. When she’d told him it was over, she explained it was because he thought too much of himself, and because he believed life should be easy and that things should be handed to him. She said, “It’s like you’re waiting for someone to call you and tell you you’re a millionaire and by the way you’ve also got a title.”
He’d tried to joke his way back into her graces again. I am a millionaire! I could buy a title! He’d tried begging. Then he asked his father to fire her. The old man wouldn’t; Marcy had gotten in good with him. Tim left for a while to get over her. Or he did what he thought was a pretty good impression of it; he just avoided her at all costs if he was in town. Quit her like he later had to quit drinking. Then he came back, and that time it was for good. He got engaged because he was thirty-five by then and it was time, and the woman’s face is a blur to him now. It was the same even back then. They might have made each other up. Anyway, that fell through and by then he was settled at the Cutter. Even his father could tell Tim wasn’t going anywhere again. He’d done his last twist on the hook. He was living in a beached ship.
He’d been back about a year, running the place like a good prodigal son, when Marcy stopped in the office one day during the week. This was a surprise. He saw her on weekends when she came to clean, but he was busy checking people out and in, and she was busy cleaning, so it was easy to keep a distance. He left her weekly paycheck on the laundry room shelf. But there she was, standing inside the doorway, apparently for no other reason than to talk to him. She said she hoped they could be friends. He said, “We aren’t friends. But I won’t fire you.”
She turned and walked out, and after that, if he happened to see her, he smiled and said hello and treated her like any paying customer. He said, “What can I do for you?” He said, “Everything OK?” She got the message. It was all he could do to keep himself on his feet around her. She’d made him feel small. Maybe he had been small, spinning fibs and posturing. He’d wanted to impress her, and she’d seen into him and through him and had not been impressed. He couldn’t blame her, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to give her a chance to get at him again.
And she’d stayed all these years. Cleaning motel rooms—for the Cutter on weekends and hotels during the week. Waited tables here and there, too, during the season. She’d been married for ten years and then left that guy, too. No kids. Tim had wanted to take the guy out for a beer when he’d heard the news.
She left the rooms sparkling. If she found any forgotten items, she brought them to him; she had a crate she called the Lost Box. He’d dropped a twenty under a bed once to test her. Planted a ring behind a toilet—closest he ever came to giving her one. That tested how good a job she was doing cleaning, too. She brought everything to him. There was no trapping her any better than she’d trapped herself, in much the same way Tim had, except without the inheritance.
So he visited the rooms after the guests left and before Marcy arrived on Saturdays, turnover days, not because he had the slightest worry about her stealing, but because he wanted first crack at them. He wanted to see each just as it was left, while the most recent tenants’ presence still lingered. The range was impressive. People with kids left the place a wreck—bed linens everywhere, kitchen counter food-crusted, the sink caked with toothpaste—and he’d long wondered why motels would allow kids and not dogs. Dogs for the most part were no louder, just as toilet-trained, and they couldn’t swing from the drapes, as he’d actually come upon a kid doing not very long ago while the drunk mother dozed. Older folks and gay couples left the place neat as a pin, the linens stripped and spreads pulled up, counters shining. Single folks for the most part didn’t stay at the Sea Island Cutter, maybe because the rooms all had two queen beds which perhaps were too much a reminder of what they did not have—yet or any longer. This week though there were two singles, a woman and a man, each with one child of the same sex as themselves, and the children looked to be about the same age. It was like a mini-Brady Bunch waiting to happen, and Tim hoped they’d get together, or at least hook up. Tim had found that in the absence of an abiding love, a night or few spent skin to skin still had some value.
It was established later that on his errand out, the movie star had ordered raw oysters, fries and coleslaw from the Blue Heron, where he was not recognized because the dim lighting (lower the lights, raise the prices), and at the grocery store he purchased sandwich bread (white), bologna, sliced cheese, a half-dozen eggs, coffee, creamer, potato chips, apples, a liter bottle of store brand root beer, and a case of canned beer—nothing fancy, just a cheap domestic, it was noted. In the grocery store he wore a baseball hat and kept his head down. The nineteen-year-old clerk later said she was scared to ask him if he really was who she thought he was because he didn’t seem interested in talking. She wondered if he might scream at her like the young cop character he’d played in his most recent movie who was straight and narrow until a gang targeted him for breaking up their drug ring in Boston—and he had that accent you could barely understand. Anyway, it wasn’t him, she thought; he was too scrawny.
Of course, later, when she told the story many times over, to anyone who would listen as they went through the checkout line, a steady stream of sunburned tourists, she ended with her regret that she hadn’t trusted her instincts and asked him if he was who she thought he was. Sometimes when she told the story she said actually did know, but she didn’t want to act like yet another star-struck fan trying to get a piece of him. Sometimes she said he seemed a bit rude and she didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. Sometimes—only very occasionally—she said that she had in fact told him, whispered to him how wonderful she thought he was, and he had leaned toward her and told her she was beautiful, and would she like to come out with him that night, and she said no because she had a boyfriend, and she was nothing if not loyal.
She marked the movie star’s visit to the Seaside Grocery on her mind’s calendar. The visit occurred the day before her daughter’s second birthday; her mother was keeping the child that night because her boyfriend—not the father of the baby—was out with his friends, rather than shopping for a birthday present like he’d promised. Nevertheless, because of her daughter’s birthday, she could easily keep track of how many years had passed since meeting the movie star. And so later, she was able to determine that on the day the movie star had arrived on the island and passed through her checkout line, he’d had exactly ten years to live.
The movie star carried in his groceries past Clark, the single guy, and Clark’s nine-year-old son Brice, who were working in one last swim before bed, and past the Postons and Elterlings, who were sipping wine on the Poston’s patio at Number 9, which of all the rooms had the best ocean view because of a notch in the dunes. Their backs were to the movie star, though Walt Elterling noted his brisk passing beside the pool to Number 6. Walt did not miss much; he secretly attributed this quality to his survival in Vietnam, though publicly he always said many better, smarter men than he had been blown away for no reason at all. You couldn’t avoid dying if it was your time; that was a fact, no matter how smart or careful you were.
The movie star left his room one more time that first night to walk on the beach. This time he wore shorts and the same tee shirt and his man sandals. He carried a bottle of water which Tim had seen him pull from a case of waters in his trunk. He nodded at Clark and Brice and then the Elterlings and Postons and climbed the steps of the wooden bridge which was lit at night with short yellow lamps, and Corinne Poston saw him pause and dip his head as he began descending the steps on the other side, his face briefly lit, and she thought he might be her son’s age; in fact, he looked familiar—could he possibly be one of Alex’s friends? What were the chances of that? And what would he be doing here, alone? Such a small world. The young man’s legs and hips and chest and shoulders and finally his head disappeared from her view, and it looked to her as if he was slipping into a fold between the dunes and the star-shot sky.
An hour later, Tim had closed up and retired to his apartment above the office, watching TV with the lights off and the windows cracked to let in the evening breeze and the small talk amongst the guests. This way he could monitor what was going on down at the pool without being seen. He knew some people might view this as spying, but he saw it as keeping an eye on things. After all, it was his responsibility to take care of his family’s assets. All this will someday be yours. His father had actually said that to him once, in complete seriousness, as if they were overlooking the kingdom. In any case, watching the guests from above did allow him to get to know them a bit—whether they kept to themselves or made small talk, whether they drank too much, whether they felt lucky to be there or felt like they owned the place.
Tim was drifting off when he saw the movie star come back from the beach, man sandals dangling from one hand. He nodded at the Postons and Elterlings, and one of the men called out a hello, howareya, a little slur to it, and the movie star waved and kept walking. He also nodded to the Rails—the couple with the twin toddlers, who’d finally gotten them down, Tim guessed, and were now on their patios, sipping from plastic bottles of soda—did they not drink? God, he would go back to it if he had kids, no question. Or maybe they were sneaking rum into those co-colas, as his father called them. When the old man wasn’t talking about traffic or golf, he often orbited back to a story about his friend Jim Seams, who’d offered him the chance to invest in a company making a new sweet carbonated caramel drink. He’d said no, and this was one of his life’s regrets, he always said, because he could’ve been fabulously wealthy. But of course he was already rich as hell. And did he regret this investment misjudgment more than cheating on his wife with a steady stream of vacationers? Tim had not worked up the nerve to ask the old man that one.
The movie star paused to unlock his room, then seemed to remember that he hadn’t locked it, and turned the knob. Under the porch light, Tim saw that water dripped from his clothes. He watched until the man shut the door behind him and the light came on in his room. Tim saw nothing more worth noting before he fell asleep on his couch. He dreamed of his mother, dead fifteen years—since not long after Tim came back for good. She put her hand on his arm and asked him, “What is he doing here?” In the dream Tim thought she meant Tim Senior, and he couldn’t answer her, never could speak in his dreams. She seemed so worried, on the verge of tears, and he tried to hug her, but then she disappeared and the dream went black.
Leigh Ann, the seventeen-year-old daughter of Pete and Elaine Talling, knew who the movie star was immediately. A gesture gave him away, the way he paused before bringing a cigarette to his lips, held it close to his mouth as he exhaled, like that poor soldier he’d played who’d fallen in love with his brother’s wife and then had finally killed himself. Leigh Ann and her parents had just come back from an early morning stroll on the beach. The movie star sipped coffee from one of the small white mugs that came from the kitchenettes. He was reading the local paper. Beside his lounge chair was an ashtray and a paperback with a picture of a man’s hand holding a bloody dagger. The blood and the lettering were metallic red. He wore jeans and a long-sleeved shirt because it was still cool. No one else was out yet—the sun hadn’t even topped the dunes yet. The sky was orange-pink, long clouds like marble veins carrying the color.
“Mom, it’s! It’s!” Leigh Ann whispered, but her voice carried more than she’d intended in the morning quiet.
Elaine grabbed her daughter’s hand, a protective reflex. Then she saw where Leigh Ann was looking and understood. She knew who it was, too, right away—he’d played that drifter who’d stayed briefly with a woman whose emotionally distant husband had recently died—they’d called it a May-September romance since the woman was older than the drifter but not that old—and when he left, she’d cried, but he had healed her, and she was ready to face life alone. Elaine felt a heat in her chest thinking of it.
“What?” Pete asked, and Leigh Ann and Elaine both looked back at him, scowling. Elaine actually brought her finger to her lips.
They were near the edge of the patio, and across the flat blue surface of the pool, the movie star appeared not to have heard them.
“I guess we should leave him alone,” Elaine whispered. “He probably wants quiet time.”
Pete snorted. “Nonsense. He can have quiet time in his room. Patio’s a common area.” As a matter of fact, Pete wanted quiet time in his room. He was annoyed with himself for not thinking through the sleeping arrangements better—getting a two-room suite somewhere else, for example. But Elaine had wanted to come here since she’d been before as a child, and he hadn’t questioned it, and because of this they’d had no chance to have sex at night, which was when Pete preferred to have it, because then he could just go to sleep. Elaine didn’t seem to mind. They’d managed it one afternoon while Leigh Ann was down at the beach, and they’d had to lock the door, and they were both distracted worrying that Leigh Ann might come back needing something. Not like they had much sex these days, but Pete had hoped things might pick up at the beach. “Two weeks of this,” he muttered, and Elaine shushed him.
“Hello!” Pete bellowed, and the movie star looked up and smiled politely. “Just get in?”
The movie star dropped the newspaper against his chest and ticked his ball cap up his forehead. “Yep, last night,” he said. “Great place.”
“We’re on our second week,” Pete offered, and Elaine touched his arm.
“I’m sorry, we hate to disturb you,” Elaine said, and then Leigh Ann gathered her courage and said, “Are you Bram Carr?”
“Yes,” Bram Carr said, “And I have to ask you a favor.”
The next day, the Elterlings and the Postons took Bram Carr to dinner at a place that could only be reached by boat. The Shack, it was called. Walt, whose Navy career made him the sea-faring expert among the couples, had chartered the best boat in the area to get them there.
Corinne Elterling and Stella Poston, friends since college, primped in the bathroom of Stella and Frank’s room while waiting for the boat to arrive at the pier, laughing at themselves. It had been a long time since they’d shared hair curlers and make up, getting ready for a date. But that’s what this was. It was a date, and everyone was on it—the wives with their husbands, the wives with the movie star, and, to be honest, the men with the movie star as well. Corinne had noticed that Walt, who since his Navy days had kept to a schedule with grooming, shaved more carefully than usual, and had even used a cologne Corinne had given him two years earlier; she’d heard him slapping it on his face before he’d gone to get the boat. Stella reported that Frank had asked her if his shirt matched his shorts—which of course it did; what doesn’t match khaki?
Frank was at that moment standing on the wooden bridge over the dunes, waiting with Bram for the boat to arrive. He’d been the one to set this up. Good old Frank—never met a stranger. He hadn’t known who Bram Carr was; he’d just struck up a conversation with him while getting ice at the motel office. The actor had asked Frank if he knew of this restaurant on one of the outlying sea islands that that you could only get to by boat, which was apparently famous for its seafood—pearly scallops fat as hamburger patties, etcetera—and Frank had said he knew the place well, and that he and his wife and friends would be happy to take him there. It was a two-hour ride up the coast.
The women could see through the window that Frank had taken a cigarette from Bram—he hadn’t smoked in years—and they puffed companionably, gilded in late morning sun. To Corinne, Bram could be another son, brother to her only child; she felt that much tenderness for him. And then of course, she could not help herself but think of how Frank could have been her husband instead of Walt. He could have been.
The two women watched Frank and Bram on the bridge and, beyond them, the slow arrival of what looked to be their chartered boat, a white wedge in the still-orange sun. Stella said, “Remember how we used to sneak Frank’s cigarettes?” And Corinne nodded and pulled from her pocketbook her lipstick, Evening Shade, the only color she wore anymore, for the very reason that it helped her remember—stealing cigarettes, being young, not having her life decided. She dabbed it on and thought of how, during the fall of her senior year at Wesleyan, nearly forty years before this beach trip, she had taken several of Frank’s cigarettes with her, wrapped in tissue, when she went home to help her father settle things after her mother’s death from lung cancer. The illness had been so aggressive, and her eventual succumbing to it so terribly clear to all of them, including Corinne’s mother (who did not smoke), that she had handled funeral arrangements and updates to her will well in advance. She was practical and clear-headed to the end. After she was gone, Corinne, had stayed with her father through the holidays. She’d taken so many extra courses in her first three years that she was still on track to graduate in the spring. She’d thought she might smoke the cigarettes if she needed to calm her nerves. But after her mother’s death, she never smoked another.
Stella, who was her roommate and best friend, had written weekly letters that fall. Also Corinne kept in more sporadic touch with Walt, whom she’d dated at first only because Walt’s friend Frank was dating Stella. Frank and Stella’s relationship seemed serious enough that both Walt and Corinne had wondered if they would soon be asked to be best man and maid of honor. What a way to meet at the altar, Walt had joked, and Corinne knew Walt was trying to find out just how open Corinne was to that happening between the two of them.
But Corinne tried never to give Walt a sense in either direction, since she herself had not come to any conclusions. He was smart, sincere, and interested in her—all the things her mother had taught her to look for in a man—but she hadn’t felt that spark. She couldn’t shake the feeling that Walt was trying to acquire her, though she couldn’t point to any particularly proprietary words or actions, just an overall unease. And so she never asked Stella about her plans or desires concerning Frank. This was because although Corinne genuinely liked Walt, she was drawn to Frank. Both men—boys at the time—were handsome and sweet-natured, but Corinne “had eyes” for Frank, as her mother would have said had she still been alive for Corinne to confess to. And of course there would be no confessing to Stella, because Stella was Corinne’s best friend. So when Stella wrote that she and Frank had broken up while Corinne was home cleaning out her mother’s closet so that her father could bear to go into the master bedroom again, Corinne sat down at her mother’s dressing table and wrote a letter on her mother’s vanilla stationery back to Stella in which she encouraged Stella to make up with Frank. “I think he’s a wonderful guy, and you are the best of the best. If you two can make up maybe you can have a life together.”
She’d written this letter caught up in a dutiful spirit—the helpful daughter, the supportive friend. This was all fine until she received a letter from Frank days afterward. It was the only letter she received from him during her four months away from school—in fact, the only letter she ever received from him in her life. He too was writing with the news of his and Stella’s break up. He also wanted to tell her that they were all sad about her mother, and hoped she was doing okay, and looked forward to having her back. And right at the end, he wrote, “Even though Stella’s thrown me off, I hope you and I can still be friends. I’d hate to think that you wouldn’t talk to me anymore.” There were a couple more sentences wishing her family the best, and hoping they would get through the holidays all right, etcetera, and then Sincerely, Frank.
Corinne had kept this letter from forty years ago. It was one of her life’s treasures, as important as her son’s childhood pictures and the few silk scarves and simple pieces of jewelry she’d kept of her mother’s when her father died a few years later and the house was emptied and sold. She could go years without looking at the letter, but always she knew it was there, a part of her life that, although unrealized, was no less real to her than the life she was actually living.
What she had loved—still loved—about Frank was that he was anything but sincere. He was true—she didn’t doubt that. But it was clear to her even back when they were in college that he hadn’t been cast in stone like so many boys already had. You could see it in their faces, in their eyes. They’d accepted the order of things as presented to them by their families, churches and schools. They were the future leaders, the keepers of insight and intelligence, the shelterers of women and children, the stronger, better sex. But not Frank. How had she known? He’d winked at her during the prayers at some campus function at the beginning of the fall semester right before she had gone home, and her heart had yo-yoed in her chest. He had seen her standing there open-eyed. He knew about her. But he was Stella’s until she let him go, and when Stella’s next letter came saying she’d decided Corrine was right and she had gotten back together with Frank, Corinne put him in a box. Actually, she pressed him flat and slipped his letter in her journal—all she had of him—and she stayed with her father through the holidays (he’d refused a tree but they went to her aunt’s house for Christmas dinner) and then she bought a ticket to come back to school the day before classes started.
Stella had written that she and Frank and Walt were planning to meet her at the train. They would go out to dinner to celebrate being together again, and to get Corinne started on the right track for their final semester, after all she’d been through. But Corinne didn’t know what had transpired between Stella and Frank over the past several weeks—if their reconciliation had stuck—Stella’s letters had shrunk to three-line howzit’s during the holiday break.
When Corinne’s train arrived, only Frank and Walt were waiting (Stella had a cold, Walt explained later). Corinne had already smoothed on a layer of Evening Shade and powdered her nose. When she stepped off the train, it seemed that there was a question in the men’s uptilted faces. She believed in this moment that she could choose either one, and her choice would stick. As she walked toward them, seeing that expectation in their eyes, she was sure that whomever she kissed hello first would be the one she married. She knew this, as if someone had told her.
Frank stood just behind Walt—she would have to pass Walt to go to Frank, which was exactly what she intended to do. She made herself glance a smile at Walt and then kept her eyes on Frank as she got closer, and he had that same expression as when he’d winked at her during prayer. I know you. She wanted to throw her arms around him. The urge was so powerful she thought she might sob—not just from desire but from everything—her father’s stare, the empty closet still smelling of her mother’s perfume—and she fumbled and dropped her purse. Walt bent to get it, which would have offered her the chance to step around, to get to Frank, but instead she looked at him, waiting for him to embrace her, and Walt stood then and turned toward her, and leaned to kiss her on the cheek, and they hugged, and six months later they were married.
“Well, I guess that’s it,” Stella said, pointing to the white boat now dropping anchor by the pier. “It’s huge!”
It was huge, towering over the water. Walt obviously had decided to impress with his selection. Corinne put on her wide-brimmed hat and gathered her tote bag with sunscreen, snacks, towels, and her swimsuit, which she had no intention of putting on. She made sure she had Walt’s trunks—he would not have been pleased if she’d forgotten them, even if he didn’t end up swimming. He took care of all matters concerning house, lawn and car maintenance, but he expected her to run the household, including travel logistics. This understanding had been worked out between them through not a little friction in the early years of their marriage.
She followed Stella out onto the patio, waited while she locked the door. Frank and Bram waved to them from the bridge. The sunlight was still low-angled but now piercingly bright. Corinne put on her sunglasses; she could only imagine that Walt had gotten his before leaving, and she decided not to go back to their room to check—this in itself a small act of rebellion.
As Corinne and Stella climbed the boardwalk steps, Corinne watched Walt step from the boat onto the pier. She felt an anticipatory swell of seasickness. She had taken Dramamine and hoped it would kick in soon. She kept her eyes on Walt as she and Stella joined Frank and Bram on the bridge. Stella leaned next to Frank on the railing, and Frank put his arm around her in greeting since Bram was talking at that moment about his last movie, which was in production.
“It’s called Line in the Sand, and it’s about these creatures that come out of this huge fault in the desert, and I’m the guy who goes after them—anyway,” Bram said, “It’s the last one I had to do under this contract, and now I’m free.” He smiled, a bit apologetically even, and Corinne was glad for her age. If she’d been younger, she would have been terrified to be around a man this beautiful. There was a reason for the phrase “devastatingly handsome,” and men like Bram Carr embodied it. When she’d realized that she was past the point where men younger than fifty didn’t even look at her, she’d gone through a period of disappointment, a kind of mourning, really, and then had arrived at the realization that she, like an actor on her last contract film, was free. Or at least as free as she would be in her life before injury or illness (every winter cough made her wonder if cancer was setting in) hobbled her. She would no longer concern herself with pleasing men, and she tried not to regret all the effort she’d put into it in the past.
“Well, I for one can’t wait to see it,” Stella said about the desert creature film, and Bram shook his head as if to say there was no need for flattery, and Corinne wanted to chime in and say that actually, Stella was quite serious. Stella loved action pictures, romantic comedies, anything with a well-worn plot line. She had always made fun of Corinne’s movie choices, joking that subtitles were required whether or not the dialog was in English. It was a gentle teasing, a thread in their long friendship. For the past four decades, they’d seen each other only a few times a year, usually during a visit to one another’s houses—Frank and Stella on a lake in Michigan, Walt and Corinne near DC—and then made one trip a year together, usually to the coast somewhere. They had all changed—honed themselves—over the years. Walt, for example, had decided after President Clinton’s indiscretion that he could never again vote for a Democrat, no matter how well-qualified—though as a Navy man he’d deeply resented Senator Kerry’s swiftboating; Frank had quit drinking after losing a job (Stella hadn’t offered details and so Corinne hadn’t pressed), and now Frank had a drink only rarely; Stella had gone back to her Catholic faith with Frank’s blessings though not his participation, and Corinne believed that the timing of this was due at least in part to Stella’s acceptance in her mid-forties, after multiple miscarriages, that biological motherhood would not happen for her. And Corinne—how had she changed? She wished someone would tell her, and then again she didn’t want to know.
Frank said they should head over to the pier. They started walking, and Corinne had a sense, just for moment, that Bram Carr was not quite there. She felt her own impermanence like another wave of dizziness, and she squeezed her hands together, willing the thought away.
They went through Charlie’s and headed to the end of the pier toward Walt and the boat. The men helped the women aboard. Bram helped Walt bring up anchor. Walt joked that maybe Bram had learned a thing or two in that film where he’d played a boy enlisted at the last minute in an around-the-world sailing race with his father, and then the father gets injured and the son has to fight pirate attacks and a mighty storm to complete the race and—maybe because the film was done in Britain rather than in America—the son didn’t win, but he did survive.
“You saw that?” Bram asked, genuinely surprised. “That’s an old one.”
“I did, I did,” Walt said. “Made me actually miss the Navy.”
The two men laughed, and Corinne felt the rocking of the deck under her feet and tried to tell herself she would be OK; she would not get sick. She wondered when Walt had watched this movie—maybe with Alex? She had no memory of it.
The boat had three levels, with the cockpit on top, which Walt was now climbing a ladder to reach. Stella climbed down another ladder to explore below deck. Corinne didn’t trust her equilibrium enough yet to try going below. The boat didn’t seem nearly as big now that they were on it. She’d heard Walt mention fifty feet, which had sounded massive to her, but the main deck now looked no bigger than a kitchen nook to her. She turned to Frank just as Walt yelled something from the cockpit. Frank tilted his head back and cupped his ear to indicate he hadn’t understood, and Corinne saw again the young man who had waited for her at the train station with Walt when she’d come back to school. She liked to think of them getting up that morning, getting dressed, driving in Walt’s car to the station. What had they said about her, if anything? What had they thought but kept to themselves before she had chosen which one she would marry? (Certainly they believed they’d decided, but men didn’t really decide these things; she understood that now.) And why was she still wondering, all these years later?
Walt repeated whatever he’d said to Frank, and Frank nodded and turned to her and smiled that knowing yet unconcerned smile, as if they were the only ones in on a secret. Walt turned the boat toward open water. She swayed on her feet as the boat surged forward, and Frank cupped her arm under the elbow. She smiled to him in gratitude—speaking would have done no good over the roar of the engine and the wind filling their ears. And what would she have said—please keep holding me? She grasped Frank’s arm and watched the hatch leading down below, waiting until the last moment, when she saw Stella emerge, to let go.
That same morning, Leigh Ann’s father noticed, she’d felt the need to shower, apply makeup and blow dry her hair before leaving the room. They had all slept late—Pete for his part because the previous evening, he and Elaine had sent Leigh Ann to the small grocery just past the pier to pick up some ice cream. The errand gave Pete and Elaine just enough time to make love and get dressed again before their daughter returned. “High school all over again,” Pete had said, still breathing a bit heavily, zipping up, and Elaine shook her head, smiling, and nothing more was said, because they both at that moment remembered that their daughter was a high school senior. She didn’t have a boyfriend, and they were reasonably sure she had not yet had sex, which they hoped would remain the case for a while, so they didn’t meet each other’s eyes to acknowledge the comment. As they busied themselves straightening the bed, straightening their clothing, Elaine let her thoughts flow back to the movie star, who had made for good fantasy while Pete labored above her. He was not a bad lover—after twenty years he knew what she liked—but he wasn’t very versatile. She wondered if he could tell that she had been imagining herself in a movie with a man not quite young enough to be her son.
The idea had not escaped Pete. The next morning, watching his daughter tie a cotton wrap around her slim girl hips, he wondered if the movie star could be exerting the same influence on his wife that he seemed to have over his daughter.
Leigh Ann was back after only a few minutes, her face red and her eyes watering. “What?” Elaine said, starting toward her, but Leigh Ann held a hand up to ward her off.
“He’s gone,” she said, and Elaine heard the suppressed wail in those two words and felt it in her own heart.
Early that afternoon, Frank led the way down the baked wood of the dock and then onto a sandy path toward a cinderblock box with a low roof and a metal door. To the right of the door, leaning against an empty wooden crate, was a hand-lettered sign which said Maters Fer Sale. Corrine wondered if the blatant misspelling was intended or not. She was near the back of the file, with only Walt behind her. He had a habit of never letting her be at the rear of a group, or the last to pass through any door—this wasn’t just the gentlemanly norms of men his age; it was some remnant of his wartime experience which he would never discuss nor negotiate.
Once inside, the group moved slowly, their eyes adjusting to the dim light compared to the unrelenting brightness outside. Frank dragged an extra chair to a round table, wood legs scraping against the sandy floor. They arranged themselves around the table—Stella and Corinne next to each other, the men grouped on the other side—and finally a waitress appeared and they ordered beer. As soon as she was back with a pitcher and plastic cups, Frank and Walt ordered the food—a bucket of steamed crabs, another one of steamed oysters, scallops, hushpuppies and coleslaw. Bram leaned back in his chair, nodding in approval, surveying the place.
“You sure you got enough here?” the waitress said, smiling. She was probably no older than forty, but the sun had leathered her skin. She seemed woven from the wind and the tough dune grasses. She didn’t seem to recognize Bram Carr, and Corinne was happy to see that he didn’t seem to care. Maybe he preferred that, after living almost his whole life in the public eye.
Walt told the waitress they’d all worked up an appetite, just getting there.
“You know we serve family style here, don’t you?” the waitress said. “Big portions. You don’t want to ruin your figure now, do you?”
Walt grinned. He was enjoying the banter. Oddly enough, this was when Corinne found him most attractive—when another woman was paying him some attention, however innocently.
“Why don’t you sit down and bitch at me, make me feel at home,” he said to her, and there was a moment where everyone took in what he’d just said, and then the men laughed while Corinne and Stella looked at their laps and shook their heads. The waitress slapped Walt on the shoulder in mock offense, but she was laughing too as she walked away. They were playing their roles perfectly, Corinne thought, the blustering men, the rueful, smiling wives.
“Oh that’s great,” Bram said. “I’ve got to write that down.”
“Will it get into one of your movies?” Stella asked, and Bram said you never knew when a good line would come in handy. Walt asked if they could get tickets to the premiere, and Bram laughed and shrugged, as if this whole idea had surprised him.
Stella giggled. She was already on her second beer, while Frank had barely touched his. Corinne herself wanted to put her forehead on the table, but not because of her husband’s quip—a line he’d picked up from his Navy days. (It had enraged her the first time she’d heard him say it, even though she knew he didn’t see her as a nag. Now it only faintly embarrassed her for its unoriginality—something Fred Flintstone might’ve said if his cartoon self had been allowed an off-color moment.) No, her distress came because she knew one thing for a fact. That worn-out line of her husband’s would end up in a movie—Corinne knew it just as sure as she’d known the significance of that moment in the train station when she was barely twenty-one years old, Frank and Walt’s young faces tilted up to hers. Bram Carr was working on a movie, and they were part of his research. Instead of excitement she felt dread.
Tim saw the boat come in—the hull glinting in pier lights. He couldn’t sleep, which seemed to happen to him more and more often. Times like these, he wished he hadn’t nearly killed himself drinking, because he missed going to bars, even during the season with all the tourists sucking down their Island Iced-Teas. When he quit drinking he’d had to quit bars, too, which in a way was worse. He’d lost his old haunts. Even when he got to the point where he could go places alcohol was served, he always made sure he could order food. A man his age going to a bar and ordering only a soft drink might as well be wearing man sandals, too.
Usually he didn’t know the reason for any particular night’s insomnia. But that night he figured it out as he watched the boat’s approach. It was the actor. He was like some big wild cat dropped into the place. He made you aware of your own mortality, towering twenty times his size on screens around the country. He made you think about the thin thread between this moment and the one when you are gone. You could see yourself passing through time, one door closing after the next, a long hallway of doors.
The girl—poor kid—the only teenager in the Sea Cutter this week, was out there lurking by the pool. Tim hadn’t noticed her until she moved forward from a shadowed spot in front of one of the empty rooms. She’d been watching the boat, too. Tim could see the blue TV glow through the curtains of her parents’ window in Number 3. He wanted to see what would unfold. The girl was wearing a dress, had a book in her hand and a flashlight under her arm. Tim stood up for a better view through his window. Then she did something that stopped him. She turned her back to the dunes so that she was facing the office, above which Tim stood, frozen now, wondering if somehow she’d heard his couch creak. But she didn’t look his way; instead she cupped her forehead in her free hand, raised her shoulders and pressed them down. She was steeling herself.
She turned back to the dunes, and a second or two later, the movie star appeared on the bridge, every bit an actor making his entrance. The actor stopped when he saw her. He was probably used to people popping out from the shadows everywhere he went. The girl reached for him, and he tilted his head toward her, and Tim wondered if he ought to phone her parents’ room. But then he decided he had to leave. Whatever was going to happen, he didn’t want to watch. One of those doggy old men, he thought, feeling around for his keys in the dark, stuffing his feet into loafers so worn they were a second skin. He made his way down the wooden steps on the street side, crossed the gravel lot to his car. It was nine o’clock on a Thursday night, and the kitchen might still be serving down at the Silver Crescent. He hadn’t gone there for any reason for as long as Marcy had worked there, and he didn’t know if she was even still working there. Chances were she was taking all the shifts she could get before winter set in.
He would’ve walked if it weren’t for the kitchen getting close to closing. He rolled the car windows down, propped his elbow on the door. Salt air streamed over his arm. He thought, My life is certainly half over, if not more so. It was a simple truth. He decided he would order a burger and a decaf coffee. As a child he couldn’t figure how the old men at the docks could drink coffee, black, even in the dead heat. He’d guessed it was one of those skills that only came with time, like snoring loudly, or taking out your teeth. Now he couldn’t think of anything better than black coffee, the last of the day, burned, oily on top, the stuff that would get thrown out if he didn’t show up to order it.
He would tell Marcy not to make another pot. He would tell her he was sorry. Sorry for that girl who got trapped here as sure as he did, even if on purpose at the time. Sorry as she’d probably felt for him all those years ago. He would tell her that he’d been thinking about love, how it comes to you in different ways over the course of a life. When you’re young you want a woman for all that you don’t know about her: where she is when she isn’t with you, what she feels like. And there’s a lot you don’t want to know. As you get older, you can appreciate a sense of history in a person. Less needs to be said or argued over. It either is or it isn’t, and you’re relaxed—or worn out—enough to know.
“I waited for you,” Leigh Ann whispered when Bram got close enough. Fortunately the old people he’d come back with had veered off to the other side of the pool, and Bram had left them at the bottom of the boardwalk steps. He’d stopped at the sound of her voice, startled. She had startled him. The thought that she’d had some physical effect on him, however slight, thrilled her. Her heart felt lodged in her throat, like something wild fighting its way out, and she concentrated on keeping her balance.
He shook his head, smiled. Recognizing her. She said, “I kept your secret.”
His voice seemed to be something that existed outside of him, surrounding her. “Let’s take a walk on the beach. Tomorrow morning, sunrise.”
Walt deposited Bram, Frank, Stella and Corinne at the pier, then continued to the marina to return the boat. Stella, who was quite drunk, leaned heavily against Corinne and Frank.
“You go on ahead,” Frank said to Bram. It was clear to Corinne that he was embarrassed. He’d kept his consumption to one beer at The Shack.
“Are you sure?” Bram said. He looked uncomfortable too. Corinne was sure he’d seen Stella get sick over the side of the boat on their way back.
“Absolutely,” Frank said. “You go on.” They said their goodbyes and Corinne watched the movie star’s shadow casting long black streaks in the gold lights along the railing. She and Frank each held one of Stella’s arms to help her negotiate the uneven planking of the pier and then the narrow steps. They turned to the right, heading toward The Sea Island Cutter, and then toward Frank and Stella’s suite on the far side of the pool. Soft air threaded over the dunes, into Corinne’s hair and across her face. She held Stella’s weight against her while Frank found the key, pushed open the door. They guided her into the dark room, laid her down on the bed next to the window. Corinne unfastened her sandals and Frank awkwardly drew the covers over her. Stella curled up and turned on her side, the rustling of linens magnified in the quiet room. Corinne had the sense that she and Frank were the parents, putting their child to bed. It could’ve been; she was sure of it. But she knew if she didn’t say anything, Frank would thank her and say goodnight, and maybe they’d have a laugh over this crazy trip they’d just had, and she’d be dismissed. So she asked him if he would sit out on the patio with her until Walt returned.
He straightened and looked out the window for a moment. She knew he was tired—she was tired, though it wasn’t very late—the sun had set only an hour earlier. The thought of that made her so sad she considered saying, no, never mind; it was time for all of them to turn in. But then she saw herself in the train station, walking toward him, his young face. Always, always she had stopped short of revealing her true feelings. This time, maybe she wouldn’t.
Marcy wasn’t working at the Crescent that night, Tim was informed by Mike, the owner. Mike knew their history, just as everyone who lived on the island knew the details of everyone else’s lives. Tim ordered his burger and burned coffee anyway, ate slowly. He tipped well, got back to the car, headed toward the motel. Drove past it to Marcy’s house, which she’d purchased years before the market exploded, but now she could probably barely afford the property taxes, Tim figured, especially after the real estate bubble popped and no one had money for vacations. His own father had loaned her the money for the down payment. Cash, and she’d paid him back with interest. The house had been servant quarters for one of the first real mansions built on the island. The mansion had gotten knocked down in a hurricane, and in its place was a tower of condos—everyone on the island had been up in arms when those had gone up. Marcy’s house stood off a bit, a rare stand of trees screening it from the condos and the road.
It was too late to call; he wouldn’t have called anyway. Her lights were on. More than fifteen years since he’d been there and he could still picture in his mind the small screened porch out back, necessary on the sound side to avoid getting bled to death if you wanted to sit out in the evening. Likely she was there, reading or just watching the sliver of water she could see. She’d always hated TV; said it made her nervous. She could sit and read and smoke for hours, closed off from him; he remembered that. He was pretty sure she’d quit smoking; he hadn’t seen her light up at work in years. But she could still shut him out. He remembered that, too.
All this filed through his head while he made his way down the path, raised his knuckles to the door, which was partially open. She opened up before he could get one tap in. Dark hair slung around her neck and down one shoulder, a silver thread or two. Not much age on her, he thought, now that he was allowing himself to look her in the face. The arm propping the door open was slim and muscled, all that cleaning and hauling stuff around, probably. She dizzied him. He propped his feet wider apart on her wooden stoop, sailor’s stance. She was only smiling around the eyes, waiting for him to say something. She’d always been able to outwait him.
“You don’t lock your door at night?” Tim said.
“I recognized the sound of your car.” That took him back. It was the same car he’d had when he met her—new then, latest model, his pride. The fact that it was still in one piece in this salt air, not to mention after his drinking years, driving like a crazed blind man—well, he could say in this case the car was like the man. Beat up, but lucky to be around at all.
“I came because—”
“You want sex.” She laughed.
He couldn’t deny it. The difference was, that wasn’t all. He put a bend in his knees to keep the blood running. “I just want to sit for a while.”
She turned, left the door standing open. In the moment he turned to close it behind him, she was gone, already on the porch. He walked through the small living room, which was furnished with cast-off hotel sofas and end tables. She had a glass of wine; another glass stood empty on the coffee table next to a chilled bottle of water.
“That was fast service,” he said.
She smiled, shook her head. “Mike told me you were coming.”
In earlier years, this preempt would’ve infuriated him. Not just that, but her amusement. His rage at staying on the island at all, when for the first half of his life he’d been dying to get away. A high school graduating class of nine—how cute! the college girls all said. It was practically a closer line. But if you’d asked him then, he knew he wouldn’t be anywhere near this place, begging this woman, any woman, just to let him sit for a while. He would’ve stormed out, gone for drinks if he didn’t already have anything handy. He would’ve lost her. He had lost her.
He was so stunned he could think of nothing to say. His eyes felt filled with blood; he was blinking through a screen of static, and so he didn’t see her reach for him, could barely feel her hand on his arm. Sitting him down. Settling him.
What if Corinne had told Stella all those years ago that she was in love with Frank? What would Stella have done? If Frank had felt anything for Corinne, wouldn’t he have tried to let her know? But he had with the letter, hadn’t he? Corinne had asked herself these questions so many times over the years that they were like mantras, visiting her again now as Frank followed her outside, leaving Stella snoring softly in the room. They sat on the patio chairs. The girl who had waited for Bram, and Bram himself, were gone. Corinne had seen them as they’d made their way to the room, but had pretended not to. That girl had more courage than Corinne could ever claim. Some would call her actions foolish, even reckless, but Corinne knew better, and time had made her more qualified to judge.
All around them was the sighing air, the muffled thud of water plowing into land, just out of view. “Quite an adventure we had today,” Frank said, and Corinne nodded.
“I was thinking of Gilligan’s Island,” she said, and Frank laughed. She said, “I was trying to figure out who would be who. We didn’t have the right number in our party though.”
“You were always good with the numbers,” Frank said.
This simple comment landed between her ribs. She had been good with numbers. She’d helped Frank and Walt—Stella, too—with math homework and exam preps; had practically done it for them. She’d thought of majoring in math, but her advisor had discouraged it for reasons she couldn’t even remember now. She’d taken the advice, and she shouldn’t have—another regret. But Frank had remembered this about her. He’d known her then and he still did.
“Now there’s calculators the size of watches,” Corinne said, and Frank nodded.
“Everything’s easier now,” he said.
He was right in some ways. Life had seemed very difficult to Corinne when she was younger. Especially when her mother was dying, and for years afterward. In fact, life had seemed to be an exercise in self-denial: holding her father up through his grief when she’d wanted to fall apart, cheerleading Stella back into Frank’s arms when she’d had her own hopes for him. Maybe no one would’ve expected her to do different; after all, she had been trained to deny herself many things as required of females by the society of her youth—the freedom to go wherever she wanted, to enter almost any profession except nursing or teaching (she’d chosen teaching), to experiment sexually without regard for her future worth as a mate. But she’d believed in her youth that her feelings for Frank would pass, or that she could will them to pass, just as she had willed herself not to cry for her mother. What good did crying do? Or wanting, really? In the end, your life was what you did—your thoughts and desires and yearnings dissipated like breath.
He’s making a movie about us, you know,” she said.
“Who?” Frank shook his head. “Oh, Bram, right. You think so?”
“I know it.”
“He said that?”
“No, I just know.” It seemed silly to try to explain, and what did it matter whether she was right? The reason she’d felt sick at the idea in the restaurant was because she wasn’t satisfied. She had not lived her life according to her own choosing. The air swirled over her skin; the sunburn she’d gotten in spite of the sunscreen tingled on her arms.
“Frank, I have to ask you a question.”
Frank turned to her, waiting. The longer the wait, the harder it would be to ask, she knew, but she was caught short by a memory of Walt holding their son at her bedside at home while she recovered from her C-section. Had he not cried in wonder? Had he not told her then and many other times that she was the best thing in his life, that without her he’d be lost? Perhaps it was her fault, a defect in her love, that she could not feel passion for a man who had said and done those things. Her deepest moments of tenderness toward him came after thinking of the shortcomings in her love for him. He deserved better—to be loved fully and gratefully.
As if he’d heard her thoughts and agreed, Walt’s car turned into the parking lot. She saw the swing of his headlights, the silver flash of their sensible sedan. She turned to Frank; his back was to the lot, so he hadn’t seen the car, and its progress was silent with the ocean in their ears.
“Did you ever love me?”
He leaned forward, as if he wasn’t sure he’d heard her, and then leaned back in his seat again, smiled at her, and closed his eyes as if remembering. “Always.”
“I mean back then.” She thought she sounded choked. She looked down at her hands, swallowed to try to get her voice under control. “When my mother died.”
“Corinne,” he said, and then nothing. He was watching her now. She had his attention. Behind Frank, Walt had parked the car, switched off the lights.
“Just tell me, please. Maybe it doesn’t matter now. Or it shouldn’t. But I just—I just want to know. If I made a mistake that day in the train station.”
“The train station?” Frank asked. His tone was gentle, but Corinne could tell the mention recalled no particular memory for him. They’d ridden trains all the time back then, to visit home, to spend a day in the city.
“When I came back, after my mother died?” She watched his face for some sign of recognition. “You and Walt picked me up, and Stella was sick?”
He looked up, shook his head. “Corinne, I’m sorry. I don’t—I should, because I do remember you being away, and we were all worried about you. But I—I just don’t—”
Corinne listened until Frank’s words ran out. He seemed worried that he’d disappointed her. He’d always been inclined to please. She couldn’t bear to explain to him what it had meant to her, that memory she’d turned over and over until it was worn smooth, that other life just out of reach. She’d always been able to picture his young face. Now she could see—let herself see—how he’d aged, his jaw line softening, the pleasant set of his mouth becoming less so over time. While now he looked bemused, he would, perhaps not so many years from now, look simply lost.
“Then I’ll tell you, Frank,” she said. “I did love you. I did for a long time.” She said this while watching Walt soundlessly approach. He passed alongside the pool, looked up, saw them, threw up his arm to wave. Corinne got to her feet, amazed that the world still was as it was. She felt seasick again, the ground moving underneath her. She could not let herself look at Frank.
Frank turned too and waved. She did not know if he had heard her. It didn’t matter. She had said it. Walt’s voice faded into hearing only when he made it to within a few feet of them. “Waiting up for me?” he said. He was smiling, walking briskly. He had orchestrated this day; he had made possible all that they had experienced.
Frank stood up, grabbed his hand to shake it. “Thanks for a great time today,” he said heartily. Corinne stood, too, watched the side of his face that she could see. He could be talking to anyone, smiling his broad, friendly smile.
“Oh sure,” Walt said. “Stella gave in, hmm?” He slipped his arm around Corinne’s waist.
Frank laughed. “She did. And I guess I’m ready to go, too.” He kissed Corinne on the cheek, and they said goodnight, and there they were, the three of them, she thought, just like that winter day nearly decades ago. She watched him open his door and go inside, to get in bed with Stella. It didn’t matter what he remembered or didn’t, or what he thought was true. She could still see the expectation in his face; she would carry it with her, always.
Bram Carr gave everyone something before he left. Tim a signed photograph thanking him for the Sea Island Cutter’s hospitality, Walt a pocket knife which Bram had stolen from props at the end of Line In The Sand, Frank the map Bram had used to get around on location, the Roberts twins and their teetotaler parents some neon sunglass holders which Bram had promoted once and still received by the bagful.
Bram gave Leigh Ann the pack of playing cards after their sunrise walk on the beach. When she’d come out that morning, the sky barely purple where the sun would soon appear, he was waiting on the bridge over the dunes, sipping coffee from one of those kitchenette cups as he’d had the morning she’d first seen him. She remembered that it was his way of holding the cup, like that poor soldier who’d killed himself for love of his brother’s wife, which had given him away. She stood still and watched him, and she wanted to stay right there, at the beginning of this moment, forever. She was becoming aware that what she was missing, and what only time could give her, was the ability to look at her life and know what had been important.
She stood there in her long wraparound skirt and loose-woven cotton sweater layered over a camisole—carefully chosen the night before, and a bit thin for the cool morning—until he turned to set his cup on the bench below the bridge railing and saw her. He smiled, the sky behind him lit like a scrim, and she thought of school plays and how scared she’d been right before walking on stage for even the smallest parts—she’d never gotten lead roles, though she’d always hoped—and she thought that maybe she wouldn’t be scared of the same kinds of things anymore. She made her entrance, crossed the narrow strip of patio and climbed the wooden steps until she stood only arm’s length away from him. He seemed to be on fire, the first sliver of sun glowing on the line of his jaw and the tips of his short, wet-combed hair. Would she have been as amazed by him if she hadn’t been aware of his fame? The fame was part of the picture; she knew. His presence flowed from it. There was a sense of the next moment in his every movement—the way he set down his cup and straightened, the way he smiled at her, the way he waited for her to approach. He seemed interested in nothing else but her as he took her arm and they walked down the steps to the beach. She knew this attention was as addictive as any drug she’d been warned about over years of earnest public school health programs, and no less dangerous in terms of what she might be willing to do, in the future, to get more of it.
On that morning, for the first twenty minutes or so of their walk, she saw no one else on the beach, or at least that was the way she remembered it later. He asked her about her life, such as it was—school, her family, whether she had anyone “special,” as he’d quaintly put it.
You, she wanted to say. You are the only special thing that has happened in my life. But she had enough to sense not to say anything like that. She answered his questions as quickly and generally as she could; she hadn’t yet learned the trick of seeming to answer questions while instead changing the subject. She was accustomed to having to give answers—on tests, on college applications, to her parents. She told him where she’d applied, and where she hoped to actually go. She told him she was interested in political science, though that wasn’t actually true; she had no idea what her interests were. She told him she liked her parents, though at times she felt both resentful of and sorry for them, that they had to place all their hopes on her.
“You know, I’m an only child, too,” Bram said. He smiled briefly at her, blinking in the wind, as if the admission hurt him in some way, and then he stopped walking and turned to face the surf. Wisely, he had guided them toward the rising sun so that it would be behind them once they did turn back. Perhaps he was always conscious of light, of positioning himself in relation to it. She hoped his stopping wasn’t an indication that he was ready to turn back.
“Really?” she said breathlessly, though she knew all the details of his life to date—she’d brought her laptop to the coffee shop next door to the grocery when her parents had sent her for ice cream as a pretense for getting some time alone. She was young, but she wasn’t stupid.
Bram nodded. He seemed not to have anything further to say on the matter. Leigh Ann took a chance. “Did you learn how to disappear?”
“Pardon?” He had this antiquated way of speaking. She wondered if his many roles had bled into him somehow, if that was an occupational hazard.
She blushed, hoping he didn’t think she was crazy. “I mean, did you learn how to not seem to be in the room, to not be listening?”
He smiled at her again, this time with recognition in his eyes. “Yes. It’s served me well.”
Her face grew even hotter with her pleasure in succeeding to connect with him in some way. She hoped the pink-orange sunlight on her face and chest masked her happy discomfort.
“And how about you?” he asked her. “How has this skill helped you so far?” He was sunlit, waterlit; his eyes seemed to glow. She squinted against all of this light; it was too much. She looked at her bare feet, her pale, delicate toes.
“I’ve learned,” she paused, gathering herself, trying not to sound as if she was composing a college application essay. “I’ve learned that nobody knows anything. The more you know, the more you realize how little you know. Everyone is lost,” she said. He was leaning toward her to hear; she was mumbling partly because she was scared that what she was saying sounded stupid, but also because she believed it was the truth and she was saying it out loud for the first time, and that was scary, too.
“You are right,” Bram Carr said, and he seemed almost ready to cry, gazing at her. “You are right. And you are so young to have figured this out.” Was he actually on the verge of tears, or had he simply learned to select his emotions, moment by moment, because of his work? It would be exhausting, trying to know for sure all the time.
She sensed the indulgent tone in his voice, and she laughed. “Do I get a prize?”
He tilted his head back, then looked at his feet in admission of his error. Another perfect gesture. “I do have something for you, actually. A secret.”
She forced herself to look at him, to face his beauty. He said, “I am writing my first script. I had this idea of doing a story about how big life can be in the smallest, most out of the way places. I put a pin on a map and ended up here. Actually, first the pin put me in Saudi Arabia and the second in the South Pacific, but neither one seemed like a good location.” He grinned, and she laughed, right on cue. “So you’ll be in my movie, if I sell it. We’ll all be in it.”
She thought of the older couples with whom he’d spent the previous day, of the motel manager and his sad way of watching the guests from his office window. She understood that she herself wouldn’t be in the movie, but some part of her would be. She stepped toward him, placed her hands on either side of his face and did exactly what she thought she should do, standing on a beach at sunrise with a movie star: she kissed him.
And he kissed her back, pulling her toward him, pressing his hands into her hips, the small of her back. He kissed perfectly, then pulled back, smiling. “Cut,” he said.
She didn’t wait for him to say they should go back. She led the way. She remembered trying to will away the shape of the motel behind the dunes, force it backward, but they arrived anyway back at the bridge which led over the dunes.
He’d had the cards in his pocket the whole time; when he gave them to her at the end of their walk, they were warm. He said, “Maybe this is trite, but I want you to have these to remember the unpredictability of things. Besides, they’re good luck.” He didn’t tell her why.
She had raced to her room afterward to write everything down, after he’d left her there on the bridge, explaining he had to check out, catch a plane, get to his next location.
At first she’d been thrilled, imagining his hands on the cards, sliding them between his fingers. This had worked for a good number of nights after he’d said goodbye to her, until it began to dawn on her that even though she’d stood up close to him, had even kissed him, she would not see him again. She could not contact him. And then his face began to fade for her—it seemed to fade every time she told the story to her friends, though she always left out the kiss. They wouldn’t have believed her anyway, and she wanted to keep one thing to herself, for herself, only. When she saw him on magazine covers—usually in an inset photo with a larger photo of another star in a sparkling dress under a question-marked headline—he didn’t look right to her. She’d never been interested in those magazines or web sites, but she spent hours perusing them until she’d found every image of him and copied it to her personal folder on the desktop. She watched his movies in chronological order, then watched them again. Then one night, in the spring of her senior year, he was scheduled to appear on a late-night talk show. She sat through the stiff jokes and latest musical act to get to his interview about his new movie—and she realized she hoped he would mention her. She also realized that having this kind of desire was crazy and yet disappointment poured over her afterward, and it was all she could do to appear calm in front of her parents long enough to get herself to bed, where she cried herself to sleep.
After that, she wanted to believe the cards had lost their power for her. But she took them to college the following fall and she didn’t tell anyone there her story about Bram Carr. By the beginning of the spring semester of her freshman year, she had a serious boyfriend—she wasn’t sure if she loved him, but she gave him her virginity, and he’d accepted gratefully, and she wondered if he was being dutiful because of that, continuing things with her. She wasn’t excited by him but she figured maybe her standards were still skewed after that walk on the beach, so she persevered. Then she saw trailers promoting Bram Carr’s directorial debut, a romantic comedy set in a coastal town in a slightly rundown motel. She of course went to see it with her boyfriend. It was an ensemble piece—two single parents of young children find an unlikely romance; the funny counter guy gets back together with the cleaning lady who’d ditched him years earlier; two older couples, friends since college, nearly die in a boating accident and finally face up to the fact that they paired up the wrong way. It was a light summer movie about the fleeting moments of life, the ebb and flow, the way we can never go back. She herself, or any version of herself, was not in it.
She went alone to see the movie again so she could concentrate. It was the first time she’d been in a movie theatre by herself and she felt self-conscious, as if she were a suspicious figure. She watched and tried to find herself among the characters, or even a trace of herself—a gesture, a line. She’d written down her conversation with Bram Carr to the word, and so she knew she would recognize the smallest phrase. But again she found nothing of herself—or him—in the movie. Bram Carr had removed himself from the story, and in doing so, he had removed her, and every moment that had happened between them.
Back in her room, the ache in her throat too tight for tears, she considered throwing away the pack of cards—a way of cleansing herself and moving on. But that seemed fake—scripted. So she put them back in her footlocker with her valuables. She kept them during a brief marriage with her dutiful college boyfriend, four years of single life, a new marriage, two children because she’d hated being an only child, and then, when the older daughter was in college, another divorce, though this time much more amicably, then retirement. The cards would surface during moves, or when she cleaned out a closet. She would take them out of the box, fan them out, hold them, try to divine the next card, the next moment in her life.
The movie star died in a car accident on that famous Mulholland Drive, the same year she married for the second time. She flew to LA on pretense of visiting a college friend and drove herself up the mountain to view the site. Tattered banners and streamers and teddy bears marked the point of impact, and she thought how odd it was that no one would know about this one part of him, when he’d given a pack of cards to a young girl. She kept them always, as a reminder.