It was, she thought, the most beautiful place in the world. Sarah Farrington pulled her car off to the side of the road at the top of the last hill before descending into town. This was her favorite moment of returning home, the moment when the hills fell away and the horizon filled with the blue expanse of the Pacific. From the top of the hill, Sarah could see the white foam of breaking waves along the sand bar that marked the mouth of Tomales Bay. The waves formed a trembling line where the water flowing out of the bay met the stronger incoming ocean tide. An osprey hovered, then swooped, talons first, into the calm glistening bay water. The Pacific was never so calm. Placid for a moment, perhaps, but Sarah knew that within minutes the sea could rise and waves would pound against the sandy shore. From where she stood, she could just see the tops of the high sand dunes and the tips of the eucalyptus trees. She could not see the roofs of Thomas Beach. Behind her stretched miles and miles of rolling green hills, pastures filled with sheep and dairy cows, and sleepy northern California towns. Before her lay the edge of the world.
Every time she reached the top of this hill, Sarah was reminded of the beauty she had forgotten. What she carried with her, what she remembered, was the town. Thomas Beach overwhelmed all other images. Memories of Thomas Beach were like a naked light bulb hanging in front of a wall of beautiful paintings. When Sarah closed her eyes all she could see was the glowing outline of the bulb; the paintings were gone. The metallic ticking of the car that had carried her for the past five days from the north coast of Maine to the north coast of California, reminded her that this was not, yet, the end of her journey.
She got back into the car and drove north along the ridge until she came to an unmarked turn off. No highway sign. No arrow. No indication that a town existed at the end of the narrow road leading down to the sea. Sarah slowed, considered continuing straight ahead, on toward Bodega, to Jenner, Eureka, Oregon, continuing all the way to Canada, Alaska, the North Pole. She shifted down into second and turned left.
As she passed the stand of cypress trees that once encircled a one room schoolhouse, Sarah slid the gear shift into neutral. She turned off the engine. It was all downhill from here. The moment her fingers turned the key she felt the familiar tingle of adrenaline beneath her skin. Like a circus daredevil dropping into a cannon, she abandoned herself to the momentum, to the force of gravity, the force of family obligations, of phone calls in the night. The force that she could guide but not control.
The blue '65 Valiant plunged for a mile and a half through hairpin curves so round and serpentine that Sarah felt her stomach swaying. On one side of her was a steep ravine filled with rocks and poison oak, on the other, was the raw hillside. Sarah had played this coasting game ever since she was twelve years old and her father first taught her to drive. Sometimes the ride was smooth, the movement of her hands on the wheel gently coaxing the car through the dangerous curves in perfect synchrony with the freefall motion. Those times she felt as confident as a skier maneuvering through moguls. Other times she held so tightly to the wheel that the blood was forced from her knuckles and she was swept up in the frenzy of almost skidding out of control, narrowly missing the ditch or hanging one tire off the edge of the pavement.
Once she had played the game in her mother's Chrysler. That time when she approached the first curve and turned the steering wheel, she heard a resounding click. That was how she learned about automatic steering lock. The trajectory of the Chrysler had drawn a tangent on the arc of the curve, a straight line to the ravine. Like a horse digging in its hooves before a fence, she had pushed with both her feet on the brake pedal and the Chrysler stopped. Smoke poured from the black stripes of rubber left on the pavement and the shiny grill hung over the edge, but that had not ended the game.
The Valiant didn't have a steering lock. Sarah coasted through the last curve and entered Thomas Beach as she always had, a little too fast. She sped past the large hand-painted sign that was propped up against the trunk of a eucalyptus tree. This was home, the end of the road. Now that you had nowhere else to go, Sarah thought, there was a sign to tell you where you were. "Welcome to Thomas Beach - The Farrington Family Resort." The black hand-painted letters had faded and the white background peeled in tiny curls exposing the plywood underneath. In small letters underneath was written: Population 40. That figure was a few years out of date as Sarah and her brother, David, had moved away, her cousin Rachel lived in San Francisco, her uncle Gerrick's wife, Olive, had run off with the Laura Scudder's Potato Chip man and had taken their two kids with her. Grandma Beatrice was dead.
There were a few additions to the town's social register; two pensioners, a drug dealer and a poet. All of whom had wandered into town and hadn't found their way out again. Here, at the end of the county maintained road, there was no train station, no bus service, no taxi stand, not even a working gas station. One had to make arrangements to leave Thomas Beach before arriving.
The sun was low as Sarah eased into the parking lot of the old Thomas Beach Resort Hotel. It was a long two story building built in the shape of a T. At the intersection of the south wing and the main structure rose a tall square tower with a peaked roof. The upper story of the hotel was dark. Tattered lace curtains still hung in the dirty windows on the second floor. The same curtains, stiff with fly specks, dust and old cobwebs that had hung there when Sarah and David had played hide and seek in the empty guest rooms. The dining room that she remembered as a child was now the Farrington Family General Store filled with the knick-knacks and necessities of beach resort tourists. Long shadows hid what had once been the grand entrance and weeds covered the circle drive where Model T's had let out their parasoled passengers.
From the early 1900's to the 1940's Thomas Beach had been a bustling seaside resort. Playground-by-the-Sea they had called it then. Sarah had seen the fancy phrase emblazoned on faded posters and matchbook covers she found stuffed in a cupboard in the back of the store. Ernest Farrington, Sarah's great grandfather, bought the Thomas Beach Resort Hotel in 1902 from the original owner, Herbert Thomas. At that time the hotel slept thirty-two guests and served fifty people at one sitting in the grand dining room.
When Mr. Thomas built the hotel, in 1856, he wasn't interested in establishing a family playground on the white sand beach or launching fishing boats into the Pacific to catch salmon. He built the hotel to entertain visiting timber merchants who he expected to purchase lumber from his new enterprise: the Thomas Beach Eucalyptus Farm. It was Mr. Thomas's dream to harvest eucalyptus trees for use as building materials and railroad ties for the fast expanding North Pacific Railway. Unfortunately, the imported Australian eucalyptus trees were not suited for building or for the railways. The trees spiraled slightly as they grew and as they dried the cut lumber slowly began to un-spiral. The twisted timber pulled the spikes out of the railroad ties and buckled the walls of houses. Although the oily wood burned very hot, the fire was difficult to control and the logs were soon ruled out as a fuel source for the steam locomotives.
Though unsuccessful as a salable commodity the tall pale trees flourished in the sandy soil along the Northern California coast. They sent their roots out long and shallow beneath the ground and sucked the earth dry around them. Heavy, pungent oils dropped from their narrow leaves and few native could thrive in their vicinity. The native scrub oaks and the cypress trees soon disappeared. Now these strange trees with their ever peeling bark hanging in strips from their trunks, like snakes shedding skin, were the only trees left standing in Thomas Beach.
To his credit Herbert Thomas did not use eucalyptus to build the the Thomas Beach. That building sat on indestructible 12 x 12 virgin redwood pilings and every wall was framed with straight grained Douglas Fir. A hundred years after the first nail was driven into its thick studs, the large building still stood. However, it was no longer a hotel.
Sarah coasted silently to a stop beside two round and rusted gas pumps; regular and ethyl. Both were empty. The underground tank had corroded and been left unrepaired years ago and was now unusable. Above the pumps hung a faded plywood cutout of Pegasus, his wings spread high above his flowing mane and his hooves dancing on the brand name of a gasoline that no longer existed. Sarah walked across the pot-holed parking lot and up the cement steps to the store. Hanging in the front window, beneath a tin Coca-Cola "Yes, We're Open" sign, was a handwritten notice which read: Due to a death in the family the Farrington General Store will be closed tomorrow, June 23, 1985.
This was the reason Sarah had come home; to attend the funeral of her grandmother, Beatrice Farrington. Sarah did not mourn her grandmother's death, nor did she suffer any guilt from her lack of sorrow. There was a nothingness about the way she felt about her grandmother's death, an emptiness that wasn't an absence of love, or an aching void left to be filled. It was simply nothing. Like the absence of pain when a piece of dead skin falls off or fingernails are trimmed. Whatever emotion Sarah had once felt toward her grandmother had dried up long before her death. Even the hate was gone. Sarah Farrington and her grandmother had agreed, silently but unequivocally, on the day they met, nearly twenty years earlier, that they hated each other.
Sarah was six years old. She and her family were moving back to Thomas Beach. Moving back was the way her mother phrased it, but for Sarah and David it was moving away from the life they knew on Naval bases and moving to a strange town, filled with strange people. To celebrate the return of the Sam Farrington's, her father's brother and sister, Gerrick and Hattie, had prepared a huge Christmas feast in the middle of July. The long mahogany table in the hotel dining room was set with linen and silver. A fire crackled in the fireplace beneath the dusty elk's head. There was a 28 pound turkey stuffed with Tomales Bay oysters, mashed potatoes, two inch high soda biscuits, giblet gravy, homemade cranberry sauce and creamed sweet potato casserole with marshmallows melted on top.
"Don't forget your yams," Grandma Beatrice had said as she scooped up a spoonful of orangey-yellow mush streaked with runny white marshmallow.
"I didn't forget Grandmother," Sarah said. "I don't like sweet potatoes."
"Yes, you do. Everyone likes sweet potatoes," Beatrice answered and without hesitating let the dollop of hot mashed tubers fall onto Sarah's plate.
"No. I really don't like them," Sarah replied, certain that her grandmother had merely misunderstood her the first time.
"Nonsense," Beatrice said as she passed the casserole on to her other granddaughter, Aunt Hattie's daughter, Rachel. Rachel took an extra large helping, smiled docilely at her grandmother and rolled her eyes in Sarah's direction.
Sarah, uncomfortable in her tight braids and over-starched dress, tried hard to be polite. Everyone else seemed so happy, smiling at each other, swapping stories, catching up on all the news that Sarah hated to cause a scene. She took a small bite of sweet potato. It was horrid. The fibrous yellow mass swelled on her tongue absorbing all the moisture from her mouth. She had no spit to swallow. The muscles in her throat constricted and with a quick involuntary spasm the offensive food flew out of the child's mouth and landed on her grandmother's bone china bread plate. It sat there, an orangey-yellow lump, just to the right of the half-eaten biscuit spread with brown apple butter.
"You ill-mannered little heathen," the old woman spat under her breath as she turned her large watery eyes on Sarah. The little girl saw the angry liver spotted hands tremble, like quivering membranous gloves, and she sank deeper into her chair. In a frail, matronly voice Beatrice added, "In this house we eat the food God has so graciously provided us. It may be acceptable, in the places you have lived, to dismiss God's bounty, but here we are thankful for Our Lord's generosity and we do not squander His gifts. You are back in Thomas Beach now, young lady, and you will behave yourself. What is left on your plate, Sarah, you will eat cold for breakfast." With that pronouncement a nervous laughter erupted around the table.
Sarah's father was deep in conversation with his younger brother Gerrick and hadn't noticed her dilemma. Carol Farrington, Sarah's mother, however, sat at the far end of the table, acutely aware of the situation. Her eyes begged Sarah to be good, to be quiet, to not make a scene. Sarah knew her mother wanted desperately for them to fit into this family. At the end of the meal the yellow sweet potatoes with the glutinous mass of marshmallows still sat on her plate.
When Sarah slipped down from her chair she felt a tingling at the back of her neck. She turned to find Beatrice glaring at her with unblinking, watery, pale blue eyes. Beatrice said nothing and Sarah said nothing. They simply stared at each other. Stalemate. The six year old was too young to know exactly what game was being played, but it was clear even then, that she and her grandmother Beatrice were on different sides.
Sarah opened the heavy wooden doors and walked into the store foyer. It was a small square room that held strange mementos and a near empty bulletin board. The overwhelming familiarity of every object assailed Sarah's senses, the sweet sticky smell of the oiled wood floor, the hollow swoosh of the swinging doors that lead from the foyer into the store, the musty cedar of the rough walls, smoothed in places by years of children's fingers and passing dresses. Fragments of memories rushed passed her. Bits of old conversations. Childhood faces. Strange featureless sensations. Ghosts.
She shook her head like a pitcher shaking off a bad call. Three tall glass jars, each holding the pickled remains of bleached out flounders and huge horseneck clams, still stood in the entryway. Their glass tops yellowed with dust. She had been told once where they came from but had long since forgotten the story. Perhaps they were purchased by Ernest Farrington on one of his shopping trips into San Francisco. Or, perhaps, they were a gift to her grandfather, Henry Farrington from the wife of a busy sport fisherman. Wherever they came from they had been sitting where they were now, in the corner just inside the front door of the store, for as long as Sarah could remember. In the other corner stood a bright red penny gumball dispenser that still took pennies and next to it stood a nickel toy machine. The toy machine contained peculiarly fascinating objects like fluorescent green rings and black wiggly spiders, each encased in clear plastic eggs. Anachronisms, throw backs from the past, and yet they were more at home here than she was.
"Hello stranger," her Aunt Hattie called out from behind the cash register when Sarah finally left the strange antechamber and pushed through the swinging doors into the store.
Like her Uncle Gerrick and unlike Sarah's father, Hattie Farrington looked liked Grandpa Henry. Hattie was tall, nearly six feet, and as wide as a double house trailer. It was said that Henry Farrington could hold four grandchildren across his chest and that he wore bib overalls made from six pairs of old denim jeans. But Hattie, whose chest was equally spacious, was more fashion conscious. She wore a light colored voluminous cotton shirt over dark stretch pants and a freshly pressed blue smock with hundreds of tiny pleats along the front. Her girth seemed almost regal, like a Polynesian potentate. She dyed her naturally light brown hair jet black which contrasted sharply with her pale complexion and pale blue eyes. From her ears hung large silver hoops and a silver necklace inlaid with glossy abalone shells hung around her neck. On her head she wore a blue captain's hat with a round patch stitched on the front which read: Thomas Beach - The Family Playground. The large script across her ample breast announced Farrington's Family Resort in matching blue letters. Hattie returned to her maiden name after her husbands left her. She was, if Sarah hadn't lost count, between husbands four and five.
"Well, you took your time getting here," Aunt Hattie said in an overly friendly, laughing, voice which didn't match the coldness in her eyes. Sarah noticed that her aunt's eyelids were puffy and rimmed in red.
"It was cheaper to drive than to fly," Sarah answered. "I had the time and I didn't have the money."
"A long drive. But then you like to stay on the move, don't you," Hattie said, remarking on Sarah's inability to stay in one place for more than a few years at a time. "Are you going to stay for the summer, then?"
"No, I have to get back to work," Sarah answered. "Besides, if I stay here that long I may never leave." She could already feel the glass display jar descending. She had a strange fear that years from now she would be found hanging upside down in formaldehyde, in a jar in the corner, just inside the front door.
"We can't have that, now can we?" Aunt Hattie said, the laughter still lacing her husky voice. "If you're looking for your mother, she's in the back bagging ice."
"Thanks," Sarah said, her tone just as friendly and just as false as her aunt's. Hattie dipped her hand into the glass jar filled with candy that stood on the counter. She peeled the plastic wrapper off a piece of Jolly Rancher Watermelon and popped it into her mouth. She tilted the jar toward Sarah. Sarah knew better than to accept the sweet bribe. She had learned years ago how the fat girl ruse worked. Cruelty and cattiness followed by cakes and cookies. "No, thanks."
Sarah found her mother half in and half out of the walk-in freezer. Her father had made the walk-in by backing a two-ton refrigerator truck up to the side of the building. He cut a hole in the wall and Presto, they had a walk-in freezer. It was another two years before he got around to disconnecting the cab, taking off the tires and building a platform and roof for the steel box. Carol Farrington propped the heavy steel door open with her left foot and lunged with her right like an eighteenth century swordsman into the freezer compartment. From this precarious position she was trying to wrestle out a large brown paper bag of crushed ice.
Carol wore the same beach resort uniform Hattie had on, though in a much smaller size. Sarah could see now that there was a large horseneck clam silk-screened on the back of the smock. The clam, even the smallest, most pristine version is not a beautiful creature. The horseneck, a variety of geoduck found only in the Pacific Northwest, is perhaps the ugliest and certainly the most vulgar of all mollusks. Its neck, which measures an average of eight inches long and two inches wide, is covered with thick wrinkled gray skin and resembles a horse's penis far more than a horse's neck. When the body burrows into the sand the neck stretches as much as six feet in order to place its small slit-like mouth above the ground to feed on passing oceanic protozoa. Digging for these clams is more work than sport. As you walk across the slippery, muddy island the necks feel the vibration and retract squirting fountains of water into the air and often up your pants leg. As quickly as possible you dig through the dank smelly mud which oozes back into the hole as fast as you dig it out. The wise clam digger will have spent four dollars at the Farrington General Store to buy a four foot length of stovepipe to shore up the hole. If not, the hole gets wider and wider as you get wetter and wetter and no closer to your prey. When you finally locate the body of the clam you then lay with your face pressed into the mud and reach into the hole to pry the clam loose from the powerful suction that holds it firmly in the black briny ooze. One advantage to this prone position is that now your body is so numb from the cold that you don't feel the sharp clamshell cutting deep gashes into your tender palm as you raise your prize triumphantly from the depths. "Do you need some help with that?" Sarah asked, as her mother pulled the twenty pound bag of ice over on its side.
"No. I've got it." Carol said and then fell backward into a stack of frozen meat. The stack wavered for a moment then toppled over. Bundles of packages wrapped in white butcher paper fell on her head and hamburger patties skidded across the floor like red hockey pucks. Sarah's mother sat on the floor of the freezer surrounded by frozen meat.
"Don't move, Mom. Let me pick these things up or you'll trip over them."
"These damn bags. I've been telling your Dad for years we need our own ice machine." Her breath steamed around her as she spoke but she stayed still while her daughter restacked the frozen packages.
"Do these patties go anywhere particular," Sarah asked. "Or can I pile them up on these cases of Swanson frozen dinners?"
"The packages are all marked so put the patties back where they came from."
Sarah looked down at the broken package in her hand. 6/4/85-GROUND CHUCK - GERRICK was written with a black magic marker across the front of one. Another was marked 6/11/85-SAUSAGE PATTIES - HATTIE. These were not for resale. Like most of the other business equipment, the tractor, the trucks, the vacuum cleaner, the walk-in freezer was used as a Farrington family appliance. Items too large to freeze in their home refrigerators were kept at the store. It was not uncommon to find leftover meatloaf in amongst the root beer Twin Pops.
She retrieved the last of the hamburger patties from behind the frozen orange juice, slipped it back through the tear in the butcher paper wrapping and stacked the other packages on top. Aunt Hattie and Uncle Gerrick would never notice.
"So, how was your trip?" Carol asked as she picked herself up off the floor and gave Sarah a warm but brusque hug. Her mother's hugs were always a bit awkward. They were tentative, encompassing, begging and self-conscious at the same time. Carol seemed uncomfortable with her body as if it didn't quite fit her. Sarah sensing her mother's discomfort hugged her quickly and reached for the box of plastic bags.
"It didn't take as long as I thought it would," Sarah said holding open a plastic bag so her mother could scoop the ice cubes into it. "It's practically all freeway from Maine to California."
"Well, five days seems awfully fast." Carol burrowed a wide mouthed steel scoop deep into the bag of rattling cubes. "You'd better be careful or you'll get another ticket."
"The last ticket I got was ten years ago." With a deftness born of years of practice, Sarah spun the heavy bag and held it out for her mother to close with a bright red twist-tie. "Where's Dad?"
"He and Gerrick are tearing down #22. They're getting ready for the 4th of July bonfire."
"Another cabin? What's that leave us with, four?"
"Three. The roof on #28 was leaking so bad this winter we had to tear it down."
"Fixing the roof wasn't an option, I suppose."
"Now, Sarah, don't you start criticizing me. You only just got here and already you're picking on me." Her mother's voice began to tremble aided in part by the coldness of the steel scoop she still held in her hand. "You'll just have to discuss this with your father."
"O.K. I'm sorry," Sarah said and held her arms out straight for her mother to stack with ice bags. "You're right. It's none of my business."
"I'm glad you came. Beatrice's death has been hard for all of us. Hattie should really have stayed home today. She's so upset."
"I noticed her eyes were puffy."
"She's been crying all day but she won't go home."
"She probably likes the attention."
"Now, Sarah, that's no way to talk about your aunt. After all she's done for us."
"I'm sorry," Sarah said, but she wasn't. She didn't share her mother's views of the Farrington family. As far as Sarah was concerned her aunt Hattie, her grandmother Beatrice and her cousin Rachel had never done anything for them. She also knew that her mother cherished the hand me down clothes ("Hattie has such a sense of style!"), the family picnics ("She sure knows how to have fun!") and the large family Christmas dinners.
"This must be hard for you," Sarah said.
Carol pulled a tissue from the pocket of her smock and blew her nose. She mumbled something that Sarah took to be an acknowledgment of her apology. Then added: "Dinner will be at six o'clock. After the store closes."
"I'll be there."
Sarah emptied her armload of ice into the display freezer at the back of the store and walked through the Pharmacy Section to the front door. For a small store there was an enormous selection of goods: toothbrushes, hair sprays, bobby pins, toe nail clippers, aspirin, Maalox, Pepto Bismal and every brand of seasickness pill on the market. Above the drugs and toiletries hung long bamboo poles for poke pole fishing and green string crab nets in many different sizes. A hand written sign nailed to the center of the largest net read: SPECIAL CRAB BAIT AT COUNTER. Sarah shuddered at the thought of those tasty red crabs gorging themselves, like underwater vultures, on bits of dead flesh fastened to the bottom of the net. The special crab bait provided by the Farrington family, for a special price, was actually plastic wrapped, deep frozen, road kill. Rabbits, possums, raccoons, even small deer that fled into the headlights of the family cars were cut up, skinned, wrapped in plastic, stacked in the walk-in next to Uncle Gerrick's ground chuck and sold to the weekend sportsman.
Another hand written sign hung above the shell counter. This one read: YOU BREAK IT - YOU BOUGHT IT. Strange shell dolls with cockleshell skirts and painted lopsided smiles, handmade by Sarah's great-aunt Ursula, sat amongst the exotic conches and corals imported from the Bahamas and other warm water resorts. Aunt Ursula had died ten years ago but boxes of dolls still waited to be sold. The local sand dollars and olive shells rarely made it to the beach in one piece after the fierce pounding of the Pacific waves. So the tourists at Farrington's General Store bought purple sea urchins from Fiji and tiny perfectly preserved seahorses from the coral reefs of Tahiti.
Sarah laid a few items on the counter in front of her Aunt Hattie: a new toothbrush, a bottle of Anacin and a Big Hunk candy bar.
"Do you want these on your parents' charge account?" she asked. "Or are you paying?"
"I'm paying." Sarah answered as her aunt rang up her purchases, scrutinizing each one as if a secret hid beneath the plastic wrappings.
"Excuse me," a young man said, poking his head between the swinging doors. "Is there a vet in this town?"
"No," Hattie replied. She turned abruptly back to the cash register.
"What's the problem?" Sarah asked the man, embarrassed at her aunt's rudeness.
"It's my dog," the man said. "He's throwing up and his nose is warm. He looks like he's going to die."
"Hmmff," Hattie exhaled as the cash drawer opened. "It was probably eating out of the garbage cans on the beach." With another disdainful snort she made change for the twenty dollar bill that Sarah handed her.
"Look, there's a doctor in Tomales," Sarah said. "Dr. Reynolds. He's not a vet but he might be able to help. Maybe you should call him."
"Thanks. Can I use your phone?"
"There's a payphone outside," Aunt Hattie said.
The man patted his pocketless shorts and Sarah handed him a quarter.
"Thanks again," he said and disappeared through the swinging doors.
"It was probably his dog that knocked over all the cans on the parking lot last night," Hattie said. "There were so many seagulls down there this morning it looked like the county dump. I should charge him for the cleanup service. I have no sympathy for stupid people who can't control their pets. If the dog's sick, well, it serves him right."
Sarah picked up her bag and left.
Sarah left the car sitting in front of the empty gas pumps and walked down the road toward the beach. She jumped up onto the narrow strip of cracked sidewalk that bordered the pavement. A few feet along she tripped over a mound, like a cement volcano, where roots had pushed up the concrete. The cypress tree had fallen years ago but the cement still buckled and a wide fissure opened up far enough to catch a passing heel. Sarah caught herself before she fell and swore out loud for having forgotten this little danger. She had never seen the tree but she had seen pictures of a tall scraggly cypress in a scrapbook at Grandma Maggie's. In the photos, a shiny new 1934 Oldsmobile with a conical steel nose was parked beneath it. Behind the car a line of little cabins stretched all along both sides of the street. Each cabin had a tiny yard surrounded by a white picket fence.
When Sarah was growing up there was still a complete row of cabins on the west side of the road. Now she walked past a row of rusty aluminum trailers, each one carefully decorated with seashells, driftwood, Japanese glass floats, and old lengths of yellowing rope. In front of a silver Airstream, an old two pronged anchor protruded from a menagerie of ceramic seals. Beside a fading Yellowstone Deluxe hung a long string of abalone shells. The pearly insides shone purple and pink in the low afternoon sun. In the garden of the GulfAir Special stood a grey whale's jaw bone which had been converted into a geranium stand. All the windows displayed neat rows of dried starfish, crab shells and sand dollars along their sills.
At the end of the line of trailers stood the remaining four, now only three and a half, cabins. She could see the empty space left by #28 already grown over with sea fig and sour weed. Weeds had sprouted up along the two parallel wooden forms which lay waiting for her father to fill with concrete. It would become another trailer parking space. The shell of Cabin #22 stood next to the empty space. Nothing was left of it but the roof and four exposed stud walls. Sam Farrington stood in the middle of the floor surveying the ropes he had fastened to the supporting walls. The ropes were attached to a towing bar on the back of the tractor idling patiently in the road. His dark hair was neatly parted on the left side. The ridges of the comb's teeth had left deep furrows revealing his pink scalp. He wore a plaid shirt tucked evenly into pressed blue jeans. Sarah watched her father mentally calculate the descent of the roof and the angle of collapse of the walls. He was a carefull man.
It was her father's telephone call, not her grandmother's death, that had brought Sarah home to Thomas Beach. He had called her on Sunday morning. It was the first time in her twenty-six years that her father had ever called her. In fact no one ever called her at 7:30 on a Sunday morning. It was a beautiful crisp Maine morning. She had driven out to Quoddy Head to watch the sunrise and was just crossing her front yard when she heard the phone. The sound was so harsh, so discordant that she almost didn't answer it.
"Ah, there you are," Sam said when she finally submitted and picked up the phone. His tone of voice indicated that he had let it ring far longer than was customary. He ignored the fact that his daughter was out of breath.
"Dad, what are you doing calling this early?" she said. "It must be, what, 4:30 in the morning out there?"
"I just wanted to let you know you that your Grandmother is very, very sick."
"I'm sorry, Dad," Sarah said. "Is she in the hospital? Do you want me to send her flowers?"
"Well, no. It's not that. You see, she died last night."
"Oh, well, gee, Dad, that's pretty sick."
She didn't say, though the thought voiced itself clearly in her mind, that even Grandma Beatrice couldn't get much sicker than dead.
"I thought you'd want to come home for the funeral. You don't have to come, of course. But, Sarah, ... hmm," he paused, "it would be nice."
That "hmm" was as close as Sarah's father would ever come to saying he needed her. As close as he would come to asking her for anything. It wasn't his custom to ask for help. He grunted sometimes in an inarticulate demand for assistance when he had his hands full and couldn't open a door, or when he couldn't quite reach the salt shaker at the dinner table. But he never said or even hinted that he needed anything from anyone.
But damn, she did not want to go back to Thomas Beach.
"If I left first thing in the morning," she said hesitantly, hoping he would interrupt and tell here that she did not have to go. "I couldn't really get there until Friday."
"The funeral isn't until Saturday morning. So that will work out fine," he said.
"Oh, well, all right then, I guess I'll see you Friday."
There was no choice. She had to go back to Thomas Beach. Her father needed her. Just for a few days. Just for his mother's funeral.
Sarah hung up the phone and surveyed the room. Cardboard boxes marked KITCHEN STUFF stood in the corner, still packed. Her boxes of Classical and Country cassettes stood in awkward stacks against the wall waiting for her to find the perfect place. New curtains hung on the windows, but dragged along the floor, unhemmed. She'd only just finished lining her books up on the shelves of the knotty pine cases, alphabetizing the fiction by author, grouping the non-fiction by subject. The ink was probably still wet on the one-year lease she had signed the day before. One year with an option to buy. She put in her offer the same day she signed the lease. Sunrise Cottage, Lubec, Maine was going to be her home.
After the conversation with her father, Sarah curled up in the worn overstuffed chair that she had placed in front of the window looking out on Moosehead Cove. The tide was so low that all the water had drained from the small bay. If she listened carefully, she could hear the ocean waves out beyond the cove's entrance. She pulled a maroon afghan from one of the boxes and nestled deep into the chair. It was in this chair that Grandma Maggie, her mother's mother, had sat for hours on Saturday afternoons, snapping string beans into a large bowl on her lap and telling stories. Sarah would sit with her coloring book and crayons on the floor and listen.
In 1922, when Sarah's Aunt Lizzy was a baby and her mother wasn't yet born, Margaret Miles Sullivan, known as Grandma Maggie to everyone who knew her, and Grandpa Jack, moved out to California. Their trip out in the Model A had taken nearly two weeks. It was the heat and the bouncing Grandma Maggie had remembered most. She told Sarah how it was so hot on the drive out West that she had dipped one of Grandpa Jack's handkerchiefs in a bucket of water and wrapped it around her head. She held her head out the window of the car until the warm breeze sent tears streaming down her cheeks. Crossing Utah she gave up trying to stay dry and simply let herself sweat. She told how she braved a barroom full of drunken cowboys outside of Reno just to get a glass of water. And she told about the bouncing. When they drove across the country nearly all the roads were dirt. Some of them weren't even graded, just gravel poured down off the back of a dump trunk. Grandpa Jack's Model A didn't have any shock absorbers. "Like riding on a wooden saddle," Grandma Maggie would say as snapped her beans.
"I see you got here in one piece," her father said when he saw Sarah standing next to the tractor. He looked older than she had remembered. His smile lines, the mirror image of the ones on her own face, were deep crevices that remained long after his smile had faded. "How did the car run?"
"Fine," she said. "I think the hard driving was good for it. Except one little problem. The hood flew up in Nebraska. It bent right over the windshield. For a minute there I thought I'd died."
"Latch probably needs adjusting," her father said.
Sarah had long ago realized that her father's mode of communication was to talk about cars or other mechanical devices. Personal problems or emotions were not in his conversational repertoire. He was the kind of person who during a mugging would comment on the relative merits of the Smith & Wesson. It would be his way of screaming.
"I'll have a look at it tomorrow," he continued. "I think I have some extra lock assemblies in the garage."
"Thanks, Dad. That would be great."
Sam Farrington swung himself up onto the tractor, engaged the lowest gear and drove off slowly. The ropes around the tow bar tightened. The timber frame of the cabin creaked and groaned. The tractor pulled steadily and with a loud crash Cabin #22 fell gracefully into a pile of broken lumber and dust.
"Sarah," a round friendly voice yelled to her. She saw her uncle Gerrick approaching in a pink Jeep. When her father left the Navy and returned to Thomas Beach in 1964 he brought home barrels of Government Surplus primer and three retired Willys Jeeps. Now, more than twenty years later, the Farrington Resort had a fleet of primer-pink jeeps.
"I see you haven't fixed the brakes yet," Sarah said to her uncle, pointing to the tire strapped to the front grill of the jeep.
"Down shifting, Sarah. That's what gears are for."
"One day you'll leave your transmission in the middle of the road, Uncle Gerrick."
"And your dad'll put another one in for me," Gerrick laughed. He looked just like the pictures Sarah had seen of her grandfather Henry, huge and smiling. He wore a western cut shirt with the broad back panel outlined in blue piping. Silver clasps inset with large pieces of turquoise connected the red cords of his silver tipped bolo tie. His belly hung over the oval silver belt with the carved image of a horse's head peering out from under a horseshoe. Gerrick overwhelmed the front seat of the jeep. The canvas doors were missing or he would have left a bulge in the stiff fabric panels. As it was, his unrestrained girth overflowed the black cushions. Sarah saw the five-pointed tin star pinned to his chest. Gerrick was the unofficial sheriff of Thomas Beach. Visitors never questioned the authenticity of the badge or asked if he had a permit for the pistol strapped to his thigh. It wasn't until she was a teenager that Sarah found out that her uncle wasn't a real sheriff, that he'd bought the badge at Woolworth's Five and Dime in Petaluma. But by then she had already begun to learn that no one in her family was quite what they seemed.
"Back for good now, Sarah?" Gerrick asked.
"No. Just for a week."
"Still on the move, huh?"
"Not really, Uncle Gerrick. I've just put an offer in on a house in Maine, near the library where I work. I should hear in a couple of weeks if the owners will accept it."
"Property's a good investment. You can always rent it when you leave."
"I think I'll stay there."
"Good. Settle down. Stop moving around all the time. It's about time." Gerrick chuckled sending a ripple through the loose jowls hanging beneath his chin. Like TweedleDumb, Sarah thought or Deputy Dawg. Rather stupid but harmless. Though his comments were nearly the same as her aunt Hattie's, he said them with no underlying malice, no digging rancor.
Sarah walked back up the street to her car leaving her father to gather up the fallen house and her uncle to patrol the empty streets. Other than the echoes of the house falling and the constant roar of the ocean, Thomas Beach was quiet. The town was built on the side of a hill overlooking the long white beach. There were three parallel streets, each holding a row of wooden houses with large square front windows facing the sea. There were no street signs. Most people referred to the streets as Front Street, Middle Street and Top Street. The street which bisected these streets was called North Street because it pointed to the north. The actual names of the streets could be found on the county surveyor's map in Uncle Gerrick's desk drawer. But nobody ever bothered to look.
Sarah's parents lived in one of the two-story bungalows on Front Street. Like most of the houses in Thomas Beach it had been built in the early 1900's by her great grandfather, Ernest Farrington. Most of the houses were still clad in the green tar and gravel overlapping siding strips that Ernest had bought in bulk from Friedman Brothers Building Supply. That was back when the original brothers, William and Oscar, still ran the store. Other houses had been updated with the trendier redwood shingles or ceder shakes that came in various patterns; tear drop, diamond, wavy, scalloped. The houses that weren't owned by members of the Farrington family or by the few other year-round residents were owned by people in San Francisco or Sacramento who rented them out during the summer and on holiday weekends. Each house had a seaside resort style name: Larry's Lookout, C-side Inn, Shangri-La, Oar House. Some translated the names into Spanish for a more exotic flavor: Vista del Punto, Vista del Mare, Passa Tiempo, Casa di Nona.
Sarah parked in front of the house with "El Nido" written in twisted rope above the garage doors. The nest. This was home. She carried her suitcase up to her old bedroom on the second floor and without taking her clothes off she fell across the bed and into a deep sleep.
* * *
"Up to the table," Carol Farrington yelled from the bottom of the stairs. Sarah woke with a start as if pricked by an electric current. For a moment she forgot where she was. Her old bedroom was intimately familiar and strangely foreign at the same time. Like a nightmare where different time periods overlap. Her suitcase lay where she had dropped it, just inside the door. A University of Maine, Colby sticker was stuck to the side of the worn vinyl along side other, more exotic, decals: a silver Eiffel Tower, a white oval with the capital letters NL, a black square with Toledo in gold lettering, a glow-in-the-dark patch of Buckingham Palace. A frayed Alitalia luggage tag hung from the handle.
Looking around her old room Sarah saw the Laura Ashley wallpaper - tiny roses climbing up a lattice work of green leaves on cream colored background - still clung to the bedroom walls. She had begged her mother to send away for it. She had promised to hang it herself. And she had. Each seam matched perfectly. The lattice design met precisely at each edge, giving the illusion of continuance, of an unbroken pattern.
But other things had changed. The dark green dresser was gone. In its place stood Grandma Maggie's oak chest of drawers. The books on the shelf beneath the window were odd sized and disorganized. Sarah's Detective Book Club monthly hardbacks were interspersed with her grandmother's Reader's Digests and strange works of romantic fiction she didn't even recognize. Her room was almost the same and yet very, very different.
"Dinner's ready." Her mother's voice climbed the stairs. The Pavlovian clarion call still worked, reminding her that she was hungry.
Sam and Sarah took their traditional places at the long dining room table. He, across from his wife, and his daughter, on his right side. David's chair was empty.
"I didn't know what time you'd get here, so I didn't fix anything complicated," Carol said as she scooped a spoonful of mayonnaise onto a square of cherry Jello jiggling the suspended bits of mandarin orange and banana inside.
"Still your favorite, isn't it?" Carol said, more as a statement than a question.
"Mmm, thank you."
Sarah knew if she reminded her mother that she had never liked jello, not even as a child, Carol would cry and there would be a scene. So Sarah ate the bright red, trembling mass. Without thinking, she squished the Jello back and forth through her teeth until it liquified into a sweet syrup. The rude, gargling sound she made startled her and sent her off into a fit of laughter. Absurd laughter. Bizarre laughter. The kind of laughter that erupts when one feels out of place, like a screen actor trapped in the wrong movie. Groucho Marx meets Ophelia with a script by Stephen King. Romeo proclaims his love for Miss Piggy on the deck of the Starship Enterprise.
"I'm sorry," Sarah said, trying hard to overcome the wave of giggles washing over her. "I must be over tired."
"Do we have to send you to your room?" Carol asked. "Just like we did when you were a little girl."
"That's all right. It's over now."
"Not that sending you to your room ever did any good. We could still hear you laughing all the way down here."
Sarah had a vague memory of her mother, frantic and despairing, yelling at her through the bedroom door. "Sarah, if you don't stop that right this minute, you will die laughing," her mother had screamed. And Sarah had found that so funny, she laughed until her sides ached and her throat was raw.
"Well, life just strikes me funny sometimes, Mom. And jello strikes me funny all the time." Sarah giggled.
"Honestly, Sarah, sometimes I don't think you've grown up one bit."
Carol Farrington didn't understand her daughter's humor or her taste in food. Carol adored Jello. For her, Jello was more than an instant dessert. It was an art form. She created wiggling Jello sculptures for all occasions. There were tall Jello castles decorated with little flags for birthdays and crimson Jello hearts layered with peppermint-studded cottage cheese for Valentine's Day. For Thanksgiving there was the turkey mold filled with orange Jello, cranberry sauce and pecans. For Christmas she made a lime flavored Jello tree with bits of jellied fruit and tiny marshmallows as ornaments. Her mother was the only person Sarah ever knew who brewed hot Jello and drank it out of a cup like tea. As a teenager, Sarah had nightmares about that hot gelatin settling inside her mother's body, forming wiggly sculptures of subcutaneous Jello.
Against the harshness of the red Jello, the rest of the dinner was a symphony of white. Bleached noodles with a cream sauce, white enriched dinner rolls, fried halibut steak and very pale canned string beans cooked so long the seeds had fallen out and the color had washed down the drain. Small bowls filled with mayonnaise sat at either end of the table in case anyone felt the need for more flavor. Mayonnaise was Jello's closest rival for her mother's love.
Her father ate slowly, meticulously cutting his food into tiny pieces. He even cut his noodles into squares. Carol talked incessantly as she ate. She kept up a non-stop inventory of the local gossip, giving special attention to the more sordid and gruesome events. Sam seemed oblivious to her ramblings and totally absorbed in the rhythmic scraping of his knife and fork.
"... shot his wife right through the front window of their house. The police found her laying on the floor with her three-year-old son sitting next to her, crying."
Sarah interrupted the tail-end of her mother's story. "Could we change the subject, Mom? Murder and cherry Jello don't go together well."
"Well, I'm sorry," she said, though she clearly wasn't. "I was just trying to fill you in on what's been going on around here."
"I know. It's just that it's all so morbid."
"That's not my fault."
"What time's the funeral tomorrow?" Sarah asked, hoping to move the conversation in a different direction.
"11:00. We should leave here by 10:30 so we get there in time to greet everybody."
"I suppose there'll be a lot of people."
"Your grandmother was very highly respected in this community. I imagine the church will be full. Poor Hattie, though," her mother added, "this is very hard for her. We're all upset. Beatrice was such a wonderful woman."
Sarah did not share this view of her grandmother, but this was not the time to bring up her grievances, which, compared to death seemed petty. Besides, maybe she was wrong. Maybe she had only imagined that her grandmother hated her, that Beatrice was cold and cruel. Maybe they were all one big happy family like her mother always said. Maybe.
"Aunt Hattie did look pretty bad in the store. Her eyes were all puffy."
"Yes, well, she loved her mother. She's so upset, she can't trust herself to drive. Rachel has to come out tomorrow to take her to the church. Oh, by the way, did I tell you David won't be here tonight?"
"No, you didn't tell me."
"He had to work on an important account, so he'll meet us at the church tomorrow."
Sarah was disappointed. She had looked forward to spending an evening with her little brother before the funeral. Even though they were polar opposites, she and David were good friends. Sometimes, Sarah thought they'd grown up in different families or, if not, certainly in different towns. David loved Thomas Beach. Where Sarah saw rot and decay, he saw beauty and possibility. It was his dream to rebuild the resort, and return it to its former glory. To polish up the family jewel. He was getting his master's degree in business and worked at a bank specializing in real estate acquisitions during the summer break. When David looked out the front window of El Nido, he saw the land as the Tomello Indians must have seen it -- no rotting houses, no pot-holed parking lot, no dark and empty hotel, no Farringtons. David saw a white sandy beach, rolling green hills, a bay filled with salmon, perch, herring, crabs and clams. And hanging above all this beauty, he saw a sign: David's Place.
Sarah picked up her plate. "Thanks for dinner, Mom. I guess I wasn't very hungry."
"You're just not used to home cooking anymore."
"I probably ate too much fast food on the road." Sarah took her plate to the kitchen and scraped the jello, noodles and overcooked vegetables into the garbage disposal. She made a mental note to buy some carrots and crackers to snack on between meals.
Sarah stepped out the front door into the night. From the porch she could just make out the white foam on top of the waves. The last hint of twilight was passing into the blackness of night. The magic time, when all the colors drain from the world and life is caught in monochrome. This is the moment of balance, of stillness, of perfect peace before the day tumbles into the darkness of the night. Soon she lost sight of the waves and lost herself instead in their sound. The roaring of the Pacific. Listening carefully she could hear that the amorphous roar was made up of several discrete sounds. As if attuning herself to a single instrument in an orchestra, she picked out the high-pitched notes of the small rippling waves brushing along the sand. Then she focused for awhile on the round bass notes of the large swells breaking over the rocks. The distant bell buoy rang out, like a tympany, as it rocked back and forth in the deep troughs of the tide. She heard, or perhaps she imagined she heard, the rhythmic slaps of waves, like smacking lips, hitting against the hulls of fishing boats moored along the bay.
As Sarah listened to the symphony of the night, she realized how little had changed in the eight years since she had left Thomas Beach. The town was wrapped in a peaceful postprandial drowsiness, its shabbiness hidden by the night. A full moon rose in the east, illuminating the ridge where she had stood that afternoon looking down.
Inside El Nido, her father sat alone at the diningroom table. The serving dishes had all been cleared away, but Sarah knew he would remain until every morsel was gone from his plate. He would wipe the plate with a piece of bread, cross his knife and fork, and then lay them gently down like a stainless steel X in the center of his polished plate. Only then would he push himself from the table. Her mother, she knew, would be in the kitchen, trying to pour a quart of cream sauce into a pint tupperware container. As the sauce spilled over the edge, she would shake her head in frustration and accuse the plastic container of conspiring against her. Nothing had changed.
Sarah stood on the porch, staring out into the darkness. She could hear her parents moving around inside the house. They were the family elders now, the oldest generation. They were the living voices of the family's past, the purveyors of the family legends. Beatrice Farrington, the last of Sarah's grandparents, was dead. Beatrice had shared little with her granddaughter. It was her other grandmother, her mother's mother, who had told her stories. Margaret Miles Sullivan, was known as Grandma Maggie to most everyone. Maggie grew up on a hog farm in Martinsville, Indiana, the heart of the heartland, as she called it, but moved West in 1922.
Thomas Beach wasn't always like this. No sir, it wasn't. Of course, you wouldn't remember when the trains were still running and the hotel was filled with guests, and the floor of the dance hall shook with all the stomping and carrying on. That was way before your time. Your mother doesn't remember the trains either. I suppose she was too young or, then again, maybe she just forgot. But I can tell you that Thomas Beach was a bustling resort in those day. People came all the way up from San Francisco to spend the day at the Farrington Family Playground-by-the-Sea. They got off the train right down the street from us at the station in Tomales. Some people stayed on board for the Triangle Trip. The narrow gauge made an excursion trip from Tomales to Monte Rio, along the Russian River all the way to downtown Santa Rosa.
Henry Farrington, your dad's father, he died before you were born, a great big bull of a man. Anyway, he would meet the train at the station in Tomales and drive the guests out to Thomas Beach. That was a wild ride in those days. We didn't have the asphalt down like we do now. No, it was four miles of dirt and turns so sharp you had to hold on to the doors with both hands for fear of falling over. Henry told stories, long racy stories that made the women blush but kept their minds off the road. He had a way with women, that way that fat men have, you know. I suppose they didn't find him much of a threat. He weighed nearly 300 pounds. Your Grandma Beatrice had to make him special overalls, nothing from the stores seemed to fit. I doubt that pleased her much. Then, nothing pleased Beatrice, least of all Henry.
We moved out to Tomales in the spring of '22. It wasn't long after that we met your father for the first time. I'll never forget that day. I was as broad as Farmer John's barn, pregnant with your mother and we had gone on down to Tremayne's General Store to buy fresh milk for Lizzy. The Leone boys brought the milk and cheese down from the creamery every morning and Lizzy loved to drink the thick cream off the top of the bottle. It must of been a Saturday because Jack was home and he wasn't hardly ever home in the morning on a working day. Anyways, we were standing there next to the counter waiting for Theo Tremayne - that's young Willie's great-grandfather - to fetch us the milk when a woman comes in, just as broad in the belly as myself. Her face was all screwed up in a scowl and she was fit to be tied.
"Sam," she yelled. "I know you're in here. You're going to get the whipping of your life if you don't get back up to the church this minute."
A little face came peering around the corner of the dry goods shelf. That was your father, dressed in his Sunday best, his hands and face covered with dirt. He looked up at Jack and me with eyes so big and begging that they pulled at my heart.
"If you're not out in front of the church when we leave, well, we'll just go on home without you. Do you hear me, young man?" Beatrice's screech was answered by silence. Jack and I said nothing. Even Lizzy looked away.
After Beatrice left, your father came out from behind the shelves. He couldn't have been but five or six years old. He had a little wooden ship he'd been playing with in the darkness behind the pickle barrels. He walked right up to Lizzy and put that boat in her hands. She held that block of wood to her chest for weeks. Wouldn't let me take it from her even at the dinner table. Your father was always good to your Aunt Lizzy. Now, I wouldn't go saying that about all the folks in this area. No sir, I wouldn't.
Your father put me in mind of your Grandpa Jack when he was a boy. Not that they looked at all similar. Sam was always small for his age, not short mind you, just small and compact. Your Grandpa Jack on the other hand was a beanpole, tall and lanky, with legs that I swear started up around his neck and seemed to bend every which way. You hardly noticed his height when he was sitting down, but when he stood up, well, he just kept on standing up. It was like one of those store bought dress patterns that keeps on unfolding forever out of a tiny square packet. A long drink of water they called him back home. And that he was, a very long drink of water. But it wasn't in outside looks that Jack and Sam were similar, it was the look in the eye, that little twinkle that made you wonder if they were laughing at you or laughing at the world.
It was that damn little twinkle that won my heart all these years ago. My Jack, Jackson Frederick Sullivan, grew up on a farm just the other side of Martinsville, Indiana from where I lived. It wasn't much of a place, a few hogs, some chickens and a couple of milk cows. But they didn't need much. It was just Jack and his father by the time I met them. His mother had died when he was a youngster and the two men got along fine by themselves. I grew up on the other side of town, the other side of the tracks is more like it. We lived on a large farm with lots of field hands and Mama even had a housemaid, Ida, who had a room over the kitchen and helped Mama with the cooking and cleaning.
One day, it was springtime, me and my sisters - there were four of us girls - were out in the garden trying to catch robins. The birds were fat, their bellies swollen from eating all the plump worms that lived just under the topsoil of Mamma's vegetable patch. But they were still too fast for us to catch. We would sneak up on them quiet as churchmice but they would leap away from us before we could get a grip on them. It was Madge, she was the eldest who saw the skinny redheaded boy sitting under the magnolia tree. He was just sitting there leaning against the tree whittling on a stick and watching us. Madge, she was also the daringest one, went right up to him and says "What are you doing sitting here under our tree?"
"Watching y'all," he said, calm as you please.
"Well, you ought not to be here." Madge said, sounding very much like Mama.
"You're doing it wrong." He says and keeps on whittling.
"Doing what wrong," Madge asked. She was curious now because Madge never did think she did anything wrong.
"That's no way to catch yourself a robin," he answered.
"Well, mister know-it-all, just how would you go about it then?"
"You need to get yourself a shaker of salt and sprinkle a bit on the bird's tail and it'll fly right up into the palm of your hand."
"No, never. You're having us on." But Madge wasn't quite sure if this strange boy was telling the truth or not.
"Suit yourself." He said and went back to his whittling.
After a few minutes of heated discussion among us girls we decided to try this boy's method. Amy, being the youngest, was sent to the house for a shaker. For the next hour we took turns stealing up behind the robins with Mamma's little glass salt shaker, flinging salt this way and that but never getting close enough to hit the bird's tail. It suddenly occurred to me that if we got close enough to put salt on its tail we were probably close enough to grab the bird itself. I was about to yell out to Madge to stop carrying on like a ninny when I turned and looked toward the magnolia tree. It was as if that boy read my mind for when I looked over at that tree he was looking full into my eyes. I saw that laughing twinkle and I knew he was pulling our legs. But I didn't let on to my sisters. I stood and watched them as if I were looking through his head, seeing what he saw: a bunch of silly girls making fools of themselves on a warm spring day in Indiana. And I laughed. And I knew I loved that boy right then and there.
Jack and I were married in May of 1919. He'd graduated from the university over in Bloomington and put in his time in the army flying planes. Even Madge was impressed by the little wings he had sewn on his khaki uniform. Mama and Papa allowed as how he'd probably never amount to a hill of beans, but they had to grant that he was smart.
"Too clever by half," Papa would say.
But that was because Jack could fix just about anything, whereas even the most basic machinery baffled Papa. And Mama was vexed and charmed in about the same measure by Jack's strange humor. He liked to tease her and I don't think anyone had ever teased my mother in her whole life. She just wasn't the teasing sort.
But she blushed when Jack said "Now, Mrs. Miles, we all know what you're thinking, and you should be ashamed of yourself. A decent young woman like you. Tsk. Tsk."
When Mama would protest Jack'd just put up his hand and say "Shush now, we'll hear no more about it."
Of course Mama was thinking nothing of the sort of thing he was implying. We'd all laugh and soon she'd laugh too. Jack just had this way about him.
Madge never did approve of him. She had the notion that a marriage based on love had little chance of surviving whereas a marriage based on money was truly secure. She married a Texas oil man and never wanted for nothing. She had the furs, the diamonds and the European excursions. She didn't have much happiness but she said the money kept her busy enough to take her mind off her troubles. Now, I'm not saying that she's right, but there have been times when I saw the wisdom in her thinking. Our life's not been a bowl of cherries and Lord knows Jack and I could have used the money over the years. But we both made our choices and there's no use crying about it now.
I got pregnant right off which thrilled Jack but I must admit I was a bit scared. He had a good job with the Illinois Central as a mechanic working in the shop at Columbus. Sometimes he'd go out as a brakeman when they were short-handed. But mostly he worked in the yard fixing broken couplings and repairing boilers.
It must of been Jack who brought that virus home from the station. Probably picked it up from passenger coming out from the East. I don't recall anyone else in town coming down with it like I did. I was two and a half months pregnant, just past the morning sickness stage when I got the fever. I was so sick I thought I'd die. My body was as hot as a steam engine furnace and nothing seemed to cool me down. My skin broke out in a rash and then angry red blotches appeared all over my face and belly. The doctor said I had German Measles which seemed funny at the time. Here I was 20 years old, in the middle of America carrying a baby of my own, and I come down with some foreign little kids' disease. The doctor didn't tell me that inside my belly my little girl was suffering too. But the fever passed and I didn't think any more about it.
Your aunt, Elizabeth Miles Sullivan was born on April 10, 1920. She was such a pretty little thing when her face wasn't all screwed up and red from crying. Madge, who had two babies already from her rich Texan, said Lizzy was just colicky and that she'd calm down real soon. But her wailing tore at my heart. I walked the floor boards smooth all that spring, rocking Lizzy in my arms and singing every song I knew to soothe her. Mama came down in the summer and helped me for awhile, but she had Papa and Amy still at home so she couldn't stay long. Jack stayed later and later at the yard. Can't say as I blame him, there wasn't much peace to come home to.
On her first birthday, Lizzy still wasn't walking but she crawled real good. She was a strong little thing, always scrambling around behind me, pulling at my dress to stand up. But so sick all the time. I've never seen a baby sicker than your Aunt Lizzy. We went to see Doctor Anderson so many times Lizzy thought he was family. But he just shook his head and gave her medicine to calm her down. The little bottles of syrup made her drowsy. Sometimes that was a blessing. I got so tired carrying her around, trying to keep her from howling. The howling was the worst, she'd scream so loud I thought my head would split open, and my heart would ache to hear her. Nothing seemed to calm her. Sometimes Jack could soothe her with a story. He had that deep comfortable voice. But most often I'd give her a spoon full of syrup and hold her until she went to sleep.
That year we went to every specialist in Indiana. Over to the Medical Center in Indianapolis they told us our best chance was the Mayo Brother's Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. It was an awful long trip but Jack got us the tickets from his company and we set out with Lizzy. She liked the train ride and didn't fuss near as much I'd feared. I think the rocking of the train going along the tracks lulled her to sleep. I worked on my knitting, a warm fall pullover for Jack, the kind with the cable stitch he liked so much. Jack spent most the trip talking with the conductor and wandering up and down inspecting the train. By the end of the day he knew everybody. He even spent some time up front with the engineer.
He didn't show it but I knew Jack was as nervous as I was about the doctors. Maybe we were expecting too much. But everything we read talked about how the clinic had helped so many people that it just wouldn't seem fair if they couldn't do something for Lizzy. Lying there with her feet tucked up under her new calico dress and her head on my lap, she looked so sweet. I prayed, and Lord knows I don't pray for much, but I prayed we'd find some cure in Rochester. I promised Lizzy, right then, that whatever we had to do to make her well, we would do.
It was dark when we finally pulled into Rochester. But everyone was real helpful, I guess we weren't the only family to make the pilgrimage to the Mayo Brothers. The clinic had found us a room nearby with a family who took in boarders. It was small and too warm but that didn't bother us much. We were up and out first thing the next morning. We arrived a half-hour early for our nine o'clock appointment. We sat a long time in the crowded waiting room with the other patients. Some looked near as sick as Lizzy. You could feel the hope in that room. Desperate hope. We were all holding our breath and crossing our fingers and saying every prayer we could think of. Anything to make our babies better.
It was almost noon when a tall doctor in a long white coat came to get us. He led us down a long corridor to a little examining room. He looked at Lizzy real close, asked me a thousand questions and wrote down everything I said on a wooden clip board he held on his lap. Then he left us in that little room for such a long time I thought he'd forgotten about us. But he came back.
"Mrs. Sullivan, " he said.
I'll never forget his face, so kind, so sad. I knew before he spoke that what he had to say pained him. But I knew it would pain me even more.
"There is nothing we can do for your little girl. I'm going to be honest with you because I don't want to see you folks getting your hopes up or spending your money on cures that aren't going to work. Lizzy is severely retarded. She will always be retarded."
"What does that mean? That she's slow to learn?" I asked. "Well, we can work on that."
"It's more serious than that. Lizzy suffered severe brain damage when you had Rubella Measles. She will never be able to learn, not in the sense that you are thinking of. She will never read or write.
"You're saying my daughter is simple," Jack said in that matter of fact way of his.
"I'm saying that your daughter has brain damage, irreparable brain damage," the doctor said, very clearly, enunciating every syllable as if he thought maybe we were simple too. "There is nothing we can do for her."
"No." The scream seemed to come from someone else, someone strong and determined, someone who could fight all the doctors in the world. Not me. Not little Maggie Miles. "No. My baby is sick. You will help her."
I demanded to see another doctor. But when he finally came he only agreed with the first one. I refused to leave until I had seen nearly every doctor there. As each doctor walked away, their footsteps echoing down the long corridors, I prayed that they would stop, that they would turn and run back to me with some hope, some cure, some miracle for Lizzy. But they kept on walking.
Finally, the last doctor came. He didn't wear a long white coat. Instead he had on a dark suit like a banker or a lawyer. He shook Jack's hand. He smiled at me. But he didn't look at Lizzy.
"You must understand that there is nothing more we can do," he said. "We have examined your little girl as carefully and as thoroughly as we know. There is no cure for retardation."
"Thank you, doctor." That was Jack's voice. There was nothing more for me to say.
"She will need a lot of care. She may never learn to dress herself, or use the toilet. She will need almost constant attention. This little girl is a full-time job."
I held Lizzy tight. Babies were always a full-time job. What did these doctors know about that anyways? They come home, kiss their children on the forehead and say goodnight. They don't see the diapers, the messes on the floor every time you turn around, the broken toys, the torn dresses. Constant attention. Of course she needs constant attention. Lizzy is sick. She needs care and medicine. I rocked her in my arms, and she clung to me so hard she near squeezed my breath away.
"You'll be all right, my baby, everything's going to be all right. Mama's here and she won't ever let you go." I whispered in Lizzy's ear and I just let Jack do the talking. There wasn't much left that I wanted to hear anyways. I knew the moment the man in the suit walked into the room that it was going to be up to me to take care of Lizzy. I was all she had and I wouldn't let her down.
"I want to give you some brochures about full-care homes that take care of people like Lizzy," the man said as he handed Jack a fistful of pamphlets. "Go and look at them. The private ones are a might expensive but the State has institutions too. I should tell you that children with severe brain damage rarely live long. The regular childhood illnesses often prove too much for them."
Jack looked over at me. He knew my thoughts without asking. "What if we keep Lizzy at home with us? Is there anything special we need to do?"
"Just keep her as comfortable as you can. If possible I would recommend moving to a milder climate, some place where she won't be so exposed to winter colds and influenza. Mr. Sullivan, one thing you must realize, there is no cure for your daughter. The best you, or anyone else, can do, is make her life comfortable."
There wasn't much left to say after that, so we gathered ourselves up and went on home. We talked all that summer about what to do. We even visited one of those homes the doctor recommended. I had nightmares for weeks after that. The horror I can't even describe. It was a filthy, cruel place. I told Jack that it would be over my dead body if Lizzy ever stepped foot in a place like that. We never discussed institutions again. But your grandfather in his own quiet way was taking care of things. One night he came home and announced he had found us a new home. A place where the sun always shined and yet close enough to the ocean for the cool sea breeze to put pink in Lizzy's cheeks. Without saying a word to me, he had written to some railway companies in the West and one, The North Pacific Coast Railroad had offered him a job.
Mama had been dead set against it. Looking back, maybe she was right. It's hard to say. I told her that Lizzy couldn't survive in the harsh Indiana winters and the hot, humid summers. The doctor had been very clear that the cold and the damp would kill her.
"Not all God's children are blessed with long life, Maggie," Mama said. "Stay here where she can be with family."
"The doctor said the drier climate would help her," I said. "Maybe the ocean air can cure her. I have to try."
"But she'll be a stranger," Mama said. "Here she is kin. Out there, she'll just be someone's sickly child."
But when I held Lizzy to my breast, and she looked up at me with those big brown eyes, begging me to make her well, I knew I couldn't stay. I was all the family Lizzy needed. I had promised Lizzy that I would take care of her, that I would protect her.
It was a long trip from Indiana to Tomales, California.
There was no air conditioning in those days, just the breeze you got from holding your head out the car window. We had to stop every hour or so to get water for Lizzy -- the desert air nearly dried her up. She fussed and carried on the whole trip. Jack did all the driving of course. Sometimes I thought he'd gone deaf, he shut out her squalling so completely. It wasn't so easy for me. I guess there are some sounds a mother can't help but hear.
But we made it and we were awful happy to drive up to the little house the railroad company had found for us. After nearly two weeks on the road it looked mighty nice. And it was nice. It had three bedrooms upstairs with an upstairs bathroom too. There was a large fenced-in back yard. Well, you know the place, where the Gamboni's live now. When we were there, the house was white and there wasn't that big garage built on the side like they have now. But the yard's the same, though I always planted peonies along the fence where Jenny Gamboni has those trellises of wild roses. Lizzy never could learn to stay away from prickly roses.
Our few belongings that we'd sent ahead were waiting in their packing crates in the sitting room. Percy Williams, the station master, had seen to it the house was aired and ready for us when we arrived. He and his wife Emily had us over for dinner that first night. I dressed Lizzy up in her finest frock, but she was awful tired from the trip and was irritable at the dinner table.
Emily Williams had no patience with children, not even her own, and hers was the first rejection of Lizzy I ever saw. "Excuse me," Emily said. "Your daughter seems to be drooling." And she looked at Lizzy as if she were a monster. I could see in her eyes the disgust, the revulsion and the anger. How dare you, she seemed to be saying, how dare you bring this creature into my home, into my town.
"We have places for children like Lizzy here in California," Percy Williams said. "We'd be happy to help you find one."
Your grandfather stood up from the table. "Mother," he said, "Fetch your coat." Then just as sweetly as you please he held out his hand to Percy. "Thank you for your hospitality but we'll be getting on back to our house now." The men shook hands as I got our coats.
We never mentioned the incident again. Your grandfather worked for Percy Williams for nearly twenty years, first at the train depot then later at the downtown garage. Emily and I played bridge together every Tuesday afternoon and drove to Petaluma together every Friday morning to have our hair done. She never said another word about Lizzy and though we socialized with each other I never considered Emily a friend.
Over the years I got so I could tell about a person by the way they treated Lizzy. Those who had no warmth in their hearts ignored her or were impatient with her illness. Kind folk, true Christian folk, not what Jack called the "Only-on-Sunday" folk, took the time to say hello to her, to smile at her and to talk to her like any other child.
That first night in Tomales, after Jack had gone to bed, I sat on the floor - 2,500 miles from my home, from my family, from my sisters, surrounded by packing crates, trunks and suitcases - and I cried.
Sarah woke up early Saturday morning, still on Eastern Standard Time. For the first time in her life she made it downstairs to the coffee pot before her parents. She filled Mr. Coffee to the top line with water, measured six scoops of Folgers into the paper basket and pressed the switch. Before the first drip even hit the grounds she was out the door and on her way to the beach.
A line of summer fog lay along the horizon like a white ribbon. It held the ocean winds away from the shore. The sun sat low and soft in the eastern sky. It sent cool shadows down from the sand dunes. Long-billed curlews darted along the tide line, stopping every few feet to sink their skinny beaks into the wet sand looking for ghost shrimp and mole crabs. Calidris minutilla, squat little sandpipers with short beaks, scurried behind the long-legged marbled godwits, snatching whatever scraps the larger birds left behind. Herring gulls stood majestically on the low rocks and preened their long white feathers. Yellow lupin flowers unfurled like tiny cats' claws and the purple buds on the sea fig, like boutonnieres on crusty fingers, slowly opened into the day.
Sarah inhaled deeply and the salty air tickled her lungs as she walked south along the shore toward the bay. Her feet sank into the white sand, pitching her slightly forward with every step. The beach was nearly a mile long. Behind her, on the north end, the white sand ended in rocks and high red clay cliffs. The houses of Thomas Beach sat back from the cliffs at the base of a small breast-shaped mountain. Beyond the houses, open meadows stretched to the edge of the cliffs, like thick green marzipan spread on a tall layer cake. The nearest town, Bodega Bay, was thirty miles north. Between Thomas Beach and Bodega were two small rivers which cut through the cliffs to the sea. They carried rain water down from the coastal mountains, through the dairy barns, and across the pastures to the Pacific. Small beaches formed where the rivers met the ocean. There were no roads to these beaches, just the narrow winding cow trails and the tracks left by the farmers' four-wheel drive trucks.
In front of her the southern tip of Thomas Beach formed the northern lip of the mouth of Tomales Bay. There were no rocks or cliffs here. The beach was flat, ending in a long tongue of sand which jutted out into the waters between the bay and the ocean. During the spring, when the tides were high and the waves crashed down on the shore, this sand point disappeared. But the sand never went away. It dispersed and reformed into long bars which lay hidden just beneath the surface of the water. On maps the words "Treacherous Waters" were printed along this stretch of coast. Every year, at least one boat, loaded with weekend fishermen, overturned on these sand bars. Sometimes the sportsmen managed to hold onto their boats until rescued, but usually, they were unable to find their way to the boats and they drowned quickly in the chilly waters. The Farrington family and other town regulars formed search parties to walk along the beach. They examined every mound of sand, every sea lion carcass, every pile of rotting seaweed, looking for the human corpses. But the bodies never turned up on the beach. Instead they were dragged by the currents down the bay and usually came to rest in Mr. Henline's oyster beds. Sarah remembered a story she had overheard her mother tell to someone on the telephone. Her mother said that Maynard Henline had pulled up Sheriff McCall's brother that morning when he was harvesting the oysters. For years the image of the dead young man wrapped in the oyster ropes had crept into Sarah's dreams.
Her mother's stories were often morbid. Once she had phoned Sarah in Rome to tell her about a strange boating accident that had taken place just outside the breakers. A father and son were out fishing. The son fell overboard. He couldn't swim. The father through the anchor over. The anchor chain wrapped around the father's foot and dragged him to the bottom of the sea. The son lived. The father drowned. Sarah had searched that story endlessly for a hidden meaning, for some obscure moral lesson. She had finally concluded that there are times when a story is simply a story.
Today, the ocean was calm. The waves broke gently, then glided up the sand. Far beyond the breakers, she could see white caps forming, an early warning sign of storms to come. The quiet hum of waves underscored the sounds of morning: the complaining caw of a gull, the distant drone of a fishing boat motoring across the bay, the swoosh of water washing around a log. The morning air was different from the air of the night before, when disembodied noises emerged from the darkness and creaks and groans reverberated into infinity. The early morning air was contained. Sounds ricocheted off the grayness of the sky, off the ceiling of the world. Walking along the beach Sarah felt as if she were enclosed, like her Grandpa Jack's pocketwatch, in a glass dome on the mantle. This morning the enclosure was calm; a beautiful, serene entrapment.
Above the music of the morning, she heard the jangling of metal dog tags and the soft thud of paws running along the wet sand. And panting, distinct, breathy, moist, panting. A large German shepherd, jet black with golden brown markings, bounded up from behind her. The dog sniffed at Sarah's outstretched hand. As she bent down to pat his head, he jumped up to lick her face. Sarah and the dog bumped foreheads with a resounding thunk. The dog was undeterred. He covered Sarah's face with wet slobbery kisses.
"Bailey, get down," a man's voice yelled.
Bailey gave her one last slurpy swipe with his tongue, withdrew his wet paws from Sarah's thighs, and ran off down the beach sending a flurry of gray willets into the air.
"Sarah?" the man called out.
When she turned, she saw a grown up version of a boy she knew as Ray Ambrosi. He was taller, with broader shoulders and a wider chest than she remembered. But his face, small and smiling, was the same as when he was a boy when he had been her very best friend.
"Sarah. It's you, isn't it?" Ray was nearly out of breath from chasing his dog.
"Yes. Of course it's me," Sarah said. And she smiled, a warm hearty smile that started at her toes and rose to the top of her head.
"I haven't seen you in ...how long? Eight years?" Ray didn't embrace her. That wasn't his style. That wasn't the nature of their relationship either. Instead he reached out and touched the sleeve of her jacket, like a little kid touching his mother to reassure himself of her presence.
"More like ten, I think."
"Well, whatever, you look great."
"Thanks," Sarah said. "So, what brings you down here so early on a Saturday morning?"
"Bailey. He likes to run on the beach in the morning."
"Didn't you read the signs? All dogs must be leashed."
"He won't hurt anyone. Besides, I figured everyone who cared about that leash law would be getting ready for your grandmother's funeral."
"What? I thought my mom told me you were a Sheriff's Deputy?"
"I am," Ray said, and laughed, as he shortened his stride to match hers. "But I haven't changed that much."
"No," she said and smiled. "You haven't changed a bit."
His brown eyes still twinkled with mischief and for a moment she felt like they were kids again. Ray had always been quick to bend the rules and willing to join her in her pranks.
"Remember the time we turned the seventh grade teacher's VW bug upside down?" Sarah asked.
"Mr. Schmidt. I'll never forget that. He was so mad I thought he'd break a blood vessel in his neck. But not as mad as the time you told him, right in front of the whole class, to drop every other letter from his name."
"He sent me to Burnsides' office for that one. The next day Burnsides' secretary accused me of stealing all the red jelly beans out of the glass jar on her desk and putting them in Schmidt's coat pocket. But it was you who did that. I never told her though."
"What a mess. He hung his coat by the radiator and the jelly beans melted and stained the lining of his jacket."
"You were bad, Ray."
"Yeah, well, it was you who snuck into the secretary's office during the staff meeting and scratched dirty words onto her carbon paper."
"You have to admit, that was one of my better pranks."
"I'll never forget Mrs. Mendoza's face when she came flying out of the office holding that carefully typed letter. It had probably taken her all day to write that thing. And there, at the top of her copy in big letters was 'FUCK YOU'."
"I bet she checked all her triplicated forms after that."
"Sarah, I may have been bad, but you were always one step worse."
"Yeah, the dead rabbit in Schmidt's desk drawer was a bit more gruesome then the dead frog you put in his glove compartment. You never got caught for anything either. I was the one who got sent home all the time."
"You always looked guilty."
Without thinking, Sarah punched him as hard as she could on the arm. He laughed. His arm was thicker, more muscular than she remembered. And on closer inspection, she saw that Ray's face had changed. His mustache was thicker. When he first grew that mustache it was just a thin line of transparent peach fuzz. "Put milk on that thing and the cat will lick it off," Grandma Maggie had said.
Also, the crescent shaped scar at the end of his left eyebrow had faded with time. When Ray was eight his cousin Warren hit him with a metal Charlie Brown lunch pail while they were waiting on the side of the road for the school bus. He bled so much they thought he had lost his eye. Warren flagged down a milk truck and he and Ray got a ride back down the lane. Clarisse Ambrosi, Ray's mother, put a butterfly bandage on his head and drove the boys back to school. Injuries were never a big deal out on the farms. Though, Sarah recalled, all the third grade girls had OOed and AHed sympathetically over him.
Ray and Warren grew up on the Ambrosi Bros. Dairy a few miles outside of Tomales. Their fathers were brothers, and their mothers - Clarisse and Anna Baroni - were sisters. The Ambrosi brothers owned one of the largest dairy ranches in Redwood County, 550 acres of prime pasture land. They milked 200 black and white holsteins in their barn twice a day. They were the first ones in the area to get a fully automatic milking system. They had computers to calculate the grain and feed and automatic turnstiles to move the cows along.
"I always thought you'd stay on the ranch," Sarah said moving further up the beach to keep from getting her feet wet. "Why did you decide to be a lawman?"
"We couldn't all stay at home. Warren married Annette Bianchi and they moved into the big house where my grandparents used to live. Max and Linda built their own place, up near the reservoir. I could have worked the old Mitchell ranch. Dad wanted to buy it for me because it's right next to ours. But I wanted to do something different."
"Well, there's a big difference between cows and criminals."
"Not as much as you'd think," he said and laughed.
Ahead of them Bailey barked at a seagull half buried in the sand. When the bird didn't move, the dog rolled over on the bird's stinking carcass, covering himself with the putrid scent. Bailey shook himself off, picked up a stick and charged back towards Ray and Sarah.
"Down, Bailey" Ray commanded as the German shepard launched himself towards his master's chest. "You stink. Drop the stick. C'mon, drop it."
Bailey dropped the stick at Ray's feet.
"Do you think that other animals are really fooled by that scent stealing trick?" Sarah asked.
"I doubt if a cat will ever mistake Bailey for a bird."
"Remember when we used to wear pitouli oil?"
"Don't remind me."
Ray picked up the stick and threw it as far out into the water as he could. The stick sailed past the first set of small waves and landed in the calm trench before the next larger set of breakers. Bailey went after it, wading in deeper and deeper, until all they could see from the beach was his sleek black head bobbing above the water.
"He'll swim around until he gets it," Ray said. "Or finds something else."
"He's a beautiful dog."
"He's a monster. Chews everything in sight. I chained him up in the back yard when I went to work the other day, and when I came home, he'd chewed the legs off the picnic table. So I locked him in the garage. He chewed the mudflaps off the sheriff's car."
"You're kidding. I bet Sheriff McCall loved that."
"You know McCall. He sat back in that big bottomed chair he has and said, "Son, if'n you can't control yer mutt, how'n the hell ya gonna control the hoodlums 'round here?"
Sarah laughed. Ray's impersonation of Josh McCall was perfect. She could just see the man with his thumbs hooked through the belt loops of his khaki polyester pants and his shiny cowboy boots resting on the oak desk. Her uncle Gerrick had modeled himself after Sheriff McCall. However, whereas Gerrick Farrington was a buffoon, Sheriff MacCall was an authority figure. He was an institution around Redwood County. A man always to be trusted and never to be crossed.
"I thought you said Bailey wouldn't hurt anyone?"
"So far he's only a threat to rubber and wood."
Sarah watched as Bailey dog-paddled back toward shore, his black paws reaching high out of the water and the stick hanging out of his mouth. When he got to the beach, he carefully laid down the stick and shook himself. He started at his head and worked down his body until only his tail quivered. Beads of water flew in all directions.
"So, how's Maine?" Ray asked, dodging Bailey's spray.
"Great. Much like here, really. Small town, on the coast. A bit cut off from the world. Strange and private people. Very inbred. Come to think of it, a whole lot like here."
"We aren't marrying our cousins, yet," Ray said. "Your mom told me you came back a few years ago?"
Sarah heard the hurt and accusation in his voice. She knew he wanted to say that she was a cold bitch for not calling him when she was here. She also knew he wouldn't say it.
"I stayed up at Grandma Maggie's old house for a month after I finished grad school. I didn't talk to anybody or see anybody. I came back for a rest, not for a visit."
"Look, Sarah, I know that it was a long time ago and we've both gone on with our lives and everything, but I have to ask you this." Ray stopped walking and turned toward her. "Why did you drop out of school and move away without saying goodbye?"
"I didn't exactly drop out of school. I graduated a semester early." Sarah felt her defenses rising. She did not want to discuss this. She did not want to reopen old wounds, wounds that she had convinced herself had healed.
"Okay," Ray said and then continued, pulling the scab back a little further. "But you never said goodbye. You just left."
"As I remember it, you were pretty busy at the time with my cousin Rachel and her friends," Sarah said, the sharpness in her voice betraying her rising anger. "I'm surprised you even noticed I was gone."
"I noticed," he said. "One day we were best friends, the next day it was like I was dead. You didn't talk to me. You didn't look at me. When I called your house, you hung up the phone. No explanation. No discussion. Just boom - over."
"I'm sorry. That's the way I do things. Or did things."
Sarah's mother had taught her when she was very young how to deal with people who angered her. You erase them from the world. Carol Farrington claimed that the lesson of Alice and the Cheshire Cat was not that the cat disappeared but that Alice chose to see only the smile and when Alice was through with the smile she chose to see nothing at all. When Sarah came home complaining about some kid who had insulted her in the schoolyard her mother told her to imagine that she held a large eraser in her hand. "Simply wipe that child off the face of the earth," Carol Farrington said. "Like yesterday's math problems on a chalkboard."
Now, standing on the beach, the sun just beginning to brighten the foam on the breaking waves, Ray wouldn't wipe off. He was still walking beside her, still smiling.
"I guess, I do owe you an explanation," Sarah said.
"Yeah, you do."
"Look, I know this sounds childish, and it was childish. I admit that. In fact, I feel real stupid, right now, even talking about it - I thought you had something going with Rachel."
"What made you think Rachel and I had anything to do with each other?"
Sarah was beginning to feel very foolish. The anger that had been so important, so justified, so honorable, when she was sixteen, now seemed petty and inappropriate. She dug her fists deep into her pockets and took a deep breath.
"I saw your truck parked outside Rachel's house the night of the Homecoming Game," she said, all in one exhale.
"Of course I was at her house," Ray said, sensibly and logically. "She was the head cheerleader. I was on the football team. She gave a party. I went. And for that you haven't talked to me for ten years?"
"Well, yeah," she said. "But..." She paused, suddenly aware that her voice had risen an octave higher than the whine of Ray's police siren.
"As I remember it, you parked your truck in full view of my bedroom window to go to a party that I wasn't invited to. Not that I would have gone anyway. But, if I'm not mistaken, you didn't leave until four o'clock in the morning. How do you think I felt?" "I'm sorry," Ray said. "I never knew it was such a big deal for you. It meant nothing to me. Rachel meant nothing to me. We didn't sleep together, or anything, Sarah."
"I'm not sure I ever thought you were lovers. I just felt betrayed. I thought you had crossed over to their side."
"What do you mean, their side?"
"The Farrington side. Beatrice, Hattie, Rachel, even Uncle Gerrick. There was my side and their side. There was no in between."
"Sounds like war."
Ray and Sarah walked along in silence for a few minutes. They were each lost in their own recollections of the past. The sky was getting brighter and the morning crispness was gone from the air. Bailey trotted along beside them with the stick in his mouth hoping that one of them would pay some attention to him. Sarah wrestled the wet stick from his drooling grip and threw it as far as she could toward the sand dunes. He ran off, sniffed around every bit of seaweed and pretended not to see the stick which lay in full view. Then, as if to catch the dead wood by surprise, he leapt into the air and pounced on it.
"Do you want to hear what I thought happened?" Ray asked.
"At Rachel's party?"
"No, not that. I mean, do you want to know why I thought you left?"
"Oh, sorry. Why did you think I left?"
"Well," he said slowly. "I thought you were pregnant."
"I thought you had gotten pregnant."
"Pregnant? What made you think that?"
"Look, Sarah, you left without saying a word to anyone. And then, there were rumors going around that you had to leave school - that Mr. Burnsides had asked you to leave - because you were pregnant."
"Do you mean that all these years you thought I had a baby hidden somewhere?"
"I didn't know, " Ray said. He poked the toe of his tennis shoe under a crab which was struggling on its back. He flipped the crab over and it scurried sideways into the waves. "Every time I called to ask you for your side of things you hung up on me."
"I thought you were calling with lame excuses about Rachel."
"I wasn't thinking about Rachel. She wasn't my friend. You were."
Sarah looked over at Ray, but he was looking out at the horizon. She followed his gaze, letting her mind skim the top of the waves, and encompass the blueness of the sea. She felt him beside her, his body so near she could hear him breathing, but his mind so far away she could only guess what he was thinking. Sarah didn't understand friendship, not the type of friendship that Ray offered. A woman at a Zen retreat, after listening to Sarah boast of her travels, had said that she moved all the time because she was afraid to grow up. Instead of developing real intimacy and mature relationships Sarah just threw her friends away after a few years like discarded Kleenex. She liked to think that she changed and grew so quickly that people just couldn't keep up with her. She grew so fast that friends soon became strangers. Every move to a new city brought her a new circle of friends. Every move left old friends behind.
"So, who was the father of my child?" Sarah asked, breaking the silence.
"Depends on which story you heard. I heard several. My favorite was Calvin Falk."
"Oh, yuck. You've got to be kidding. People actually thought that I had sex with Calvin Falk? The kid who had so much snot in his nose that Mrs. Marshall bought him his own Kleenex box. That's gross."
"Well, there were other candidates: Ben Jermain, Bob Williams, and Johnny Baroni."
"Now, Ben Jermain I might have considered," she said. "But Bob's gay and Johnny couldn't get it up with the help of an electric cattle prod."
"Honestly, Ray. You're so naive. The fact that he dated Shirley Bailey should have been a clue."
"She was kind of sturdy, now that I think about it."
"Brick shithouse," Sarah said. "But, where did all these stories about me come from?"
"My mother was the first one to tell me you were pregnant. She heard it from your Aunt Hattie at a church meeting."
"I knew it. That bitch. This is the kind of bullshit that made me leave Thomas Beeach. Rumors and lies. Even you believed them."
"I'm sorry but when you left like that, without a word to anyone, what was I supposed to think?"
"I bet my parents, who knew damn well I wasn't pregnant, believed the rumors too. God, I hate it here."
Sarah wasn't aware that her voice was growing louder and louder until she heard her words echoing back to her from down the beach. She wanted to scream and keep on screaming. The blissfull nothingness that she had felt was shattered by anger. She wanted to pound on something, anything, until her fists bled. She wanted to kick at hard surfaces until her toes broke. She wanted to inflict pain on the only person who ever seemed to notice. Herself.
"Sarah," Ray said softly. "I'm sorry." They had come to the end of the beach. She could hear the waves breaking over the sand bar that reached out beneath the water toward Tomales Point. She could hear the bell buoy that marked the entrance to the bay, warning fishermen to stay within the deep narrow channels and to beware of the shallow waters. "It's good to see again."
"This visit home is really difficult for me. I have to go to the funeral today. The whole family will be there. It's going to be a heavy dose of Farrington after such a long absence."
"They are a strange bunch of people."
"Ah, I thought I was the only person who thought they were wierd. It's nice to know at least someone agrees with me." Sarah laughed.
They turned around and walked back up the beach. Bailey, still gripping his stick between his teeth, trotted along beside them. The sun was above the hills and the day was warming up. They could hear a motorcycle shifting gears as it climbed the long winding road out of town. Thomas Beach looked serene and innocent nestled against the hill and ringed by the tall eucalyptus trees.
"I heard that you and Cherie were having some trouble," Sarah said.
"She moved into town three months ago."
"Yeah. She's renting an apartment in one of those big houses on D Street."
"How are you doing with all this?"
"Getting by," Ray said as he kicked a dirty plastic bottle of sunscreen into the air. "I have my daughter on the weekends. Not seeing her every day is the hardest part."
"Did you really name her Sarah?"
"Yes. But don't get too excited. We named her Sara, without an H, after my grandmother."
"How old is she now?"
"Six. She'll start first grade in the fall. That was part of the problem. Cherie didn't want her to got to Tomales Elementary. She didn't want her to ride the bus for an hour every morning either."
"That's understandable. It seems like I spent most of my childhood on that schoolbus. It wasn't so bad in the afternoon because then we were the third or fourth stop. But in the morning we were one of the first to be picked up. We drove at least thirty-five miles to get to a school that was only four miles away."
"The school was only one of the problems. Cherie didn't like the hours I worked. She didn't want to live so far out in the country. She wanted to travel, go to parties, go to the movies, go just about anywhere."
"Sounds like she wasn't ready to settle down on the farm with the husband and kids."
"No. She wasn't. Neither was I. We got married when we were nineteen years old. Cherie was already pregnant with Sara. I was going to the JC and working nights at the Stop and Rob. We were just kids."
"So what's going to happen now?"
"I don't know. She says she needs some time to think about what she wants to do with her life. She's working at Otto's Travel Agency on Kentucky Street, right now. But she doesn't like sitting behind a desk all day. I'm always afraid that one Friday, I'll go to pick up Sara, and they'll both be gone. Flown off to Bali or Paris or some place."
"She wouldn't just pack up and leave, would she?"
"No. I don't think so. But I'm comfortable here and that always pissed her off. She sometimes told me that comfortable is dead."
"Sounds like she needs a bit of adventure."
"She always envied you. The way you traveled all around the world. Rome. London. New York. Amsterdam."
"Traveling all the time isn't as glamorous or as fun as it sounds. Moving around became a habit for me. Every year or so I'd suddenly pack my bags and head for a new city or a new country. Just when I got to know the language and the people I would leave. I was always an outsider, a newcomer, a foreigner."
"After a lifetime in this tight-knit community, that sounds pretty good."
"You wouldn't like it. The ex-patriot life is usually rather sleazy. Most of the Americans who live in Europe are there because they can't make it at home. Of course, there are the rich ones who live in villas and summer on the Cote D'Azur and winter in Chamonix. But I didn't travel in those circles."
"What exactly did you do over there?"
"That's a good question. At the time I thought I was doing a lot of great avant-garde theater work. Looking back, I see that I worked my ass off on a lot of half-baked artistic schemes. I set up a theater company in Holland with a crazy Frenchman who wanted to perform in Ancient Greek and Latin. We actually did a few shows. Not very many people came to see them, of course. But that only proved to us that we were on the cutting edge of the performing arts. Ahead of our time. After that, I traveled with an Italian mime troup through Scandinavia in a purple camper van with a huge clock on the roof. We did shows that even I couldn't figure out."
"Why did you decide to stop?"
"It seemed like the groups I joined got stranger and stranger, the people more and more bizarre, until I finally realized that they were crazy. Not artists, not geniuses, not great post-modern thinkers - just nuts."
"So you came home?"
"Well, I came back to the States, wandered around for awhile and then found this nice, quiet little job at a library on the north coast of Maine."
"You sound like you're ready to settle down."
"I'm going to try."
Bailey barked. He was standing over what appeared to be a mound of dirty sand at the base of the dunes. He lowered his head to his front paws, stuck his rear end in the air and barked. The mound didn't move. Bailey lept sideways. Again, he lowered his head and barked.
"What's he got over there?" Sarah asked.
"Probably just somebody's picnic basket. Let's go look."
When he heard Sarah and Ray approaching Bailey began to growl menacingly at the mound of sand. He snarled and shook his head.
"I don't think that's a picnic," Sarah said and stopped walking. "I think it's a dead animal."
Ray continued forward. He knelt down beside the mound. "It's a dog. A big husky. Still warm."
Sarah looked closer. The dog's white fur blended into the white sand. She could see the black nose and the exposed pink and black gums. The sand was dark and wet near the dog's open mouth.
"Looks like it threw up before it died," Ray said.
"Probably ate bad garbage. Aunt Hattie has been complaining about the dogs knocking over the cans. She's posted new signs everywhere."
"I know. I saw them when I came in."
"I'll tell Dad about this one. He'll bring the tractor down and pick it up."
They left the dog in the sand and walked up the beach toward the parking lot. A few cars were parked along the rail which divided the gravel lot from the sand. A man with sun bleached hair carried a surf board across the beach toward the water. A seagull sat on the rim of a trash can pecking at a paper bag. Bailey bounded past the bird without looking at it and ran toward the woman who was walking toward them. The woman screamed and Bailey began to bark. As Ray and Sarah drew nearer they saw Carol Farrington, standing stiff as a board, her arms wrapped around her chest, glaring down at the dog.
"Go home," she yelled at Bailey. "Go home."
"Mom, it's all right," Sarah called out to her. "It's only Bailey. Ray's dog."
"I don't care whose it is. It's supposed to be on a leash. It could have killed me."
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Farrington," Ray said as he pulled a long chain from his pocket. "He must have slipped out of his collar."
Ray called Bailey to him and clipped the chain to the red leather collar which was still firmly clasped around the dog's neck.
"You shouldn't let it run around like that, scaring people half to death." Carol said, trembling with fright and anger.
"It's O.K., Mom. Bailey's just a puppy."
"You don't know the trouble we've had lately. Dogs knocking over trash cans. You're lucky Hattie didn't see you." Carol said and pointed to Bailey. "She's going to start charging a fine for every over-turned trash can."
Bailey, unaware of the attention, was bent over like a pretzel with his left hind leg sticking straight up in the air. He was happily, and noisily, licking his balls.
"Disgusting animal," Carol said.
"Bailey, stop that," Ray said and yanked the chain.
"Did you come down here for a walk?" Sarah asked her mother, hoping to change the subject.
"I came down looking for you," she said. "If you don't hurry up, we'll be late for the funeral."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be gone so long."
"Well, we'd better get going," Carol said.
"I should go to work," Ray said. "I have weekend duty. It was nice to see you again, Sarah. Are you staying around for awhile?"
"No, I'm leaving on Monday. I have to get back to my new job. I just moved into a new house. I haven't even unpacked yet."
"Well, send us a postcard once in awhile," Ray said. Sarah knew there was much more he wanted to say, but her mother was standing next to her. "I hope things work out in Maine."
"Me too. Good luck with Cherie."
He walked away with Bailey trotting beside him. Sarah looked past them to the green and brown sheriff's car with the redwood tree stenciled on the side. It was parked in front of a large hand-painted sign that said: No Dogs Allowed on Beach. The car was clean and waxed to a fine shine. But the black rubber mudflaps hung in shreds behind the rear tires.
Sam Farrington was dressed and ready to go. He stood at the front window staring out at the ocean and watched his wife and daughter walk up the road from the beach. He wore his dark blue suit. His only suit. The one with the wide lapels and dark top- stitching. The suit had gone in and out of style more times than he had ever worn it. He had polished his brown leather shoes to such a high lustre Sarah half-expected rainbows to form over the toes. That fashion magazines deemed it gauche to wear brown shoes with blue suits was not now, nor had it ever been, a big issue in Redwood County.
"You look great, Dad," Sarah said as she came through the door.
"Thank you. This suit has held up well," he said proudly. "Sometimes it pays to spend a little extra."
Her father was not an extravagant man. He rarely bought things on credit and when he had to use a credit card he paid it off in full at the end of the month. But on certain items, appliances, shoes and a good suit, he did not economize. "The poor pay twice." he had always told Sarah. She remembered the times she had bought a cheap refrigerator or a bargain-priced pair of loafers and had to replace them before the ice cube tray was emptied or the soles scuffed.
"I'll take a quick shower and change," Sarah said as she rushed up the stairs past her mother. "It won't take me a minute."
"I've heard that one before," Sam said jokingly.
"Well, maybe two minutes."
Sarah's funeral outfit, a black cotton skirt and matching jacket with a royal blue silk blouse, lay on the bed where she had left it before going to the beach so it didn't take long for her to dress. As she zipped the skirt along her hip she felt a slight tug as the material stretched to conform to her rounded shape. Voluptuous, she thought.
"Baby fat." Grandma Beatrice's voice filled her head. "You'll lose that when you grow taller."
Every time Beatrice had walked passed Sarah she pinched - hard- the soft flesh on the little girl's waist or the delicate underside of her soft pink arms.
"Then again," the old woman would add, "Farrington women aren't known for their height." And she would laugh.
Sarah shook the bitter sound from her head, like Bailey shaking water from his fur. She threw on her jacket and joined her parents downstairs.
Carol Farrington stood in front of the hall mirror with a sheet of folded Kleenex clasped tightly between her lips, blotting her glossy over-red lipstick. She wore a black calf-length knit dress with one of Grandma Maggie's silk scarves draped over her left shoulder. The black dress accentuated her pale complexion and her silvery gray hair. The azure geometric patterns in the silk scarf brought out the blue of her eyes. Sarah rarely saw her mother out of sweat pants or the oversized Farrington Resort uniform and had forgotten how handsome she could be.
"Hurry up, Sarah," Carol said, letting the tissue, with its right red lip print, fall into the waste basket. "We don't want to be late for the service."
"I'm ready, already," Sarah said.
"Don't be flippant. Not today, Sarah," Carol sniffed and walked awkwardly on her high heels to the door. "Your father's waiting for us outside in the car."
The family car, a 1979 bright yellow Toyota hatchback with one blue door and one blue fender, was idling roughly in the drive. Her father's philosophy on consumer goods did not extend to automobiles. Sam bought cars used and kept them running with spit and baling wire. The hood was up and Sarah could see her father's brown shoes hanging out the driver's side door.
"Sam, what are you doing now?" Carol asked, exasperated.
"Just adjusting the hood release. Don't want it to fly up like Sarah's did."
"Honestly," she said, bursting into tears, "We're going to your mother's funeral. Am I the only one around here who cares about Grandma Bea?"
Neither Sarah, nor her father, answered. Sam slid out from under the dashboard, pulled the hood down, checked carefully to see that it fastened securely, and climbed back into the front seat. Sarah took her place in the back seat. She felt like she was ten years old, sitting behind her parents, all dressed up. The sweetness of her mother's Wind Song perfume and her father's
Old Spice After Shave folded into the familiar rubbery smells of the car. Sarah felt slightly nauseous and wished she'd eaten heavier, starchier food for breakfast. The thought of food, added to the smells and the infantalizing situation suddenly reminded her of an incident that happened when she was in grade school: when Aunt Hattie had picked her up early from school.
On the way home, somewhere through the second series of hairpin curves, Sarah had become ill. Hattie stopped the car. She gathered Sarah up in her fleshy arms and carried her to the side of the road. Hattie patted Sarah's back as she vomited over the edge of the ravine. When the heaving ended, Sarah looked up at her aunt, "I don't feel good." she said.
It was her aunt's reply that Sarah remembered: "You're lucky. At least you can throw up." That was the kindest thing her aunt had ever said to her and yet for years Sarah had wondered what she'd meant. Was Hattie unable to vomit? Did she store up that bile somewhere inside her massive frame? Did Aunt Hattie dislike her because she could vomit and her aunt couldn't? Could you die from not vomiting?
Sarah smiled to herself as they drove in silence down Front Street, past the store with the CLOSED sign on the door, through the eucalyptus grove and out of town. Carol clung nervously to the door handle as Sam navigated the sharp turns of the hill. Her mother had nothing to fear. He drove slowly, holding the Toyota in the lowest possible gear, and even then, he lugged down the engine. "Lower the gear, better the traction."
It was four miles through the hills to the Presbyterian Church of Tomales. Freshly shorn sheep grazed in the pastures. Lambs, their tails newly bobbed, chased each other through their mothers' legs. A red-winged black bird, perched on the back of a ruminating holstein, dug parasites out from between the stiff hair of the cow's hide. The rolling hills, like the round bellies of sleeping giants, still held lush patches of spring green amidst the dry summer grasses. Another month of sunshine and these hills would be a golden brown fire hazard.
Just before the town of Tomales, Sarah saw two rusted trestles standing above the marshy lowlands of Tony Gilardi's field. Once they had held the tracks of the North Pacific Coast Railway. This morning Sarah watched Tony's mare, Babe, rub her aching left haunch along the rough steel. The roadbed for the old track was still visible in short lengths in the fields. It pushed out of the earth like the embossed outline of a zipper on a too tight skirt. From the car Sarah couldn't see the old tunnels hidden behind the hills. But she knew they were still there.
They weren't late for the service, though a crowd had already gathered in front of the church by the time Sam pulled the Toyota into the gravel parking lot. Groups of distant cousins who Sarah only vaguely recognized stood in clusters on the concrete steps in front of the church. Most of the mourners were local people, members of the congregation who lived in Tomales or on the dairies outside of town. Some were tradesmen who had driven their goods out to Thomas Beach resort over the years. The Laura Scudder's man who delivered potato chips every Wednesday talked solemnly to the Hostess bread and donut lady. Behind them stood the Clover milk man and Old Mr. Halversom, the Utah Woolen Mills salesman. When he was younger, Mr. Halversom traveled all over the country in his 1948 Chevrolet with the metal bar across the back seat for hanging coats. Twice a year he had come to Thomas Beach, once in the late spring to take orders for winter coats and again in the fall to deliver them. When he retired, in 1979, he bought one of the old railroad houses on First Street in Tomales. He set the Chevy up on blocks in the garage out back, and Mr. Halversom set himself in a rocker on the front porch with his pipe. His travelling days were over.
Three of the six or seven non-Farrington residents of Thomas Beach were at the funeral. These were the existing members of what Sarah called the Survivors' Club. Grandma Maggie had joined this group when she moved out from Tomales after Grandpa Jack died in 1963. The club was an association of old people, all of whom lived alone except Agnes and Harold Burney, and Grandma Maggie and Lizzy. They looked out for one another. They had an elaborate signalling system to notify each other of thier continued existence. "Every morning Lizzy and I get up and draw back the shades. We check to see that Gertie has her kitchen blinds pulled up. That way we know she's up and about. Then I call over to Bernard's. Gertie looks out for Harold and Agnes, they being just on the other side of the street, and Bernard watches for Beatrice to open her back bedroom window. Beatrice is supposed to call me before eight o'clock, but she forgets more often then not."
Sarah had scoffed at the old people's strange dotless Morse code. But their morning ritual saved Gertie's life once and woke Bernard from a drunken stupor more than a few times. Gertie, Miss Gertrude Mueller, had lived in Thomas Beach for as long as Sarah could remember. She spoke broken English with a heavy German accent that got stronger as she got older. There were many rumors about Gertie's history, but the most common was that she had come to Thomas Beach as the mistress of a wealthy San Francisco railroad magnate. He bought her the cottage on Middle Street and visited her on weekends. Uncle Gerrick, who ran the post office in his spare time, said she got a letter from San Francisco every two weeks, around the first and the fifteenth of the month. She did most of her shopping at the Farrington store and had an account that she always paid off around the time the letters arrived.
"One morning," Grandma Maggie had told Sarah, "I looked out and saw that Gertie's kitchen blinds were still closed down. I called over to her on the phone, but she didn't answer. I put on my housecoat and called Bernard to meet me at Gertie's back door. We knocked hard enough to wake the dead, but no one answered. Bernard took the key out of the geranium pot by the door, and we let ourselves in. There she was, lying on the kitchen floor. I thought for sure she was dead, but Bernard - you know how he can be - fussed over her, taking her pulse and what not. And sure as day, she was breathing."
"That night Dr. Reynolds told us Gertie had knocked over her morning tea kettle and scalded her arm. Well now, that was bad enough. But then she spread a healthy layer of Balm Ben Gay over the burn and wrapped it up with plastic wrap. It's no wonder she passed out."
Luckily for Gertie, the Survivors' Club found her before the ointment had penetrated too deeply.
Bernard Roget was one of Grandma Maggie's favorite characters. A native of Marseilles, he drifted into French at least once during a conversation.
"I have no idea what he's on about," Grandma Maggie would say. "But it sounds awful pretty."
Like Gertie, no one knew for sure how or why Bernard came to be living in Thomas Beach. One story says Bernard was raised by the local Miwok Indians and left behind when they migrated north. Another story says he washed up on shore from a French trawler. Bernard maintained that he was a political refugee. He said he fled Marseilles as a young man in order to escape persecution by the Vichy government. According to his account, an American businessman found him wandering around the docks and hired him as a travelling companion. They came to Tomales hoping to set up an import business along the Pacific Railways excursion line. But shortly after their arrival, Bernard's benefactor died, leaving him just enough money to buy the tiny house at the bottom of Top Street in Thomas Beach.
Bernard soon became a fixture of Thomas Beach. He collected Indian arrowheads from the Miwok hunting site in the hills behind the resort and sold them to tourists. Grandma Maggie said he started the rumor himself- about being raised by Indians - so that he could get more money for his trinkets. When the store was open, he sat on the bench outside the front door with his felt beret cocked to one side and told stories about the days when Ernest Farrington and the local fishermen went out in the dead of night to rendezvous with cruisers carrying rum along the coast. Sarah loved these stories of her great grandfather and his midnight exploits. She had never known Ernest or her grandfather Henry but she knew that Beatrice's idea of adventure was flipping the pages of National Geographic while she sat under the hair dryer at the Marge's Beauty Salon. Bernard embellished the stories with lurid accounts of pirates, roving submarines and ferocious sharks. During the off-season, when there were no tourists to buy his trinkets, Bernard made a living doing odd jobs around town, fixing swollen doors and crooked cupboards.
What Sarah remembered most about Bernard was how he whittled. As kids, David and Sarah watched for hours while Bernard carved sailboats, intricate figurines and ornate whistles out of ordinary sticks. He carved balls inside of cages and interlocking wooden chains. He made Sarah a sailboat with sails so thin sunlight shone through them. It sat on her bookshelf, on the second shelf from the top, in front of her father's hardback editions of the Hornblower series.
Bernard died in his sleep one night when Sarah was away at college.
"I knew he was gone when I woke up that morning," Grandma Maggie told Sarah. "I could feel him hovering above me. Like as if he'd come to say good-bye."
Of the Survivors' Club only Gertie and Agnes and Harold Burney were alive to attend Beatrice's funeral. The Burneys, both retired elementary school teachers, lived quietly in a little cottage they named Snug Harbor. Every morning and every evening the Burneys walked through the streets of Thomas Beach and along the shore holding hands. They collected olive shells and bits of smoothed colored glass for their front garden. They rarely spoke to anyone, but they talked to each other, quietly pointing out interesting plants or drift wood. Today they stood together, Agnes with her arm through Harold's, watching as the other mourners gathered.
Sam parked the car on the far side of the church near the cemetery. He straightened his tie in the rear view mirror and hummed nervously to himself.
"Come on," Carol said impatiently. "If we don't hurry the pews will all be filled."
Sam coughed, shifted slowly in his seat and opened the car door.
"Are you all right, Dad?" Sarah asked gently.
"Huh, oh, yes. I'm fine," he said clearing his throat again. He ran his hands over his pants legs to ease out the creases. Then he pulled himself up straight and, as if on military parade, held a bent elbow out for his wife. Together they marched slowly toward the church.
"Why don't you guys go in the side door?" Sarah said. "I'll go around front and look for David."
"Don't be long. The sermon will start any minute," Carol said.
"I'll just be a second."
Sarah wiggled her way through the crowd on the front steps until she found David talking with a group of third cousins-once-removed.
"When did you get up here?" she asked as she slipped in beside him. As always, Sarah was struck by how tall her little brother had become. In his dark tailored suit and his lustrous black leather shoes, he stood inches above the other somberly dressed people. He had light brown hair and little ears. No one else would notice that David's ears were small but it was a detail that a sister wouldn't overlook. Sarah's ears were perfect - not too big, not too small. They were, however, hidden beneath her long jet black hair.
"I came straight to the church this morning," David said. "I worked late last night. Where are Mom and Dad?"
"They've already gone in."
"How are they taking it?"
"Dad has shut down. But he's playing the good soldier. Mom
is nervous, self-conscious and upset. Fairly normal, really."
"Sarah, be nice," David said sotto voce, so that the cousins couldn't hear. "Let's go inside."
He shook hands with everyone, accepting their condolences, concurring with their laudative tributes to the late Grandmother Beatrice. David responded with gracious and proper leave taking remarks then took Sarah's arm and escorted her into the church.
"Sarah, how are you?" Harold Burney asked. He was seated in the last pew. He reached for her as she and David walked down the crowded aisle. "Did you fly in from Rome?"
"No. I live in Maine now."
"What?" He said, adjusting the hearing aid in his right ear.
"I live in Maine," Sarah repeated, louder. She was aware that her voice echoed slightly in the quiet church and people turned their faces toward her.
"Oh, I thought you were in Italy."
"I was, but I moved."
"Oh, well, it's nice to see you made it back." Harold smiled solemnly and patted Sarah on the arm. Agnes sat beside him, nodding in silent agreement.
The Farrington family - immediate, extended and distantly related - filled the first three rows of wooden pews. David and Sarah squeezed past Uncle Gerrick, Aunt Olive - who had appeared that morning from Tennessee - their grown children and grandchildren. They sat in the empty space next to their parents. Sam picked an invisible fleck of food from his tie and hummed B-flat to himself. He often hummed B-flat when he was in unfamiliar situations, like department stores or theater lobbies. No tune, just the one note. Carol, jerking her head from side to side, took an inventory of everyone present.
"What's that moaning sound?" Sarah asked as she sat down next to her mother.
"That's Hattie," Carol mumbled. Her voice slipped through the fingers of her hand, which she held rigid beneath her nose, shielding her mouth and forming a peculiar salute. Sarah, however, could see her bottom lip moving.
"She's over there," Carol said without lowering her hand. She nodded toward the front row.
Hattie hung from her daughter Rachel's shoulder like a deflated air mattress. Every few minutes her dark shape swelled, then emptied again. A sound like spring wind howling through a drafty house escaped from under her black wool coat.
"She sounds like an old hound dog wailing for his master," Sarah whispered to David.
"More like the last sighs of an old tuba," he answered.
"How poetic of you, David. Aunt Hattie's last oompah."
"Shush." Their mother hissed from beneath a hand.
The organist, LaVerne Matthews, who had been playing softly in the corner, now struck a deep resonant chord. Sarah recognized the opening bars of "The Lord is in his Temple." Reverend Day, a small, dark man, dressed in a cheap suit, entered the church from the side door. The choir rose and began to sing.
Reverend Day walked slowly past the tall baskets of flowers and the many wreaths on metal stands with silk banners. He climbed the three steps to the red carpeted platform and opened the gilt edged bible. Gently, dramatically, he lifted the wide crimsom ribbon placemark, letting it fall over the edge of the pulpit. He bowed his head in silent prayer as the voices of the choir swirled around him. Sarah remembered him as a mean-spirited, greasy-haired man, who clenched his fists when he spoke of love and curled his lips into a grimace when he spoke of sin. When he bowed his head in prayer, his eyes peered out from under his brows. His palms were always sweaty, and he smelled faintly of sex.
The choir finished the hymn but remained standing. There was a rustling as they flipped through the thin pages of their hymnals. "Please turn to page forty-two in your red hymnal and join with me in singing "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," Reverend Day said, as his hands floated palm upward toward the ceiling.
The congregation rose. David and Sarah shared a hymnal, and they sang, at first tentatively and then with relaxed confidence. David's strong, deep baritone complimented his sister's thin soprano. Sarah loved this part of the funeral ceremony. She loved this part of any ceremony. Surrounded by sound she emptied herself into the stream of voices. She diffused into the absorbing hymn that filled the church, and she felt at one with all around her.
She had loved this church once, the feel of the rounded pews, the smell of wood polish and the musty closet filled with choir robes. In March of her eleventh year, Sarah had joined up, becoming a full member of the First Presbyterian Church of Tomales. For six months she went to bible school every Tuesday afternoon and helped with the monthly church buffets. She wrote out a detailed pledge and read it aloud to the elders. She stood at the pulpit every third Sunday and read the Bible passage of the day. And she sang in the choir every Sunday morning.
That spring, Sarah loved her Grandmother Beatrice. She went to her house on Saturday mornings to practice singing the hymns. Beatrice taught her to breathe with her diaphragm like an opera singer and to use the hollows of her sinuses to reach the high notes. She taught her to accompany herself on the piano. She curled Sarah's small fingers around oranges to help her find the correct hand positions. She rapped out rhythms with a pencil on the top of the piano and counted, 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and, over and over again. For that spring, Beatrice may even have loved her granddaughter. The Presbyterian Church had always been Beatrice Farrington's domain. She played the organ on Sundays and conducted the small choir. She played music for weddings and funerals. Sometimes she spent entire mornings alone at the organ in the empty church playing hymns.
Then one morning in late June, her hymnal tucked under her arm, Sarah knocked at her grandmother's door. There was no answer. She turned the knob and opened the door.
"How dare you enter my house without permission," Beatrice said, rising from her chair. Her voice was cold as steel.
"But it's Saturday," Sarah said.
"Don't you try to fool me, young lady," Beatrice said. "I know what you're up to."
"Grandma, I don't know what you mean."
"Yes, you do. Rachel told me all about your little game. You just want to be with that Tomkins boy. You're not a true Christian. You're an aberration, a sinner, a whore."
She slammed the door in the little girl's face.
Sarah found out later that her cousin Rachel had told Beatrice she was kissing Tommy Tomkins behind the tombstones in the graveyard while Beatrice was doing her finger exercises on the piano before choir practice. There was no way Sarah could convince Beatrice that Rachel was lying, so she left the choir, left the church and began again to dream of leaving town.
The last note of "Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past" drifted away. Reverend Day lowered his arms. The congregation sat down.
"In my Father's house are many rooms," he read from John 14:1. "If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also."
The reverend went on to assure the mourners that Beatrice was, even now, on her way to that room in her Father's house. It was a special room, for she had been a special woman, a true Christian woman, a pillar of the community and an example for all. She had given selflessly of her time, her heart and her energy. Playing the piano and organ on all occasions. Organizing fund raisers and acting as chairman of the Ladies Aid Society. She had taught Sunday school, conducted the choir and even in the last years of her life had found the strength to read from the scriptures on Sunday morning.
"....a woman of compassion and goodness." Reverend Day's fists gripped the side of the pulpit. "A woman who gave freely to the service of God and to the community. A woman who will be sorely missed by all, a woman who will remain in our hearts forever."
"Heartburn. She will remain as heartburn forever," Sarah whispered to David.
Her mother, with elbows even pointier than Sarah's own, jabbed her in the ribs and made a face that clearly said "Shush." David socked her in the arm, but gently, as if to say, "I understand, but shut up."
Her father hummed B-flat.
At the end of the ceremony, Reverand Day solemnly closed the casket. Despite herself, Sarah felt tears swelling up along her eyelids. The funeral had at first seemed so comical - Grandmother Farrington's lifeless face with the bifocals perched on her nose as if she were going to read The Christian Science Monitor in the Afterworld; the greasy reverend dripping praise and piety; the church full of mourners who believed in the goodness of the deceased. But there was nothing amusing about the sound of the casket as it closed over her body, like a sharp intake of breath that would be held forever. Death was final.
After the funeral, family and friends drove back to Thomas Beach to gather at Hattie's house for a buffet, potluck supper. The large livingroom was soon filled to capacity. As Beatrice had requested cremation, there had been no graveside service. The reverend, therefore, took this opportunity to read the Twenty-third Psalm to the hungry mourners.
"The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside still waters.."
Sarah caught David's eye when the Reverend reached the line, "Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies." He scowled at her, and she bowed her head again.
The diningroom table, extended by three extra leaves, stretched from the north wall of the dining room clear across to the back of the living room sofa. Corning Ware dishes and Tupperware bowls covered every inch of the table. Each dish was carefully labeled with Scotch tape and a name printed in black magic marker. At one end of the table sat a large platter of Carol Farrington's Death Jello: shredded carrots and boiled raisons suspended in squares of strawberry gelatin, each topped with a dollop of mayonnaise. The Ladies Aid Society had pulled out all their funeral recipe cards. There were tuna casseroles, chicken and mushroom soup casseroles, hamburger helper casseroles and breads made with every species of fruit and vegetable. Sarah counted five baskets of dinner rolls and twelve glass dishes of homemade apple butter.
Hattie sat in the corner of the living room, unable to control her crying, which had turned her eyelids into ugly red lumps. A crowd of people swarmed around her, murmuring condolences.
"A remarkable woman."
"A great loss to the community."
"Our prayers are with you today."
"A saint, a veritable saint."
Through the dining room window, Sarah saw the back of David's head hovering above a group of people on the front porch. As she maneuvered her way through the crowd, carefully avoiding outstretched paper plates, her elbow bumped against a tall blonde woman in black silk.
"Sarah, I see they let you come back," she said.
It was the unmistakably harsh sound of her cousin Rachel's nasalized speech. She felt her body stiffen as she systematically closed down all her sense receptors. Her arms and legs grew cold, her fingertips went numb. A dull quiet enveloped her like the hollow quiet of an empty office when the automatic shutters fall down against the night. Even her nose lost its sense, so all she could smell was her own breath. She recognized this sensation. This was her childhood armor clanging into place.
"Rachel," Sarah said, her voice as controlled as she could manage. "What a surprise. I thought you were still behind bars." "Always the clown, aren't you?" Rachel said, with a smile that quivered. "A pity you haven't gotten funnier with age."
"Well, Rachel," Sarah said through gritted teeth. "As always, it is a pleasure to exchange pleasantries with you."
"Hmmph," Rachel snorted and turned back to her circle of old high school buddies.
By the time Sarah reached David, the group on the porch had thinned out. The elbow room and the fresh salty air felt like a splash of after shave on raw skin.
"Boy, it's good to see you," Sarah said.
"Getting stuffy in there?" David asked as he popped the last bite of Jello into his mouth.
"I ran into Rachel. That's what's stuffy."
"OK, what happened this time?"
"Nothing. I was just being friendly. I asked how prison life was treating her."
"Sarah. You were teasing Rachel again, weren't you," David asked without expecting an answer. "You know she's been promoted. She's head nurse at San Quentin now."
"I'm sure she's great. I can't think of a job more perfectly suited to her sadistic tendencies."
"She's not that bad."
"Oh yeah. I know Rachel. She was born to inflict pain on people in confined spaces."
"She doesn't seem to have done any permanent damage. You look great."
"Flattery will get you ...a change of subject," Sarah said and laughed. David's charm even worked on her. "How long are you staying?"
"I told Mom I'd help her move some furniture around. She wants to make room for those big oak dressers of Grandma Bea's."
"Already divvying up the spoils?"
"It's not like that. All this was settled years ago. Remember when we were kids and Grandma taped our names to things so we would know that one day they'd be ours?"
"Yes. But Rachel always got her name on the good stuff."
"Don't be such a baby," he said and tried to tickle her, but she squirmed away.
"I'm going down to the beach. Want to come?"
"No, there are still some people I haven't talked to yet and food I haven't tasted."
"I can't believe you actually eat that stuff."
"What do you mean? That's good old home cooking. Meat and potatoes and chocolate."
"And don't forget marshmallows, mayonaise and macaroni and cheese."
"See, all the major food groups are represented," David laughed.
They walked together through the crowd on the porch and parted ways when they reentered Aunt Hattie's house. David went off toward the throng gathered around Hattie's chair, and Sarah tried to sneak out through the kitchen. She passed her father, who was deep was deep in conversation with his brother, Gerrick. They were discussing how to fix the restrooms on the beach parking lot. This was a touchy subject because repairs were both expensive and disgusting. The fine white sand that everyone loved to lay their beach towels on infiltrated the sewer system and filled the septic tanks. The tank routinely overflowed and someone, usually Sarah's father and a teenager hired for the summer, would have to shovel out the mess. If they caught the problem early enough, they dropped a long garden hose down into the tank, sucked the air out of it and siphoned the sewage off over the bank. It was usually the teenager's job to suck the hose.
Sarah found her mother in the kitchen slicing raw vegetables and arranging them on a platter. In the center of the platter she had placed a bowl of mayonnaise mixed with a package of Lipton's Onion Soup.
"I'm going for a walk on the beach," she said picking up a carrot stick. "Want to come?"
"No. I couldn't leave now. All these people." Carol pushed a stray hair off her forehead with the back of her wrist and reached for a head of cauliflower.
"There's enough food out there to feed an army."
"People always get hungry at funerals. And there are so many out there. She was such a wonderful woman. Everybody loved your grandmother." Carol sniffed, and a tear ran down her cheek.
"Do you want me to stay and help?" Sarah asked.
"No. Run along. I'm almost finished now."
The sun was heading towards the horizon, and the wind was just breaking through the fog barrier when Sarah reached the beach. She took off her shoes and walked along the shore feeling the moist sand ooze between her toes. She unfastened her hair clip and let her long black hair fall around her shoulders. The breeze blew her hair away from her face and her cheeks tingled, exposed to the sun, the wind and the salty air. She let the sound of the waves breaking along the shore replace the sounds of grief that still echoed in her ears. It was a grief she had been unable to join. She wasn't happy that her grandmother was dead. She was just glad that their relationship was over.
Next week her father and her uncle Gerrick, the two sons, would take their mother's ashes out to sea. They would spread them over the water far beyond the breakers, past the bell buoy and the blinking channel markers. Sarah looked out at the reddening horizon and prayed for the cold Alaskan currents to carry those ashes far away from the shores of Thomas Beach. She prayed for them to be carried to some distant shore on the other side of the world, where Beatrice couldn't reach her, where Beatrice couldn't hurt her anymore.
Your mother was born that next fall, October 16, 1923. She was such a quiet child. We named her Carol, after my mother's mother, Caroline. Your mother never cried and never screamed in the night the way your Aunt Lizzy had. Lizzy screamed so loud, it set the town dogs to barking. Emily Williams was the only one who ever complained - said Lizzy's screaming and the dogs' barking gave her children nightmares. Not that I ever took her complaints seriously. For land's sakes, that woman was always on about something.
But, be that as it may, I was pleased your mother wasn't fussy or colicky. I remember the day I brought her home from St. Mary's Hospital in Petaluma. It was one of those clear autumn days when the sun tickles your skin without burning. Indian summer we called it back then. The air was soft as crushed velvet and the sky as blue as Mama's Wedgewood china. That morning, I padded around the house in my slippers, my belly so round and hard you'd have thought I'd swallowed a watermelon. Dr. Reynolds had insisted I go to the hospital at the very first signs of labor, but I waited. I knew there was no need to fuss, so I didn't call him until I was close to time. But I hadn't figured on the drive to town in the doctor's old Ford. That was something else again. I pretty near had your mother right there on Wiggin's Hill. Wouldn't that have been a sight: Old Mr. Wiggins in his overalls standing over me while my belly burst open in his cow barn. I vowed, right then, that if I ever did this again - and I was fairly sure I wouldn't - but if I did, I would tell Dr. Reynolds a mite earlier. He was such a finicky sort, the doctor was, always worried about complications. Because of all the trouble I was having with Lizzy he thought that delivery was going to be difficult. But birthing was never the problem in our family. These hips were made for child bearing. I know you don't think so now, Sarah, but one day you'll be thankful for them too.
Your grandpa was waiting at the house when I got home with your mother. He didn't come with me to the hospital. Men didn't do that in those days. Birthing was a woman's work and the men folk stayed away until it was all over. I'm not saying that's a good thing. That's just the way it was. But frankly, I don't know as how at the time I was delivering if I gave one wit who was there with me. Dr. Reynolds could have been Grandpa or Old Mr. Wiggins for all I cared. Jack had been busy while I was away. The house was all tidied up, the clothes washed and put away, the floors swept and polished and it was so quiet and peaceful inside. Lizzy stayed over with Grace, Dr. Reynolds' wife. She always took good care of Lizzy when I was sick. They never had any children of their own and Grace liked to fuss over Lizzy, making her cookies and cute little cotton frocks.
Jack helped me up the stairs to the bedroom, and there sitting in front of the window was the most beautiful rocker I ever laid eyes on. He had carved it and polished it with his own hands. It was just like the one my mama had, back on the porch in Indiana. I sat myself down in that wide-bottomed rocker and rocked your mother in my arms. I sang to her and cooed to her, and I swear she smiled up at me. I remember this all so well because we didn't have many times alone, your mother and me, after that.
Grace brought Lizzy home later on that evening. Your aunt got so excited when she saw your mother, she soiled her britches. Lizzy was four, but she hadn't seen many babies before. Emily Williams and the other mothers in town never let Lizzy get close to their children. Emily always was particular about those children of hers. Too particular if you ask me. But Lizzy loved our new baby. She called her Ro, not being able to pronounce the whole name, Carol. Soon we all called the baby Ro.
In those years, Lizzy would often hear just one sound inside a word and repeat it over and over again. Table became "abe"; sweater was "swa"; blocks were "ock". I know some people say that Lizzy never could talk - but she did. She had words for everything back then. Chair, car, walk, cookie. You had to listen real close to understand her. Most people just never took the time.
I worried at first that Lizzy might hurt the baby. She didn't know her own strength half the time. But by and by, Lizzy learned to rock her baby sister gently in the cradle and to pat her and hug her just as soft as you please. She adored her sister. No one could ever doubt that.
Lizzy was awful sick in those years. Seems she caught every flu bug and virus that was going around. I was grateful your mother was such a healthy child because, if truth be told, I had my hands full with Lizzy. There were quite a few strange diseases that made their way up from the port of San Francisco. The Asian Flu, the Hong Kong Virus, even strange European illnesses. It seemed to me those excursion trains that met the ferry in Sausalito were just a line of rail cars filled up with germs.
The trains certainly did bring the people and trade to this area though. Up north of here, on the Russian River, whole communities grew up just to cater to these city folks. Monte Rio, Occidental, Duncan Mills. All those towns started out as logging businesses, saw mills, lumber yards and transport stations. But the train trip over the hills and beside the river through the giant redwood trees was so beautiful people begged to go along on the logging cars. So, the railway added passenger service and the tourist trade began. Hotels and restaurants were built, and little cabins sprung up on both sides of the Russian River from Monte Rio to Santa Rosa.
I can't say as how I blame the folks from San Francisco wanting to get out of the city and into the country - it was a beautiful train ride But it wasn't comfortable like we've come to expect nowadays. And not particularly safe, either. There were more accidents along that Northwestern Pacific Line then should ever have been tolerated. Jack always said the engineers drove those trains too darn fast for the track. I know for a fact that he was right.
One day, Grace and I went down to San Francisco to pick up some medicine from the General Hospital that Dr. Reynolds wanted. Least ways that was the excuse we gave for the trip. Truth be told, we were always quick to accept a ride out of town, especially into the city. We made a day of it. We did our Christmas shopping over at Macy's and Grace bought a beautiful porcelain doll for your mother. It was one of those dolls with the silk dress and hat and it even had a little red parasol. We had a time keeping track of all our packages on the trip home.
Remember now, there was no Golden Gate Bridge in those days. No sir, we rode one of the ferry boats across the San Francisco Bay. There were three of them that ran from the Ferry Building at the end of the Embarcadero to Sausalito. There was the Sausalito, the Tiburon (which smoked too much) and the Eureka. Grace and I always preferred the Eureka. People called it the Floating Palace. And it was. The Eureka carried more than three thousand passengers at a time and the seats were as soft as feather pillows.
We transferred to the train, the old NorthPacific Coast (it was by then already owned by the Northwestern Pacific, but people still called it the NPC), at the docks in Sausalito. The train was always filled with commuters, shoppers and rowdy youngsters from the city.
That day the young people were all singing and laughing, and Gracey and I were enjoying all the merry-making. George Seymour was the conductor. You wouldn't remember the Seymours. She taught at the grade school out in Bloomfield for years until their daughter died and they moved away. They live in Sacramento now, I think. Anyway, George liked to have fun with the youngsters. At that time everybody knew that White's Hill Tunnel, the one just outside of San Rafael, was long and dark as pitch. It took the train the better part of 5 minutes to get through to the other side. What people didn't know was that there was a short tunnel, a bore Jack called it, just before the train got to White's.
That day George announced: "Attention all passengers, the train will be five minutes passing through the White's Hill Tunnel." And sure enough we dropped into total darkness but before you could say Jiminy Cricket we came flying out into the light again. Well, I've never seen so many red faced youngsters in all my born days. Some of the wilder ones were all set for pitching woo right there on the train seats. Those that didn't have gal friends were caught with their hip flasks raised and shining in the sun. Grace and I laughed so hard we thought our sides would split wide open.
But what happened later on wasn't one bit funny. We changed trains in Point Reyes Station. That's where the broad-gauge track from Sausalito ended and the slim track or narrow gauge began. Grace and I got ourselves settled near the front of the first passenger car so we could get a nice view of the scenery. We tucked our parcels up out of the way on the shelves above us and slid Dr. John's carton of medicines under the seat. This was my favorite section of the whole trip. The train ran right along the bay like a strip of black satin piping outlining the contours of an evening gown. This part of the North Pacific Railway was probably best described by the plaque on Percy William's office wall at the turnaround station in Tomales. It was a framed square of cross-stitching made years ago by one of the engineer's wives. The words came from a piece of poem written by James Fowler of Valley Ford on the very first train trip from Sausalito to Tomales on Thursday, January 7, 1875.
"It twisted in and twisted out
And left the traveller still in doubt
Whether the snake that made the track
Was going up or coming back."
I thought of those lines as we raced through curves so sharp that Grace complained of seasickness. The wheels squealed against the rails, and the salty air rushed in through the open windows. The engineer, Willard Jackson, claims he was only running at 20 mile per hour that day. Now, I'm no wizard at arithmetic, but it seems to me that if we left Point Reyes at 2:25 that afternoon and flew off the rails at 2:45, having covered some eleven odd miles of track, then we were going a sight faster than 20 miles per hour. If my figuring is correct, it was more like 35 miles per hour. Far too fast for the snakey curves along that bit of track.
We hadn't quite reached the docks of Marconi Cove when we came barrelling around a curve and the engine skipped clean off the rails. I knew we were in trouble when I heard the even clanging rhythm of the wheels rolling along the metal tracks turn to a dull clunking sound. We bounced along for awhile on the wooden ties and then stopped with a sudden forward jerk. Grace and I were thrown to the floor and our packages fell off the shelves and landed on top of us. Boxes and parcels went sliding by us down the aisle. The screams of the passengers and the shrill hissing of the steam engine pierced my eardrums like an ice pick. Not one of the passengers was badly hurt but we were all bruised, scraped and mighty shook up.
"Are you all right?" I asked Grace.
"Nothing broken. But, Maggie," she said. "I'm afraid I'm sitting on John's box of medicine."
Sure enough, when Grace picked herself up off that floor there was the white box with the red cross stamped across the top crushed flatter than a pancake. What a mess. The glass vials had broke clean in half, spilling yellow sticky fluid over everything. We salvaged what we could. We wiped off all the unbroken bottles and the paper containers filled with powders, and we pushed the rest back up under the seat.
Lucky for us we were on our hands and knees mopping up between the seats when the rescue engine from Point Reyes Station arrived. Old Number 8, or Bully Boy as the men called it, came roaring around that very same curve behind us. Mac Kincaid, the engineer on Bully Boy, thought we were further along the track than we were. By the time he saw us, there wasn't time for him to stop. He managed to slow down some, but the force of the impact sent passengers flying through the air all over again. Grace and I tucked our heads down between our knees as our packages fell back on top of us. This time, more people were seriously hurt because most everyone was up on out of their seats, milling about looking for the shopping bags and overnight cases that had fallen during the first accident. And they say that lightning never strikes twice!
Kincaid had brought two doctors along from Point Reyes and they were kept busy all that evening and well into the night wrapping up broken arms and legs. Grace and I helped dress the smaller wounds. We got out the supplies that Dr. John had sent us to the city for. By the time we were finished, we had used up most of the gauze and antiseptic creams.
It was almost midnight before we reached home. We were tired and filthy. The fancy bottle of fragrance Grace bought at Macy's had broken in her handbag and we both smelled like Barbary Coast chorus girls. The next morning I went through my purchases and found most everything stained with medicine and blood. The new lace petticoats I had bought for the girls were ruined, and the brim of my new straw hat was torn clean off at the front. The only package undamaged was the bright red box with Carol's porcelain doll. It came through without a dent or a scratch. Even the delicate little parasol had survived the wrecks.
That morning I left the doll propped up on the little chair next to Carol's bed so that it would be the very first thing she saw when she opened her eyes. Carol was five that year, and she loved dolls more than anything in the world. Lizzy was almost nine and didn't care about dolls one way or the other. She still carried around an old one-eared stuffed rabbit that Jack had given her for Christmas when she was two years old.
I was at the sink in the kitchen when I heard the girls upstairs hollering at each other. I threw down the dish towel and ran up the stairs two at a time, my legs still sore from the day before. I wasn't half way up when Lizzy came tumbling down toward me. Her left arm was tucked under her, awkwardly, so that I knew before she hit the third step what was going to happen. I heard the crack. And then the screaming started.
Lizzy howled in pain, clutching her arm, not understanding what was wrong. Carol stood at the top of the stairs, tears running down her face. She held the doll at arms length, her eyes wide with horror and shock. The porcelain head was shattered, pieces of the painted face lay on the floor at her feet. "She's dead," Carol wailed at the top of her lungs. "Lizzy killed her."
I pulled my apron off and wrapped Lizzy's injured arm to her chest. I scooped her up into my arms. She was trembling and whimpering, a loud shrill whine, like a lost puppy.
"Be quiet, just be quiet," I yelled at Carol, trying to be heard over the screaming and whining. "It was an accident. Now, get back into your room."
"She grabbed it from me," Carol cried. "I would have let her see it. But she grabbed it, and she broke it." Tears ran down her face, and her chest heaved from the sobbing. There was nothing I could do; my hands were full with Lizzy. "What's wrong with her, Mommy? What's wrong?"
"She's sick, dammit. She's just sick," I screamed at her. "Now, get back in your room and don't come out until I get home." Carol held out the doll. "Look at her, Mommy. She's all broken."
"She didn't mean it. Accidents just happen."
Lizzy pressed herself against me, her bony frame felt so fragile in my arms that I was certain I would break her in two. She was hurt, and I had to hurry. I turned and ran back down the stairs. Carol threw the doll over the bannister. It landed at my feet. The head was gone and the satin dress was torn all the way through to the stuffed cotton body. I stepped over it and ran all the way to doctor's office.
Dr. Reynolds set Lizzy's arm and put a plaster cast on it. After she knocked over nearly every vase in the house, we tied her arm to her chest. She just didn't understand that her arm was harder and more dangerous then before. The skin must of itched something awful in there because she was always pawing at the cast. She even took to gnawing at the plaster, trying to get at that arm. I've always thought that it was then that she got into the habit of chewing at her sweaters. You know, the way she did. Picking at the knit cuffs with her teeth. But, after what happened later, I wouldn't be surprised if Dr. Reynolds didn't set those bones wrong. The cast hadn't been off but a few months when Lizzy came down with tonsilitis. I didn't think much of it, she was always catching something. But Dr. Reynolds said her throat was reacting worse every time, swelling up until the glands touched together and made it hard for her to swallow. He was worried too that with all the penicillin she was taking she might become immune to it. Then, when she really needed the antibiotic, it wouldn't work for her.
Jack and I discussed it, but there didn't seem to be any harm in cutting out glands that served no other purpose than to make Lizzy ill. So, when she was feeling better, we took her to the hospital in Santa Rosa. Grandpa and I stayed in the waiting room. Dr. Reynolds said the procedure - that's what he liked to call it -wouldn't take more than a few minutes. But nearly an hour went by and they hadn't wheeled her out of the room.
"There's something wrong, Jack," I said to your grandpa. "There's something that just ain't right."
"Now, Mother," he said, patting my hand. "Don't go getting yourself all worked up."
I put my knitting away and paced up and down that floor. My shoe heels clicked against the linoleum, like a clock ticking off the seconds. I could feel a rumbling in my stomach and a quivering in my skin. There was something wrong - I could feel it.
I heard Dr. Reynold's footsteps behind me. He was walking too slowly, too deliberatly.
"Maggie," he said, his voice low and a bit unsteady, "Lizzy is doing fine....but there's been some complications."
"What do you mean, complications?"
"The tonsils are all out. They won't bother Lizzy anymore. But when we made the cut, we accidently severed the vocal cords."
"Can you sew them back up?" I asked.
"I'm afraid not, Maggie. There's no pain. Lizzy will just have some difficulty talking."
"How much difficulty?"
"That's hard to say. We'll just have to wait and see."
I felt Jack beside me, tall and comforting. He put his hand on the back of my neck. I hung my head and cried. It wasn't fair - we'd come so far, and Lizzy was doing so well. She was strong and healthy. She was learning new sounds every day. It wouldn't be long before she could speak whole sentances. I was sure of it. I heard your grandpa talking to the doctor, and I felt like I had years ago at the Mayo Clinic. The men could talk and talk as much as they liked, but I was the one who protected her, cared for her. I was all she had, and I had let her down.
"There's always a risk of this sort of thing happening. I'm sorry." Dr. Reynolds said. His voice seemed so far away.
"You did the best you could. Accidents just happen," Jack said. He shook the doctor's hand and whispered softly in my ear. "Let's go see our little girl, Mother."
Lizzy was up and about in no time. "She has the constitution of a horse," your grandpa used to say. And she did. She grew taller and stronger every day. She got to where she could carry the groceries in from the car all by herself. She pushed the vacuum cleaner around the front room, and she liked to help me with the dusting. But her voice never did come back.
Monday morning the fog descended. On Ferlengetti's little cat's feet, it crept up the shore while Sarah's back was turned. Stealthily, tauntingly, like a child playing 'Red Light, Green Light' the fog froze, stopped dead in its tracks, whenever Sarah turned back to watch. She knew that fog this thick meant scorching tempertures in the inland valleys. The heat, pent up all day by the relentless summer sun escaped over the hills during the night and collided with the cold Pacific air. It would burn off by mid-morning, by the time she was ready to start her long, cross country drive home.
She stripped the sheets off the bed and ran her fingers along the back of the dresser drawers looking for any loose items that might have rolled back there. She closed her suitcase and surveyed the room. One quick look told her she had left nothing. Anything of mine would look out of place in this room, she thought. On the wall above the dresser, over the rose-patterned wallpaper, her mother had hung a green fish net filled with dried starfish. An acrylic painting of two sailboats racing around an orange buoy hung on the wall near the bed. A black cord drooped from beneath the painting and plugged into a socket near the floor. Art as space heater was a concept that hadn't reached New York yet, much less, northern Maine.
Sarah checked the closet one last time, walking all the way through it to David's old room. The connecting closet between the two rooms had been a source of many hours of childhood adventure. It was a dark spooky alleyway at night. During the day it could be Fort Apache or the tree house from Robinson Crusoe. Sarah and David had made can and string telephones for late-night conversations, had bounced flashlight beams and shadow pupputs off each other's walls. Sarah ducked her head, remembering just in time that the doorway was shorter than she was.
David's room hadn't changed much. His posters still hung on the wall: two surfers crouching on boards inside a tunnel of water, a lone surfer paddling out over the breakers toward the setting sun, Farrah Fawcett smiling. A framed picture of David, #35, on the Tomales High School Varsity Basketball Team. David and friends playing volleyball on the beach, their beach. On his dresser was a collection of olive shells, sand dollars and shiny pieces of oyster shell. On his desk, The American Heritage Dictionary, Sometimes a Great Notion, and Effective Business Strategms stood upright between two blue bottles filled with sand.
Sarah knelt down and ran her hand along the floor beneath his bed searching for the old Justin Boots box they had hidden there as kids. It held their personal First Aid kit. Robotussin, Vicks Vap-O-Rub, Smith Brothers Cough Drops, Vitamin D creme with the picture of a fish with a faucet protruding form its belly, antibiotic cremes and an assortment of ace bandages and Ouchless Bandaids. Their mother had a physical aversion to scraped knees, sore throats or hacking coughs. David and Sarah had learned early that to take even a bruised elbow to her was to invite a full blown panic attack. That panic acted like a quickly receding tide pulling their mother away from thier own illnesses and leaving them stranded. They became adept at self medication. David could apply a perfect butterfly bandage at the age of seven, and Sarah knew every over-the-counter remedy for colds, flu and runny noses. She reached as far back as she could, but didn't find the box. "Sarah," Carol called up the stairs, "breakfast is ready."
"Coming." Sarah yelled. She went back through the connecting closet, picked up her suitcase and went downstairs.
"Are you sure you won't stay for the Fourth of July?" her mother asked when she sat down to the breakfast table. "It's only a few more days."
"I'd love to," Sarah said. "Really. But I have to get home."
"It's going to be the biggest fire ever. You really should stay. Besides, we're going to read the will tomorrow and there might be things you will want to take back to your new house."
"I doubt it."
"But all those pretty little dishes she promised you when you were little. Wouldn't they look nice in your hutch?"
"I'm sure the name tags fell off those things years ago."
"Now, Sarah. I know you two didn't get along with your grandmother, but she did love you. One day you'll realize that."
"I'm not expecting anything from Grandma Beatrice," Sarah said. "My house is filled with Grandma Maggie's furniture and dishes anyway. I doubt if I could find room for anything else."
"Well, you're the one who wanted those old things, so don't go complaining now."
"I'm not complaining. I'm sure Beatrice's furniture will look great in here."
Before going back to San Francisco, David had rearranged the living room. He and Carol had carried out the plywood bookcases that Sam had built when they first moved in. They cleared a space for Beatrice's oak roll top desk. They shifted the sofa over for the new end tables and took the framed prints from the walls. The house was full of holes waiting to be filled.
"I made some sandwiches for you to take with you," Carol said as she disappeared into the kitchen.
"Thank you. I'll come back in a minute. I'm just going to take this case out to the car."
Her father hung upside down over the front end of her car, his head hidden behind the radiator. He had fixed the latch so the hood wouldn't fly up in her face again on the way home.
"Looks great, Dad," she said admiring the hook he had molded out of bent wire. "But do you think it's strong enough?"
"This'll hold it," he said and pulled up on the hood. It didn't budge.
"Thanks. I feel safer now."
He wiped his hands off on his pants legs and smiled.
"Sam, telephone," Carol yelled from the front door.
As he walked toward the house, Sam cleared his throat with a low rumbling sound as he always did before he talked on the phone.
"Hallo." Sarah heard him say before the door closed. He used that strange military cadence that makes the statement, "I am here" rather than the usual question, "Who are you?"
In the silence that followed, Sarah finished packing the car. She adjusted the rear view mirror and the side mirror. She repositioned the seat. She emptied the plastic AAA garbage bag and hung it back on the volume knob of the radio. She remounted the cup holder on the driver's side door window and checked the gas guage. She'd fill up on her way through Tomales; then she wouldn't have to stop again until Nevada. She was checking the oil, wiping the dripping dipstick off with an old rag, when she heard her mother scream.
It was a wailing, agonized scream, more like the anguished moan of a wounded animal. Sarah opened the door just in time to see her mother's legs give way beneath her. She fell without a sound like a silent film of a building leveled by explosives. It was the phone crashing onto the hard wood floor that made all the noise.
"What happened?" Sarah asked.
"It's all right," her father said as he knelt down at his wife's side. "Get a wet wash cloth from the bathroom."
Sarah did as she was told.
"Did she have a heart attack?" she asked, handing her father the wet cloth.
"No," he said as he gently rolled Carol's head from side to side on his lap. "The lawyer called."
"I'm...we're all...well, Grandma left us nothing."
"You mean Grandma Bea disinherited us?"
"Yes." Sam helped Carol to her feet and settled her onto the sofa before he went upstairs to their bedroom. He stayed there for the rest of the day.
Sarah stood over the sofa watching her mother breathe. "Mom, can I get you anything?"
Caorl's eyes were wide open now, but they had a filmy, glazed look, like flounders get when you take them off the hook.
"I'm not sick," Carol mumbled as she swung her legs over the side of the sofa and tried to stand up.
"Of course you're not sick," Sarah said. "You're upset. Now, keep your head down between your knees. If you stand up too fast, you'll get dizzy."
"I'm OK. I'm not sick."
"I know you're not sick, Mom. But you've had a bit of a shock."
That was an understatement. The shock was on a par with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The call had been from Ed Pressman of Taylor, Pressman and Evans. Ed had been the familiy lawyer for 25 years and, though they never socialized with him, they knew him and his family well. They were close, in that way that people who grow up together become attached to each other without ever being intimate. Ed Pressman went to school with Sarah's parents and had been one of Grandpa Jack's best clients when he and Percy Williams opened up the Tomales Auto Garage. Sarah remembered that Ed's firm sent a huge wreath to Jack's funeral even though her grandfather never used a lawyer in his life. Every Christmas Ed had sent Grandma Maggie a company greeting card and there had been a wreath for her funeral too, only a little smaller.
So Sarah knew that Ed Pressman didn't mean to hurt her parents by what he said. Though she did think he could have warned them earlier. He said later, when Sarah called him, that he thought they knew, never crossed his mind that they wouldn't. Ed was wrong. They never thought, not for a second, that Ed would call to say that Sam Farrington and his familiy were totally and completely disinherited.
The wording Beatrice Farrington chose was cruel and specific. In the body of the text there was no mention of her son or his faimily - they simply didn't exist. But at the end of the will, in a paragraph of one sentence, in italics, it was written: "If at any time, any one of my children disputes or challenges this will and testament, he is no longer my kin." Sarah had always known that to challenge Beatrice's authority was to take a great risk, but even she didn't suspect that Beatrice would disown her own son.
"When did this happen?" Sarah asked her father.
He lay on top of the chenille bedspread, his head propped up on a large white pillow. It was a strange sight. Sarah had never seen him stretched out on the bed in broad daylight before. When he was sick, which was very rare, he slept on the sofa in the living room until he felt better; then he simply got up and went back to work.
"Well... I don't know, exactly" Sam said softly, slurring his words together.
"But you knew that Grandma had disinherited us?" Sarah asked surprised.
"I thought that's what she'd done. I just wasn't positive."
"Why didn't you tell us, Dad?" Sarah said.
"I didn't want to stir up a fuss. Things were hard enough around here."
"But what made her do it?" Sarah asked. "And when did she do it? Did we do something lately to make her hate us? Or maybe that's the way her will has always been. It wouldn't surprise me."
No evil act on the part of Beatrice Farrington would havesurprised Sarah. But it did surprise her that she would commit such a heinously unchristian act so publicly. Sarah had no doubt that other people would hear about this. The rumor mills would be turning double time tonight, weaving this bit of new information into the fabric of Farrington Family lore. Ed Pressman had married a Leone girl whose sister had married Sam's second cousin. No doubt Ed would tell his wife, and she would tell her sister, and the buzz of gossip would begin. Sarah wondered how the women of the Monday night prayer circle would ease this new piece of information into the glowing patchwork of Beatrice's acts of Christian charity. How would they reconcile the disowning of her eldest child with Beatrice's years of playing the church organ and her generous contributions to the community chest? Would this clash with their vision of the saintly Beatrice Farrington, or had they already sensed the meanness that lay just beneath that pious surface?
"I don't know, Sarah," her father said. "It doesn't matter now."
"I can understand her disinheriting me," Sarah said. "But not you, Dad. You talked to her every day. You brought her groceries. You kept her car running."
"There must have been a mistake," Carol said from the door way. She had left the sofa, and come into the bedroom. She twisted her wedding ring around and around on her finger as if screwing it into her knuckle. "I know you didn't always get along with her, Sarah, but Beatrice loved us. Really, she did. Just last month I took her to town to have her hair fixed."
Carol's voice shook and she twisted her finger so hard that tears filled her eyes, cold, brittle, hysterical tears.
"Mom, Beatrice was a mean, sick old lady. She probably enjoyed the fact that you ran her around the county thinking you were her daughter. When, in fact, she didn't even think of Dad as her son."
"Stop it, Sarah." she screamed. "Just stop it. You're just exagerrating." This time she twisted her whole hand in a spasm of anger and hurt.
"I'm sorry," Sarah said, and she really was. She was sorry this had happened. She was sorry she hadn't been able to convince her parents years ago that her grandmother was cruel. Her parents had continued to believe they were a part of the Farrington family when Sarah knew it wasn't true, at least not for Beatrice.
Sarah had never expected anything from her Grandmother Farrington, so she wasn't disappointed. When she and Rachel were young, Beatrice would ask them to choose their favorite things from her china cabinet. Then she would carefully place a piece of tape behind each one with their names on it. Sarah, who even then was entranced by china and silver, never allowed herself to fall in love with her grandmother's collection of figurines and hand-painted plates. Perhaps even then she knew they would never be hers. But she never knew, never guessed that her grandmother would disown her father.
Carol returned to the kitchen, leaving Sarah and her father alone.
"This is hard for your mother," Sam said.
"It's hard for all of us."
"Maybe you should stay a few more days. For her sake."
"I'm not sure I'll be much comfort for her, but if you want me to, I will."
"That would be nice."
Sarah left her father on his bed and her mother in the kitchen and went to the car to retrieve her bag. Small bright patches of blue sky - fogdogs, Grandma Maggie had called them - shone through the heavy mist. It would be clear soon. It was a perfect time to leave, early enough to cross the valley and make it to the Sierra Mountains before noon when the heat would be unbearable. She pulled the bag from the car, carried it upstairs and unpacked. She would stay a few more days. Just a few more days.
When she phoned David later that evening he was just getting home from work. He picked up the phone slightly out of breath from running up the stairs.
"What?" he gasped. "Wait a minute. I don't understand what you're saying, Sarah."
"I said we've been disinherited and if we contest the will, according to the lawyer, we are no longer part of the Farrington family."
"I don't believe this. You don't just disown someone."
"I didn't," Sarah replied. "Beatrice did."
"You know what I mean," David said impatiently. "There must be a mistake. Has Dad talked with Uncle Gerrick or Aunt Hattie?"
"David, Dad isn't talking to anyone. He spent the morning in bed and now he's out working on the Toyota. He's got the engine spread all over the garage floor. Mom's inside the house keeping herself so busy cooking and cleaning she doesn't have time to talk. I need your help. I don't know what to do."
"Look, I'm in the middle of a huge real estate deal. There is absolutely no way I can get away until Friday morning. The bank will be closed Monday for the 4th of July, so I'll be able to stay for at least four days," David said. "Just hang in there a few more days, O.K?"
"All right. But hurry, I don't like it here. We don't belong here anymore, David. We never did."
Sarah hadn't realized the tears that burned down her cheeks were even there until a hot wet drop landed on the back of her hand.
"Thomas Beach is our home, Sarah. And we are part of the Farrington family," David said in that strong businessman voice he had developed. "I think the business is incorporated, so she couldn't touch that. I'm not sure about the land, but I'll sort everything out when I get there."
"O.K. I'll stay until you get here," Sarah said. "But hurry."
"Just a few more days," David said.
That night the sunset was magnificent. Somewhere inland a forest burned, sending soot and ash into the air. The debris caught in the atmosphere, collected in the celestial cul de sac above the ocean, and refracted the last fingers of sunlight. Streaks of crimson, orange, and fuschia streaked across the blue sky like crayon markings on a child's easel. The sun itself mutated through the clouds becoming a lopsided egg, a mushroom cloud, and a squashed Chinese lantern, before it finally set into the sea.
In the days that followed, Sarah's father retreated farther and farther into a private sanctuary somewhere deep inside himself. He rarely spoke and spent all his time in the garage. As soon as he had reassembled his Toyota, he took apart Sarah's Valiant. Pieces of her engine were strewn all over the garage. Rubber O-rings sat soaking in dishpans filled with cleaning solution. The transmission stood precarioulsy on the edge of the workbench. Wrenchs, ratchets, sockets sets and screwdrivers were carefully lined up along the floor. He had called Gerrick on Monday to say he was sick and would be away from work for a few days. He hadn't mentioned the will.
Her mother didn't go back to work in the store. She cleaned the house. She vacuumed every corner and crevice of the floor. With a toothpick she dug the grime out of every O and E in the silver letters that spelled out Kenmore on the stove. She washed every window pane, inside and out, with Windex and newspaper, carefully scraping out the corners with a butter knife. She scrubbed the bathroom tile with bleach and a toothbrush. She squeezed new white grouting around the tub. When she finished the cleaning, she wiped her hands on her apron, headed for the kitchen and cooked. She made strawberry, red raspberry and apricot jams. She baked pies and stacked them in the freezer. She made rolls of refrigerator cookie dough and stacked them next to the pies. She never stopped moving.
The sunsets continued to explode across the evening sky but Sarah thought only of returning to Maine where the day begins in front of you and ends discreetly, modestly behind your back. Where the tides battle below Quoddy Head and the seasons actually change. Where her cottage sat patiently, waiting for her on the cliffs overlooking the cove. Where she could curl deep into the flowered chintz chair and listen to the wind.
But she couldn't leave her parents in this limbo, this strange world between the worlds where all meaning had disappeared and life had become senseless perpetual motion. She called the Washington County library and requested a leave of absence for another week, due to family illness. For four days she walked the beach and waited for David to come home.
Sarah's morning coffee left a moist half circle of steam on the glass as she stood at the window watching her father drive up and down the beach on the yellow tractor. When Sarah came downstairs and saw her father in his blue jeans and work shirt, she had been surprised.
"You're going to help Uncle Gerrick with the bonfire after what has happened?" she asked her father.
"A job's a job," Sam said as he pulled on his heavy orange work boots. "It doesn't really change things."
"But Dad, you can't just go down there like it's business as usual."
"Whatever happened, Sarah, happened a long time ago."
"You mean, you knew that Grandma had disinherited us.?"
"I didn't know for sure," he said as he slowly laced his boots. "But I thought maybe she had."
"That, I still can't figure out. We hadn't talked to each other much these last few years, but then, we never did."
"But there must have been some definite reason."
"If there was, we'll probably never know."
"And that's okay with you?"
"It just is. But I'm not going to pack up and leave because I don't own everything. I've worked here too long. It's all I know, Sarah," he said, tying the last knot in his boot laces. "It's what I do."
He may have had other words to say, but he hadn't said them. He put on his red windbreaker, the one with Farrington Family Resort stencilled on the back, picked up his silver Thermos and left the house.
Sarah sipped her coffee and looked down at the beach. The tide was low and a flock of Western Sandpipers sat serenely on the wet sand. She watched her father step off the tractor. His feet sank into the soft sand. He reached up and lifted down a large rusty hook. When he dropped it, the hook, attached to a length of heavy chain, poured down onto the sand like mooring cable rushing through the hawsehole of a ship, gaining speed with every link that fell. Sam wrapped one end of the chain around the tow bar of the tractor and, holding the other end in his hand, he walked back along the beach toward a large log that lay half covered in the dry sand, just above the highwater mark. He wrapped the chain around the belly of the log and slid the hook through one of the chain links. He pulled. The cincture held.
Slowly, Sam walked back along the slack chain laying in the sand. Twice he stopped, bent down, and cleared seaweed or sticks from the metal links. He hoisted himself up onto the tractor, slid the tall gearshift into its lowest gear and drove slowly forward. The chain snapped off the ground, sending a cloud of white sand into the air, then stretched into a taut, dark cord but the log anchored the tractor firmly in its tracks. The tires spun tenaciously in the sand sinking slowly into two deep ruts. Sam gently, patiently rocked the tractor forward then let it roll slowly back. Over and over he rocked the heavy machine, building momentum with each descent into the ruts until at last the tractor hovered for a moment, balanced on the pinnacle of its tire tread, then fell forward to continue its journey. The heavy log reluctantly followed.
Sarah smiled at the sight of her father, dragging a log along the beach. It reminded her of the dog she had when she was a kid. Her father had found it wandering around on the beach, abandoned, and hungry. She named the dog Cinnamon because her fur was a rusty red color and she smelled vaguely of pumpkin pie. Her mother had allowed her to keep the dog but made it quite clear that Cinnamon was forbidden to walk on the beach on weekends, even on a leash. Aunt Hattie had laid down the law about dogs on the beach and her mother whole-heartedly agreed. But one Saturday, she tied Cinnamon to the water faucet outside the garage, as she had done many times before. She remembered petting the dog's head and scratching her behind the ears before she walked off. She hadn't even reached the beach parking lot when she heard a terrible clanging noise, like an engine throwing a rod on the freeway, come up behind her. Cinnamon, her collar straining against her throat, ran towards her dragging the faucet and four feet of water pipe along the pavement. It had seemed so funny at the time. But the small geyser that Cinnamon left behind ripped the paint off one side of the garage and flooded the back pantry. After this Cinnamon was sent to live on the Berlini Dairy. Sarah saw her sometimes herding the cows in from the fields. That was the last time the family had a pet.
Sarah watched as her father dragged the heavy log toward the awkward mound of lumber he had piled in the middle of the beach. He had carefully stacked up driftwood, odd lengths of lumber, waterlogged tree trunks that had washed up on the beach, slats from old fish crates, broken branches, boxes, shingles, a car seat and a door from an old shed. Points of wood jutted out from the mound in all directions. Like a child's game of Pick-Up-Sticks. That's what he looks like, Sarah thought, a child gathering all his toys up in a pile on the living room floor.
She knew little about her father's childhood and had seen only a few pictures from that time. There was one photograph of her father standing next to his father, a small boy, with sad eyes, peeking out from behind the legs of an enormous man. There was another picture of her father when he was eight or nine. It was a family snapshot taken in front of the Farrington Resort Hotel. Grandma Beatrice, wearing a straw sun hat, held a round and rosy cheeked Hattie in her arms. Grandpa Henry, in his striped bib overalls, held Gerrick who pointed a toy pistol toward the camera. Sam, the eldest child, knelt in front of the others with his arms around a brown pelican. The pelican's left wing was strapped to its body with an ace bandage.
The story of the pelican was one of the only stories her father ever told her about growing up in Thomas Beach. The pelican's name was Pete. Sam had found it lying in the sand at the bottom of a dune. He thought at first the bird was resting. But when he came back a few hours later, it was still there. He took the bird home. Pete's wing was broken and Sam spliced it back together with popsicle sticks. Pete never flew again. But he lived longer than any bird Sam had ever found before. For two years, Pete perched on the railing around the veranda in front of the hotel. The guests fed him scraps from the dining room and Sam brought him special treats from the kitchen. Gerrick and Hattie liked to run in circles around Pete and watch him try to turn his head to follow them. Sometimes he would twist so far around that he'd fall off the porch. One day he fell and broke his neck. Sam found him on the ground, dead.
Sarah thought of the stories her father had told her over the years. Apart from Pete the Pelican, her father's stories always took place after he left home and joined the Navy. He told them to Sarah and David as if they were parables, illustrations of lessons he thought they should learn. "One night, off the coast of Anzio, the warning bell sounded. Sailors scattered to their battle stations in a panic. One man, no more than a boy really, shimmied down a ladder, jumped over the last few rungs and in midair caught his ring on a metal hook. Took his finger clean off. Men should never wear rings."
Or, "The bombs started falling just as the steward served the scrambled eggs. We left our breakfast on our plates and hit the deck. Ten hours passed before we got back to the mess hall. So, remember, always brush your teeth as soon as you get out of bed. You never know if you'll have time to get to it after breakfast." "Never get drunk with people you don't know." These words of wisdom came at the end of a very funny story about a sailor who went out drinking in a strange port with strange people and when the MP's found him the next morning he was buck naked except for the black bra and panties tattooed to his lily white skin. There were only two stories that Sarah could remember about why her father left the navy. The first story was that he had been promoted to a desk job and that if he couldn't be on a ship he didn't want to stay in the Navy. So he left. The second story was that Sarah's mother was sick and tired of living in government housing. She wanted a place of her own and if her husband didn't leave the Navy she was going to leave him. So he left the Navy.
The second version was more in line with how Sarah remembered the move to Thomas Beach. Sarah thought they were happy at their new home on Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia. She liked her kindergarten class and loved the way the local children talked. Suddenly, they were moving again. She was only six but the event was traumatic enough to be memorable. Her mother had told them they were on their way to paradise, white sands, blue water, sunshine and cool breezes. And a family. A great big happy family. It was going to be wonderful, just wonderful. Sarah wasn't so sure. They had strapped everything that hadn't fit in the Mayflower truck on to the roof rack of the rose colored Rambler. It had taken eight days to drive 3,000 miles. And every few miles she heard her mother sigh softly, "Almost home. We're almost home."
"No longer my kin." Beatrice Farrington's voice, arrogant, haughty, thin and crackly, broke through Sarah's revery. She closed her eyes and saw her grandmother's face with the bushy gray eyebrows arched tightly over heavily lidded eyes. Sarah smelled the musty odor of orange face powder and the faintest hint of Mentholatum. Sarah felt the touch of her grandmother's cold dry hand, sweatless, oiless, on her own warm bare arm. She shivered so violently, so suddenly, that a wave of coffee flew from her cup and splashed against the window and burned her hand.
"Shit," Sarah said as she tried to keep hold of the cup and simultaneously clutch at her scalded hand. Her eyes were wide open now and the ghost was gone.
"Are you Okay, Sarah? What happened?" her mother called in from the kitchen where she stood, precariously balanced, on a step ladder repapering the top shelves of the cupboard.
"Nothing. I just spilled some coffee."
"Don't move!" Carol yelled fretfully. "You'll track coffee all through the house." Sarah heard her mother's feet hit the floor and knew she was frantically looking for a towel.
"Mom, it's only a drop on the window sill."
"I just cleaned up in there," said the voice from the kitchen. "Don't go making a mess."
"I'm going out for a walk," Sarah yelled toward the kitchen door.
"Don't be gone too long," Carol answered as she emerged from the kitchen, armed with a damp sponge and a bottle of 409. "Your brother will be here soon."
The air outside was warm and smelled heavily of salt and seaweed with lighter traces of Bain de Soleil. Sarah walked down toward the hotel. She passed more bungalows like her parents', covered in the same green tar paper and studded with bits of gravel. There were more snappy seaside names: Casa Marino, Stevenson's Sandbox, The Come-On-Inn. Beatrice Farrington's house, a gray single story clapboard, sat empty on the north side of Front street, just a few houses down from El Nido.
There was no Spanish name scrawled above her grandmother Beatrice's front door. No cute seaside pun. Instead, above the door frame, hung a polished rosewood plaque. The small carving depicted two wooden hands pressed together in prayer resting on an open book. On the pages of the book, carved in deep Roman script, were the words: B. FARRINGTON. Not WELCOME, or GOD BLESS THIS HOUSE, or any other more pious sentiment, just her grandmother's name. The Book of Beatrice, Sarah had always called it. On the door, below the plaque, there was a faded ring, like a watermark, where the funeral wreath had hung all week. The wreath, made of sprigs of interwoven ivy and black ribbon, and strewn with yellow roses was gone, but the stain remained. A plastic vase of drooping calla lilies still stood on the front porch.
Sarah leaned against the fence and looked into the dark windows. Gone, were the lace curtains which were always drawn tight across the front windows. Gone, too, were the ceramic figurines that had sat so solemnly, so darkly Teutonic, on the window sill. Sarah remembered the figurines: a sad faced little girl in a long brown skirt, holding a sparrow; a little boy dressed in overalls, holding a scythe. There was no joy on the faces of the ceramic children who sat in the sun on the glossy white window sill. When she was very small, Sarah had asked her mother about the figurines. "Don't worry," her mother had said, "Those children don't exist." But Sarah had worried. Now, as an adult, staring at the empty window sill, she felt the same uneasiness, the same sadness, the same inexplicable gnawing at the pit of her stomach that she had felt as a child. Who were these children and where did they go? Sarah wondered.
She could see that the rest of the house had been stripped bare as well. Uncle Gerrick and Aunt Hattie had worked hard all week, clearing out the oak roll top desk, the sofa and matching chairs, the piano with its bench filled with Christian music books, the Shaker style four poster bed, the blue and white willow printed china, the pewter and glass knickknacks, the jewelry, and the pictures off the wall. All week her aunt and uncle had driven by her parents front window, their open pickup trucks overflowing with their bounty. Like greedy children hording sweets, they sequestered the family treasures behind their locked doors. After their mother's house was empty, Gerrick phoned to ask Sam if there was anything he wanted. "Nothing, Sam had said, "nothing at all." Hattie never bothered to ask. Sarah tore her eyes away from the window. There was nothing left to see.
As she turned back to the street she saw Agnes and Harold Burney walking slowly towards her. They were holding hands. Their faces were tilted towards each other, her lips moving, his head nodding. Sarah smiled a silent greeting, an acknowledgement of their presence and continued on her way.
"Sarah," Agnes called out to her softly as she passed them.
"Yes?" Sarah asked, surprised that Agnes had spoken to her, surprised that the couple had even noticed her. They seemed so wrapped up in their own world.
"Would you like to come to tea with us before you leave?" Agnes asked.
Sarah was unsure if she had heard Agnes correctly. They had never invited her to their house before. "Thank you. I'd love to."
"Come soon," Agnes said and smiled at Harold. "We'd like that."
"Well, the weekend's pretty busy. Fourth of July and everything," Sarah said. "Would Monday be all right with you?"
They looked at each other. Harold hadn't said a word. He had watched as his wife spoke, nodding his head in agreement. Sarah realized that she had never heard them both speak at the same time. It was as if they had a time-share arrangement on one voice. Today Agnes had the voice and it was stronger and clearer than Sarah expected.
"Monday would be fine," Agnes said. "Four o'clock."
"O.K.," Sarah replied. "I look forward to seeing you then."
Agnes slipped her arm through Harold's and they continued their slow stroll up the street.
Sarah jumped over a low garden fence, taking a short cut through the yard of Vista del Punto. No one came out onto the porch or appeared at the window to shoo her out of the ice plant garden. She knew they wouldn't. The two men who owned this house never did anything that would call attention to themselves. Like Agnes and Harold, they were very private and seldom spoke to anyone. Sarah always thought of the men as Mutt and Jeff - one man was very tall and skinny, the other man was short and bald. They weren't year-round residents of Thomas Beach, but they had been coming to this house every weekend for as long as Sarah could remember. They had a chihuahua with large pink ears that they dressed in red and white striped sweaters. They carried the dog zipped inside their jacket or tucked under an arm. The dog was rarely allowed to touch its paws to the ground. The tall man was an architect; the short man owned an art gallery in San Jose. They liked to walk in the early morning before the beach filled with people. Sometimes, when Sarah went out walking late at night, she saw them walking too. They held hands in the dark. They had not come to Grandma Beatrice's funeral. But then, they were not members of the Survivors' Club.
At the bottom of the yard Sarah stepped over another short fence and turned toward the hotel. The store was open and already families were streaming in looking for those odd camping accessories they had been unable to find anywhere else. Tiny net mantles for the lantern. Tent pegs. Lighter fluid. Jumbo marshmallows. A silver camper truck pulled into the crowded parking lot in front of the store. A row of children's faces peered out from the window above the cab. Two pickups, each one filled with teenagers and cases of Coor's beer, reversed out of the parking lot at the same time. They nearly backed into each other, and both pickups came dangerously close to being hit by the camper. The teenagers in the trucks laughed. The man driving the camper swore. Fourth of July weekend had begun.
Sarah was so engrossed in the activity of the trucks and kids that she didn't hear the car drive up behind her.
"Hey, Lady," an exaggeratedly gruff voice yelled. "You're blocking the road."
"Sorry," she said and spun around to see a sheriff's car a few feet from her rear end. "Cute, Ray."
"I think so," he laughed, leaning his head out the window.
"Can I slap slap you in uniform?" Sarah leaned against the car Sarah.
"Only if I can slap you in handcuffs," Ray replied.
Sarah noticed the teenagers driving slowly by. They were looking carefully serious and the beer was miraculously absent. "Is this an official visit?" she asked.
"Yes," Ray said as he watched the teenagers sneak past. "One of the weekend people who has a house up on Top Street claims someone poisoned his dog. That's the third one in a month."
"Probably ate some of the spoiled food out of the garbage cans."
"That's what your aunt said. But what are you doing here? I thought you were leaving last Monday."
"Haven't you heard the latest," she asked. "Grandma Beatrice disinherited us."
A strange look crept down Ray's round, boyish face. He cocked his head to one side like a puzzled puppy confronting a bone too large to fit in his mouth.
"Didn't she do that years ago?" he said, his nose wrinkling in a fetching way Sarah hadn't seen in a long time.
"What do you mean?"
"Well," Ray stalled and Sarah sensed some deputy sheriff's diplomacy coming. "It's just that I heard awhile ago that your grandmother wrote a will cutting out your family. I thought you all knew that."
"We didn't. Dad told me this morning he thought she might have done something like this. But he didn't know she'd actuallydone it. My mom, however, never gave up the myth of Beatrice as the benevolent and all-wonderful matriarch."
Ray laughed. "I think it's time for a break," he said looking at his watch. "Wait a minute while I pull this thing off the road."
"Great. I'll buy you a cup coffee."
The parking lot in front of the store was full, so she followed Ray as he drove around to the back of the building. He parked on a large triangular patch of weeds. In the 30's this triangle had been a formal garden surrounded by polished abalone shells. Sarah couldn't remember the garden but she had vague memories of a thick triangular lawn surround by painted white rocks covered with large patches of blue and white allysum. Grandma Maggie had claimed that alyssum cured rabies. A broth of alyssum blossoms, she had said, takes the madness out of the bite. Maybe it could cure these sick dogs, Sarah thought.
There were only a few stands of allysum left sprouting up amongst the weeds, and the painted rocks were gone. The rocks were at the bottom of the ravine on the other side of the parking lot. They had been thrown there by her cousin Hank. One summer, years ago - before Aunt Olive had left Uncle Gerrick and taken the kids to Tennessee - Hank ran over one of the white rocks while mowing the lawn. He ruined the blade on the mower. Uncle Gerrick had spanked him until his bottom came up in welts the size of Australia. Sarah's father had fixed the mower. Hank had slipped out of the house one night and thrown the rocks over the bank. It had been their fault anyway.
The back of the store had once been the front of the Farrington Resort Hotel. It was hard to imagine now what it had looked like in the '30's. The wide covered veranda that had extended the length of the building was gone. A four-inch scar skirted the building where the veranda had been attached. The row of redwood benches with the initials of lovers scratched into the seats that had lined the veranda were gone. But no one sat out here anymore anyway. The long arched entryway that had protected the path leading to the glass front door was gone. With no veranda, no entryway, and no steps leading up to it, the glass door opened out onto a four-foot drop.
"I have the keys to this door now," Sarah said to Ray. "So we don't have to break and enter like we did when we were kids."
"Sort of takes the fun out of it," he said. "But I'd like to see the hotel again. It's been years since we were up in those rooms."
"You'll have to help me balance here," she said as she lifted her foot up onto the narrow door frame and reached for the door knob to hoist herself up.
"I've got you," Ray said and placed his hand firmly in the small of Sarah's back.
Sarah turned the rusty skeleton key in the lock and pushed the heavy old door open. Dirty venetian blinds slapped against the glass. She stepped over the worn threshold and turned to offer her hand to Ray as he scrambled into what had once been the grand lobby of the Farrington Resort Hotel. Instead of the wide open lobby, Ray and Sarah looked down a long narrow passageway. On their right, a plywood wall ran the length of the room and formed what was now the back wall of the Farrington General Store. At the end of the passageway was the store's stock room and the walk-in freezer. On their left, a dark mahogany balustrade, covered in dust and cobwebs, curved gracefully upwards leading to the bedrooms on the second floor. The past and present architecture collided as if someone had taken a portion of ornate wedding cake and attached it to a plywood box.
The stair treads were worn into smooth slopes, like shallow oak dishes and the second one from the bottom groaned as Sarah lowered her weight onto it. She ran her hand along the bannister remembering the races she and Rachel had had down its polished surface. The slick descent had seemed so dangerous and the height so dizzying. Their shrill little girl voices echoing all the way into the dining room had stung the eardrums of the adults. At least that was what they said. Grandma Beatrice complained that the girl's voices made her hearing aid whistle.
"Your Buddha is still there," Ray said pointing to a dark water stain on the blue flowered wallpaper beneath the window. "Remember, you told me once how you used to stare at this stain and make wishes? I thought that was pretty weird."
"I used to stare at that stain real hard, make a wish, and when the Buddha smiled my wish would come true. See that line right here? That could be a mouth smiling...if you squint your eyes real tight."
"Looks more like a snow man to me," Ray said running his finger along the dark edge of the stain. "These two round blobs are his body and these black spots, here, could be his eyes."
"Maybe. But you can't make wishes on a snowman. Not that the Buddah worked all that great. I'm here, aren't I?"
"C'mon, it's not that bad here," Ray said and continued up the steps.
At the top of the stairs there was another long narrow corridor. This one had five white doors along the right side. Each door had a silver number nailed to it. Sarah opened the door to #3. The room smelled of salt and dust. She pushed aside a stack of cardboard boxes filled with shells and stepped into the room. Five styrofoam surfboards, yellowed and stained, stood against the wall beside the door.
"Remember trying to stand up on these," Ray asked, picking up one of the boards and balancing it on his head. He flexed the muscles of his right arm, like a bronzed and handsome surfer. His soft brown hair fell over his forehead and blue eyes sparkled. "How do I look?"
"Like a deputy sheriff with a styrofoam board on his head," Sarah wandered around the room. "What a lot of junk. I don't think my family ever throws anything away."
There were rows of wooden packing crates lined up beneath the dirty windows. Each one had been opened and straw spilled out over the floor. Sarah reached her hand into the nearest box, felt around for a moment and extracted a brown and white striped nautilus shell. It was large, larger than her hand and felt smooth and cold against her palm. The shell had been carefully sliced in half, exposing the thin pearly inner wall that spiraled down tight like the curl of an ocean wave.
"This would never survive the pounding tides along this coast," Sarah said. "This kind of fragile beauty grows in calmer waters."
"Yeah, well, a good pounding makes for a sturdy soul," Ray responded.
"Is that like 'Spare the rod spoil the child'?"
"Exactly. Only the strong survive. They taught us basic social Darwinism at Sheriff's school. We, us law enforcement guys, are of course, the strong ones. Criminals are lower down on the food chain and therefore, it is our duty, our evolutionary role, to eradicate them."
"After a week with my family, its nice to be in the company of a higher order of mammal," Sarah laughed. She opened a narrow door past the boxes and found an old bathroom. "Look at this, there must be fifty shovels in here. And bits of stove pipe for digging clams."
The shovels were standing in the bathtub, their metal points were rusty and their wooden handles were laced with cobwebs. The stove pipe was stacked against the sink, like the discarded legs of the Tin Man of Oz. Beneath the sink was a cardboard box of miscellaneous cleaning materials: a dried yellow sponge, a black handled toilet brush, a few wooden rat traps, a box of ant sticks, a faded canister of Ajax cleanser, a box of Gizmo rat poison and glass bottle of Mr. Clean. Sarah looked inside the box and saw at the bottom a few tiny dried bones and a piece of gray leather.
"Yuck. I don't want to play in here anymore," Sarah said as she walked back into the bedroom, closing the bathroom door firmly behind her. "Let's go to the tower."
"Wait a minute, there's some great stuff here," Ray said holding up what looked like a monkey made out of a shaggy coconut husk. "Look, his eyes move." Ray shook the monkey and the white marbles rolled in the dusty brown head.
"That's definitely your lower order Tiki God," Sarah said. "Take it if you want. I don't think anyone would notice."
"I'll come back for it later." Ray sat the coconut down next to a pile of fluorescent plastic buckets with matching little shovels. He followed Sarah into the hall.
They continued down the corridor, past a second hallway, on the left, which led off to the south wing. They passed three more numbered doors, but after opening the first and finding the room filled with fishing poles, casting reels, assorted lead weights and piles of rubber waders they left the others closed. At the end of the corridor, nearly hidden in the darkness, was a small, very narrow, white door. There was no number on this door but above it hung a metal sign which said: WHEELHOUSE. The door frame had settled to one side and Sarah pulled several times on the knob before the door would budge.
"Sorry," she said as the door flung suddenly open and she fell backwards into Ray. "I don't know my own strength."
Sarah stood for a moment, leaning against Ray, a strong odor of musty camphor flowed our from the room and surrounded them.
"This place needs some airing out," Ray said.
They left the door open and climbed the slender stairway. The walls were no more than three feet apart and lined, floor to ceiling with deep red ceder. The steps were high and the treads, covered with black corrugated rubber, were narrow. It was, Sarah thought, like climbing inside an upturned hope chest.
"It's a little cramped up here," Sarah said when they reached the room at the top of the stairs.
"But you can't beat the view," Ray said, his head no more than six inches from the ceiling. The wheelhouse was only one room, no more than ten feet square. But tall multi-paned windows lined three walls creating a near three-sixty panoramic view. It was like standing in the conning tower of a submarine. From here they could see the entire town, the full length of the beach and the mouth of Tomales Bay. This had been her father's room when he was a boy.
"Can't you see my father standing right where you are now, looking out at the horizon and dreaming of running away," Sarah said to Ray. "No wonder he joined the Navy."
"Why did he leave?," Ray asked.
"Thomas Beach or the Navy?"
"Knowing the Farrington family I can understand why he left Thomas Beach. But the Navy, with all its order and tidiness, seems like a good place for your father."
"It was my mother's idea. She wanted to be part of this great big family."
"Well, they're big," Ray said blowing out his cheeks and sticking out his belly in an attempt to appear as fat as Sarah's relatives.
"I wish they were just fat and funny," Sarah said. "I feel sorry for my dad. He got lured back here, the place he had been running away from all his life, and then, after giving up his career, he finds out it was all for nothing."
Sarah climbed up onto the higher of the two bunks built into the back wall. There was no mattress just the hardwood planks. She looked down at the bare floor. There were four round marks on the floor where a chair had stood in the corner. The chair was gone. There was a dark square which looked like the outline of a throw rug. The rug was gone.
"It's not so bad here, Sarah," Ray said as he scanned the magnificent view. "Most people would have loved to have grown up in a place this beautiful."
"That's because most people only see it when the sun is shining and the beach is filled with people. During the winter when the rental houses are empty and no one is on the beach, and no one is walking on the streets, it's like the Twilight Zone around here. In this episode, all the normal inhabitants of a small coastal town disappear leaving behind the weird and evil Farringtons."
"You need a handsome outsider to take a wrong turn at the top of the hill and get trapped down here," Ray said. "And the telephone lines have to be dead."
"Well," Sarah said, in her best Rod Sirling voice. "How long has it been since you called out?"
Ray looked down at the rusty trailers, the rotting cabins and the potholed pavement. He turned from the window and swung himself up on the bunk next to Sarah. "This place is starting to look weird now."
"See? If you look closely, the beauty is only on the surface. The sky, the water, the hills...those are beautiful. But everything man-made is ugly."
"You exaggerate, as always," Ray laughed. "But if your folks kept this place in better shape, it would look more inviting, and they might do a better business."
"I'm not sure they want to do a better business," Sarah said.
"Maybe your father didn't lose so much after all," Ray said. He laid his arm across Sarah's shoulders.
"So," Sarah said relaxing under the weight and warmth of Ray's arm. "Now that we're safely hidden away up here, far from the family's reach, tell me what you know about Beatrice disinheriting my father."
"Not much really, just what I've heard from my mother and other folks."
"When was that?"
"I don't know, Sarah," Ray said. "It was at least ten years ago."
"I just thought if I knew when she did it I might be able to figure out why she did it"
"Look, Sarah, there are some things we just don't know, and never will know. You just have to accept that."
"I thought police guys were supposed to solve mysteries."
"No, we solve crimes," he said, his soft brown hair brushing against the ceiling. "Mysteries are for poets and scientists."
A static crackle came from the radio strapped to Ray's belt. "The outside world is calling. I'm saved." Ray dropped his chin and said something unintelligible into the mike on his shoulder.
"I've got to go," he said to Sarah. "It's another dog complaint."
"Where's this one?" she asked.
"A cocker spaniel staying with a family in C-View, on Middle Street."
"More bad garbage?"
"More like poison, Sarah."
"You mean someone is actually killing these dogs?" Sarah asked.
"That's what it looks like. But we're not sure yet. Look, I've got to go. Will you be around tomorrow?"
"I'll be at the bonfire tomorrow night."
"I promised to let off fireworks with my daughter on the beach. Do you want to join us?"
"I'd love to. I'll look for you on the beach around eight."
"Great," he said jumping down from the bunk. "you coming down?"
"No, I think I'll stay here for a bit."
"See you tomorrow night, then."
Sarah listened to Ray's footsteps echo through the narrow ceder stairwell, then along the corridor to the wider, more magnificent, if less aromatic, staircase. She heard the slap of the venetian blinds against the glass as he went out the front door. Or perhaps, assuming that the sound would come she only imagined she heard it. The imagined sound would be evidence that Ray had, in fact, gone out the front door. Sarah liked evidence, she liked the proof of cause and effect. She liked Newton's law that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Like Newton she believed that the world was ultimately knowable if only she had enough data. Sarah was uncomfortable with the modern theories of chaos and quantum mechanics, the notion that only a limited amount of information could be obtained from a system. She didn't like to think that there were things that were inherently unknowable.
* * *
"Sarah!" David's voice roared into the room as he pulled open the door at the bottom of the narrow stairs. "Are you up there?"
Her ears popped as if the vacuum seal on her private world had broken, allowing the real world to stream in.
"Come on up," she said.
"I thought I'd find you here," David said as ducked his head to avoid hitting the low ceiling of the stairwell. "I don't know why you like this place. It gives me the creeps. It's so claustrophobic. All this dark wood, like being in a coffin."
"Great view, though," Sarah said, with just a hint of sarcasm. "So, have you been to the house yet?"
"Yeah. I talked to Mom for a bit. She's really upset. I think she might be in shock or something. I haven't seen Dad yet."
"He's down there," Sarah said and pointed to the yellow tractor billowing black smoke as it pulled another water logged stump along the beach.
"Hmm, needs a tune up," David said. "Dad shouldn't be working. He should be talking with our lawyer."
"He's pretty upset, too."
"He ought to be. I spoke to Jim who handles probate issues for the bank. He says we should contest the will. Grandma Bea was obviously senile and we can get the thing annulled or whatever they call it."
"Wait until you talk to Dad before you do anything, " Sarah said. "I don't think he wants to fight this."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, he's more shut down then usual. He stares at magazines for hours without turning the pages. He watches TV with the sound off. Yesterday he put a cheese sandwich on the grill to melt then got in the truck and drove to town. Luckily, I came in and found it before the house burned down. So don't expect him to be much help in a fight."
"Well, we have to do something. There's been a mistake. I'm sure if I just sit down and talk with Uncle Gerrick and Aunt Hattie, they'll understand."
"You're assuming that their normal, intelligent people, David," Sarah said. "And they're not."
Being disinherited was harder for him to accept than it had been for Sarah. Somehow David had managed to grow up without clashing with Grandma Bea, or Aunt Hattie, or Cousin Rachel. He had grown up apart from everyone, in his own little perfect world. Sarah could still remember David as a wide-eyed little boy who got up, packed a lunch and left the house before dawn. He stayed away all day only coming home for dinner. He left notes scrawled on bits of paper hanging on the refrigerator before he could even write his own name correctly: "Gon fishin wit jony - bak tanite, Dav." Once, when he was eight, David decided to hitchhike out of town. He made it to San Rafael - nearly 60 miles away before a policeman found him loitering in front of a K-Mart and called his parents. They didn't even know he was gone. Sarah remembered David kneeling beside his bed at night praying for Mommy and Daddy to be healthy, for Sarah to stop teasing him and for God to make him rich enough to buy Thomas Beach.
"Now Sarah," David said, not quite joking. "Just because they don't like you, doesn't mean they're crazy."
"They don't like any of us, David. You just can't see that."
"I'm sure it was just an oversight on someone's part. Grandma Bea was slipping these last few months."
"Ray Ambrosi told me today that Grandma Bea made out her will ten years ago."
"How does he know that?"
"Apparently everyone around here knew about it but us. Dad told me this morning that he even knew it was a possibility. Though he didn't think she would actually do it."
David slumped down onto the lower bunk.
"I don't believe it," David said. "There must be a mistake. I'll call the lawyer first thing Monday morning."
"Monday's a holiday."
"Tuesday then. You know," David said, in a quiet, rather distant voice, "I was the one who found her when she died. Harold and Agnes called Dad and said Grandma Bea hadn't called them that morning. I guess they were expecting her."
"The Survivors' Club."
"You know, the old people who called each other every morning to see if they were still alive," Sarah said. "I always wondered what went through their minds if the other one didn't answer the phone. How would they know if it was because the person they called was dead or if they were dead themselves and therefore couldn't communicate with the living? I always wondered about that."
"Sarah, you're weird," David said. "Anyway, Dad asked me to go over and check on her. She was just lying there in bed like she was sleeping. I knew when I walked in the door that something was wrong. The house smelled musty and sweet - sickly sweet like a warm snow cone."
"Yuck. Rotting granny."
"No, it wasn't that gruesome. It was like the house was empty. She wasn't there any more. Just her body laying there in bed. It was so quiet."
"Well, she got the last word."
"What I can't understand," David said, "is how Dad can work down there with Uncle Gerrick as if nothing has happened."
Sarah followed David's gaze down to where Gerrick was walking awkwardly across the beach toward my father. His oversized cowboy boots were not designed for ambling in the dry sand. The high heels pitched him forward and the pointed toes held him back.
"Why doesn't Dad yell at him or hit him or something," David asked. "Why does he just stand there and let them get away with this?"
"Dad's not going to say anything." Sarah replied. "He never has before and he won't start now. It would be kind of stupid for Uncle Gerrick to bring the subject up. Not that he isn't rather stupid. And Hattie certainly isn't going to say anything. Besides, I'm sure she planned this whole thing."
"By telling lies to Grandma Beatrice."
"C'mon Sarah, they're our family, remember?"
"David, don't you remember the time Aunt Hattie accidently stepped on Rachel's kitten and told Mom and Dad that she had seen you bash it against a tree. Remember how you pleaded with them to believe you and they kept saying "No one would make up something like that." Don't you remember how I tried to tell them that I had seen Aunt Hattie step on it but they wouldn't listen to me. They thought I was lying. But it was Aunt Hattie who lied. These people do make up things like that and worse."
"That's when we were just kids," David said. He looked out the window toward the beach.
"Remember when Uncle Gerrick told everyone that Dad got thrown out of the Navy because Mom was selling government secrets to the Russians. She couldn't figure out why no one would talk to her. It took years for people to forget that rumor. Then what did Mom say - Poor Gerrick, he's been reading too many comic books. Poor Gerrick, my ass. Hattie fed him that bullshit. They may be family, David, but they are truly mean people."
"I don't know. I don't remember everything like you do," David said without turning from the window. "The kitten thing rings a bell though."
Sarah slipped her arm around her very tall little brother's waist and together they stood at the wheelhouse window and watched as their father and Uncle Gerrick gestured silently toward a pile of lumber and then pointed to an empty place up the road where only last week a ceder cabin had stood.
"If they keep burning up the cabins in these bonfires," David said. "There won't be any resort to argue about."
"Maybe, that's the plan, "Sarah said. "Do you ever get the feeling that the family thinks that all these tourists ruin their otherwise tidy resort business?"
"They don't make people very welcome," David said. "That's for sure."
"Mom told me that last year Aunt Hattie had the resort listing taken out of the phone book because the phone rang too much."
"No. I'm not kidding. I bet they don't teach that particular marketing strategy in Business 101."
"No wonder the place is losing money," David said and glared out the window.
Down on the beach Uncle Gerrick drove the old blue Army surplus dump truck up to the bonfire. Sam had laid planks down so the truck could get real close to the already huge pile of logs and lumber. He hurled the remains of cabin #22 on to the rising pyre. This was the largest bonfire yet. It stood at least twenty feet high.
"I hope the wind doesn't come up tomorrow night," Sarah said. "Remember the year a spark landed on the old trench toilets and the whole building went up in flames? What a stinking mess that was."
"Aunt Hattie still says that it was your sparkler that did it," David said.
"See what I mean," Sarah said in mock despair. "They blame me for everything. Now I'll admit that it was me who left the gas stove on in #19 when I was cleaning it. So, technically it was my fault that the stove blew up and knocked all the windows out. But I didn't set fire to the toilets."
"Aha! Finally you admit it." David laughed. "You are a bomb throwing communist terrorist, just like Aunt Hattie always said. I knew it."
Sarah punched him as hard as she could in his surprisingly muscular stomach. With his arm still around her shoulders he swept a leg across the back of her knees and she tumbled ungracefully to the floor. He sat on her chest and tickled her as if they were ten years old.
"If you tickle me, I'll pee," Sarah cried. It was the threat that she had always used on her little brother.
"I've never understood why you say that, Sarah," David said, his face screwed up as if he'd caught a whiff of something vile. He stood up and released her.
"Yeah, well, it works."
There was no wind the evening of the 4th of July. The ocean was as flat as a sheet cake. Along its edge small foamy waves, like fluted icing, broke onto the beach then slithered up the sand. When the waves receded they left an oily sheen behind which reflected the last colors of the fading sunset. Sam Farrington had place a serpentine line of red emergency flares along the edge of the damp sand. Like ceremonial torches, they formed a glowing barrier against the sea.
The unlit bonfire now stood nearly twenty-five feet high. Sheets of painted plywood, two by six floor joists, the corner of a kitchen cabinet, a buckled door frame and other bits of cabin #22 were all crushed beneath the weight of heavy logs which stuck out at odd angles from the tower of debris. From where Sarah stood, at the upstairs window of her old bedroom, it looked as if a giant toddler had upset a canister of Lincoln Logs onto Barbie's Dream House.
On the beach parking lot, station wagons, pickup trucks, open jeeps and Winnebagos disgorged families, groups of teenagers, lovers, bright red boxes of fireworks and case after case of beer. Each group quickly marked out their territory clearing away any trash and smoothing the sand to make a base for their fireworks. Sarah scanned the lot for Ray's car but soon realized she had no idea what type of car he drove anymore. In high school he had driven a red '57 Chevy with oversized wheels. There was no Redwood County Sheriff's car on the parking lot. No '57 Chevy either.
"Hurry up, Sarah," David called from the doorway. "You haven't even got your shoes on. I want to be down there when Dad lights the fire. That's my favorite part."
"Mine too," Sarah said reaching under the bed for her tennis shoes. "It'll just take me a second. Is Mom coming with us?"
"No, she's still too upset. She doesn't want to leave the house."
It had been six days since the phone call from the lawyer and Carol had spent each day cleaning, cooking or driving thirty miles into town to buy supplies. She refused to go back to work in the store and she didn't want to talk to anyone. When Sarah went downstairs she found her mother curled deep into the sofa. She had her feet tucked underneath her and her arms crossed so tightly against her chest that her elbows overlapped.
"I just can't face these people," Carol said in a scared, brittle voice when Sarah asked her why she wouldn't join them on the beach. "Hattie and Gerrick will be there laughing at us. The trailer people will be there, people from church, from town ...everyone will be there laughing at us. No, I can't go. I won't go."
Carol sunk deeper into the sofa, her small frame nearly lost in the cushions. She looked so much like a three year old throwing a tantrum Sarah nearly laughed at her herself.
"C'mon Mom," David said. "You can't hide up here forever." "David, leave her alone," Sarah said. "If she wants to stay here, let her stay."
"I'm not going down there," Carol said and tucked her feet even further beneath her. "I'll watch from the window."
David pulled his shoulders back and stood straighter and taller than usual. The muscles in his lower cheek quivered as he clenched his teeth. His eyes turned from hazel to dark brown and his brows came together above his nose. He was angry. Sarah could see how he might intimidate a real estate broker trying to wrangle funds from his bank. Even as a kid, when her brother was convinced he was right, which was most of the time, he had taken on the demeanor of a rabid Evangelical priest. It had been difficult for Sarah to argue with him because he was smart enough to be absolutely right, in a very narrow sense, and he was clever enough to keep the argument confined to that minuscule arena. Unfortunately for their mother, her fears, as unfounded as they probably were, fell outside of David's rational range.
"I won't be down there long, Mom." Sarah said, motioning with her eyes for David to shut up. "I'll just stay long enough to watch Dad do the "lighting of the fire" bit and then I'll come back and watch the fireworks with you."
"I'll be right here," Carol said.
David and Sarah put on their coats and left their mother sitting alone in the dark staring out at the line of red flames flickering along the shore.
"This is really hard for her," Sarah said to David as they climbed over the back fence, ignoring the NO TRESPASSING sign. Uncle Gerrick had put the sign up hoping to grow sea fig on the hill to keep the sand bank from falling into the street. It wasn't working. "You know how sensitive Mom is about what other people think. She's afraid of being a freak like Aunt Lizzy."
"This is different." David said sternly as he dusted the sand from his pants. "She's not retarded like Aunt Lizzy and no one thinks she is. In fact, I doubt if anyone is thinking about her at all. This is a business matter. We can settle it in the lawyer's office or fight it out in court if it comes to that."
"I'm not sure you can get Dad to fight this." Sarah said. "Remember what he said at breakfast this morning - if this is what my mother wanted - then so be it. He sounded pretty definite to me."
"He's upset right now. When he calms down he'll see that this is a financial problem not just a personal problem. We could lose a lot of property. This doesn't make sense."
"David, families don't make sense. Emotions don't make sense. Grandmother Farrington didn't make sense. Frankly, I'm rather glad to be rid of her."
"Dammit, Sarah, that's just the kind of remark that caused this thing in the first place."
"So, you think it's my fault we're disinherited."
"That's not what I meant and you know it." David's proud bearing was showing signs of slumping. But his shoulders pulled back straight again and he continued, "Let's forget about this thing for tonight. We'll go to the bonfire, drink some beer and have a great time. O.K.?"
"It's a deal," Sarah replied though she wasn't so sure they'd have a great time.
"Hey, watch out," David yelled at the car which swerved across the road, only inches away from knocking him over.
"Isn't that Aunt Hattie?" Sarah asked.
"She's driving Grandma Bea's car," David said. "That's the new Cadillac she bought last year. What a beauty!"
"What a boat!"
"C'mon, you're just jealous."
"Well, if Aunt Hattie keeps driving like that I won't be jealous long." They watched as Aunt Hattie nearly scraped the side of the pale blue Caddy against the gate leading to the beach parking lot.
"She shouldn't be driving."
"Like Aunt Hattie's going to walk anywhere," Sarah said sarcastically. "Her house is only a hundred yards away but I've never seen her walk to the store."
"You're right. In fact, now that you mention it, I've never seen her walk on the beach, either," David said, for once agreeing with his sister.
As soon as they reached the parking lot David was swept away into the crowd by a cloud of friends. The air buzzed with anticipation as the throng of people waited for the last flicker of light to fade on the horizon. The cliffs were already in dark silhouette against the sky and the Summer Triangle of Vega, Denjab and Altair, was high over the hills to the east. Sarah made her way through the crowd to the base of the bonfire. Her father had placed a ring of emergency flares around the tower to keep the people from getting too close to the precarious pile of lumber.
She felt the crowd moving behind her and turned to see a path clearing for her father. He carried a 5 gallon jerrycan of gasoline. He walked slowly toward the tower and with fluid grace he swung the can in an arc toward dry wood. As his arm lowered the gasoline flew from the can, hung for a moment in the air then fell onto the wood where it disappeared without the slightest trace. Slowly, he circled the tower. With each swing the jerrycan became lighter and lighter and he flung the gas higher and higher until finally the can fell back to his side empty. Without a break in stride he retreated a few hundred feet. He set down the jerrycan and picked up a long wooden pole with gasoline soaked rags wrapped tightly around the end. At the base of the tower he paused. The crowd as if one entity stepped back. In the silence Sam took a butane lighter from his pocket and lit the homemade torch. The crowd took another step back. Holding the torch at arm's length and slightly behind him he again circled the tower. As he walked, he touched the torch gently to the wood. Flames flew up from every touch. Like a magician dispensing flames from his magic wand he made his way around the tower. When he had gone full circle he took a step back and threw the torch as high as he could into the flames.
As if on cue the air exploded with Roman Candles, sparkling Whirly-Gigs on sticks, Whistling Petes, Red Devils, and Flaming Fountains. Children shrieked as black worms crawled out of hot embers. Long strings of firecrackers, like machine guns blasts, crackled and danced through the darkness and everywhere around her and she could hear the snap and fizz of beer cans opening. The sound of an car engine rose above the noise of the crowd and Sarah saw Uncle Gerrick, his tin badge glistening in the light of the emergency flares, speed along the shore in the salmon pink jeep. He was undoubtedly in hot pursuit of criminal elements. Fourth of July was his big night, the night when teenagers drank too much, when couples rolled naked in the dunes, when lines of cars parked on Farrington property and hoodlums spun doughnuts on the parking lot. This was the night Uncle Gerrick buffed his star into high lustre, strapped on his pearl handled pistol and prepared to kick butt.
"Hey, slow down," a voice yelled, barely audible above the roar. Sarah saw an arm waving in the crowd and followed it down to Ray's unsmiling face. Beside him stood a little girl whose scarfed head came barely to his knee. She held Ray's sleeve with one hand and a sparkler spitting bright embers in the other.
"Sarah, meet Sara, without the H," Ray said as she joined them. "Or maybe I should say big Sarah meet little Sara?"
"Oh, no I'm not going to be Big Sarah, or Old Sarah," she said, kneeling down to look into the child's wide brown eyes. "Hi, there. How about just Sarah? Even Aunt Sarah, would be all right with me."
Sara looked more like her mother, Cherie, - the high round cheeks, square jaw and long full lashes - then she did like Ray. But there was something in her expression, a brightness, an intelligence, a certain comprehension in her eyes that proved she was her father's little girl. She smiled quickly at Sarah then burrowed her face into Ray's leg. She held the sparkler as far from her body as she could, like a talisman warding off strangers. Sarah took the hint and didn't move any closer.
"She's still a bit shy," Ray explained and reached down to lift his daughter into his arms. He held her against his chest and it was only when he tried to take the sparkler from her hand that she resisted and insisted on being put back down on the sand.
"Don't worry about it," Sarah said. "When she's ready, if she's ever ready, she'll come to me. I'm not one of those adults who force intimacy on children."
If there was one thing she had learned growing up amongst crazy adults, it was that not all big people deserve respect. Respect had to be earned, it didn't come with height. And she wouldn't demand it of a stranger, just because that stranger was a child.
"Where's Bailey?" Sarah asked as they wandered through the crowd.
"Dogs don't like fireworks," Ray said. "The noise frightens them."
"That's understandable," she managed to answer before her voice was drowned out by a cherry bomb exploding a few feet in front of them. The stench of sulphur and the salvoes of rockets erupting on all sides of them was exhilarating. But then they understood that this was not a war but a celebration. A dog might take all the blasts personally and think he were under attack. The two Sarah's, however, screeched with delight and wonder whenever the sky erupted with colored stars and they moaned together at the whimpering duds.
Out of the crowd, familiar faces emerged from the darkness, greeted Ray with easy familiarity and Sarah with surprised recollection. Thomas Beach was the only place for miles around where the locals could set off fireworks without permits. The damp sand mitigated the danger of fire and the ocean provided a safe landing place for flaming rockets. It was probably the one time of the year that the local people visited the Farrington Family Resort. Most of the families who lived on the dairies and ranches around Tomales spent their vacations further from home, along the shore of Lake Shasta or in the mountains of Tahoe. For quick day trips to the beach they chose to go to one of the many State beaches where the parking fee was lower and the park rangers were less vigilant than Uncle Gerrick.
"Daddy, look," Sara squealed pointing straight above her head. Above them a brilliant blast of red and blue pyrotechnics lit up the sky. Like a glowing, weeping willow the embers fell, dissolving one by one into the blackness of the night. They stood, all three of them, with their necks tilted back, their faces lifted to the sky. Sarah felt Ray shift suddenly, awkwardly beside her. She turned to find Janice Williams, the former head cheerleader of the Tomales Tomahawks and the granddaughter of Percy and Emily Williams. Janice had her arms locked securely around Ray's torso. Janice covered Ray's face with drunken kisses.
"Janice," a man called from the darkness. "Leave Ray alone."
Calvin Falk, the former Kleenex King of Mrs. Marshall's third grade class stepped forward to rescue Ray from the clutches of his amorous wife. She let loose her grip reluctantly and without ever truly focusing on her surroundings let herself be led away.
"Sarah Farrington, is that you?" Calvin asked as he peeled his wife off Ray's chest. "Did you fly in from Paris for the Fourth of July?"
"No, I drove in from Maine."
"Maine, Paris! We just can't keep up with you out here." Calvin pulled his wife back into the night.
"Calvin's sinus problem seems to have cleared up," Sarah said to Ray.
"But Janice hasn't changed a bit," Ray said wiping the remains of Revlon's Ruby Lip Gloss from his cheek.
"I'm surprised Calvin recognized me."
"You haven't changed that much either."
"I guess I don't expect people to remember me," Sarah said. "even if they do recognize me."
Somehow Sarah thought that she had emerged from her childhood without leaving an impression on anyone, without leaving any clues as to who she was. She thought that she had passed through elementary school and high school like vapor through cheesecloth. But as she wandered through the crowd, bumping elbows with familiar faces, catching the gaze of familiar eyes, she met, over and over again, the unmistakable glint of rekindled memories. It must be the hair, still jet black, still hanging just above her belt.
Ray moved easily, comfortably through the crowd as if he had never left. Which, of course, he hadn't. He had stayed in this community, grown older along side his former classmates. He had never made himself a stranger, never taken himself away to become a person unknown to those he had left behind. And the people who shook his hand sensed this. It was a pact they had, a promise that they would never become other than who they always had been. For the first time in her life Sarah felt a yearning to belong to this club, a yearning for this stability, this continuity. A yearning to stop moving, to settle down.
"Hey, Sarah, isn't that your cousin Rachel over there with her family," Ray said pointing to a small group of people standing next to a large ice chest.
Rachel stood with her hands deep in her jacket pocket, her left ankle crossed over her right, like a five foot seven ampersand wearing a frown. She concentrated all her attention on her husband who was huddled over a long waxed string dangling from a cardboard rocket. At Rachel's feet her four year old daughter sat spellbound in the sand. Again and again the man thumbed his lighter sending a burst of flame at the string. But the stubborn wick refused to light. Finally, he stood up and pulled a shiny Buck knife from the leather sheath hanging from his belt. He cut the fuse shorter and bent low again. This time the fuse lit immediately and with an earsplitting explosion the rocket ignited.
Rachel screamed. The little girl threw her arms tightly around her mother's leg and held on like a baby possum.
"My God, Darryl" Rachel yelled, trying to free her leg from her daughters grasp. "You're hurt. Let me see your hand."
"Shut up," Darryl growled. "Get me a beer."
"God dammit," she answered. Her voice was tight as she reached out to him. "I'm a nurse. Give me your hand."
He jerked his arm back and, even from where she stood, Sarah could see the white knuckles on the man's curled fist. He was ready to strike. Rachel stood still. For a moment the family was a frozen tableau against the colorful sky. Then Rachel pushed her daughter off her legs and turned away. The little girl landed hard against the sand but she did not cry out. She watched silently, her eyes wide with fear as her mother opened the ice chest, and removed a cold beer. Darryl took the bottle and set up another rocket. Rachel's daughter sat very still in the cold sand and sucked her lower lip deep into her mouth.
Instinctively Sarah reached down for little Sara and without meeting any resistance she scooped her into her arms. The child felt warm and soft against Sarah's breast.
"Can't you do something? Arrest them? Beat them?" Sarah asked Ray accusingly.
"For what? He didn't hit her. He hasn't broken any laws."
"Yes, but he threatened to. Didn't you hear him?"
"My hearing must not be as good as yours," Ray said. "I didn't hear him say anything. All I saw was a jerk embarrassed by the fact that he nearly blew his hand off." Seeing the look on Sarah's face he added, "Listen, unless a law has been broken or I think a law has been broken, I can't do anything. I have two roles in this community. I'm a cop and a neighbor. I can't go pushing my way into other people's private lives just because I want to. And believe me, I want to."
"I guess Rachel's getting her just deserts," Sarah said. "You know, ever since I was a kid, I've prayed for all sorts of horrible things to happen to her. I used to dream of freeway accidents where she would be decapitated. Or, where she caught her hand in an electric mixer. Or, fell into a swamp full of alligators."
"She was that bad to you?"
"She was terrible. She locked me in a closet once for five hours. I'd probably still be there if David hadn't found me. But it wasn't the particular actions that were so bad, it was the constant and persistent ridicule. The mean little comments, the day by day insults. Rachel was like the Chinese water torture, her individuals drops weren't hard to withstand, but the accumulative effect was devastating."
"What did your parents say to all this?"
"That I was exaggerating. That I was oversensitive. That Rachel wasn't smart enough to be so cruel. They were wrong." Sarah saw her cousin open another beer and empty the bottle in three long swallows. She saw the scowl on her cousin's face. For a moment Sarah thought that Rachel's eyes had drifted closer together, then she realized that Rachel's face had gotten larger. Her cousin was no longer overweight, she was becoming like her mother, enormous.
"Why do people always assume that fat, unintelligent people are kind and jolly?" Sarah asked. "Maybe we're witnessing a perceptual phenomenon, the Santa Claus Syndrome."
"Maybe you're just exaggerating," Ray said. His eyes were smiling.
"Don't forget, oversensitive," Sarah said. "But seriously, now that I see she's having such a miserable life, it doesn't bring me the personal pleasure that I thought it would."
"That's because you're a nicer person than you give yourself credit for," Ray said. He leaned down and kissed her softly just below her ear.
"Are you pushing your way into my private life, Deputy?" Sarah asked.
"I'm trying," Ray laughed.
Sara wiggled free of Sarah's arms. She dropped to the ground and took her father's hand. Then she reached for Sarah's hand and the three walked away from Rachel and her family and toward the bonfire. The fire was still burning strong, sending sparks way up into the sky as they weaved their way through the crowd. Low aching groans emanated from deep within the tower every time another piece of Grandpa Farrington's cabin crumbled into the flames.
Sarah saw her father leaning on a shovel, his chin resting on his hands as he gazed into the blazing incinerator he had created. The flames blushed his cheeks with an orange glow and the fireworks danced in his eyes. Oblivious to the noise, to the drunken crowd, to the squealing children and howling dogs, her father stared into the flames, entranced. A tiny smile, the slightest upturning of his lips, played at the corner of his mouth. On the pinnacle of the tower, the fire licked at the hand painted sign that read #22 Casa del Mare. Sarah and her father, together, watched the red paint blister and peel like tender flesh, then curl itself into crispy wisps and fall into the flames.
So, this was his revenge, Sarah thought. As the crowd rejoiced and lit fireworks, celebrating the anniversary of the nations's independence, Sam Farrington smiled quietly and stoked the funeral pyre of his father's town. Every year another cabin burned, another bit of past destroyed.
Sara had climbed back up into Sarah's arms and fallen asleep with her head on Sarah's shoulder and her tiny fist clutching the collar of Sarah's coat. Sarah took the scarf from around her neck and wrapped it around the little girl's shoulders pulling the soft wool up to cover her exposed cheek. Sarah held her very close. It's okay to be sensitive, it's okay to be bright, and it's okay to leave home, Sarah whispered into Sara's soft hair. The little girl nestled deeper into Sarah warm neck.
"I should take her home," Ray said tugging gently at Sarah's sleeve. "I told Cherie I wouldn't keep her out too late. Do you want to come along for the drive?"
"What?" For a moment Ray's words didn't register. She was miles away, engulfed in tenderness. "Of, course," she finally answered. "I'd love to."
"Gertrude Meuller better watch out or she'll fall into the fire," Ray said as they walked away from the bonfire. He nodded toward two stumbling figures coming toward them.
"She's been hitting the peppermint Schnapps again," Sarah said.
Gertie Meuller was drunk and clung to the arm of an equally drunken man whose face Sarah didn't recognize. Their hips bumped against each other as they meandered across the sand. Gertie's eyes were glazed and unfocused, her pancake makeup was blotched with fine beads of sweat and her bright red lipstick was smeared across her lower jaw.
"Where does she find these old guys," Sarah whispered to Ray as the staggering octogenarians approached. "She must raid the retirement village in Petaluma."
"Sarah Farrington?" Gertie slurred as she launched herself forward grabbing for Sarah's shoulders to steady herself. "Is that you?"
"Yes, Gertie. It's me." Sarah wrapped her arms tighter around Sara's sleeping body and turned her face down wind of Gertie's minty breath.
"I thought you were in Munich. Such a nice place, Munich."
"Yes, it is. But I live in Maine now."
"Maine? Never been there," Gertie shook her head. "I saw Lizzy tonight standing in your folks window. Right up there." She pointed a shaky hand toward the line of windows on Front Street. "Her hands were on the glass, and she was steaming up the window, just like she always did."
"Gertie, Aunt Lizzy's been dead for years."
"No, it was Lizzy. I saw her."
"You probably saw my mother watching the fireworks."
"Maggie loved that little girl, Sarah. Broke her heart when they put her away." Tears ran down Gertie's face, cutting wide paths through the thick orange powder. "They're gone, now. They're all gone."
The old woman slumped against Sarah. But with both arms around Ray's daughter, Sarah had no way to comfort her. Sarah stood like a bowling pin in the sand and arched her brows at Ray.
"Now, now, Mrs. Mueller," Ray said, taking the hint and gently prying Gertie away from Sarah. "Why don't we sit down for a bit."
He steered her to a picnic table. Her friend, confused but content to be lead, followed. Using little Sara as an excuse, Ray and Sarah left Gertie and her beau to ponder their fate and pushed through the crowd to the parking lot. Sarah could see the windows of her parent's house. They were still dark, but she knew her mother would be standing there, the binoculars pressed tightly against her eyes, hiding in the blackness. Here in the midst of insanity her mother was afraid to be thought of as crazy.
It wasn't hard for Sarah to imagine how difficult it must have been for her mother, growing up with a retarded sister. Sarah knew how difficult it had been for her and David, and Lizzy was only their aunt. Sarah remembered coming home from school to find her aunt sitting in the living room. Aunt Lizzy would have her skirt pulled up to her waist and her hand thrust down her underpants.
"What's that in your front window?" her school friends would ask.
"That's my Aunt. She's retarded."
"What's she doing?"
"She's got an itch." Masturbation was just too difficult to explain.
Sarah remembered how she and David had hid behind cereal boxes at the breakfast table whenever they stayed overnight at Grandma Maggie's house. They always pretended to read the ingredient list or the Send-2-Box-Tops Offers on the backs of the boxes, so they wouldn't have to watch their Aunt Lizzy eat. She routinely missed her mouth with the spoon and milk ran down her chin. She would snort and milk would flow from her nose and damp Cheerios would fly across the table. When she had a head cold the children skipped breakfast all together.
"Ray, I can't drive back with you," Sarah said, suddenly feeling guilty. "I promised my mother I'd watch the fireworks with her."
"All right, but only if you'll have dinner with me tomorrow night?"
"It's a deal," she said. They were walking between the rows of parked cars toward a pristine red '68 Mustang convertable.
"Is that yours?" Sarah asked when she realized that Ray was heading toward the red car.
"Yep. That was my part of the divorce settlement. I got the Mustang, she got Sara."
"But does Cherie have visitation rights?"
Ray laughed but Sarah could tell by the way his lips scrunched up at one corner that he hadn't ever considered the issue from that perspective.
"Sarah," Ray said, as they passed by a blue Cadillac. "Isn't that your Aunt Hattie?"
"Yes," she said. Sarah stopped and peered into the window of her late grandmother's car. Her Aunt Hattie was slumped gracelessly over the steering wheel. She seemed to have dozed right through the celebrations. "Looks like she's sleeping it off."
"I can't just leave her like this." Ray said. "I'll try to wake her up and get her home. The least I can do is take the keys out of the car so she can't drive."
He pulled on the door but it was locked. He tried the passenger side door. It, too, was locked. He pounded his fist against the windshield to wake her, but she remained oblivious.
"I'm going to have to break a window."
"Just let her sleep. She won't hurt anyone here."
"No, I can't just leave her." The tone of Ray's voice was official and absolutely authoritarian: brook no opposition, take no prisoners, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. Sarah stepped out of his way as he went to the Mustang car for a sleek, black, lethal looking, flashlight. With one quick blow he shattered the back passenger side window.
"She's not going to thank you for that in the morning," Sarah said.
"Can't be helped," was his terse reply. Ray reached around the bits of glass still stuck in the rubber weather proofing and carefully opened the front door. The dome light above Aunt Hattie's head switched on casting a yellow light over face. She didn't move. Ray slid along the leather seat beside her enormous inert body. He picked up her limp hand and wrapped his fingers around her wrist. Nothing. He dug his fingers deeper into her soft flesh. Nothing.
"Sarah, she's dead."
"No. She's drunk," Sarah said. "She can't be dead."
"I can't find a pulse." Ray dropped Aunt Hattie's wrist and slid out of the car. "Stay here. I'm going for my car. I'll radio for the ambulance."
Sarah still held little Sara asleep in her arms. She leaned against the car. She could see her aunt Hattie's pale face; her eyes were open and she appeared to be staring at the ridges in the rubber floor mat. Sarah could see the light brown roots of her aunt's otherwise jet black hair and the pale pink skin of her scalp. Sarah closed the door. The dome light went out.
Ray parked the red Mustang car behind the Cadillac as if to block Hattie Farrington's escape. But she wasn't going anywhere.
"The ambulance will be at least a half an hour," Ray said. "You might as well put Sara down in the back of my car. I won't be able to take her home any time soon."
"Dr. Reynolds is on the beach." Sarah said as she made a pillow for Sara out of an old sweatshirt she found on the floor of Ray's back seat. "Should I go get him?"
"Not much he can do. But he could at least make an official pronouncement of death."
A Roman candle exploded lighting up the sky with bright blue and red embers. Sarah zipped her jacket clear up to her chin and wished she hadn't wrapped little Sara in her wool scarf. The cold from the sand was beginning to creep up her legs as she walked through the throng of families. Nearer the fire the air was warmer and she found her father still leaning on his shovel staring at the flames.
"Dad," she said resting a hand on his shoulder.
"Huh, oh, Sarah," he said. "Great fire, isn't it?"
"Yes. Best one yet," she answered. "Look, Dad, something's wrong with Aunt Hattie's."
"What's the matter with her?"
"What?" Sam cocked his head and moved his face closer to his daughter. "I don't think I heard you. What's wrong with Hattie?"
"She's dead," Sarah yelled, and the night became suddenly silent. Sarah felt the awesome absurdity of life. "She's up in Grandma's car. She's not breathing or anything."
"Go call the ambulance."
"Ray already did."
"I'd better go up there. He'll need some help moving these cars so the ambulance can get through," he said and dug his shovel into the ground. He left it standing in the sand as he went to help Ray.
Dr. John Reynolds was with his son and grandchildren setting off rockets by the water. He had aged gracefully. His hair, which Sarah remembered as bright red, was now silver. His face was rippled with smile lines and crows feet danced around his sharp blue eyes. Sarah shook his hand and looked past him to his son, Dr. Philip Reynolds. Phillip looked nothing like his father. He had smooth dark skin and almond shaped Asian eyes. Grace and John Reynolds, never able to have kids of their own, had adopted Phillip when they were in their forties and he was just born. In the whitefaced community of Redwood County, Phillip had been an oddity. But as Dr. Reynold's son, he had been accepted. That he became a doctor himself, and took over his father's rural practice in Tomales, had surprised no one.
Sarah, breathless from running though the dry sand, explained what had happened to Aunt Hattie. Dr. Phillip responded immediately. He asked no questions, simply nodded his head, excused himself from his family and followed Sarah across the sand to the parking lot. With just as little ceremony he took her aunt Hattie's wrist. He opened her lifeless eyes with his fingers and stared into them. He closed the lids.
"She's dead," Dr. Phillip said. "Hard to say how long. That's for the coroner to decide. But she's still pretty warm so it couldn't have happened too long ago."
"Cause of death?" Ray asked as if filling out a questionnaire.
"Heart attack most likely. All that weight she's been carrying around put an awful strain on her heart. Been telling her for years to watch what she was eating. But she didn't pay any attention to me. My father says he told her father the same thing. He didn't listen either."
The sound of shrill siren, like a muted Whistling Pete, pierced the air. The sound grew stronger then faded away, then grew stronger again, as the ambulance sped in and out of the curves leading down into Thomas Beach.
"Twenty-five minutes," Ray said looking at his watch. "That's a record."
"I take it you didn't tell them she was dead," Dr. Reynolds said. "You could have a problem here, Ray. Ambulances don't take dead bodies."
Sarah didn't hear Ray's answer. His voice was drowned out by the flood of questions that sprang up out of the crowd that had already formed around them. Sam had moved his pick up truck, the blue GMC with pink primer doors, up next to the Cadillac to keep the people away from the Cadillac. But that didn't prevent a chorus of voices from erupting with questions.
"Who is it?"
"What's going on?"
"Oh, my God. Look!"
"Everyone step back," Ray said in his deepest, most adult and booming voice. "Away from the car. The ambulance is on its way."
The approaching siren and the flashing lights rose above the din of the fireworks. The crowd pressed forward, curious. They were drawn, now, away from the celebration and toward the crisis. A father held his son up over his head to get a better look at the action.
"What do you see? What's happening?"
"A car," the little boy said. "It's just a big blue car."
"There's been an accident," the father said. "Right here in the parking lot."
"A drunk ran over a child," a woman's voice shouted.
"Killed the dog."
"It's awful, just awful."
Rumors were flying faster than the ambulance was driving. Ray pulled his radio hand set from the dash board of the Mustang and switched the radio over to load speaker.
"Clear the area. Everyone go back to the beach. Let the ambulance through." It was as if the Mustang itself had spoken.
Sarah saw her father at the parking lot entrance directing cars out of the path of the ambulance. He waved the paramedics forward and the crowd around the Cadillac parted. The ambulance, the siren now off, but the red lights still flashing, inched its way slowly towards them. Two men in white tunics jumped out and converged on Hattie's body which still sat slumped over the steering wheel. They ran their hands over her flesh, searching for a heartbeat. They shone penlights into her unresponsive eyes. They lay their heads down against her ample but breathless bosom. They stood up, their stethoscopes dangling from their necks, and put their hands in their tunic pockets.
"She's dead," they said, in eerie unison.
"Bradley, could you just take her to Petaluma General," Ray asked the taller of the two white clad men. "I'll have the coroner meet you there."
"We can't do that, Ray. Especially not tonight."
"I know. It's a busy night, just thought I'd ask."
"Mom!" Rachel's scream cut through the crowd. She pushed past Ray and the paramedics and went directly to her mother. With all her strength she pulled Hattie's body away from the steering wheel. She propped up her against the seat, opened her mother's mouth and began to breathe into it.
"Rachel, stop," Ray said trying to pull her away. "There's nothing you can do."
"I'm a nurse, God dammit." Rachel beat furiously on her mother's chest, bent down and breathed again into her mouth. Bradley, the older of the two paramedics, turned quickly towards Rachel, but Ray held out his arm, stopping him.
"She's dead, Rachel. Let her alone." Ray said softly as he gently pried her away from the body. He wrapped his arms around her and for a moment she continued to flail against his chest, her knuckles as white as her mother's face.
"Darryl," Ray said. "Take her home."
"I'm not going home. I'm not leaving." Rachel cried as Ray handed her over, like a large sack of grain, into Darryl's arms.
"Let's sit in the van," Darryl said.
Together they shuffled off toward a dark blue minivan sitting a few cars away. Darryl slid the side door open and helped Rachel step up into the back. Their daughter scrambled in beside them, still clutching a box of unlit rockets in her arms. Darryl closed the door. The inside of the car was dark and all Sarah could see of her cousin and her family were the bobbing lights of their cigerette embers.
A flurry of sparks swirled into the air as a large piece of wood collapsed into the bonfire. Like an inverse volcano the fire seemed to draw the flaming lumber into its core, devouring them and spitting out the sparks. After burning nearly three hours it still stood over five feet tall. The ring of flares, showing gaps where fathers had taken them to light firecrackers, had become a circle of stubby flames in the sand. Only the occasional pyrotechnic display lit the sky. The parking lot was dotted now with cars left stranded as the steady stream of Winnabago's, pickup trucks and campers poured through the gates on their way home. Sarah's father held up his hand stopping the exodus long enough to allow the ambulance to get out. The siren was silent and the flashing lights turned off.
"It's almost midnight, Ray and there's not much I can do here," Dr. Phillip said. "So, I'll take my family home. Call me if you need anything."
"You should go home too, Sarah," Ray said. "It'll be awhile before the coroner gets here."
"That's all right. I'll stay."
Sam joined Ray and Sarah on the tailgate of the two-toned truck. They talked about the fire, the crowds, past Fourth of July celebrations, the leash law on the beach, about anything but the woman who lay beneath the white sheet on the front seat of Grandma Beatrice's Cadillac. Sam smoked a cigarette. Ray tapped an unrecognizable tune on the truck bed with his fingers. Sarah pulled her coat collar up over her ears and stared at the dark water.
Shortly after midnight, Uncle Gerrick drove up from the beach in the pink jeep. His eyes were shining and his nostrils were flaring like a horse in heat.
"I've got two in the back here for you, Ray," he said jerking his thumb over his shoulder. "Caught them coming out of the dunes. Drunker than skunks."
Ray walked around to the back of the jeep. Two teenage boys sat on the floor. Their arms hung limp over the side of the jeep, their heads hung over their chests.
"Having a good time tonight, boys," Ray said, sarcastic but not unkind. He shone his flashlight on the top of their heads.
They looked up, squinting into the light. Their faces had hint of green beneath the skin and their eyes were unable to focus.
"Where you boys staying?" Ray asked.
"Top Street." One weak voice managed to say.
"Where's your car?"
They pointed to a pickup truck sitting in the parking lot. One of the few vehicles left.
"Climb out of there," Ray said. "You're walking home. Give me your keys. You can pick them up at the store tomorrow."
"And pay for overnight parking," Gerrick added gruffly from the front seat.
The boys handed over their keys and staggered away.
"What's going on here?" Gerrick asked, still aglow from his latest victory in the war against crime.
Ray explained that Hattie had died in her car and that they were waiting for the coroner. Gerrick's posture quickly lost its bravado. His eyes filled with tears and his large fleshy body quivered with sobs. For the first time since finding her Aunt Hattie, Sarah felt sad. She knew that the kids called Gerrick Deputy Dawg, and made rude gestures at him behind his back, and sometimes even to his face. Sarah had made fun of him herself, laughing at his fake badge, his Wyatt Earp bolo ties, his oversized snake skin boots. But watching him now, confused as a lost boy, Sarah could feel his loneliness. His mother's ashes were scattered on the sea. And now his sister was dead. Gerrick pulled the pink jeep alongside the Cadillac and waited.
It was forty-five minutes before the coroner's van arrived. They had come all the way from the county seat of San Rafael, fifty miles away.
"They took their sweet time getting here." Ray said as a pair of headlights illuminated the back end of the Cadillac.
"Well," Sam said calmly, "There was no reason to hurry."
The coroner, like Ray, Dr. Phillip and the paramedics before him, searched in vain for Hattie's pulse. Then, satisfied that she was, in fact, dead, he called for the stretcher. But getting Hattie's body out of the front seat was more difficult than any of them had anticipated. While they had been sitting on the tailgate car waiting for the ambulance to arrive, and then the coroner to arrive, Aunt Hattie had been slowly solidifying. Her once amorphous, overflowing mass now sat rigid and unyielding behind the steering wheel.
"I'll have to break her arms so we can slide her out the door." Sarah heard the coroner say to his assistant.
Then she heard the crack, like a rifle shot, echo through the still air. Then another. Her stomach tightened and she felt sick. The men pulled unsuccessfully at her aunt's body.
"We'll have to cut the front seat out," Sam said.
The coroner seemed confused. Sarah realized that the man who had just broken her dead aunt's arms was appalled at the thought of hacking through the Cadillac's pristine leather upholstery.
"Wait, Mr. Farrington," the coroner said. "I think we can just take the door off and unbolt the steering wheel. That should give us enough room to get her out."
It took all six men, Sam, Ray, Darryl, Gerrick, the coroner and his assistant to manoeuvre Aunt Hattie's corpse out of the car. Two pushed and two pulled. One positioned the stretcher. Uncle Gerrick supervised from the front the seat of the jeep. They finally got her tucked into the back of the van. It was well after two in the morning when they drove off.
"Oh, damn," Ray said, looking down at his watch. "I forgot to call Cherie and tell her we'd be late. She's going to kill me."
"I imagine she's used to this by now," Sarah said.
"That was the problem. She never got used to it."
"Well, your daughter doesn't seem to have any problem with your office hours," she said peering in the window at Sara, who was sound asleep on the back seat of the Mustang.
"Sara's like Bailey. When she's tired, she sleeps. When she's hungry, she eats."
"Well, I'm tired and hungry and I've put off peeing for the better part of an hour. So, I think it's time for me to go home. How about you, Dad," Sarah asked her father who had his head underneath the Cadillac's dashboard refitting the steering wheel.
"Are you ready to go home?"
"Just a second. I don't want to leave the car like this."
"When it's broke, he fixes it," Sarah said to Ray under her breath.
"There. All done," Sam said as he crawled out of the car and handed Sarah the keys. "You can drive it back."
"Thanks for your help, Mr. Farrington," Ray said. "I'll be in touch with you Monday or Tuesday. We should have the coroner's report by then."
"I don't expect they work on Sundays."
"Not if they can help it, no."
Ray wrapped a seat belt around his sleeping daughter though Sarah couldn't see how it would do much good with the shoulder strap hanging empty above her. But it complied with the law. Holding his thumb against his ear and his little finger to his upper lip Ray made the international hand signal for telephone and mouthed the word 'tomorrow' as he drove off. Sarah drove the Cadillac out of the parking lot and her father followed in his pink and blue pickup. Behind them came Rachel and her family in the minivan and Uncle Gerrick in the pink jeep.
The flashing red button on the answering machine was the only light on in the living room when they got home. Carol was asleep beneath the afghan on the sofa. On the coffee table a half empty bottle of Korbel Brandy sat next to a totally empty tumbler.
"Is that Mom snoring," Sarah asked as a low nasally moan came from the sofa.
"She always snores," Sam said. "But louder when she drinks."
Sarah pushed the playback button on the answering machine and listened to the tape whir as it rewound. It wasn't a long message.
"Hi, Mom. This is David. I'm at John and Brittany's house in Petaluma. It's almost eleven now so I'm going to stay over. See you in the morning. Hope you had a great Independence Day. Bye."
"Sounds like David left before all the excitement," Sarah said resetting the machine. "I guess Mom slept through it all too. Should I wake her up and tell her?"
"Let's wait until morning. There's nothing she can do now anyway."
"I suppose not. Goodnight, Dad."
Life just took a turn. Wasn't nobody's fault really. No sir, these things happen sometimes all by their lonesome. It was the spring of 1931 when our sweet new life in California started to go sour. We had settled ourselves down nicely, enjoying the day to day business of living in Tomales. I planted rhododendron bushes along the fence in the back garden and sweet peas on the side trellis. The peony seeds I brought with me from Indiana never did take to the soil out here. Some things can't be trans-planted, I suppose. Not like your grandpa. He eased himself into Tomales as snug and happy as a cold foot in a warm slipper. He fit in so well there were some who believed he'd been born and raised here. "Train folk are train folk," he always said.
I reckon that's the truth. For Jack, working on the narrow gauge railroad in California wasn't a lick different from working on the standard tracks of Indiana. The steam engines pulled into the station the same way they had back there, and Jack set to fixing them. Your grandpa could fix damn near anything. He got on as well with the machines as he did with the other men. Percy Williams, the station master, worked alongside Jack all day long, every day and there never was never a bad word between them. Even after the accident when we weren't certain we could stay on in Tomales, Percy kept your grandpa on the railsroad's payroll. Percy was a good man. Though I can't say as how I ever did warm to his wife Emily.
The year 1931 started out just fine. Your mother was in second grade then, and she loved going to school. She and Jack rose early every morning and fixed themselves breakfast while I got Lizzy up and dressed. Then Jack walked with Carol to the corner. They were a sight. Your mother, with her tin pail in one hand and holding onto your grandpa's hand with the other and your grandpa long and lean walking beside her. She took three steps to his one, more of a skip then a walk. I imagine your grandpa stretched his stride some just to tease her. At the corner of Dutton Road, Carol turned left up the hill to the schoolhouse and Jack continued straight on down the road a piece to the train station. Every morning, at the corner, they saluted each other like soldiers off to serve their country. It was their daily ritual.
The grade school sat where it sits today, up above the creamery. The school wasn't as big as the one there now but it was the pride of the town back then. Three years before your mother started - that would have been in '28 - the people of the Tomales School District voted to pay a bit more in taxes so that we could build a new school. The old wooden clapboard which was built by the first settlers of the area had served for nearly seventy years. The floor was rotted through in places and there were more patches then there was roof tile. The new building was built in what they called the Mission Style, sort of like those Taco Bells you kids are so fond of. But the school was built of lathe and a peculiarly textured stucco. Every spring the men of Tomales whitewashed that stucco so it shone clean and bright in the sun. Not like the dirty brown color they spray on it nowadays.
Back then, the Tomales school only taught classes for the children who lived in town or on the dairies and potato farms nearby. We didn't have the big yellow buses like they do today. I think it's a shame the way they cart these kids all around the county just to learn their ABC's. Some of them get up with the milkers before the crack of dawn and don't get home again until well after dark. It just doesn't seem right. In the old days we had schools dotted all over the county, small one room schoolhouses that the children could walk to or ride to on their horses.
There was even a schoolhouse out on the Beach Road, sat on top of the hill looking down on the Thomas Beach. Miss Gavin taught out there. Poor Old Gavin, that's what we called her. Poor Old Gavin. When Miss Gavin came to Tomales she had just recovered from a case of smallpox and her face was covered with red blotches. Later the blotches turned to deep pits. The kids called her Pin Cushion Face or Gravel Cheeks behind her back. She looked a bit like that man on the news from Panama - the one they call Pineapple Face. But she was a good teacher and we all came to respect her. She lived in town and rode out to the school on her horse every morning. Poor Old Gavin was so tall she had to hold her knees up to her chest to keep her heels from dragging on the ground.
The Beach Road Schoolhouse is gone now but you can still see the square clearing where it stood in the middle of the cypress trees. It doesn't seem all that long ago when you could hear the school bell ringing over the hills and see the horses tied up outside. And it wasn't, not really. Your father went to grade school out there. We didn't know him then. He rode into Tomales every now and again with his father, Henry, to pick up the tourists from the excursion train and drive them out to the resort. But it wasn't until Sam started high school in town that we got to know him well.
Those were good days in Tomales. Those years when your mother was in school and your grandpa worked at the train station. Those were peaceful years. I was pleased your mother loved her school so much. Lizzy was quieter when we were at home alone. In the mornings she followed me around while I did my chores. I taught her to hold the end of the sheets for folding and to dry the pots and pans. She never was good with the china. After lunch she curled up on the sofa with her head on my lap and slept while I did the mending. Lizzy was sweet as you please when she was calm. In the afternoons she sat out on the front steps and waited for Carol to come home from school. She stared at the corner until Carol appeared and then she ran to her with that cute way she had, her arms and legs going every which way. "Tie flags to those wrists and she'd be a semaphore," Jack used to say. It always surprised me that she could move so fast. Lizzy would get herself so excited that more than one time she knocked Carol clean over on her backside. But she never meant to hurt her.
Lizzy loved Carol's friends, too. Whenever the little Williams girl came over Lizzy would go to her closet and bring out her toys to show her. Lizzy didn't play much on her own but she loved to watch the other kids play. They taught her how to turn the jumping rope. Lizzy could turn that rope for hours. She was such an affectionate child. Always hugging the other little girls. It was just as well that Carol didn't bring home friends too often. It excited Lizzy so much it was difficult to calm her down again. Later on when Carol went to the high school and met up with Hattie Farrington she stopped bringing her friends home all together. Mad Hattie, Jack called her. Said she wasn't worth the shine on her shoes. But Carol loved her. Soon she was spending all her time out at the Thomas Beach resort. But that was later, when she was older and things were different.
Both my little girls loved to ride the trains. Sometimes on Sundays Jack bought us all tickets and we rode the excursion train from downtown Tomales all the way up to the giant redwood trees in Occidental. We boarded the train just down the street here, where the auto garage is now.
In those days, the narrow gauge line, the North Pacific Coast Railroad, ran from Pt. Reyes through Tomales all the way to Monte Rio. It took two locomotives hooked up together (double heading, Jack called it) to pull the 8 or so passenger cars up the steep grade just north of town. The cars weren't luxurious. In fact, your Grandpa made the excursion cars himself in the shop there at the turnaround station. Every Saturday he converted the flat cars into passenger cars by putting wooden posts in the stake pockets. He laid planks down from post to post and bolted the wooden seats into them. He was awful proud of himself because these "conversion cars" were his own idea. Percy Williams gave him a bonus when Jack showed him the drawings and was pleased as punch when Jack's design actually worked. Percy was happy because this way the rowdy picnic crowds didn't beat up his pretty passenger cars.
One particular Sunday, it was late May, we boarded the train as usual. I had dressed the girls in their best matching dresses with full white petticoats and bits of fancy lace around the hems. They wore matching white ribbons in their long dark braids. They were the prettiest little girls. My twin angels, I called them. Jack settled us into our seats then searched out the engineer. He spent the entire ride up front talking shop with the men. I stayed in the back with the girls. Carol always took the window seat so she could look down and watch the ground speed by beneath her. Lizzy laid herself against me, her legs stretched out into the aisle, and let the rocking of the train lull her to sleep. I sat between them, gazing out over your mother's head at the rolling hills and deep green valleys.
From the top of the hill just outside of Tomales I could see all the way to Mt. Saint Helena and once, on a clear early morning, I saw the snow on the Sierras. It was far off in the distance gleaming white and sparkly, like tiny diamonds glistening in the morning sun.
That morning, as we made our way along the side of the mountains, the hissing of the steam engine and the smoke from the burning hardwood created such a racket I was surprised that Lizzy could keep her eyes shut. But she slept on as if she were floating on a feather bed. Carol, on the other hand, let out a holler at every curve and nearly jumped out of her seat when the train swooped down off the mountains and roared over the narrow wooden bridge crossing the Estero Americano. The creek was deeper back then, but even so the water was brackish and dirty. The creek was actually only runoff from the cow barns and chicken sheds that it crossed on its way to the sea. The old train trestles that held the track above the creek and the marshy land surrounding it are still standing up there in the middle of Joe Ambrosi's field. The company took the rails off and sold them for scrap so the trestles look like ribs sticking out of the ground with no body attached. Cows rub up against the trestles to scratch the nits off their backs. About all they're good for now.
The first stop of the excursion train out of Tomales was at Julian's Hotel in Freestone where we picked up more passengers. The old hotel was not as fancy as The New Julian's Hotel in Duncan Mills, but it was always filled to bursting in the summertime. The New Julian's had Pietro's Italian restaurant next door. People came from as far away as Sacramento just to eat there. As I heard it, it was Pietro's that started this whole foreign food craze around here. After Pietr's opened Italian restaurants popped up all along the railway lines. There was Georgio's, Giovanni's and Dinucci's. The food in all of them was wonderful. Homemade ravioli, minestrone soup so thick you could eat it with a fork, and fried zucchini. The food kept coming and coming and just when you thought you couldn't eat one more bite, they brought out the desert. Mounds of hot apple fritters sprinkled with powdered sugar so sweet they made your teeth itch. Eye-tie grub, Jack called it, but he always licked his plate clean.
Mr. Signori boarded the train in Freestone. He played an old squeeze box and sang Italian songs all the way to Occidental. Lizzy woke up when he got on board. She clapped her hands together right along with the rest of the passengers. Your mother asked for the same song over and over. "Everybody's Doing It, Doing It, Doing It." For days afterwards, our house would rock with the sound of the girl's high pitched voices singing that refrain over and over again. Like to have driven me crazy, that silly little ditty.
That particular Sunday, we pulled out of the Freestone station right on schedule. About a mile out of town, all the passengers, as was the custom, leaned to the right as we sped around the great horseshoe bend. I thought for sure that the train would tip right over, but it never did. Least ways not there. We started to climb again after that, on our way up to Howard's Summit. We crossed ravine after ravine - each one deeper than the well out back. We passed through sequoia trees taller than any those cathedrals in Europe. The undergrowth, the ferns and grasses, were was so lush and thick from all the winter rains that we couldn't see more than a few feet into the redwood forests. It looked like a fairy world in there and your mother always claimed she saw trolls darting behind the tree trunks and leprechauns sitting on the toad stools.
While we were speeding through the forest the roar of the engine bounced back off the trees and filled our heads with noise. Then, all of sudden, the engine hushed, the trees disappeared, and the land fell right out from under us. The window filled with sky and for a moment it felt like flying. We were passing over Brown's Canyon. Carol gasped, her eyes round as saucers and Lizzy sat bolt upright beside me. We seemed to hang in the air forever. The bridge over the canyon was 600 feet long and the drop to the stream below was 137 feet. At the time it was built, it was the highest bridge west of the Mississippi. Atop that bridge was the only place I ever knew where you could look out over the tops of the giant sequoias. If I were a religious woman, I would say that Brown's Canyon is proof that there is a god. For surely no one but a god could have created such splendor, such supreme majesty. To hang in the air, even for those few seconds, was to glimpse heaven.
Just north of the canyon, a couple miles outside of Howard's Summit, on a stretch of track as straight as an arrow, for no reason whatsoever, other than poor maintenance and shoddy spikes, the baggage car directly behind the locomotive, derailed. It simply jumped off the track. The front truck, the frame of wheels beneath the front end of the car, hopped off the track. Perhaps the wheels struck something on the track, we never knew. The baggage car bumped along the ties, one wheel between the rails and the other on the outside. After at least a quarter of a mile, Nat Bellows, the engineer, brought the train to a stop. Those big steam engine trains didn't stop on a dime. Back where we were, in the second to the last passenger car, we didn't know anything was wrong. Just that we were stopping in the middle of nowhere. That didn't bother me and the girls one wit, but some of the other passengers were hopping mad at the delay and cursed poor Nat up one side and down the other. Jack rushed back to check on us and help me get the girls out onto the bank. I remember it was such a lovely day, crisp and clear. The wildflowers were blooming in the fields and yellow jackets were dancing from blossom to blossom. It was only when I saw the baggage car with its wheels off the rails that I felt scared. I thanked whatever god there might be that we had already passed Brown's Canyon. We would have scattered like glass beads off a broken necklace if that car had derailed a mile earlier.
But my relief was short lived for what happened next was even worse, coming as it did when we were all sitting on the bank in the sun, feeling safe and counting our blessings. That's when life surprises you, when you think the worst is over. Carol, Lizzy and I sat on the business end of the train. That's where the car had come to rest on the outside of the rails. We watched the men roll up their sleeves and set to work. They unfastened the derailing flange from where it hung between the trucks of the engine's tender. It looked like a huge iron shoe horn, and worked in a similar way. The men laid the flange down over the rails and rolled the baggage car onto it. The wheels slid along the flange and were guided gently back onto the lip of the rails. It looked fairly easy, though from the sweat on the men's brows we knew it took a lot of muscle to move that heavy car. What we didn't see, and I'm thankful we didn't, was your grandfather and the group of men on the other side of the car. As the wheels of one side went over the flange, the wheels of the other were forced against the rail. Each man had a long crowbar, or length of pig iron, that they used to lever the wheels a good six inches off the ties and onto the rails.
Just when it looked like the car was set right, and we were picking ourselves off the grass, we heard the scream. I left the girls where they sat and rushed with the others to the far side of the car. There, in a middle of a circle of men, I saw Jack. He was lying on the ground, his face whiter than a flour sack. His arm was across his chest and someone had wrapped a red shirt around his hand.
"Keep his arm up over his head," I heard Nat yell, "or he'll bleed to death."
By the time I reached him, Nat and Warren Henry had lifted Jack onto a stretcher and were carrying him to the engine.
"He'll be all right, Maggie," Nat said. "Don't you worry."
But I did worry. There wasn't room enough in the cab for me and the girls. So we didn't see Jack again until we reached Howard's Station. The doctor at Howard's put a good bandage on and gave Jack something to ease the pain, then he called ahead to the hospital in Santa Rosa. Warren Henry drove us all in to town in his pickup truck.
Someone must have called Dr. Reynolds in Tomales as soon as we left Howard's Station, because he met us at the door to the hospital. He had whisked Jack away into a room before I could get the girls out of Warren's truck. We waited for a long time, sitting on the hard chairs out in the hallway. There wasn't any waiting room with pop machines then. We were lucky to find the chairs.
"He's going to be all right," Dr. Reynolds said when he finally came out to fetch us. "But I couldn't safe the hand. Every bone in there was crushed."
"You mean his hand is gone?" I asked. I couldn't picture your grandfather without his hand. He was always so good with his hands, so ... well... handy.
"Now, I've sewn the skin down over the wrist," Dr. Reynolds said, "so it should heal up fine. But he'll need to stay here for a couple of days. We can't have him getting infected."
"Can we see him?"
"Of course," he said. "He's still a bit groggy from all the pills but I'm sure he'll be glad to see you."
I took the girls, one in each hand and we marched on down the hall. The soles of our good Sunday shoes squeaked along the shiny hospital floor. Jack was happy to see us but, truth be told, we weren't very prepared to see him. When we opened the door there he was lying doped up on that bed with his arm all wrapped up and hanging from the ceiling. His face was near covered in bandages from where he'd scraped his cheeks when he fell. So, all we could see of him was his eyes and they were fuzzy from the pills.
I near to fell into a faint myself at the sight of him. Carol shrunk back against the wall and sat right down in the corner, afraid to go anywhere near him. Lizzy started to tremble so bad I wrapped my arms around her trying to settle her down. She struggled against me, calling out for her daddy in that gravelly stutter of hers. She reached out for Jack, just to touch him, just to reassure herself that it was her father under those bandages. But she flung her arm out too wide and knocked a tray of medicine off the sideboard. Bottles crashed to the floor and pills went every which way.
"What is going on in here," asked the nurse who came running in at the commotion. She wore a sisters habit, all white with a long rosary hanging from her waist. Well, the sight of her sent Lizzy off again. She got to shaking and stomping her feet so hard that the floor began to quake.
"Get her out of here," the nurse screamed, "before she hurts someone."
Lizzy never did like hospitals. Can't say as how I blame her though. They never brought her any good. I hustled her out of there just as fast I could. Thank God, Warren had waited for us. He helped me get Lizzy settled in the truck and we set off for home. It was Warren who remembered your mother. What with all the commotion I had clean forgotten her. But we found her right where we'd left her, sitting in the corner of Jack's room.
In some ways Jack losing his hand was the least of our problems that year. He was up and about soon enough. Dr. Rey-nold's brought him a black leather glove that slipped over the stump of his arm and was held in place with a silver bracelet. I stuffed the fingers with cotton wool and from a distance you couldn't tell which hand was there and which one was gone. Jack, always one for a practical joke, turned his handicap into game. He'd tuck his good hand up his sleeve and hang that old black glove out so when someone went to shake his hand the damn thing would fall right off. Used to drive your mother wild, that joke. Got to the point she wouldn't take her father's hand at all.
"Loosen that corset, girl," Jack would say to her when she refused to play along with him. "Life ain't so serious as it seems."
But life seemed awfully serious that year. I suppose we should have seen the end coming - there being more cars and trucks on the road - but the railroad was such a part of our life, a part of our thinking, that we couldn't imagine a world without trains running through it. That fall after the accident the narrow gauge line from Point Reyes to Monte Rio was closed down. What had been the most popular excursion of the twenties just couldn't compete with the automobiles and bus trips. People wanted to get where they were going faster and in their own vehicles. The trains weren't so thrilling anymore. People complained about the smoke that crawled through the windows when the train entered a tunnel. They complained about the sweltering heat inside the cars during the summer time and the dust that seeped into your clothes and caught at the back of your throat. The automobile was romantic; the train was slow and dirty. With the new paved roads the creamery sent trucks right out to the dairies so there was no need to haul the milk into the station. No more passengers, no more freight, no more trains.
Most train folk, the drivers, engineers, brakemen and track crews headed north to work on the Eureka Line or went down to lay track for the Southern Pacific. Some even went out to Colorado and Nevada, even up to Alaska. They went wherever the trains were still running. Jack spent three weeks traveling up and down the coast looking for work but no one would hire a one-handed mechanic. He came back home and set up shop with Percy Williams fixing automobiles. Percy's wife, Emily, had allowed as how she wasn't moving nowhere, noway, nohow. So, Percy decided to stay in Tomales. Though I never said as much to Jack, I think your grandfather would have followed the trains if it weren't for me and the kids. He would have talked his way into a job, one-handed or not. But we couldn't be picking up and moving every time a line was shut down, or a station closed.
The garage business wasn't as steady as the trains had been. Money was pretty tight. Jack didn't like it much, but I took a job at the school library. Not much pay really. But every bit helped. I would take Lizzy with me and every afternoon we'd walk together up to the school yard and sit in the library. Lizzy liked the library. She liked to be around the kids. Though sometimes they would lose patience with her and I'd have to pull her back to sit beside me at the desk.
We rarely saw Carol at the library. She had her own friends by then and kept herself to herself. Kids are like that. They grow up and become their own people. They keep their distance from their folks. Suppose that's natural enough. Though it was different for Lizzy. She never wanted to leave us. She was happy to stay at home. Years after your mother left home, married your father and moved so far away, Lizzy still set out four places on the dining room table. And when your grandfather died, Lizzy went on laying the newspaper down on his brown leather recliner every morning. Sometimes she would call out to him, in that gurgling sound of hers, and she was always surprised he wasn't there.
My sister Amy sent me a poem once that she had cut out of the Reader's Digest. The Blue Rose it was called. It was about how some children are just different than others. Some children need more tending, more patience, more love. Most people only care about the pretty red roses, the American Beauties, or those fancy lavender "Angel Faces". But no one pays any attention to the delicate blue rose. It is ignored, left to wither on the vine or it's cut away and discarded. I guess your aunt Lizzy was my blue rose.
The morning after the Fourth of July was muted. The calm Pacific gently murmered as it sent small waves humming against the shore. A gray, like soft goose down, blanketed the sky and the ocean, flat and receptive as a bedsheet, reflected the grayness. There was no horizon, no line of demarcation between air and water. Only gray.
Against the grayness, soft hues burst forth in a torrent of pastels - the light blues and yellows of the tiny tansy flowers, the pale greens of the tall tulle grasses, the pink of miniscule shells that lay in the sand like the ears of newborn mice. Looking from her bedroom window at the gentle colors alive in the grayness, Sarah realized that the sunshine of the day before, which she had thought of as illuminating, had infact, been hiding parts of the world. The bright sunbeams had obscured the subtle shades by accentuating the garish hues - the orange of the clay cliffs, the brilliant reds and purples of the flowering sea fig, the stark whiteness of the dunes.
Sarah stretched and walked slowly down the stairs. Her wool socks swished against the wooden treads as if whispering to her sleepy mind which still wandered somewhere in the crevices of her brain. Her mother sat stiffly at the breakfast table staring out at the sea. She wore grey sweatpants and a dark blue sweatshirt. Her running shoes were laced tight and she held her coffee cup with both hands. Sarah sensed immediately that her father had told her about Hattie.
"Good morning, Mom," she said. "How are you feeling this morning?"
"I don't know," Carol answered shaking her head and gripping the coffee mug. "I still can't believe it."
"Aunt Hattie, you mean," Sarah said as she poured herself some coffee. "Dr. Reynolds seems to think she had a heart attack."
"Just like her father," said Carol. She swallowed the last drop of her coffee and and ran the palm of her hand around and around the rim of the ceramic mug. "Henry had a heart attack, you know. Just stood up one day and fell over. No warning. Not a word. Just fell over dead."
"Well, Grandpa Henry weighed over three hundred pounds and Aunt Hattie must have topped two-twenty. It's no wonder their hearts gave out."
"Hattie wasn't always fat," Carol said, rubbing the mug rim so hard it squeaked. "She was very beautiful when she was younger."
"It's hard for me to imagine Aunt Hattie as beautiful."
"She was, whether you can imagine it or not." Carol said and laughed.
The sound she made wasn't a guffaw or a chuckle. It was more like a high pitched gargling noise erupting in the back of her throat. It was nervous cackling sound that contained no humor. Sarah knew her mother wasn't amused. If her mother were amused she'd frown. Her mother's expressions were always ambiguous, even contradictory. Over the years Sarah had come to recognize laughter as pain, sarcasm as anger and praise as criticism.
"I'll have to take your word for it," Sarah said and crawled under the table to retrieve her shoes which she had kicked there the night before. "Mom, do you want to go for a walk on the beach with me before the Sunday picnic crowd arrives?"
"I should stay here. There are so many things to be done, arrangements to be made."
"There's nothing much you can do at 6 o'clock in the morning," Sarah said pulling on her white Nikes. "Besides, I think you'll feel better if you get some fresh air."
"Oh, all right. But just a short walk."
There were only two vehicles sitting on the beach parking lot when they walked through the open gate, a car at the far north end and her fathers pickup. The two-toned truck was parked outside the breeze block restrooms. A long green hose ran from the outside spigot around the corner of the building and disappeared beneath the door marked WOMEN. Water poured out through the entrance. Sam had patterned the restrooms after the milking stalls on the Ambrosi Dairy, the floor sloped down to a drain in the center of the room, the walls were made of concrete and there were no nooks or crannies that could not be reached by a jet of water.
The day after the Fourth of July would be one long clean up. The evidence of human partiers, canine scavengers, and avian mess makers was everywhere. The brightly painted metal trash cans which dotted the periphery of the parking lot had been knock over and were lying on their sides. Their contents were strewn along the dirt. Paper plates splotched with dried ketchup and mustard, like discarded painters palettes, clung to each other amid piles of greasy crinkled aluminum foil, empty aluminum beer cans, charred chicken bones, and T-bones gnawed clean. It was a mess.
"Damn dogs," Carol said as she bent down to pick up a sand covered hot dog. "Look at this filth."
"Just leave it alone, Mom. Uncle Gerrick, Dad and the clean up crew will pick it all up later."
"Disgusting animals," she continued, righting the trash can and throwing away the hot dog. "They roam around here scavenging through the garbage and lifting their legs wherever they damn please. It's awful, just awful."
They left the parking lot and walked through the soft dry sand to the firmer ground nearer the water. The tide was very low and the beach, littered with debris, extended far out beyond the usual high water mark. They passed what was left of the Fourth of July bonfire; three logs nestled against each other in the sand. The logs formed charred black arches where they overlapped each other, but their ends, untouched by the flames, were still rounded, greenish gray stumps. The white sand was sprinkled with colored bits of fireworks like candy spreckles on a child's birthday cake. All around them lay empty red cardboard casements, unlit firecrackers and the fizzled remains of duds with the ends burned but the wrapper still intact. The butt ends of spent flares rolled along the shore in the surf.
"Bay or rocks?" Sarah asked, offering her mother the choice between turning south or north. The walk south along the shoretoward Tomales Bay was longer but easier. To the north lay a series of small beaches separated from each other by protruding orange cliffs or high outcroppings of rock.
"You sure? You usually like to walk toward the bay."
"O.K. Bay." Carol turned sharply as she spoke, her hands thrust deep into her pockets. "I don't care. Rocks. Bay. What difference does it make."
"I'm sorry, Mom," Sarah said, surprised at her mother's sudden defensiveness. "Come back. We'll walk north."
Carol turned back to her daughter and they walked slowly around the tidepools toward the cliffs. On a rock at the edge of the low tide a fisherman cast a line far out into the sea. His dark figure was silhouetted against the gray sky, the movements of his arms, casting out the line over and over, were in perfect harmony with the waves. He looked like one of the shadow puppets David used to make with Sarah's stuffed animals on the closet walls late at night. He was the only other person on the beach that morning.
"Hattie got rid of Benji," Carol said, unable to get the thought of canines out of her mind.
"That wierd basenji dog, with the tail curled up as tight as a pig's?"
"It wasn't such a bad dog. It was quiet at least."
"Basenjies can't bark, Mom. They're born without a larynx or vocal chords or something. Whatever the reason, that dog was spooky. It reminded me of an Egyptian heiroglyphic, some kind of mute god-dog."
"Well, she had the vet put it to sleep. It was getting into the garbage cans. Probably just as well. I saw on the news not long ago where a man died at home in Utah and his dog ate him."
"I saw that story too, Mom. The dog and the dead guy were locked up in a house for a week. There wasn't anything else to eat. Look, let's not start telling morbid death stories, OK?"
"Don't talk to me like that," her mother said curling her lower lip into a four-year olds pout. "I was just telling you what I saw on television."
"Mom, I'm sorry about Aunt Hattie," Sarah said softly. "I know this must be hard for you."
"No," she said as she sniffed back tears. "You don't know. She was like a sister to me. She was the sister I always wanted."
Carol pulled a wad of tissue from her pocket and blew her nose. The sound echoed off the cliffs, rupturing the morning stillness. Sarah didn't know what to say, how to comfort her. Hre mother was right. Sarah didn't know what Carol was feeling. She hadn't had to search other families to find siblings. She had always had David, not that he was a perfect brother, but he didn't masturbate on the living room sofa. He didn't snort Cheerios or drool on all her friends. She and David had had their share of childhood fights. David claimed that Sarah was adopted and the papers were tucked away in Mr. Samuelson's vault at the bank. He said that one day, maybe when she was ten, Mom and Dad would tell her the truth. In retaliation, Sarah told David that on the morning of his eight birthday, he would wake up just like Aunt Lizzy, retarded. The retarded gene ran in the family, she said, and David had inherited it. For years Sarah dreamed that her real parents would come and take her away from Thomas Beach. David, on the other hand, lived in fear of his eigth birthday.
"You've known her a long time," Sarah said.
"Since high school," Carol answered, stuffing the tissue back in her pocket. "We were best friends. We wore each other's clothes, we rolled each other's hair, and painted each other's nails. During the war we helped each other draw lines on the back of our legs to look like the seams of silk stocking."
"Aunt Hattie must have been smaller in those days if you swapped clothes."
"A perfect size 8. All the soldiers who came out to patrol the beach fell in love with her. With that jet black hair and fair complection, she looked like Rita Hayworth."
"That's hard to imagine."
"She did," Carol said looking out to where the horizon must be, somewhere out in the grayness. "I dyed my hair black once but it just made a mess. It stained my neck and my face. The skin around my fingernails was black for weeks." She looked down at her fingers as if the stain still rimmed her nails, then curled her hands into fists and shoved them into her pockets.
"I bet Grandma Maggie loved that."
"Mother never did approve of Hattie. That's because Hattie didn't like to come over to our house. I don't blame her. It wasn't any fun over there. Besides, I liked coming out to Thomas Beach, staying in the hotel. I loved the Farringtons."
"Is that why you married Dad?"
"Yes... No... I don't know," she said. Her gait became so jerky that it was difficult for Sarah to match strides with her. One step would be a foot long, the next six inches and the next might veer unaccoutablly to the left or right. Like her conversation. "Did I tell you that Linda Davis got married? You remember her. John and Sylvia's youngest daughter. She's a lawyer and her husband owns an import/export business. Sylvia said they bought a house and two acres in the South Bay."
"I remember a Linda Davis with buck teeth and braids."
"Well, she's grown up to be quite a pretty and successfull young lady. She's a few year younger than you are, I think."
"Sounds like she's a few dollars richer, too," Sarah said evenly thought she could feel the old self-doubt rising. What had her mother meant by the comparison - younger? Oh my God, she wasn't as successfull as Linda Davis. She wasn't young, rich or married. She wasn't a high powered lawyer or a high profile business woman or Sports Illustrated's Athlete of the Year. She was a lowly librarian in a backwater town in the far reaches of a far away state. But, unlike her mother, she was, at least, living more than four miles from the house she grew up in. She had made geographic progress if nothing else. Sarah smiled to herself. She was recovering faster from her mother's little parables.
The two women walked along in silence manouvering around wet patches of sand. At the base of a cluster of rocks Sarah knelt down to examine a tide pool. Beneath the water a hermit crab scurried across the sand carrying his home, an olive shell, on his back. When Sarah was in high school she met a woman one morning walking along the bay. The woman was doing research for a book on the habitats of hermit crabs. She had driven stakes into the mudflats and attached lengths of fishing line to them. At the end of each line she had tied an olive shell. Each week the woman checked on her tethered crab houses to see who had moved in and who had moved out. She recorded the condition of the shells, when they were discarded, how long they had been occupied and how soon another crab came to take up residence. She photograhed each shell with a macro lens to record the markings the crabs left on the interiors and exteriors so that she could compare these markings with those found on olive shell fossils. Sometimes, she told Sarah, she waded out to the end of the line to find the shell gone. The crab had escaped, taking his home and his markings with him.
"The Farrington's were different then," Carol said, continuing aloud a train of thought she must have been pursuing in her mind while Sarah was stirring up the water of the tide pool.
"They were one great, big, happy family."
"One great, big, happy, and crazy family," Sarah said.
"You didn't know them then, Sarah. They were different. They were fun and their dinner table was always filled with people. They were people who didn't scream, who didn't drool, who didn't spit their food out. They were people who laughed and told jokes. People who were normal."
"Mom, they couldn't have been that normal. People don't change that much."
"I didn't say they were perfect," Carol said as she bent down to retie the laces of her tennis shoes which had worked themselves loose. "I know that Hattie was always a bit selfish and Gerrick was a bit of a simpleton, not out and out stupid, but not very quick. I mean he wasn't retarded or anything."
"Not like Aunt Lizzie."
"No, not like Lizzie."
Few people were as retarded as Sarah's Aunt Lizzie. The social worker who came to evaluate Lizzy, when Carol placed her in the Home for the Mentally Handicapped, said Lizzy Sullivan was in the top one percent of documeneted retardation. She said she had never seen a retarded person quite so old or quite so untrainable. Lizzy was sixty-three when Maggie had her first stroke and Carol called the state health department. The social worker had clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and wondered aloud if Lizzy would adapt to the institution, with its rules and schedules. Lizzy still set out four plates on the dinner table, though Carol had left home over thirty years earlier and Grandpa Jack had long since passed away. Lizzy still chewed the erasers off of pencils and chewed the right sleeves off all her sweaters. But every morning she brought Maggie her slippers and picked up the Press Democrat from the front porch.
"You know, Mom," Sarah said, "it was real difficult to have Aunt Lizzie as an aunt. It must have been hell to have her as a sister."
"After awhile I didn't see her anymore. I knew she was there but I just couldn't see her. It was like having some dumb animal around the house."
"Everyone else saw her. I remember, years ago, going out shopping with Grandma. And Aunt Lizzie, of cours, she never went anywhere without her. Everyone in Rosenburg's Department Store stared at us because Aunt Lizzie was drooling and chewing on her arm. So, I took Grandma's other hand and pretended to be retarded, too. Grandma didn't even notice."
"Mother didn't even notice that Lizzie was retarded. Lizzy was just sick. That's what Mother used to say. Lizzie doesn't feel well today or Lizzy is having one of her spells. Or, Lizzy's a little under the weather."
"Under the weather?" Sarah laughed. "That's an under statement. More like permanent low pressure system in the brain."
"Hmph," Carol said in a half-snort, half-laugh which was as close to amusement as she would get. "When the woman from the State Health Department came to take Lizzie to the home she said she was the oldest severely retarded person she had ever known."
"The oldest retard in captivity," Sarah said, quoting a joke that she and David told their friends when they described the woman masturbating in the front window. Step right up, Ladies and Gentlemen, and see the hand stroke of this special creature.
"She was sixty-three," Carol said, ignoring her daughter's remark. "When she was little everyone said she would die young. But she never did. She just went on and on. She never got any better. I had to put her away. I had to do it."
"I know, Mom. I know," Sarah said. "Grandma was too old to take care of Lizzie. No one blames you."
It was true that as Lizzy got older she became more and more of a burden. She developed glaucoma in both eyes and a severe case of psoriasis on her right forearm, the same arm she had been chewing on for years. She became irratable and unpredictable, suddenly throwing the china against the wall or striking out at Grandma Maggie. Maggie was getting older, too. Her fingers were curled with arthritis and she could no longer braid Lizzie's hair. She held it back with barettes that Lizzie yanked from her head along with handfulls of gray hair.
"No one blames you, Mom," Sarah repeated.
"She did," Carol said.
"But, Mom, Grandma spent her entire life taking care of Aunt Lizzie. When you sent her to the Home, she was devastated."
"But Lizzie was happy there. The nurses told me."
Lizzie had seemed happy at the Home for the Mentally Handicapped. She wasn't used to large groups of strange people, especially retarded people, but she had adjusted. When she first arrived she stood in the corner, her face pressed against the wall for hours. But on her last report card, the Evaluating Nurse had written, "Elizabeth shows great improvement. Although she does not as yet participate, she has learned to face the activity." Grandma Maggie never read the report cards. She never talked about Lizzie. And she never talked to Carol again. She lay upstairs in Sarah's bedroom, staring out over the ocean and moaning like a Moslem woman mourning the dead. Grandma Maggie died six months after Lizzie was taken away.
They had come to the end of the first beach. Before them a narrow trail twisted through boulders and along the side of the cliff. Near the top of the cliffs stood a stone outcropping, sculpted by years of rain and high waves. From the beach it appeared to be the standing figure of a woman with her arms crossed and her head slightly bowed. The Stone Madonna. As a child Sarah had sat at her feet for hours, watching the waves break over the rocks or the sun set into the sea.
"Do you want to climb over to the next beach," Sarah asked.
"No. We should get back. There will be arrangements to make. People to notify."
"That's not our responsibility, is it?"
"I'm sure Rachel will be too upset today to think of everything."
"She's probably packing up Hattie's silver, as we speak."
"Sarah, stop being so mean."
"Me mean? As I recall it, Aunt Hattie and Uncle Gerrick didn't wait long before swooping down on Beatrice's house."
Carol stopped and looked at Sarah. "They weren't nice. They acted like dogs fighting over table scraps. But Hattie's dead now and I don't want to talk about that anymore."
"Look, just because they're dead, doesn't mean they were good people."
"Oh, stop it, Sarah," Carol said continuing down the beach. "I don't want to hear any more of this."
"But Mom, these are the people who disinherited us, remember? Who do you think gave Beatrice the idea of changing her will? Hattie. Who do you think drove her to the lawyer's office? Hattie. I think David's right. Beatrice was a bit senile there toward the end so someone had to be doing the thinking. It was Hattie, Mom."
"Hattie loved us," Carol snapped back. "How could you say such a thing about her? You just want to cause trouble. Hattie couldn't do that to me."
Sarah heard that old familiar tone creep into her mother's voice. This was how her mother stopped all discussions that were heading in a direction she did not want to go. Push any further, her mother was saying, and I will go biserk with anguish and pain. Afterwards, Sarah knew, you became one of the erased.
This was how her mother got her way.
"You're probably right, Mom." Sarah said, backing off. She felt her stomach tightening and wished she'd eaten something before leaving the house. Now the coffee, unimpeded by starch or carbohydrates was eating at her stomach lining. She felt ill. They continued together in silence along the shore.
The tide was coming back in. The fisherman casting his line out in the water had moved closer now and Sarah could see his features. He didn't look at all like David's shadow puppets. The beach was filling with people. Children clamoured over the rocks, wading through the tide pools while their parents laid out beach blankets and unpacked picnic baskets. The parking lot held an entire row of cars facing the ocean. One of which, Sarah noticed, was a Redwood County Sheriff's car with chewed up mudflats.
Ray walked towards them with Bailey attached to a long leash. He wasn't in uniform. He wore blue jeans and a t-shirt with a big black steam train engine stencilled on the front.
"You're up and out early," Sarah said, bending down to pat Bailey, carefull this time to keep her face to one side and avoid a head-on collision.
"Rain or shine - Bailey gets his excercise," Ray said and turned to Carol. "Good morning, Mrs. Farrington. I'm sorry about your sister-in-law."
"It's been a great shock to all of us," Carol said from behind Sarah. Carol had positioned herself just behind Sarah's right shoulder using her as a foil against, what she percieved to be, the inevitable canine attack.
"If there is anything I can do," Ray said. "Just let me know."
"Thank you, Ray," Carol said, easing her way around her daughter's side. "Sarah, I'm going up to the house now. There's just too much to do."
"I'll be right behind you, Mom."
"Goodbye, Mrs. Farrington."
"Goodbye, Ray," Carol said.
Sarah and Ray watched Carol for a moment as she stepped over the low railing onto the parking lot, her hands bulging inside the front pouch of her sweatshirt like a woman about to give birth to two clenched fists.
"Are you busy this afternoon?" Ray asked.
"No," Sarah said. "I don't have any plans ..yet."
"Well, unless you're holding out for a better offer, why don't I pick you up around one o'clock. We could go for a drive up the coast."
"I'd rather go for a hike in the hills. Unless," Sarah said provacatively, "you and Bailey have had enough exercise for one day."
"Oh, a challenge. Hear that, Bailey," Ray said roughing up the fur on the dog's neck. "Sarah thinks she can out hike us. We'll show her, won't we big guy." Bailey barked his agreement. "See you at one," Sarah said.
"Better get some rest, Sarah. Bailey and I are in awfully good shape."
Ray hadn't changed a bit. He was still a competitive little boy at heart, still eager to take up a challenge or fulfill a dare, especially a double-dare. Sarah watched as Ray and Bailey raced each other down the beach. The dog ran circles around the man. She laughed as she turned toward home. Stencilled on the back of Ray's t-shirt was a bright red caboose.
By noon the sun had broken through the clouds and large blotches of blue pocked the gray sky. A cool north easterly breeze whistled over the crest of the waves sending lacy arches of spray into the air. The tide, though it already covered the sand where Sarah and her mother had walked earlier, was still coming in. Sarah watched from the front window as two dark figures in sleek wet suits paddled surfboards out through the waves. Beyond the breakers other surfers sat, straddling their boards, their legs dangling in the cold water. The ocean swells rolled beneath them, lifting them into the air as effortlessly as a waiter lifting an empty silver platter. Then the ocean set the surfers down gently in the trough between swells. Some surfers seemed content to simply float along, rising and falling in lazy somnolent pleasure. Others paddled furiously to stay ahead of the undulations, to position themselves for that moment when the water, swollen beyond containment, burst forth and tumbled into a frothy curl. A few found that perfect ride and slid down the wave's wall, tucked into the tube, squatting with neolithic grace on their waxed boards. But not one finished without toppling head first into the water. The waves of Thomas Beach were not, after all, those of Waikiki.
Ray's red Mustang crawled past the empty store parking lot. The CLOSED sign hung in the window and a small handwritten note was taped against the glass of the front door: Due to a death in the family, the store will not open today. Ray drove slowly along the line of rusty trailers as if he were patrolling. Perhaps he had forgotten that Sunday was his day off. Perhaps he was just enjoying the warmth of the sun on the tanned, muscled forearm he had leaning out the window. Sarah caught herself staring at that arm and laughed. This is Ray, she thought, the boy I've know since first grade, not some bleached blonde beachboy with rippling pectorals.
By the time Ray knocked on the door, punctual and well provisioned as always, Sarah had fully recovered herself. He stood leaning against the rail of the front porch, waiting for her to open the door, just like the little boy she remember. He had a knapsack filled with sandwiches, fruit, and mineral water, slung over his shoulder and Bailey panted impatiently at his feet. He wore the same train T-shirt tucked into a pair of cut-off blue jeans and had light weight hiking boots on the ends of his long tan legs.
"I'll just be a second," Sarah said.
She wrote a quick note for her mother saying she might not be back for dinner. She and Ray often hiked for hours when they were kids, once calling Sarah's father to come get them from a payphone along the coast highway, fifteen miles away. They had set off for a short afternoon walk along the cliffs and hadn't stopped until they reached Bodega Bay, twenty-five miles away.
"How's your Mom doing," Ray asked, looking over Sarah's shoulder as she stuck the note under a Hershey's Kiss refrigerator magnet.
"She's pretty upset. David took her to church a few hours ago. In fact, if we don't hurry they'll get back and want to talk about everything. Then we'll never get out of here."
"I'm ready. Looks like the wind's coming up. Why don't we go inland, past Step Valley and over the hills?"
"I'd forgotten all about Step Valley," she said grabbing her old college daypack with one hand and opening the front door with the other.
"How could you forget clawing all those tiny footholds out of the dirt," Ray exclaimed in feigned disbelief, as if one spent everyday revisiting childhood haunts. But Step Valley had been a special place for them. It was actually a steep ravine whose sides were composed of sandy orange clay. The soil was dense enough to dig out small crescent shaped caves to use as feet and finger holds. But the soil was too sandy to hold even their young weight for very long. "Remember how the ladders would collapse when we were inches from reaching the top."
"We'd fall all the way to the bottom," Sarah said. "And, like Sysiphus, we'd start all over again."
"Wasn't he the guy that kept rolling the rock up the hill?"
"Wow, I'm impressed. You must have actually been in class that day."
"We haven't been gone five minutes and you're already being a smartass. What was it Rachel used to say?" Ray thought for a minute, as if he couldn't remember. "That's right, she called you Little Miss Smarty Farty."
"You didn't do it right. You have to use that whiny nasal noise like she used to make," Sarah laughed.
Ray pinched his nose between his fingers and repeated in a strained falsetto, Little Miss Smarty Farty. My God, she thought, looking around, we've reverted to seven year olds. It was so easy to slip back into that familiar, childhood repartee, that easy-going nonsexual rapport. Sarah and Ray walked down the street with their knapsacks over their shoulders, their bare arms swinging at their sides. They matched each others strides perfectly. They could have been Huck and Tom on their way to the Mississippi (the excess height, absence of straw hats and Sarah's gender notwithstanding).
Once past the hotel the two left the road and cut down a ravine through a small stand of eucalyptus, the only remnant of Mr. Thomas's Tree Farm. Ray unleashed Bailey and he ran ahead, his nose to the ground. The pungent fragrance of the oily trees assailed Sarah's sinuses. It was like taking a deep whiff of Vicks VapoRub or biting down on a Hall's Mentholated Cough Drop. The strange, archaic trees stood straight as fingers pointing toward the sky. Long strips of bark, like long hangnails, hung from their tall pallid trunks. A gust of wind tickled the leaves and the grove vibrated with the crinkly sound of crumpling paper. Her grandma Maggie used to say that the eucalyptus was the Devil's Tree, "Cast a barren curse on the ground around it." Later Sarah learned that the aromatic oil which drips from the trees long narrow leaves repulses insects and inhibits plant growth. The trees also absorb so much moisture from the nearby ground that only succulents requiring little water can thrive in their vicinity. Perhaps, Vampire Tree would have been a more suitable name. Both names were certainly better than Little Miss Smarty Farty.
Sarah and Ray climbed over the hill on the other side of the eucalyptus grove and dropped out of sight Thomas Beach. They could still hear the roar of the ocean, a steady dirge, in the background. They walked along a narrow trail through stunted bushes and dry grasses until they came to the edge of vegetation, the sea-level timberline, the boundary where plant life ended and the dry white sand began. Before them stretched a wide expanse of sand dunes, like swells on a white sand sea. Below them, was Step Valley. A drop of no more than ten feet.
"God, it looks small." Ray said.
"More like Step Ditch," Sarah agreed. "It must have eroded over the years."
"We probably wore it away climbing up and down."
"Just what I need an Eco-Guilt Trip."
"O.K. How about, now that we're older and taller it just looks smaller."
"Great, first I'm a smartass, now I'm old."
"Sarah, you're such a bitch." Ray held his fingers to his nose but before he could make any nasal comment Sarah was half way up the next sand mountain. Bailey, sensing a good time, loped along beside her, his tongue hanging from his mouth. But Ray, with his long legs, was only a few paces behind them when they reached the top.
"It's beautiful here," Sarah said looking down from the peak of the high dune at the entrance to Tomales Bay. Behind her just peeking over the dunes were the rooftops of Thomas Beach. But she didn't turn around. The water of the bay before her glistened like aluminum foil in the sunlight and broke into frothy waves where it met the ocean. Fishing boats, trolling inside the bay for herring, rocked gently on the calm water. The tide was completely in now and covered the sandy islands where the horseneck clams lay buried. Gray seals sunned themselves on the rocks along the far shore of the bay and brown pelicans scooped up fish swimming too close to the surface.
"Sorry you moved away?" Ray asked.
"No. There's nothing for me here," Sarah said. "How's that song go: "Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town."
"The Thomas Beach theme song."
"Especially these last few days."
"People die," Ray said. "That's life."
"I know. But first Grandma Beatrice died - she's old so that makes sense. But Aunt Hattie so soon afterwards is weird."
"Not so weird, really. She weighed half a ton," Ray said. "Maybe the added weight of grief killed her."
"Very funny," Sarah said sarcastically. "I said practically the same thing to Mom this morning. But it's still such a strange feeling for me - to have two people die that I have wished would die for years."
"If you're thinking that it's your fault, Sarah," Ray said. "You're wrong. People don't die because you wish them dead. But just in case I'M wrong, I should tell you that you look very pretty today."
"Yes, I do," Sarah said. "But seriously, now that Hattie and Beatrice are gone I feel empty, like there's a hole, a drafty hole right here." Sarah rubbed the hollow area just below her solar plexus. "I've spent so much time and energy hating these people I don't quite know what to do with this emotion now that they're dead."
"Rachel's still alive."
"That's true, but after last night - seeing how her husband treats her - I'm not sure I can hate her the same way I used to. I sort of feel sorry for her and that gets in the way of truly despising her."
"How about your Uncle Gerrick?"
"He's too silly to hate."
"Oh my God, Sarah!" Ray said widening his eyes and placing his hand over his mouth in utter disbelief. "You might have to become a kind and loving person."
"Blasphemer!" Sarah laughed. "May lightning strike you dead!"
"Watch what you wish for," Ray said making a cross with his fingers to ward off her evil thoughts.
"Don't worry. It only works on family."
"Then I'm glad I'm not a Farrington."
"Believe me, you don't want to belong to this family," Sarah said seriously. "Although - and this is going to sound really cold - now that Grandma Beatrice and Aunt Hattie are gone, it might not be such a bad place."
"So, you're going to move back?" Ray asked hopefully.
"No," Sarah said and shivered as a cold spasm, like icy bath water, sent goose bumps climbing up her arms. "The very thought of moving back to Thomas Beach makes my teeth chatter."
Sarah clenched her jaw and sucked a stream of air in over her molars. The cold air made her teeth rattle and she chattered out a beat like a clicking African drum song.
"Stop that," Ray said. "I hate it when you do that with your teeth."
He pushed her gently forward and they raced each other down the mountain. The sand poured into their shoes with every step pulling them back as they tried to go forward. They lengthened their strides, touching the ground only when gravity demanded it. They repelled off the sand like astronauts walking on the moon. By the time they reached the bottom of the hill the sand had filled every empty space in their shoes. It pressed against their arches and packed itself between their toes.
"Stop," Sarah gasped, out of breath. "I have to take these off."
"You're out of shape."
"So, now I'm fat. An old, fat, smartass. Thanks a lot, Ray."
"What are friends for!"
She dumped the fine white sand from her shoe, then hurled the shoe at him, just missing his head. With reflexes borne of many years of sports, Ray intercepted the shoe and threw it back. A perfect spiral.
They followed the eastern contour of Tomales Bay south, away from the ocean, away from Thomas Beach. The sand dunes gave way to vegetation again, solidifying into pastures which dissolved into tidal marshes. The marshes became moist sand beaches bordering on the bay. There were no fences here. Rust colored herefords grazed on the short scruffy grasses. They looked up warily at Bailey whenever the dog sauntered too close. Their dark brown eyes were surrounded by reddish brown curls. The cows wandered unconstrained, some stayed on the solid ground, others fed on the tall reeds and plump verdure of the marshes. There were cows laying with their legs tucked beneath them on the beach, rhythmically masticating cud. A small group of adventurous cows had waded into the water and stood gazing over the bay. Little waves swirled around their hocks and gently slapped against their utters. Red-winged blackbirds perched on the ridge of their long backs and picnicked off the nits and ticks embedded in their hides. A calf, stubbornly refusing to bathe, planted his feet firmly in the sand, thrust his square muzzle forward and brayed mournfully. His mother, knee deep in water, looked back over her shoulder, then turned back to her aquatic meditations.
"A bovine day at the beach," Sarah said to Ray as she surveyed the strangely peaceful and peculiar scene. "Like a comic's illustration of 'Surf and Turf'".
"That's what I love about this place," Ray said. "There's room for everyone. Cows, birds, seals, dogs, crazy old ladies, and not-so-crazy librarians."
"Maybe," Sarah said. "Maybe I can stay this time."
Bailey bounded off after something, a rabbit or field mouse or perhaps just the hope of one. He stopped, sniffed at a tuft of grass then arched his back and leapt straight into the air.
"He thinks he's a gazelle," Ray said.
"If this were a National Geographic Special, there would be violins playing."
"And a deep male voice intoning," Sarah intoned in her deepest, most male voice. "The Gazelle Baileyiscum, a direct descendant of the German Antelope, frolics through the fields of his native Northern California habitat".
"..under the watchful gaze of a handsome young Deputy Sheriff," Ray continued. "and a stubborn transplanted librarian whose roots are begging her to come home."
"Sorry Ray," Sarah said. "My roots will have to beg harder than that."
They trailed behind Bailey, south along the shore of the bay. After a few miles of steady hiking, they came to the raised scars of the old railbed. The iron tracks were gone, pulled up and melted down decades earlier. The wooden ties had been sold to a salvage company, who sold them to landscapers to use as stairs in back yard gardens. All that was left of the railway was the long scar that rose from the ground like the outline of a snake beneath the bedsheets. The scar wound itself gently along the bay and the base of the rolling green hills.
"Stop for lunch first, then follow the tracks to the tunnel?" Ray asked.
"Sure. We can't go much farther this way."
They had come to the edge of Simon's Creek, a shallow but very wide expanse of water that emptied into the bay. Like most of the local streams the water consisted of run off from the coastal mountains and the effluvium of milking barns and chicken sheds. But in the 1850's, even before the railroad came to town, Simon's Creek had been a deep navigable estuary leading to the Port of Tomales. A small schooner, called the SPRAY, ferried the local potato crops from the port at the south sided of town, down Tomales Bay, over the dangerous sand bar, out into the Pacific and south to the market in San Francisco. In 1861, the SPRAY was replaced by a larger vessel, the propeller steamer, UNION STAR, which made the long trip between Tomales and San Francisco three times a week.
It was the success of the local potato, the Bodega Red, that eventually led to the demise of the busy port. Farmers eager to take advantage of the high prices had planted every possible acre with this tenacious tuber. Unfortunately, every winter the rains washed the silt and top soil down into the estuary. Eventually the bay water receded until only the shallow creek bed remained. The UNION STAR was replaced by a little paddle steamer, the ELK. (So called because of the great rack of elk horns nailed to the door of the pilot house). The Elk ferried its cargo from the docks of Port Tomales down the estuary to larger ocean going steamers who lay anchored in the bay. But by the 1870's the estuary was impossible to keep open even with continued dredging. The ELK ran aground near Stony Point and was dismantled. For years the old hulk served as diving platform for the local children. But slowly it sank beneath the water and was covered with sand. The port of Tomales was closed and the water was no longer seen as a viable means of transportation. But by then the tracks of the North Pacific Coast Railroad had reached the town of Tomales.
"They're still there," Ray said pointing with the end of his roast beef sandwich at two tall iron piers standing in the middle of Simon's Creek. "It's been over fifty years since the trains ran across the estuary and those supports haven't rusted away yet."
"It'll take dynamite to topple those things," Sarah said.
The piers were nearly ten feet in diameter and stood thirty feet above the water like giant iron straws filled with cement. Once a steel trestle had arched across them linking the two shores.
Sarah and Ray finished their sandwiches and walked along the old railbed to where it disappeared beneath a pile of boulders on the side of a hill. Behind the boulders lay a long dark tunnel. Grandma Maggie had told Sarah the story of how two chinamen had died digging this tunnel. They were buried just inside the entrance in unmarked graves. Grandma Maggie said their spirits haunted the tunnel and that at night, if you listened real hard, you could hear them crying. Grandpa Jack said not to worry, it was only the wind.
"Dare you to go in there," Ray said as he climbed a boulder and peered down into darkness.
"I"m not going in there. I'm too old for this game. And too fat, remember?"
"You're just chicken. Double Dare you."
"You haven't grown up one bit, have you?"
"Nope," he said and smiled that impudent, petulant, impertinent, cheeky, and utterly charming smile. Standing on top of the boulder, Ray looked just like the little boy who had dared her to jump off Simon's Creek bridge, to sneak into the storeroom and steal a bottle of Ripple, to ride Mary Foster's psychotic horse bareback, and to pour salt into Aunt Hattie's gas tank.
"O.K.," Sarah said. "But you better be right behind me."
"Lead on, Captain." Ray said and saluted.
"Next time, it's your turn to lead."
Sarah pulled both arms through her pack and cinched the straps up tight. She fastened her hair back with a rubber band she found at the bottom of her jeans' pocket and rolled up her sleeves. The boulders were pockmarked, so that it was fairly easy to find footholds. Sarah scaled the first one and found a cleavage between it and the next large enough for her to squeeze her old, overweight body into. The ground was wet and soft inside the long tunnel. Light filtered in from around the boulders in long fingers illuminating the entrance but not penetrating more than a few feet. A faint glow at the far end indicated that there was a way out of here. She could hear Bailey barking frustatedly on the other side of the boulders.
"He's not a very good rock climber," Ray said handing Sarah the long black flashlight. "But he'll figure it out and meet us at the other end."
Sarah aimed the flashlight into the tunnel. Huge, hand-hewn timbers lay broken across piles of rock. The blue foil corner of a Laura Scuddurs potato chip bag peeked out from under a pile of dirt, and a mound of squashed Coor's cans reflected the yellow beam.
"Still the local Boys' Club," Sarah said.
"Some things never change."
"Grandpa Jack told me that when the trains were running the local boys used to throw rocks down on the them as they came out of the tunnel. Apparently, they dropped the rocks right down the smoke stacks."
"I bet that caused a few derailments. Like the kids now who throw rocks from freeway overpasses."
"Grandpa said they caught a boy once and tied him to one of the tunnel trusses when the train ran through. Scared the kid so bad he shit his pants. Then he ran all the way home."
"Vigilante justice works sometimes," Ray said as he followed Sarah through the rubble.
"Won't they strip you of your five-pointed star for saying things like that?"
"Believe me, most cops have a very twisted view of the law. We see too much pain and very little justice."
"You're a bit jaded for a handsome young Deputy Sheriff."
"I'm not saying that I don't believe in the law, or that I condone lawlessness," Ray said. "Believe me, I'll arrest anyone for breaking the law, even if they have a damn good reason for doing it."
"I guess it's not your job to figure out guilt or innocence, is it?"
"No. But that's not the point. What I'm saying is that sometimes I understand criminals more than I'd like to."
"Maybe you're too empathetic to be a cop."
"Maybe. But don't tell anyone."
They were near the end of the tunnel and Sarah could hear Bailey barking at them. He had found his way around the hill. Only a few weak rays of sunshine spilled over the boulders blocking the exit.
"The sun must be setting," Sarah said.
"We're not far from my house. Why don't we stop there for dinner and then figure out how to get back."
"We could always call my father to come get us."
"Remember what happened last time? He grounded you for a week."
"That's right, he did." Sarah climbed over the last broken truss and her foot landed on a pile of crackling brittle twigs. They snapped like kindling under her weight. She directed the flashlight at the ground and found the dried remains of a large sheep. "Oh, God, this is gross."
"Don't look," Ray said. But it was too late. Sarah had already seen the bits of fluffy wool stuck to the parched bones and the skull pecked clean by turkey vultures. She scrambled over the boulders and out into the light. Bailey jumped onto her chest and ran his rough wet tongue all over her face. Tears streamed down her face mixing with the dog's saliva as Sarah slumped onto the grass. Ray, dropped down beside her, put his arms around her, and drew her close against him.
"I'm sorry," Sarah said when her sobs finally subsided. "I don't know why that made me cry. I didn't shed one tear last night over my dead aunt, and here I am bawling like a baby over a sheep I've never even met."
"Maybe you're not as hard-hearted as you think you are, Sarah Farrington."
"Maybe not," she said. "But don't tell anyone."
"I promise," Ray said and pulled her to her feet. "My house is just over that hill."
"The old Corrigan place?"
"I bought it as a wedding present for myself when Cherie remarried. Just the house, barn and five acres. I'm not going into the dairy business or anything. Ben Jermain bought the rest of the land to run his sheep on. That was probably one of his back there."
"Bailey seems to know the way," Sarah said and pointed to the bushy brown tail disappearing over the hill.
Bailey was sitting on the front porch waiting for them when they got there. The house, a traditional two-story, white farmhouse sat in a valley surrounded by fir trees. In the front yard, there was a magnificent magnolia tree covered with large cream colored blossoms. A large red barn stood just behind the house and enclosing them both was a ring of split rail fence.
"Ray, it's beautiful." Sarah said. "It looks just like the farm toys I played with as a kid. The ones with the house and barn and the fences you could move around. You need some animals, though. Red cows, white chickens, pink pigs and brown horses. All standing in pools of plastic so they don't fall over."
"Plastic animals are all I'd have time to take care of," Ray said as he opened the unlocked front door and led them into a wide hallway. "There's a bathroom at the top of the stairs if you want to wash up while I fix dinner."
Ray took off his muddy boots and left them on a grate in the hall. He hung his pack from one of the many wooden pegs along the wall and trailed Bailey through a door on the left into the kitchen. Sarah followed his example, slipped off her boots and padded off in her socks toward the stairs. The door to the living room was open and she went in, drawn by the warmth of the room, the coziness of the worn sofa and overstuffed chairs. A floor to ceiling bookcase took up half of the far wall. The volumes were lined up carefully, grouped by subject, though not alphabetized by author. On the bottom shelf stood the tall blue Time-Life series on aircraft history, a line of paperback biographies of military and political figures, McCarthur, Kruschev, The Arms of Krupp: a history of the German Arms maker, even Schwarzcop's It Doesn't Take a Hero. One whole shelf was devoted to the history of trains; Bray Dickinson's Narrow Gauge to the Redwoods, A History of the Northwestern Pacific, Redwood Railway, The Great Steam Engines.
On the mantle above the fireplace were pictures of Ray's daughter, Sara; school photos, snap shots, a Sear's baby photo, Sara sitting on a horse, Sara in Rays fathers arms, Ray and Cherie blowing out the single candle on the first birthday cake with Sara smiling between them. Sarah heard a pan drop in the kitchen and Ray curse. She left the living room and went upstairs to wash up.
"That was a great dinner," Sarah said crossing her knife and fork onto her empty plate. Ray had broiled steaks, juicy home grown, corn-fed beef from his father's ranch and microwaved a couple of potatoes. "Not bad for a bachelor."
"I love to eat so I figured I'd better learn to cook," Ray said refilling Sarah glass of mineral water. "I haven't mastered souffle's or baked Alaska yet, but I don't like them anyway."
"If you have trouble with jello you can always call my mother," Sarah said.
Ray laughed. Sarah stacked his empty plate on hers, gathered the silverware, and headed for the sink.
"We can do those later," he said coming up behind her. Sarah set the dishes on the counter. She could feel him drawing nearer, warm and cozy like his sofa. His smell was comfortable, familiar. He brushed her hair aside and kissed the back of her neck and when Sarah turned he ran his hand along her shoulder, down her arm and gently took her hand, guiding her toward the stairs.
"I'm not..." Sarah began to say.
"Shhh. It's my turn to lead."
The warm burnt tobacco aroma of freshly ground coffee floated up the stairs. It slipped beneath the bedroom door and wrinkled Sarah's nose. For a moment, still lost in a deep post-coital slumber, she thought she was home in Cobstook Cove, safe in her own bed. But a musky male scent and the citrus fragrance of a detergent she never used escaped from the bedsheets as she rolled over. This was Ray's double bed. She could hear him walking around in the kitchen below, opening the refrigerator door, whispering to Bailey, whisking eggs in a glass bowl. Swish, clink, swish, clink followed by two dull clunks, a wire whisk knocking sharply against the side of a bowl. Then a splash as the whisk, probably dripping with mucousy egg dropped into the sink. Scrambled eggs, she thought.
The scarlet numbers on the bedside clock read 5:30 and there was a tiny dot lit up next to A.M. No light appeared through the loosely woven curtains but she could hear the dawn chorus, the chirp and response of local blackbirds singing their ritual matins. Like Grandma Beatrice's Survivors' Club, the birds announced themselves and verified each others existence. Sarah stretched, pushed her toes against the footboard of the large bed and extended her arms, her fingers splayed far above her head. All her major muscle groups answered the roll call but slowly, as if too say, that 5:30 was far too early for such strenuous activity.
"How could you go on a date at a time like this?" her mother had asked when Sarah phoned the night before to say she wouldn't be home. "You only think of yourself. Don't you care about this family?"
"Look, it's late. I'm tired. Can we talk about this tomorrow?"
"Your father is very upset with you."
"No, he's not, Mom." Sarah had said. "You're upset with me."
"I don't care what you do," her mother responded in her most petulant and defensive tone. "I just think you could help out a little. There's so much to do."
"What do you need help with?"
"Well, if we're going to have people over after the funeral the house needs to be cleaned and there's cooking to be done."
"All right, I promise I'll be home first thing in the morning. Now, let me talk to Dad."
Her father, as Sarah expected, didn't ask where she was, what she was doing, or with whom she was doing, whatever it was that she was doing. He simply picked up the receiver and cleared his throat.
"We're going to open the store tomorrow," he said. "Can't keep it closed forever. Especially the last day of a three day weekend. But, hmmm, we're a bit short handed now."
"Of course, I'll help," Sarah said, answering the question her father hadn't asked. "See you in the morning."
"Thank you, Sarah."
That her father presented his sister's death as a minor staffing problem didn't surprise her. She had half-expected him to remind her that her Aunt Hattie was sick, real sick, so sick she was dead. Sarah smiled into the warm sheets. Business as usual. Her mother was hysterically cooking, her father was numbly working and Sarah was having great sex with a childhood friend. These, she thought, were the Farrington family strategies for coping with crisis.
Sarah heard the thwack of plates hitting the kitchen table, threw back the covers and headed for the shower. She lathered herself quickly with Ray's green striped Irish Spring, the soap with the Manly Scent, and spritzed her underarms with his Old Spice Deodorant. She pulled on her crumpled blue jeans and borrowed one of Ray's clean T-shirts. It hung nearly to her knees.
"Mmmm. You smell good," Ray said when she came into the kitchen.
"I smell like you," she said reaching down to pet Bailey who was sniffing her legs and wagging his tail.
"Camouflage. Trying to disguise yourself as me so that I'll give you the larger stack of pancakes."
"Pancakes? I thought you were making scrambled eggs."
"Did I promise you scrambled eggs last night? I must have been delirious with passion. I hate scrambled eggs."
"No. I just thought I heard you .....oh, never mind."
"Is Her Highness grumpy this morning?" he asked saluting her with a spatula and bowing from the waist. He wore a white full body apron over his khaki uniform and heavy black policeman's boots.
"No. Her Majesty is quite contented," Sarah said as she fluttered her eyelashes in sultry slow motion, lifted her chin in royal elegance and sank into a chair.
"To protect, serve, ....and satisfy. That's our motto." Ray breathed loudly on his knuckles and feigned polishing his star.
Sarah laughed, rolled her eyes and reached for the syrup. As she ate, Bailey sat at her feet, his eyes following each forkful of pancake that left her plate on the way to her mouth.
"Stop begging," Ray said. Bailey lay down with his head resting on his crossed paws. He raised his brown eyebrows in silent protest. "Good dog."
Bailey snorted softly. Harumf.
"He always wants the last word," Ray said.
"Just like his master."
"We'd better hurry up and eat if I'm going to get you home and make it into the station by 8:00."
"Don't blame me. I'm eating as fast I can."
Ray sat down across from her at the square wooden table. He shoveled a huge lump of pancake into his mouth. "Harumf," he said.
They ate quickly, ran hot water over the dishes and left them stacked in the sink. Sarah pulled on her hiking boots and grabbed her pack off the hook in the hallway. When they left the house the sun was just peeking over the hills. It warmed the crests but didn't quite reached into the cool morning shadows. The air was brisk and saline, not briny like Thomas Beach, just salty enough to activate the salivary glands. Tasty.
"Bailey, you're not coming," Ray said as he pulled the dog away from the car. He clipped a long chain to the dog's collar. "This is for your own good."
Bailey refused to understand. He looked up at his master with mournful brown eyes. Why are you punishing me, they seemed to say. Ray scratched the top of Bailey's head and rubbed him behind the ears. He saw Sarah frowning, obviously taking the canine perspective.
"Jim is running his sheep in these fields for the next few weeks. Bailey has never gone after them before but the temptation might be too strong if those lamb chops are in his own back yard."
"I didn't say anything," Sarah said.
"You didn't have to."
Ray filled a bucket with water, left it in the shade of the porch and they climbed into the front of the Sheriff's car. Electronic gadgets covered the dash board, two radios, a CB and some sort of police scanner, gauges for everything from oil temperature to tire pressure and red LED read outs indicating whether or not the doors were closed. A rifle bisected the front windshield and steel mesh separated the front seat from the back. Sarah preferred the red Mustang.
Loose rocks pinged against the bottom of the car as they drove down the mile long dirt lane leading to the main road. Sarah looked over her shoulder at the farmhouse. Golden light bounced off the upstairs windows giving the house a warm glow as if a fire burned in the hearth. The magnolia flowers, looked like pastel kernels of roasted popcorn hanging from the dark tree in the middle of the yard. At the edge of the yard, Bailey strained against his chain not letting the car out of his sight.
"It's beautiful here," Sarah said turning forward as the farmhouse slid from view behind her. They had come to the county maintained road. Tomales was one mile to the east, Thomas Beach three miles to the west. Ray turned west.
"Why don't you move back?"
"I'll think about it."
"There are plenty of libraries around here where you could work. Or you could open your own bookstore here in town. Sarah's Selections."
"Or I could go work for Rachel at the Farrington Family Resort."
"I hadn't thought about that. I guess she'll inherit her mother's share in the business."
"Unless Hattie left everything to her cat. Which wouldn't surprise me."
"Carrying on the family tradition, you mean?"
"I wish that were the tradition," Sarah said. "If Beatrice had willed the business to a charity or to a stray dog it would have been kinder than leaving it to everybody but my father."
"He's seems to be taking it pretty well."
"What choice does he have. Like he says, he's a little old to start a new career and a little young yet to retire."
"So, he'll stay on as an employee?"
"Probably. But now that Hattie's dead, who knows?"
"Maybe she willed her part to him."
"I doubt it."
They drove on in silence through the hills. The closer they came to Thomas Beach the saltier and colder the air became. At the top of the hill where the old schoolhouse had stood, a hawk swooped down from the telephone wire. It landed, talons first, on the back of a shrew and flew off with its prey wiggling in its grasp. Below the hawk, sheep grazed peacefully their legs lost in a swirl of early morning mist. Ray guided the powerful car through the curves leading into Thomas Beach. He accelerated at the crest of the corners using the thrust to escape the centrifical force and hold the car firmly on the asphalt and inside the dotted white line. Perhaps I could stay, Sarah thought, as she remembered Ray's hands on her skin caressing her, guiding her, pressing her, holding her close. Perhaps.
"Sarah," Ray said as he drove past the old hotel and up the hill to her parents. "If you drive my car back to me tonight I'll fix you dinner."
"Are you bribing me with dinner in order to get your car back or are you letting me drive the Mustang in order to get me to come for dinner."
"I want the car, of course." He laughed and kissed her gently, his moustache tickling the tip of her nose.
"You're an asshole, Ray Ambrosi." Sarah punched him not so gently on the arm, and took the set of keys he held out to her. "See you tonight."
Her parents' house seemed empty when she first opened the door. No one was in the livingroom. The diningroom table was clear, no plates, no coffee cups.
"Honey, I'm home," she yelled in that husband-home-from-work singsong. To her surprise, her mother, as if on cue, came out of the kitchen wiping her hands on her short red apron. A smudge of flour dusted her right cheek and her bangs were glued to her forehead in moist curls. She wore the same gray sweatpants she'd had on when Sarah last saw her. They were still too short.
"Your father and David have gone to work already," Carol said.
"But it's not even seven o'clock."
"Someone has to pick up the garbage on the beach and get the store ready. David's been helping out all weekend."
"Point taken," Sarah said. "I'll just change my clothes and go to the store."
Carol Farrington ran the back of her hand across her damp forehead and sighed, a deep martyring sigh.
"I guess I'll stay here and cook by myself," she said.
"Mom, look, I can't be two places at once. You tell me what I should do. Stay here or work in the store?"
"David needs you down there." The sigh was even deeper. Another nail in her cross.
"Fine. But don't get mad at me later and say I never helped you," Sarah said quietly but with irritation.
"Stop yelling at me." Carol's voice cracked, her shoulders bunched up around her ears and she turned back towards the kitchen. "You're always yelling at me. It's not my fault."
Sarah grimaced, shrugged, and ran up the stairs two at a time. As she pulled off Ray's T-shirt she heard her mother muttering in the kitchen. "It's not my fault."
David had only just finished sweeping the floor when Sarah walked in. Without a word she found the dustpan and held it an angle as he manoeuvered his corralled detritus into the scoop. She emptied the scoop into the trash and gathered an armful of cleaning material from under the sink. She handed David a pistol grip bottle of Windex and a section of old newspaper. Then she armed herself. Together they sprayed the blue liquid onto the glass front doors. Tears of ammonia streaked the panes.
"Missed a spot," Sarah said pointing to a greasy fingerprint in the top right corner. David zapped the spot and rubbed it with the wadded newspaper until the glass squealed.
"I hear you had a hot date last night," he said stepping back to admire his work.
"I never would have guessed that you and Ray would get together.
"Me neither. It was a bit awkward at first. Almost like going to bed with you."
"Oh, yuck, Sarah. You're so sick."
"No, really. I always thought of him like a brother or a buddy. Not a lover."
"Well don't get any incestuous ideas," David said pointing the Windex bottle at her. "Or I'll shoot."
Sarah laughed. "Don't worry, you're not my type. I'm sorry I left you to take care of Mom and Dad by yourself yesterday. But after all the drama this week I needed a break."
"It wasn't so bad. I took Mom to church in the morning then helped Dad put a new clutch in the truck."
"How was church?"
"Crowded. Lots of people had heard about Aunt Hattie and wanted to know the details. Reverend Day gave a short eulogy type thing and asked us to pray for her."
"Little late in the day for that," Sarah said as she watched an amine rainbow dissolve on the glass.
"Don't be so sarcastic. The woman's dead. At least pretend to care."
"Jesus, David, you're as bad as Mom. The woman, dead or not, was a bitch. Not just a pain in the ass type of bitch, either. I'm convinced she manoeuvered Beatrice into changing her will. Not that Grandma Bea needed much nudging. But Aunt Hattie is the real reason that you're still an employee at this "Family" resort and not an owner."
"The will can be challenged. We've worked here all these years. Any court will see that it isn't fair."
"Who ever said that life was fair?"
"Grandma was senile," David said. "She wasn't in control of her faculties."
"She was sane, David. What she did, she did out of cruelty and bitterness, not senility."
"Your wrong. It was a mistake." That was David's final word on the subject. He rubbed the glass hard with his smeared wad of newsprint then turned away. As he walked back into the store an ammonia rainbow dissolved behind him.
Sarah didn't follow her brother. She continued to clean the lobby. She wiped the glass display jars that contained the bleached remains of flounders and long necked clams suspended in formaldehyde. She dusted off the gumball machine and the plastic toy dispenser. I'm like a nun, she thought, maintaining the abbey's reliquary.
People had gathered on the front steps and were peering in through the glass doors, watching her, waiting for her to let them in. Sarah turned around, sensing their stares on the back of her neck. She held up five fingers and said loudly, "Five more minutes!" Her voice bounced off the doors, repelled down the glass jars, ricocheted from the bulletin board to the gumball machine, off the stack Presto-Logs and circled Sarah's head. She'd been so busy thinking that she hadn't been aware of the silence.
"We'd better hurry up," she said to David as she slipped through the swinging door. "Those are hungry campers out there."
"Almost ready." David said. He held a triangular bundle of American flag in his hands. "I just have to run this up the pole."
While David went out the side door past the post office boxes, Sarah changed the date on the cash register and checked that it was filled with paper rolls. When he came back in, they snapped open the roll down blinds, turned the Closed sign over, unlocked the front doors and took up their positions behind the counter. Sarah ran the cash register, the same nickel colored machine she had learned to use when she was eight years old. Back then she had stood on the tips of her toes to reach the nines. David stood on her left side ready to load up brown paper bags like their father had taught them: Put the cans and cartons on the bottom, the eggs and bread on the top and never use a big bag when a small bag will do.
"8.32." Sarah said to her first customer, an unshaven, hung- over man who reeked of briny mud, campfire smoke and stale beer. The subtotal key stuck and Sarah instinctively pushed it sideways with her thumb. It popped back out. The man pulled a damp sandy ten dollar bill from deep within his blue jeans pocket. She shook it off and laid it on the front ledge of the register. Her fingers danced over the cash drawers. "8.32," she handed him three pennies. ".35." Then a nickel. ".40." A dime. ".50" Two quarters. "and .50 is 9 and a dollar makes 10. Thank you." David held out the heavy number 12 paper bag, filled to perfect plumpness.
Sometime between ringing up a six pack of Coor's and rustling through the old cigar box for a fishing license stamp, Sarah looked up and saw her uncle Gerrick leaning against the frame of the store room door. His belly hung limp over his belt buckle and his eyes, languid and unfocused, followed David and Sarah's movements as if following the arc of a hypnotist's watch.
"He doesn't look too good," David said.
"He looks lost."
"With Aunt Hattie gone, he's in charge. Unless Rachel comes back."
"Not exactly your fearless leader type," Sarah said as Uncle Gerrick walked into the office.
When the last of the breakfast customers had passed through the swinging doors, Sarah knocked on the office door. There was no response. She pushed the door open and found her uncle staring at the colored pegs along the homemade bulletin board above his desk. There was a peg next to each of the thirty-two cabin numbers. Blue pegs meant empty, red pegs meant full. There were twenty-nine blue pegs.
"Are you all right," Sarah asked.
Gerrick turned his face toward the sound of her voice but didn't answer. His eyes were bloodshot and his cheeks hung in folds beneath his chin.
"Why don't you go home, Uncle Gerrick. David and I can take care of things here."
"Thank you, Sarah," he said. With a great effort he launched himself out of the wide bottomed oak chair and balanced himself precariously on his cowboy boots. He threw his jacket on, not bothering to tuck in his shirttail or roll down his bunched up sleeves. "I'll come back later."
Sarah picked up the badge laying on the desk. The tin five pointed star from Woolworth's. She opened the top drawer and dropped the badge in beside a bottle of Chivas Regal. At least he's drinking the good stuff, she thought.
Gerrick didn't come back later. Sarah and David worked all day, ringing up candy bars, potato chips, marshmallows, sunburn ointment, crab bait and fish hooks. They bagged ice, filled up inner tubes with air from the compressor, advised campers on how to put new mantles in their lanterns and gave out recipes for horseneck clam fritters. They moved smoothly through the ritual of customer service like old waltzing partners at an all night dance-a-thon. Ringing up, bagging up, giving change, giving advice.
At five o'clock Sam came up from the beach. He'd stayed down there all day. He had cleaned the breeze-block restrooms, picked up litter in the dunes and towed three cars out of the sand. He had washed all the sticky transluscent scales from the fish cleaning stand, scrubbed the fish guts off the sinks, swept the gutters in front of the trailers and successfully avoided the family store.
"Let's close up," he said to David and Sarah when he walked in the door.
"Great." Sarah answered. "I'm beat."
"I'll get the front doors," David said and vaulted over the counter. "You get the back."
With the doors closed they began the ritual closing dance. Sarah wrestled the ice bags out of the walke and bagged enough cubes to fill the store freezer. She turned off the lights inside the display cases, turned off the CB radio and double-checked the back up generator in case the electricity went out. David restocked the refrigerator cases with beer and soda. Sam counted out the cash drawers, turning each bill so that the presidents all faced the same direction. It was the end of a long Fourth of July weekend.
"Just like old times," Sarah said to her father as he spun the dial of the safe. Sam smiled, turned off the lights and walked with his children up the hill to El Nido.
On Tuesday the town was quiet. The campers had pulled up their tent stakes, thrown their clam buckets in the back of their pick up trucks and headed back to Winters or Sacramento or Davis or whatever inland town they had come from. With all the people gone, a vibrant vacuum descended on the little resort - like the humming silence of a concert hall after the orchestra has left and the air still buzzes with the last note of Beethoven's Fifth. Thomas Beach vibrated with the echoes of the campfires, the firecrackers, the children laughing in the waves, the shrill blast of the ambulance siren and all the other atmospheric jetsam of a three day Fourth of July weekend. Even David had left that morning to return to his bank in San Francisco.
"See you this weekend," he had said.
"If I'm still here," Sarah had answered.
"You love it here and you know it," was his response. Alone in the store, Sarah smiled to herself as she swept the aisle between the candy shelves and the counter of exotic shells. How could she not love this place, she thought. Waking up to the sounds of the ocean, the long morning walks on the beach, the tingling salty air. Beatrice was gone. Hattie was gone. And Ray was still here. She straightened a box of Abba-Zabba's, plucked an empty jaw breaker wrapper from beside a box of Rolo's and dropped it into her dustpan. She pulled a feather duster from her back pocket and gently swept off the Hawaiian conches and the spiky sea urchins. She arranged Aunt Ursula's olive shell dolls so that they sat in line all facing forward. Humming along with the monotone of the refrigerator motors, as she replenished the empty beer cases. The CB radio crackled behind the check out counter with the talk of the local fishermen, "Hey Ernie, how is it over there? Come back." "I'm skunked. Over." "Too bad. We've got four Kings out here by Goat Rock. Two of 'em are splitters. Come Back." "I had a silver on. But it was a shorty. I'll make a couple more passes around the bell then head your way. Over." "Well, you know where to find us. Over and out."
This peculiar language wasn't the self-conscious trucker's jargon used by the weekend sportsmen who jammed the airwaves with 10-4 Good Buddies and Got Your Ears On jokes and who couldn't tell a Coho from a Chinook. This was the lazy, easy banter of the locals. The phrases rolled off their tongues as gently as the ocean swelled beneath their boats. When Sarah was growing up the voices on the CB had been exclusively male. But now, she heard other voices. The local fishermen were now an eclectic mix of people, whose only common attribute was a love for fishing. They were husband and wife teams, or women partners, or solitary men. They were young, old, able-bodied and paraplegic. In fleets of small fiberglass Whalers, (the mosquito fleets, Grandma Maggie called them) or out on their own in twenty foot wooden Monterey hulls, the fishermen trawled up and down the Pacific coast for salmon. As it was still early in the summer, the Coho and Chinook salmon would be feeding close to shore. The Cohoes, or Silvers, were slightly smaller fish and looked green when they were in the water. Their lips and gums were white. The Chinooks, or Kings, had black gums and strong tails. Even though the locals teased the sport fishermen, Sarah knew that it wasn't always easy to tell the difference between the two. Both species spent the summer along the coast fattening themselves up for long trip ahead. In the Fall, the younger salmon would swim far out to sea. The older fish would swim back up river to their birth place. It would be their last trip. After depositing her eggs in the shallow water the female salmon would die. The male would fertilize the eggs and then he, too, would die. Their orphaned offspring, the fingerlings, would swim down river and back out to sea.
Sarah snapped up the roll down blinds and shafts of warm light illuminated the dust particles her sweeping and dusting had stirred up. The air around her filled with dust motes, like a ticker tape parade down Fifth Avenue for a returning hero. She put down her broom and reached behind the counter for the brass ring full of keys.
Ray was waiting on the steps when Sarah opened the front doors. He was dressed in official khaki, his star hung from his chest and his leather holster hung from his hip.
"What are you doing here so early in the morning?" Sarah asked. "And so soon?"
At dinner the night before they had decided to take this new relationship slowly. Ray had barbecued spicy bratwurst on the outdoor grill and they had sat out under the stars. They had agreed to meet again later in the week. Not the next morning.
"Business, unfortunately," Ray said. His smooth face was serious. "We got the coroner's report back on Hattie this morning."
"She died from poison," Ray said as he followed Sarah into the store. "Ingestion of strychnine is what the report said."
"Strychnine. Where would she have gotten that?
"It used to be an ingredient in those over-the-counter rodent powders. Like D-Con. But I don't think they use it any more."
"Are you saying she ate rat poison?"
"That's what it looks like."
"Did she do it on purpose?"
"Sarah, I don't know how she did it, or why she did it, or even if she knew she did it."
"So you think someone killed her?"
"Stop putting words in my mouth," Ray said impatiently. "All I'm saying is that we have to investigate. That's why Sheriff McCall sent me out here. Now stop asking me all these questions."
"Sorry, Ray. Is there anything I can do to help?"
"I'll need to get into her house and collect some things. Do you have her keys.?"
"Yes. We keep a set of keys to almost every house in town just in case there's a fire or something. They're in the office."
Sarah led Ray past the check out counter and into the office. On the wall above the desk, just below the bulletin board with colored pegs was a line of small brass hooks. They were cup hooks, the kind usually used to dangle teacups from their handles. On each hook hung a set of keys. Some were old skeleton types. Others were newer, Schlages, Yales or TrueValue copies. Each set had a round paper tag fasten to it with the name of the house written on it.
"Not a very secure system," Ray said
"We've never had any trouble before." Sarah said and lifted down a set of Schlages. "Anything else you need?"
"Would you like to come with me or do you have to watch the store?"
"Mom's in the stock room. She can come out and work the counter. It's not going to be very busy this morning."
Sarah found her mother crouched over a cardboard box filled with Campbell Soup cans. Carol held a label gun that shot out gummed price tags. She pulled the trigger, pressed the end of the barrel against the top of the can and drew her wrist back quickly leaving the label affixed, dead center. Boxes were stacked high on both sides of her. The Market Wholesale delivery truck had arrived that morning with the monthly load of canned goods, paper products and heavily preserved foods.
"Mom, could you come work out front for awhile?" Sarah asked. "Sheriff McCall sent Ray out to pick up some of Hattie's things. I'm just going to let him in the house. I'll be right back."
"What things?" Carol asked, looking up from her work.
"I don't know. He didn't say."
"I don't think we should let just everyone rummage around through Hattie's house," Carol said. "It's not right."
"Ray's not just everyone, Mom, he's a deputy sheriff."
"All right. But I'm very busy back here. Look at all the boxes I have to mark. It'll take me all day as it is." Carol looked around at the pile of boxes.
"I'll help you when I get back," Sarah said and left the stock room. Her mother followed reluctantly.
Hattie Farrington's house sat on Top Street, directly above Beatrice's. Hattie's house was twice as large as her mother's. She had remodeled one of the original tar and shingle shacks into a spacious two story home with a redwood deck cantilevered off the living room. A hand-carved sign over the front door read "Casa di Bambola". And it was a very large doll's house. The acrid smell of stale cat litter greeted them when Sarah opened the door.
"Rachel remembered to take the cat," Sarah said. "But she left the doo-doo for someone else to clean up. Typical."
"Why don't you stay here in the living room while I search through the kitchen." Ray said as he pulled on a pair of thin plastic gloves.
"What exactly are you looking for?"
"Links or patties?"
"Probably patties. The coroner said the poison was mixed in with ground sausage. He didn't find any sausage casings so he presumed she ate a patty. Possibly a pizza topping but he didn't think so."
"The last time I saw her she was eating a hamburger, or at least something in a hamburger bun."
"When was that?" Ray asked.
"She passed David and me when we were walking to the bonfire. It must have been about eight-thirty Saturday night."
"Was she driving?"
"Not very well. But she was driving. She nearly hit us. We figured she was drunk."
"She probably was."
Sarah stood in the doorway as Ray opened the refrigerator. He pulled out a stack of small tupperware containers and piled them on the counter. He pried open the lid of the top one and looked inside.
"Smells like salsa." He opened the next one. "Left over macaroni and cheese."
"My aunt was a real gourmet."
"What's this?" Ray asked holding out a bowl of red jiggly stuff with bits of carrot floating in it.
"That's my mother's famous Jello Mold. Probably left over from Beatrice's funeral. Hattie must have been saving it for a special occasion."
Ray finished with the tupperware and reached into the refrigerator again. He shifted a large jar of mayonaise and a carton of sour milk. Behind them he found a green bowl covered with plastic wrap. Inside was a lump of ground meat.
"I think I found it." He set the bowl carefully on the counter and shook open a plastic bag. He placed the bowl inside the bag and struggled to zip lock it closed.
"We bag up the garbage." He found a blue plastic trash container under the sink, and from his coat pocket he pulled out a large dark green trash bag. Sarah held the lips of the trash bag open while Ray lifted the garbage pail and emptied the contents into the bag.
"That's the meat wrapper," Sarah said as a piece of butcher paper streamed past. Ray stopped pouring and dug out the bit of paper. He shook off the coffee grounds.
"GROUND PORK - HATTIE - 6/18/89. Whose writing is that?"
"Probably hers. We buy whole sides of beef and pork from Vandermeer's, then divide it up. Each family wraps their own."
Ray opened the freezer compartment above the refrigerator. He moved aside two gallons of ice cream, three cylinders of orange juice, a bag of frozen peas and two boxes of See's candy. "It must have been her last package."
"Not necessarily," Sarah said. "She kept her meat with everyone else's - down at the store in the walk-in freezer."
"Let's finish bagging this stuff up and go have a look."
They wrapped a bright yellow twist tie around the garbage and put it with the bowl of meat in the trunk of the Sheriff's car.
"Don't you have to put up one of those yellow police ribbons around the house?" Sarah asked.
"I think if we just lock the doors and windows it will be all right for awhile," Ray said. "Those banners invite people to break in and get everybody gossiping. Besides this isn't a murder investigation."
"Yet," Sarah said.
"Don't get your hopes up," Ray said and started the engine.
There was only one vehicle in the store parking lot when Sarah and Ray drove in. It was a camper with Iowa plates and a large bumper sticker that said, "We're spending our children's inheritance" and a smaller sticker next to it with the letters AARP - American Association of Retired Persons.
"At least they're honest about it," Sarah said walking past the camper and into the store. Carol was standing behind the cash register counting out change to a man and wife in matching red hand-knit sweaters with cross-stitched deer on the front. The wife cradled a long haired Pomeranian in her arms. The dog had on a red sweater, too, with a smaller deer.
"We're on our way to the drive-thru tree," the man was saying as Sarah and Ray squeezed past them. "250 feet high and nearly 4,000 years old."
"It was here when Christ lived, Tom," the woman said fingering the gold cross at her throat. "Isn't that something."
"What year was he born?" Tom asked.
"I'm not sure," his wife said. "But he was thirty-three when he died."
Carol smiled and placed their purchases, a six pack of Diet Coke, a bag of potato chips and a roll of Tums, into a paper bag. "Have a nice trip," she said. The couple picked up their bag and counting backwards on their fingers, they left the store.
Sarah pushed down on the large metal handle of the walk-in freezer and swung open the heavy door. A blast of frigid air hit her in the face.
"The meat is kept in the back with the block ice," she said holding the door open with her foot and reaching for the light cord hanging from the ceiling. "We don't have one of those automatic lights that comes on when you open the door."
"All of these packages are from Vandermeer's?" Ray asked as he stepped around a short stack of ice cream cartons wrapped in plastic and pointed at the tall stack of paper wrapped packages leaning against the wall. Sarah nodded.
"GROUND CHUCK - GERRICK - 6/18/89. RIB EYE - SAM - 6/18/89. Here we go. PORK - HATTIE - 6/18/89. These all have the same date. I better take everything. It could have gotten in there at the butcher shop. Who knows."
Sarah brought him two cardboard boxes from the stock room and helped him load up the frozen bundles. "This is a lot of food to waste," she said.
"We can't take a chance, Sarah. Better to lose a side of beef then another relative. Is this all of it?"
"I think so. But let's pull out these cases of orange juice and make sure nothing fell back there." She found another package of pork and two partially wrapped steaks on the floor and added them to the box. "That's it."
They carried the boxes of frozen meat out to the Sheriff's car. The hard packages knocked against each other with dull thuds like wood blocks in a toy chest.
Ray slammed down the trunk. "If I don't hurry this will all melt and I'll have a bloody mess back here."
"Call me later?"
"As soon as I hear from the lab. It shouldn't take long to test this stuff." Ray opened the car door then turned back to Sarah. "Do you have any plans for this weekend?"
"Would you like to go away somewhere Into the mountains maybe?"
"See the drive-thru tree?"
"I was thinking more like a quiet little bungalow at Lake Tahoe."
"No dead sheep?" Sarah laughed.
"I'll call ahead and see what I can arrange." He leaned down toward her, his face only inches from hers. "Seriously, Sarah, do you want to go away with me for a few days?"
"Yes." Sarah tilted her head back, stood on her toes and finished the kiss he had started.
* * *
It was nearly five o'clock on Wednesday, four days since Hattie died, before Ray called Sarah. She was just locking up the store. Her mother had gone home early to start dinner and Sam was just pulling up into the parking lot. Like the days, before Sarah's father had spent the entire day working outside. He graded the site where cabin #22 had stood and planted cuttings of purple sea fig in neat rows in the dirt. By the end of summer the empty lot would be a field of spiky succulents and there would be no trace of the little ceder cabin. Uncle Gerrick had called in sick again. He said he was having a hard time adjusting to the death of his sister, but Sarah guessed that he was also finding it difficult to face his older brother. His older brother who was now his employee.
Her cousin Rachel had called that morning furious because Sheriff McCall wouldn't release Hattie's body for burial until all the lab reports were in. She wanted to have the funeral on Tuesday and it was already Wednesday and who did that Sheriff think he was anyway.
It was just as well that Rachel lived in San Francisco and wasn't in Thomas Beach to watch McCall's men search her mother's house. They had arrived right after Ray left with more plastic bags and more transparent gloves. They put up a bright yellow banner and just as Ray had predicted, a crowd gathered along it. People Sarah hadn't seen in years came into the store to find out the latest gossip and to spread the gossip they had already heard. Harold and Agnes Burney came in and actually spoke at the same time. Harold was convinced that Hattie had committed suicide to escape the pain of arthritis. Sarah hadn't been aware that her aunt suffered from arthritis. Agnes felt that Hattie had simply eaten her way to an early grave just like her father. As Agnes didn't know about the poison, Sarah thought this was a fairly astute observation.
When the inspection team finished with Hattie's house they turned their attention to the store and the old hotel. They searched every inch of the building. They stayed in the walk-in for so long that Sarah was afraid they'd freeze to death. They confiscated the ice cream, Swanson's Dinners and frozen vegetables. They left the orange juice and the popsicles. They went through the stock room, the back bathroom and they searched the old hotel rooms on the second floor. The stairs groaned as they carried down their dark green evidence bags. Sarah stayed behind the counter selling candy and soda to the curious customers and dreamed about a romantic weekend in the mountains.
"Tell Rachel that she can have the funeral tomorrow," Ray said when he called. "McCall signed the release papers a few minutes ago."
"Does that mean the investigation is over?" Sarah asked.
"Death by accidental ingestion of a lethal substance, that is our official finding. The lab report showed large amounts of strychnine in the sausage from Hattie's refrigerator. We found some of the same kind of patties in the walk-in, all mixed up with everyone else's food. The paper wrapping was torn on some of the packages and the meat was so mixed up it was hard to tell which meat went with which label."
"Did they find out where the poison came from?"
"Gizmo Rat Poison. We found a box of the stuff upstairs in that room with all the old junk. The box was open, but it looked like no one had touched it in years. We also found a baby food jar half full of poison under Hattie's sink. Only her prints on the jar. Only her prints on the bowl of meat."
"So you think she killed herself?"
"We think she was drunk. Hell, we know she was drunk. Her blood alcohol level was .22. If you're driving that's more than twice the legal amount. We think she accidently ate the meat she had prepared for another purpose."
"What other purpose?"
"Rat poison," Ray said, "is what has been killing the dogs."
Sarah didn't reply. She thought of all the people who had complained over the years about their dogs eating bad garbage on the beach. No one thought to do an autopsy on the dogs. No one thought to question their deaths. After all, they were only animals. Dumb animals.
"I guess it's a kind of justice, but I wish we'd caught her before this happened," Ray continued. "Sarah? You still there?"
"Are we still on for next weekend?"
"You don't sound very enthusiastic."
"I don't feel good. I've been feeling sick to my stomach today. I'll call you back later."
"Do you want to come out here tonight?"
"No. I'd better go home and tell my parents. Mom will want to know all the details."
"Sheriff McCall said he was going out first thing in the morning to talk to everyone. You could pretend you don't know anything and wait for him to break the news."
"Maybe I'll do that."
Sarah promised to go to bed early and to call Ray in the morning. She took down the flag, refilled the soda and the beer cases, counted out the cash drawer - carefully lining up the presidents' faces on the bills. Washington. Lincoln. Jefferson. Franklin. The nightly ritual of closing the store usually calmed her, gave her an everything-in-its-place sort of harmony. But tonight, something was out of place. Her mind wandered and her stomach rumbled. Something still didn't feel right about Hattie's death.
The sun was setting as she left the store. The orange globe sat half in and half out of the ocean. The sky looked like a child's fingerpainting, with long streaks of reds and pinks trailing off over a blue background. The window panes in town glowed scarlet. Sarah walked up the hill to her parents' house.
The auto garage business was not as successful as Jack and Percy had hoped. But with everybody leaving town, the way they did after the trains stop running, it was a wonder we did any business at all. The North Pacific Railroad Company pulled up their last bit of track in 1932. They sold the rails for scrap iron. They closed up the station house, selling off the machinery and shipping the engine parts up north to Alaska where the White Pass in the Yukon was still operating a narrow gauge line. One of the locomotives, a Baldwin 4-4-0 that we all called Monty because it made the trip every day to Monte Rio, ended all the across the sea in Hawaii. Most of the open wooden picnic cars that we rode on Sundays were dismantled and sold as scrap. That was difficult for your grandfather to see those cars, that he had worked so hard to build, sold off like old horses to the glue factory. Some of the cars were saved. They were bought up by the Hollywood movie studios. Now can't you just imagine Gary Cooper sitting on the very same seat that carried Lizzy, Carol, Jack and me up through the redwoods to the river?
With the station closed and the trains gone, the town of Tomales started shrinking like a cotton shirt in boiling water. There was a fire in 1933 that destroyed Green's Dry Good Store and four houses along Third Street. No one bothered to rebuild them. Eventually the school annexed the empty lot and turned it into a children's play yard. The only businesses left in town were D'Angelo's Market, the Volmer Creamery, Big Ed's Bar and our little auto garage.
Life didn't change much for the farmers and the dairymen who lived down the dirt lanes. Instead of bringing their milk, sheep and chickens to the train station in Tomales they trucked their goods directly to the markets in Santa Rosa and San Rafael. Soon the roads were so good the big trucks came to them. The farmers only came into Tomales to get their mail, go to the church on Sunday and exchange gossip at Big Ed's. The hotel above Ed's place closed down, no need for travellers to stay over night when they could get to where they were going by dinnertime on the new highway. The Northern Pacific still ran trains for a few years but they sped straight along from San Rafael to Santa Rosa without ever seeing the coastline, without ever coming close to Tomales. It was as if the town just fell asleep.
Jack and Percy called their garage PJ's. That was Emily's idea. The men thought it was a silly name but there was no arguing with Emily Williams once she got hold of an idea. The shop stood on the corner of Second Street and Thomas Beach Road. Originally the building had been a machine shop for the railroad company. Tall wooden doors opened onto a large room with work benches built along the back wall. Jake dug a pit in the center of the room just like the one he had worked in at the turn around station. That way he could stand underneath the cars while he worked on them. Percy did the bookkeeping and Jake did the mechanics. I painted the sign to hang out front and Emily made lace curtains for the office window. "The feminine touch," Emily had called it. "Just touched," your grandpa Jack had said pointing to his temple.
Business was slow. Most of the farmers fixed their own vehicles. They kept their tractors held together with baling wire and bubble gum and they only drove their cars on Sunday. So, they didn't leave much to break down. For awhile the school brought in the yellow buses to be overhauled and maintained but then George Saliero, the president of the school board, hired his son-in-law, Frank, to be the school mechanic. Frank built those tin shacks out back of the high school to keep the busses out of the weather. You've probably heard the story about Frank and Emily Williams. One of the high school boys caught them buck naked together out in one of those tin shacks. No one knows just how long they'd been carrying on. Emily left to stay with her sister in Utah. She didn't come back for nearly a year. Frank's wife, Carla, left him for good. But she only moved next door. Cooked his supper for him every night and left it in a wicker basket on the porch for him. Didn't pass more than three words between them for the next twenty years, but that basket sat on that porch every night. I guess there's no changing some habits.
Our biggest garage customer in those years was Henry Farrington. Jake used to say that Henry didn't know one end of a chassis from the other. That must have been the case because he brought everything with a motor from the Thomas Beach Resort into the shop at least once. Your grandfather Jack dismantled everything from Beatrice's Cadillacs to Henry's electric shaver. Henry bought Beatrice awfully nice Cadillacs. Emily Williams called them Sorry Presents. She said Henry beat on Beatrice and then he'd buy her a new car. Now, I don't know that for sure. Emily was full of stories, some true and some she simply fabricated out of whole cloth. But Gladys Ambrosi, who knew Beatrice from the Presbyterian Church and was not one to tell tales, told me that Beatrice came to her house one time in the middle of the night. Beatrice had all three of the kids with her and a great big suitcase and she was standing out on Gladys' front porch. Beatrice told Gladys that she had packed up the kids up and driven to the Ambrosi's farm because there was a storm coming in off the ocean and she was afraid the Thomas Beach Hotel was going to be washed out to sea. Gladys said it was raining so hard that night the drops were bouncing off the windows and the wind was blowing the eucalyptus branches clean off the trees. But, bad as the weather was, that didn't explain Beatrice's black eye and the fact that her dress was torn all down the front. Gladys never asked her about the eye or the dress, it being none of her business, but it did strike her as peculiar. Henry came for his family first thing the next morning and no one talked about the incident again. I never even told Emily, knowing as I did that she would spread that story all over town. But Emily may have had a point about the Sorry Presents, because the next time I saw Beatrice she was driving a brand new Cadillac.
The most frequent customers we had in the garage were the local boys from the high school. They came down after classes or during their lunch hour to work on their cars. They didn't spend much money but they gave the place a busy air so that as you passed by it seemed that business was booming. Lizzy and I brought Jake's lunch down to him everyday and we often found strange young legs poking out from under chassis. And there would be Jake, with his khaki pants and heavy brown shoes poking out right along side of them.
In the fall and the summer, when the sun was warm, Lizzy and I would pass the afternoons sitting out front of the garage. Jake and Percy built us our own wooden bench out front facing the road so we could watch the traffic go by. Lizzy liked to wave at the cars. Some people waved back to her and some did not. Lizzy didn't ask for much, just a wave and smile. It says a lot about a person that they won't smile and wave to make a sickly child happy. Says a lot about the meanness in their hearts. But Lizzy always forgave them. Next time they drove by she waved as if she had never seen them before. Always willing to turn the other cheek. After an hour of so of waving Lizzy would curl up with her head on my lap, the sun warm on her pink cheeks and she'd fall asleep, happy as a kitten in a window sill.
Your father came in most every day. When he wasn't bringing in Henry's old trucks to be fixed he'd work on his own car. An old Model T pickup. Sam was proud of that truck. Kept it running so smooth it purred. He and Jake took that thing apart and cleaned every little nut and washer. They were always adjusting this or that, dropping their heads down into the engine compartment to listen and then adjusting everything again. Lizzy liked Sam. There weren't many people she befriended, but whenever your father came around she lit up like a christmas tree, breaking into a smile large enough to cross the street on. And Sam always smiled back to her and asked her how she was doing. He brought her licorice ropes from the resort store that she would work on for the rest of the day. Took me hours to wash the black out of her dresses but I never minded.
Your mother didn't take much of an interest in Sam in those days. She spent most of her time dressing herself up and running around the countryside with your father's sister, Hattie. Short of tying Carol to the leg of the kitchen table there didn't seem much I could do to keep her at home. She'd be off to school at the crack of dawn and not come home again until well after dark. Studying at the library, she'd say when I asked where she'd been. Perhaps that was true. She always got the highest marks in her class.
Every weekend Carol spent out at the Farrington's resort. She took to wearing Hattie's clothes and talking with that slow accent that Hattie uses. She started slurring her words as if she were half-asleep. "Open your mouth when you talk," Jack would yell when Carol came home speaking that way. "You ain't Miss Scarlet O'Hara." But that's what she wanted to be, a Southern Belle. She wanted the mansion house and the servant girls. She wanted the fancy crinolines, the button down gloves and the ballrooms with crystal chandeliers. No doubt she wanted Rhett Butler too.
I admit some part of me was pleased your mother had some friends of her own to go off with, because your aunt Lizzy didn't get any easier to care for as she got older. Even with her ill-ness she passed into puberty like any other girl her age. Those were difficult years. Lizzy didn't understand what was happening to her. Her hormones were racing through her body like horses at the Kentucky Derby and causing her to itch all over her body. I had to discipline her, slap her hand when she started pulling at her panties in public. She soon learned to control herself. She was a good girl.
She never did understand about menstruation, though. Every time her monthlies started she let out a holler loud enough to wake the dead. You would of thought her insides were falling out the way she screamed. She would tremble so bad Dr. Reynolds gave me medicine to calm her down. No one understood what we were going through in those years. Emily Williams actually brought around the Anderson boy to call on Lizzy. Can you imagine? I don't know what possessed that women into thinking my Lizzy would be interested in the friendship of a retarded boy. Billy Anderson didn't have a lick of sense and not one iota of common decency. I saw him on more than one occasion open up his fly and do his business right in the middle of the county road. In broad daylight. How Emily could think, for one minute, that I would allow Lizzy to be seen in the company of that mongrel boy, is beyond me. Lizzy was a sickly child. She was not like Billy Anderson.
Like I said Carol spent most of her time out at Thomas Beach with the Farringtons, eating at their table, wearing their clothes, and working in their hotel. She wouldn't so much as sweep the floor of our garage but she'd change the Farrington linens from dawn to dusk. Your father wasn't around then. He'd joined the Navy at the beginning of the war, finished his high school classes early so that he could enlist. I never met a boy so eager to serve his country. "Just his way of running away from home," Jack said.
Can't say as how I blame him. The Farrington family, for all their fancy dinner parties and fancy cars, didn't add up to much in my book. Emily said that Henry tried to enlist in the Navy but they wouldn't take him because he was so fat. I'm not saying that she's right, but it certainly wouldn't surprise me if this time she was close to the truth. Henry was a mountain of a man. And poor Beatrice wasn't much bigger than a bird. She had the smallest feet your ever saw and a waist that Scarlet O'Hara would have given her eye teeth for. Your Grandmother Beatrice was a handsome woman in her day. Jack used to say that it was a sin to marry a bull like that to such a little woman. "No farmer in the world would let a stud that size mount a pony," your grandfather used to say. "Just goes to show that humans ain't got no sense when it comes to mating."
Of course, Beatrice just made matters worse. She stuffed food down Henry the same way my Papa fed his porkers before market day. Might as well have set out a trough for the man. There toward the end he weighed upwards of four hundred pounds. Couldn't put his own boots on. Couldn't hardly walk. Just sat on that huge oak chair in the office there all day and talked to the people as they passed by. Like as if he were on display. And Beatrice brought him cream cakes, blueberry muffins and apple pie. Now, if you ask me, that wasn't love.
Your father took after his mother. He was fine boned, not puny or delicate, just built with a smaller frame than his father. I doubt that anyone would confuse your father with Rhett Butler, but he did cut quite a handsome figure in his Navy uniform. He and your mother started writing to each other during the war. He sent postcards from France and Italy and pictures of himself on the deck of a ship leaning against a cannon. She sent him boxes of cookies and long salamis from Vandermeers. She wore a silver locket with his picture in it around her neck. Though I think she took it off on Saturday night when she and Hattie went to the dance hall under the cypress trees. Hattie was smaller then and loved to dance with the soldiers.
The resort was swarming with soldiers during the war, everybody on the lookout for Japanese submarines. Hattie claimed she saw one surface just outside the breakers one night. She swooned and carried on causing such an uproar the Shore Patrol evacuated the town and called out the Coast Guard. It was a false alarm, of course. Just Hattie trying to get herself some attention. "That girl would set a match to herself just to meet a fireman," Jack said.
Sam and Carol were married in the Tomales Presbyterian Church on June 26, 1948. Sam wore his dress uniform, all white with a long black sword hanging down his side. Carol wore Beatrice's wedding dress, white Italian lace over a satin bodice and a five foot long train. Jack and I had had a civil wedding, nothing so fancy. But my sister Amy sent Carol a pair of satin shoes from Texas. She looked beautiful. I made Lizzy's dress, pink eyelet linen with puff sleeves. She was the bridesmaid. Carol wanted Hattie to be her bridesmaid but that would have hurt Lizzy's feeling, so I had to insist. It just didn't seem right to leave her own sister out of the wedding party. Sometimes your mother can be stubborn, but I can be stubborn too. Lizzy stood up there with her sister just as pretty as she could be, and I was proud of my two girls, my twin angels.
When the war was over, your mother thought Sam would quit the Navy and settle down in Thomas Beach but he wasn't ready to come back. He signed on for another hitch and packed Carol off to Hawaii. They sent us postcards from all over the world. Living here and there. Taking off to wherever your father's orders sent him. Hawaii, Guam, The Philippines, Maryland. Your grandpa and I never got to see you. It was just us and Lizzy. About the time you were born - Guam wasn't it? - your grandpa sold the garage to Tom Bernini. We bought the house on Top Street in Thomas Beach. We thought Lizzy might like to watch the ocean, thought maybe it would calm her down some.
Retirement didn't sit well with Jack. He passed away less than a year after we moved to Thomas Beach. Dr. Reynolds said he died of kidney failure. But I think he died of boredom. It was different for me. I took up playing bridge with Beatrice and Gertie Mueller. And I had Lizzy to think of. I couldn't leave her in this world without me.
I was pleased as punch when you all moved back to Thomas Beach. And Lizzy was thrilled to have you and David playing in the house. She used to pull out the toy basket whenever she saw you walking up the street. Remember how she'd hug you and rub the top of your heads? She loved that long shiny black hair of yours. She used to want to touch it all the time. Lizzy was always so affectionate.
Your mother was happy to be home after all that traveling and moving from place to place. A Navy wife's life was a far cry from the life she had expected when she married into the Farrington's. But she got you all back to Thomas Beach eventually and she got the life she always wanted. I'm not sure it's made her very happy.
Sarah rolled over in her bed winding the blankets tightly around her like a wool cocoon. Strange nightmares circled around and around in her mind. Images of dogs. Dogs passed before her in a carousel of dioramas, each one depicting a dog suspended in mid-gesture. Mangy Fox Terriers, scabby Rottweilers, Huskies with warm black noses and black gums, Beagles with drooping tongues and rust colored Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Slowly the dog's shapes started changing, transforming into something else. Something no longer canine and yet not quite human. Then the animals began to move, slowly at first, than more and more frantically like wind-up toys out of control. Animals lapped at their genitals. The animals gnawed at invisible fleas on their legs. They burrowed their faces into their groins. Retching and trembling. Then they were dogs again. Dogs curled up against overturned trash barrels and dogs half buried in the sand. Sarah saw her hand reach out to pet a writhing white Samoyed. She caressed it gently. But the dog cowered and pulled away from her. She was left holding a fistful of white fur. She opened her hand. The fur dissolved into dust. A gust of wind blew the dust from her palm and all the dogs began to howl. The sound lifted Sarah into the air. She looked down. Howling, the dog burst into flames at her feet.
A bead of sweat trickled down her cheek into the sluice of her smile line and swelled gently at the edge of her lip. Her head rolled to one side and the tip of her tongue arched forward to catch the moisture sitting on her lip like a dew drop on a rose petal. The salty taste of her own sweat woke her. She shivered. The bedroom window was open.
Sometime in the night the wind had risen and now the room was cold and the curtains, like pregnant howling ghosts, billowed towards her. Sarah left the bed, pushed the curtains to the side and slid the window closed. She heard the wind outside the window but the bedroom seemed hollow, an empty chamber insulated from the world. Now fully awake, she pulled on the jeans she had left on the floor, found a wool sweater in her drawer and a soft down jacket hanging in the closet. She dressed awkwardly, trying not to make a sound. She crept down the stairs and slipped out the front door into the night.
The booming surf echoed along the streets, bouncing off the dark, silent houses. She kept to the pavement. The short cuts through back gardens were hidden in the darkness and she didn't want to risk waking a sleeping dog by tripping over someone's sweet pea trellis. She stumbled over the old cypress root in front of the silver GulfAir trailer, but she didn't fall. The gate to the beach parking lot was closed. There were no cars, no people. As she stepped off the gravel surface of the beach parking lot, Sarah felt the soft sand compress beneath her feet. She heard the distant clang of the bell buoy ring out above the roar of pounding waves. A few seconds later came the shrill response of the whistle buoy far out on the horizon. She nestled deep inside the warm down jacket and wrapped herself in the noise. A rhythmic pattern emerged from beneath the round rolling sounds of the wind. Words formed out of the crashing waves and from inside the wind Sarah heard the voice of her Grandmother Maggie. She felt a warm flush along her neck and a tickle in her inner ear as she recognized Maggie's gentle Midwest cadence, with its round elongated vowels and high pitched diphthongs. For hours Sarah walked in the darkness surrounded by the roar of the wind and the sea and listened to the stories of her grandmother. She listened, also, to the howling spaces between the words, to the cries of stories untold, of plot lines undeveloped, of characters silenced and left behind, of a little girl growing up in the shadow of her retarded sister.
* * *
"Who's there?" A voice called out, fearfully from the darkness.
"It's all right, Mom. It's only me." Sarah whispered as she reentered the house. She closed the front door quietly behind her. "What are you doing up? It's almost three o'clock."
"The wind woke me and I couldn't get back to sleep," Carol said. Her voice came from the direction of the sofa near the front window. "I hate the wind, that horrible moaning."
"I couldn't sleep either. I thought maybe if I walked for awhile I would tire myself out. But it didn't work." Sarah heard the sound of ice cubes tinkling against the side of a glass and the quiet smack of her mother's lips as she sipped the cold liquid.
Sarah didn't need the lights to know that it was amber liquid - Jim Beam. At dinner the night before, she had told her parents about Ray's call, about the investigator's report and the conclusion of the Sheriff's Department that Aunt Hattie's death was accidental. She had told them that the rat poison that killed Hattie had been the same poison that had killed the dogs. They had discussed it all at length. Her father was relieved that it was over. He had said little and he went to bed soon after dinner. Her mother had spent the evening on the phone organizing the funeral that would take place on Friday and eliciting emotional support from the community. But for Sarah there had been too many things left unsaid, too many questions left unanswered.
"Mom," Sarah said, keeping her voice just above a whisper and her tone soft, almost caressing. She felt her way through the dark room, across the bookshelves, along the dining room table, past the standing lamp until her hands found a chair near the sofa. She lowered herself into the soft chair. Then, quietly, kindly, she asked, "It wasn't Aunt Hattie who poisoned the dogs, was it?"
"What do you mean?" Carol asked.
Sarah could see the outline of her mother's white robe curled up on the sofa and the toes of her white socks peeping out from underneath it.
"Of course it was Hattie," Carol continued. "She always hated dogs."
"She did," Sarah agreed quietly. "But Mom, I saw you with those sausage patties in your hand. When you knocked that stack over we didn't get everything put back correctly, did we?"
"What are you saying?" Carol asked.
In her mother's voice, Sarah heard the crisp edge of an inner wall rising. A wall that would shut Sarah out. Carol put her glass on the coffee table, the clunk, as the tumbler hit the wood, resounding in the darkness. She wrapped her arms tightly around her chest.
Sarah took a deep breath, held the air until her lungs began to burn, then began to scale the wall. "What I'm saying is that Hattie didn't make up that poisoned meat. She didn't know about the patties in the walk-in. She didn't kill the dogs. You were poisoning the dogs and when we mixed up the meat Aunt Hattie accidently tooks some home with her."
"You want to hurt me," Carol said. "You don't care how I feel. I don't have to listen to this."
"I'm not trying to hurt you, Mom. I'm trying to find out the truth. I think the truth will make things better here."
"You just want to be right," Carol said and added mockingly. "Sarah's got to get her two cents worth in. Always exaggerating. Always making up some wild story. You think you're so smart, think you know everything. Well, this time you've gone too far. This time nobody will believe you."
"This isn't about other people believing me, Mom. This is between you and me. I don't think Aunt Hattie poisoned the dogs."
"Well, you're wrong," Carol said wrapping the white robe tighter around her. "You're wrong about a lot of things. You think that Grandma Maggie loved you, don't you? You're wrong about that. She never loved you. She never loved anybody but that retard. All those stories she told - Lizzy this and Lizzy that. She didn't talk about how everybody in town stared at us, laughed at us. She didn't tell you how Lizzy gnawed on her sweater sleeves at the dinner table, pawed at her crotch in the grocery store. She didn't tell you how the men down at the garage wouldn't eat the cookies she brought because Lizzy had drooled all over them. How they made faces behind our backs. How all the kids at school were scared of Daddy's black glove. How they called him names. We weren't a family - we were a freak show." Carol reached for her glass.
Sarah sat perfectly still in the darkness. She didn't reply. "How could you even say such a thing," Carol finally said, the words spitting from her mouth like eight penny nails from an air gun. "I loved Hattie. I loved all of them. The Farrington's were a real family. It wasn't my fault. It was an accident."
This wasn't how it was supposed to be. This was not how Sarah had written the scene while she walked back up the hill from the beach. It had seemed so simple when she spoke the lines into the wind. Sarah would gently offer her mother the opportunity to tell her the truth and her mother would burst into tears and confess. Sarah would have the truth. Not exaggerations. Not inferences drawn from sketchy facts. Not intuitions. Not stories stitched together from scraps of information. The truth. No one else needed to know. It could have been a truth that just the two of them shared.
"Mom," Sarah said leaning forward, "I'm not saying that you purposely killed Aunt Hattie. But isn't it possible that the sausage you prepared for the dogs got mixed up with her packages?"
"I made up that sausage?" Carol shook her head, pulled her chin down into her collarbone, glaring at her daughter. "I didn't touch that meat. Nobody saw me touch that meat." Carol's eyes widened until her irises seemed like tiny blue boats on a vast sea of white.
Sarah pulled herself back into the chair. She sensed that she had reached a new boundary with her mother. She felt the unspoken threat - push me any further, her mother seemed to be saying, and I will become hysterical. This was a stronger threat then the one lurking beneath the lesson of the Cheshire Cat. Her mother was not going to simply erase Sarah from the world as Alice had erased the smiling feline. Her mother was going to drop down the rabbit hole herself, she was going to slip into the world beyond the looking glass. She was going to go to a place where Sarah couldn't reach her.
"Hattie was a pig," Carol said quietly. "Just like her father. Never looked before she put something in her mouth. That's how it happened."
Sarah realized that she was not going to get what she wanted. She would never get the truth. She would never resolve this with her mother. This was simply the way it was going to be.
They sat in the darkness. The howling wind had subsided and now only whispered along the window sills. The old house creaked. The ice cubes melted in Carol's glass and tumbled against each other. Out the window Sarah could see the steady flashing beam of the light buoy anchored at the mouth of the bay. Careful. Do not enter, the light said. Like so many times before, Sarah would have to hold her truth to herself, unacknowledged, unverified, unaccepted, unwanted. Sarah finally, truly, understood why she always had to leave this place. To stay in Thomas Beach meant accepting life here the way it was. It meant accepting the Farrington's as a great big happy family, her uncle Gerrick as a sheriff, the dying resort as a flourishing business and her mother as the new matriarch of the family.
"I talked with Rachel last night," Carol said. Her voice was tentative, as if testing the waters. When Sarah didn't respond she continued: "We planned the funeral. The reception will be at Gerrick's. I offered our house but Rachel thought perhaps the living room was too small. I'll do the cooking, though. Rachel has her hands full with the baby."
Carol continued to describe the menu she had planned, the tuna casseroles, the jello mold with grated carrots, the Chex party mix and the chocolate cookies with tiny colored marshmallows. She named off all the people who would be there, the family, the friends, the acquaintances.
"Sounds good, Mom," Sarah said. She stood, murmered "Goodnight," and left the room.
Just before reaching her bedroom, Sarah swerved right to the bathroom. She managed to get the door shut behind her before she threw up.
* * *
By the time the sun came up on Thursday morning the storm had passed and the sea was calm. The sand was scribed with wavy lines of dirty foam left from the night's frothing waves. Sarah stood at her bedroom window, her suitcase lay open on the bed. On the street below Agnes and Harold Burney walked hand in hand toward the beach. Agnes pointed to the fresh cuttings of purple sea fig that were beginning to take root in the sandy soil where cabin #28 had stood. Her mouth moved silently, forming words that Sarah couldn't hear. Harold smiled and nodded, squeezed his wife's hand tighter as if to say: Yes, what a lovely observation, so insightful, so clever. They continued on their way around the corner and down the hill. The triangle point of Agnes's scarf swung gently in time with the hem of Harold's wool overcoat. Sarah watched them until they were far down the beach and their two figures became one dark spot moving along the white sand. She heard the front door close on the floor below her and assumed it was her father going off to work. She was surprised to see him sitting at the dining room table when she went downstairs.
"Where's Mom?" Sarah asked.
"At the store. She went down to open the loading dock. Laura Scudder's and Clover are delivering today. She'll take over the store orders now. I think your mother knows the business as well as any of us." Sam said as he carefully cut his scrambled eggs into one inch squares.
Sarah sat across from her father and helped herself to one of the cinnamon rolls sitting on an aluminum foil platter. She studied her father for a moment. He had aged years in the few weeks she'd been home. There were more gray hairs in his sandy hair and two little shadows hung beneath each eye like dark crescents beneath rheumy pools. The skin on his face drooped below his jaw as if resigning itself to the force of gravity, a force his flesh had fought off for years. His hands trembled slightly causing his fork to tap out a Morse Code against his plate as he scooped up his eggs.
"I need to talk to you, Dad," Sarah said cautiously, deliberately, "I don't think Aunt Hattie poisoned those dogs."
Sam chewed his toast slowly, moving his mouth from side to side and running his tongue along his gums as if a piece of scrambled egg had lodged between his teeth.
"Oh?" was all he said.
"I think Mom was doing it." Sarah's statement hung in the air between them for a long time.
Finally, Sam picked up his napkin and wiped the crumbs from his chin. "Your mother has been very upset lately, Sarah," he said. "This isn't easy for her."
"What should we do?"
"There isn't much we can do."
"Are you and Mom going to stay?" Sarah asked.
"Yes. I talked with Gerrick yesterday. He can't carry on by himself. He wants us back in the business. He's going to call Ed Pressman's office today and draw up new papers. He will divide his shares with us. So your mother will be an owner of Thomas Beach. It's what she's always wanted."
Sam looked out at the horizon. A small group of fishing boats was silhouetted against the pale morning sky. The flashing beam of the light buoy winked seductively.
"Sometimes things don't go the way you plan," Sam said.
The sadness Sarah heard in her father's voice was underscored with longing, with a painful yearning, an aching desire to recapture what he had already let slip away. She also heard and acceptance, a surrender which she found horrifying.
"Dad," Sarah said, "I thnk it's time for me to go. Do you still need me here?"
"You can stay as long you want, Sarah," he said. "But I'll understand if you have to leave."
"I only came because you asked me to and I'll stay longer if you need me. But I can't stay forever."
"Don't worry about us," Sam said. "We'll get along fine."
"All right, then I'll go finish packing," Sarah said. She smiled at her father and rose from the table.
"Your car is all put back together," Sam said. "The hood latch is fixed. I changed the oil yesterday and filled the tank with gas. I kind of figured it was time."
"I'll go out now and fill the windshield wiper fluid up and check the air pressure in the tires."
Sarah went upstairs and packed her bag. She scribbled a note to her mother which said, "Call you when I get home" and stuck it under the Hershey's Kiss refrigerator magnet. She took one last look out the front window at the waves breaking along the shore and closed the front door.
Sam pulled his head out of the engine compartment. He cleared his throat and wiped the motor oil off his fingers. Sarah gave him a hug and kissed his warm cheek. He smiled at her, and she could see a tear swelling up in the corner of his eye. But the tear did not escape his lid.
"Be careful with the brakes. I adjusted them a little tight so they might grab at first, but they'll loosen up as you go along. I should get off to work now," he said. He got into the blue and pink pickup truck and drove down toward the beach.
Sarah sat for a moment on the front porch and wrote a letter to Ray. She slipped it into her sweater pocket. I'll mail it from Tomales, she thought. She threw her suitcase onto the back seat of the Valiant, slid beneath the steering wheel and turned the key in the ignition. The engine purred. On her way down Front Street she passed her Grandmother Beatrice's house. The windows were dark and an orange FOR RENT sign stood beside the jade plants in the garden. Perhaps, Beatrice's house will be the base of next year's Fourth of July bonfire, Sarah thought as she drove by. Beyond her grandmother's she could see a short piece of yellow police tape hanging from the railing of Hattie's redwood deck. Perhaps Hattie's house would go up in flames the year after that.
As she passed the old hotel she saw her mother standing at the back door to the stockroom. Sarah hunkered down behind the wheel, lifted her foot from the gas pedal, and coasted. She prayed her mother wouldn't see her. Carol held a long clipboard in her hand and marked it as the delivery man unloaded cases of potato chips and marshmallows at her feet. The man wore a gray t-shirt with a drawing of a goose wearing a red headscarf stencilled on it. Carol wore her baby blue Farrington Family Resort smock with the horseneck clam on the back. Above them the windows of the old hotel were dark. Carol, engrossed in her inventory, didn't look up as Sarah slid silently by.
There were no cars on the road as she climbed up through the curves leading out of Thomas Beach. Sarah realized her knuckles were white on the steering wheel and actively relaxed her hands. The air was warm and she hung her arm out the window. She could smell the heavy oils of the eucalyptus and the tangy brine of the sea. Beneath the summer sun the hills were turning a deep golden brown, the color of lightly parched paper. The stream that ran along the bottom of the ravine beside the road had slowed to a sluggish ooze. As Sarah eased through the first curve she saw the hotel for a moment in her rear view mirror. She noticed that the curtains on the wheelhouse windows were still open, then the hotel disappeared behind the hill.
At the top of the hill, as Sarah turned the Valiant right toward Tomales, a Redwood Sheriff's car passed her on its way to Thomas Beach.Without slowing Sarah continued on her way. A few moments later, she saw the flashing lights and heard the quick whirl of a siren behind her. She pulled off the pavement onto the gravel shoulder.
"Are we still on for this weekend?" Ray asked as he emerged from the car.
Sarah got out of her car and stood with her back against the front door. "I don't think I'm going to be able to make it, Ray," she said.
"But I made the reservations in Tahoe. That place near Emerald Bay." Ray looked over Sarah's shoulder to the suitcase sitting on the back seat. "You're leaving, aren't you? What happened?"
Sarah didn't answer for a moment. She wanted to confide in him, but she couldn't. She found she couldn't talk to Ray about her mother.
"I just realized that I can't stay any longer. I want to get back to my house and my job."
"Look, Sarah," Ray said, "I have to go on this call, please stay, just another day, so we can at least talk about it."
"I can't talk about it right now," Sarah said.
"What do you mean?"
"We could talk all night, but it wouldn't make any difference. There is too much wrong here and I can't make it right."
"Does that include us?"
"It's not us," Sarah said looking at her feet. "But the things that are wrong with this place affect us and I can't stay. I'm sorry."
"You were going to go without saying anything. Just like before."
"No. I wrote you a note this time," Sarah said and dug in her pocket for the letter. Ray took the letter.
"I'll read it later," he said. "Can we talk about this sometime?"
"Yes. Maybe you can come see me in Maine sometime," Sarah said.
"I don't know. It's really hard for me to get a way."
The radio in Ray's car crackled. He reached throught the window and across the front seat. "Yeah, I'm almost there," he said into the handset then hung it back on the dashboard.
"It's another dead dog," he said. "I hope this doesn't mess everything up. I have to go, Sarah."
"So do I," Sarah said. She felt dizzy and was having a hard time staying on her feet. She really wanted to leave now. Ray turned and got into his car. Sarah started her car and drove east into the rising sun, away from Thomas Beach.