My second grade teacher was an old friend of my mother’s, so skipping school that year was easy. Wednesdays, my mom’s day off from work, we went for long beach walks. We collected sea glass and dead horseshoe crabs and my mom taught me how to skip rocks. If it was raining, we stayed home and messed up the kitchen. On Thursdays, I didn’t need to bring a note to school. My teacher never asked why I’d been absent, only if I’d had a good mother-daughter day. That’s what she and my mom called those Wednesdays together. Mother-daughter days. I called them playing hooky.
But then, for third grade, I got stuck with fat Ms. Thomas, who said 90 percent of life was showing up, so my mom had to get tricky with her excuses. She didn’t mind. It was the type of challenge she took seriously.
The secretary called me to the front office on the intercom during snack. She told me to bring my things; I was going to be dismissed early. Ms. Thomas said I could choose a friend to walk with me to the office, but I said, “No, thanks.”
In the hallway, I thought maybe my mom had died. I was an orphan now. But when I got to the office, there she was, waiting for me. She said I had a dentist appointment and she hadn’t told me that morning because she knew I’d get anxious and make myself sick. It was true that I didn’t like the dentist’s squeaky fingers in my mouth, and that I was prone to stomachaches, so I thought she was telling the truth.
“Why do I need my backpack?” I said. “Can’t I come back after?”
“They might need to pull that tooth,” she said. “You won’t feel so good.”
The secretary was watching us now.
“You know what tooth,” my mom said, but I didn’t.
It was late October and we were having an Indian summer. The red and yellow maple leaves and the blue sky were too bright to look at, so I closed my eyes and held my mom’s hand as we walked to the truck. “It’s such a perfect day,” she said. “Let’s go fishing.”
“After the dentist?”
She squeezed my hand and said, “You don’t have to go to the dentist, bug. I just couldn’t wait till three to see you.”
We stopped at Dick’s Tackle for bait, and then drove to Eastville Beach, where we walked to the end of the long jetty that stretched out into the harbor. We only had one rod, so we took turns casting and helping each other unhook the scup we reeled in. By mid-afternoon we had eight of them dead or faintly gasping in a drywall bucket. We sat next to each other on the jetty and shared a bag of sunflower seeds. There was a doe in the beach grass on shore, twitching her ears at us. I’d never seen a deer at the beach before, but my mom said they liked to swim. They’d swum across the sound from off-island once. “Four miles,” she said.
I thought she was teasing me.
“How’d you think they got here?” she said. “On the ferry?”
I’d never thought very hard about how anybody had got to the island. It felt like everybody and everything that was here had always been here, although I knew that wasn’t true. My mother, for instance, had escaped to the island from Hartford, Connecticut, the summer before she was supposed to begin her last year of high school. She’d camped on South Beach all summer, she once told me, subsisting on beach plums and rosehips and buckwheat porridge.
I believed that story, but deer swimming over? The mainland looked so far away. And the doe looked so delicate, her long limbs tapering down into her small black hooves. When I stood up to get a better look, she bolted into a thicket of rosa rugosa between the beach and the parking lot.
On the drive home, I thought about what I’d missed at school that afternoon. After lunch on Wednesdays, Ms. Thomas would take our class to the library where we read or played chess with our fifth-grade reading partners. Mine’s name was Sam Herman. He didn’t like reading or chess or talking very much, so we made a show of picking out books together, and then we drew pictures in his notebook instead. We drew a cat licking a mushroom, salamanders cuddling, a lobster with a handlebar mustache. Well, mostly I gave Sam ideas and then watched, or helped with the background.
Sam lived with both his parents and Duke, his big yellow dog, in a ranch house on Norris Ave, just a few streets away from me and my mom. He and I were both only children. His father, Richard Herman, who had been born on the island, was a lobsterman. The Hermans’ yard was always cluttered with bent traps, frayed ropes, buoys in need of fresh paint.
In the truck with my mom and the dead fish—I’d insisted we bring the bucket into the cab with us—I knew what I’d ask Sam to draw next week: deer swimming over from the mainland.
At recess the next day, when I was hiding behind a bench, pretending to be an orphan, Ms. Thomas crouched down next to me and asked me if everything was okay at home.
“I had to get three fillings yesterday,” I said. I knew lying was wrong, but I was willing to do it to protect my mother’s reputation. I’m still willing to do that much for her.
“Poor you!” Ms. Thomas said. “Is your mouth sore?”
Was this a trick question? I’d never had a filling. I shook my head.
“Your mom works at the nursery, right?” she said.
“I think she helped me with my window boxes last spring. And after school, before she gets off work, it’s just you at home?”
I picked my lip.
“There’s nothing wrong with that. But if you ever want to stay after with me, you’re welcome. It could be fun.”
Why would I stay after with Ms. Thomas when I could do whatever I wanted at my house? I could make myself a butter and sugar sandwich, climb a tree, and spy on the neighbors until it got dark. I could dress the cat up in my mother’s underwear, or take a bath and practice holding my breath underwater. I could ride my bike up and down Norris Ave, past Sam’s house.
I’d made my lip bleed. Ms. Thomas touched my wrist so I’d leave it alone. “You’re so quiet,” she said, “but I can’t tell if you’re lonely.”
The weatherman on the radio—my mom and I didn’t have a TV—said the first nor’easter of the season would hit the island by Monday. Saturday night, there was a full moon and a beach party on the north shore. Before we left home, I made my mom promise we’d come back that night. Parties often turned into sleepovers for us, when she drank too much to drive. This was fine when we were at somebody’s house—it usually meant watching cable before bed and somebody cooking us eggs in the morning—but I didn’t want to sleep at the beach. She said, “We’ll be home by ten, bug,” but then she packed wool blankets in the back of the truck.
It was still light out when we got to the party. There was a bonfire and hot dogs. Richard Herman was shucking oysters at a folding table with Duke, all wet, at his feet. A band called the Okie-Dokes stood behind the fire playing guitars and a banjo, singing songs about love and whiskey. Kids danced with other kids. My mom danced with everybody. Sam was there, digging a giant hole with a fifth grader whose name I didn’t know. I sat by myself and buried my feet and shins in the sand. It was mostly women eating the oysters. My mom sucked down three in between songs, then pulled on Richard’s hand, the one with the shucking knife in it, and whispered something in his ear. He leaned away from her and smiled.
Sam’s hair was thick and shaggy. He kept whipping his head around to get it out of his face as he dug, and one time he made eye contact with me from across the fire as he did so. I waited for him to smile or wave first, but instead he made a face at me. His cheeks and his mouth went slack and he slow-rolled his eyes up into his head. I couldn’t tell if he was making fun of me, or if he was trying to tell me something important, like maybe he wished the two of us could go somewhere else together, although even then I knew that probably wasn’t the face you’d make if that was what you were trying to say.
I rubbed sand into my shins until they burned, then stood up, ate two hot dogs, and took a sip of beer from a can I found balancing on a rock. Nobody’d thought to bring soda for the kids. I was afraid to dance, so when my mom turned to me with her arms outstretched, I walked away from her and stood near Richard. He’d finished shucking, but there were still a few oysters fanned out on the table in front of him. “Hungry?” he said. I knew I hated them, but I nodded. He squeezed lemon on one and handed it to me. I tried to swallow it whole like you were supposed to, but my throat closed up, and then there was an oozy sea monster pulsing inside my mouth. I spat everything back into the shell, and said, “I like them with cocktail sauce.”
Richard tried not to laugh. “Truth is, I don’t like them much either,” he said. His words came slowly, as if he had to clear a space around each of them. I thought maybe he’d been drinking, but he didn’t seem like the type.
“And you don’t like dancing, do you?” I said.
His voice broke when he answered me. “I guess I don’t,” he said. “Like to dance.” Usually I had nothing to say to adults besides my mother, but Richard was like his son, hard to talk to in a way that made me curious—like how Ms. Thomas felt about me, I guess—but I didn’t know how to draw him out. It’s the people who remind me of myself I find most baffling.
“We live near you,” I said. “Me and my mom. Sam’s my reading partner at school.”
The band was singing another song about heartache. Richard massaged the ruff of Duke’s neck with his big toe and the dog’s otter-like tail slapped the sand. I bent down and stroked Duke’s side. His thick fur was damp and he smelled like low tide, but his body was warm and consoling. “I know who you are,” Richard said. “Met your mother the summer she moved here.” The dog sighed in his sleep. “Sam says you two draw together.”
Sam talked about me at home? “Mostly I just watch,” I said. “He does whatever I ask for.” This wasn’t true. There were plenty of things Sam refused to draw; fairies, horses, people. But it was more a wishful thought than a lie.
Richard spread his fingers out wide on the table. “Sam’s good at drawing,” he said. “Light hands. Not like these fuckers.”
It wasn’t the word that scared me. It was the hands themselves. Not the black crescents beneath the nails, or the dark scabs on the thick knuckles, but the way they seemed separate from the rest of Richard, like two wild animals, tensed and ready to spring. It was the hands and the intensity with which he stared at them. I couldn’t help but look at them too until I noticed my mom coming toward us, weaving her way through the crowd gathered around the fire. “Dance with me, bug!” she screamed. I thanked Richard for the oyster and ran down to the edge of the water, where I began writing names in the wet sand with a piece of driftwood. Sam. Richard. Duke. My own name and my mother’s. “Fuckers,” I whispered to myself, over and over again.
Sam found me down there a while later, when the moon was all the way up and the tide had risen and erased what I’d written. I was skipping rocks. “Where were you on Wednesday?” he said.
A loon swam past us. I threw a rock at it and it dove under. I wanted to ask him what he’d drawn without me, but then he said, “I guess your mom’s pretty hammered. She just bit my dad’s ear when he wouldn’t dance with her. Made him bleed.”
“She’s just joking,” I said.
“Maybe. He’s not mad, and my mom thought it was funny, but he said we’re leaving. He told me to ask if you want a ride home. Or you can stay with us tonight.”
The music was over and most people had already left, but my mom was dancing on a rock with Lorna Herman, Sam’s mom. Richard stood between me and Sam and the fire, waving at us. He said something, but the wind carried his voice in the wrong direction, and he was so quiet to begin with. At least that’s what everyone said later.
I hadn’t noticed Lorna before. Maybe she’d come late. Her silhouette and my mom’s were both slender, but my mom was the better dancer. She kept clapping her hands, and I could hear her laughter even against the wind. Lorna put her hands on my mom’s hips and swished her long hair from side to side. My mom arched her spine, dropped her head back, and reached her fingertips up into the sky. Duke was up on his hind legs, pawing at them. They were bothering him. He wanted to bark at them, wanted to tell them to knock it off, but he was too well-behaved.
Of course I wanted to go with Sam, but the thought of it all—Richard’s hands squeezing the steering wheel, Sam and me sleeping, or not sleeping, beneath the same roof—terrified me. I didn’t know what to expect. When I was in my mother’s care, I at least knew what was coming. Or maybe I never knew what was coming, but nothing she did ever really surprised me.
My lip was bleeding again. Blood tastes like the ocean. “I’ll stay,” I said. “We’re camping tonight.”
Sam was watching our moms now, too. “You sure?” he said.
“I’m having fun.”
“No,” he said. “They’re having fun.”
We made a bed in the dunes, one blanket underneath us and two on top. My mom’s breath was unpleasant, but her body next to mine made me calm. She fell asleep quickly. Across the sound, I could see the shape of the mainland. The port cities glowing orange on the horizon—New Bedford, Fall River, Providence, Rhode Island, the city where I live now. I could see them, but I didn’t know their names then.
Raccoons crept out of the brambles and nosed through the remains of the party. The moon was so bright I could see the gray and black rings on their bushy tails. One sat back on its hind legs to nibble a hot dog bun. Later, a mother skunk led her babies over the dunes in a line, and then, when the sky was finally beginning to lighten, two deer tiptoed past us down to the water’s edge. They touched their muzzles to the sea and looked at each other for a second before wading in. I shook my mom awake and pointed and we watched them swim out toward the sandbar, side by side, their white tails bobbing behind them.
My mom pulled me tight against her and whispered, “I told you, bug.”
That afternoon, Richard went out with Duke to haul his pots in before they got trashed by the storm, and a rogue wave flipped his skiff. His foul weather gear filled up with water before he could right his boat, and he drowned. At least that’s what most people thought must have happened. The coastguard and Richard’s friends who had boats combed the sound for his body, but they read the currents wrong, and it was a stranger jogging on the beach who found him when his body washed ashore on the Cape Tuesday afternoon. All that week, Sam didn’t come to school.
By Wednesday the storm was over and the ocean was calm again, but the seasons had shifted for good, and we were stuck in a period of what my mom used to call “refrigerator weather.” The sky was a dull gray and the air was cold and damp. The school flag was at half-mast to honor Richard, and Ms. Thomas cried at Morning Meeting when she told us his body had been found, but her tears didn’t mean much. She got choked up reading to us from Harriet the Spy. I hoped my mom would conspire to get me out of school again, but Wednesday morning passed according to schedule—show and tell, snack, spelling. After lunch, Ms. Thomas led us to the school library, where she asked me to read with Chris Leon, a chatty fifth grader, famous for his ability to projectile vomit on command, whose partner was also absent. I chose a book on manatees and let him read me a few pages of it. He stumbled on all the long words, and I wondered what the big idea behind reading partners separated by only one grade was. It hadn’t occurred to me to question the system when I got to sit with Sam, but it all seemed like a waste of time with Chris, who kept saying “herbivorous” wrong.
I got the hall pass from the librarian—a blond woman, fond of mauve nail polish and costume jewelry, whom I once admired deeply although I’ve forgotten her name now—and spent the rest of the afternoon picking at the scabs on my lips in a bathroom stall. I kept my feet up on the toilet seat so nobody would know I was in there, but when I unlatched the door after the dismissal bell, there was Ms. Thomas, washing her hands in the sink. “Feeling okay?” she said.
The teachers had their own bathroom. She must have been looking for me, but why hadn’t she said anything?
“Stomachache,” I said, which I realized was true only after I’d said it.
“Sorry to hear it. Shall we go back to the classroom together? You can rest on the couch with Moe.” Moe was our class’s guinea pig. I claimed to believe that it was stupid to keep rodents as pets, but actually I was fond of Moe, who ground his teeth with pleasure when you scratched between his tiny shoulders. I would have liked to hold him on the couch for a while, but I said, “I think I’ll go home.”
Her body was blocking the door to the hallway. She took her time drying her doughy hands on a paper towel.
“Excuse me,” I said.
She didn’t move. She said, “It’s a tragedy, sweetheart.”
“Just a stomachache,” I said. “I get them all the time.”
“About Mr. Herman, I mean. Poor Sam. Poor you. I know you two are close.”
Blood rushed to my cheeks and I thought I might be sick on the floor. What did she know about me and Sam? What did anybody know about us? I pushed past her and left school without stopping at the classroom for my backpack or my coat.
Walking home, I got so cold my fingers went numb, but I went the long way down Norris Ave anyway. The broken traps piled in Sam’s yard looked trashy now that their owner was dead. When someone dies, you bury his body, you keep a few shirts to remember his smell by, and give the rest of his clothes away, but what do you do with the things he hasn’t fixed yet? All the shades were down and the house was dark. I thought maybe Lorna and Sam had left the island for good, but then I saw Duke asleep on the doorstep, which couldn’t be right. Duke had drowned. Hadn’t he?
“Duke. Here, Duke,” I said, but the dog didn’t raise its head. This was a different yellow dog. No, this dog was a ghost.
When I got home, the house was cold and my mom was lying on her belly on the rug, naked, with her arm wrapped around an empty soup pot. Even her butt was covered in goose-bumps. This sort of thing happened sometimes when she spent her days off alone, although I hadn’t seen her this bad in a while. I checked to make sure she was breathing—when I bent down, there was a sour smell, but I couldn’t tell if it was coming from her or the rug—then covered her with the scratchiest wool blanket and started twisting sheets of newspaper up into logs. I opened the flue, positioned the paper-logs at the bottom of the wood stove, built four cabin walls out of kindling around them, rested two pieces of cordwood against the sides of the structure, dropped a lit match in, and sat down on a milk crate. Our house only had one room, plus the loft where I slept, so usually it warmed up fast, but this wood was wet and took a long time to catch. By the time the fire really got going, my mom had rolled onto her back and was looking up at the cobwebs dangling from the ceiling. The cat rubbed his head against my shins. His ears were clogged with mites. I waited a long time for my mom to say something, but I was the one who finally broke the silence when I asked her if she was going to puke.
“I thought I was, but now I couldn’t tell you,” she said. She didn’t slur her words, but I could tell she had to concentrate to get them out right.
“Ms. Thomas wants me to move in with her,” I said. “She says you’re a bad mother.”
“You think you’d be better off living with that bitch?” she said. “Spare me.”
“I’d eat better.”
My mom propped herself up on her elbow and spat into the pot—just clear spit—then wiped her lips on the blanket. “That’s true,” she said.
“I might do it. I really might.”
“Good mother, bad mother,” she said. “At least I haven’t drowned myself yet. I heard he was covered in crabs when they found him. His cheeks picked down to the bone.”
Normally, this was the type of detail we lived for.
“I saw a ghost on my way home,” I said.
My mom put her hand over her brow. There were tears rolling down her temples, getting lost in her hair. I tried to remember if I’d ever seen her cry before.
“I’m joking,” I said. “I’m just joking. I made that up about Ms. Thomas.”
“I know,” she said. “It’s a sin to break up a family.”
I put a pot of water on for hot dogs, or ramen, or whatever I decided to make in a minute—my stomach didn’t hurt any more—and brought my mom a can of ginger ale from the fridge. Her eyes were closed again and her body was still as a carcass. I thought she’d fallen back to sleep, but then she said, “We’ll be alright.”
And if I’ve made you feel sorry for me, then I’m telling this whole thing wrong. The truth is I enjoyed this type of afternoon. I was proud of my fire-making technique, and I liked playing nurse to my mother even more than I liked pretending she was dead.
Next Wednesday, Sam was waiting for me at our usual table.
“You’re here,” I said.
“I thought maybe—”
“I’m here,” he said. “What do you want me to do?”
He had his notebook out, but it took me a second to realize he was asking me what I wanted him to draw. Then I remembered the deer, and explained, somewhat breathlessly, about them swimming across the sound from off-island.
“Yeah,” he said, “I know. How’d you think they got here?”
I would have liked to stare at him while he worked, but I knew that was odd behavior, so I feigned interest in the books lined up on the shelves behind him instead. It was the travel section. Big colorful books on Thailand, Polynesia, Nepal, places I only half believed in.
The deer came out all wrong. He drew them wearing goggles and swim caps. It looked like they were doing water aerobics in a pool. I guess I didn’t hide my disappointment well because before he got to their hooves, he laid his pencil down on the table and said, “What’s the matter with you?” This struck me as mean at the time, but now I think he really just wanted to know. Some men can’t help but sound cruel when they get personal. It’s hard for them to talk about you because they care so much, or that’s what I tell myself. “They look like cartoons,” I said.
He tore the page out of his notebook, and folded it into quarters instead of crumpling it. Richard was right. His son had light hands. Not weak, but light and careful. “Draw your own picture, then,” Sam said.
“You know I suck.” It was the first time I’d sworn in conversation, and I was surprised by the rush it gave me. Much more rewarding than whispering bad words to myself. And “suck” wasn’t even a real curse word.
“Practice makes perfect,” Sam said.
“You sound like Ms. Thomas.”
“You sound like my mom,” he said, which was weird because if I was imitating anyone, it was my own mother. “You know,” he said, “she drinks, too.”
“Well, your dad just—”
He shook his head. “She always has. I think she’s glad he’s gone.”
I thought I knew what he was after. Something mean about my mom so he could feel okay about what he’d just said about his. A trade, but really, a betrayal. With anyone else, I would have put up a fight, but even when I was nine, I couldn’t resist Sam. “My mom’s a bitch,” I said. It was the best I could do, but it didn’t seem to please him. He just shook his hair out of his eyes and started drawing a new deer on a clean page in his notebook.
Richard’s memorial service was at the grange hall up-island. The Okie-Dokes played all their slow songs, and my mom didn’t drink too much or eat any stuffed oysters. We stood near the door, not talking, me leaning back into her flat stomach while she ran her fingers through my hair. A woman with gray teeth and light pink nail polish held Sam’s mom while she cried. I didn’t see Sam anywhere, but Ms. Thomas was on the far side of the buffet table. I watched her eat a devilled egg in small, appreciative bites. She waved when she noticed me. I ignored her, but my mom waved back, and so Ms. Thomas began making her way across the room to us.
My mom asked her how her window boxes had held up, and she said, “Oh, they looked lovely right up until last week’s frost. You were very helpful.”
“Did you know Richard well?”
“I guess I didn’t,” Ms. Thomas said. “Not like you, I’m sure. But a thing like this affects the whole island. We’ve got to support each other, don’t you think? And Sam was my student last year.”
“Oh, sure,” my mom said. “Supporting each other. That’s the idea. When we were poorer, Richard used to bring us cooked lobster bodies, after he’d pulled the claws and the tails off.”
I didn’t remember this, but it was a good story.
“Did you make a bisque?” Ms. Thomas said.
“Nope,” my mom said. “We just sucked on the cartilage. He could have at least given us the pincher claws, don’t you think? But he used to be pretty stingy.”
“Is Sam here?” I asked.
“Home with Duke, I think,” Ms. Thomas said.
“But Duke’s dead.”
Ms. Thomas shook her head. “Sam didn’t tell you? I suppose it would have been inappropriate to make a big deal about it in the paper—but animal control picked him up on West Chop. He swam ashore, sweetheart.”
I’d been avoiding Norris Ave ever since I’d seen that dog on Sam’s doorstep. If a deer could do it, why couldn’t Duke? But I was still convinced the dog I’d seen was a ghost.
“There’s a silver lining if there ever was one,” my mom said. “Homeward bound. Holy fuck.”
I expected Ms. Thomas to wince, but instead she smiled at my mother and said, “Gosh, you’re a hoot.”
“Oh, please,” I said. “Stop pretending to like us.”
“Bug!” My mom yanked my hair. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I guess we’re all pretty upset.” I could hear in her voice that she was trying not to laugh, though. And that she was proud of me.
“It’s alright,” Ms. Thomas said, but she gave up on me after that.
Later, people made toasts and everybody went on about how quiet Richard had always been. “Never knew what he was thinking,” they said. And, “Still waters run deep.”
They meant it kindly, perhaps even reverently, but, believe me, that isn’t the kind of thing someone like us wants to be remembered for.