By Tony Whedon
The town where we had rented our cottage that summer when I was thireen, called Port Clyde, sat at the end of a long peninsula that jutted into the Atlantic. It had a sardine cannery, a lighthouse, a long rocky beach covered with mussels and kelp, and a view when the fog cleared of islands spread out far as you could see along the coast. A kitchen wall map showed Port Clyde, circled in red, and islands — Hooper’s Island, Teal’s Island and, farther out, miles in the ocean, Monhegan and Matinicus. That first week, the fog never cleared, but I imagined in detail the color and shape of those islands: they were spruce colored with high bluffs and shaggy inlets, inhabited by occasional fishermen and grazing sheep.
Our next door neighbors were the Hawkins. My parents had rented our cottage through Jack Hawkins’ brother back on Long Island. Jack was away on an archaeological dig of Indian mounds in Canada, leaving his wife Jane in charge of Phillip and Alice.
I first saw thirteen year-old Alice on the dock extending out from our cottage, a tall girl standing with her little brother. I watched as they dangled their lines into the water, then I came up on the dock. Alice invited me to fish with them, and I held the pole she handed me a few minutes. I waited for a tug while sunlight sifted through the fog. I was aware of the tide rising beneath the dock pilings.
I said, “So what d’you do around here?”
“We come up every summer, Phillip, mother and I, that is when we aren’t visiting my Gram’s in England,” Alice said and Phillip nodded his head vigorously — his cheeks jiggled as his head shook, and he made a sort of sputtering sound.
“I’m getting too old for this. I’m tired of the parties my parents ceaselessly drag us to.”
She was wearing a long checkered dress which made her seem taller, even slimmer than she was. She had greenish-brown eyes and olive skin. Her brother, equally dark but fat, reeled in a fish – it flopped and squirmed on the dock, a round spiny creature with quarter-sized eyes. He tried kicking it off the dock, and it puffed even larger as he bent down to grab it, then it flipped around and with a splash shot into the cove.
At least this is how I remember Alice as my imagination has romanced her over the years. How elusive she was, always disappearing and reappearing, representing both the end of something and the start of something new and exciting. I saw her a number of brief times the next few days: in Port Clyde’s bait & tackle store with her mother Jane (She was taller than her blonde, sweater-girl mom, and between the two of them, Alice seemed the most serious, the most prim). I saw her along the bridal path that ran the length of the peninsula (riding a brindled pony) and later that week on the beach. I was glad she wasn’t with her brother.
She said, “I’ve got to go back home. Phillip’s made me promise to take him into town.”
“I’ll go along with you,” I said. “We can ride our bikes.”
“Phillip doesn’t know how to ride a bike. I’ll see you back here later. Of course I’d like you to come into town. But this brother of mine. . , ” and then she left me on the stoop where I surveyed the cove and the sailboats tacking out to the bay.
That afternoon, I trudged up the beach and heard Phillip’s voice in the cottage. Alice was below the dock picking mussels – in the silence I heard the hard shells hitting the bucket. When she turned toward the cove and back at me there was a coolness in her stare — a coolness that penetrated me to the core.
After dinner, I saw her stride through the high grass between our cottages, her hair pulled back so you could see the brown of her neck. While my mother cleaned up after the meal, my seven-year-old sister, Delerie, danced by herself to the “Nut-Cracker Suite” on the radio. My father hid behind the Bangor paper — the headlines must have had something about a hurricane named “Alice” moving up the coast — and my mother sketched in her pad.
I remember Alice slipping in the screen door and then my little beagle dog barking and my sister swirling onto the porch, bumping into Alice.
“What’s that you’ve got on?” Alice said, referring to the dirty pink tutu my sister wore.
Delerie squealed and rushed out of the room and turned up the radio in the kitchen. Small-craft advisories were posted from Nantucket along the Maine coast: the hurricane would go out to sea, hummed the announcer’s voice. A moment later Alice and I walked down to the beach. We pulled up kelp from the rocks to find periwinkles and starfish and clam-holes that pissed into our faces: farther down the beach, in shallow water, we found green sea-urchins round as pincushions.
The rising tide forced us farther up the beach, and we sat in a crevice of a big rock and looked across the cove toward an island rising out of the fog. Alice said, “This is our last vacation here. . . I’m sorry I won’t be coming back. But, you wouldn’t care about that. My father’s teaching in England next year when he comes back from his dig. Actually, he’s English. That makes me half-British.”
She looked at me and added, “You know, probably I’ll be happier in England than here.”
Well, that might be true, I said, but I’d miss her next summer if I returned to Maine.
“You hardly know me. How can you miss me if you don’t know me? I don’t know anything about you. Like what does your father do?”
Before I could answer, Alice said: “Mine’s an archaeologist. I plan to be one, too, when and if I grow up.”
Next day she invited me to have lunch.
Alice’s mother served us chowder. After lunch Alice and Phillip and their mother drove into Port Clyde and I went back to our cottage and sat on the porch listening to the radio with my mother and father. The storm-watch had upgraded to a gale-warning, already I could see low clouds rolling in, and by the time I heard Alice and her mother and brother return, the wind tossed rough waves against the lower beach. After a while Alice came outside and stood on her own porch in a rain slicker, her cheeks in full color. She shouted across to me: “Have you ever been in a nor’easter? This is my first time. Philip’s out of his mind. Mother’s going to a church dance in Tenants’ harbor. Isn’t that irresponsible? She wants to invite your mother and father along.”
Whether my parents were going or not, I didn’t care. My father and I were never close — now that I was older I’d grown apart from my mother who was more involved in her artwork than she was with my sister and me. Since I could remember, my family had been ruled my father’s fear of financial failure. That hadn’t stopped him from quitting his paying job to set up a ceramics business with my mother. While he chose to work at home for the same reason my mother did, I couldn’t imagine that twelve hours a day nailing together trivets, cheese trays and coffee tables didn’t drive him crazy. And he was crazy — I told Alice – from the beer he drank and from the glaze and lacquer fumes — you could smell all that on his breath.
Our first two days in Port Clyde, I told her, he’d quit drinking but he was more miserable, if that was possible, than he’d been. He’d bought a ten-foot dingy fn town and was stripping the chipped paint, calking and repainting — a gift, he claimed, to me — but abstaining made him even more surly (and borderline abusive) toward Delerie and me . I couldn’t trust my father; him not drinking encouraged his nastiness, besides, last night he’d drunk again and I found him on the porch, slumped in a stupor in a deck chair, mumbling my mother’s name. I told Alice all this in one breath, half-expecting she’d pity me.
But she was in her own world. “I don’t see Jack much at all,” she said, referring to her own father. We’d gone down to the dock and were fishing in the low tide pools. “But he’s big on presents – once he brought back a pair of polar bear claws from Baffin Island for Phillip.”
My memory of that afternoon is of a spattering rain and the sun coming out and disappearing behind the clouds. Past the dock the beach expanded as the tide went out to reveal mud pocked by clam-diggers’ holes. Out in the bay a lobster boat appeared, breasting the waves, and was quickly smudged out by the rain.
“Phillip’s having his nap,” she said as we left the dock and walked down the shingle. “He’s my problem while Da’s gone. Mother is negligent.” After a moment, she added, “I’m worried about Phillip. He’s very dense and is flunking everything in school. Actually, I’m his tutor while our Da’s away,” she said.
We continued down the beach and came on a ramshackle dock that went out so far it was lashed by waves. The dock pilings were ringed by barnacles and starfish. Alice leaned down and pealed one starfish off.
“I’m a terrible tease my father says,” she said. “If I don’t watch it I’ll have boys all over me. My father doesn’t actually know if I like boys. If I miss him. Or if Phillip misses him. He’s never around to know.”
We climbed some stairs to the splintery dock. The wind began to blow the bay into whitecaps, I heard the ocean waves striking rocks down at the lighthouse.
We returned to Alice’s cottage – our parents were gone, my sister with them, and Phillip was rocking back and forth in the hammock. Darkness spread across the beach. The gale came up quickly and the sky turned oily black. We went inside Alice’s cottage and she put Phillip to sleep for the night. Then she brought out a SCRABBLE board, and we shuffled the letters around as the wind howled and the night closed around us.
I don’t know how long we sat together on the couch, maybe an hour. The lights flickered and finally went out, and Alice lit an oil lamp.
“My mother’s a neurotic,” she said. “That’s what she calls herself. The doctor gives her Milltowns, and with one glass of wine she’s floating. My parents get into an argument, she packs her bags, but she never goes anywhere. Once my father had an affair. I read one of his girlfriend’s letters. I never thought of my father that way. But I didn’t feel sorry for my mum. Normal’s not my father. Mum’s the same story, a different breed my father says.” She told me about England: “We lived in the country. I had a nanny who took me for long chatty walks. If you came to visit you could stay with us. I’d take you to Buckminister Palace. I’d introduce you to The Queen.”
She looked down at the SCRABBLE board.
“Once my father lived for six months on the tundra with Eskimos,” she said. “He collected artifacts for the Museum of Natural History. It was dark all winter. He was quite homesick.” She leaned toward me. “You know what I’d like? I’d love to live here the rest of my life. I’d never get married, I’d have a houseful of extraordinary animals.”
I glanced helplessly down at the SCRABBLE board and said that in some ways, our families were alike.
“Not at all,” she said flatly and turned to me with a changed expression. “My mother’s afraid of everything.”
She got up and looked out the window at the coming storm. “And I’m not afraid of anything,” she said, her voice quite frightening. I watched her move from the window. She began arranging books and tea-cozies, retrieving her brother’s toys and depositing them in a pile by the stairs: suddenly I saw Alice as an eccentric older woman, she’d mapped out the life before, nothing came to her by accident while everything happened to me by chance.
The fact was my father’s drinking and philandering and my own difficulties — I was a runt and had been bullied by bigger boys on our suburban block— had brought me to a place, many children feel at in early adolescence. Did Alice know and would she care? Of course, eventually that night our talk did turn to sex. Alice led me to her mother’s darkened bedroom where she kept a “love-manual” in her dresser. We sat on the bed and leafed through the book, stopping at the graphic drawings of sex acts and then Alice asked if I’d ever “made out” with a girl, and I said I had but it was nothing. She laughed and kissed me and as I met her mouth with mine delight swept through me.
But now the storm was on us, it burst through the maples outside the cottage with a racket of splitting timbers and a child screaming and another bellowing wind gust that shook the cottage. Out in the yard, the trunk of a fallen tree was visible in the dim lamp light shining from the bedroom window. It had fallen through the porch, smashing the screen.
Back upstairs, sheet-lightning flickered against Alice and her brother hunched against the backboard, their arms flung around each other.
“It’s all going to be lovely, Phillip, just wait and see,” she said. “Mommy’ll be back. And so will Daddy. I’m sure he’s got all sorts of nice presents for you.”
A moment or two more of quiet was followed by another violent wind gust, then doors slamming, and our parents, and my sister — crying, too – as they entered the cottage.
Next morning a north-west gale blew down between the islands. I woke to a buzzing chainsaw. Two men were cutting up the big maple that had been blown down last night. Alice’s mother and my parents watched the men saw up the maple. I looked for Alice who’d gone to the lighthouse and wouldn’t be home till after lunch. I walked down the point to the lighthouse and saw her on a rock facing the Atlantic.
“Isn’t it wild?” she said.
Beyond the rocks the ocean tumbled. A line of laundry strung from the lighthouse flapped in the spray. Phillip was crouched in the weeds, watching his sister.
“Phillip, go home,” Alice said.
“I won’t,” he said.
The wind rose. Gulls flew upward in the spray: the blue spittle of Alice’s cigarette blew downwind. She’d come here to smoke and didn’t want Phillip to see her.
“Promise me, little brother,” she said, “You’ll turn around and go home. When you get there you’ll tell Mother I’ve gone into town — with him.”
I was that HIM, I realized, no more than a happenstance.
“I’ll go back with Phillip,” I said.
“No you won’t,” Alice said.
Out of the grass Phillip dragged a pail of stuff he’d picked up on his way to the lighthouse — a soggy Field Guide to the Birds, shells, worn stones and tangled fishing tackle. He dumped it all at Alice’s feet.
“I don’t want this,” she said. “It’s all junk.”
“And I don’t want to go home. CAN’T go home,” Phillip said. His eyes got wide, his cheeks jiggled emphatically. He began untangling the fishing line. Alice helped him, carefully, methodically, and I thought of their father, collecting arrowheads in Canada.
Finally Phillip wandered home — we watched him on the beach path till he was no more than a yellow slicker.
That night I saw Alice’s shadow against the shade in her room. I had gone for a walk along the water and stopped where the beach met the lawn between our houses. As she stood there smoking, the light pouring onto the shade, I wondered if I’d not already lost whatever I had held of her — not her affection but my delight in her. Next day her mother got a telegram from Jack who was to be returning from Canada. They made quick arrangements to leave for Portland the next day, and Alice and I walked to town and drank cherry-cokes at a marble-topped drugstore counter. Later, we stood at the wharf and watched men stacking crates of sardines at the cannery. On our way back to the cottages, two teenagers were making out in a convertible near the cove. We watched them for the longest while, not saying anything, and I should’ve felt terribly sad, but I didn’t. Maybe for Alice our days together meant nothing — maybe a short entry in her journal. For me, they marked the end of something I wouldn’t fully understand until years later.
About the Author:
Tony Whedon is the author of “A Language Dark Enough: Essays on Exile” from Midlist Pres and forthcoming from Green Writers Press “Drunk in the Woods,” a nonfiction collection. He also published four poetry collections. His poetry, critical essays and creative nonfiction have appeared in Agni, American Poetry Review, Harpers, Salmagundi, Shenandoah, ThreePenny Review and more than a hundred other magazines. In the past ten years three of his essays have been listed as “notable” in the Best American Essays.