Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Massachusetts: A Post for the From Left to Write Book Club

Thirty miles north of Boston, a tiny fishing town with the poetic name Manchester-by-the-Sea clings to the rocky coastline of Cape Ann. After graduate school in Iowa, I lived there with a writer boyfriend and our chocolate lab, on a lonely street facing the ocean.

We first arrived at Kettle Cove at low tide. All I saw was an expanse of slippery wet rock and abandoned seaweed. Yards out from the rocky beach, piles of treacherous boulders were draped with wide strips of shiny blackish-green kelp. I would later learn the name of the seaweed: bladderwrack. Where was the ocean?

"Tide's out," Paul explained.

The house was ninety years old. The wind had weathered its cedar shingles facing the water a pale gray; the three other sides of the house retained their rich brown color.

Behind the house stretched a salt marsh, its sun-dried grasses blown into sheets and planes like the tousled hair of a sleepy towheaded boy.

The wind never stopped singing. On stormy days, it beat the house.

The oil heater in the basement would start up with a "Whomp!" that sounded like a fireball launching behind the walls.

I found at job at a diner in downtown Manchester, but waitressing was harder and more exhausting than I had imagined. Each weeknight left me feeling tired and discouraged about this job I'd found, a job that wasn't the kind that graduates with master's degrees were supposed to pursue or enjoy. But I did like it. I liked writing down orders and putting plates down in front of hungry people. There was pride when I told Paul about the con artist whose "change for a twenty" trick I saw right through.

"I just slammed the register door shut and he left. I wanted to tell him, hey, man, I've seen Paper Moon!"

An end of the shift one Thursday. I counted my tips next to the register. Less than twenty dollars that night, but that was the price for avoiding Saturday morning rush. I did that shift only once. Every table was full, stayed full. I had been so deep in the weeds I didn't notice new customers slipping into booths, trying not to touch their predecessors' breakfast ruins and cash piles left to cover the damage. They waited patiently for me to notice them and clear the table, but my spinning head and inability to carry more than two plates at a time forced them, at patience's end and hunger's insistence, to wave me down and call me "Waitress!"

Two regulars were the only ones left that night at the counter, an empty seat between them. The Sweet Old Man and he round-bellied lobster fisherman whom Paul and I called "The Grun-Grun Guy" because we couldn't understand half of what he said. Effie, the chubby Greek owner and her husband John had already taken Grandma Ya Ya home; only John Jr. was left in back, scraping the grill. Ten to eight. Almost time to go.

"Can I take your plate?" I asked Sweet Man, reaching.

"No, I'm still working on it," he said. A cube of sandwich corner sat on his plate.

"Oh, sorry, take your time."

I turned to Grun-Grun Guy, hunched over the remains of his lobster dinner. At $14.95, it was the most expensive item on the menu, which meant my tip cup might top twenty bucks that night after all.

"Some more coffee?"

"Run!" He laughed rough and deep. "Ran a rot-rot not shot, Shandy!"

"Yeah!" I said, topping off his mug. I liked Grun-Grun Guy. He never asked for decaf after seven o'clock and yesterday, somewhere east of Gloucester, he very likely could have been the fisherman who caught that lobster he was eating.

"What are you doing waiting tables, Cindy girl?" asked Sweet Man, pushing his now empty plate towards me.

He was just trying to be nice, making conversation before we all had to leave and the lights went out. I could feel that positive smile I hated to wear sneaking up into my cheeks.

"Oh, this part-time shift is perfect for me. I'm doing interviews in the city in the morning and then I get to come here and see you at 4:00!"

I went in back, dropped his plate and my smile in the giant stainless sink. My inner forearms were red and scabbed from too much time in dishwater. I needed to see a dermatologist.

Back home, Lady greeted me at the sliding door. I could smell the metallic tang of Paul's aerated medicine.

"Hi Sweetheart!" I said to my eager darling. She hopped her two front feet off the floor in welcome. I scratched Lady's soft ears and that place she loved at the top of her tail. She opened her mouth in a floppy-tongued smile.

Paul's voice continued to speak in the other room, too soft to be addressed to me. Dark stretched outside the windows in every direction.

Grabbing a soft triangle from the pizza box John Jr. had pressed in my hands as I left the diner, I went into the living room, threw Paul a glance over my cheese. He sat cross-legged in his armchair in the dim corner by the stairs, the phone receiver next to his ear. Listening. He tipped up his chin at me and mouthed something I couldn't understand. I sat down on the rug in front of the television, flipped it on, then turned down the sound. My favorite show still had thirtysomething minutes left.

On the screen Elliot and Nancy hashed over their marriage while behind me Paul muttered some soft goodbyes into the phone and moved to the couch. When the commercials came on, I turned to look at him looking at me.


"How was work?"

"Slow. That old lobster fisherman came in. I can't understand a word that guy says. There's pizza." I wiped my fingers on my pants.

"Gives me heartburn. Uh." He tilted his head back and cleared his throat.

"Who was on the phone?" I asked while his eyes were off me.


"The phone. Who was on the phone."

"Oh. Uh, the bus driver."

"From Iowa? Why is she calling here?"

"We're still friends." He said this steady and very sure.

"Wait, shh. I want to see this." I reached up to turn up the volume.

"I wrote a song today."


"It's called Because of a Woman.' Kind of a Dylan tribute. You know, just like 'Just Like a Woman,' ha ha!"

"What's because of a woman?"

"The blues. You know, did you ever hear of a guy drinking because his buddy went away? It's always because of a woman." He giggled. "Unless he's gay."


"I worked on the article for Yankee. But I think the guy I'm writing the profile about is a scammer. He's trying to get press for saving this park, but he's developing a housing complex right across the street. Won't that just raise the property values?"

"Paul, my show is on. I have one show. One show. Can I please watch this please?"

Weekend mornings Lady woke me as she usually did, with low and whiney, nearly human moans. Desperate with her need. Standing next to the bed, her face even with mine. She tilted her head sideways, caught my eye and then bowed down low with expectation. If I didn't stop ignoring her, in a moment she would leap a couple of inches off the ground and bark a raspy hesitant chop. Paul slept on.

I whispered the song Paul had made up for her. "Attention and praise, attention and praise, we will give you attention and praise!" An apology for making her wait.

The sun's angle said Late or so. We were far enough into the fall that its slanting light would resemble morning almost all day until a moment near dusk when all at once the hour felt ruined, the precious declining light nearly wasted. It was the first autumn I wouldn't be a student. I could hear an echo of Rod Stewart's mournful rasp. "It's late September and I really should be back at school." No reason to wake up early, no ringing alarm clock like the one Paul had thrown out my window in Iowa City. I'd laughed so hard when he did that, laughed at its diminishing song as it flew away and its affronted final "ping!" as it hit the ground. And laughed again, outside, in my robe and bare feet in the wet spring grass, picking it up and meeting the eye of a passing undergrad couple. And again, when I told Paul about the way the boy and girl had seen me in my robe, picking up the injured clock, and in their smiles, I could see they understood the entire story in a moment.

I pulled on jeans and a sweatshirt over my pajama top. Creaking stairs. Lady's red leash on the doorknob of the back door.

The wind and its fresh salt smell hit me at the door. Lady whirled in circles, grabbing at the leash with her teeth. She growled low in her throat, got a grip on the leash and shook it with her strong head. She hated that thing. "Jealous!" we teased her when she insisted on leading herself, carrying the leash in her teeth at a self-possessed spot between her collar and the loop I held in my hand.

Bright sun. Another brilliant day. Gulls. Sparkles on the water. The tide had filled the bay and hid the rocks under a placid surface.

On the rocky beach, as nearly every morning, some invisible and industrious walker had left neat piles of balanced round rocks, cairns for us to wonder at and Lady to sniff. Paul was convinced the builder was a witch, casting evil spells to foil us.

Lady plunged ahead, fighting my hold, to reach a stretch of gravel just past the neighbor's driveway where she shat most mornings. She crouched and arched her back among the ossified remains of the last few days.

Business over, we walked on, following the curve of the road that circled Kettle Cove.

Paul and I were playing at domesticity. We were a strange little family, rattling in a big drafty house, on a street with only four homes between stretches of marsh and wood. Lady was our wordless child, our wounded darling. The vet's offhand remark, "Her brain is the size of a walnut," stung like an insult.

At the Shaw's Grocery in Ipswitch, we topped our shopping cart with groceries, gawked at the eight dollar bottle of macadamia nuts and hoped to spot John Updike. I prepared Paul's inhaled medicine twice a day and fattened him up with slices of fried ham and a pot roast boiled with cloves and bay I had seen on a cooking show. I was regularly watching TV for the first time since high school. After getting an advanced degree in media without owning a TV, I was seduced by the Mooney's clunky set. Paul and I started watching Jeopardy at 5:30 every day, first yelling out the answers, then competing for the answers, then keeping score against each other. Paul began to cut out and color triangular victory pennants out of typing paper for each of his wins and tape them to the door jamb and the mantle of the never-used fireplace. He balanced on a sofa arm to tape his triumphant papers to the ceiling and the railing of the staircase.

Lady was in heat. For ten awful days she bled on the dun-shaded linoleum floor in the kitchen because Paul insisted we wait to get her fixed. He wanted to breed her for profit.

We woke one winter night to the sounds of howly whines from the front yard. It was the eerie middle of the night and thick snow had made our yard strange with drifts that covered the striped buoys hanging on the fence and the denuded wild rose bushes. Lady's scent had attracted three dogs we'd never seen, all the way from God know where: a German Shepard, a mutty thing and a ghostly all-white husky. We could see them sitting in the snow, light from the kitchen falling on them as they sat patiently, staring at the house. Lady went crazy, leaping and scratching against the glass doors, crashing like a deer in the underbrush.

One gale-force night, the pine tree in the back yard fell over, its roots and a fringy skirt of turf still attached to the trunk. We propped her back upright, like she was a clumsy but cheerful and resilient grandma.

A lone seal sunned himself one day on a bare rock in the cove. He was as shiny and brown as the seaweed around him. Once, an ethereal swan floated in the bay.

Lady ecstatically rolled in piles of dead seagull bone piles.

"My brothers are coming this weekend," Paul announced one Friday in September.

"Oh, God. The place is a mess. Why are they coming?"

"It's their house too. And."



"Come on! I'm going to have to clean up for them and feed them and clean up after they leave!"

"They told Ma they were pissed that we were living here. That it wasn't fair."

I did not ask, "So what if it's unfair? So what? Are they coming to enact revenge?" Nor did I wonder yet why Paul chose to tell me things like this. When I had asked him earlier in the summer to explain his vague claim, "They don't like you," he offered nothing more specific than a shrug.

A rusty winch began to crank, pulling from the depths an enormous chain, dripping with seaweed and hung with wet clocks.

The boys arrived from Leominster. David was solid and heavy, taciturn. Kevin had longer and lighter hair than David's, which was as black as Paul's. Other than that, the three bore little resemblance to each other.

"Nice jacket," said Kevin to me when the boys arrived, in a tone I could not read as sarcasm or sincerity and with that, the niceties were over. The brothers spoke with Paul in a hostile code and made no eye contact with me. My plan to win them over with smiles and questions about their interests revealed itself as so much fluff. Worst of all, Lady adored Kevin, throwing herself over and over into the surf to retrieve the stick he hurled with an excess of enthusiasm. He laughed when she lost sight of the floating target and paddled in circles.

Clanking, ticking spirals of ancient links made soft with algae wound round and round.

"We're going to Egg Rock," Paul told me. He helped his brothers pull the fishing boat and its outboard motor out of the garage and down to the beach. Lady and I watched from the rocks as they climbed on and David pushed off. The engine caught and they headed for the mouth of the cove. Lady's ears perked up as they motored away, she paced and whined as the boat picked up speed, then with a sudden bolt, she tumbled into the water after them.

"Lady! NO!" I yelled. The boat kept receding, Lady's determined head making a tiny wake behind her as I screamed and jumped and waved. Their engine shifted down. Had they already seen her and teased her by gunning away? The boat swung around to meet her and the boys pulled her aboard. They roared out of the cove until late afternoon.

The cranking stilled for a couple of precious hours.

Kevin had dropped out of high school that year, not from bad grades, but boredom, Paul had told me, with some pride. But he had also told me David was gay and I was never sure which of his stories were true. "David is gay, David is gay," he sang.

The boys would spend Saturday night on two of the three single beds in the back bedroom. The never-made mattresses and crushed box springs rattled on their shaky bedframes when you sat on them. No headboard or baseboard, just unsteady steel frames on wheels. No other furniture in the room.

On Sunday the five of us walked along Ocean Street toward White Beach. The road gently curved around the cove.

"Let me walk Lady," Kevin asked me, reaching out for her leash.

"Okay, but hold on to her, she'll run off."

"No, she'll follow us." He unsnapped the leash from her collar and pocketed it. My cruelly fickle girl looked up at his face and trotted along at his side.

Something nearing the surface. The chain paused in its work. Links drip.

We reached the curve of the curbless road where a drainage tunnel ran under the road to allow the tide in and out of the salt marsh that stretched behind the houses on Ocean Street. At low tide you could walk through the tunnel and barely get your feet wet. But we never did, you would have to scramble over uneven and slippery rocks to reach the tunnel from the beach, and the grassy sides from the road were steep.

That morning was high tide. The beach had all but disappeared under gray waves. Ocean water rushed through the tunnel in a furious torrent, nearly filling its corregated aluminum sides as the current poured through to the acres of spongy salt marsh beyond.

"Watch this," said Kevin.

He picked up a stick and before I knew what was happening, held it to Lady's face, then threw it in the racing water. It whipped away in the current. He didn't even need to call, "Fetch!" Lady knew what to do. She flew into the air, landed in the water with a splash, went completely under and emerged just as the water pulled her into the tunnel and out of our sight.

"Lady!" I screamed.

"I didn't think she would really go for it!"

The chain slipped its mooring and spun like wild. Without thinking, I slid down the bank and splashed into the water. It was waist-high and very cold.

As the water passed the barrier of my shoes, jeans, the complimented barn jacket and sweatshirt underneath and reached my skin, I caught a glimpse of Lady's head, silhouetted against the semi-circle of light above the water at the end of the tunnel. Then she was through, had reached the daylight on the other side of the road. I couldn't move. Every muscle was working to keep upright on the slick round rocks under my feet and against the push of the current on my legs. I was barely balancing, pressing against the furious current that was propelling me into the tunnel. David reached out from the bank.

Someone ran over the road to check on Lady and yelled back, "She's okay!"

By the time I hauled my cold legs one by one back to the grassy bank, Lady had pulled herself into the grass of the salt marsh and crossed the road with Kevin back to the ocean side. She swirled around the legs of the boys, her tail happy, while they hauled me out of the water. She shook herself in a fast-motion blur of animation, all flying drops and shaking. The boys yelled out and dodged the flung wet.

"What were you doing?" they yelled once I was onto the bank. "What were you thinking!"

I yelled the same words back at Kevin, and, "She could have drowned!"

"She was fine!"

Paul laughed until he cried. "Lady was still swimming after the stick!" Admiration at her fearlessness, tears at her obliviousness.

After they left, I could not find my green barn jacket that Kevin had liked.

I worked freelance as a production assistant on shoots for a fast food restaurant chain, for car dealerships, a Boston drug store. I quit Effie's when I got a two month gig editing sound effects for a PBS documentary about the making of the Trans-Continental Railroad. Frustration clawed at me. On days we weren't working, Paul and I hid from the mailman. We were ashamed to let that hard-working, honestly employed grown-up catch up in our bathrobes at noon.

Finding a teaching certification program at nearby Northeastern University, making the phone calls to discover I needed my transcripts assessed, typing up and sending transcript letters to William Jewell and Notre Dame exhausted me and took weeks of time. By the time I got the assessment letter back from Northeastern, the word "Deficiencies" glared at me. I would need at least two more full semesters to begin their program.

Manchester ended quickly; the relationship, not quickly enough.

Paul's parents said we had to move out; they found a paying tenant. We packed our things into our two cars one Saturday morning, headed out who knows where, stopped for breakfast at the Denny's on Route 1 in Saugus. We fought over money, left the restaurant, fought more. He pushed me to the ground.

I sat sobbing on the curb. Cotton batting filled my ears as I sat in shock. My knee was bleeding.

The whole scene was unbearably sordid: the Denny's parking lot, the car piled full of hastily packed boxes, the flapping remains of the Sunday newspaper he had thrown, my weeping as Paul slammed the car doors taking Lady out of my car and moving her into his, the strangers who stared as they passed on the way to their happy cars. How could I share this with anyone? Who could I tell?

Although I had not lost consciousness, I woke up as I pulled myself up from the curb. I woke into a world where not everything gets fixed, where wrongs are allowed and people grow old.

I tried calling home from a pay phone next to the highway. I was all ready to come home, everything was in my car, but when I called Kansas City, no one was home. So I stayed. I stayed six more months, then Uncle Phil flew out and helped me move back to Kansas City. "There are no jobs out east," I said.

This post was inspired by Trapped Under The Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles Into the Darkness by Neil Swidey, a staff writer for Boston Globe Magazine. Swidey's harrowing, exhaustively researched book tells the true story of five men sent into a dark, airless, miles-long tunnel below the ocean to do a nearly impossible job that would help clean the once dirtiest harbor in America. Join From Left to Write on February 19th as we discuss Trapped Under the Sea. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.