A Letter from My Father’s First Wife to the U.S. Submarine Minneapolis-St. Paul
By Brendan Egan
I stopped talking to my father after this past Thanksgiving. Finn and I took a train down to Baltimore, and over dinner Finn pointed a Springfield rifle at my father’s chest, asking for an apology. Larissa Mendoza, the woman my father lives with now, was standing up across the table from me, about to pass the yams. I watched a black strand of her hair spill over her eye, and I felt the tulle beneath my dress prickling the backs of my knees.
“Please,” Finn said from the foot of the table. The barrel of the old gun was pitted and the stock was loose, but I’d never seen my big brother hold anything so steady. Across the table, my father licked the bristles of his mouse-brown mustache.
“Son,” he said.
He took out his glasses from his shirt pocket, and distractedly, Larissa Mendoza’s hand drifted into some kind of congealed salad.
“Dad, just say you’re sorry, sir,” Finn said.
A plaque hung on the wall behind my father’s head with a hideous squid embossed in brass in its center. Though I wasn’t close enough to see it, I knew my father’s name was there below the squid, where the Navy had etched it. It used to be on the far wall of his office and I used to stare at it, when he got mad—from my mother telling him how I spilled Coke on the computer or let the rabbits shit on the rug. “Gah-dammit. Javelin. Girl,” he’d say, in that cigarette voice that scraped up from his throat. Somehow that squid had traveled all this way and was hanging in this strange house in Maryland.
My father fixed the glasses on his face and took them off again. He polished them on the creased sleeve of his wax-yellow shirt. Crumpling the lines around his eyes, he glared at his grown son. I stared at those cold, cobalt eyes, and looked for some hint of the regret I vainly hoped they hid. And I hoped too that they might turn to me, if only to see that I was still there waiting to be noticed. But his eyes were arctic, as they had always been, and seemed not to focus but to sink away. After a while, I couldn’t look at them anymore.
Finn’s lips were calmly parted. The turkey cooled on its oval plate. Clots of green pudding were caught in Larissa Mendoza’s hair, from where she’d pushed it back, with her dumb hand, behind the ear. Her hair was as dark and thick and as silk—soft as the hair I’d wished my mother had given me.
Sitting motionless at that table, I began to realize truths that my brother must have seen a long while before. For instance: that you can bring a gun on a train. Even if it is a very large one, nobody will know. Also, that the deepest hate floats up to the surface like a squid: bald, clammy, mute. And also, that my father was never going to marry Larissa Mendoza, no matter how buttery and brown she made her squash casserole. I could see it in the way his eyes dove off, forgetting she was there. I had the same feeling as I had during dinners after Mom found out he was fucking the woman from the dry-cleaners. It was a look he so often gave when I wanted him to look at me. When eventually, he left us, it was the beginning of his second divorce. Long before there was a Larissa Mendoza, he was done with marrying.
For seven years, Finn had refused to take the phone during monthly calls from my father—had recently even refused to be in the house. For all the duration of this silence, I never stopped believing that it would end. I was tired of being the only one to listen to my father talk about the small jobs he picked up doing electrical work for little old ladies, or for the upscale development going in down the road. I didn’t want to hear anything more about the trips he and Larissa Mendoza took to Washington, DC. And in the end, after he’d endured only a few sentences summarizing how my rabbit had died, or how I was planning on applying for school, I was sick to death of answering his question, “How is your brother doing?”
So this past summer, when Finn agreed to go to Thanksgiving, I should have expected it wasn’t really the end to my being alone this way. But at first, I felt like it was possible. Everything had seemed to go so well.
They picked us up that Wednesday night in my father’s new black Tahoe. His hair was combed back and his shirt was crisp. When I gave him a hug hello, he leaned down to me, smelling like the bay rhum shaving soap he’d always used, with the brush and mug and the heavy brass razor that had sat on our bathroom sink and had left there a permanent ring of rust. He squeezed me quick, then stood up straight. His jaw jutted and he kneaded his lower lip between his teeth. He reached out and Finn smiled when he shook my father’s hand. I can’t say what kind of smile it was, whether it was the cunning kind, the kind you see on coyotes in cartoons, whether it would have given him away if I hadn’t wanted it simply to mean he was happy after years apart to see and touch and talk to the man that brought you to life. I do know that I was happy, even if I was fooled. I even hugged Larissa Mendoza.
It went like that, like a relief, for almost a day. We made food in their white kitchen, talked about visiting the house my father had grown-up in.
“There’s still a hole in the siding,” he said, “from where I blasted a pipe bomb through the bathroom.” I even laughed.
I set the table while my father swore and watched the Redskins lose a game on the TV. Larissa Mendoza brought the turkey in still steaming and we all sat down. My father clasped his hands, lowered his head and said “Thanks Father God, for giving us this day, this nourishing food, and this blessed family.” Finn must have been giving him one last chance, listening for him to somehow make amends. My brother watched him closely, I seem to remember now, his own hands flat together like the wedge of an axe.
He excused himself and pushed out his chair. He folded his napkin carefully, put it on his plate and walked into the other room.
“Would it be alright if I had some wine?” I asked my father. I looked at them and saw for a second just a smiling couple: he with cherried cheeks and plummy lips, she with soft jet hair, offset on hazel skin. He held one of her hands by the ends of her fingers as she lifted the bread basket from the table with the other. He told me to hand him my glass. I could almost forget that I was sitting with my father and the woman who now slept in his bed in place of my mother. Then there was a metal shuffling and a click.
After Finn asked for his apology, my father set his glasses clinking on his plate.
“Son, I forgive you now. Just put it down. I forgive you.” And Finn smiled at him, crookedly with his mouth pressed to the stock. “You’re my flesh and blood, son,” my father said. “I wouldn’t hold this against you.”
A scream cranked up inside me, but it wouldn’t come out. It was the loudest sound that I could imagine. It lashed at my stomach and my throat, but all I could do was stare at Larissa Mendoza’s hair, sticky with the pudding. I felt that hair with my eyes, rolling it over my mind and thinking of my mother, whose own hair was so black and soft. I thought that if I could just touch it, the scream would fade away. But before I could lift my hand, Finn started to laugh. I thought that maybe he had seen the globs of pudding dangling beside Larissa Mendoza’s face, or maybe the ridiculous squid on the wall, but the sound of it didn’t seem to match either of these things. It was a low chuckle, the sound of disappointment meeting acceptance. My father tried to talk, but I think that he had run out of words. Finn laughed louder then, in a beautiful way, the bursts of voice escaping from him like expanding air from a diver’s lungs. He pulled the trigger joyfully. The turkey nearly disintegrated at impact, sending warm flecks of skin and flesh across the table, landing in our laps. The bullet went straight through the thick table into the floor. It must have pierced the carpet only a few inches from my father’s feet. After a breath, with the oval platter cracked and dripping juice, Finn tossed the gun on top of dinner, upsetting the gravy boat. Still, my father was silent. Larissa Mendoza and I sat looking at one another and at him, waiting for him to speak. Waiting as I had been for my entire life, and he sat back down as if neither of us were there.
“I’m sorry,” I said, not to him, and not because it was what I meant at all, but because I thought just hearing those words might dissolve the scream I felt, choking all of us. I was wrong. My father said nothing. He was deep away, under the waves, and I realized he always would be.
On the train ride back to Connecticut the next day, my brother and I sat, silently for nine and a half hours. I wondered whether my mother knew that we were coming home early, if maybe Larissa Mendoza had called her, if she would be waiting for us in the station lot with the dome light on and a worried look on her face. She hadn’t gotten any call like that though, and she would be surprised that we were back so soon, but she wouldn’t ask any questions.
It almost felt normal that we were going back like this—Finn and my father not reconciled, but resolved to their distance—because it had been so remarkable that we went at all. I couldn’t keep from staring at the fatigue green rucksack that now sat withered at my brother’s feet. That gun had been the only thing my father had meant to leave behind, a gift to Finn. And Finn had found a way to return it. But what my father had left for me was something else, something more difficult to get rid of.
I found the letter in my mother’s bedroom, inside a drawer I should never have opened. This was sometime in early December. I was looking for tax forms I needed to fill out the applications I was supposed to be sending out to colleges then. It would be easier if she got them out for me, I told my mother, but she was getting ready for her shift at the casino.
“Javelin, honey,” she said, “I’m on my way out the door.”
So while she did her make-up and set to toasting her hair with a curling iron, I went through all the loose papers on her desk. I found the tax forms pretty easily and set them aside, but I kept shuffling through the credit card bills and the outdated planners. I found a little greeting card there: Charlotte, It was good seeing you again. Call me sometime. —Donald. I didn’t know who Donald was and I tried to tell myself I didn’t care. I think a part of me was searching some sign of my father’s persistence there in the documents of my mother’s life. I wanted evidence that like myself, she had not gotten over him—that she also felt as if she had not come to peace with his leaving.
Like most nights I tried to avoid seeing my mother as she went out for work. It was enough to smell her: the spike of fresh-sprayed perfume, the singed hair. It was the smell of beauty routinely wasted. And I’d seen the emerald eye shadow and the mascara thick as raw oil, and the lipstick late at night—worn off in the center from two dozen menthols. My mother is 45 years old. She has regulars in the high-rollers lounge. I can imagine her there, the paunchy men calling for drinks, palming her chips off of their spilled stacks. I try not to wonder if they think they have a chance with her. If she thinks they have a chance.
She called to me, “Be good. I’ll see you tomorrow. Love you.” I sat on her bed and listened for her Corolla choking in the cold.
My father had moved out when I was ten years old. I remember the decals of Arches National Park on the sides of the U-haul in our yard. All of his things were inside, and because of the pictures on the trailer I mistakenly thought that Baltimore was in the middle of the desert. Since then I’d only gone into this bedroom—the one that now belonged solely to my mother—a handful of times. It’s surprising because I can’t remember him there the way I remember him in the office, or at the kitchen table, or in the garage. But it’s the only place in the house I avoided. All of the furniture was the same dark-stained oak in there, and the bed covers the same soft blue. The smell was different though, from the lavender candles my mother always left burning.
After I was sure that she had left, I went to the closet. She had taken his few jackets, the too-small ones that he left behind, to the Goodwill, along with a set of cheap plates and a Polaroid camera they stopped making film for. I thought I might find something though, maybe a comb, a pair of shoes—the smallest reminder that he used to share this space.
I checked her dresser, the nightstand and the quilt chest at the foot of the bed, covering my tracks as I went. I wouldn’t have known what to say if my mother had asked why I was looking through her room. The quilts were hard to fold back up. Which pinwheel of patches had been on top? In what order where these sweaters stacked? Were these purses zipped open or shut? I was careful at first, but then gave up. Maybe I wanted her to ask me. Maybe I wanted to tell her why I was searching. I tossed three pairs of leather pumps haphazardly into a Rubbermaid bin and left it on the floor in the middle of the room. It seemed that my mother had already wiped away every trace of him.
I was about to give up when I saw it on the radiator—the corner of an old jewelry box. It had been hidden in the careless way someone hides things from themselves, tucked behind the drapes. It was made of knotty, lacquered wood and felt light, almost empty in my hands. There was nothing under the arched top, so I pulled open the shallow drawer. There were two compartments inside. To the right were two small, green bottles of massage oil, like sticky candies: vanilla and peppermint, which stained the floral paper underneath. The left compartment was covered with a blue felt lid. I pulled the satin leader and popped the lid out of place. There was a frail feeling envelope inside, twice folded. The surface was rippled and stiff. It was addressed to my father, ETN3 Finnley, Francis, with the name of his submarine, USS Minneapolis-St. Paul (SSN 708), and the FPO. There were smudged postmarks over the stamps that outlined its history: Connecticut, New York, and La Madellena, Italy. The only dated mark read October, 1983. The letter inside was two years older than I am. It was older than the house I’d lived in all my life.
Finn’s big feet creaked the stairs. I fumbled the jewelry box closed, slipped the folded envelope into the back pocket of my corduroys.
I went back to the desk to let him find me there, with the tax papers in my hand. I listened to the sound of him getting closer. He’d gotten heavy in the past couple of years, but he wore the heaviness well, like my father, in an all-over way that made him easy to hug and handsome when he laughed. He came to the door of my parent’s room, but he wouldn’t come inside.
“Hey, Jav,” he said, “what’s good?”
“I’m just doing some application stuff. Bring home anything broke?” I asked.
Sometimes things got damaged at the UPS center where he worked, and if they caught it before delivery and the shipping insurance covered it, they could take the broken thing home. My brother got his car stereo that way, with a crack in the face plate, and he gave me a digital camera that had a fuzzy display. It took good pictures, but at the time you couldn’t tell.
“Nah,” he said, “this close to Christmas we got to send everything through.”
Finn gave me a tight squeeze that smelled like sweat and cardboard boxes. I wondered if he could tell I had discovered a secret, one I felt like the wrinkled edges of the envelope, rippling in my pulse.
In 1983, my father had been in Italy.
I’m pouring a bath here, and I’m thinking of you. I guess that’s because of the water filling up the tub and you’re out there, miles under the water. And it’s nice to think of you at the bottom of a warm bath on the first cold night of the year. Maybe you could think of me too, that way. When you see a blip on the sonar you could think,” Oh, there’s Mere’s toes on the other end of the tub. I hope it’s not too bad out there- just bad enough that you’ll still miss home and all.
At the grocery store today, after I went to the doctor’s, I had a nice surprise. I’m not sure if you knew, but Mr. Roth retired. His younger son Nelson took over the store. Well, when I was down in the “Meats,” Nelson spotted me from in the aisle. “Mere McLeod!” he yelled to me. I’m sure I told you we went to high school together.. We talked a little about our mothers and all, and how they were still going to their Thursday reunion lunches.. He asked about you and I told him you were at-sea, and how you had the examination coming up. And then he told the guy working at the butcher counter to give me one extra of everything. “On us,” he said. So I got an extra pork chop, and an extra London broil, and I think I’m going to have my mother over for dinner this week. Nelson must be doing really well for himself. I saw his car in the lot on my way out, parked up front in the Owner spot. It was a dark red, foreign car with leather on the steering wheel, and there was a little car-seat strapped in the back.
When I got home, I didn’t feel like making dinner. I put the groceries in the fridge and took a drive. I wasn’t sure where I was going exactly, but I kept driving and I ended up down at Harkness Mansion. It was good thing I had my sweater in the car, because with the wind coming off the ocean, it was feeling fall-ish outside. I started walking, not paying attention to where I was going. The leaves seemed just about to turn, with little licks of yellow every now and then. This was maybe mid-afternoon and it seemed like I had the whole place to myself. I don’t know, I guess I was expecting some kids there, flying kites. I went down to the water first, down that sandy path to the dunes. But when I got to the walkway, I had to stop. I couldn’t look at the ocean, you understand? I just listened to it for a minute and then went back up the hill.
I went around the bend of the path, back behind the gardens of the mansion. All the flowers had passed and it was dark green and wintery and all, so I hurried around the Mansion. I went along that stone wall, the one that separates the fields from the rest of the estate, headed towards the gardener’s house. Then I knew where I was walking to. It was towards those Japanese Maples, the circle of them, you know. The leaves had already gone to that real rich red they turn. And I ducked under one of the branches, and when I got inside it felt just like it always had when I was little. Just like I was in a house made of fire.
I sat down on one those little headstones in there, the ones with only the first names. “Sarah”, and “Sarah II”, and “Rufus” and all. From where I sat, I looked up at the branches and the tent that they made. With the sun trying to get through, it looked a little like it does when you close your eyes into light. With the veins making red lines. So I close my eyes for a second and looked at my actual eye lids. And then I opened them, and back and forth like that, each one looking sort of like the other.
I guess I must have kept them shut more than open after a while because the look of it started to change. It started to look like the pictures you see in science books, you know the ones of babies before they’re born. Their skin is so thin you can see the veins. Once I started thinking of babies, I couldn’t stop it.
It sounds crazy probably, but I started seeing our baby there, the one I lost this summer. I’m sorry Frank, but it’s what I saw and I can’t help it.
She was little and red like the leaves and she was so quiet and still, like she was sleeping. I didn’t want to touch her like you might think, I didn’t want to pick her up and hold her close to my chest. I wanted to watch her sleeping. Where this came from, I don’t know, but the thought that kept coming to me was “This baby is saving someone.” And in all the quiet, I started hearing something outside. It was children talking. Not laughing or crying but talking in that quiet kid’s voice they use when they’re trying to tell you something serious. I couldn’t make out what they were saying because there were so many of them. Maybe there were twenty children talking to me from behind the trees. And I kept having that same thought in my head “This baby is saving someone. This baby is saving someone.”
I got so scared that I had to leave. I walked as quick as I could to the car. When I got home, it was already dark. I didn’t want to make dinner, I didn’t even want to eat. I just came up here to the bathroom and started pouring a bath.
The doctor said today that we could try again. I don’t know if you meant it when you said maybe it was for the best anyway. I’m not sure of anything, and what happened today, it makes me think that maybe everything happens for a reason, you know? What I want to say, Frank, is that I don’t know if I want to try again. Maybe I was meant to lose that child, maybe she meant to go and maybe she had a reason. But whatever we do, I will miss you. Miss your voice, miss your smell, miss the tickle of your beard against my leg.
Like I said, I hope that things are not so bad out there. I’m sorry that I couldn’t be writing you a happier letter, but it’s all that I’ve got right now. I know you’ll understand. I’ll make it up to you with some photos I’ll send along with this.
All my Love,
I looked for the photos that first time. I searched the wrinkled envelope, alone in my room, and hoping that Finn wouldn’t barge in on me, the way he sometimes did. I was sitting cross legged on my bed, and I realized that I had been barely breathing. It bothered me, that these pictures weren’t there. I wanted to see what this woman Mere had looked like, whom my father had been married to before my mother, but no one had ever mentioned. I wanted to see her, and to see if she looked like the kind of woman who could have carried his child—a girl would have been a half-sister to me. I wanted to see Mere the way she would have shown herself to my father. Would she have been beautiful? For all of the secrets this letter held, it was incomplete to me. Later, I went back to my mother’s jewelry box to search there, but I never found anything.
If my mother noticed that the letter was gone, she never showed any sign of it. It’s possible that she had forgotten it was ever there. More likely, she had been keeping it like people tend to keep certain memories, avoidably at hand. I hid it in my own secret place, inside the radiator cover. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night, half-worried and half-relieved that it might have caught fire. I would get up and find it there, warm and intact and needy. Reading it made me wonder about my father. But I know the answer to the one question I think is most important. My mother was pregnant with Finn by that spring, and she and my father were married within the year. Whether Mere had known it or not, he might have already been thinking of my mother all the way from Italy.
Hundreds of times I read this letter, but without the pictures that it promised, I could never imagine my father receiving it on La Maddalena. It was always easier to see him at the bottom of the ocean, buried under so many miles of water that even the squid became invisible.
When I first started going to the Goodwill across the street from the base, I felt the way my father’s first wife must have felt that day on the way to Harkness. I didn’t know where I was headed. I had borrowed my mother’s car and ended up there, searching through the racks of men’s jackets. They were organized by size and then by color, but I went through all of them, flipping their musty sleeves back to see if the next one might be something I recognized as my father’s. They would have been sold a long time before, of course, long enough so that I wasn’t even sure what I was looking for. A pilly brown tweed, gray chalk-stripe, navy with brass buttons. They all seemed familiar in a distant way, like a crowd of similar men with upright posture, neat-trimmed mustaches. The smoke of their cigarettes had been sanitized off of them and the spray of salt, but it hung in their atmosphere, a ghost-smell. I’ve never found one that was exactly him, in years of looking, but I still do it whenever I visit. Every time, I think of them the same way: the shells of men that left.
It got to the point that it didn’t take me long to go through the jackets and I started going to other parts of the store. I inspected the faded furniture, appliances, books. I started looking in the women’s section, only carefully at first. I tried on a few designer dresses that someone had gotten tired of and some jeans with labels I recognized from Macy’s. Some of them fit fine enough, but I had the sense that I wasn’t looking for myself exactly.
My first purchase was a homely thing—a black and pink floral dress with tiny rosettes on the cap-sleeves. When I got it home, I hid it from my mother in a garment bag in my closet. After a few months I had collected a small wardrobe of ribbed turtleneck sweaters, high waisted trousers, and blouses with padded shoulders. At least once a week, I was going and most of the time I found something. It became difficult to hide all of those clothes, but after a while I didn’t care. Finn stopped me once on the way up to my room with an off-the-shoulder sweatshirt and a pair of stir-up tights balled up under my arm.
“Hey, Jav. Where you been?” I had borrowed his pick-up for the afternoon.
“Shopping,” I said. He gave me a weird little look, smiling and cocking an eyebrow.
“Heard back from any colleges?” he asked.
“No,” I said, “not till later in the spring.” I hadn’t told him yet that I hadn’t sent out the applications—that I wouldn’t—that I was waiting.
Finn had become progressively happier since we came back from Thanksgiving. He’d been out with a couple of girls for the first time I could remember. I think he’d even started losing weight. By leaving that gun with my father, he had shaken something out of his system that had been burdening him, even if he hadn’t gotten exactly the reaction he had wanted. But I didn’t feel released in that way. I felt like that was still something I had to break free from before I left this house—the place where I still felt the invisible heaviness of my father anchoring me at the bottom of a trench.
I found the wig in the rack where they keep hats. It was not what they call a fine wig, one made of human hair or, as they do in factories in China, made of horse’s mane. It was some kind of synthetic, woven into a mesh cap. The color was right though, deep black but full with a kind of shimmering brightness. Spilling itself carefully out of the felt fedoras and the golf visors, it seemed solitary and soft. I balanced it on my hand, running my fingers through it and examining the style. In front were short-clipped bangs and the back flowed down long and straight, and I knew then that I was rebuilding Mere for myself.
The clothes had been only the start of my making her. The kinds of things I thought she might wear would only go so far, but the hair—it seemed to me the essence of her—that silken blackness my father swam through. I asked a woman in a blue apron how much for the wig, and she told me it would be three dollars.
“Where did it come from?” I asked.
She leaned on a round-rack of men’s denim and arced her acrylic nails across the room. “Sweetie, you think I know where any of this stuff comes from? I haven’t got time for all that.”
That night was December 23rd—the eve of Christmas Eve. Finn was working a double—his supervisor had put him in charge. While my mother was getting ready for work, I took the garment bags out of the closet and lay them on my bed. I set the wig on a bedpost facing me as I worked. Unzipping the bags, I listened to my mother’s heels tap the bathroom tile, a steady rhythm of shifting. I unwrapped each shirt and sweater and pair of slacks and examined them trying to find the right pattern. Most of them went in a pile beside my desk, but I set a few things aside, hanging them from the hook on the back of my door. When I heard the bathroom lights switch off, I went into the hall.
My mother was in her room, slipping on gold earrings in the mirror above her dresser. There were only two of her lavender candles burning there in the dark. She lifted the ends of her hair as she did it, and in the dim yellow light her highlights seemed to fade and I thought I could make out some strands of gray, strings of silk that remembered old darkness. She turned to me and smiled.
“Hey Jav,” she said.
I went into her room, and she shuffled forward to give me a hug. I closed my eyes tight, with her arms around me.
“You look pretty, mom,” I said.
I read the letter again after the house was empty. I read it out loud, so I could hear Mere’s words and feel them in my mouth. I left it sitting open on my desk. Carefully, like stepping on slippery rocks at the beach, I changed into the clothes that I had set aside. They were the simplest ones from everything that I had collected. I pulled on a cream-colored skirt that went almost to my hips and buttoned up a silk blouse the color of rhubarb. Around my neck I tied a small cream scarf with tiny navy dots. When I was dressed, I gently lifted the wig off of the bed post. I watched myself in the mirror inside my closet door.
Delicate hands lifted the black stream of hair and pulled back the mouse-brown mop that had always been there on top of my head. Hands lowered the black down over the brown and I blinked my eyes at what was in the mirror. The look of it started to change. The girl in there was young and beautiful and alone.
I looked around my bedroom and saw that it wasn’t right at all. It looked too childish. From the top drawer of my desk I took out the broken camera that Finn had given me and took it into my mother’s room. With the candles burning, it felt right, nearly like the place that she would have been. I pulled back the drapes from the radiator and slid the old jewelry box away. In its place I set the camera and one of the candles on either side. It took a little shifting to get the angle right, but sitting on a stack of pillows on the floor I could look directly into the lens.
I set a timer for each of the pictures and sat still, because I knew that there was not much light. The first couple of times I found it easy to smile. My pulse quickened to thelittle red lights flashing on the camera’s body, and as I heard the shutter click, I remembered to breathe.
Now, I thought of myself as someone else—as Mere, alone and covered in loss. And I imagined her as she was making herself seen by my father, a man who lived in the dark of the ocean. Though the clothes were right—I felt their rightness in my heart—I knew that the photos that she would have sent him would not have been this way. If she truly wanted to be seen, she had to glow like those luminous fish, lighting their own way through the dark.
I found myself untying the scarf, which I lay carefully on the carpet beside me. A few of the shots were like that. And I stood up and unzipped the skirt letting it fall to my feet. I took pictures of my legs and the pale cotton of my underwear. It was difficult, but I forced my face into something like a smile. Hands rolled my blouse up my back and over my wrists. There were photos of this too. And I felt given-over, slipping down the loose face of the dunes. I fell onto my knees naked and my lips shook, staring into the camera. And the shutter snapped like a hungry tide against the rocks. In exhaustion finally, I shut my eyes and through my lids the little light flashed, and I let myself be taken under—into the deepest places of the ocean.
I printed the pictures on the computer printer in Finn’s room, but I tried not look at them more than I had to. I deleted all the files. I folded the prints into the letter quickly and sealed them behind the flap of an envelope.
In the spring, a good, strong breeze always blows off the ocean over the lawn at Harkness. It swept through me. Shaking my clothes, my hair, as it shook the grass, the big green leaves of the oaks. I walked through the trellised gate of the Italian Garden. I passed the roses and the topiaries, up the curved steps to the portico. The sun passed through the columns in gold tongues here, high on the slope above the beach. Below, seagulls and children bleated and shuffled through the sand. I walked slowly because I knew where I was headed, and because I was propelled by the easy rhythm of the waves, sending and receiving like breath.
I talked to my mother only once more about my father.
“Do you remember writing him letters?” I asked her.
She told me yes, that we wrote him every time he went away, didn’t I remember. Why did I ask?
“I’m not sure,” I said, “but, I think that’s the best way for me to think of him. As someone who we wrote letters to when he was far away.”
I think that when I made my decision to stop answering his calls, I told myself I did it for Finn, who seemed more alone in his silence than I had in trying to speak. But it might just have well have been for me, or for my mother, or Mere. I really did want to save someone.
I have wondered what happened to that letter and photos I folded inside it that. The stamps had all long been cancelled and The Minneapolis-St. Paul, I’ve been told, has been decommissioned. I’m sure they don’t forward letters like that, but I never meant it to reach him anyway. I only put it in the mail to send it away, back to the squid and the other silent apparitions—back where it belongs.
The canopy of Japanese Maples waited for me, just down the gravel drive. The twisted limbs shivered their branches. I ducked below them and entered. It is like a house, tiny and close. The air was warmer and smelled sharp, like sap. Taking a seat in the red-brown mulch, I propped my head against a trunk and looked up. The light was brilliant. The leaves were tiny and green, and their flickering stirred the April sun. I closed my eyes and listened to them. There was no sound but the rush of the leaves, not even the tide could speak.
Brendan Egan grew up in Connecticut, across the river from the “Home of the Submarine Force.” Today, he lives in west Texas, teaching at Midland College and attempting to keep a garden. His fiction and poetry have appeared in North American Review, Threepenny Review, Yemassee, Quarterly West and other places. He has a story forthcoming from Greensboro Review.