Gulls Egg Island, 2007
In her younger and more vulnerable years, Bell McCarver’s mother gave her some advice she’d tried to forget ever since.
‘The moment when life is a wonderful adventure,’ her mom said, ‘is the moment to go straight home.’
This was why the thought of an A-list movie star knocking on her door with a bag of avocados filled Bell with panic.
There was nothing inherently threatening about Nick Trueheart, whose name poured from her flip phone like a jinn from an oil lamp. Niiiick swirled around the fruit bowl on the counter. It pinged off the hanging saucepans, got tangled in the spider plant. Niiiiiick! Straight from the Hollywood Pantheon, right up there with Brad-Ben-and-Tom. Nick Trueheart, action hero and avocado grower, was on his way to Bell’s cottage with the fruit of his bumper crop.
Bell poured a cup of coffee while her phone continued to make noises about Nick Trueheart. ‘He can stop by this afternoon,’ his wife Julia was saying. ‘He checked four crates on the flight. They won’t keep.’
Julia was Bell’s third cousin once removed. Or was she a second cousin twice removed? She had some common forebear with the Clan McCarver of Sioux Bluffs. Each February for the past decade, Julia had gracefully sent a reply to her mom’s Christmas letter. Always bearing an exotic postmark (Taos! Trieste! Tashkent!) on pale blue engraved stationery, the letter was always dented by an honest-to-God typewriter. It never contained a single exclamation mark, underlined word, or smiley face, in contrast with the McCarver house style. Once, Julia had passed through Sioux Bluffs on a coast-to-coast road trip. Her Brahmin glamour (huge sunglasses, silver sports car, Italian boyfriend) imprinted itself on the family consciousness over lunch. Forever after, Cousin-Julia-Who-Works-In-Hollywood was a staple of household conversation. And that was before she married Nick Trueheart.
Bell pictured opening her door to Nick Actual Trueheart and his million-watt grin. He would say Hi, I’m Nick, and these are my avocados. And she, Bell, would gape at him with pillow wrinkles on her slack jaw.
‘Thanks. I mean, who doesn’t love avocados?’ she stammered at last into her phone. ‘But we’ve got three check-outs today. And four check-ins.’
Her refusal hung in the air, chasing away any remaining eddies of glamour.
It was true that Julia’s cottages needed servicing. There were floors to scrub, linens to launder, guest soaps to replenish. And although Bell, with her almost-doctorate in American history, was overqualified for the job, she was new to it. She tried to focus on doing things right rather than quickly, more like a monk on a mindfulness retreat than a maid. Fully present for the making of each bed. Grateful for the practice of disinfecting. Seeing the galaxy in each miniature shampoo bottle. But was she too busy to exchange a word with her cousin’s husband? It was a weird thing to say. It raised the question: was her (involuntary, half-pay) Wellbeing Leave of Absence leading to wellness? Considering the state of her savings account, she couldn’t afford to get much odder.
‘Well, never mind the avocados,’ said Julia. ‘How is everything?’
‘Everything’s fine. I’m treating the smell in Lupine’s drains with that horrible caustic stuff. I changed the lightbulbs in Fern. And Gordon’s fixing the chair in Honeysuckle.’
‘The family with the dogs?’
‘The dogs were well-trained. The kids were less so, but they didn't do any lasting damage.’
‘Good. What about you? Are you resting? Have you checked out the sailing school? Did you go to the spa?’
‘I’m getting rest. I haven’t done the other things.’
‘Well, you should. Oh! By the way. You’re getting a neighbour in about ten days. Apparently, Nick’s loaning his house to a friend. I would have given it to you had I known he would loan it rather than rent it. The man has no money sense.’
‘This cottage is perfect,’ said Bell. ‘I wouldn’t know what to do with a whole house to myself.’
‘Sensible girl. You Midwesterners are so pragmatic.’ Julia sighed. ‘Actually, would you mind doing me a favour? Pop over to the house, make sure everything’s okay? It’s been shut for a couple months. No hurry, do it in the next few days.’
‘I have the key, right?’
‘Yeah. If there’s anything awry, call Gordon. Listen, honey, you need to come for dinner. How’s Saturday?’
‘Hang on a second, let me check….’
Bell spun around the kitchen, looking for an excuse. There it was: her chipped, faded alma mater mug.
‘Oh, actually, a girlfriend from grad school might be here for the weekend.’
‘Oh, that’s no problem,’ said Julia, ‘you can bring her with you. The more, the merrier.’
‘Ah, well, we might drive up to Acadia….’
‘Well, let me know. Otherwise we’ll figure something out after Nick’s friend’s arrival. Another refugee from the world, like yourself. We’re collecting waifs and strays this summer.’ Julia laughed a breezy I’m-only-joking laugh.
‘Oh, really?’ Bell hadn’t thought of herself as a refugee or a waif. A stray, maybe; a whack-evac, sure. But refugee was such a heavy term. Oh, climb off your high horse, she said to herself. Don’t take everything so literally.
‘Well,’ said Julia. ‘He’s coming by private plane, so I suppose he’s more of an émigré.’
So he’ll be staying rent-free while I’m scrubbing toilets.
‘So let me know if you’re free Saturday.’
‘Okay, I’ll get back to you.’
Now act like the sane adult human you are and leave the house. Do not microwave a bag of popcorn. Do not turn on the television.
She went outside to tidy up the things she had left on the deck. She had been trying to read in the sunshine but mostly spent her time slapping black flies. They looked harmless, but they bit like Satan’s house pets. The mosquitoes were pernicious little fuckers, too. She picked up her books: two histories (pre-Colombian Mexico, the Silk Road), The Idiot’s Guide to the LSAT, and a trashy novel from her co-workers, a memento of a sunny life of work and adventure in manageable doses. Manageable, provided things went according to plan. Which they hadn’t. She loved it as an object, but she would never read Black and White and Red All Over. Not the non-pornographic parts, anyway.
She rode her borrowed bicycle up to the island’s highest point. The North Atlantic palette soothed her Caribbean-calibrated senses: azure and marine, grey, white, and green, sky-sea-stone-hedge. Odours of pine, peat, salt and fish.
She avoided eye contact with those she met, depriving them of the chance to snub her. The islanders were encased in hard shells complete with pincers, and the cottage guests viewed her—when they viewed her—as the help. Widows and their sisters, honeymooning couples, dog fanciers: everyone ignored her as they trundled to the beach at the bottom of the cliff. She was getting used to spending her days in silence.
She stopped at the lookout point. Crenellated islands formed a chain reaching the horizon. Lobster boats were bringing the morning catch home, baby birch leaves shimmered overhead. The island trembled on the verge of summer. Bell inhaled, held the moment in her lungs. Her exhalation was a prayer: thank you, God or the Universe or whatever, for allowing me to be here.
She coasted downhill, feet off the pedals, then leftward into the museum-quality village wrapped around the harbour. Down Main Street, past white and crimson clapboard, Ye Olde gilded lettering. Town hall-library-post office, hardware-pizza-florist, liquor-taxidermist-bait shop, mini-mart. Through a neighbourhood of barking dogs and lobster traps, back to the ring road. Gilded Age ‘summer cottages’ watched her pass, their potted ferns waving from front porches.
She stopped in front of a limestone palace, gobsmacked by its lush front garden. A vintage Rolls Royce lounged in the drive, triumphant hatboxes of chrome sparkling in the sunshine. Windchimes tinkled. Then, an elderly voice barked from the deep shade of the palace’s front porch.
‘Can I help you?’ The voice rang with old money and contempt. A wispy-haired wraith peered over the railing. She was at least as old as the car.
‘No, ma’am, sorry,’ Bell shouted in a knee-jerk singsong. She remounted her bike and pedalled away. ‘Just admiring your flowers,’ she muttered as she rounded the curve back into the village. ‘Which you use to lure unsuspecting virgins. So you can drink their blood.’
She returned her bicycle to the shed and went next door, to the soon-to-be refuge of Nick’s mystery jet-setting émigré. The house wasn’t a New England house. It was a Martian house, a bouquet of cargo containers festooned with orange awnings.
Bell was unprepared for what she found inside. There was no Danish Modern furniture, no art on the walls, no leather-bound library. Instead, the place was filled with scruffy sofas and mismatched rugs, cluttered with dartboards and gaming consoles, mountain bikes and free weights. A pool table occupied the dining room. There was a pinball machine next to the refrigerator. The sign hanging over the front porch should have tipped her off: scrap car parts welded to a hand-etched metal plate that read Casa del corazón fiel. But she had misread the sign as a piece of Nick’s famous ‘outsider art’ collection.
There was even an old photo booth, the kind found in bus stations, in the main room. Bell flipped its power switch, not expecting it to work, then jumped back when it hummed to life. She sat inside and squared her shoulders. She ran her fingers through her hair and tapped the big red button. A light pulsed as the camera winked, one, two, three, four.
The problem wasn’t that Nick Trueheart was a star. She had dined with famous people before. But they had only been university-famous or government-famous, historians or diplomats. Still, she wasn’t apprehensive about talking to Nick as such. So why couldn’t she accept a dinner invitation without having a panic attack?
‘What is my problem?’ she asked the photo booth. In answer, a strip of photos slid out. Every frame told the same story. The subject was pale, puffy from microwave dinners, adrift. Your problem is bigger than a fear of movie stars.
She took her tour of the house, checked for evidence of rodents, tested the taps. She opened several windows. In came the sounds of birds, distant lawnmowers, the whooshing of waves on the beach far below.
Then, she did as her therapist had told her to do whenever she started to feel wobbly. She found the nearest mirror and said aloud, ‘You are safe.’ She repeated the phrase until the words started to come undone, to lose their sense. U-r-say-f. Yoowarsaif. Ewerrsaeef.
She was safe from earthquakes. She was safe from comet strikes and tidal waves and alien abductions. She was as unlikely as she was anywhere in America to encounter an active shooter.
She wasn’t safe from snooty old ladies with vintage cars. But at least the Silver Ghost’s owner had done her the courtesy of confirming what she already knew: she did not belong here.
‘You’re going to dinner,’ she said to the mirror. ‘You’re going to say yes to every invitation that comes your way, from now until you get to…wherever you’re going next.’
Julia’s house was set back from the cliff by an acre of velvet lawn. Its windows were open to catch the last afternoon breezes, although there was already a hint of evening’s chill. Julia stood waiting on the porch, wrapped in a shawl. Standing two steps below her, Bell looked her straight in the eye. She marvelled at the delicacy of Julia’s frame, half the size of her own.
‘I always forget how tall you are,’ Julia laughed. ‘Your whole family is. Is corn the secret?’
‘High-fructose corn syrup.’
Julia took Bell’s hands in her own. ‘You've had yet another rotten year. My god. What did you do to piss off the Universe?’
‘I haven't really thought about it in those terms.’
‘You look drawn. The cottages aren’t too much work, are they?’
‘The cottages give me the right amount of responsibility,’ Bell said. ‘I’m exercising, reading, putting myself back together again.’
Julia patted her cheek. ‘Good. I find salvation in work. But we’ll have to find a way to get your bloom back. You were such a blossom when I met you.’
‘That was in the Nineties. I was seventeen.’
‘And you’re still too young to look so worn out. Of course, it's natural. The thing in Iowa was absolutely awful. And now this...act of God.’
Bell nodded and shrugged, which was her standard response to concern.
‘In the short term,’ continued Julia, ‘I prescribe gin and witty conversation. Or at least gin, at any rate. Our nephew has dropped in on us...’ She trailed off, turned toward the house, then back toward Bell. ‘That sounded terrible. I didn’t mean my nephew isn’t witty. The two thoughts weren’t related. I meant he wasn’t expected.’ She fluttered her hands. ‘Do you drink gin?’
Bell followed Julia into a room of polished oak. A pair of French doors stood open at the far end, through which a breeze rattled the slatted blinds like castanets. Two men were playing pool in the centre of the room. The snap of cue on ball rang out, contrapuntal to the samba of the wooden blinds. One of the men was blond and freckled. His dazzling early beauty had matured into something almost, but not quite, fatherly. This was Nick Trueheart.
The other, younger man was darker, with close-cropped hair and a severe mouth. He bent low over his cue and shut one eye to line up his shot.
‘I’m two shots away from burying your husband,’ he said.
Nick looked mock-tragically at Julia. ‘He makes me look bad. We shouldn’t invite him when we have other guests.’
‘You didn’t invite me,’ said the other, potting the last of the balls. Nick howled in dismay and shook his hand with exaggerated formality. Julia, laughing, went to the far end of the room and pulled the doors shut. The breeze died down. Silence descended like falling leaves.
Nick stepped forward and offered Bell his hand. ‘Sorry you had to see that.’ He grinned.
‘Bell, this is my nephew, Wes,’ said Julia. ‘Wes, Bell is a cousin of mine, or of ours, I guess.’
Wes enclosed her hand with both of his, tilting his chin at her. He was thirty-five or so, grey-eyed, aristocratic yet hungry-looking.
‘Bell’s mother is a fourth cousin or something on my dad’s side. Right, Bell?’ said Julia.
‘That’s what my mom says.’
‘We’re barely related, then,’ said Wes. He let go of her hand but didn’t back away.
‘Cocktail time,’ said Julia, perching in a leather chair.
Bell and Wes sat on a sofa while Nick poured the contents of many bottles into a silver shaker.
‘Wes has an announcement,’ said Julia.
Wes ducked his head self-consciously. ‘I bought the place on Abenak.’
‘That place over by Islesboro?’ Nick rattled the shaker.
‘He bought the island,’ said Julia.
Nick strained the shaker into highball glasses. ‘Wes, man, you bought the whole island?’
‘Honey, why don’t we have an island?’ cried Nick.
‘It’s a small island,’ Wes shrugged.
Bell tried to take in the fact that this youngish man in moccasins had bought an entire island. How was that possible? Tech? Arms dealing? Pharmaceuticals?
‘Bell,’ said Julia, ‘is spending the summer here.’
‘Lucky you,’ said Wes.
Nick set the drinks on the slab of petrified tree trunk that served as a coffee table.
‘Gin slings,’ he said. ‘An overlooked classic. Julia’s on a gin jag.’ He slouched into the empty armchair. Tattoos peeked out from the bottoms of his t-shirt sleeves. Bell realized Nick was the same age as her father. She pictured her dad in his massage chair: muttering at the evening news, his belly wobbling as the chair kneaded his lumbar area.
‘Gin jag!’ said Julia. ‘You make me sound like I have a problem.’
‘Only with your temper,’ Nick retorted. Julia smacked his leg.
Wes turned to Bell. ‘So are you in grad school?’
‘Am I in grad school?’
‘You’re here for the summer.’
‘Ah. Yeah. I was doing a history doctorate. In Iowa. But I got recruited by the foreign service. I just completed my first tour. But I’m going back to finish my dissertation in the fall.’ She said this with such determined clarity, she almost believed herself.
She sank back into the sofa as the cocktail’s warmth spread through her limbs. Julia and Nick were the most beautiful couple she had ever seen, although looking at Nick was like looking straight at the sun. Wes’s laugh was clear and deep. But when he smiled, the twinkle in his eyes was more brilliant than warm.
‘So, where was your first tour?’ he said.
‘In Quiana. Entry-level consular work.’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘Were you there for the earthquake?’
Bell nodded, hugging herself.
‘Hey, I’ve got a question,’ she said. ‘who’s moving in next to me?’
‘Oh, he’s Nick’s friend. He’s on the run from the authorities,’ Julia stage-whispered.
It was Nick’s turn to smack Julia playfully on the leg. ‘That is not true, and you know it. He’s going through some stuff.’
Wes raised an eyebrow. ‘Does he play cards?’
Nick furrowed his brow. ‘Easy, tiger.’
‘What's wrong with a game between friends?’
‘Friends, is that what you call your mugging victims?’
‘Okay, fellows,’ Julia said, as a woman in an apron announced dinner.
Candles flickered on the dining table, setting the room aglow against the creeping darkness. The sun had disappeared behind the dome of the island, and the windows were shut tight against the chill. Nick poured Bordeaux into glasses as big as fishbowls.
‘So, Wes, what do you do for a living?’ Bell said.
‘It’s in finance, it’s boring,’ he said. ‘I want to talk about Julia’s next project. Looks like a blockbuster.’
‘I don’t want to talk about that,’ laughed Julia. ‘We’re mired in permit hell right now.’
‘Doesn’t anyone want to talk about my movie?’ said Nick.
‘It’s already wrapped,’ said Wes. ‘Next.’ Everyone laughed.
So, thought Bell, here we are, sparkling in the candlelight, the banker, the producer, the star, and the fuck-up, having dinner. It’s Gilligan’s Island.