A Matter of Mercy Excerpt
The dune fence between their house and the beach still tilted toward the water. It had always seemed an invitation to Caroline, like a gesturing hand, and as a child she’d been secretly glad when her father’s work to straighten it didn’t last. It had pointed to shining afternoons at the edge of the shore with her mother. Later it pointed the way for her friends, teenagers gathering on summer nights around a driftwood fire to laugh and drink beer a boy had swiped from his parents. Recently though, since she’d been home, she imagined it pointed to an escape route. If she just stuck to the sand and walked west out of Wellfleet, she’d cross the bay beaches of Truro and end up in Provincetown. The passenger ferries to Boston left from the wharf there.
“I don’t see why you can’t go back to teaching,” Caroline’s mother said to her back. Strange how her voice could sound so weak, yet relentless, like a hungry kitten. “Can’t you apply for reinstatement? It’s been a long time.”
Caroline sighed and kept looking out through the picture window in the living room. At the shoreline, the water appeared distinct with separate white-lined laps, but toward the horizon it was the color of fog, sea merging into sky, one realm dimming into another in the aging day, just as her mother’s life was fading from this world into the next. A silent rise out of the slow breath of sleep—like the blurring of bay and sky—was how her mother’s life would likely end. That’s how Elsie, the hospice nurse, had described it when she explained the use of a morphine drip. When would be the time to say good-bye in that drifting scenario?
“Rake’s not out yet.” Caroline’s left forefinger examined the nails of her right hand as she spoke. “I’m surprised. The tide’s more than half-down.” She was trying not to revert to biting her nails by painting them Crystal Mauve. Eleanor used to say polish looked cheap on a woman, but the clay she worked would have made a mess of it, so Caroline attributed the opinion to suppressed envy. She’d thought of offering to paint her mother’s nails now, but what would that imply?
“You’re changing the subject. Will you look at me please?” her mother complained, and then couldn’t curtail herself. “Anyway, it’s not Rake there anymore. It’s The Junior.” Caroline heard the rest as if by telepathy: I told you, Rake is dead. “Came back to take over before Rake died. Settled right back home,” Eleanor said, the last meaning it’s past time you did the same. “Sure doesn’t look like his father, does he?” She paused and Caroline knew she was supposed to recall the image of the tough, skinny Jake, whose full moniker, Jake the Rake, had been a riff on his resemblance to the bull rake with which he harvested quahogs. “The Junior’s built like a brick shithouse.” Eleanor had abandoned prim language with no explanation after she was widowed. “I wouldn’t know, Mom. I haven’t laid eyes on Rid, or any of those guys, since high school.”
“Never heard him called anything but The Junior,” Eleanor mused.
“By his parents. I doubt he appreciates it.”
“Pffft.” Eleanor brushed the notion off with a weak-wristed gesture. She pushed with her heels and wrists, trying to hike herself up in the bed, dislodging a pillow that landed with a whoof on the wood plank floor. A wheeled bedside stand, moved aside after she’d relented and taken a little applesauce, held an artful smattering of red, gold and pink dahlias Caroline had salvaged from the garden. They were the brightest color in a room of sparse oak dominated by an old stone fireplace. If there was any daylight at all, the eye was drawn to the view, which Eleanor always insisted was the decor.
Caroline left the window to pick up the pillow and resettle her mother who tried to shoo her away with bird-like hands, her bones a network of twigs scarcely covered.
“The Junior is a worker, though,” Eleanor pushed on, needing to make some point about a local. The day before she’d gone on about Tomas, the son of another of her retired friends who’d taken over for his parents. “I watched him yesterday. Got a brown dog that runs around the beach.”
“See? You do love being able to see the water,” Caroline said, a bit of I-knew-it in her voice, glad she’d persisted about moving the furniture around and having the delivery men put the hospital bed in the living room. Eleanor could hear the bay from her bedroom if the window was open, but couldn’t see it. Caroline sat next to her mother, but angled the straight-backed chair so she, too, could see the water.
“It’s holy to me,” Eleanor conceded. “The worst is leaving you and this place behind. I don’t know how you ever left.”
“You know I couldn’t stay after the accident.”
“People are better than you think,” Eleanor said. “There’s a time for leaving, I’ll give you that, but there’s also a time for coming home.”
“Mom, no one here is going to celebrate my return by killing the fatted calf. And this isn’t about me. I’m here for you. Anyway, what I don’t get is why someone would come back to work the flats, of all things.”
Eleanor’s eyes reddened with tears, which she did not try to wipe. After a pause, she said, “It’s who we are. Rake worked up a … life … to leave The Junior.” She attempted an arm swoosh toward the window, though which the bay glinted. “Big call now for Wellfleet oysters. Quahogs, too. They fly ’em to New York and Chicago, all over. Charlotte said she heard there’s oysters going to Paris from right here. Best in the world. Right here.”
Not for the first time, Caroline wondered if dying was something her mother had arranged just to get her home.
It was dusk when Eleanor nodded off after her mousy nibbling at the edges of food and two-foot journey to the bedside commode with Caroline’s help. It might have been two miles, it seemed to exhaust her that much. Elsie had warned Caroline that a catheter would be needed soon, and a diaper. Caroline folded back the sheet across her mother’s chest and smoothed it into a neat cuff. She licked the tips of her fingers to subdue a few strands of patchy grayish-white. “A woman’s hair is her glory,” Eleanor used to say when Caroline was little and she’d wedge her daughter between her knees and brush out her hair before she did her own. “A hundred strokes a day brings out the shine.” Caroline shook her head, refusing the tingle of incipient tears, and kissed her mother’s forehead with butterfly lips.
The air outside the house was cooler and fresher. She stepped off the porch and started downhill, through a pine and oak scrim to the hundred-step path surrounded by beach plums and rose hips that opened out to clear sand. Many of the houses nearby had been turned into summer rentals, though a few of the old families who hadn’t been driven out by ever-increasing taxes still hung on. Up on the bluffs to the east, a spate of new custom homes, with enormous expanses of plate glass, skylights and multi-tiered decks, had been built by washashores, nonnatives ostentatious enough to leave them empty in winter while they sojourned in Mexico or the Mediterranean or wherever people like that went to stay warm. To her right, the sunset—peach with magenta streaks—melted over the roofs of houses on the western edge of the horseshoe-shaped inlet. When she reached the sand above the wrack line, she sank down cross-legged to absorb the luminous kaleidoscope over what remained changeless of her mother’s holy place.
This was the town’s back yard, the bay side, with its natural harbor and gentle variations, domestic and domesticated. This was where people woke, did business, played, ate dinner and lay themselves down at night. Seven miles cross Cape, on the other side of Route 6, was National Seashore, where giant parabolas of brocaded dunes and the raw wild Atlantic offered a natural and spiritual ecosystem far more expansive. Over there, the beach was primeval, the stoneless sand ranged from raw to ultra-fine sugar. Here, one was best advised to walk wearing shoes. All Wellfleet’s bay beaches were littered with dusky water-worn stones of pure white, gray, mauve and purple nestled alongside razor-sharp bivalve shells that could ribbon bare feet and leave them bloody. And around Indian Neck, the oyster cultch was murderous. But the contrasts were Wellfleet’s ying and yang, just as the summer crowds and the winter isolation balanced each other. Caroline knew natives who hated the summer people, truly hated them for the congestion they brought, packed with their arrogance, even though much of the Cape depended on tourist dollars to keep afloat.
She glanced away from the sunset to take in the whole sweep of beach and bay at twilight and realized that a man approaching from the other side of the inlet was already close enough to speak. Caroline guessed who he was from her mother’s brick shithouse summary more than from an image she could call up herself. Jeans, a green T-shirt, tattooed forearms, hair and complexion like sand and dusk, weather-scrubbed as the bluffs behind him.
“Hey, how ya doin’?” he said, looking down at her, not slowing.
“Hey yourself, Rid. How’re you?” Caroline composed herself mentally, grateful she’d seen him coming and was spared the startle.
“Uh, hi, uh—I’m sorry.” He was off guard, and Caroline realized he had no idea who she was, had only been making a passing greeting to a stranger. She wished she hadn’t used his name because now he stopped, a question on his face.
“It’s me, Rid, Caroline, from up yonder.” She gestured toward her mother’s house behind and slightly above them. It still wasn’t registering. “CiCi Marcum.” She added the nickname of her school years.
“CiCi. My God, I’d never have recognized you.” Embarrassed. “Geez. What’d you do? I mean, God. Geez. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it rude like that sounded.” He squatted down next to her on the sand. Sticking his thumb and forefinger into his mouth, he produced a shrill whistle. A Labrador retriever appeared within seconds and Caroline paused to watch it lope across the beach. Rid grabbed its collar. “Lizzie, you stick here with me, girl,” he said, “Down,” and Lizzie slurped his chin with her tongue, sat, and then lay down, reluctant, one brown foreleg then the other.
“That’s okay. Yeah, I probably do look pretty different.” Caroline knew he was envisioning a heavier girl with a high forehead and long dark brown hair. She’d never put the weight she’d lost in jail back on, and her hair was cropped now, highlighted blonde, a scattering of bangs altering the shape of her face. She’d been two or three classes ahead of him. And fair’s fair: her memory of him didn’t include this burliness and weathered tan, the smile lines radiating out from the corners of his eyes revealing their secret white centers when his face was at rest. His hairline had started to recede on either side of his forehead, making his round face faintly heartshaped. She remembered his hair as some undistinguished shade of brown, but now it was sun-burnished, gold.
“I’d say. Um, you here visiting or—?”
“My mother’s sick,” she said, cutting him off.
“Geez. Is it serious? I mean, I didn’t know. I just come in over there, on the access road, you know, and do my work.” As he spoke he pointed to the opposite side of the horseshoe, to the dirt road that led out of Indian Neck toward Route 6 where a truck, painted black by the advance of night, was parked. Usually, there were at least eight or ten at low tide; now only his and one other, a sure sign the tide was a good halfway up. “I don’t pay much attention to who’s—anyway, I’m sorry she’s sick. What’s the matter?”
Caroline hesitated, inclined by the habit of her history to put him off. For a minute, she let the background sound—incoming mid-tide plashes—emerge, but there was still a gap and he left it unfilled so she answered, more because he was a stranger than because she’d ever casually known him. “Cancer. Ovarian.”
“Geez, that’s bad. Is it…? I mean, she’s gettin’ treatment and all, right?”
“It was pretty far gone when she got diagnosed. It’s an easy one to miss, I guess. That’s the only easy thing about it.” Her voice a hybrid of irony and anger.
“God. That’s hard, that’s bad.” He nodded, as if to say I know. It occurred to her, in that same intimate-stranger way, to say, “I’m really sorry about your Dad. Mom told me. Were you there? When he died, I mean. If you don’t mind my asking.”
“Dad pretty much just keeled over, but I did get to the hospital just before he died,” he said lightly, and Caroline wouldn’t have pressed for more, but Rid said, “I was already back here then. After. I guess you know I was in prison and all.”
Startled. “No, I didn’t.” She’d wanted to ask about what it was like, seeing his father die, whether he was glad he’d been there or wished he hadn’t. The notion of rudeness stopped her. Later she’d think it strange that she hadn’t wanted to ask him what his prison was like.
“Yeah, man, I was one messed up dude. Did all kinds of drugs, sold ‘em, you name it. It all caught up with me, though. Four and a half years worth.”
“Well, throw in a little grand theft auto, but I count that as drugs since I was flying at the time and didn’t really need a car.” He chuckled and shook his head. “If you get my drift. I was out before Dad died, and that was cool, though. When I came back, see, I started working with Dad because I didn’t have a job or a place to go. They always did stick by me. Then he died, and now that’s mine.” Rid turned and pointed behind him, to an area in the bay across the inlet. “Five acres. Dad got my name on his grant when I turned eighteen, even though I didn’t want nothin’ to do with workin’ it back then. I guess he could see I wasn’t headed anywhere else, you know, that I might want to come back to it. I seed ’em, I tend ’em and I harvest ’em. Best oysters in the world. I’m buildin up the quahogs, too, now, getting into them more.”
“You really like it?”
“Look at it,” he said by way of answer, sweeping his arm expansively. Then, embarrassed again. “How’s bout you? You went to college, didn’t you? And didn’t you get married?”
Caroline hesitated, sensing Rid wasn’t disingenuous enough to be setting her up. “Yeah,” she said. “I went to college, and yeah, but I also got a divorce.”
“And now you’re a…” he said, inviting her to fill in the blank.
“Oh God, now I’m nothing. I was a waitress in Chicago. Actually, I just spent three weeks giving notice, subletting my apartment, and all that stuff so I could come back here to be with Mom.”
“A waitress? You went to college to be a waitress?”
“Well, I waitressed in the Plaza,” she said, and heard her defensiveness, so added, “but no, I didn’t go to college for that. My degree was in Elementary Education.”
“So you’re a teacher.”
“Ah, no, not any more. Long story.”
This time he caught the put off. “There’s a sure sign of fall comin’ on,” he said gesturing with his chin. Overhead, a great blue heron’s wings beat against the sky. “That’s my guy. He and his buddies love the bait fish around the grants this time of year.” The sun slid below the horizon degree by degree, a great red neon ball being lowered from an invisible string held by God, fiery and benign. The bay answered with tongues and darts and minnows of color. “Well, nice talkin’ to you, CiCi. I’m sorry about your Mom. Listen, I’m around here every low tide just like Dad used to be—I mean, if you need a hand, you know, just watch for me and yell.”
“Thanks. I’m fine, though.” The auto-answer. “There’s a hospice nurse that comes,” Caroline got to her feet a second after Rid did, pretending not to see the hand he held out, keeping her head down until he’d tucked it in his pocket to save them both the moment. The last of the sun slipped toward tomorrow, but its remains bled onto the water. Rid bent to caress Lizzie’s ears. When he straightened, he stood shorter than Caroline’s five-eight by a sideways thumb.
(An excerpt from the novel A MATTER OF MERCY by Lynne Hugo. All rights reserved.)