The food came and Oliver ate nothing and they edged the conversation into neutral territory: Oliver’s show (it had been ecstatically reviewed and sold out at his highest prices ever), Harlan’s upcoming retrospective at the Guggenheim, the murky con-game of multi-media and installation art (“I should just take a crap on the gallery floor and call it Residues.” Harlan said. “It would be worth it just to hear Holland Cotter call it ‘a pile of shit’.”) and finally, Harlan’s on-going efforts to paint his dead wife’s portrait.
Oliver took a look at it after his coffee the next morning. The dawn was foggy and the big drafty barn’s damp penetrating cold held the smells of old dust, resinous wood and turpentine in suspension. Canvases leaned against the walls in piles and a big plank table cluttered with jars and tubes of paint, old sketchbooks and coffee mugs took uo most one wall.
Harlan turned on the hot water radiator-style heater in the corner, but it would tak an hour for the place to warm up. He knew he should insulate the studio, it was almost impossible to heat in the winter, but he liked the old rafters.
“It’s a fine picture,” Oliver said, staring at the big canvas, leaning on his ashwood cane. “You have arrived at a dangerous moment, my friend. If you keep tinkering, you may ruin it.”
Harlan shook his head. “It needs more. It needs me not to settle for … for this.”
“Well that’s your decision.”
“Sometimes I feel like it needs more work than I can do. It gets harder every year. I feel old when I’m working.”
“You need to cultivate a stoical outlook, dear boy. I trained myself to be patient. Of course, that’s not entirely realistic in your case. I watched you microwave a cup of coffee yesterday.”
“Mildly amusing at best. But true. Perhaps it’s time to walk away for a while. At least for the day. I’d like to see a bit of your island. It’s been a long time and I suspect the place has changed tremendously.”
“Not for the better.”
“Yes, well. Change is always for the worse, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know. Some things are better now. Seriously.Electric toothbrushes, acrylic paint. Car engines. You can actually get a decent cup off coffee pretty much anywhere in this country. Television was mostly crap when I was a kid. Now there’s The Good Wife and Breaking Bad. Homeland and Girls and Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
“And Mad Men.”
Harlan clenched his face into a Don Draper scowl. “’THAT’S WHAT THE MONEY IS FOR!.’
Oliver laughed. “Great stuff. Come on, let’s get out of here.”
A stray comment gave Oliver away that morning, a slip of the tongue so petty Harlan almost missed it himself.
Clearly entranced by the easy companionship of his old friend, relishing his unexpected freedom and the crisp autumn air, Oliver let his guard down, just for the space of a single sentence. But that was all it took. Harlan would have given a great deal to have missed his friend’s slip of the tongue, or to have misunderstood it. Those regrets were pointless, though.
He knew what he knew, and he had to find out the rest. The trap he set might snare both of them, but his rage had a miserable, self-flagellating edge to it. He wanted to hurt, he deserved to hurt. Bring it. He had been a smug, oblivious, arrogant fool. A prick and a punk.
So now it was time to get punked – for both of them.
It began just before lunch, after a drive out to Great Point, and the required visit to the Oldest House. Having been recently struck by lightning, burned down and almost entirely rebuilt, it was now technically something like the newest house, which Harlan couldn’t resist pointing out. Oliver laughed. It was just like old times.
Then he said, “You know what I actually could eat this morning? Some of that marvelous frozen yogurt. I seem to recall they have it at a little shop behind the library in town – the Atheneum?”
Harlan cocked his head. “You remember that place?”
“I always remember food, dear boy. I will never forget the German Chocolate cake at Carl Anmdersen Chatham in Los Angeles, and the place he been closed for deacades.”
“So has Yogurt Plus, sorry. It was a little deli ca;lled Melo’s for a while, then a local bakery took it over. There were a couple of other changes. Now it’s called Queequeg’s.”
“A restaurant named after a Muslim! How politically incorrect.”
“No, just illiterate. Even at the high school here, they only teach excerpts from Moby Dick. No one knows enough to be outraged by the harpooner. But I’m sure they would be, if they ever found out.”
Harlan was just vamping. In his mind he was running the dates, the commercial history of 6 Oak Street, Nantucket Ma. 02554, which had housed the sublime Patisserie Marti when he had first come to the island. He was only ninety nine percent sure: that one percent would haunt him forever.
He drove them out to the rotary, then east on Milestone Road. When he he turned onto Piolpis Road, Oliver said, “We’re going home?”
“Just to hook up my trailer.”
“Ah. The motor boat.”
“It’s a classic Whaler, from the old days, when they were still trimmed with teak. Ruth gave it to me for my birthday, when was it? 1991. Robert was eight years old. He hated wearing the life jacket. But he loved that boat.”
“Yes, but I’m not sure exactly why …”
“I want you to see Ruth’s house on Tuckernuck.”
Oliver glanced over at him. “Tuckernuck?”
“She never mentioned it to you?”
“Yes, of course, certainly – Tuckernuck. I remember now. The little island of the western tip of Nantucket. It’s her family’s house . I believe everyone but Ruth wanted to sell it when her grandfather died. But he left it to her.”
Harlan nodded. “And she left it to me.”
“Do you spend much time there?”
“As little as possible. But I want you to see it.”
Clouds had been gathering all morning and rain began to spatter the windshield. Oliver squinted out the window. “This hardly seems like the most opportune moment.”
“I have raincoats in the back. I’ll get us over there in fifteen minutes. And the house is right on the beach.”
Oliver seemed to sense his friend’s determination. If he had any further objections he kept them to himself. Words dried up and hardened between them as they drove on. Harlan thought of cheddar wrapped too loosely in the refrigerator. You left it long enough, it turned inedible.
Oliver fortified himself with a nap in the back seat as Harlan pulled the cover off the boat, checked the evinrude and hooked up the trailer. They were halfway back across the island when he woke up. He watched calmly as Harlan backed the car down the ramp and slid the boat into the water.
Harlan helped him out of the car and into the Whaler. But Oliver still got his shoes wet and almost fell, slipping on the slimy concrete. Harlan hoisted the smaller man over the gunwale, settled him in the bow, holding on tight to the polished metal rail.
It was raining hard by the time they started across the channel. The air was still but surf was booming against the south shore. Chaion lighting s;piked down onto the beach and the thunder a second later like an artillery barrage. They were alone on the water – all the scallop boats had taken their limit for the day, and no one was out for pleasure in this crazy November squall.
Harlan gave Oliver both rain coats and he wore one across his lap like a blanket, shivering quietly. It was a foolhardy adventure for an elderly invalid, but neither of them mentioned it. Neither of them said a word.
Harlan navigated around North Pond, past the seven rocks, gliding over the shoals. The tide was high and the trip was easy, but Harlan was soaked to the skin by the time the house on its little bluff drifted into view. He beached the skiff and helped Oliver out onto the packed sand. The crossed a swath of dune grass and then mounted the steps up to the big back porch.
Ruth’s father had installed a gas generator and a composting toilet, but until the nineteen sixties the family had gotten by on a kerosene stove and hurricane lamps. The still stood facing the moors in the back. They stood looking along the rocky coast of the little island, the striper flats where Harlan still came to fish on summer days when he felt strong. From the living room windows you could see the pond and the big island beyond it, and closer by, the Tuckernuck moors cut with dirt roads, dotted with grey shingled unpainted houses, most of them at least a hundred years old. No power lines, no construction crews, no cars; at this time of year, no people. Just the sandplain grass, the huckleberry, beach plum and bearberry bushes, scrub oak and pitch pine. And the owls.
“It’s a time machine,” Harlan said quietly. But you couldn’t bring the people back. Not even their ghosts. No place on earth seem less haunted than this one. “Let’s get out of this rain,” he said and pushed open the door. There was a lock but no one had ever used it.
Inside the damp house with the rain clattering softly on the roof, Oliver gave himself away haplessly, conclusively, once and for all. It was a simple physical gesture: he stepped aside as he entered, dodging the dripping water from a perennial leak over the front door.
But there was no leak, not now.
“I replaced the roof three years ago,” Harlan said. “I brought a couple of carpenters over, let them stay here for a few weeks. They did a good job. The place has been water-tight ever since.” Oliver stared at him in the watery gloom. “The leak is gone,” Harlan said. “No need to step around it.”
Oliver seemed to fold into himself. He grabbed the kitchen counter steady himself.
“How did you know?”
“I didn’t. I wasn’t sure until now. But you mentioned Yogurt Plus. That place came and went during the years when we had kicked you out of our lives, years when you had no business here, years when you would never have dared set foot on this island when I was around. It would have to have been … ninety two, ninety three? She didn’t start to get really sick until ninety four. I was traveling, opening shows in Europe, Robert was at camp. Ruth was all alone out here. That was what she told me. Did you stay all summer?”
He nodded again.
The anger rose up his throat, uncontrollable as vomit. “You fucking prick. You miserable fucking little prick. You couldn’t stay away, you couldn’t let her alone, sniffing around like a fucking dog at a trash bin. I would fucking kill you if you weren’t dead already.”
Lightning lit up the kitchen for a second, like a photographer’s flash. The raging bully and the hobbled old man caught in some grotesque cameo of overmatched confrontation Harlan backed away, counting the seconds – ten eleven twelve. . Thunder boomed out over the ocean. The storm was moving off.
“Ruth told me,” Oliver began. His voice caught in his throat and he coughed to clear it. “She said she told you. About us.”
“She said you’d been together again. Not here. Not in our bed for months at a time, for years, in the only refuge I ever cared about.”
“She tried. You stopped her. She said – you stopped her.”
It was true. “I didn’t want the details. I didn’t want that bullshit pornography in my head.”
The pleading note in Oliver’s voice might have moved him at some other moment. Now it just made him angrier, sicker. The house was poisoned for him suddenly, all the memories tainted, turned toxic. What was the half life of betrayal? Longer than whatever he had left. This place was Chernobyl now. All you could do was flee.
“I’m selling this place,” he said. “Elaine Bailey can handle the details. It’ll make her year, getting her paws on a Tuckernuck house. Greedy bitch. Fuck that. It’s not just her. It’s the whole island, it’s everyone, even you. Just take what you want, right Ollie? Just grab the shiny thing off the heap. If it feels good do it. That was our philosophy in the sixties. What a pile of crap.”
He strode out into living room.
“Where are you going?” Oliver called after him.
“I have some stuff in the attic I want to take. This is my last chance. I’ve never coming back.”
The attic door tilted crazily outward as Harlan pulled it open; only the bottom hinge pin remained. The dusty stairs rose as steeply as a ship’s ladder into the musty gloom under the eaves. He took them slowly, eyes adjusting to the gloom. The only light came from a grimy window at the far end. But he saw the items he wanted immediately. There wasn’t much: A couple of old wooden beach chairs, a brass lamp, and the drawings. He didn’t even remember what he’d been working on in those four black cachet sketchbooks. It didn’t matter. Maybe there were even some blank pages he could use. He just wanted to grab them and get out of this house as fast as he could. The chairs were too cumbersome, the lamp was broken. To hell with them. He crab walked over to the little pile of sketchbooks, reached out and pulled his hand back as if from an ungrounded fuse box.
There were five sketchbooks piled carelessly on the plank floor. Not four, five. Panicky thoughts crowded and shoved each other his mind, trying to push their way out, restaurant patrons at the exit door, escaping a fire. He had forgotten how many books he’d left here. That explanation slammed into Oliver uses the same brand, Oliver told me about the Cachet sketchbooks at Hampshire. The two thoughts struggled, forced aside by the more urgent, get out of here, leave them, leave it alone, you don’t know what he was drawing and it’s none of your business, never was. It’s twenty years ago. She’s dead, he’s dying. It’s ancient gossip. It means nothing.
Then he thought of fire again. Fire Was good. He should burn the house down to the foundation, with all the ghosts and memories inside it. You’d be able to see the blaze from Fisher’s Landing. No, no, with his luck he’d set the whole island of Tuckernuck on fire. That brush was dry.
He stared at the sketchbooks. He could feel the strain in his back from bending over. He was sweating in the captured heat of the attic, smelling the sickly tang of mold. Mold never quit. Those spores hung on forever. Ruth used to joke about exporting mildew to all those arid Middle-Eastern countries, an exotic treat for desert people who’d never known humidity.
Ruth. Did he know it then or had it known it all the time? Oliver wasn’t doing landscaper studies out here. Harlan picked up the first book -- his. Ditto the second, the third. The fourth one was Oliver’s.
He held it for a second then wrenched it open. On the first page, Ruth’s face looking up at him from under her brows with a quizzical smile. Not at him, at Oliver. Oliver was the recipient of that amused disbelief. What absurd thing had Oliver just said to her? He closed his eyes, opened them again.
He knew the rest of it would be worse. He started turning the pages.
Downstairs, Oliver saw the sketch books under his arm and the look of frightened recognition snapped something in Harlan, some frayed rope that had been holding the snarling black dog at the taut end of its reach. He felt a physical jolt, flung forward by his own unfettered hate.
He threw the book, but managed to aim it at the bookshelf at the other side of the room. It hit one of Ruth’s glass hurricane shades and knocked it onto the hardwood floor. It shattered and Oliver flinched at the brittle gun shot sound of it.
They stared at each other, wild and seething
Harlan spoke first. “So much for keeping the pornography out of my head.”
“Why would you leave that here? That’s what I don’t get. Those aren’t sketches. They’re studies! Aren’t they? The paintings are somewhere, you did the paintings didn’t you? So you must have other sketchbooks, lots of them, lots of charcoal drawings of my wife with her thighs open. But they’re nothing compared to the finished paintings, am I right? The full color rendering on the big canvas.”
“But you left this one here. I think you wanted me to find it. You’re like a fucking cat, spraying its territory. Well you win. This is your place now. You’ve got it all.”
“Please, Harlan … I never ,meant for --”
“At least you’re dying first. That’s the bright spot. If I had croaked first those paintings would have been hanging at MoMa before my body was cold. Am I right? That would have been a late career boost for you. Like Wyeth’s Helga paintings. But he had the decency not to fuck her.”
“Harlan, listen --”
“Can you deny it? You wait until everyone’s dead and that spares their feelings, that’s the classic spin. But it’s bullshit. The only one who gets spared is you. The people you betrayed are all dead so you get away scot free. You don’t have to face anyone, you don’t have to deal with the reputations you’ve ruined. You win, you get posterity and Ruth is the cheating bitch and I’m the jackass cuckold clown forever. Well not this time, pal because I’m going to outlive you by thirty years and I’m going to find those pictures and burn them right here on the beach and get falling down drunk on your favorite champagne. And you’ll be dead. So fuck you.”
“I’m sorry,” Oliver said. His voice was a whisper.
“But you’re not. You’re not even sorry you got caught. You wanted me to feel this way and I do. So enjoy it. Gloat. But the phony contrition makes me sick.”
He helped Harlan back down the stairs to the boat, steered them back to the public landing, got Oliver into the car and hitched the boat to the trailer, all in a dispiriting thin drizzle, the fraying edge of storm moving out to sea. They said nothing. Words had been trampled between them, squashed, stamped into the floor boards like pill bugs.
Back at his house, Harlan helped Oliver out of the car and up to the front door. Then he turned away. “I’m going to work.”
“I should have left you to die in that fucking hospital. This place is too good for you.”
He stamped across the muddy yard to his studio, pulled open the big barn doors, letting the rusted hinges scream.
The portrait was still wrong but he couldn’t fix it. The innocent smile on Ruth’s face stuck him as inane and grotesque. He couldn’t fix it. He couldn’t paint her as she really was. Maybe Oliver was right. Maybe he never knew her after all.
The urge to smear the portrait with paint, deface it like a grimy subway car scribbled over with dripping gang graffitti, loomed and subsided. That was why kids spray-painted the trains – to take the ugliness and complete it, make it intentional, own it somehow. Harlan owned nothing now, not even his own past.
After a while he sensed that he wasn’t alone. He turned. Oliver was standing in the doorway, a thin curtain of rain falling behind him.
“I loved her, Harlan. I always loved her. Just as you did.”
Harlan turned back to the portrait. “The sketches are good. You were obviously inspired.”
“Thank you for saying that.”
“You know it’s true. I’m sure the paintings are some kind of masterpieces.”
“Give them a few moments’ study before you burn them. Decide for yourself.”
Harlan stood breathing the salt air. The rage had broken, like a fever. He felt nothing now except relief that the ague had passed.
“I won’t burn the pictures.”
“I’m tired, Oliver.”
“So am I. With much better cause.”
“Great. Play the death card.”
“It’s about the only one I have left.”
The new silence felt strangely companionable. Harlan heard the Eagle blow the steam whistle, the sound of the horn floating up the harbor on the still air. Of course it was just a fake whistle now, supposedly tuned to sound like the old Nobska. The Unitarian Church carillon was an illusion, too, a recording that simulated the old bells, just like the houses with their impeccable antique facades and gutted, remodeled interiors. There was one on Main Street where they had removed all the floors because the faux antique furniture was too tall for the rooms. Or the new thirty million dollar Dreamland theater, with its acres of wasted space, bad sound and uncomfortable seats … and of course the lovingly preserved tinted photographs of the old movie house, to show some faux respect for history. It was a fact: everything new was ugly. Nothing improved. Oliver was right: change was always bad, always.
He turned back to his old friend. For some reason he found himself on the brink of tears.
It was Oliver who spoke. “I need you to forgive me, Harlan, as Ruth needed to forgive you. Because somehow it doesn’t matter now what any of us did with each other or to each other. It’s all finished. All that’s left is the fact that we were alive together on the planet and we loved each other. Our lives were tangled together, knotted inexplicably … like strings of Christmas lights.”
“Ruth straightened them out. When she died I bought new ones every year.” And they were worse every year, cheaper and more badly made, imported from China probably, like the toys and toasters and everything else.
Oliver pressed on. “We were part of each other Harlan. In a world of acquaintances and strangers and sycophants, that matters. Perhaps it’s the only thing that matters.”
Harlan released a breath. “You were never boring. That matters to me.”
Oliver held out a hand. Harlan took two strides and pulled him into a hug. “Let’s go inside,” he said. “We both need a drink.”
Harlan lit the fire and poured two healthy slugs of Lagavulin over ice. Oliver sat in one of the two big arm chairs facing the hearth. He looked exhausted, purple under the eyes, lips pale, body shrunken somehow. He couldn’t have looked worse if Harlan had actually beaten him up.
“This isn’t good,” he said.
Harlan handed him a glass. “For medicinal purposes only.”
Oliver smiled “Prohibition. Worst idea ever.” He took a sip, swallowed with difficulty. “Better,” he said.
Harlan tasted the smoky peat-bog whiskey, took a long gulp, let it burn down to his stomach. Another band of rain was passing over the island, lashing the windows, pattering comfortably on the roof. Harlan added a log to the growing blaze. He could see Oliver was shivering.
“Perfect single malt weather,” Harlan said
Oliver nodded. “You should bring Robert up here. You know he loves this place.”
“He goes where he wants to go.”
“Have you invited him?”
“If he belonged here he wouldn’t need an invitation.”
“Well, if he knew that, perhaps he’d be here now. I should certainly have enjoyed seeing him one last time.”
“Shit. I fueked up again.”
“No, no --”
“I could call him right now. It’s an hour plane flight.”
Oliver raised his hand, calming Harlan, fending him off. “Best not. But at some point … a simple e-mail, dear boy. I’m sure he’d be thrilled.”
They sat and watched the fire, listening to the rain. Oliver took a deep shuddering breath and released it as a cough. “I hate to sound unduly morbid,” he said when he could talk again. “But I want my ashes scattered at sea, in the Atlantic off Nantucket. I’ve entrusted that to you. It’s in my will.”
“Then I’ll do it.”
“And now, though the hour is grotesquely early and I feel quite puny, I think I must go to bed. Funny, I remember as a child, that was what I hated most. Going to bed when it was still light out. Of course… high summer in England. It was barely dusk at nine-thirty, which was far past my bedtime.” He glanced out the window. “Not so much here. November in the north east. With any luck it will be dark before I’ve completed my ablutions.”
Harlan set his glass down. “Ablutions. Ruth loved that word. I guess she picked it up from you. And Robert picked it up from her.”
“So I leave some trace behind.”
“You leave plenty behind, don’t worry. You should check your Wikipedia page.”
“Dear God no, I’m far too modest. Now give me your arm. I don’t think I can stand without assistance this evening.”
Up stairs, at the door to the guest bedroom, Oliver clasped Harlan’s shoulder in a fierce grip.
He whispered,“Be kind to Robert. He’s so much like you.”
Oliver walked carefully into the room and shut the door behind him.
He died at a little before midnight. Harlan sat with the body, holding his friend’s hand until the ambulance arrived. Oliver looked unexpectedly peaceful in death, the body he left behind like a vacated apartment, like the empty house in Tuckernuck; the people had moved on. As the paramedics lifted Oliver onto the rolling stretcher carried it downstairs and wheeled it out of the house, he stood back, obscurely offended. They were friendly and efficient; it was just a job to them.
He followed them down the stairs and outside feeling sickly drunk, though the scotch had worn off hours ago. One of the last great cables connecting him to the world had been cut. He was unmoored, tilting.
Later, he stood on the sandy driveway as the big car drove away, siren silent, flashers dark. He breathed the sharp Atlantic air. The harbor was invisible in dark and the fog.
He watched the red tail lights until they disappeared and then walked back to the house. He went inside, closed the door behind him and leaned his back against it. He had no desire to remain awake but he wasn’t tired. Finally he walked into the living room, picked up the whiskey glasses and carried them into the kitchen. He finished Oliver’s drink, rinsed the glass and went up to bed. He lay with his eyes open. He knew he needed to rest, that insomnia would wreck his day tomorrow, but he’d lost all sense of the future.
He’d believe in the morning when the sun came up.