Writing A Novel - An Excerpt
An impatient driver lays on his horn. A chorus of angry honks follows, as if to ask: w-t-f, you honk’n at me?
Jeff squints through the smoke off his Marlboro cigarette in the half-light of a new summer evening. A light breeze blows his Brooks Brothers tie skyward before it settles back down into the espresso cup he’d grabbed from the thirty-seventh-floor kitchenette.
Shit. Jeff throws the Marlboro down, grinds it out with a spit-shined Italian leather loafer, rubs the wet end of his coffee-stained tie dry. He’d better stop this dirty habit before it ruined all of his ties. Or his relationship with his wife. He sighs, checks his watch. He’s ruined that relationship already, thank you very much. Jeff feels his shoulders begin their faint trembling when the guilt begins to get to him. No way he’d make it home in time for their usual eight p.m. dinner. He better call. It would be another late evening of fixed income securities and interest rate derivatives. Still, Jeff needed a break from the relentless glow of his computer monitor. Maybe he needed one from his wife, as well. Life had forced him to be this brutally honest. All of her bad luck, it was bringing him down. He was trying to make it all work, but the pressure had been tremendous. He can’t stomach any more of her bad news. She is an accident waiting to happen.
Across the shadowed patio rooftops, ceramic-potted topiaries resemble little gnomes, or miniature monsters. He rubs his eyes, shifts his gaze to the shimmering skyline and all the energy that fueled a city that never slept. Across the service alley and in the window of the neighboring office building, Jeff spies Jenny working in the dark. He knew the drill: she’d tap a company pen on her desk, sit for several minutes, swivel around and rise up from her chair with a company coffee cup. She’d seem melancholy in the fatigued way she’d pull herself over to the window. Those impossible curves she had, made an unclean mind wander. Enough so that several months ago Jeff had arranged to bump into her at the Starbucks in her building’s lobby one morning. And Jeff discovered that she was in her 20’s, happy, and brunette—everything his wife wasn’t. Bought her a Grande Carmel Macchiato, with lots of froth to cover her full lips as they caressed the coffee cup’s rim. The barrister had written Jenny on her cup with an i instead of a y. And she was that kind of girl who deserved that circle above her i, even a smiley face, or a heart. Or at least he had thought. His relationship with Jenny was supposed to be all in good fun—innocent flirting. But it was getting way too involved, lately, and he was feeling enormously guilty. Jenny was a tad bit obsessed, and it scared him. But tonight she doesn’t walk to the window. She stays at her desk typing furiously at her computer, which was glowing fluorescent in the dark. She was playing hard to get.
Jeff shivers, the same shiver where someone standing next to you would inevitably ask: Someone walking over your grave? Not Jeff’s grave. Maybe those old guys in the office cafeteria, who always ate those greasy cheeseburgers for lunch. Thinking again of his wife, he blanches. He better quit the cigarettes. Try to be better to Mandy. Of course she would be sad and needy in her fragility. Who wouldn’t be? But the problem was, after a long day raking in the dough, he’d rather grab a beer with the guys. Or go see Jenny. If only Jenny would calm down for God’s sake. Someone’s going to start talking. He’d ask her to chill only recently.
Jenny turns towards the window. He tries to catch her attention, but she’s grabbing reports off the printer. No use. You gotta be kidding me, he thinks. Normally she’d look over to see whether or not he’s out for his cigarette break. What’s up? He’ll call her. He grabs at his pocket for his cell phone and at the same time he’s juggling his tepid black coffee in its recyclable paper cup and it slips from his fingers, and he’s too busy watching the lukewarm liquid splash onto the black tar of the rooftop like a Rorschach inkblot, so he misses the creak of the steel door that has opened behind him. A shrink would certainly have a field day with me, is all he is thinking. He texts Jenny instead. “Meet me at Ian O’Connor’s pub at 11:00 p.m.,” he writes, then presses send. But at that precise moment, she turns off her computer and her office goes dark.
Suddenly, there comes this overpowering scent of strong cologne. Jeff recognizes the sound of stiff sleeves stretching fabric, and a low, menacing grunt and he feels himself pitch, a loose-limb stumble towards the edge of the building—gangly and awkward like in a comedy routine on SNL—but this wasn’t funny at all. All the questions started racing in his head and then begin to brake hard to slow motion, before he recognizes his own screams—the terrifying, cooling rush of wind. Mandy, I’m sorry he thinks as he falls and everything … fades to black until there’s nothing.
An elderly couple walking their golden lab discovers Jeff in the service alley. The older gentleman punches 911 on his cell phone while his fragile wife huddles in her husband’s overcoat, unable to look at the young man who is lying in the alley like a broken puppet. The police unit assigned to investigate Jeff’s death calls him Brooks Brother, initially. Next to his badge, in his plush office, Brooks Brother has left a suicide note.
The lead police officer with the red face, porous nose, and meatball grinder in his hand, closes his eyes at the photograph of the young man with the beaming smile. Who wouldn’t smile to be an officer at one of the largest commercial banks in Manhattan? What demons did this guy have hidden in his closet? Work pressure, probably.
Mandy sets off walking, leaning into the blowing wind. Another stormy evening and she is tired. The sailboat at the dock is slamming into the wooden pylons with every push of an angry, insolent wave, and she’s not caring. An inanimate object would only be ruined. It wouldn’t feel pain. It wouldn’t die. Still, she thinks the antique sailboat is lovely and does not want it damaged.
The wind is picking up and so she turns back and sees the sea-grass blowing wildly, which gets her worrying about the cottage’s roof shingles. From her vantage point, though, the house looks idyllic—a shock of pure white snow atop the ivory sand of a dune cliff that had been eroding measurably each year. Circa 1900, a construction date that usually meant good bones. Beyond the house, thankfully, the untended gardens remain invisible; the untrimmed perennials are hidden. Only she knows that the sea-grass grows awry against the house. That a shutter on the sidewall is askew. But, the knowledge still bothers her like a sordid secret. Everything had turned off-kilter since it’d happened. And it was all her fault.
Mandy looks up at the darkening sky. Are you there, Jeff? She wills him to speak to her. When he doesn’t, when there’s no sign from above, Mandy crumbles to her knees, like the wet sand beneath her feet, the rotted roof shingles on the cottage, and her deteriorated marriage. She wanted to ask him, why? A year ago, she might have shrugged off the inconvenience of the damaged shingles, shrugged off the vague feeling of disquiet she’d felt about Jeff. For hope. But she had none of that left. I’m sorry, she says instead. It was all my fault, she thought, yet again.
Negative, I’m so negative—positive thoughts are what I need most, Mandy thinks. She rises to her feet with determination, like the foals she had seen down at Clossen’s barn yesterday. But the wind drives dagger-like sand pellets into her eyes, and the assaulting rain begins, like a monsoon. Mandy cinches the hood of her thin windbreaker tight around her head, forgets to knot it. Still, the rain lashes at her face, beats at her resolve to walk. What seemed like a good idea a few minutes ago, doesn’t now. She half gallops, half stumbles over the cement-colored sand. The good thing is that the waves are roaring noise so loud it leaves her numb to any kind of thought, except their consoling sound. “Shhh”, they murmur as they roll in. “Phew,” they cajole as they roll out, phew? She listens closely and after she hears it a second time, she screams at the retreating sea, Please don’t say that out loud! Even as she’s thought the very same thing before.
At the funeral home, all those kind people had also murmured “Shhh”. There had been the concerned gazes, the masked awareness that she had lost him well before he’d died. And Mandy had been the last to know it. But he had repudiated himself in the manner of how he had died. Which was incomprehensible to Mandy. I’m sorry, Jeff, is what she thought. Day after day, all day long.
Mandy walks and thinks and knows she shouldn’t let her mind wander like this, but it always seems to happen. Maybe if she hadn’t escaped New York to come here, if she were still surrounded by all her friends to distract her … all the casseroles. The coffee with just a drop of whiskey. But the cottage was her Shangri-law. And to be honest, she really didn’t feel like talking about it anymore. No one had any answers for her.
The woman had been at the church … Mandy had noticed her sitting in the mahogany-encased balcony just above her pew. Wearing that black hat with the netting that had covered her face. As if a hat would have made her unrecognizable to me, she thought. Like the time at the city market just a month ago when the same woman had approached Mandy squeezing hot house tomatoes to test their ripeness, feeling super itchy in her new blond wig. Mandy had offered the woman a distracted sideways smile, wanting only to rip off the wig and scratch her itchy head. Not paying too much attention to anyone. “Excuse me, am I in your way?” Mandy had asked the woman as kindly as she could despite her gritted teeth and thinking only if she could scratch that one spot. But she felt the woman’s intensity, like harsh sunlight beating through a closed window. When she turned to look at the woman, who was well within her personal space, Mandy had a faint recollection of her, unaware that this woman was, and had been, checking her out ... As she had done at Mandy’s public library while she was browsing the stacks. That time at Mandy’s husband’s promotion party when she’d turned to Mandy just before she’d given Jeff that congratulatory kiss on the cheek, the woman’s cheeks as flushed as the goblet of red wine she was holding. Her crimson dress. Mandy shudders to think that the woman’s glance was possessive, yet now, sadly, she realizes it was. She suddenly remembers all these seemingly unordinary glimpses of this woman. Only after the unthinkable had happened. Her husband’s death.
The woman in the netted hat had been inconsolable at Mandy’s husband’s gravesite, accepting a rose from a pallbearer. But instead of throwing the rose on top of the casket as all the others had done, she’d left with the flower clutched to her heart, sobbing so loudly, that several of Mandy’s friends and family had turned in confusion to watch the woman in the hat escape to her car. Who was this woman? What did she mean to Jeff? they all seemed to wonder. This unleashed a sob so wretched from Mandy, it sounded inhuman. With expressions akin to horror, Mandy’s friends, Judy and John, ran over and encircled their friend in a compassionate hug. Shhh, they’d murmured in Mandy’s ear, and Judy’s salty tears had soaked Mandy’s face so wet that Mandy could taste Judy’s sorrow. “I’m so sorry, Mandy,” she’d moaned, stroking Mandy’s new acrylic hair. But phew, just pounded in Mandy’s brain like a drum as she’d hugged her friend back. She was so embarrassed by the intrusion of this woman at her husband’s funeral. Why hadn’t Mandy been enough for Jeff? Probably because Mandy had just been one big burden lately.
At least it’s over. This thought stunned Mandy as she watched her husband’s supposed lover flee in her cherry-colored Jeep. Look at that—a fun car—was her only illogical and bitter thought. She couldn’t consider the intensity of the woman’s relationship with her husband at the very moment she was trying to mourn his death with dignity, the best way she knew how.
Dignity. Humpf. What was that, anyway? Dignity. After the funeral, back at the Manhattan townhouse, in her confused state of mind, handing out drinks in a fog, Irish music playing on Pandora in her husband’s honor, she saw her. She was standing in front of one of the numerous framed photographs she’d displayed all around the room, of Jeff, with his crooked but dashing smile, black wavy hair, and that untamed curl at his forehead, which meant the photograph was taken on a weekend when he didn’t use gel.
Stunned in place, unable to move, Mandy watched the woman turn away from the photograph, crying but smiling, peer around the room in curiosity, then walk over to the foyer. The woman had discarded her black netted hat and was lovely. She had a perfect creamy white complexion and no freckles like Mandy’s. Mandy swallowed hard and despite her trembling legs, followed her into the hallway clutching a tray of seafood canapés in time to see that one of the woman’s black spiked heels had hit the first cherry stair tread to the upper level of their townhouse. And as the woman climbed the stairs to the sanctity of the place that held Mandy and Jeff’s master bedroom, Jeff’s private study and Mandy’s art studio, she dropped the tray of seafood canapés with a reverberating clank of stainless steel on parquet floors so loud that it resulted in a gang of guests running to the foyer as she turned around and stared at Mandy, shocked and immobile, flushed crimson once again.
Dignity, was there any? The question reverberated in Mandy’s head. And despite the commotion of the guests scrambling to retrieve the canapé crumbs and put them back onto the tray with crawling crumby fingers, Mandy saw the woman escape out her lovely front door. The one crowned with the leaded glass window that resembled a spider web. Fitting for the black mistress widow that had just crept away unnoticed from her home, by everyone but Mandy, despite the sudden bleating of the horns out on Park Avenue, when the woman opened and then slammed the door closed behind her, and it got quiet, like someone had turned the stereo up way too loud, then quickly turned it back down.
Thoughts. Positive thoughts. The briny aroma of the sea would normally return Mandy to a healthier time and place if only she could think in the present, focus on the moment, but her mind just wants to wander. A healthier place may not be possible physically, because the stinging sheets of rain and the inky-black darkness are making it difficult for her to see. She wills herself to think happy thoughts if she could actually find them. What was the new buzz word these days? Mindful. Being mindful; yes, that would help. She walks a few more steps in the dark, avoids a clump of rocks, and focuses on the exact placement of her new Van’s sneakers in the sand. She had bought the kind with the felt-like hush puppy tops. Mandy concentrates on the sound of the howling wind in her ears like the tinnitus she is known to have on a bad allergy day, the feeling of the sharp rain on her skin like light pricks of a needle. She sees how the wet sand is coloring the tan tops of her Vans a dark brown. I’m ruining them, she thinks. Hastily, she bends over and wipes them clean with a bare hand. No use. She scratches at her nose, realizing she’s just covering her face with sand, wipes her hands on her windbreaker.
Eh. So much for being mindful, Mandy thinks as she stumbles over something. What in the world? A log? A man? Had she really just tripped over a man in a sleeping bag on her own beach in the down pouring rain? Yes, she had and the man seems as astonished as she. “Excuse me?” she gasps while falling knee-deep into an otherwise pleasant circle of logs surrounding a burned piece of driftwood where a plastic cooler, a worn satchel, and a fishing pole had been placed. It was a soft fall in the sand, but reflexively she cradles her stomach. This man must be certifiably crazy to be out in this weather … camping? Camping wasn’t even allowed on this beach. Even if you nap in your car in the parking lot on a cool summer’s day, windows cracked open, radio on, the Harbormaster will knock on the glass and ask you to move on. Sleeping is for beds, he’d say. Not for parking lots. She never thought to try camping on her own private beach.
“Are you okay?”
The man is already sitting up tall in his plaid canvas sleeping bag, seemingly dazed from sleep, but still his eyes remained heavy-lidded and downcast. “Please leave,” he implores quietly, before he slouches back down and turns over in his rain-soaked sleeping bag.
“Sir? Are you okay? You need a tent. A pup tent or something.” He seems embarrassed.
“Yes, please … go. I’m fine.”
“In this rain? Camping? Seriously?”
“Yes, I’m fine. I’d like to be left alone.”
Only the back of his head is visible, now—a short, cropped military hair cut marred by a long angry scar across the middle of his head.
“Please leave.” He sits up and faces me. He’s extremely serious. “My pup tent got stolen, yesterday,” he informs her with gritted teeth.
Despite her desire to protect this man from the weather, she decides she had better go.
“Listen, I live just down the beach in a white cottage on the cliff; there’s a dock and stairs to our … my guesthouse if you need shelter. It looks like a lighthouse. It was a lighthouse.” At that moment, a significant gust of wind rips off her hood and then the man pays her full attention. His eyes are question marks.
“I have cancer,” she says. Nothing like the word.
“I’m sorry,” he replies, while his previously dead eyes seem to gather empathetic light.
“Thank you,” she answers quickly, never liking to divulge her disease. No husband. No hair. Cancer. Two secrets out there. “I usually wear a wig. Hair’s kind of patchy, isn’t it?” she says with an apologetic smile.
Even with her admission and smile, the man looks reserved. He’s 30, maybe 40, a few years younger or older than Mandy, she couldn’t tell. He’s wearing that light scruff of beard all the men wear these days.
“The look suits you,” he says gruffly. “You have very nice teeth,” he says. “I’m just seeing this flash of white anytime you smile. Never mind your patchy hair.”
Mandy stares at the honesty in his dark eyes. It was too dim to tell the color of them, though she wondered. “I’ll go, now,” she says, and her voice sounded strangled to herself. She wonders if he were homeless. Was there no shelter for him, no inexpensive place to sleep on the Cape in July? Did his wife throw him out? Did he leave a cheating one? Was that it? Would she have left Jeff had she known? Was there no dignity anywhere?
She flings sand as she retreats, hopes he wasn’t wiping it from his eye. She thinks she hears him call out “Sorry—night,” but scurries back home without looking back to his rain-soaked campground, feeling guilty as the rain pelts the back of her objectionable head, her patchy hair; she had seen the shock on his face. She remembers her hood and fumbles for it; she should try to keep her head covered.
Three months ago, today, Mandy had awoken from a long, restless night feeling nauseous, but had explained it away as typical morning sickness. She told her doctor about it, her extraordinary fatigue, and he had ordered a blood test. A couple of days later he called her into his office to discuss the results.
He’d looked grave. He invited her to sit down. “A loved one isn’t with you?” he’d asked, looking around the room. He wore a red polka dot bandana.
Did you tell me to bring one? she’d wondered, bile slowly building at the back of her throat. She gazed down at her belly.
“Your nausea is due to Myeloid Leukemia,” the doctor explained. His eyes were tired and sad behind his spectacles, which didn’t match the energizing spunk of his red polka dot bandana. Mandy preferred to ignore what he’d just said. She only recognized the word Leukemia. And that was enough. Mandy watched him eye her faintly expanding waistline with concern, certain he had noted the word PREGNANCY written in her chart. Certainly the OBGYN and the primary care doctor had talked? And this was uncharacteristic of him. To be expressive. A cold fear tingled her spine. And what terrible timing. A nervous giggle escaped her lips. Was he going to bring it up?! The fact that she was pregnant? she wondered, laughing uncontrollably now.
Doctor Shipley looked up from her medical record quickly. Mandy contained herself enough to ask, “Are you sure it’s not morning sickness?” But with an entirely serious demeanor, he went on to explain the disease. “It’s a cancer of the bone marrow and blood; it progresses rapidly without treatment.” He paused for a moment to find his words, tugging on his bandana. “It can be difficult to effectively treat. The next step will be to set you up with an appointment with an oncologist.”
By then Mandy had finally quieted down, had become serious. “Will I die if I delay my treatment until after the birth?” There, she’d asked it. Her knee began to twitch.
He did not answer Mandy’s question. His Adam’s apple kind of warbled, he tugged on his bandana and said, “Chemotherapy will be safe until after the first trimester. The later you start back up with it, the better it will be for the child—the worse it will be for you.” Mandy started crying, the kind of crying that turns into shoulder-shaking sobs, a red puffy-face kind of crying.
The doctor had asked if he could call someone for her. A parent? “No, they are long dead,” Mandy replied. Crying that uncontrollably made Mandy look younger than she was. A husband? he’d asked next, wondering if she had one.
She shook her head no. “My husband is stuck in all-day meetings today he couldn’t escape”.
Dr. Shipley sat a few minutes absorbing this, glad she was married, not judging him or her in any way. He asked Mandy if she wanted to talk to a nurse, then excused himself for his next patient when she said no. She left his office with the promise for an oncologist referral.
On the way out to her car, after the valet had accepted money for leaving her Lexus at the curb where she had left it, Mandy dialed her husband’s office to see if she could extract him for five minutes out of his day-long meeting, to tell him her upsetting news; his secretary answered and told Mandy he had taken the day off. It was like the day she got the news she was pregnant. He was also no where to be found.
Her friend Judy had explained Jeff’s behavior as the actions of a man who didn’t want to grow up; wanted to be the big guy at the office, have a beer with the guys at the local Irish bar each night, watch football with them on weekends. He was not yet looking to be saddled with responsibility, despite his Park Avenue address and vacation home on the Cape. “When the going gets rough the rough get going, and sometimes into the arms of another woman,” Judy had said, while Mandy poked around at a hard-baked stroganoff noodle in the tin pan on the table. “But listen, Mandy, honey,” Judy had said, “Jeff apparently had felt enormously guilty about his behavior toward you, you know? He loved you, Mandy. Don’t you doubt that.”
The sing-song of the morning birds wake Mandy before the harsh buzz of the alarm clock does. She throws off the light summer blankets and crumpled sheets, reluctant to leave the sanctity of her bed but feeling it necessary to meet the demands of the day. She has a beach erosion committee meeting later in the day that she’d probably have to cancel.
She’s sure the committee members will all understand. She has a meeting with the lawyer to review her husband’s will, which she is dreading. Would she even be in it? An uncontrollable laugh escapes her. Of course she would be, wouldn’t she? Would the woman in the hat also be there? The meeting was with the same lawyer Mandy saw recently to tweak her will when she discovered she was sick.
Four months pregnant, now, and she has tried to set aside all her guilt about receiving chemotherapy for the first three months of her baby’s little life in her otherwise, comfy womb, but with the renewed energy Mandy seems to have gained for doing this for her now—stopping treatment—she is feeling hopeful. She looks forward to a future for the both of them. She’d requested that the oncologist not inform her of the success of the treatment or lack thereof. There was no question the treatment had to stop for her growing baby. There was no other choice. She had to make that sacrifice.
The morning light is slanting in from the beveled glass windows on the beach-side of the Atlantic. Mandy takes a moment to look. The light and the shadows and leftover drops of rain play art on the white-washed wood bedroom wall in shades of glimmering light and make Mandy want to paint exactly what she sees. The oil painting she had finished three years ago and hung carefully over the bedroom fireplace practically gleams in the sun and she notices that her rendition of the cliff on the beach side looks less abrupt than it does today in real life, less disrupted by erosion when she’d painted it. She remembers those summer days clearly, she on a metal stool in a sundress and a floppy straw hat at the easel on the beach; how she’d paint only on windless days to avoid blowing sand on the canvas. Sometimes beach goers would ooh and awe; usually it would be the young girls in pony tails and pastel or bright-colored polka dot bikinis holding matching shovels and pails.
She catches herself smiling, something she hasn’t done much of lately. She can still smell the cool of those summer nights and the fragrance of the roses from the trellis outside the kitchen window, mixed with the aroma of the benzene she’d use to clean her brushes. Benzene. Her smile evaporates. Did benzene cause my cancer? she wonders. She can never escape it. The thought. About having it. Cancer. She attempts to shrug it off, remembering how proud Jeff had been of this painting. How he had encouraged her to sell it. Mandy, you’d get rich off this painting, you know? he’d said. Ever the salesman. But yet, she couldn’t part with it.
Allowing a tear to escape her eye before rushing to the bathroom, just in case, only to peer into the toilet. Thank God for small favors. Glimmers of hope are all she could ask for now. She grabs her tooth brush and smiles into the mirror. Looks at her teeth. The man at the beach thought they were nice. The kids in grade school had called her “Bunny”, because her teeth were large and white. Mandy finishes brushing, snaps her lips together, stretches her lips wide with an approving smile. I do have nice teeth, she thinks, ignoring her patchy hair. Positive thoughts.
She shuffles down the hard worn stairs to her surprisingly large 1900’s kitchen and thinks about how easy it is to call this room hers. She forbade Jeff to gut renovate it and to settle for a minor period renovation. There is a large pine island in the middle of the room that isn’t period but seems it, bolted down onto refinished pumpkin-colored, wide-pine floors. There is a Rumford brick fireplace surrounded by original bead board walls repainted in a white semi-gloss with an updated sheen, and a narrow built-in game cupboard with shiny black latches. At the far end of the room is a galley-style pantry chock full of the period china she’d bought for it, and the colorful bottles of alcohol she couldn’t drink anymore that catch light from the sunshine that streams in through a side window. Over the white porcelain sink, a large bank of wood trimmed, French windows overlook the small front yard, the cliff’s edge, and the stairs to the beach. She stares awhile at the bucolic nature of the scene, the grass that is greening slightly from the rain that had let up over night. There are no trees in front. The large spruces that had formerly perched at the edge of the property had all been swept away by erosion so that there were no downed limbs to worry about this morning. The yard looked cleansed. But she missed the trees.
Still looking out the window, now with a hot cup of caffeine-free tea, she notices the maroon of a baseball cap bobbing up the stairs from the beach. As more of the cap and the man beneath it emerge, she sees it’s the man she stumbled over on the beach last night. Was he accepting her invitation to stay here? She is suddenly curious but afraid, and remembers she is still in her nightgown. She scurries back upstairs to retrieve her bathrobe and her wig.
He knocks on the door just as she’s just finishing applying a thin layer of foundation upstairs, a light layer of lipstick, and the faintest of pink blush to revive her sallow complexion and she’s descended the last stair step. She sees him at the kitchen door window.
She opens the door wide. “Hello. Well, there you are. The mysterious man at the beach. Welcome!”
“The Harbormaster was on to me, and, yes, I’d like to take you up on your invitation,” he says, sheepishly.
“Certainly. I’d love to have you. But let us properly introduce ourselves.” She’s entertaining positive thoughts at the moment, rather than questions about whether he’s the next serial murderer or rapist, or has an axe to grind with the erosion committee.
“Matthew is my name, ‘Ma’am.”
“My name certainly isn’t Mam. It’s Mandy, so you are kind of close. Are you from the south?”
“No, the marines. We tend to call women, ‘ma’am in the marines.”
She senses the honesty in his eyes. “That makes sense. I thought there was hierarchy, though. Miss for younger women, like me.” She smiles at him sheepishly. “Mam is for older women!”
“You are right. Forgive me—Miss!” You don’t look a day over 20,” he says. I can tell he’s lying. But in the sunlight, his eyes are the most deep, honest blue she’s ever seen. Somewhere between cobalt and navy.
“I’m thirty-five,” she admits. “And you?”
“Thirty-five myself, ‘Ma’am. Miss.” He laughs a little.
“Please call me Mandy. You staying at the beach?”
“I was until just this morning when the Harbormaster motored by on his 4-wheeler. Moved me on.” He pauses a moment. Starts speaking. Stutters.
Mandy wonders what he’s trying to say. She thinks he’d rather not tell it.
“I’m just back from Iraq—was one of the temporary ground troops there. Obama put us on the ground to support the Iraqi troops, fight ISIS, ISAL as President Obama calls them. It’s not advertised much, but there we were … a bunch of us there. 15th Division. Went to support a base near Makhmour, ten miles from Mosul. It went bad. Luckily, I was only a temporary “gatekeeper”. Served initially during 2005, when I was 21.
Mandy busied herself collecting a mug, a tea bag, sugar, and lemon. Feeling for what he had to say.
“My original duty was a piece of cake compared to my temporary service just now. Atrocious. ISIS.” He stops a moment to take his maroon baseball cap off his head of thick dark hair, which he wipes with a cloth handkerchief, runs it over his smooth forehead.
Mandy leads him to a seat at the pine kitchen island. “I’m making you tea, but if it weren’t so early in the morning, I’d make you a drink. Whiskey on the rocks sounds more appropriate for you. “
“Thank you.” Matt surveys the room. “Your kitchen is nice.” He continues to speak. Smiles first, and Mandy notices his grin is crooked. “The Iraqi troops were forced to flee our temporary base into the hills; ISIS caught on and we were targets. It was all just too quick and awful.” Matt looks up at Mandy. “No one is supposed to know there are indeed many boots on the ground in Iraq.”
“I won’t tell.”
“Anyway, our specific mission failed and others have also.” There’s a faint hint of shaking in his shoulders. “I dislike being a failure.“
“At least you tried to help.”
“We were the secret boots on the ground and it was understood that we’d help. But we didn’t.”
“You have family here?”
“No. You might call me homeless; I’m between deployments, but I am considering this a sorely-needed vacation. Originally, I’m from California, near Bakersfield and the Mojave Desert. For some reason, home reminds me too much of Iraq right now. Low slung buildings; dryness in the summer.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to California.”
“Not there, you don’t. Trained near home at Fort Irwin, which is set up to resemble an Iraqi or Afghan village. So I’m not kidding when I say the landscape of my home is like the Middle East. I started having PTSD. Didn’t understand why because it was my home. Then, I started worrying about our upcoming hometown Fourth of July parade with the cannon blasts and the fireworks, and how I’d handle it, so I spent the Fourth of July on a plane in the air coming here. Thought I’d come east for ocean, green grass, and mental health. I picked the Cape. Heard about this area from a kid in the 15th Division. I’ll have to check in at Hanscom or Fort Devens, maybe at the Coast Guard installations on the Cape, but I’m free for an extended vacation, given my recent experience, with ISIS. Kind of a medal of glory. An award. From the plane, when I was flying here, I could see the magnificence of the fireworks, couldn’t hear the sound. It was perfect, though. I can’t stomach the sound of any noise anymore, Mandy.”
“I totally understand that, Matt.” She sets down a cup of hot lemon tea on the table near him. She wants to hug him but doesn’t. “Wellfleet and the Truro area, are I think, some of the most special places on the Cape. Then, there’s Chatham. Great restaurants. The Squire. The good thing about my cottage right now is that you’ve got yourself some green out front. I don’t have a sprinkler system, but the rains last night seem to have done some good. Unfortunately, errant teenagers will set off some kind of firework explosion every night all summer long. You ready for that?”
He swallows hard, doesn’t answer. “I don’t have much money to pay for a fancy lighthouse that is actually a guesthouse.”
“I figured that. It’s not fancy, just comfortable. Would you be able to help me with chores around the house for your keep? I think that is what I had in mind. Maybe keep an eye on me a bit, if you don’t mind?”
“I could definitely help,” Matt says, bowing his head almost into his tea. Raising his head to thank her, his dark blue eyes shone with gratitude. “I can drive you to your doctors’ appointment if you need me.”
“You are most welcome and that would be great. Now I have to get dressed for a very important meeting with my lawyer.”
“Yes, my husband died recently, so I’m alone and life has changed dramatically for me as well. So you and I are both on a bit of a mental health bender.” Mandy smiles, but her eyes don’t show it. “I forgot. I wanted to show you the guesthouse.”
Matt’s mouth has dropped wide open. He pauses a moment before he closes it, opens it again to speak. “I’m sorry about your husband. You know, I’ve never met a woman I’ve ever loved enough to marry. My passion has been the marines. But I can see you have qualities. Only close buddies of mine have died. I’m sorry for your loss. What you are going through. It makes me sad.” He bows his head, turns away, and it seems he is trying to regain his composure. When he turns back to Mandy she sees tears in his eyes. “Your wig is pretty, but the patchiness suits you better,” he says gruffly.
Mandy realizes he’s probably more comfortable with imitation gruffness than with any emotion or expression. She ribs him back. “Oh, yeah? Well, isn’t that nice of you to say. I’ve told you about the cancer bit. I’ve only one more secret for you,” she says as she cinches her robe tie tight across her expanding middle, but he doesn’t notice the subtle message.
“Everyone has skeletons in their closets,” Matt says.
“Come on, let me show you your new quarters. An authentic lighthouse. You’ll love it. The good thing about the Cape is that you can walk outside in your bathrobe. ”
Matt drains his tea and follows Mandy outside to investigate his new home, hoping for good things, wondering how Mandy’s husband had died.