Congregation

  Where does Marcia from Minnetonka go at night? Who’s the lucky man?

Mindy and I say things under the jasmine trellis during lunch break. Where does Yvonne from Iceland smoke? Does Katherine from Texas spend tip dollars on cocaine, or is that a lie good as any? If Talia from Denmark and Mark from Boston are fucking in the swamps, where do they fuck, and how? Does she lie on her back, does he? Who takes the weight, is what I’d like to know.

It’s our third summer at Link’s Seafood & Bait. The trillium and lilac are in bloom. Out by the sheds, the bulrush swells with frog song and birds, whip-thin plovers and orioles halving through the stalk like light on water, all that good gossip and whisper. Mindy and I know who’s who, how the job works, where to find cheap thrills. We know when to extend smoke breaks and when to ignore urgent matters. We know the Flex’s schedule up and down Route 6 and we take it often to Provincetown and Truro, where the bay goes soft in early autumn and the yawls and skiffs bob all day through sundown, bronze-shouldered men and their girls dipping their legs in the water and shrieking like schoolchildren. We get into beaches free because Mindy’s slept with all the right people.

Yesterday it stormed hard over the ocean. We biked to Ballston Beach, past the abandoned cranberry bogs and the little crimped roads of the Pamet Valley, to visit Mindy’s relations on the water. It was a small, shingled saltbox with narrow eaves and lazy dormers staring droop-eyed from over the front porch. The relations were away, or else they did not answer. Last summer, Mindy brought me to their Fourth of July barbeque. We uncovered their liquor stash in the basement and drank all the good bourbon and left without saying goodbye.

I swear I saw a little white face peer down at us from an upstairs window, shy and round and perfect as stone. Mindy rang the bell again and the face disappeared.

We reached the sea before heading back for dinner shift. The tall grasses lay even with the sand, my shirt billowing and flatting against me. Mindy grabbed my hand and ran us shoreward, to the great fog of gulls riding the wind with their folded-open wings, little careless crescents of birds grown to shades against the soot sky. As we biked back against the rain, I thought of the shy face in the window. That sad sexless face marked with the sad plain lines of early life.

 

***

 

When Glen first hired me, he said I looked like the kind of person he could trust. He asked if I had Nordic blood in me. What was I supposed to say? I lied. I said yes.

 

***

 

Glen’s set us up in three shingle cabins along the back swamp, each with two doubles with beds built in the walls like coffins. There are twelve of us on staff, though mid-July Glen hires local high school girls and boys to set and bus tables, to help with tourist swarm. One boy goes by Egan and he has the smoothest skin I’ve ever seen. The other girls gossip with him. He has short gold hair and thin, girlish legs, unmuscled; the way he walks makes the other boys uncomfortable. Sometimes he goes out back with Mindy and me and offers us these friendly two-toned pills he gets from his college boyfriend. He says they help with concentration but they’re not Adderall. He says they have ten mgs. He says once he took one and slept for three days straight and when he woke, he worked without distraction for three days. He calls them happy candy.

Mindy took one once and spent an entire shift unconscious in the freezer. She was blue when Glen found her. They rushed her to Cape Cod Hospital in an ambulance. When I knew for certain she wouldn’t be back that first night, I slept in her bed, in her nightgown. It was made of nice thin fabric that kept the heat away, but at night I felt the skin between my legs grow warm. For three nights I bunked alone, and during that time I started talking with Marcia.

Marcia does her hair with curling mousse. Before anyone wakes, she sits at the breakfast table in our shed and whispers catechisms while she does her hair. She comes from Catholic blood and it shows in her skin’s salmon flush in July. She wears three-inch heels, pads her bras with polyester-blend handkerchiefs, hems the scent of crape jasmine along her collarbone, the dimples of her wrists and elbows, all the hollows she finds fit to fill.

Once I woke early and caught her mid-prayer. I stood behind the doorway in the unlit hall, my feet grown cold in the night warming to the pine floors, and for a while she did not see me, I was free to listen. A pecking clock on the wall struck seven and a little blue cuckoo emerged from a hole in the clock face. It jerked forward twice and made a hooting noise that sounded like a screaming kettle before disappearing again into the clock face. The room went quiet. Marcia turned and looked me over without saying anything. Her lips were cracked and the skin about her mouth was raw.

“You’re up early,” she said. When I didn’t say anything, she continued, “Glen’s been asking about you.”

“Oh yeah?”

“He says you haven’t been acting yourself this summer.”

“Glen’s a joker.”

“I didn’t know it.”

I shifted and fingered the ends of my sleeves. I’d started wearing sweatshirts to bed because Mindy opens the windows even though it’s end of season. She lets the cold in like an old friend; even when she’s gone, I can’t bring myself to close them. “I dreamed last night I was picking berries again with my sister. I don’t have a sister, but it all felt very convincing in that way dreams will sometimes. I was certain I’d done it before.”

Marcia considered me without concern. She slipped some mousse in her hair and slicked a curl.

 

***

 

There’s a new boy arrived later than the rest. They say he’s the owner’s son. He orders Glen around like he owns the man, makes loud jokes about the other workers and the customers. Marcia laughs at all his jokes. She rubs his arm when they speak.

Everyone knows Marcia likes the new boy. She throws herself at him, but he resists. The new boy likes me. He tells me Marcia is common and ugly inside even with her crosses and God talk and her filthy little cups of curling mousse. He drives hard against me when we kiss.

 

*** 

 

We close off the back room mid-September. Yvonne from Iceland stands on the tables and shouts orders. She wears red ribbons in her hair, Mark watching from the bar like a boy soldier, counting one two three under his breath between shouts. I wash and fold the aprons, strip the nametags of their names. Between chores, Mindy and I drink Coke and smoke hand-rolled cigarettes Luis smuggled from Portugal. They leave my mouth feeling tinny and lit after two or three draws.

Mindy and I are set to leave after Columbus Day, when the last flush of tourists comes through. By then the clambake chow-chow is no longer offered, though no one erases the specials board. Once or twice boys walk in without shirts, less and less now the cold is coming, slowing everything to a stop.

Weekends Egan gets drunk and kisses everyone. He says his college boyfriend cheats with other guys so he might as well get some experience, too. He is hungry for experience. It is all he talks about.

Mindy and I feel old around him. He tells us secrets like we’re wallpaper. Mindy says it’s because we’re closest to his age but I think otherwise.

At night when we cannot sleep, Mindy and I talk about the places we’ve been and where we see our lives going. Mindy says many things about the girls she loved as a child, babysitters and camp counselors, girls with bronzed shoulders and sturdy working-class knees. Now she has a boyfriend called Jin who mans the snack bar on the Nantucket ferry. He has this little whiskery mustache that makes me uneasy.

We spend some nights in Provincetown. After dark we do this burlesque cabaret called Millie’s where the landlady goes by Millicent Broadview. She saunters about in red feather boas to mask her warty neck, squeezes faces with her chubby fingers, leaves lipstick stains on cheeks. Crowds part where she walks and she develops an orbit. Whenever the bandleader shouts “Thick and thin!” the whole place expects me to stand. The emcee points to Millicent and the bar erupts with “Thick!” He points to me and they go, “Thin!” A trombone plays. Millicent walks behind me and pretends to fuck me from behind. The other lesbians in the bar laugh. After the show, several sit around and flirt with Mindy and me. They say sweet things, like how they know we’ll grow up pretty, how we’ll make beautiful wives. Mindy clenches her fists and pretends to box me. Everyone laughs.

 

***

 

I started leaving scallops in the mop closet. It seemed a funny thing. After several days the scallops went rank and I covered them with a small bucket to contain the smell. No one said anything. There was no reason to visit the mop closet. We kept the main cleaning implements in the alcove off the kitchen. People only visited end of season, when the real work began.

 

***

 

The new boy takes nude photographs of me. He tells me I’m prettier than Mindy like it’s something I want to hear. He doesn’t know anything about me. He thinks I’m from someplace north, Kennebunkport or Bar Harbor, where celebrities summer and own real estate. He drinks tea from mason jars and threads dandelion weed through my hair. Once he took me shopping in Wellfleet. “So you can play the proper girl I’d show my friends,” he said. We took the Flex down Route 6 through pineland and scrub oak, the sand flatting either side toward grassland dune. The telephone poles stood stark against the sky like giant wood crosses. I said as much to him and he pinched the skin inside my thigh till it bruised.

In Wellfleet, he told me the finer the cloth the less stimulating it is to the touch initially, that it is only after extended contact that the texture grows pleasurable. He bought me pretty clothes I did not think much of.

But I take him to the salt marshes. Like any girl, I have my designs.

 

***

 

Glen has a family—two sons and a wife. The wife is tall, taller than Glen, with a high regal nose but everything else plain. Lazy afternoons she drives up lovely in her gingham shifts and wide-brimmed sunhats, one son to her hip—she has barely hip enough for one child—the other trailing in her wake, head down, kicking sprays of gravel. Glen comes running from the kitchen, all smiles, panting as he kisses his wife’s face. She laughs. She is beautiful, in a way.

There is nothing common about Glen. He is never coarse or mean; he does things slowly, in the deliberate manner of someone who’s seen too often the repercussions of shoddy work. Sometimes he’ll talk with me at the register when the going is slow, tell me stories about when he traveled Germany after college, or how he spent months living on his cousin’s dairy farm in Wisconsin, thinking it a novel way to live. He learned fast that it was like any other way of living, with its early hours and grunt work, the bitterness that built over time. There was nothing purer about the air in Wisconsin. “Just like there’s nothing purer about the air here,” he says. He wipes the counter with an oil rag. I watch the slow arc of the rag as it trails oil and the oil catches the light through the front bay. After several moments of dirtying the counter, he turns and asks me why I’m still here.

“You must have other plans,” he says. “A girl like you.”

“What makes you think that?” I say. “I like it here.”

“What’re you putting off?”

He’s said this before, once or twice per summer. I don’t know his game, or what he means in saying this, but I have no reason to believe he wants anything from me. There has been none of that.

I stay after shift that night and tell Yvonne I’ll take final call. She is all too eager to let me alone; she kisses me on both cheeks before running off with her girlfriends to Provincetown. After she leaves, I walk the restaurant like a ghost. I think of the red hairs on the back of Glen’s arms, how they catch the light and make him softer. I think of Glen’s wife, her nice good dresses, nice and good in that simple pure way, not fancy or pretentious. When I drop the scallops this time there is the sense that I’m doing something necessary, something I’ve been moving toward for a good long while. I do not hesitate.

 

***

 

There’s an old soggy woman comes each summer and invites me to her home, a two-story mansard on the Wellfleet marshes, a big old house with a wraparound porch and airy ceilings and dolls all over the living room walls. Her name is Florence.

I go to her place one Sunday afternoon when it’s drizzling and she asks me do I have any lovers. For a moment I think to tell her of the new boy, or even of Mindy. To Florence, I could have all the lovers I wanted. Instead I shake my head. She chuckles and pats my knee.

“Oh, it’s best not to rush into those sorts of things.” She offers me a mint julep. As she pours it from her silver pitcher, she tells me I will grow into my face. “If it’s unfinished now it’s charming,” she says. She takes my hair and twists it in a single braid, heavy on my back like hanging rope. “But then it never did serve a girl to wait. Sometimes best to waste it on the wrong ones.”

I tell her how summers when I was young the boys sat poolside, eddying the water with their hairless legs, and the girls knelt behind them, one girl for each boy, rubbing coconut lotion onto their backs. She laughs. Tell me more, she says. There was a pine grove behind the pool where girls and boys went to kiss. The boys did things with their lips and fingers, things I would only hear of later in the locker room. “Scandalous things, I should hope,” Florence says. I smile the way I know she wants me to, like a dumb chuckle-headed schoolgirl. Scandalous things, I repeat.

At the end of my visit, she offers me a doll from her curio. She says: pick one, any one, but I decline. All of them glassy-eyed in velvet dresses, with thin, stockinged legs and little black shoes buckled up with copper squares, hair clumped and tumbling in fat sausage curls past their porcelain cheeks and their padded shoulders. They make me sick. What am I supposed to say? I thank her for her offer. We sit on her porch and she feeds me bits of gossip about people I do not know. And then, without my asking, she starts to undo my braid. She weaves her fingers through my hair so it’s like the braid never happened.

When she is finished with me, she lets me go.

 

***

 

Last night Marcia and I washed dishes together. She said I was too thin to be serving food, that it discouraged the customers from ordering full platters. Nothing to get you down like thin girls, she said. She sucked her cheek fat with a wet sucking noise. Then she started to hum. I didn’t know anything was wrong until she dropped the last stack of china plates—the blue inked ones with the lobster in the middle, patterned around the edges with a grapevine motif—and started to shout at me. She grabbed my hair and shook my scalp raw. I wanted to scream but nothing came from my mouth.

“I know what you’ve been doing,” she said. She looked ready to cry and I was embarrassed for her. If Glen saw what a loon she was he’d send her packing back to Minnetonka, where the sea couldn’t drive her mad. “I’ve seen you taking one or two every now and then and leaving them in the back closet.”

There wasn’t anything to be done. She let my hair from her hand.

Together, we swept the china plates. By the end of the night she was smiling and laughing again, telling me about her church back home. She told me of her sisters and her brothers and how her mother was raising them all on her own after their father left with another woman. I could tell she was sorry. We walked to the sheds with our arms around each other’s waists. This is how I hope to remember Marcia when the rest is faded and gone.

 

***

 

“I had a dream you were trying to kill me,” I tell Mindy. “You kicked me down a flight of stairs to the ocean and sent me to sea without a raft.”

Mindy laughs. “That’s absolutely crazy,” she says. “Were you drinking Coke before bed again? Coke gives you crazy dreams. That’s a fact. I heard it on the radio.”

“You were gone for a long time last night. I was waiting for you but I fell asleep.”

“Egan and I did Provincetown. He stayed behind with an older man at the drag show and I had to take the Flex back by myself. It was wretched. I’m not going out with Egan anymore. He’s worse than any preteen girl.”

“Is he all right?”

“He’s not so helpless as you think. He was playing all the men before he chose the one he wanted.”

“I guess so.”

“You know, I’ve thought of fucking him. I don’t think it’d be very hard.” She laughs and starts to toy with my earlobe. “A boy’s a boy is a boy.”

“It’s funny, but I think you’re right.”

“I’m going mad here. All the salt in the air.”

“I don’t think Marcia likes me very much.”

“Of course she doesn’t. She’s never liked you. Not this summer, or the last. She’s got a massive stick up her ass, is all, that’s why she walks funny. Haven’t you noticed that? How she sort of just clumps along with her blocky feet. Thump, thump, thump.”

“If I were a man I think I’d like a girl like Marcia.”

Mindy stops with my earlobe. She fumbles in her purse for a lighter. “You don’t say.”

“I think she’s very pretty.”

She snorts and lights her cigarette and blows the smoke up toward the ceiling. “She’s a cross little virgin and I don’t like her one bit. I find her wretched, absolutely wretched. Dull as a plank of wood.”

 

***

 

The new boy takes me to the drive-in theater and we catch the second half of the double feature. Our breaths fog the car. He doesn’t know how to hook up the sound, or else he doesn’t care, and I don’t, either. We talk the whole movie. I keep expecting him to make some sort of move, but he refrains.

Afterward we drive past Provincetown toward the dunes, where the lanes go ribbon-thin and you can see the stars because there are no lights, absolutely no lights or houses, and the stars are reflected in the sea like glitter on crepe, and the pine scrub grows low in the sand, its roots up near the surface, it’s why they dry out so fast and everything is stunted. We get out of his car and walk the pine scrub toward an area flat with soft rock, and there he takes out his lighter and starts to burn tips from the tip jar we keep by the register, the extra cash.

He tells me what cows the girls at Link’s are, that Marcia is the biggest cow he’s ever seen. He says I’m different than the other girls. I’ve heard this talk before and now it makes me sick. He asks where do I like to be touched. I take his hands and keep them in mine so they can’t travel anywhere. I let him kiss me, and fondle me, and then I say something about having to get up early. He laughs it off at first but I go stiff. I start to say how not everyone can afford to goof around all the time. The tip money ash sits in a pile at our feet. He touches his fingers to the pile and brings it to my lips and smears it there.

“Look it,” he says, beaming. “You’re like the rest of them now.”

 

***

 

When I come to work on Monday I know something is wrong. Glen is waiting with his arms crossed at the sign-in station. He asks me to follow him and soon we are standing at the open mop closet.

“I just don’t understand.” Glen kneels and palms some rotted scallops. “This was good fish. Not the cheap stuff.” He drops the scallops and they smack the floor wet.

“I don’t know.” It’s all I can say; he can take it, he can leave it.

“You don’t know.”

“It’s what I said.”

“Well I don’t, either,” he says. I sometimes forget how old he is. How the cold makes his knees swell up and ache now it’s September.

Mindy shouts an order from the register. It’s late in the season and we’ve stopped with order slips. Now all we do is yell. I think to ask who told him, but I know what happened. So I lean forward and kiss him. Immediately it’s the wrong thing. When he doesn’t say anything after some time, I ask if I’m fired.

He gives me a look before bending again to palm the scallops, hunched like a child collecting stones at the beach. He does not look up at me when he says, “I liked you, Helen. You weren’t like the other gummy-headed girls.”

I walk to the bathroom and do not stop crying until a customer raps the door, a small pigtailed girl with too-big eyes and clear white skin like milk quartz. She gives me a mean, cross look and clucks her tongue before pushing past and shutting the door firmly behind her.

***

 

The end of each summer, Mindy and I rent one of the small white cottages along Shore Road in Truro, each named after a flower. They sit right against the water like a row of perfect teeth. We get Wisteria Cottage for twenty dollars a night. From the back window I watch a man cast several lines and none of them catch. There’s a small plain-faced girl, fat and pasty at the middle, cartwheeling so her cami falls to her ribs and down the edge of her hot pink bra. I catch flashes of hot pink, little grinning slips of pink, and then she’s landed on her behind and smiling, dazed, at no one in particular. A gull tweezes meat from an open-breasted crab.

Mindy and I were the last to leave, not including the locals. Glen shook my hand and hugged me, but I knew I wasn’t welcome back. It was one of those things. But I wasn’t sad about it. I was finished with the place. I was ready to leave—I’d been ready for some time.

We open the windows in the house, to hear the sea. We open the windows because at night it gets stuffy, recycled air corkscrewing about the ceiling fan, the lace curtains breathing in and out with the tide. We race the waves. A large rock opens my skin and the salt seals it over. There is one gash on my left leg that resembles a lipstick stain—cleaved straight down the middle and arched on both sides like a woman’s body.

At night the cuts along my legs burn. I lie very still, shifting occasionally to brush against the smooth cool sheets. Soon Mindy’s snoring and the burning’s insatiable. I decide to walk the beach. The sand gives easily underfoot. I hurl pebbles into the ocean, and they are swallowed up without protest. Far down shore, a bonfire pinches out like a cigarette.

In the morning, Mindy and I make peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches. We don’t speak the whole time but we pack light. We like to stay portable, just in case. We stand along Shore Road, ankle-deep in houndstongue, little red and yellow blossoms tickling our shins. The Flex arrives. We know the summer has run its course. We are sick of each other.

Mindy boards first and takes a seat by the window. I think to sit beside her. I think of what our conversation would be, or what it wouldn’t be. She would fall asleep and I’d be stuck in the aisle without any window for amusement and I would have to replay the whole fevering summer in my head until I felt ill. Instead, I take the seat directly behind her. A man sits beside me, a man in chinos and leather oxfords, with that wrinkled sunny pacified look to his face that tells me he isn’t local. He grins and tells me how he’s returning to Boston for good. He asks if I’m from Boston. He asks if I like the Cape, if I’m a regular. He says a nice girl like me ought to love a city like Boston. I tell him I work in food service and that shuts him up fast.

Before the bus starts again, I lean forward and ask Mindy if we’re the right kind of girls. “What are you even saying,” she says. I think of all the girls at Link’s, all the gummy-headed girls, I think of Katherine and Gloria and Talia and Yvonne. What did they mean to me? They were names and places, easy enough. But they are the ones I remember now, fondly.

What do I have to say of Mindy? We stopped writing each other soon enough. Last I heard she lives in Rhode Island, by the university. The last letter said she’d found a new religion; the name escapes me, though I recall it allowed for atonement several times per day. She said how happy she was since she’d gotten her life together. She asked how I was doing in that way a girl like Mindy will—unabashedly, and without any real interest. But that’s a girl like Mindy.

I spend my days now in an Episcopalian church on the Connecticut border. It is built on a gradient, and in exchange for my cleaning services, I’m lent a basement room with sliding doors to the back terrace. No one smokes or says unkind things. In fact, I’ve started memorizing prayers, one per day. I can feel my old memories rearranging, folding back to make room for the new life I’m to lead here.

With his unmarried hand on the small of my back, Father Canaan introduces me to the members of the congregation, large-bosomed women in expensive sunhats, some with birds fixed on the brim, whole birds with glass eyes and spread-open wings, monstrosities of hats these women wear in the house of God.