[Image Credit: Frank Wilbert Stokes, “Moonlight, Starlight, Atlantic Ocean, 1902,” oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum]
Ed’s pickup truck crunched over gravel and driftwood. Leftover two-by-fours of milled lumber lurched in the back as his tires skidded over a pile of sand. Stainless steel screws rattled in their box, and his tool kit clanked. Dawn breached the horizon line, spreading tea-colored silks above the ocean. Clouds hung over the water, their shadows silver on the wave breaks. The tide was out. Cluttered black rocks hunched over tidal pools like turtle shells. A few starfish, pink and curling into themselves, held onto green crevices. The oily surface of seaweed waved in and out of sight.
Since his wife Katie died, Ed spent every morning swimming out from Squibnocket, a beach on the southern tip of Martha’s Vineyard. The cold shock of the Atlantic woke him up. The world was still open to possibilities that, at any other hour, seemed shuttered. Ed switched the radio off from the morning weather report. He watched the ocean slip into its morning rituals. He shuffled his sandals off on the mat of the driver’s seat, and threw his shirt to the passenger side. The door creaked as it opened. It was early October. Most people still swimming in the Atlantic wore wetsuits, but Ed had never owned one. He liked the way the cold reminded all his body parts that they were real.
He ran in. His lifted his knees high so when his feet hit the strong pull of water they cracked like the sheet of a sailboat. When he was deep enough he pushed his arms out and started to swim into grey matter. Waves crested into his mouth and he swallowed salt. Ed swam out to the point where he’d last seen Katie. He spun there for a while, his legs egg beatering his shoulders above water like when he’d been a water polo player in high school. He saw 360 degrees: beach, sand, cliff, rock, ocean, horizon, beach. A seal jumped out of a wave break, sleek and rubbery, camouflaging into the splotchy concrete of ocean. It saw Ed, and in the next wave break, his small round head bobbed like a globe above the water, black eyes wide and watching. Ed tried to lessen the movement of his legs. Where there are seals, there are sometimes sharks. He didn’t want to attract one, didn’t want it to mistake his pale calves for a fin. When it came to the ocean, Katie had always been pretty fearless. She’d learned to surf when she was little, living on the Cape. In college, she started to SCUBA dive. She studied marine science. She went out in fishing boats to look for North Atlantic right whales. With reverence, she told Ed it was the most endangered mammal in the world. She’d never seen one. Off the northeast coast, they could be extinct.
Ed raised his hand tentatively to the seal. The seal stared back. It wasn’t a Katie spirit or a message. It was a mammal. It didn’t wave back. Embarrassed, Ed pushed his arms up from under the water like giant oars and slid down into the black tunnel of ocean, his eyes closed against salt and his body descending into a lapping hum. When he ears started to squeeze with pressure, he propelled himself back up. Warm air hit his face and he gasped. He wiped sticky hands across his eyes and pushed his copper hair back from his forehead. When he opened his eyes again, the seal was gone. Ed shook his head and turned away from open ocean, racing his own body towards the shore. His keys were in the ignition, where he’d left them. The engine turned over twice, and then he backed out of from the beach and towards town. Scraps from the enormous dehydrator he was building, treated cedar pocked with dark knots, watched him in his rearview mirror.
Ed’s hair was still dripping when he pulled into an empty parking spot in Oak Bluffs. He did his best not to come into town, but he wanted some just-in-case nails to finish the dehydrator. Yesterday he brought in the backhoe to level out the house-sized piece of land he was building it on. He got it early in the morning after renting it the afternoon before from a place across the island where they didn’t know him. He drove up the gravel road to his property before dawn, and then he didn’t start until after he was sure most of his neighbors were at work. He finished leveling out the yard before lunch. So far, what he was building was a secret. The site was in a sort of field they’d once kept a cow and a couple goats in, but the cow had been turned into beef last winter and soon after the goats ran away. Couldn’t blame them. He thought they were a bit spooky anyway, a little witchy. When he was a kid some neighbor had called his family’s goat a fortune teller because, the day before, it’d ran up and hid in a tree and for the life of him he couldn’t get it down. The next day the Mashpee River flooded and there was five feet of water in the basement. The goat was dry. Ed hadn’t really let go of that.
The bells jangled above his head as Ed pushed open the glass door to the hardware store. He crossed his fingers in his pocket, where no one could see them, like he used to do as a kid—his own form of good luck. He barreled through the store on a mission, until he reached the turnstiles of nails and screws. One-handed, Ed picked up a plastic bag to collect them. When he he looked up, Ray was already on his way.
“Ed, what’s your rush?” Ray ambled over, pulling up his pants by his belt loop, his gut leaning over his jeans like an egg-white slipping out of its shell. In his other hand, Ray carried a plastic toilet handle. “My boys just cannot go light on these things, I swear,” Ray said. “Last month they clogged it and I was here for a plunger. This month I’m on my third, no joke, my third toilet handle. I say, boys, just give it a nice little touch, you know, no need to slam the darn thing. But you know, boys will be boys.” Ray winked at Ed. Ed frowned.
“Well, good luck,” said Ed. He turned back to the nails, rotating the turnstile to find the right size. His fingers were still crossed in his pocket. He hadn’t thought about how to hold the bag, dump the nails in, and seal it up with just one hand. He could hold the bag open with his teeth if Ray would go away.
“Say, how’s that tent going Ed?” Ray asked. His eyes glinted.
“What tent?” Ed moved to the next turnstile and started rotating it.
“I was driving by the other day,” Ray said, “on my way to visit Vicki. She doesn’t get many visitors now. Gets a bit lonely with the cold setting in.”
Ed knew Vicki. Katie used to bring her tomatoes from their garden, her only regular visitor. Katie liked her because Vicki believed her ancestors were mermaids. The last time Ed had been there, almost a year ago, her house was covered in mermaid drawings.
“You seen Vicki lately?” asked Ray. Ed shook his head no. “Well she sure is getting on,” Ray continued. “I’ve been meaning to ask y’all if she had any family. She keeps telling me no. Should maybe contact social services and have them put her in a home. They do that for old people?” Ed was walking down another aisle now, steaming. He hated coming into town. He hated people using “y’all” to refer to him and Katie. It was just him now. Ray followed.
“Anyway, the tent. I saw you building when I drove by the other day. And those Amazon orders for parts have been piling up at the end of your drive, huh?”
“Leave it alone, Ray,” Ed said.
Ray put his hands up in mock apology. “Sorry, Ed, sorry. I know it’s been tough. Just trying to keep in touch you know? Some of the guys are getting together at Sally’s later. I’ll see you there? Maybe this weekend we can come help you do some tent raising thing.”
“Yeah, great,” Ed said. He had circled back to the turnstile. He picked his stupid crossed fingers out of his pocket, took the bag, and added three fistfuls of nails.
“You know they have boxes of those,” Ray said, pointing across the aisle.
“I know Ray,” Ed said through clenched teeth, already walking away. He waved to Luis at the cash register, who held an account open for Ed, and pushed open the door, the clanging bells welcoming him back into open air.
He squinted, his eyes adjusting from the dim store to the day. The day was getting cooler, and Ed wore an old fleece open to a faded U-Conn t-shirt. He’d traded his swim trunks for Carhartts that hit the ankle of his work boots. His baseball cap had a picture of a sailboat on it from his old company. They still called every so often and Ed would go help out on projects, but he wasn’t working regularly. He wasn’t eating regularly or sleeping regularly either, so it didn’t make a lot of sense to Ed to have a normal work schedule. Across the street was an ice cream shop that would close next week for the season, and beside it, a place for sub sandwiches that would last through winter—as long as it could find shift workers. The island, which was overcrowded from Memorial Day to Labor Day, deadened in the winter. Ed liked it that way: quiet, grey, predictable.
He walked around back to his truck and threw the nails in the bed. He was opening the door when across the street a figure emerged out of the sub shop. Familiar. Old jeans rolled up at the ankle that always seemed a bit too tight to Ed, a flannel shirt in brown and green over a slim frame, a fancy Patagonia vest over that. A big, fluffed out brown beard with a mop of curls on his head. Dark eyes, almost navy. Alton. Ed shut his driver side door. Alton either didn’t hear the slam, or he was ignoring Ed. He walked down the sidewalk toward the pier. Ed checked his watch. 11:30 am. He’d planned on starting the plastic by now. Tomorrow was supposed to bring a few days of rain and he wanted to finish the dehydrator before then. By tonight it should be filled with saltwater, so when the rain cleared, the salt would feel sun and both Ed and the dehydrator could recharge.
But fuck it.
Ed started walking down the opposite sidewalk. He lowered his cap on his head, and looked down so he wouldn’t trip on any benches or potted plants. He was keeping pace with Alton until suddenly Alton veered right down an alley, away from the pier and towards the harbor. Alton had to know Ed was following him. The harbor was behind the sandwich shop. If he meant to go there, he would’ve gone left out of the shop instead of right. Maybe he was trying to find a more public place, so he’d have witnesses if Ed tried to trounce him. Ed started running. A car screeched its horn as Ed crossed the street. He turned right on the opposite sidewalk, and then left at the corner after the sandwich shop, planning to meet Alton as the alleyway spit him out at the park across the street from the ships.
And, to Ed’s mild surprise, it worked. There was Alton, jogging, looking behind him to see if Ed was following. Ed cut across the park and Alton saw the flash of Ed’s bulk moving toward him. Alton looked cornered. He stopped where he was, on the sidewalk next to the gazebo. Ed, heaving a bit from the run, walked down the sidewalk from the opposite direction to meet him. The wind cooled the sweat at the rim of his baseball cap. He could hear the boats sagging and bumping in the harbor. Ed looked at Alton, his seal-like eyes, his light panting, his hands in the pockets of his stupid, shiny vest, and then Ed pulled back his elbow and punched Alton in the face. He heard something pop, a nose or a cheek, and Alton fell to the ground. His hands held his face, no self-defense. In the street Ed heard a car honking, heard someone from the harbor yell and felt the pounding of a couple men running over to stop the fight. But there was no fight. Just Alton laying on the sidewalk, not speaking, and Ed, pulling down his fleece to stop the chill from going up his shirt, turning, and walking back to his truck.
When Ed got home, he grabbed the nails, his tool belt out of the shed, and the large styrofoam cup of coffee he’d gotten on the drive back. He stretched his fingers out, flexing the knuckles on his left hand, the ones previously crossed in his pocket. Once Ed was out of public school, and the public school desks and scissors and lunch seating that made him feel like being left-handed was a handicap, he’d realized it was a gift. People didn’t look to be punched on right. They anticipated their opponent to be right-handed. In the four fights Ed had been in in his life, this had been an advantage. Alton must just be an idiot though, because out of the four, three had been with him.
Ed leaned into the tailgate of his truck. On the sandy driveway below him, a shadow passed. He looked up and a hawk looped overhead. From the next farm over he heard turkeys guffawing. They’d be dinner in a month. The leaves were already blushing, drying, slipping off their branches. This was Katie’s favorite season. She loved the reminder of the earth moving through birth, sun, age, decay just like a human life. Ed moved the sand with his right heel while the hawk circled above him. He heard it cry out as it spotted something on the ground, a mole or a mouse.
He’d last seen Alton over three months ago. It was late evening and he was picking up some last minute things at the hardware store when Luis gave him the tip. He’d looked around, made sure no customers were listening.
“Look man,” Luis said. “I know this is an uncomfortable thing, but I thought you should know. Alton’s been seen out a bunch this summer. Drinking,” Luis paused. He cleared his throat like a soft thumping. “He’s been crying about—you know.”
Ed nodded, shook hands with Luis, walked outside. He went down an alleyway where the tourist bars opened up to the sea, sat down at a fish shack, and ordered a beer. He sipped it real slow of an hour and a half. He ordered another, and slipped that one slow too. It was near 10pm, but he waited for Alton to appear. Once he did, almost an hour later, Ed could see his eyes were red and puffy. Maybe he’d been crying; maybe he just had allergies. Ed didn’t care. He walked over to Alton, who was leaning into some friends as they walked into a new bar, and grabbed him by the jacket and punched his face. Alton’s friends pushed Ed off but they didn’t retaliate. They were pretty stoic about the thing, maybe they realized Alton had it coming.
The time before that was at Katie’s funeral. Why that bastard thought he deserved to be there still floored Ed.
Instead of wallowing, Ed decided he needed a project to quiet Katie’s voice in his head. He found the idea for the salt dehydrator on YouTube. Or more specifically, on the YouTube channel for Burning Man. Ed had never been to Burning Man. He’d never even been to Nevada. But this guy on the internet built a machine that took sea water and dehydrated it through solar energy into a grainy salt that made the floor look overcast, and one place Ed had been was the ocean.
Ed was a carpenter on and off for the last decade, so the idea looked simple enough. It was like the cold frames Katie built for their spring garden but on a yurt-sized scale: a wooden frame, three layers of stiff plywood to level out the ground, and polycarbonate sheeting for the walls. The south-side sloped with a thinner, more transparent material. The floor was reinforced with layers of foam insulation Ed painted black. During the YouTube narrator’s first attempt, he’d covered the floor with ten cases of Reynolds Wrap to access even more solar gain. He reported that the salt tasted metallic. The design Ed studied on the Burning Man channel was called a hexayurt. They were survivalist pods for refugees and back-to-the-landers. It accessed the type of solar gain Ed would need for five hundred gallons of ocean water.
In a way, Ed was lucky he lived in the interior of the island. His patch of land was in the middle of thick, sandy woods. He didn’t quite know why, but he wanted the dehydrator’s appearance on his property to be sudden, like a great reveal. Like he could unveil it at a ribbon-cutting ceremony when it was done. Like everyone would say, wow, Ed’s really made something of himself. Ed’s really found a productive way to manage his grief. Before Katie, and even with Katie, Ed wasn’t a fan of grand gestures. But after Katie, he wasn’t sure what other kind could reach her.
If Katie were here, he wouldn’t be building a hexayurt. The projects were always Katie’s projects. They’d moved to the island because she wanted to “homestead,” even though Ed had a good job at an architecture firm in Boston. She insisted. Started growing tomatoes in the backyard. Bought a canner. Baked bread in the oven and fished the Mashpee on weekends. The wares she brought back were slimy and probably full of mercury but Katie was invigorated and full of persuasion. We’re becoming city-apes!City-apes were what Katie called people who didn’t think about where their food or clothes or toilet paper or plastic toys or paper books or cell phone chargers came from, people who couldn’t have deep thoughts because they were straight-jacketed into suits and high heels. Ed tried to remind Katie where their money came from, but she didn’t care. We can live off the land! It’s the only way we’ll feel whole!
They never actually lived off the land. Ed turned to shipbuilding. He loved sanding salt down into the wood, loved soaking and curving boards for the hull, molding them so closely together that water was sealed out of its buoyant interior. Katie had her cow and her goats and her garden. She experimented with chickens for a while, but stopped after finding feathers strewn across the yard in sticky mounds from a fox’s visit. She heard peacocks were hardier and kept a muster for a couple years but they were taken out by a neighbor’s dog. She had a collection of their feathers in a vase by the front door that she’d brush with her hand every time she left the house. After she died, it was one of the first things Ed threw away. He hated the purple glint of the feathers against their yellow walls. They were bad luck.
Ed took a gulp of dark roast and squashed the bottom of the cup down into the sand until it made an inch tall ring around the cup. He admired his progress. The frame was ready, and Ed had a lift to move it to the flattened patch of yard. The flooring was inside. The plastic walls were stacked on the ground, frying the grass beneath them into a rippling brown square. He had a nail gun to attach them to the frame, and a construction ladder to staple in the roof.
Ed climbed into the lift and steered it toward the frame. The frame was too wide to sit directly on the forks so he had to rotate around it like a star, first moving one corner, then another, circling it toward the leveled ground. Clouds hovered in a haze, and the grove of beetlebung trees that served as a windbreak for the dehydrator shivered. They were turning copper. Once Ed had the frame in place, he nailed on the plastic. He had one sheet up, five to go, before he could start on the roof when a car came up the forested lane. Ed leaned into the frame, bent down and took a bite of his sandwich. He stood back up and listened. It was a bit early in the day for his neighbors to come home, just after 2pm. The car slowed through the treeline and then turned down his drive. Ed dropped his hammer.
It was a cop car. Ed recognized the officer. Dan had been out here four times since the funeral in May. Once as a courtesy call, after Ed missed six weeks in a row at Sally’s. Ed used to be a regular, but hadn’t been back since the wake. He felt like it might make his grief feel muffled, and he wanted to feel all its small, impossible stings.
“Hey there, Ed,” Dan called out. Ed nodded. “What’s that?” Dan asked, stopping in the yard, pointing at the hexayurt.
“It’s nothing,” Ed said.
“Sure don’t look like nothing. That a yurt you’re building?” Dan was walking towards it now, his hands on his hips, inspecting it. Ed recognized the movement, like something you’d do towards a wild animal: act like you’re interested in something else so it doesn’t lunge at you. “I saw them at a development in Tisbury. Looks similar.”
“Kind of,” Ed said. “What do you need?”
“Well, downtown this morning, in Oak Bluffs, Alton was assaulted. Again. He won’t name his assailant, but witnesses said they saw you punch him. Were you downtown this morning?”
“Yeah, I was. Had to stop by the hardware store.”
“Did you get into an altercation while you were there?”
“Well, I wouldn’t really call it an altercation. It was pretty one-sided,” said Ed.
“Let me be more direct. This morning, around 11:45 am, did you hit Alton More in front of the Oak Bluffs harbor?”
“Look, Dan, quit the act. He’s not pressing charges, right?”
“Ed, you can’t go around punching people. Did he provoke you?”
“He provoked me when he slept with my wife,” Ed said.
Dan’s eyes opened like a possum caught in car lights. He knew. Everyone knew. But no one talked about it openly. They were pussyfooting people. They’d treaded that topic for six months without ever saying it. Dan put his hands on his hips, recovering, and looked at the sky.
“Ed, I know. I’m sorry,” Dan told the grey clouds.
“Are we done?” asked Ed. “I’ve got a lot of work to finish.”
“Well I guess so…” Dan kicked a rock. Now that Ed admitted to the crime, shouldn’t he take him in? But what would he take him in for if Alton wasn’t pressing charges? Dan had been at this job for over forty years, and things were usually quiet in the fall. It was summer when he arrested teenager after teenager for drinking underage and public intoxication. They all tumbled through the police station of Martha’s Vineyard like dominos. He didn’t want to mess with Ed, this man the most of the island knew was broken. “Just don’t punch Alton anymore,” Dan said.
“Do my best,” said Ed, and lifted his arm in goodbye, sending him away. He stood for a moment, looked between the dehydrator and Ed, the sky and the beetlebung.
“I’ll follow up if we need to ask some questions down at the station,” Dan said, still uncertain if he should leave Ed alone with this new construction.
Ed raised his arm again, this time shooing Doug away. He turned to pick up his nail gun.
Three hours later, Ed swiped his hand across his forehead to mop up the damp mix of sweat and condensation that bubbled there. He climbed down from the ladder to admire his work. The walls were opaque, but he could see the dark splash of floor and a thin, hazy plank of frame when he looked through it. One wall was on hinges with a handle for a door. He walked inside. It wasn’t hot, but it was warm already, even with an ever dimming sky and the wind picking up. He tilted his head back. The ceiling arced towards a circular dome. It was quiet, but there was a hum, like he was underwater. He felt like he was in a cathedral.
Suddenly his heart clenched up, like it was being squeezed by a fist. The pressure made it hard to breathe, hard to be in a small space. Ed lunged toward the door. It stuck for just a moment before it let him go, hurtling him out into cool air. He could still feel the warmth of the building on his arms like the press of someone’s body into his. Hunched over, protecting his chest, he gently shut the door. He didn’t want to cry, but he was like a tap that was broken, a drop of water plopping onto porcelain every few seconds. He wiped his hand across his face and climbed back into his truck. He backed it up to the trailer where his water tank stood, hitched up, and headed out.
It was illegal to drive off the gravel and onto the beach at Squibnocket but Ed did it anyway. He put his truck in four wheel drive and made a path over the piles of drifting sand. He parked ten feet from the tide line, and grabbed the industrial hose from the truck bed. His plan was to get the hose out far enough into the surf that it was weighed down, not flopping in the waves. Then he’d come back to the tank and pump. Five hundred gallons would take a while, and the sky was stretching into pink. In another half hour, the north star would be out. In another hour, Ed would have to put on his headlights to see. Ed attached the hose to the tank and walked the other end out to the water. The waves hit his chest and shattered across his shoulders. The tide felt sharp and energetic, like a live thing. There weren’t any people on the beach, and he couldn’t see any animals. In the distance, he could see a bigger set of swells coming towards him, ones that would surely crest over his head. He was about fifteen feet from shore, and the water swelled up to his ribs when the tide came in. He just needed about five more feet for him to be confident the head of the hose would sink to the bottom.
He could feel the tide pulling him out. He began to lose traction. The sand beneath his feet was tumbling, slipping, pulling towards the waves. Suddenly a piece of shell or rock hit his ankle and knocked him off balance. His feet flew out from under him and for a second he was pulled into the wave. For a moment, it felt like a friend or a memory; like nostalgia. But then his chest began to clench again, pressing towards itself like two clasped hands. His left hand was still on the hose. He swung his right arm around and hung on while above him a great block of water crashed over his body, pushing him down while pulling him out to the current. He squeezed his body around the hose like he was in utero. The pressure subsided, the wave hit shore, he felt the ground beneath him and stood up, gasping. He pushed his hair back from his forehead. Saltwater was dripping into his eyes, his eardrums, his mouth. The sky was sherbert. The air tasted wet and cool.
Ed wanted to be done. Really and truly done. He wanted to complete his memorial to her. He wanted to do something useful with her body. Turn it to salt. He wanted to forgive her. He wanted to forgive himself. He wanted her to be proud of him. Maybe her body was still out at sea. Maybe a fishing boat had picked up its remnants. Maybe a shark had eaten her. Maybe seals. Maybe she had already decomposed. Maybe she was just gone, like snap, like magic. The whale Katie used to look for was probably extinct. But without the science community knowing for sure, the species lived in limbo, unmourned. At least with the dodo or the wooly mammoth, people could honor the animal. He didn’t have Katie’s body, so he had to make her into a totem.
He wanted the image of Katie, swimming out and laughing next to Alton under starlight, he wanted that gone too. He wanted not to have yelled; for her not to have turned; for him not to have seen—caused—that look of shock and fear. He wanted the waves not to have surprised her.
He wanted them to have surprised Alton: the riptide should have taken him. Ed wanted to hear something besides Katie’s last cry. He wanted to hear the softness from the morning before. It was a Sunday and she’d woken up early. The window was open and he could hear a bird. Katie had come in with coffee and her book, laid both on the table, and crawled under the sheets to him. Good morning, she’d said and kissed him on his nose.
Ed didn’t know yet about Alton yet, but he suspected. He rolled away from her. Now, he could see the bird he heard when his eyes were closed, on the branch of a thick oak, watching them. Katie came in after her shower to dress. He stayed facing the wall. She stalled for a moment, he could hear her hesitate, but then she left, went downstairs to eat breakfast. He traced the watermark near the closet with his eyes. The screen door clanged as she went outside, work boots scuffed on the grass. It was faint, but she was whistling. He took her mug of coffee, now cold, and threw it against the wall. It shattered. Her boots stopped, the pause in a heartbeat, then started again. Her knees popped as she bent down at her garden. The coffee dripped into a porcelain bowl on the dresser: plink, plink, plink.
In the sea, Ed loosened his grip on the hose. He saw that the water was dazzling. The last bits of light reflected off its surface, making it look transparent. He could see his knees, the shadows of toes. Something touched light just below the surface. Ed scooped water, trying to identify the sediment. The hose was heavy in his left hand. He dropped it to the sandy floor. He used his hands like cups to strain out the water. It looked like a little half-moon. Like a fingernail. He touched it; it was still hard. She would’ve liked that, he thought, to become little wisps of flesh, moist and soggy to be pulled apart by fish. Rotting away into the sea salt. He held out the fingernail to the light. It shimmered. It looked metallic, almost silver. No, he thought, just a scale.