It was a beautiful little motorboat; Henry didn’t need anyone to tell him that. There it was, rocking gently in its marina slip, a 1955 Penn Yan wood-and-canvas Trailboat, fourteen feet, brass fittings, a short-planked deck, three gunwale-to-gunwale benches. Seeing it for the first time in nearly five years, Henry had a crisp vision of his dad sitting in the stern on a flotation cushion, his hand on the little two-stroke Mercury outboard—ordering him to the bow to get it to plane. As a boy Henry had liked to crawl onto a bed of life preservers beneath the deck and let the hard smack of the waves lull him to sleep.
“She’s a beautiful little boat,” the marina man said again—the third time.
“Yep,” Henry said.
“In fact, I know some guys’d give their left, uh—” The plump, fiftyish man, the name “Ben” embroidered on his work shirt, glanced at Sophie, who was staring at the rack of new waterskis inside the shop as if trying to divine their purpose. “Their left leg to buy it off you.”
“Is that right?”
“I could get you a tidy little bidding war.”
“It’s all set?”
“Like to have a day or two warning, but yeah. We got it ready.”
Henry nodded. He’d called the marina from the road only hours before. They’d been at a gas station in New Hampshire.
“Fifty-fives in good condition are extremely rare, Mr. Garfield.”
Henry liked that—the Mr. Garfield bit. He recalled this man addressing his father that way, with the same intonation, the same head-dip of deference.
“Shame to have it in storage all summer, I guess,” Henry said, feeling like he was offering the man a concession. His father’s prized possession was now owned by a twenty-six-year-old in $200 jeans who hadn’t been to Maine in half a decade.
“Dunno. Priceless boat like that gets knocked to pieces you run it too much.” They both squinted out through the open service bay. The breeze had kicked up. Beside the Penn Yan, a pair of Boston Whalers emblazoned with the name of the marina rocked in unison, and beyond the breakwater, the lake looked dark and rough, frosted with chop. The August sun was low. 6:20 p.m.
“My dad ran it all summer when he was up here, though, right?”
“Your father was careful with her. Knew what he had.” The man—Ben—turned a steady gaze on him and Henry did his best to meet it. He wore suspenders, adorned with small anchors, and work boots. Rosy cheeks, a kind light in his eye, but Henry knew better. All these guys up here were hard-asses, especially to out-of-towners.
The sound of ice sluicing out of a bucket made Henry turn around. “Happy hour,” said a young mechanic in coveralls as he set the empty bucket on the concrete floor beside a Coleman cooler. “Almost. We like to knock off a little early on Fridays.”
Knock off what? No visible work was being done. The shop with its boat supplies, waterskis, and tourist T-shirts was deserted except for Sophie, and, here in the service area, only a single boat was up on a sling: a MasterCraft with a fiberglass patch like a skin graft on its hull. A couple of outboard engines, their casings off, were bolted to the side of a large steel tub; in the corner, a battered boom box played the Rolling Stones. The air was thick with the fumes of caulk and varnish and gasoline.
The mechanic nestled bottles of Budweiser into the ice; Henry desperately wanted one. Long drive, long day. The trip to the island could wait.
Sophie’s tour of the shop had resulted in a pair of neon koozies. Henry saw both men take her in: dark, blunt bangs, silver nail polish, Jackie O. sunglasses, thin Sonic Youth T-shirt, her nipple rings knobbing through the soft cotton. She’d lived in four different countries before the age of thirteen. Her father sold guns; her mother had been a movie actress. “Citizens of the world,” she called them, with a bite of disrespect Henry recognized.
“Borrow some dinero, por favor,” Sophie said now, her hand finding the center of Henry’s back and then his wallet pocket.
“Those are on the house,” Ben said, meaning the koozies. He winked at Sophie.
“Oh my,” she said, performing a curtsy. She gave the mechanic—lanky and tan, his fingers black with grease—a meaningful look. He read it in an instant, dug a beer out of the Coleman, and popped the cap with a lighter.
Sophie: the girl who got everything she wanted. She dabbled in modeling, made collages of paint and lacquer and nude selfies (that actually sold), consulted with a guerilla marketing firm, and did a bit of prescription-pill drug dealing for walking-around money. As far as Henry could tell she never seemed to wonder what it all amounted to or who she was becoming. Her thing with Henry was part of it, too. She liked him. He was her type. She said this in a way that simultaneously turned Henry on and gave him the feeling that he’d cleared a very low bar.
Well, so what? His bar wasn’t set so very high either. She was the eighth girl he’d dated in the last two years—and certainly the loveliest, but not likely to be the future Mrs. Garfield. Nor was he looking for that.
He watched her fit her beer in one of the koozies and take a ladylike sip, felt the stirring, here-and-gone happiness of the warm sun on his face.
A pontoon boat puttered around the breakwater and drifted to the gas dock, a guy in a Patriots hat and a golf shirt at the wheel.
“Small matter of your balance, Mr. Garfield,” Ben said.
“Storage and winter work.”
“Send it to Dad’s lawyer. The trust pays his bills.”
Actually, it didn’t, and from the way Ben grinned at him it looked like he knew the truth. The trust his father had set up—almost $800,000 in stocks and cash—would go directly to Henry’s children, if he ever had any. What Henry had been left, according to his father’s Florida lawyer, Jimmy Turrell, were all of Dean Garfield’s “worldly goods.” That meant Dean’s Jacksonville fiefdom—a downtown condo, an Isuzu pickup, and a U-Stor-It room full of furniture—as well as two prized possessions: Bullhead Island in Maine and the ’55 Penn Yan. “Not to mention all the bills and taxes associated with the same,” Turrell had said over the phone. “My advice? Sell as much as possible as quickly as possible.” The sound of him spitting into a cup. “And absolutely, positively dump that fucking island before them taxes hit.”
The will was a challenge, a practical joke, the final word in a stupid argument Henry had been having with his father since high school. “You just float, son. You’re not responsible for anything.”“Meaning what?”Henry had shot back once or twice. “I don’t like real estate?” That was one hundred percent true—the work his father did, brokering commercial sales and leases and the occasional development deal in north Florida, struck Henry as despairingly dull. The anonymous office building he went to, the armory of beepers and Blackberries and netbooks and smartphones he kept on him at all times, his ossifying Republican opinions—it amounted to a cautionary tale about choices and responsibility and growing up. Henry vowed to be different. First step: leave Florida. He attended a private college in upstate New York stocked with medicated rich kids, cycled through classes in different departments—admittedly floating—and graduated into the worst job market in a generation. His father, who had paid every tuition bill, skipped the ceremony but called him the morning of with an offer of a clerical position at the firm. Henry, badly hungover, croaked out that he was moving to Bushwick. Silence from Dad, and then: “To do what?”
“Not sure yet,” Henry answered truthfully.
“Don’t even think of asking for money,” Dean said.
Henry had, in fact, been about to ask for a small loan, but his father hung up the phone before he could say another word.
Henry moved to a drafty shared loft on Moore Street and, miraculously, scraped together something like an income doing freelance fact-checking at a lower Manhattan fashion magazine. Enough to keep himself fed and make rent: a total triumph for a twenty-two-year-old liberal-arts graduate in Great Recession America. Not according to his dad, of course, who finally made contact only to say that he regarded paying Henry’s tuition as the equivalent of feeding $160,000 into an office shredder.
“I’ll go ahead and print that invoice for you just in case,” Ben told Henry, and proceeded to a small office just off the storage room.
“He wants one,” Sophie said, meaning Henry.
The mechanic slid the Coleman closer to Henry with his foot. He nodded at Sophie’s shirt. “That say evil?”
“Love backwards,” Sophie said.
Henry reached down and dug out a Budweiser, even though the light would start to fade soon and he had some tricky lake navigation to perform.
“You’re headed to Bullhead?” the mechanic asked Henry.
“That’s right,” Henry said, working the cap off with his own key chain.
“I put that dock in for your dad a few times. Know my way around the generator.”
Henry gave him a curious nod.
“Call me when you get there,” the mechanic said, slipping a business card out of his breast pocket. “If you need anything.”
“I’m sure we’ll be okay.”
“Yeah?” the mechanic said, unconvinced.
“Want our number?” Sophie asked flirtatiously. “In case you need it.” She recited her phone number and the mechanic scribbled it on the back of a smudged receipt.
Ben came out of the office, creasing a piece of paper and sliding it into an envelope. “We can work out a payment plan, Mr. Garfield.”
His expression was grave. Henry slid the envelope into his back pocket. He wouldn’t look—the number was entirely theoretical to him anyway.
Out in the parking lot, Henry hauled their tote bags out of Sophie’s old Toyota and locked up the car. Sophie had almost nothing in hers: a couple of pairs of underwear, Valley of the Dolls, some makeup, her pill bottle, and a travel vibrator. By comparison Henry had packed like a boy scout: the sweaters he thought they’d need, a blanket, toothpaste, dry socks, flashlight, condoms, cell-phone charger, a big bottle of Poland Spring, a couple of Clif bars.
“Where’re your groceries?” Ben asked.
Good question. “We’ll come back and stock up tomorrow,” he said, heading for the docks. He knew there’d be practically no daylight left when they got to the island, and getting that generator started wouldn’t be easy—but he also knew that on a Friday in late August the chance of finding a motel vacancy anywhere in the vicinity was pretty much zero. So it was Bullhead for the night, no matter what condition the house was in.
Down at the docks, he surveyed the Penn Yan, thinking of the way his father had inspected it: Lines from the bow and stern, check, anchor, check, flotation cushions, paddle, registration sticker, fire extinguisher, gas tank, hand pump, check, check, check—but what about all that water sloshing around the bottom?
“A leak?” Henry asked.
“The boards gotta swell up is all,” Ben said. “Bail it out with that hand pump.”
Which felt like an order. Henry set his tote down, stepped into the boat, and noticed how the varnished wood planks showed their age up close—some were discolored, some splintering beneath the varnish, and a dark section at the transom looked like rot.
Henry picked his way to the stern and sat on the gunwale, set the pump in the pooling water and sent great gouts of it back into the lake. Ben watched: “Attaboy.”
The volume went up in the service bay—“Street Fighting Man,” the mechanic throwing himself a party.
Henry steered them away from the marina, into a broad whitecapped bay, his hand on the throttle, the motor a bee swarm in his ear. This part of the lake, the southern end, was dotted with navigational buoys: solid red, solid black, red-tipped white, and black-tipped white, each beacon bright in the low sun. Choose the wrong route through them and you risked clipping your propeller on a rock, or worse: The lake’s monster boulders were boat killers if you hit them at speed. Red, right, return—but which direction was return? Why hadn’t he bought a lake map? Because he’d convinced himself that his memories would be coming back. They were and weren’t. The boat itself was resonant—the angle it took in the water, the rhythm of nail-heads studding the hull, the way the paddle wedged just so beneath the bench stays. But as for the undulating shoreline, the small wooded islands, the pattern of buoys in his field of vision—he couldn’t get his bearings. He knew Bullhead’s roughly trapezoidal shape, he could picture the way it tucked behind a rocky outcropping on a wedge of land called Rattlesnake Point. But where was Rattlesnake? How the hell would he find it in this failing light? He steered into one of the larger waves, and kicked-up spray soaked his face.
Sophie was getting wet, too, sitting up in the bow, her dark hair whipping angrily behind her, her small white hand clamped on the gunwale. She turned her head and shouted something inaudible at him, lake water dripping off her nose. He couldn’t hear her with the Mercury running loud and rough, belching smoke, but at lower rpm he feared it would stall, and he didn’t want to have to pull-start it again here with a good half mile paddle to shore in every direction. So he kept it wide open and pointed at the crawl space under the short deck, stuffed with a few orange life jackets and both of their tote bags, the place he’d liked to lodge himself in as a kid.
She made a paddling motion with her arms, then shook her head. This time he read her lips. I. Can’t. Swim.
The boat smacked and tipped against a cresting whitecap. Midpantomime, Sophie fell hard to the left, catching the gunwale low at her hip, almost tumbling over the side.
Henry twisted the throttle back to neutral, and the motor went dead with a dry rattle. They bucked over a few waves, slowing.
“Ow,” she said, rubbing her hip.
“You really can’t swim?”
“Not from like here to the shore,” she said.
He let out a tense laugh and stood with his feet spread wide, grasping the starting cord. He tried not to look at the pooling water they’d shipped, nor at the twinkling lights of the marina in the distance, tried not to think of happy hour and that cooler of beer. A few powerboats passed them—ski boats and pontoon cruisers, their navigation lights on, each slowing at the sight of the drifting Penn Yan. Henry gave them friendly waves, as if to say: No big deal.
He found it. He found it. After half a dozen hard yanks on the starting cord, after shipping several more inches of lake water from what really had to be a leak somewhere in the hull, after motoring a mile along the shoreline and deciding that he’d screwed up and Bullhead was actually on the other side of the lake, and having a panic attack and closing his eyes and admitting to his dead father: Yes, you win. I’m not up to this. After repeating those clipped sentences twice over he popped his eyes back open, and there it was. There was Rattlesnake’s shape in the twilight, and, just beyond it, the wooded shoreline of his father’s island, the wedge of the house’s roof peeking through the trees.
He let out a little whoop and Sophie slumped happily on her bench seat. They hadn’t spoken—hadn’t actually looked at each other—for most of the last thirty minutes.
He throttled down and the engine held on, puttering them into the channel between Bullhead and the backside of Rattlesnake Point. The point was all state land—a nature preserve managed by the University of Maine—and so there were no lights, no other houses: the birch and oak and pine trees a fretted wall of dark green.
And then, up ahead, his father’s cement landing, a pale set of steps descending to the water. The dock wasn’t in, of course—Henry had known it wouldn’t be and he’d planned on doing what he’d seen his dad do, anchoring just off the channel and wading. With twenty yards to go Henry killed the motor, rocked the Mercury up on its hinge, the scuffed, dripping propeller like a piece of hauled treasure, and let them glide. He kept his eye on the depth, the just visible weeds and rocks and muck, determined not to scrape the fragile hull. Still a good twenty-five feet out, he heaved the anchor off the back, letting it drag, then secured its taut line to the transom cleat.
Satisfied, almost weak with relief, Henry felt the sounds crowd in on him. A mournful wail of a loon. The lapping rhythm of water against rocks. The anchor line popping and straining. And the big shoreline trees just standing there, massed and silent.
“This,” Sophie said, staring into them, “is a horror movie.”
Henry had gotten the news four months earlier, in April, on a day when the sky was matted with rain and the gunmetal light coming in the magazine office’s windows made the fashion editors hurrying past his desk look especially thin and anxious. He had his big, enveloping headphones on, a Sigur Rós track blasting through them, and the mostly fact-free text of an Alexander Wang profile in his hand. He read quickly and with single-minded focus; he made hashmarks and queries as neat as hieroglyphics.
His phone came skittering to life. He glanced at the unfamiliar number, noted the Jacksonville area code, and assumed his father was breaking three months of no contact to remind him to pay his taxes. He wouldn’t answer. The voice mail was from a Duval County police officer, the man’s voice grave and quiet: “I’m afraid I need you to call me back immediately, Mr. Garfield.”
Henry played the message twice and then pulled the headphones on and worked his way to the end of the proof—changing the accent on a Shanghai street address, signing his initials, and walking to the editor’s office. He startled her coming in. “Pretty clean,” he said, placing it in her tray, staring at the tidy row of high heels under her desk, at the tote bag full of what seemed to be children’s clothes. She smiled and thanked him. He had an urge to tell her that he knew—just knew—that his father was dead.
Instead, Henry went back to his chair, wrote the officer’s number on a Post-it, and slipped down a narrow corridor, made even narrower by racks of dresses, and out to the elevator bay. On the street, he went to his favorite deli, got a coffee and an oatmeal cookie, and stood out of the drizzle beneath a construction canopy. The last time he and his father had spoken it had been small talk about the weather. Henry stared down at the cookie and the steaming cup of coffee and felt his stomach twist and knot. I’m afraid I need you to call me back immediately. He dropped both into a trash can and walked up West Broadway a few blocks and watched the tourists with their ponchos and guidebooks. He leaned against a stanchion and felt the rain through his shirt.He took out the Post-it and his phone.
Sophie texted him that evening: “want some company?” They’d met at a party, had gone out a few times, and to see this pale sexy girl was to want to launch himself at her. But he wasn’t himself. He’d walked home in a trance—Columbus Circle all the way to Bushwick—and was sitting on the roof of the building, avoiding his roommates, feeling the ache in his feet, watching the weather clear and the sky go pink. He hadn’t spoken to anyone since his short conversation with the officer on the phone. “Lets go somewhere,” he texted Sophie back. “Greenpoint pier.” They’d been before—a place to make out after the bars closed. He biked along quiet streets, bought tallboys in paper bags, and found her locking her own bike to a warehouse fence. Her slim shape, small wrists, her bare elbows visible through a moth-eaten sweater—these things stirred him.
“What gives, you turning down a house call?” she asked.
He kissed her, catching a lilac scent in her dark hair.
“And now you’re quiet for some reason?” she asked as they took a metal bench overlooking the water. She shifted away from him. “Seriously. What’s up?”
“My dad had a stroke,” he said.
“Three days ago. But the building manager found him this morning.”
Sophie set her beer down. “Found him?”
“He lives alone. We never really speak. He mostly cares about his work and making money. My mom died when I was a baby, so it was just the two of us growing up, and whatever girlfriend of the month.”
She took this in.
“Do I have to go home?” He blinked at her, genuinely wanting to be told. “That’s what the cop said. Get Dad’s affairs in order.”
They sat there without touching. The pink faded, the stars came out, the river raced on a swift current.
“Is he okay?” Sophie finally asked.
“He’s dead.” Hadn’t he already said that?
They biked back to Sophie’s two-bedroom and she led him up the dark flight of stairs, into the living room where her two roommates were hard at work on a jigsaw puzzle. Sophie took him straight into the bathroom, a tiny space with a mildew smell, a waterlogged bathmat, and a scattering of expensive creams around the rim of the sink. She ran the shower and the room filled with comforting steam; she undressed him and took off her own clothes.
The shower curtain billowed in on them, so she raked it open and let the whole room get wet. In a sudden, no-nonsense way, keeping her eyes off of his, she climbed onto his hips, wrapped her legs around him, and carefully guided him inside her. They’d done it before, but this felt different. Neat and practical. Like the solution to a problem. The shower drilled his back and he pressed her against the grouted tile, supporting her weight, palms on her ass, thumbs in her hipbones. Wondering: Should he have kept his news to himself?
In the doorway of her apartment, the hall light flickering behind him, he blurted, “I don’t want to go.”
Meaning home to Jacksonville, but she understood. She folded her arms across her chest, her T-shirt clinging to her, her hair still dripping. “So don’t. Why should you?”
So don’t. It was the certainty he needed. He felt a tightness in his sinuses and in his chest—like the air pressure had just dropped. He closed his eyes for a long moment and focused on the ache in his scalp where she’d buried her fists in his hair.
“Text me,” she said. “Soon.”
He nodded. Of course he would.
She looked around the bare vestibule, as if trying to find something to give him, then brightened with a thought. She slipped into the apartment and returned moments later with a pill bottle. She took his hand, raised it to her mouth, and kissed it, then poured a half-dozen Xanax into his palm.
He took one on his way home and barely made it to bed before everything went soft. He collapsed into dreams that were all childhood memories: fifth grade when his father (temporarily) quit drinking, got a new girlfriend, and started taking him on mandatory morning fitness walks, outpacing him on the sidewalks like it was some sort of competition. His father buying him a balsa-wood airplane for Christmas, when Henry had been hoping for a PlayStation, and then getting angry at him when he asked for help assembling it. His father teaching him to drink instant coffee and fold a couple of Kraft Singles into his mouth and call it breakfast. His father driving the Isuzu like a maniac up to Maine, three hours between bathroom breaks, their suitcases strapped in the truck bed. Piloting his father’s old wooden boat from one end of the lake to the other, looking for something to do.
At dawn Henry went for a run—down to Kent and under the bridge. The East River was a length of gem-flecked copper, but he barely looked at it. This wasn’t loss or sadness he felt so much as bewilderment, disruption, pure turbulence: What did it actually mean to lose a father you almost never spoke to? An absence carved out of an absence. The Xanax was still cycling around inside him, mixing him up. At twenty-six, his father had had a two-year-old son and a wife dying of cancer. What were Henry’s problems? Which falafel place to patronize? Whether to spring for cable?
Back from his run, he slept till noon and woke to find a where-are-you voicemail from the managing editor. He called, and she was so kind and soft-voiced and understanding that the five-minute conversation left Henry choked up. It wasn’t that he didn’t have feelings, it was that they had these adolescent comings and goings. All she’d given him was a couple of days off work—so why did it feel like a benediction? If you need more time, just let me know. He took another of Sophie’s Xanax and regained control of himself by staring out the window at the half-built condo across the street, stared at the strung work lights, the torn sheeting, the rebar capped in plastic.
That night Henry assembled his three roommates onto the sagging IKEA couch, told them his father was dead (“Dude, rough”), and let them take him to a nearby dive where the bartender put a “bereavement special” on the chalkboard—two-dollar Sauza shots—and cranked up Psychocandy. Sophie didn’t respond to his text so he went home with a twenty-two-year-old girl with a nose ring who said she remembered him from college, got it up by closing his eyes and pretending she was Sophie. “Bummer about your dad,” she said at 4 a.m. as he was pulling on his jeans to leave.
Was it? When he returned to work, editors stopped by his cubicle to put a hand on his shoulder and say hang in there. His roommates cleaned the apartment—a first—and laid a bottle of Jack Daniels, tied with a bow, on his pillow. Sophie finally texted him back, and when they met down by the East River in Williamsburg, she gave him a hug and a kiss, her mouth tasting like Altoids.
“It’s like there are no consequences suddenly,” he told her, trying to describe what the last few days had been like. He felt unobserved. A light tracking him had switched off.
“Were there ever?” she asked. “You said you never spoke to him.” They were sitting cross-legged on a concrete step, staring through a chainlink fence at the water. Her phone kept vibrating with text messages, but she didn’t check them.
“I always felt guilty.”
“Presto. Now you don’t.”
For Sophie, life was about the stringing together of incidental pleasures. A game of shuffleboard at the local dive, a bike ride through Queens, a French horror movie at midnight—and doing a little work here and there to make it all viable. Maybe existence could be that simple, Henry thought. He could make that unobserved feeling recede to a point where he would see it for what it was. He could refuse to feel bad about the choices he made.
On the other hand, she certainly took a lot of pills. Her underwear drawer held a little assembly of prescription bottles—and she seemed always to be pulling a small enamel-coated container out of her purse. She kept him in Xanax for free and he reliably took one or two of the little creased white ovals a week—usually at night, those evenings when he and Sophie made different plans. A dose made the apartment look less drab and the carpet less stained, quieted the questions he had about his future. (Why were there no fact-checkers older than thirty-five? Where did they all go?)
He and Sophie weren’t dating. It was sex and companionship and he knew it was provisional. Sophie told him she wasn’t the girlfriend type—which seemed to mean Henry shouldn’t ask her where she was when she dropped out of touch. “Here and there,” she said, the one time he did ask—after five days of no contact. Once he saw her at a hot, crowded rock show, and she didn’t acknowledge him. In a spirit of good, old-fashioned jealousy, he took the twenty-two-year-old home again—Zoe—and diligently brought her off twice with his mouth, her soft thighs locked around his ears. Afterward, she propped up on an elbow and said she was turning her Tumblr into a book.
“A photo diary,” Zoe said, fanning her flushed cheeks. “My day-to-day. You have nice feet.” She snapped a picture of them with her phone.
History said he wasn’t the boyfriend type either—he’d never lasted in a relationship longer than a couple of months—but his father’s death had snuffed out some precious agitating resentment, had killed some revved-up motor of What’s next-what’s next? He felt different. Grounded and vulnerable and sensitive in a way he’d never been before. Sophie was important to him because she had been there that first night, and because he got a contact high off of her certainty and good fortune.
No parents could be an emancipation, she told him. The end of one long, annoying, burdened chapter and the beginning of something else. That day they met up by the East River she said, “This summer is going to be the best of your life,” and the certainty in her voice got him moving, kissing her neck, avoiding the hickey there that he didn’t ask her about. Running his cold hand up under her paint-splattered sweatshirt, onto her braless breasts, making her gasp.
Sitting on the Penn Yan’s gunwale, judging the depth of the water he was about to wade through, Henry glanced at Sophie in the bow of the boat. Sure, she’d come to Maine, she’d said when he’d asked her—after about thirty minutes of calisthenic sex. And then Henry should absolutely, positively dump that fucking island. Just like his lawyer said. Live off the proceeds. “Free yourself of encumbrances. Go live in, like, Varanasi for a year.”
What encumbrances? Come with me, he wanted to say.
Henry switched on his flashlight and lit the lake water straight to the bottom. “I’ll get in and then you hand me—”
“Someone’s there,” Sophie said, delighted, rising up. “Holy shit.”
Henry swept the light at the trees—and that’s all he saw, branches, the fluttering dark spaces between. His beam found an old clock nailed to a trunk, a pair of overturned sawhorses, the grounded length of the dock.
“What did you see?” he whispered.
Sophie was rigid. “Could have been a—”
The crack of a branch, the dry rustle of breeze. They both listened, waiting.
Finally Henry said, “A what?”
“Oh wow,” Sophie said, standing, rocking the boat from side to side, sloshing the water in the hull. “Let’s go see.”
He swung his bare legs and feet over the Penn Yan’s gunwale and dropped into the cold water up to his thighs. He stumbled forward on the rocky bottom, holding onto the boat for support.
“Cold?” she asked.
“Get on my back,” he said, handing her the flashlight.
“You’re sure? I can totally wade in.”
She was light—bird-light—her feet trailed in the water, and her hair brushed against his wet face. He took careful steps to the shore, placing each foot and moving slowly across rocks and finding the sandy bottom. Any moment he could stumble and splash in. Her hands clutched his shoulders. She kissed his earlobe as he set her on the concrete pad.
“Just let me get the bags,” he said, taking the flashlight, and when he had them, he turned and called out, “Sophie?” And sloshed back, sweeping the light through the trees. He pulled dry sneakers on and set off, his legs dripping, stepping over fallen branches and crunching through dry sticks.
There she was: eyes big and bright. And there was the house: dark in every window, dead in every respect, except the front door—which was open.
The lock was broken; the knob hung loose. Sophie held onto the back of his shirt as they made their way in. They passed through the vestibule into the living room. Henry tracked his flashlight beam across the drop-cloth-covered sofa, a couple of aluminum-tube chairs with cane seating, a wood-burning stove, a small TV with a broken antenna, and a large picture window that looked out onto the lake. All three doors—to the bathroom, kitchen, and office—were closed, the latter secured with a sturdy padlock. The air was colder inside than outside and fragrant with woodsmoke. There was also a hint of mildew and a suggestion of something so familiar—sour sweat and bourbon—that Henry staggered a little with the memory of it. His dad had bathed only in the lake, and no more than twice a week; taking clothes to the Laundromat was a once-a-summer affair. Fish liked his smell, he claimed, swam right up to his hook.
He swept the beam across the bookcase—guidebooks, flora and fauna, John le Carré, Ernest Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford. The liquor- cabinet door was off its hinges and propped against the wall. An open deck of playing cards lay scattered on a table. Next to them: a rack of poker chips. A cereal bowl used as an ashtray. A pack of rolling paper. His dad didn’t smoke.
Outside he heard shifting undergrowth, the dry rustle of breeze through leaves. He shot the flashlight out the open door, but there was nothing to see except branches and the fluttering dark spaces between.
Sophie tried the light switch on the wall by the door.
“Generator’s out back, but let’s deal with that tomorrow.”
He nodded, leading her through the swinging door to the kitchen, wishing he had a bat or a knife, wishing he didn’t feel like such an intruder himself. A box of Triscuits was open on the kitchen counter, and a stained mug lay sideways in the sink. The faucet beaded and dripped into a rusted patch in the enameled basin. The refrigerator was unplugged and empty, the pantry shelves bare except for cans and Tupperware containers of dry goods like sugar and flour. Henry lifted the lid on the trash can and saw a dozen empty bottles of Budweiser inside.
Candles and safety matches were in the kitchen drawer. Upstairs he found an L.L. Bean sleeping bag neatly laid out in the master bedroom, his father’s flannel shirts hanging from hooks, some photographs of his mother tucked into the mirror frame. Another cereal-bowl ashtray. A paperback copy of The Silence of the Lambs, bookmarked with an Exxon receipt dated two weeks ago.
Back in the living room, Henry examined that padlock on the office door, and noticed that the latch and D-ring had been screwed directly into the oak door and frame—a crude installation, not his father’s work.
“Sort of considerate, whoever it is,” Sophie said, nudging a neat stack of wood logs laid next to the stove, beside them a few recent editions of the local newspaper. They stepped outside onto the porch. Henry switched off the flashlight and peered into the darkness, looking for movement, a burning cigarette end—anything.
“We didn’t see a boat,” he observed.
But you could swim across the channel from the nature preserve, or there was a shallow sandy beach on the island’s far end where you could pull in if you knew where a few big rocks were.
Sophie said they should fan out and explore. She shifted from foot to foot, gazing a little longingly into the woods. “Or whatever, stick together. Let’s just go see.”
Henry held her arm. He was wondering how many folks up here knew his father was dead. He was thinking of those beer bottles in the trashcan. And then he heard, close by, just offshore and reaching them through trees, the sound of an outboard motor, revving high, cutting a wake. The running lights of a Boston Whaler came into view, heading away, the pilot impossible to make out but the marina lettering on the side just legible in the gloom.
The house was his. It was a peculiar feeling and sudden in the way it came over him. The house and that Penn Yan were the only things he owned of any real value. Operating by candlelight, he folded the coverlet off of the bed in the second bedroom and threw down the sheet he found in a crate. He’d also found a pair of wool camp blankets and tossed those on, too. Downstairs Sophie was trying combinations on the padlock. Henry had said don’t bother. He’d break a window in the morning and climb in.
Whatever he found in that locked room would be his.
Sophie climbed the stairs with an inch-full bottle of Woodland Reserve from the back of the liquor cabinet. She was reading something on her phone.
“You get coverage?”
“Barely,” she said. “The guy from the marina wants to know if we’re okay and settled in.”
Henry kicked off his shoes. And reached for the bourbon. Careful, he thought, feeling the hot liquor race down his throat. He hadn’t had any food since lunch.
“What should I say?”
“Tell him I’m breaking a window.”
“I’m not writing that.”
He took hold of the hem of her shirt. “Come here.”
The bare rafters cast nervous, leaping shadows in the candlelight. He snagged her belt loop. She let herself be tugged closer as she texted, her thumbs moving swiftly across the screen, her face lit by its glow. He lifted her shirt and kissed her warm stomach. “What are you writing?”
“Invite him by,” she said. “Talk this out.”
He hid a grimace in her waistline, unsnapping her jeans. He ran his fingers up the pretty rhythm of her spine.
“Get him to pay you for whatever he’s using this place for.”
He pulled her panties down with his teeth. This was it for them—and it wouldn’t be his decision. He could already see himself playing it back in his head, wondering what he could have done to keep her.
“Don’t you think?”
“I want—” he said, that proprietary feeling spilling out of him. “I want—”
“Yeah,” she said, knowing exactly what he wanted. “Yes.”
He woke early and left Sophie huddled under the blankets. In the watery morning light he went downstairs and examined the padlock. He stepped outside and peered through the windows, trying to get a view through the threadbare curtains inside. It was a winterized extension his dad had built in the eighties, so the windows were large-paned and double-glazed. Not easy to break. He picked up a grapefruit-sized rock and held it in his palm, thinking, don’t be stupid.
How much smaller the house seemed than the night before. His dad had bought it for pennies when he was a draft-dodging Dartmouth hippie in the seventies. Henry inspected the loose-fitting windows, the cracked and peeling paint, the warped floorboards. He hooked open the door to the porch and let the fresh air in. He found a broom and swept out the dust. He thought of those senior editors at work—the women in their forties with their mortgages and their children smiling from silver frames, and their crazy burdened schedules, constantly running out of the office to make pediatrician appointments or school recitals, and never staying later than 5:30. He thought of the golf-club capitalist his father had become. He felt an emotion he struggled to put words to. Regret? Loss? Except what did he regret? And what had he lost?
The Penn Yan was glazed with morning dew and riding low in the channel where he’d anchored it. He stripped down to his boxers, waded out, and saw how much water it had shipped overnight. There was definitely a leak. He climbed in and started pumping. This took a good twenty minutes, the rising sun burning mist away, warming him. Once he had the hull dry, he hauled in the anchor and pulled the motor to a start. A belch of black smoke and fumes rose from the engine housing; leaked gasoline made rainbows in the lake. He puttered out of the channel and onto the open water.
Get his bearings was his idea. Do a loop around the island. Take a look at that beach on the far side. Pull his thoughts together and come back knowing what he wanted.
But once he had open water around him, once he felt the wind on his face, all he wanted was speed and distance. He wanted to do what his father had done, which was open up the throttle and get the old boat to plane, to skip across the surface of the water—a kind of flying, floating feeling.
A form of escape, he knew, of leaving behind. And he couldn’t have said where he was going—or how he would find his way back. Or how far the quarter tank of gas would take him. Buoys were scattered in his field of vision—a complex network of reds and blacks. He thought of the unseen rocks and shoals, gripped the throttle and felt the horsepower all the way up his arm. The trees and mountains catching rose-tinted sun, the Penn Yan cutting through tendrils of mist. A red-tipped buoy dead ahead. Keep the speed up, he thought. Sail over what’s beneath.
An hour later, Sophie came downstairs in her underpants and tank top and found the mechanic, Chris, out on the deck with donuts from Dunkin’ and a big box of coffee. Where was the boyfriend, he asked, and the first thing she told him, shielding her eyes and scratching her knee, was that it wasn’t like that.
Chris got the generator going for her, got the lights on, opened the office, and showed Sophie the bags of weed and bricks of cocaine stored there. A decent-sized operation. Him and his boss, Ben, at the marina. They drove the coke up to Canada, brought weed back. Chris’s job was to stash the inventory around the lake. He knew when owners were coming and going—which houses were empty and would likely stay that way for months or even years at a time. Henry wasn’t supposed to drive up from Brooklyn out of the blue like that, but Chris hadn’t panicked. These people are cool, he’d told himself. Just buzz out to the island and get everything locked down before that old Penn Yan could get them here. Work it out with them in the morning. Sophie nodded deeply at this, liking his arms, his scruff, his Iron Maiden T-shirt. Not her type, really, but maybe she’d had her fill of her type.
Had he been sleeping here? she asked. Yeah, he said, rubbing his chin. He and the girlfriend weren’t really seeing eye to eye just this moment. Needed a little space.
She nodded that she understood and told him about the bit of dealing she did and asked about pills, and he said he could get Oxy. All cordial and agreeable. A business meeting. Could they work something out, she asked. Some percentage of sales for use of the house. And Henry could come visit whenever he wanted. Speaking for him as if she really was his girlfriend, which she reiterated she was not. Liking Chris’s smell—some cheap soap, like Dial or Irish Spring. Liking the way he got in her space a little. He said he had a cooler of Bud in the boat—did she want one?
Another hour passed. Sophie stood on the deck, surveying the lake, lightly worried, thinking of how hard and desperately Henry had fucked her last night. Thinking, he’d be grateful for the deal she’d gotten him. It would make things easier, later.
Jet skiers crisscrossed the bay. That was a leaky old boat, and she remembered the buoys, and the way it had stalled. A burr of concern passed through her—but she’d taken one of her pills and the beer was ice cold and the sun was high and warm. Chris was calling her name. She was feeling good. Glad, finally, she’d come.