She slid the stiff drawing in front of me until it caught under my hand. It was the size of the front page of a newspaper, and I recognized the woman at once. It was Abigail’s sister, two years younger and, as Abby always said, twice as beautiful.
“It’s Charlotte.” I cringed at Abby being in the studio. “Is this from the trip, from her place?”
“I know it’s Charlotte, of course it’s Charlotte, anyone can see it’s Charlotte.” Abigail crossed her arms. “When did you draw it?”
“I didn’t,” I said. “Come on, honey, she just died. Tell me how the trip was. Did you, uh, see her?”
“This is your drawing.”
“No, it’s not.” This was exasperating. “Where did you get it anyway?”
“It was in her things. On the Cape.” Abigail started pacing, short back and forths. Her hand gripped the hair at the front of her head. This was always a danger signal. If she started hitting her forehead with her palm, we were really in trouble.
“Abby, Charlotte never sat for me. She would have had to sit for this. Look at it.” I turned the drawing so that it was facing Abby on the studio table. I moved a coffee can of brushes and my boxes of pastels, scraping them across the large white surface. I lifted the drawing and swept away bits of nothing from underneath it so that it would remain a pristine piece of evidence.
The woman in the drawing was naked. She lounged on an outdoor sofa, her head slightly turned away. Her eyes looked at the artist. One finger was playing with her hair, the other hand indelibly draped towards her sex; her left knee was up and her right foot was planted on the deck. There was momentum, an incipient kinetic fire in her musculature which belied the relaxed pose and the dappled light coming through the vegetation lifting behind her. Her breasts inclined with her leaning, and her face suggested she might just get up and walk towards you.
“There,” said Abigail, pointing with her free hand, stopping pacing, still clasping her hair, tears starting in her eyes.
“Those three moles.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Right there. On her breast!” Abigail was practically shrieking.
I put down my coffee cup. Three small dots. A perfect equilateral triangle.
“No one would know about those unless they saw. Unless they were drawing her naked.” She was beginning to sound like a lawyer trapping a witness.
“So whoever drew this was drawing from life, sure. But it wasn’t me.” I tried to wash the defensiveness out of my voice. “How did you know about the moles?”
“She asked me if I thought she had skin cancer when we were teenagers. She showed me.”
“Well, I’m sorry. Someone did a very good facsimile of a drawing by me, but—”
“And she showed you, because you signed it!” Triumph as she extended her finger down at the offending signature in the bottom right corner. “And dated it! June, ’93. That’s fifteen years ago, when I was in Germany on that grant, and you said you needed to prepare for your show in the fall. I remember, I couldn’t be there for her thirtieth birthday and you said you’d go for me.”
I turned the paper back around to study the signature, the drawing. It looked so much like me.
“Honey, this isn’t me. This is someone trying to make it mine. You know how crazy it got after the Guggenheim. And that was right before this. Maybe they thought they could get some money for it, so they tried to sign my name. But look, it says ‘M. Driscol.’ I have never signed a painting or a drawing with ‘Mark’ or ‘M.’ I just don’t ever use it. You know that.”
“But it looks just like you.”
“I know,” I said, lifting the paper to look at it better. “They did a pretty good job. But look,” I pointed at the brightening on Charlotte’s knee. “They used a pink eraser on the charcoal. I never have.”
Abigail took the drawing out of my hands so she could see it. Tears were streaming down her face. “She just looks so alive.”
A teardrop plopped onto the charcoaled surface.
“Careful,” I said, guiding the drawing back down onto the table. I got a tissue to soak away the tear.
Abigail looked at me, pleading, “Why would anyone do that? Why would anyone try to forge a drawing by you?”
“I don’t know. Money, I suppose.” I was at a loss for answers.
“It had to have been someone she knew. It had to have been a lover.”
“We don’t know that.”
“We don’t know anything.” Abigail started to sob outright, shaking and ugly, her hands unable to even reach up to cover her face.
I went around the table and pulled her to me. I felt her hot exhalations on my chest, and she suddenly flung her arms around my back, squeezing hard as though to keep herself from falling, or to hurt me.
“Why didn’t she leave a note? Why didn’t I fucking see what was going on?”
“Neither of us saw. Neither of us knew.”
I held her for a while, both of us looking down at Charlotte, whose expression now seemed almost mischievous, her sexuality pulsing off the paper.
“I can’t believe this isn’t you,” Abigail said.
She had the drawing framed. She hung it in the bathroom, the one on the first floor, so that guests could stare at it as they were sitting. From that vantage, Charlotte seemed arrogant in her nakedness, seemed to be looking down not only on the viewer, but the world. Like a goddess. She was naked not in an innocent way, the way Eve might have been in front of Adam where she didn’t know how beautiful and full of purpose and fruit she was. Charlotte’s nakedness was a kind of dare—daring you to look at her, while at the same time giving you permission. So you did. You let your eyes slowly and in great detail wander over every patch of skin, every strand of hair, every slight blemish or shadow caused by a meeting of flesh or a swelling from underneath the surface.
I didn’t use that bathroom.
I tried to get Abigail to move it. If she insisted on having it up, she could put it someplace more discrete. But she said no. That was where she wanted the drawing to hang. Until it disappeared.
I noticed it was gone purely by chance about a month after she put it up, passing by the open bathroom and glancing at the wall. In the drawing’s place was one of my small abstracts, an angry little number of mostly cerulean and ash grays with slashes of a burnt orange. Abby must have gotten it out of storage.
She got back from her two days of teaching in Boston late that afternoon. She’d said leaving me alone was a risk we’d just have to take, or we could get the high school kid down the way. I refused a sitter. As I shook our martinis, I asked casually, “So where did you put the forgery?”
Abigail got the glasses out of the freezer. “What do you mean? It’s going to stay in the bathroom. I like it there.”
“No, but you moved it.” I tried out a laugh. “And you put up that old abstract—what did I call it? ‘Seething,’ I think.”
“What are you talking about?” She took up her drink without spilling it and slurped.
“The forgery. You moved it from the bathroom. I just wanted to know where it is now.”
Abigail lowered her glass and deepened her voice. “What did you do?”
Abigail vaulted herself towards the bathroom and I heard the door smash open against the wall. When she came back in the kitchen, she was a different person, as though a demon had taken up residence in her body. It had been locked up somewhere a very long time.
“What the fuck did you do?”
She was scary. Her face twisted just enough, seen through old, warped glass, the beginning of a paroxysm of jealous rage. One hand tugging her forelock, the other, brandishing a martini. She would be terrific on canvas.
“She was my sister, for Christ’s sake! Give me back my sister!”
“I didn’t take her.”
She screamed at me, long, like a cornered animal, and then she collapsed into a chair at the breakfast table. She still had her martini in her hand, which she stared at and then gulped.
“Who’s been in the house?” I asked as gently as I could.
She leaned back, a fighter taking a breather in her corner of the ring, and glared at me. “I don’t believe anything you say anymore.”
“She was my best friend. And you destroyed that. That fucking girl…” she trailed off.
“Shut up.” She turned her back on me. We stayed arrested like that until I decided to pour more gin into the shaker.
“The last one,” warned Abigail over her shoulder, “wasn’t dirty enough.”
I made it precisely the way she liked it. We sipped, beginners again, nervous about first steps.
“She once told me she would kill herself.” Abby’s nose was in the glass.
I was shocked. “When?”
“When we were in college, or maybe just after she’d dropped out. Before she disappeared those two years.”
She told me about them being in Wellfleet getting clams. Low tide, watching for those squirts out of the muddy sand, then diving down with a shovel and turning everything over and raking through, chasing these things in shells that could move faster than thought when you weren’t looking, but were like dead things, like rocks, when you were. It was early, dawn, almost cold, completely peaceful with those seagull sounds in the distance, sun orange and barely up. Charlotte stared into the sun like she wanted it to hurt her, her eyes open wide and easy.
“And she said—I remember it so clearly—she said, ‘I’m happy, Abby. This exact minute. Doing this with you. The next time I feel this, I’m going to end it, because I don’t want to end with any other feeling. I’ll kill myself then, and it will be good.’”
“She was being hyperbolic. She was young.”
Abigail tossed down her drink like it was last call at a bar. She looked at me and growled, “When did she stop being my friend? When you started sleeping with her? Is that why she disappeared?”
“I told you, I did not—”
The martini glass she threw shattered on the cupboard behind me. When I turned back, she was gone. I called after her, “Where is the drawing? What did you do with it?”
That was Thursday. We barely talked the rest of the week. I stayed out in my studio, even sleeping on the sofa there. I felt like a thief when I came into the kitchen for food, especially when she wasn’t there. When she was there, she wouldn’t acknowledge that I’d come in, but just stand and leave, food halfway to her mouth. I took my meals back to the studio where they got cold and gluey. The path between the studio and the backdoor became my meditation, that little three-minute walk—my portal from one world to another, more real than both the worlds that awaited me on either end.
We hadn’t kept up the lawn in years. The grasses between the trees had gone wild, and the path up the hill away from the bay was worn like deer had plied it for ages. And perhaps they had. Deer showed up regularly, and leapt the fence into the garden in summer. We could never make it high enough. We gave up on feeding ourselves from the earth, but then the growing season of Maine is so short and neither of us had the interest, only the image of ourselves as those kinds of people.
I loved the little walk to the studio, away from the sight of the rocks down at the salt water, and up into the shade of the pines. I could always still hear the seagulls, but muffled like memory. I could see each knob of root, where each part of the path had worn through all vegetation, scooping out a runnel heading into the forest. I could feel the comforting little turn near the end, where the studio—bright white under the trees—nestled ready to receive me, embrace me in a timeless pod. The dirt road leading out to our driveway had a center stripe of green, where trucks could come and take what was birthed in the studio. Sometimes I could see people walking along the highway at the end of the drive, because in rural Maine there are oddly few places to walk unless you’re in parks. But one of the drawbacks of the studio was its proximity to the road. When Abby went to the Cape at Charlotte’s death and left me alone, there was a young woman walking there. She saw me and waved. I could have sworn I’d seen her before, but it was tourist season. I didn’t wave back. I hate tourists assuming familiarity.
Every time I opened the door to the studio, I felt like a fraud. From the moment I designed it, through each private or public showing, each success and failure, in winter when I had to chip away ice to open it, or in summer when I hung a screen to keep out the black flies—every time it felt I was getting away with something, people were swallowing my failings. Whatever truth I ever saw on the path became something else in the studio, distorted, a torn apart and reconstituted version of something I once knew. Once, in her best art critic voice, Abigail said I was as angry as de Kooning. At the time, I considered it a compliment. The more I studied de Kooning’s women, the more I suspected what she meant. And de Kooning lost his memory in the end. I’ve always wondered what he thought he was doing those last few years as Alzheimer’s ate into his brain, but he kept on putting paint to canvas.
Abby hadn’t been out to the studio since Charlotte died. We had heard the news about her death on the hottest day of the summer, one hundred degrees exactly. It was the police calling from Sandwich, Massachusetts. Bullet in the brain. They suspected suicide, of course. Abby had wanted to drive down to the Cape that instant but we decided to wait a day, calm ourselves. She had gotten in a bathtub full of cold water and sobbed, waving me and my proffered drink away. I hadn’t known what to do. Charlotte was dead. A hole formed in my chest a thousand times deeper than the distance from sternum to spine, with a bottom I couldn’t and didn’t want to find.
I had gone to the studio and stretched a large canvas. There was some trouble with the staple gun, and when I laid the whole thing on the floor, I imprinted a pimple from an unseen stone. My assistant always did this; I was out of practice. I hardly waited for the gesso to dry before I started with a huge blue oval, Charlotte’s face. That face, with its unspoken, unspilled secrets, graceful and mocking and smug and generous all at the same time. I kept searching for something I would never see again. What was that thing? Within an hour, applying color after color with a house painting brush, it seemed like maybe she was close to the surface, maybe her essence would break through the haze. Maybe my sight wasn’t gone.
I stumbled against the easel and it toppled. Her glistening wet-paint face stared up at me from the floor, five times life-sized, five times yearned for, five times gone. I wanted to kill her for dying like that, for putting a gun to her head without so much as a whisper. I stomped again and again and again on the painting, slipping in the pinguid acrylic and falling and hitting it with my fist, then grabbing my largest pallet knife to scrap her off the canvas, but she wouldn’t come off, not completely, and I slid open a gray utility knife to slash through the thing until the blade finally broke on the floor.
I think I almost fell asleep in the goo of the paint. My body was stiff and everything smelled of that indifferent chemical smell of plastic colors. I went outside and took off my clothes, leaving them on the ground, and hosed myself off, all the pigment soaking into the ground. Abby was watching me from a little clearing on the path, her hand reaching up to clutch her hair. I went to her and we fucked in the heat of the sun.
I didn’t go to the Cape. Abby went alone.
“So are we going to talk about what you did with the drawing?” Abigail accosted me that Monday after a weekend of silence.
I sat at the breakfast table as casually as I could. “I’d rather talk about why you think I slept with your sister.”
“It’s really simple.” She jumped to sit on the kitchen counter. This was the girl I had fallen in love with so long ago, the one grasping an idea and kneading it until it made sense, her bright dark eyes shining deeper and deeper—not the best of my students, but the most compelling. “Either you did the drawing or you didn’t. Either you were fucking my sister or you weren’t. Either you’re lying or you’re not. Let’s start with the drawing, which conveniently is missing.”
“You know what kind of relationship I had with Charlotte. She tolerated me. She thought I was a sell-out.”
“If you didn’t draw it, someone went to a tremendous amount of trouble to exactly copy your style of drawing and sign your name. Why would anyone do that? Why would anyone who knew Charlotte do that?”
“But they were sloppy, I told you. I don’t ever sign my name like that. Or do that kind of background, or that kind of shading. I don’t even use that kind of paper.”
“You know an awful lot about forgery.”
“I know what’s real and what’s not.” We could make this about demonstrable facts and then move on. It was closing in on a decade and a half since that drawing had been made, and I was tired. It felt like Charlotte hadn’t died two months ago, but still hovered between us, threatening and gleeful.
“Your ex called me,” Abby said, almost yawning. “Speaking of what’s real or not.”
“Why would Cathy call you?”
“Condolences. Kind of sweet, actually.”
“How is she?” To me Cathy seemed like a person I’d met in a foreign land, whose language I no longer spoke.
“Full of information.” Abigail was being flirtatiously and annoyingly mysterious.
“Do I want to know?”
“You will,” she said jumping off the kitchen counter and taking a beer out of the fridge. “You will.”
“Seething” disappeared from the bathroom. It was replaced by a watercolor I had done late in high school from inside my childhood Chicago home, looking across my room, out the window, and through the window of the adjacent building to some man sitting and watching something, perhaps a TV. I remember the art teacher had brought up the word “liminal” and I thought all art should be that. How I still had that painting was beyond me. It had to have been in storage in Boston, stuff I left after my marriage to Cathy came apart. I stored so many things there, and over the past sixteen or seventeen years often wondered where I had misplaced one thing or another. They were all probably in that Castle Self-Storage. I kept on meaning to empty it, but I also kept on paying for it year after year.
The next day, as though it were normal, Abigail asked, “Where did the painting come from?” during a commercial on TV as we ate dinner.
“I don’t know,” I said. “You’re the one playing tricks on me.”
She got up and retrieved the “liminal” painting from the bathroom, putting it down on the coffee table, pushing aside my plate.
“I kind of like it.” She was being coy. For some reason her chocolate hair made me yearn for her.
“Could you please get out of my way?” I said. “I’m trying to watch the news.”
She turned off the TV.
“You were, what, seventeen when you painted this? From the date, anyway. So professional for a high schooler. And look at you! Signing your whole name. Mark Driscol, with such a watercolor flourish. Quite the prodigy. I like it, looking through all those windows, all those worlds. It’s really good—good technique, too.”
“I hardly remember it. Just some teacher I had.” I couldn’t take my eyes off the signature.
She picked up the painting and bounced with it into the kitchen, laying it on the island. She poured herself another glass of wine and announced in that cheerful, youthful voice, “I’m going away for a while. I was going away before Charlotte and everything, but now I’m going away for a while. Next Sunday.”
“You can’t do that without telling me. Last time we were lucky they found me wandering the rocks.”
She flipped on the TV again loud. I looked up to ask her where the hell she was going, but she was already gone.
I woke up the next morning making love to Charlotte. She could do that to people. I was alone in the bed, hanging on the precipice of her body, her arms around my neck, her eyes without judgment. Abigail didn’t respond to my calling out to her.
Enough of this, I thought. After coffee and a shower, I’ll find it. I couldn’t have the world disappearing. The drawing had to be in the house somewhere. The house wasn’t that large. I’d bought it from a professor and his wife at Tufts. They’d used it for thirty years as a summering place, bringing their children and grandchildren who would run over the rocks down at the water, finding treasures and bringing them back to form collections of flotsam that were forgotten and never removed, even after they sold the house. I used it all to make a very whimsical piece called “Memory.” Part lost sandals, part weathered glass bottles, part various colors of salt-bleached rope all coming out of a ruined chest that had a faded date from decades ago stamped on it. A collector bought it.
The disadvantage of an old house is the number of cubbies and closets and closets within closets where you can hide things. There was even an attic, accessed through a folding spring stair in the ceiling of the second floor hallway. But I started in the kitchen-living room. There wasn’t any of my work on the walls; we had decided when we moved in we would only hang the art of friends. There was a large oil that had a slight air of ’70s California, with its yellows and pale blues and a nearly pink sky of a neighborhood with a single kid playing on the street. Melancholy. Done by someone I went to grad school with who now taught at Parsons. I looked behind it.
I looked behind everything, under all the furniture, the wine storage in the pantry, the tray rack in the kitchen, on top of the cabinets where dust blackened my hand and fell down onto the counter in feathery motes. All sorts of stuff I didn’t know we had, but wish I’d known because I might have used it. A jar of marmite. A bottle of crème de menthe, shockingly green. A pink plastic basin I could use for soaking feet, full of t-shirts as rags. A tennis ball; nobody played tennis. A Buddha I think Abby brought back from India.
She wasn’t in the hall closets, the bathroom closet, the spare bedroom, even under the mattress or in the bottom drawer of the dresser where tablecloths were kept. I went into our bedroom.
Abby was there, kneeling on the floor sobbing, hitting the side of her head with her fist. A furious grunt through bared teeth accompanied each hard punch. It was like she would never stop.
“Abby, why didn’t you—?”
Her back was to me, and I went over to her and held her from behind, firmly so her arms couldn’t swing out. She writhed like a snake, screaming at me to let her go, let her go. But I held her. She was a tiny thing compared to me. It wasn’t hard that way. Finally and suddenly her body let loose. I let her go. She sat on the floor, not looking at me.
“This is taking longer than I thought,” she said quietly.
“It’s only been two months,” I said, but she shook her head.
“My ride is here,” she said. “I’m going.”
She blew her nose in her shirt and then whipped her shirt over her head, letting it fly over onto the bed. Her bra strap fell off her shoulder and she thumbed it back up. She got up, yanked a shirt out of a drawer and pulled it over her head, her hair staying inside the neck. She grabbed a small bag I hadn’t seen, tucked next to the wall, behind the laundry. She went for the door, faster than me, younger, angry. By the time I caught up, an old green Subaru was backing out of the driveway. Abby dead-eyed me from the passenger seat. The car turned around. The woman driving looked at me, a slight smile, like a lie. Spooky as hell, because for a second I thought she looked like Charlotte, but I didn’t get a really good look. Dirt sprayed out from under the tires as she went up the drive too fast. The tire marks were deep, pale arrows, pointing away from me.
I looked for the drawing into the evening until I ran out of places to look. Charlotte was nowhere to be found. Someone knocked on the door.
No one ever knocked on doors here, unless it was some neighbor notifying you of a missing dog or asking for a jump for their car. When I opened the door, there was a young woman. I thought she was the tourist woman I’d seen out on the highway who’d waved a couple months ago, eons ago, like in another life. I was probably wrong; the light was fading. But she couldn’t have been more than twenty-seven or twenty-eight. She wasn’t a student; I was pretty good with faces that way. Then for a second I was sure she was Abby’s driver, but the hair was different.
“Oh!” she was startled. “I, maybe I have the wrong house.”
“Who are you looking for?”
I realized suddenly she looked like a cross between Abby and Charlotte, like one of those computerized combinations that have a second-glance distortion to them.
“Does Abigail Driscol live here?” She seemed ready to flee.
“Yes.” What would Abby have to do with this girl? “Why are you looking for her?”
“I’ll come back.” The girl turned abruptly.
“Wait,” I said, stopping her. “Wait. You want to come inside to wait for her?”
The girl looked at me with her finger tapping her lip in thought. “Do you know where she is?”
“No, but I can’t imagine she’ll be long.”
“Hmm.” And she just walked away up the drive.
I wanted to call after her, but didn’t.
Abigail didn’t come home that night. I had fantasies of her having a lesbian affair with that girl, sleeping with one of her students the way I had with her, tired of me and my affairs. I would be, too. In fact, I was.
She arrived in the morning, toting pastries from Mt. Desert as though nothing had happened.
“Where were you?”
She laid out the pastries on a plate. “I wanted to see the sun rise.”
“How was it?”
I told her about the girl. She said it was probably one of her students, up from Boston after the summer session, hiking around Maine, looking her up for Brownie points. That seemed reasonable.
On my way out to the studio I passed the bathroom. Another painting was up, this one a portrait I did of Cathy when she was pregnant with donated sperm, before the miscarriage. Why was Abigail torturing me? Maybe she suddenly blamed me for us not having children. I thought we’d been through all that.
I actually thought it was one of the best portraits I ever did of my ex-wife. Even abstracted, you could instantly tell it was Cathy as she turned away from the viewer, her face in shadow, looking at a spot of searing sunlight in the room behind her. But that one was in storage, too. Did Abigail ransack the storage container in Boston? How did she get in? It was a game that left me on edge.
I had finished a big show about six months ago, so going to the studio now felt a bit hollow. I still had a couple of paintings of the characters of The Odyssey that hadn’t made it into the show. Other old projects called out from a distance, their voices low and purling, notes and sketches and diagrams and photos pinned or taped or filed or flat somewhere, little prisoners of creation thwarted. My mind must have wandered for over an hour. I noticed a small sock—a woman’s sock, light grey—camouflaged on the rug in front of the easel. It looked like a used condom on the sidewalk; you can’t really imagine where it came from, even though it’s obvious. Someone had been here. Someone had taken off their socks and sat in my armchair, making themselves comfortable. Probably looking around. Probably planning something. But then I realized this must have been where Abigail spent the night. This game had to stop, and she had to tell me why it had started.
It’s a relief to have the energy of decisive confrontation. I strode into the living room with a loud voice ready to come out.
There, sitting on the sofa with the drawing of Charlotte leaning on its own cushion, was the young door knocker. In this light, she took my breath away. She really was that combination of Charlotte and Abby, made even more evident by the drawing. Her hair was a dark blond, but it could have been dye. They didn’t have any siblings, so this couldn’t be a niece. She was almost Cheshire-cat like, her ankles tucked under her, her dark eyes open to interpretation. That mouth. The eyes. A mirror.
“Hi,” she said. “Abby let me in.”
“Where is Abby?” I put the kitchen island between her and me.
“She went into town.”
“And left you here?”
“She thought it would be better that way.” She brought her feet to the floor.
“Do I need a drink for this?” I meant it as a midday joke.
“One for me, too.”
I got out two beers and slid one across the island, making her rise to take it. She twisted off the top and drank. I did, too.
“Who are you?” I finally asked.
“Your daughter.” She smiled at that.
“Impossible. I don’t have the sperm.”
“You did once.” She was matter-of-fact.
“But it didn’t take. And never since. With anyone. Not even Abby. Not even really trying.”
“It did with Charlotte.”
The jolt of adrenaline nearly took away my vision with blackness invading from the sides and the top of my head felt like it had been hit inside with a ball peen hammer. I laughed.
“You’re a fraud. All this fakery. Pretending about Abby, driving Abby. Who are you to Abby?” I started towards her and bumped the bottle of beer over with my elbow. It was like the needle had come off the record; I just watched the foamy amber fluid flow off the countertop.
“Want me to get that?” She really seemed poised to help.
I finally looked her in the eye, and could see she had something of me there, but in the joking way my ex Cathy had said that in Abby I had found my younger sister. But then she was Charlotte. Weird. And scary. It was like I was making her up.
“Bullshit, you are so full of bullshit,” I said. “This is really cruel of you, whoever you are. You see a picture of someone who commits suicide and since you look like her, you figure, why the hell not? He’s famous, he’ll have money, I’ll come up with a story even he won’t deny. And you hoodwinked poor Abigail. That’s really low, you fucking fake.”
“Mr. Driscol. Mark—” She moved to come around the island.
“Get the hell out before I call the police,” I said to the woman. “Here.” I threw the grey sock at her. “This has got to be yours.”
The young woman caught the sock. She laid it on the counter. She said, “You are exactly as I imagined you’d be.”
I went down to the shore to get away, hoping she would just leave. The tide was out so walking was slippery but possible around the biggest cliff-like rocks. The seaweed was thick here. It squeaked and squirted and popped as I walked over it. The rich iodine smell—just this side of rot—rode on little waves of air cooled by the water. Puffs of tiny flies disturbed themselves off the weeds. The sound was calm. I could see no boats.
Up ahead, where the rocks became rough beach, there were some kids. The oldest, a boy maybe eleven or twelve and clearly in charge, was poking something with the remains of a small sapling, looking like a punter on the Thames. A girl squatted next to what he was poking, examining it closely. A little boy was twenty feet from them and screaming, “Get away from it! Get away from it!”
It was a seal, swollen with death. I hadn’t been able to smell it because the lightest of breezes was behind me. It was a sudden relief to come upon this scene, out of the fiction that had been created for me.
“What you got there?” I said to the two older kids.
“No!” moaned the little boy, begging them to come away with him.
“It’s a seal,” said the older boy.
The girl turned to squint up at me. “It’s dead.”
“Yep,” I said. “Pretty dead.”
“I want to skin it,” said the girl, turning back to contemplate the task in front of her.
“Big job,” I said.
“I got all summer,” she said, giving the corpse a nudge with a rock.
“Come on, let’s go,” said the older boy. “Billy’s going crazy.” He launched his sapling like a spear towards the water.
The girl said nothing, but stood, looking back at the seal as she walked away. Before she turned, she waved a small wave.
The whole encounter made me unaccountably sad, and I could barely contain tears. I had to get away, further. The stench was beginning to gag me, so I clambered around the dead seal, having to use my hands over some rocks until I got to pebbles and sand. I would walk until the public put-in about half a mile up, then come back to the road. I didn’t want to break my neck on seaweed.
The imposter was in my studio when I got back. She was sitting in my chair with her fists on her chin, staring at one of the Odyssey paintings that she’d put up on the easel. It was large; I was surprised she’d been able to get it and put it there by herself.
“What the fuck,” I said. I heeled off my shoes that were wet with salt water.
“Who was Nausicaa?” She was cool as a cucumber.
“Would you please get out.” I thought I controlled myself well.
“Was she the girl in The Odyssey who got a crush on him, the older man, and saved his life?”
I wanted to think she was mocking me, but her question seemed like it came out of Charlotte’s mouth.
“What do you want?”
“It’s really beautiful.” She hadn’t stopped looking at the painting. “Why didn’t you put it in the show? Isn’t she one of the characters?”
“There wasn’t room.”
Shit. I’d engaged her. This was going to make her real.
“Where’s Abby?” I said.
“She said I should come up here and tell you about myself.”
“To Maine? You knew each other before—?”
“No! No. Up here to the studio.”
I stood there looming, waiting. She didn’t move.
“Would you please get out of my chair?”
She chuckled and got up, in two strides coming to a model’s stool and perching on that.
“So,” I said as flatly as I could, “tell me about yourself.”
The heels of her hands were on the edge of the stool between her legs, her knees akimbo, her face tilted up towards the windows at the top of the wall. She narrowed her eyes and straightened her back just a bit, readying.
“I had to find out who my birth parents were.”
“Couldn’t be me,” I growled.
“OK. Just wait.” She sighed. “My mother—my adoptive mother—died two years ago. She had breast cancer, the kind that’s genetic and pretty much guaranteed fifty-fifty if you’ve got the gene. And she had it. It’s not a pretty way to go, you know. No, you probably don’t know.” She looked down as though she were crying. Excellent playacting. “It took her six years to die, and I can’t say they were worth it. My brother disappeared in California and my dad divorced her. She was a good woman, but kind of an idiot, truth be told.
“When she died, I became kind of obsessed with my birth mother. I’d never really wanted to find her before because, well, I was too busy, you know, taking care of my mother, school, all that. But I found the papers and went to the agency and found her. And found my birth certificate. Here. See what it says. There, under ‘Father.’”
It was a half-sized sheet of paper with a raised seal in the middle. Indeed, underneath “Baby Girl Walden” was “Mother: Charlotte Walden” and “Father: Mark Driscol.” I was shaking. There was thunder in my ears. I handed it back to her.
“Hm.” She pocketed the birth certificate. She stretched a bit before she talked again. Her voice was sharper. “I had this huge romantic scenario that I’d come up and knock on her door and she’d open it and recognize me immediately, you know? She’d see who I was and pull me into her arms.” The girl laughed and wiped her eyes. “But when I found her place in Sandwich—” she stopped and looked at me, “Who names a town Sandwich?” and cracked up. She looked around and found a roll of paper towel, ripping off a couple and blowing her nose. She sunk the wadded up towel in the trash.
“When I found her place, there were two police cars out front with their lights going and an ambulance pulling up and everything. I don’t know who found her—”
“Joy,” I said. “Her friend Joy. She hadn’t come to school.”
“Oh, no. That’s too good to be true. Joy?”
“It’s true. Joy.”
The girl shook her head. “See? I had to think something was going on in the universe.”
“The universe doesn’t give a shit.”
“Just shut up for a minute, OK? You like to have the last word, I can tell, but just hear me out, OK?”
I gestured, noblesse oblige.
“I broke into her place that night. I looked everywhere for some trace of me, something that would tell me she remembered that she even had a daughter. But there was nothing. Hardly anything from her past at all, almost like she would brush everything away year after year so nothing could catch up to her. The oldest things I found were that nude drawing of her that Abby got, and a ribbon for first prize in a poetry contest in 1979, like fifth or sixth grade. I knew she was the right person when I saw the drawing, and saw your signature. I mean, it was like looking into a weirdly sexy mirror.”
“Why didn’t you take it?”
“It wasn’t me. I was looking for me.”
I felt like I was having a heart attack, but I thought I should do it quietly. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. They hurt, pushing themselves out of my head. I felt water leaking, tickling my ears with wet, and was so ashamed I could barely breathe.
“So then I became obsessed with you. And that was easy because you can’t keep your mouth shut. I found Cathy in a day, and she didn’t take any convincing at all. She gave me the key to your storage place in Boston—you have so much junk!—and there you were, your life in a little six-by-eight container.”
“Why are you torturing me? Who the hell are you?”
“I don’t know exactly why I came here, now that I’m sitting here talking to you.” She was so beautiful and composed on the stool. She said, “I think maybe it was something my mother said before she died.”
“Oh, god. How stupid.”
“Yeah, she was, but for some reason what she said made sense to me. She said, ‘The only way you can know if a thing is real is to love it completely.’ I guess if you can’t love it, it can’t be real. So I wanted to see if I could love you.”
“Why the torture?” I tried to look at her but it was all blurry.
“To see if you can take it.”
I must have passed out. She was gone and the evening had gone gray. I went down to the house, and the lights were blazing. Abby was in the bedroom, packing two suitcases.
“There you are. You’ll have to fend for yourself. I’m going down to Boston, those faculty meetings, beginning of semester, you know the drill. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to come back up.”
“You’re leaving me alone?”
“If you get scared, call a babysitter.”
“Who was that girl?”
“The one claiming to be Charlotte’s daughter.”
Abigail stopped her packing to look at me, as though asking if I was serious. She laughed out loud, in my face.
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about sometimes. Too many women has addled your brain.”
“She was here. She had proof.”
Abby struggled with the bags out of the room and out to the front door.
“Proof of what?”
“That she was my daughter.”
Abby was framed in the doorway, looking at me, smile frozen. She let out the oddest squeak, a pre-scream, and swallowed it.
“Are you doing this on purpose?” I asked. “I can’t be alone, you know that.” My head felt light.
She gathered herself. “You have driven me crazy for the last time, Mark.”
She slapped away my offer to help with the bags and put them in the trunk herself. Then she went back inside and started turning off lights everywhere.
“Oh,” she said as she finished. “I see you found the drawing. I put it back up in the bathroom. Leave it there.” She came up to me, planted a hard kiss on my mouth, and left with a chuckle. Just like that.
The house was hollow, as though everyone had moved out and the realtor hadn’t staged the place yet. I knew I had something I had to do but I couldn’t think what it was. I took the drawing off the bathroom wall and went outside. Holding it like a book under my arm, I stumbled through the evening down to the shore and found my usual perch on my usual sunrise rock. A few birds made snuggling sounds, and tiny wavelets curled against the earth. I gazed at the drawing in the fading light. It was so beautiful. It made me feel full of possibility. Perhaps she wasn’t dead. Or maybe it was me who was going crazy. I leaned my forehead against the cool glass of the drawing, feeling the grayness darken over the sea.