Fiction - Dropping Balm, Summer 2001

The Red Cottage
a short story by Dan Pope
 

It is a clear night, a full moon. The beach is deserted. Most of the cottages are unlit, quiet.

You follow the sidewalk around the bend abutting the old ramshackle hotel. It’s like opening the door to a grandmother’s bedroom: everything is just as she left it, a comb on the night table, dried flowers in a jar.

Her cottage was the red one, across the beach road. The paint has weathered and flaked, the grass is overgrown. Someone has parked a boat on the lawn. The door to the shed behind the house is unhinged. By moonlight you can see a torn beach chair resting against the wall.

Faint voices come from a second story window, then disappear with the wind, the sound of your footsteps. Will you meet me by the sea wall at the end of the day? Will you walk with me to the port to buy things?

A dream. That’s all. A shade, a hue of eventide.
 

Dawn brings gulls, the far-off bonging of bell buoys, crabgrass dew. You jog along the road until it veers toward town, then go down to the water, stamping the hard low-tide sand. Some of the cottages are stirring, the aroma of coffee, transistor radios buzzing with the daily news that always seemed irrelevant in this place.

You walk into the port for breakfast, a table overlooking the river. Nearby a family is speaking in British accents.

“Fishcakes for the lot,” the father says.

“And Coca-Colas as well.”

You shade your eyes from the glare.

She had British cousins, you remember. They arrived one weekend, a fat and merry woman with five kids, one of them stricken with an incurable heart disease.

“We must carry Arthur to the beach. Arthur, do you wish to put your feet in the wet sand? It’s luxurious.”

You agreed to take the children to a movie in the family station wagon. They chattered in the back seat in their clear voices.

“Take us to McDonalds, please. Our mummy doesn’t permit it.”

He was a pale boy with white hair, who wouldn’t live to be ten. The other children held his hand.

“Do you want to see the movie?” she asked.

“No. Definitely not.”

“You want to go someplace?”

“Yes. Don’t you?”

“Of course.”

The children were waiting on the sidewalk with faces stained with chocolate when you returned.

“For bloody Christ’s sake, you’re late. We could have been abducted,” said the eldest boy.

On the way home, you steered with one arm, the other around her shoulders. “Riding the French way,” she said. They sang British rhymes. Arthur was exhausted, but happy. Anyone passing might have thought the group your children, your brown station wagon, your beautiful wife.

Are they dreams or memories?
 

Her family had European ways. Her father was Welsh, her mother from Montreal. Dinner was absurdly late, and afterwards red wine, coffee, talk of politics and art often in French.

Usually it was just you and the three sisters, their rich odors, their long hair. Perfume. The warm breath of sleeping women. They were half-dressed, always showering, accustomed to your presence.

This was the house where they were shaped, sleeping in single beds under clean white sheets on summer nights. It was a part of them. They imagined the cottage when it snowed, a fire burning, the windows iced, and the strangers who rented it during winters, their greasy hair and thick voices.

The youngest sister dated a student from the boat-building school. He brought you to bars in the woods where tourists were scarce, and he usually got too drunk to drive back.

One place was called Forefathers, a dim, smoke-spoiled barn. You went there only one time, to hear the blues band. The sisters passed the line of drunken men, and the men’s faces turned bitter—men who took orders from summer people for a living, building, servicing.

“Why are they staring?” she asked over the din.

“Because you’re lovely.”

Whistles. A rebel yell.

Two young men came to the table. One wanted to shake your hand. When you did, he spat on the floor. “That’s a limp shake,” he said. “You can’t handle women like them with a shake like that.” He laughed meanly. Before you could respond the bartender took them around the shoulders and led them away.

“The real Maine,” you said.

“Don’t get cranky,” she said. “Come dance with me. Dance with me tight.”

“Not now.”

“You must.”

“Why?”

“Because I only dance with you.”
 

The afternoon passes quickly.

You fall asleep on the beach with a paperback book on your lap. The breaking of waves, the clatter of beachgoers.

Mothers load children and toys and empty containers into strollers, heading home. A man paces the shore reading a book raised to eye level. It is the last hour of light, the time of day you used to lie together on the sand, wearing cotton sweaters.

She had so many sweaters but always borrowed yours.

Back at your room, the innkeeper brings you fresh towels and soap. You tell him that you will be staying on a bit longer.
 

Like most beautiful women, she had no girlfriends. Her world was, by her own making, small. She didn’t return phone calls, disliked Americans as a rule. She had her family. Her mother, her father, her three sisters, and that was enough.

Almost.

The other boyfriend was older, born to wealth. He didn’t dance.

“Why not?” you asked.

“He’s Middle Eastern. Dancing, drinking. He forbids it.”

“That doesn’t sound promising.”

“It’s different than you and me,” she explained. “At his family home in Montreal, the tea settings and silverware are so intricate I’m scared to touch them. We almost never go out. Sometimes very late the brothers will go to a restaurant, where they spend money like a competition.”

“Is that supposed to impress me?”

“How much do you have?”

“Money?”

“Yes.”

“About fifty dollars in my wallet. And a bill from grad school for five thousand.”

“They have millions. Their father left it to them.”

“Millions?”

“Yes.”

“Millions that they didn’t work for.”

“It doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s better that way. It spends easier.”

“You should marry him. That would be the thing to do.”

“His mother objects. Western women, you see. He stays up with his brothers till dawn, smoking, speaking in their language. I stay in a separate room.”

You waited for her to finish, meeting her eyes.

“You see how it is,” she said.

You grasped for something to disprove her, the proper grounds. “What about dignity?” you asked.

The word made her turn petulant. “Men have dignity. Women have ambition.”

“Yours seems commonplace.”

“So is love.”

A harmful silence. Muted rain struck the window sills. There is nothing as sad as rain on a beach house.

Finally, she stepped forward. She took your hand and brought it to her breasts. Your fingers were slack as she moved them. “Forgive me,” she whispered.

Her stare was a dare, a seduction. Succumbing, you said nothing, and for years the words you should have said resounded in empty rooms, dark streets, other women’s beds.
 

Midnight. The inn is crowded with ghosts. They walk through the halls, speaking loudly. They scatter popcorn boxes and rattle beer bottles and scrawl meaningless words on scraps of paper, which fall to the floor.

For years after, you received letters with foreign postmarks. I miss your smell. I miss your skin. Each night in bed I talk to you, tell you things. You slip away just before I wake. I can’t remember your face.

You go out. The sky is hazy, you can’t see a single star. There’s rain in the forecast.

You roam the sea road like a man with a metal detector in search of  unknown objects beneath the sand. No one knows you.

She used to tell stories of the people who lived in these cottages. The crazy rich woman who bequeathed all her properties to her servants and pets. The renowned professor of ethics who drank champagne on Hitler’s birthday.

She walked with her arms folded across her chest. She had perfect posture, a lovely voice. Meet me by the sea wall at the end of the day. I’ll wear my white dress and a yellow flower in my hair—

There is a screech of tires, a vehicle moving fast. Headlights appear. As he passes, the driver cries out, “Fuck you!”

A bottle smashes on the sidewalk, and you hear drunken laughter, the long lingering noise of the engine racing away.

The broken glass is like an indictment. You think, for some reason, of Arthur, the doomed boy, his pale face. Somewhere, in some English village, dried flowers rest upon his gravestone. Poor Arthur. He missed so much—foreign shores, the dew of innumerable dawns—a whole life that never was.
 

It is a gray morning. An ineffectual rain pocks the heavy green seas. September, the children have gone away.

In the driveway of the red cottage, a small, stooped man is taking a grocery bag from the trunk of a car. He’s aged, a stranger.

“I used to know the people who lived in this cottage,” you tell him.

He fumbles with the bag, almost dropping it. “What did you say?”

“Let me help you.”

He hands it over, then gestures with trembling fingers toward the back porch entrance. You say, loudly, distinctly, “The people who lived here—do you know what became of them?”

“Who?”

“The former owners,” you respond. He is so frail, and you are nearly shouting. “They were divorced and sold the house. It was fifteen years ago.”

“I’ve always lived here.”

“There were three sisters.”

“Never.”

“Her name was—”

“No. They told you something that wasn’t right.” He takes the bag and goes up the steps.

“Does someone else live here? Someone I can talk to?”

“You should ask the town hall.”

He opens the door, releasing a musty odor.

The urge to enter the cottage, to wander its rooms and corridors, is ardent, a physical compulsion. You want to inhale the ravenous midmorning aroma, to watch her shift her hair behind her ear so that she can flip pancakes in the skillet.

The wind begins to swirl, bringing a harder rain.

The old man closes the door.

    

© 2001 Dan Pope

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