Vince had been playing the expert on this trip, like he had Ted’s whole life. If it wasn’t the details of wills and deeds and inheritance, it was about stuff they passed on the way to the south tip of New Jersey to lay a claim to his sister’s tiny cottage in the marshes. Almost at the end of the drive down, they’d seen a smokestack, resembling some kind of industrial strength lighthouse, looming above the trees that lined the Garden State Parkway.
“It’s a nuclear plant.”
Ted shook his head.
“Look,” Vince insisted, “it’s got the cooling tower right there, past that smokestack.” As they broke out into the open, marshes spreading their muddy puddles along the side of the highway, the squat cooling tower, its waist pinched in some fat parody of an hourglass, had become visible. They shot through the E-ZPass lane and up the bridge over the water that separated them from the structure, whatever it was.
“It’s not a nuclear reactor, Dad. There isn’t one in this part of Jersey.”
“Sure there is, that Oyster Creek one. It’s down here somewhere.”
They could smell the mudflats through the closed windows. Though February, it was warm enough to wake up whatever was living in the muck beneath the brown, dry reeds. A dangerous awakening, sub-freezing temperatures liable to return with the next kink in the jet stream.
Vince turned the heat up and asked Ted to pull in at the next rest stop. Ted had been watching a deer on the side of the Parkway, its head down as it munched sparse winter grass. He wondered if there were more in the trees, and if any was planning a suicide run across the road.
“Dad. We’re gonna be there in twenty minutes. Can’t it wait?”
“Sure, Ted. If you want me to just piss all over your car.”
The rest stop straddled the median between north and southbound lanes of the highway. The restrooms turned out to be closed for budgetary reasons, and Vince trudged over to the nearby woods, Parkway traffic whizzing by. He reappeared from the thin scrim of trees which had provided a thin fig leaf, still zipping as he walked, talking as he heaved his bulk into the car.
“Be interesting to see what Gracie left me.”
That night, Ted woke up at four in the morning. He was disoriented in the unfamiliar house, though its layout was fairly simple. It was just off the main road that led from the last exit before the end of the Parkway toward a barrier island beach town that lay another mile or so to the east. A shotgun shack with a low, narrow wooden porch just inches above a packed, dirt, grassless front yard—living room/kitchen area in front, a narrow hall leading to the back, a couple small bedrooms lined up along one side. Not the beach house Ted had imagined when his father had offered him half the proceeds to come down and help him sell it. More like a pile of wood in the middle of a coast-less swamp. The front porch was covered with mounds of what Ted classified as lawn trash and someone else saw as decorative demonstrations of his or her individuality.
The house had propane wall heating units rather than central heat, and the cold was probably why he’d awoken. Finally he accepted that he would have to crawl out of the covers to use the bathroom. He didn’t bother to turn the light on. The small window set high in the bathroom wall framed a full moon. It was reflected in the toilet bowl, a floating white disc that fractured under his stream.
Back in bed, he wondered why people said “a full moon” or “a new moon” as if there were others lurking just out of sight. Like deer along the Parkway.
The next day, Ted was shoving flamingos and gnomes into a trash bag when another car parked in front of theirs. The driver slammed the door almost before she got out, and then yanked the bag out of his hands.
“Hey, get your paws off my stuff!” His hands were empty by the time she said this. He held them out to show her.
“I don’t know who you are, but please, take whatever you want.” He gestured toward the stuff that was still left. “You’ll be doing me a favor. You can have it all.” He didn’t care who she was. Anything to get out of here faster.
The woman was big and square; she had the look of someone who’d gotten a makeover but hadn’t really bought into it. Eyes like portholes. Ted guessed “realtor,” but if she was connected to this dump, she had a tough job ahead of her. Maybe a few years older than Ted, closer to mid-fifties than forties.
“That’s my father’s stuff, and I’ll ask you to stop shoveling it like it’s garbage, if you don’t mind.” Uh oh. Some of what Vince was supposed to be looking for inside was the paperwork to establish ownership of the cottage before they could sell it. This was the situation: Vince’s younger sister had died, leaving this cottage behind. She’d been left it by the guy she’d been living with, Cliff. Neither Vince nor Ted had met this guy. Not getting to know anything about someone’s life was standard operating procedure in their family. But it was Cliff’s daughter, Laurel, who’d contacted them about the house. So this must be her. She hadn’t made clear who owned the place, legally, after both deaths. That’s what Vince thought he could figure out, before, as he put it “the lawyers got hold of it—fucking vultures!”
“Like I said, you can have it.” Ted made a show of backing away. Then he thought further. “Well, I should check with my father. I think this is all his. Otherwise, why didn’t you get it before Gracie died?”
“She liked the stuff there, just piled up like that. I figured hell, why not? She did a lot for Dad before he died.” She looked back at Ted. “I sure wasn’t expecting her to follow him so quickly, she being younger and all. I didn’t realize you were her nephew. Sorry for your loss.”
“That’s okay. I hadn’t met her in years. She and my father didn’t seem to keep up much. Just the way the family is, I guess.”
“Oh, yeah? How’s that working for you?”
Ted did not want to get into the complexities of his parents’ late-life divorce, or his own short-lived marriage, or the kids he didn’t see enough. An aunt he barely knew seemed like no big deal. If he and his father could make a few bucks selling this place, that would really help him pay the back child support he owed for those kids he didn’t see enough.
The woman stuck a hand out. “Laurel, by the way.” Her habit of placing common courtesies in between belligerent commentary unsettled Ted, but he offered his name.
“I figured you were Ted. She talked about you sometimes.”
“Really? What’d she know about me?”
Laurel shrugged. “Enough.” She handed the bag back to Ted. “You wanna throw this stuff out? Go ahead—I mean, what am I gonna to do with it, anyway?”
Ted hadn’t the least idea.
Vince stuck his head out the door. “Lunch’s ready—your new friend want to join us?” Laurel stayed a moment to establish her identity with Vince but turned down the invitation. Ted realized he had no idea why she came by, or what claims she might decide to make on them. He threw a stack of porch flags into the bag before heading in to eat.
“I don’t trust her,” Vince said, dishing out pasta.
That afternoon, Ted found Vince on what was left of the back porch, a chair perched on the only square of decking large enough to hold all four legs.
Pulling up the day before, Ted had had no idea that the house was half on stilts. Behind the house there was an expanse of marsh grass with ropes of water winding through. An estuary channel ran under his feet. The same marshes had been visible on both sides of the road as they’d turned off the Parkway and headed east—the wetlands sometimes separated from the road by shuttered businesses, stretches of low, scrubby trees, and in one case, some kind of small mountain covered with unrecognizable structures.
Vince had a line in the water and a coffee cup balanced on the railing. In his lap was a folder of papers. He shifted his chair, and Ted expected to see him pitch into the brownish water below, which was etched with ice around the edges of the reeds.
“I don’t trust that Laurel woman. Says she’s not claiming the house, but why was she here already? I told her we were coming next week.”
Ted shrugged. “You said that yesterday, Dad. She looks pretty harmless to me.” Across the marshes, he could see some sort of structure sticking up out of the reeds, a wooden post with a boxy platform on top of it. “Why’d you tell her we weren’t coming till next week?”
“Wanted a look at the place first. Before she could screw things up, hide things. Figured she didn’t know Gracie’d sent me an extra key. Just in case.”
Ted didn’t ask in case of what. He wondered if Gracie had sent it before or after she knew she was dying. Whatever she had or hadn’t communicated hadn’t led Vince to visit his sister before she died. Vince and Ted’s kin did death as poorly as they did family. Which is to say, very badly.
Vince tapped on the papers in his lap, then looked up at Ted. “Been reading through Gracie’s medical reports.” Ted vaguely knew what his aunt had died of, but he hadn’t thought much about the details. He asked him why he hadn’t visited her.
“Well, you know I meant to. Happened so fast. That’s the way it is with pancreatic. I thought she’d hang on longer. I guess we all did.” Of all the siblings in Vince’s family, he and Gracie were the only two left in Jersey. Two sisters shared a condo in Florida, and one brother was in Arizona with his third wife. Another brother, no one was sure of. Proximity had not increased commitment, as far as Ted could tell from Vince’s lack of contact with Gracie.
“So she was alone.”
Vince shrugged. “I don’t know that. I just know we weren’t here.” Ted wanted to bristle at the “we.” He hardly knew his aunt. His ex-wife Sharon, before she took off, had told him he was too good at that kind of equivocation. That every other sentence he uttered started with the words “How was I supposed to…?” It didn’t help when he countered with “Well, how was I?”
How was he supposed to know that that would be their last meaningful conversation?
“It’s sad, her dying right after Cliff. Cancer for him, too, right?” As he talked, Ted had stepped out the door and onto the porch floor, negotiating his footing between missing slats, to lean back against the far rail. Let his father worry about him falling through, for a change.
Vince rearranged his fishing line, then went back to leafing through the pile of papers.
Ted couldn’t imagine what he thought he’d catch, deep in the butt end of January. Then Vince rocked backward one time too many. He was able to grab the rail, but the coffee mug and half the documents in his lap dropped into the opaque water below. Vince frowned, then shrugged as the papers spread into a damp archipelago floating with slow deliberation on the impervious tidal seep.
Ted and Vince picked up what was left. Vince stared down at a wrinkled pathology report in his hand. He looked over at Ted.
“Well, at least I’ve still got the pole.”
Vince dropped Ted off at ShopRite the next morning on his way to the county offices and local hospital to see what could be done about the drowned papers. Ted’s plan was to buy a few staples and hike back to the house—he figured it couldn’t be much more than a mile. They’d been subsisting on Vince’s spaghetti and beer. It was getting monotonous.
As they passed under the Parkway overpass back to the mainland, Ted found it odd that once you got to the other side, it was almost impossible to tell how near the water you were. The Parkway and the trees that lined it formed a dividing line—to the east, wetlands and the distant barrier islands that edged the Atlantic Ocean, to the west, fields of brown grass broken up by strip malls and gas stations.
He was standing at the edge of the parking lot next to the ARC thrift store with his plastic bags wishing he had his car when Laurel pulled up. She had turned into the lot only, she claimed, because she’d seen him standing there. Ted didn’t want to question this; he was glad for the lift.
Laurel started east, under the Parkway, and again Ted marveled at the opening up of the wetlands, like a gate to another world. He was beginning to see why Gracie had taken to the place, even if it felt like the back of beyond compared to the stifling intimacy of the urban county she’d moved from. A yearning for the Shore is ubiquitous in New Jersey, but most Jerseyans picture a white sand beach and the elaborately windowed beach houses that go with it, not this flat bowl of grass and muddy green water.
He and Sharon and the kids vacationed down the Shore a couple times. Sharon’s favorite part was driving along the beach roads, picking out the biggest houses with the most windows cantilevered high above the dunes. Sharon would turn to the kids, asleep in their car seats in back, and announce “We’re gonna get one of these when Daddy gets a better job.” Meeting his eyes, she’d add “Kidding!” but they both knew she wasn’t. She didn’t expect him to carry all the weight, but could he please try to match her earnings from the pharmaceutical firm where she administrated…something. Ted was fairly happy selling appliances at a local chain store.
They didn’t have much time to talk before they were back at the shack again. Lauren pointed to the plastic bags he was hauling into the house.
“Gracie has a closet full of reusables you could’ve brought.” He waved this suggestion away. Gracie had a closet full of everything. Vince’s room was filled with boxes of jars, boxes of beach towels, boxes of boxes. The back room, which Ted supposed was the one Grace and Cliff used, was not much emptier. It looked to be where they kept the outside stuff—fishing tackle, lawn chairs, wheelable coolers with moldy insides—piled up around the bed. Off the kitchen was a narrow but deep broom closet where Vince had found the boxes of documents, along with a portable television old enough to have the kind of knobs that turned, except they were all missing, and stacks of picture frames, and who knew what else behind it all. Ted had seen the reusable bags in the living room, not in a closet but stuffed under one of the chairs, the one with all four legs.
Ted was ready to say thanks and good-bye, but Lauren looked happy to sit there with the motor running. He was thinking of a walk, maybe in the other direction towards the funky beach town on the barrier island at the other end of the causeway. He hadn’t been out there yet. He should have been cleaning and sorting, but thinking about those piles and closets in the house had activated his aversion mode.
Lauren lowered the passenger window and shifted over to call out. “Want to drive around, see the area? I don’t have any houses to show today. Well, I almost never have houses to show these days…” Aha, Ted thought. She was a realtor. There’s a look. He hesitated, which she saw.
“I just thought you might like something to do besides sit around and watch the egrets freeze their tail feathers off.” He shrugged. He had lots to do. But was in no hurry to get to any of it.
The island was one of those aging seaside party towns—five miles long and three blocks deep—concrete and pavement dotted with bars and neon-infused motels, most with doo-wop atomic age thematic elements, many with plastic palm trees. Even the Wawa on the way in was fabulous—jazzy turquoise and fuchsia lettering, skewed roof tilting over the gas pumps, retro waves frozen across the signs. The street lights on the main drag bent languidly as if leaning against the gym wall, waiting to boogie to the next song.
The road they took ended at the beach. They turned left and drove parallel to the ocean, between motels on one side and the boardwalk and amusement piers on the other. Everything was full of color but silent. Laurel kept driving; Ted watched the plastic palms go by. Laurel talked about what good friends she and Gracie were, how glad she was that Gracie had taken such care of her father when he was dying and going through some godawful treatments, the disastrous real estate market. He figured he should respond.
“I guess you miss your dad. And Gracie.”
“Oh man, you bet. You’re so lucky to have your father still. Hey, you wanna head into AC sometime? You been there much?”
He hadn’t been to Atlantic City in years; most of his trips had been weekend excursions with a bunch of guys from work in the first couple years after his marriage fractured; a lot of drinking, piles of rich foods at the buffets, a few random hook-ups, and some really bad poker play. He wasn’t one of those people who shovel money into the slot machines until they run out, but he might as well have been.
Instead of turning back toward the shack, Laurel kept driving, circling the island again.
Ted found himself wiped out by the names of the motels—Starlux, Sea Foam, Tropicana, Casa Del Sol. Sea Gull, Castaways, Aquarius, Le Ray, Roman Holiday. Sandbox, Sea Shell, Surf Comber, Blue Palms, Royal Hawaiian, Old San Juan, Pink Champagne. He felt like he’d fallen into a Hallmark “thinking of you” card mixed with some sort of edgy European movie from the sixties. And Elvis. James Bond and the Jetsons. Almost all were closed for the season; the few lit “Vacancy” signs seemed that much emptier.
On the way back to the cottage, Laurel stopped at the odd hill Ted had noticed the first day. It turned out to be an abandoned multi-level miniature golf course, located at the most inhospitable setting possible. They got out of the car and climbed upward, picking through the dilapidated “greens” overgrown by long brown weeds knotted with the garbage blown by the constant wind that carried everything oceanward unless stopped by something manmade. Nothing real was that high.
“I come up here to think sometimes,” Laurel told Ted.
“Really? It’s not the first place I’d pick, to tell you the truth.”
“Sentimental value, I guess. My dad was the groundskeeper until he got too sick.”
Ted hadn’t known what Cliff, or for that matter, his aunt, did for a living. He would not have guessed miniature golf caretaker.
“That was how they met, actually.”
“Gracie played miniature golf?” Okay, why not? Someone must have.
“No, to tell you the truth, this place never got much business.” Oh, really, thought Ted. Laurel continued, “He’d be up at the top of the hill, trimming back the weeds, and started noticing this car pulled over, and some lady getting out of it. Down the road, sometimes one way, sometimes the other. She’d do something, you know, out in the street… he couldn’t figure out what, then she’d pull away again. One day she stopped nearby while he was in the parking lot sweeping trash. That’s when he saw what she was doing—picking up a turtle that was halfway across the road, and carrying it to the other side. He went out there to tell her it was a waste of time, they were better off left on their own; they all got hit eventually.”
This was evidently true; even in midwinter, not turtle-crossing time, Ted had seen the occasional cairn of bone and shell fragments on the shoulder of the road.
“She said, well, not this one, this time. And in the end, he stopped traffic so she could get another one. And then he snuck her in for a free round of golf. I think they took a spin on the go-karts, too.” She pointed out the track, even more weed-choked than the golf course, which Ted hadn’t noticed before. “She moved into his cottage a month later. Never saw them apart since. When this place went belly up, they lived on his Social Security and her waitressing tips. I guess you know the rest.” He had as much idea of “the rest” as he thought he wanted.
“Did you mind her being there?”
“Are you kidding? I didn’t have to worry about him with her there to take care of him. She was great. Mom died twenty years ago and he’d been a grouchy mess till he met Gracie.”
“Did you grow up in that house?” They could see it down the road from where they stood on top of the fake mountain.
“No. I live where I grew up, in one of those little neighborhoods on the bay side. Dad gave it to me when he bought this place. So I got my inheritance already.”
“I was wondering if you resented that he left the cottage to Gracie.”
She gestured around, to the water and weeds on every side. “Good luck with it. It’s all yours. I won’t get much commission selling it, but something’s better than nothing. Meanwhile, you’re the ones stuck paying the taxes.” After a moment she added, “I’ve been wondering how long it was going to take before you asked that.”
The next week took on a routine. Ted cleaned out cupboards and closets for a few hours each day; his father showed far greater paper-shuffling skills than he would have suspected—except of course for the spill incident. On a few afternoons, Laurel stopped by and they drove aimlessly around the half-empty shore towns. She said she spent her mornings showing houses, or trying to find someone to show houses to, but the market had vanished the last couple years. No one could afford a second home, retirees were staying put, and everyone waited to see how far the prices could plummet, like egrets knocked out of the sky by an angry rain. They drove all over the cape that hung down from New Jersey like the root of some plucked plant. Ted noticed that the piles of bags in the backseat of the car grew larger each day.
On their last drive, he had mentioned this. She ignored him, changing the subject to suggest a trip up the Parkway to Atlantic City. So that’s where they went.
The last time he’d hung out in Atlantic City, he busted out in a game of Hold’em. He was doing okay, folding some, collecting a few small pots, enough to build a respectable stack. Got dealt a pair of jacks, fourth best hand. He’d moved up from the one/two table to the five/ten, a mistake, his buddies said, but that was the mood he was in. The divorce papers had shown up in the mail the previous morning, and Sharon had called—God, she had impeccable timing—to make sure he was signing them; she was getting married in a couple months, to some Goldman Sachs dick.
He’d been in a reckless mood, accepting free drinks from the waitress at regular intervals. Maybe re-raising pre-flop was not a good move; going all-in because he thought that guy across from him was playing loose and likely bluffing was definitely a mistake when it turned out the random unsuited three-six-ten flop delivered a set of treys to the other guy. Ted’s buddy, standing next to him, who’d long switched to Diet Coke, had shaken his head.
“Nothing good ever comes of pocket jacks.”
Heading up the highway, Ted could see the casinos looming over the wetlands when they were still twenty miles away. Then they crossed the soaring bridge over Greater Egg Harbor Bay, the power plant now on their left. Ted mentioned its resemblance to a lighthouse.
“Oh yeah,” Laurel had told him. “They designed it that way on purpose. So it would fit in.” She said this deadpan, not bothering to isolate the absurdity.
Atlantic City was a bust. Laurel loved the noise and the cigarette smoke; Ted quit last year and now it made him sick. He told his poker story as they passed by the rows of slots, patrons attached to the machines by cords that reached from their necks to their cards they slid in. She’d asked him what it meant.
“Well, there are technical betting strategy reasons, but mostly it’s this—you look down at this pretty pair of matching face cards, and you do things you shouldn’t do. They go to your head. And there are too many ways you can lose. Never mind that straight the guy lucked into—all it takes is someone with a bigger pair and you’re sunk.
“Basically, they’re a message to be careful. I didn’t get it then, but it’s my motto now.”
“Yeah, I can tell.”
By early evening, they were out on the boardwalk eating deep-fried Oreos.
“I live for these,” Laurel told him. Ted was trying to figure out what he was doing here. Why he’d been wasting time on these aimless drives when the sooner they finished cleaning and sprucing up the house, the sooner he could go back north.
Leaving, Laurel took back roads instead of the highway they came in on. Ted lost his bearings, but then they shot out from between some trees, over a highway and more wetlands, skirting the bay again, which loomed as flat emptiness beyond the road lights, and parked at the end of a bridge paralleling the Parkway Bridge. This bridge was narrow and barely skimmed above the water’s surface, which is why he hadn’t noticed it before. Laurel turned the engine off but she left the headlights on. The beams angled to one side of the bridge, illuminating a short stretch of water.
A concrete barrier blocked the bridge’s roadway. Laurel was already out of the car, clambering around it to step out onto the pockmarked concrete. Across the bay, lights festooned the power station. Despite the angularity of its metal skeleton glinting in the electric glow, there was something reptilian in its repose; the tower topped with red beacons no longer conveyed any suggestion of lighthouse.
She turned back to gesture him forward. He raised his eyebrows.
“Why is it closed?”
“I don’t know. Some kind of territorial battle over who owns the bridge and who has to pay maintenance. No one wants to claim it. Or fix it. So it’s closed—all the traffic’s rerouted to the Parkway.”
Ted followed Laurel, the hum of cars crossing the Parkway to his left blocking out other sounds. She stopped after about a hundred yards, waving a waist-high hand backwards in warning, then gesturing at a hole gaping in the roadbed, almost invisible in the dark.
“Well, this is new.” She sat at the edge of the bridge, feet hanging out over the water. The cracked pavement looked brutally cold to Ted, but he joined her when she pulled out a bottle of Bushmills.
“This is where I came after they died. I mean, after my dad died, then again, after your aunt.”
Ted took a sip from the bottle, wiping it before handing it back.
She gazed out at the power plant again, gleaming in the winter cold.
“A lot of people think that’s a nuclear plant.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“It’s because of the cooling tower.” He nodded. It turned out it was just an ordinary electric plant, chugging out ordinary steam as it burned natural gas into kilowatts.
“My dad died of oral cancer. The treatment was a nuclear nightmare.” Ted had little interest in what killed Cliff or what treatments hadn’t worked, but he nodded again, figuring some sort of radiation and all that.
“What they did was, they implanted cobalt seeds in his gums. He became a nuclear plant.” She looked over at him to see if he was registering this. “He was in isolation, of course. We had to talk to him through a glass window. I mean, they didn’t let him walk around the outside world all glowing or anything.”
“Of course not,” Ted replied, “that would be crazy.”
Ted looked down the length of the bridge, noticing a darker shadow that obscured the view of the other end. Laurel followed his gaze.
“Oh, yeah. That’s the drawbridge. It’s stuck in the ‘up’ position. If they leave it down, it shorts out what’s left of the bridge’s electrical system when they try to raise it. And they have to raise it sometimes to let the commercial boats through. So they leave it up. The bridge can’t support the ‘up’ position for too much longer. Which is gonna be a problem soon.”
Ted had had too much whiskey. He wasn’t sure he was following the thread of this conversation. Dilapidated bridges, radioactive seeds, none of it was making sense.
“Ted, this is what you need to know. Your aunt, Gracie, she snuck in there with him, when he was in isolation and all. She sat there next to him while he was glowing with all that poison, which didn’t save his life, and might have ended hers.”
“What are you trying to tell me?” Ted pictured himself struggling to care about this aunt he didn’t know—who risked her life saving turtles in the road, and sitting with her radioactive dying husband, no glass isolation window separating them. He imagined telling his father, and wondered whether he’d care or not. “I mean, what am I supposed to do with that?”
She looked at him. “What do you mean—what are you supposed to do. It’s just something you should know, don’t you think?”
Instead of answering, he started whistling the appliance store jingle. He continued to whistle it when they got up to head home. Accidentally opening the back door when he was getting back in the car, he noticed again that she had an awful lot of bags and boxes back there. It occurred to him that he had never seen her house.
“No, I’m not homeless,” she replied, when he asked. “At least until they foreclose on me.”
They got back on the Parkway and headed south. He reflected again on the fact that the real estate market was dead, and that, as far as he knew, Laurel didn’t have any friends, or family for that matter, and he decided he should start making plans to head north in the next day or two. Before things got sticky. Before he found out she was about to make trouble about the house. Before, well, he wasn’t so sure what. He figured he was his father’s son. And that meant whatever that meant.
He was still whistling that stupid jingle when something, not a deer but something smaller, darted out in front of them and they ended up on the Parkway median, unhurt but clearly not going anywhere.
Laurel wouldn’t acknowledge that the car wasn’t drivable, not at first, anyway. She got the engine going, but somewhere between the accelerator and the wheels, something important was shot to hell; it was dark and they didn’t have a flashlight, but Ted was pretty sure the front axle was broken.
The taxi driver that picked them up told them it was most likely a coyote. Ted kept saying “Coyote? In New Jersey?” Laurel was intent on getting away before a State Trooper pulled a breathalyzer out. She waved an impatient hand. “Yeah, whatever, bears too. Lions the fuck I know. Where you been anyway, buddy?”
Ted paid the driver enough to cover Laurel’s trip home, too. He didn’t intend to see her again. She handed him the rest of the bottle by way of good-bye.
What was left of the Bushmills was not keeping him warm. He sat outside in the middle of the night, watching the streetlights quaver in the water between the reeds down the street from the cottage. An old rowboat was stranded across the channel from him; it had no bottom, and reeds reached up between the plank benches.
These same waters stretched north between the mainland and the barrier islands, snaking under bridges and abandoned rail tracks toward the back of Atlantic City. He imagined rowing the skeletal boat, as if it could stay afloat while bearing his considerable weight, through the night, and landing behind the casinos on the marina side, Borgata or Harrahs, maybe.
He didn’t want to go back inside Gracie’s house again; Vince had been awake and asking questions when the taxi dropped him off. Ted told his father the story that Laurel told him—about the cobalt and the radiation and Gracie’s devotion. Vince was livid. “You mean it’s Cliff’s fault that Gracie is dead? Well the hell with that shit, I’ll get a lawyer. We can sue her ass over that.” He continued to harangue Ted. Was she going to give them trouble? Why the fuck was Ted hanging around with that old bitch anyway? Was he that hard up?
That’s when Ted hit him. Or meant to, anyway. He pulled back his fist, lost his balance, and slammed it into the kitchen wall instead, while Vince, who clearly held his beer better than Ted held his whiskey, nimbly stepped to the side.
He looked down at Ted, sprawled between two chrome-metal and duct tape kitchen chairs. Ted expected sarcasm, disgust, and hackneyed wit, in no particular order. Instead, Vince surveyed his son and got red in the face, then put his hand down and helped Ted up.
“Who are you really mad at, anyway?” Then he went back to bed, blowing off disgust like steam from an old smokestack.
It was cold and getting colder, but what had brought Ted down to the edge of the reedy water was the sight of some wet paper clumped in the matted thatch. He pulled it out, moving on some assumption that he’d find something that would still be legible, something that might commit him to something. Maybe Laurel really did need the cottage. Certainly Vince did not. Thoughts of finding a will or a deed, information that would change the outcome, flitted through his head. Perhaps something that Vince had thrown over the rail on purpose.
But there were no decipherable words remaining, or any real proof that these were the same sheets his father had dumped into the swamp. And if he had found something, then what was he supposed to do? There was nothing left, nothing that would alter anything.
Tomorrow, before his father woke up, Ted would pack and head north. On the way, he’d stop at a highway rest stop and call Sharon’s voicemail. “I got a great deal on a shore house for you. Tell Mr. Goldman Sachs to get on this right away.” And he’d leave Vince’s number.
Tonight, he stood to head inside and get some sleep before the sun came up, pausing to deal the clots of muddy paper out across the water, pale baize green in the faint pre-dawn light. He watched them drift till they sank.