We islanders often appear to mainlanders as either simple and open or stand-offish and tricky. We’ve been the reason visitors are sure they want to buy a cabin and spend their summers here, as well rumors that we cheat visitors out of their cash at every turn. Tourists come with expectations of easy-pickings and a show of gratitude by island hicks. They may leave feeling the kindly black-berry picker providing directions, intentionally sent them the longest way back to our tiny harbor, only to ensure they missed their sailing, had to purchase dinner at the berry picker’s family-run cafe and catch the last ferry home.
Mainland folks who move here to live amongst us as year-round residents because of employment, find home rentals to be few and landlords for the most part absent on the ground. No one has been able to buy property here through a realtor for several decades as it is handed down through families or sold to a good friend quietly through our resident lawyer.
That my home became open to new residents was a mere fluke. It had stood empty for half a decade, since my stepdaughter died. I would have preferred not to share the house, but I was conspired against by others.
My ex-wife Mauve’s husband Jackson Mitchell is an island supervisor, has been for nearly a decade; we don’t have term limits here. I hate the man myself, but conditions have conspired such that I can do nothing about the guy. He avoids me and the house. Regardless of the past, my undying love for Maeve leaves me weak, and I could do nothing in the face of her agreeing with Jackson’s suggestion they rent our family home to a new county employee and his wife.
The couple were university educated I learned the first day. Yet from my observations over unfolding weeks of drama, I concluded they were not well matched, or should I say evenly matched in terms of their maturity. But what did I know? I reminded myself the new tenants were decades younger and times had changed. I learned he was thirty-two while she only twenty-four when I first saw her. An attractive girl with dark hair and sad green eyes, creamy complexion with a sprinkle of old-fashioned freckles across her nose and cheeks, and an attractive figure proportionate to her size. She was close to his height, which meant they both were about five feet eight. Not much shorter than I had been at that age, but I lost a sense of my weight and height after I turned eighty-five. Being alone and not getting out in society can do that for one. Plus, I’d stopped looking at myself in mirrors.
The husband was a bundle of nerves or energy. I wasn’t sure at first which it was, but I suspected he held many secrets, some which were shown later to torture him uncontrollably. Up front, he appeared more massive than he was; his shoulders and head size gave him a larger presence when sitting down than when he was standing. As his familiarity grew, he showed himself to be a man who when threatened did not hesitate using his voice, words or body to express his anger or anxiety. As a man, myself, who had once been in similar situations, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that it was anxiety.
But it was obvious from the beginning she was frightened of him. When he was home she watched his sharp blue eyes constantly for cues as to what he felt or thought. Maybe it was the eight years difference in their ages, I had wondered. But as the months moved forward she continued to appear to be lost, like a teenager removed from her home and school and taken to another state, without vernacular, friends or social context. I wished it had been my place to take her aside and explain to her what was expected of her, not just as his wife, but as a new member of our community, and even what she should expect for herself. Islands by their very nature incubate a sense of isolation and loneliness, adrift from the mainland and reachable only by water, and even that by the vagaries of waves and storms.
He had won his position as planner for the island county government through the regular employment process, and rumor has it, by his wife’s braless presence at the required employer-applicant dinner with the board. She was in the arts, and as you’ll learn soon enough, she was not the typical county employee’s wife.
At first, she fussed around the house, protesting amongst furniture not of her choosing, but as landlord I was used to the pieces I had purchased and had seen no sense in replacing them. Nor had my former wife and her second husband when they’d lived here years in the past.
“I wish we had our own furniture,” she complained his third day on the job. Both of them were unaware of just how thin were the walls of the house “They give me the creeps. I don’t know why but I don’t want to sit on these couches.”
“What are you afraid of?” He tried to laugh it off.
“I feel like people have died on them. I can’t stand them.”
“We could have them cleaned. I’m sure the owners would pay for them to be cleaned.”
“Then why didn’t they have them cleaned before we moved in here, Barry?”
“Maybe they did, Barbara. We won’t know if we don’t ask.” He sounded tired, frustrated. I could feel for the guy, his voice through the wall telling me the job was already more complicated than he’d thought. It didn’t surprise me. There would be many reasons for this. In our community there were those who had say and those who did not. It helped if your name was on a hill or road or a building here. Barry’s was not.
But I was hurt at how much she disliked my taste in furniture. Even if I had wanted to buy new things, circumstances had taken such changes out of my hand.
“I don’t want to ask them,” she actually pouted. And I thought, you’re right, girl, I wouldn’t ask. No point in going that route.
“I’ll clean them myself,” her voice still complained. “But can’t we at least buy our own couch?”
“Give a couple of paychecks, okay? We still have to cover the cost of moving what we already own. At least we have our own bed.”
A good bed, I might have added. A bed they made use of whenever things were tense or relaxed between them. They’d only been married a couple of years, and sex was still a major part of their lives together. The bed felt comfortable to me, as I tested it alone. As resident-landlord, I had taken advantage of the first day they took off together, a Saturday. I unhurriedly went through their four rooms, the kitchen-dining room, a large service porch, the long living room with a flagstone floor, and a bathroom-bedroom suite. I was surprised at his complaint of their cost of moving, unless it was the price of their baby-grand piano. Otherwise their personal furniture was limited besides the bed and two book cases.
But as I prowled through the garage I could see the cost of their move. They both had their indulgences. I had already learned the mini-grand was hers, bought by both their parents as a wedding present, and it was a piece of contention that she hardly ever played. I agreed with Barry, that it was strange she only played when he was gone. I assumed the motorcycle and the weight set were his, and the potters wheel and large gas kiln was hers. Over the next months I never observed him using the cycle or weights, but she began spending hours each day building pottery, most of it like nothing I’d ever seen before. Maeve had been a collector herself and had taken all of it when we’d separated, but I had been to more than a few pottery sales and fairs during our marriage.
Quietly, I began observing her progress, and was almost as excited as she was when she opened her first firing.
It was that night the trouble started in earnest. She’d only emptied two of the four shelves in the kiln when she unexplainably became still, then straightened, her face white. She appeared frozen in place. Then I watched as a shudder came across her shoulders, up her face and then down through her back and legs. Trembling, she made her way out of the garage, across the patio and into the house, uncharacteristically locking the door. I watched her stagger through the living room and lock the front door as well. No one locked their doors on our island. There was no reason, no purpose. What had frightened her or caused her to fall ill? Had she had a stroke? She sat at the small kitchen table and stared at the clock mounted on the wall.
She was watching the time. She was expecting someone or something.
That is when I heard what she must have intuited. The motorcycle. They had argued last night, when he again got on her about not playing the piano, she’d jabbed back that they’d been on the island three months and he’d never ridden his bike. I hadn’t noticed before, but he must have taken it that morning, because now we could hear it coming up the winding island road, racing such that we feared the sounds of it careening as it made the bumpy turns, then came up the long graveled drive to the house, a scattering of rocks, a puttering of pipes. The engine stopped. He called out to her. I realized then the lights in the house were out, I should have noticed that already, the entire house was dark. As usual our island was shrouded in clouds, there was neither moon nor star light showing.
She was hiding in the dark. From him? I wished I understood, but suddenly knew that she hadn’t fallen ill, she’d become frightened. Of what? It must be him, something she hadn’t done or needed to still do, it would be that, I was certain. How could I help her? She was sitting in the kitchen in the dark, going over in her mind their conversations of the past week. I felt certain of that, remembering how he’d accused her of not sharing, not being honest about something. He’d said she was making things up, just as she’d done before they were married. She’d actually shouted back at him then, telling him he was an idiot about that one time, and she’d already explained to him why.
She also wanted to move. I knew they had fought over this. He’d demanded she give it more time, that she be patient, understand the pressure he was under. There weren’t other houses available. But she’d said no, that wasn’t it. She wanted to move somewhere else, anywhere else. Then he’d become really upset, shouting about her adolescence, her refusal to grow up. He had a job, it had cost more than money to come here. She had been part of the decision, they talked about it for weeks before he’d even submitted his application for the position.
“You were the one, Barbara, who thought this would be a great adventure, that it would give you the time and space to become a famous potter. That this salary would free you up to take your time to build up your career.”
She’d shouted back that the island was all about his career, not hers.
Finally, there had been a lull. A pervading silence between them. This rattled me. Maeve had been this way with me towards the end of our marriage. It had led to other things, bad things. I didn’t need this from my tenants, but I found myself powerless to do or say anything to either of them.
It was then I realized he was in danger. Mauve had made rash statements to me and then given me this long silent treatment as well. I suspected now she wanted to move away from him. The marriage was not working. They had too little in common. She was working towards requesting a divorce. I knew she received mail that she never showed him.
But now, unknowing what was happening, Barry had remained sitting outside on the motorcycle while his eyes adjusted and he tried to figure out what was happening. What to do. Was he frightened? Was he confused or worried? I knew he was, but had nothing to share with him.
“Barbara, are you home?” His voice was hesitant when he first called out her name.
“Barbara?” He was cautiously moving to the back door, tried the doorknob and found it locked.
“Barbara?” He fumbled with his keys, set his motorcycle helmet down on the ground, then found the key to the door and managed after two or three tries to insert it. I could hear the lock click and him pushing open the door. She must have heard it as well.
“Barbara?” He moved into the kitchen, bumping into a counter..
“Stop.” Her command held all the thrall of panic.
“Barbara.” He was whispering.
“Don’t turn on the light.” She said it quickly, choking it out.
He paused, then carefully shut the door. He hesitated, but did not turn the lock.
Good, Barry, I thought to myself. Leave a quick get away. Whatever is the problem, believe me friend, it is not coming from the outside the house.
I could hear him make his way over to where she sat at the table. By now her eyesight must have adjusted. Her right hand reached out, caught his left wrist, guiding him to sit in the chair next to hers.
They sat in the dark, her head down, their hands clasped.
“He’s here,” she finally managed.
“In the garage. He was watching me.”
“That’s impossible. We know that, don’t we.”
Barbara shook her head, back and forth, refusing to accept anything but what she knew.
“He was there. I heard him say something when I was unloading the kiln. I could feel him. Like the time I went to the basement when the fuses blew. Like the times when you were gone off island to conferences and had to stay away for the night. I told you he came to my room and stood there watching me.”
“He’s dead, Barbara. We’ve been through this before. Postman Dave told us all about it, remember? I think that’s your problem. You’ve always been too empathic. Dave should never have told us the man had hung himself in the basement.”
“Don’t, Barry. Don’t say it. He could be listening.”
“That’s it! I’ve had it with this!” He stood up, strode to the switch by the door, flipped on the lights, shouting out, “Go away Roy, go away. You don’t live here anymore. No one wants you here! Go away.”
He ran through the house, turning on all the lights, every overhead and every lamp, then flung open the door to the basement workshop, flicking the light switch on and off over and over again while he continued to torment me.
“Go away, get out, get out. Take your blasted ghost form and haunt someone else. Go haunt Maeve. She’s the one who made you do it!”
It was easy, you know. I mean, it is my house and my basement. It only took a second but the fuses all blew and the house went entirely dark. Shroud dark, dead dark, unforgiven dark.
As I was making my way back up the stairs, I heard the motorcycle kick in, roar into life, then zoom off down the drive, its headlights the only illumination around.
I found myself alone, the kitchen door wide open. Silence, deserted. Why was I surprised? I went out to the garage and smashed every piece of pottery she’d fired that day, without the lights on, without caring the colors or shapes. They had abused my hospitality and deserved what they got. They should have accepted the price of admission if they were sharing my abode.
The next day a moving van appeared with four burley guys packing it all up and taking everything out of the house and garage except for my own furniture. They left me that without saying goodbye. A stranger drove off in her Honda.
Maeve drove up the drive that afternoon to cuss me out, unable to even wait until the moving company with their assorted workers had left the house and driven down the drive and off to wherever on the mainland all worldly goods were headed.
She stood with her hands on her hips, remaining on the pathway, refusing to come into the house, standing there and shouting at me.
“Roy, this has got to stop. Jackson is really pissed and is threatening to tear this place down if you don’t move. I mean it Roy, leave the tenants alone from now on! Or the house gets torn down!” She shouted this out again as she sped back down the drive.
I had told her before, but she wouldn’t listen. I really don’t like to share the place with tenants. I’m not leaving.