Red Sky in the Morning
An indecisive breeze pushed leaves dripping with sunset and dry as death scraping over concrete, around tree trunks and benches and over curbs into eddies in pirouettes and swirls. It was then that Liza knew. The beauty cut too deep now. Her yoga became impassioned and neither milk nor sugar softened her coffee anymore. Nine years away and six months after, she was thirty-four and it was time to go home.
“Phoebe, honey. Please, I don’t like to come home to loud music and you know it. Why in the world do you insist? Turn it down turn it down.” Caleb Eldredge, keys and paper and mail in hand, slammed the screen door shut and this time it broke.
In the middle of the living room, Phoebe was swinging her hips and swinging herself. Her eyes were closed and liked to stay that way. And the blues was damn loud indeed. She’d been swinging the volume up and down to suit the rhythm and the slapping beat her plastic flip flops were stomping on the high polished wooden floors. So, the control still in hand, hips still swinging, Phoebe turned her eyes just far enough to see him out of the corners, opened them seductively slow, and brought the blues down to a whisper.
“What you break with that temper, my dear, I think you’d better mend with a sure and easy hand. So get over here and dance with it then and you better not give me a chance to change my mind.”
“Jesus God… How in the world was it I was smart enough to love you anyhow? Not even done pouring the rest of my scotch over rocks and the anger I worked up so nicely from this damn day is gone already.” Caleb let the ice cube cold soak through his hand and gave the scotch a swirl.
“Give me that glass and pour yourself another,” Phoebe stuck out a diamond-clad hand. “Marriage doesn’t change the rules, dear.” The blues went up again, Caleb lost his tie and twenty fingers went to work on the buttons of his shirt. Arms intertwined, they fed each other scotch like water. Caleb’s hand slipped under and behind an arm, snapped a clasp, and drew his prize out slowly, letting it dangle.
A new face appeared at the screen door, now hanging a bit off kilter.
“Mr. Caleb Eldredge! I do believe you’ve still got it!”
Caleb spun around instinctually and stood facing Elizabeth Albright, who lived fifty steps or so down the hill, on the harbor side.
“Don’t you Albrights ever knock?” Bushy chest hair front and center, a corner of his shirt still tucked keeping the rest of it from the floor, Caleb gave her a wild look and raised his glass in mock exclamation. “Well!?”
Elizabeth cocked a single brow in Caleb’s direction before looking at Phoebe, who had snatched her bra back from Caleb’s other, still outstretched, hand, and squirmed into it again.
Phoebe kissed her husband’s cheek and plucked his wallet in one go.
“You think forty will be enough Bethy? They are going to have blackberries this week…”
“And wine. Remember Turo Vineyards is making an appearance? I already have instructions not even to come home unless it be with at least two bottles. Better bring an extra twenty or two.”
Phoebe held Caleb at bay with one arm while the other dipped in and came out with four crisp twenties before returning the remainder to Caleb’s grabbing hands.
“What am –– ” he started.
“Shh,” Phoebe placed a quick finger over his lips and kissed them before turning. “Back in an hour.”
In the driveway, the women stepped to the Volvo and laid hands on the door handles, but Phoebe stopped.
“The MG. Let’s take it.”
“Liza’s car? Any particular reason?”
Phoebe slid Beth a smile, “Two drop dead dames, one top-down red convertible, sunglasses and loud music? Come on.”
The engine coughed and roared and white gravel flew from under the wheels. The little red jewel ran fast along the edge of Stage Harbor, around the bends and down the dips of Champlain Road, over Thunder Bridge where some kids were hauling up Sea Robin and laughing at the whiskers.
“Phoebe, rumors are running wild and you need to put them to rest.”
“He didn’t leave her, Bethy. He couldn’t have done that. Not Alec.”
“But everyone’s saying she herself said so.”
“He’s gone, mamma. That’s what she said and that’s all she said. I could barely hear a word, she whispered it so low, but he wouldn’t have left her for the world Bethy, not for the world. He was taken away.”
“I don’t see, Phoebe. You say she’s lying? Who took him away if it wasn’t himself?”
“Death, girl. Alec’s dead.”
In the beginning the silence screamed.
114 West Hill Road was always filled. Filled like a belly just done with Thanksgiving –– belt loosening, belly stroking full. Filled like an August evening gets full with air so damn hot and heavy, with crickets and mosquitoes, grazing horses and dusk-prowling deer. There was always the electric hum and soft whoosh of the ceiling fan, or the higher pitched whirr of the stove vent whose filter was black with grease again and needed changing. Then there was the clickety-clickety-clickety of dog paws on tile and wood as Chelsea ran golden laps around the island in the kitchen whenever the door opened to a familiar face, a familiar smell. At eight-ish there was a good chance garlic and onions would be sizzling and slowly browning with a dash of olive oil. Glugging wine would gurgle out of the bottle moments after its top was popped and glasses bright with color, bending in desire and lit with candlelight, would meet with a clink over the occasional scraping of knives and forks on porcelain. But on the 31st of May 1998 – just another day, just another day – Liza waited up all night in a house gone still. The house held its breath for Alec Tanner to come home. It is quiet still.
Her hand fell on the phone before the end of the first ring, but it rang twenty times before she raised it. There was no moon and the room was so black it tired the eyes. 4:09 blinked red and Alec’s forge partner, Eli, was crying on the other end but Liza heard a different, whispering voice.
Baby baby baby. You will not believe, absolutely not believe what I have been living the last twelve years. Oh god I miss you so much already. Liza?
Liza kept her head very still, feet crossed Indian style, and put the phone down between her legs where she could still feel the vibrations of Eli’s tears.
Liza? I’m here baby. You just hold still. Hold your breath and hold strong. I’ll be home, be home soon.
She let them roll out down and around then. Sliding over that stubborn cheekbone and jaw, leaving wet trails and paving the way for more they rolled and fell from the tips of things, landing in her hands and on a vibrating phone gone still.
“Bring me rain.”
Maybe it was planned. Maybe it would have rained anyway, but the day didn’t dawn on June 1st because when the sun should have been rising and filling the east window, clouds bulbous and shifting, overlapping and leapfrogging each other to get closer to the house, fell and the rain they let drop bathed 114, filled and overflowing, and washed it all away. Thunder rocked the silence and Liza slipped a little. Rain knocked on the window. Liza watched it and slipped some more. She carefully wrapped her hand into every strand of hair and pulled twisted snapped and bound it all atop her head, away from her ears. She placed her left ear against the pane, her dangling earring tapping. She heard the rush and fall of water, wind, and storm from the silent side of the pane. Like diving into a waterfall without getting wet, she fell.
Just at the edge of the Eldredge property – nudging the once-contested line of the Albright land down the hill – was a one-room gardener’s shed without any spades or trowels or seeds or pots or plants at all. What it did have were two large windows that could be raised and tied up with two sets of cotton clothesline accompanied by foldout counters just as good for selling seed to wandering birds as they must have been for conveying newly potted plants to the gardeners that dug the holes. It was Liza’s home away from home and from the day, as a seven year-old, she discovered it, she filled it full to busting. First it needed a good sweeping, a good dusting, and a careful one-by-one removal of all insect and arachnid life, then Windex to shine the windows with light again. Over the years, this getaway accumulated all the items of a girl’s secret development until incense sticks hung on a nail by the door for easy access, a palm-sized radio buzzed against the wall – its antenna extended with copper wire snaking out the window – and a hammock swung in the corner with the head just high enough to peek out the window and see Stage Harbor during the day, or the stars above it at night. The perfect getaway, Liza was in the habit of slipping off, the moment she smelled rain.
Moving off the Cape had never crossed her mind and at twenty five, with the young adult spirit slightly behind her, Liza ceased to consider a life that led away from the communal solitude, sharp weather and easy rhythm of pancakes and hot coffee, Bluefish and scallop-clam chowder, lichen-gray wooden thatch, winds that varied from cut-your-face-cold to caress-and-doze sweet, and fog. But then on the night of the red dawn, when the storm licked the walls that held her, when she slept with a used book of Zen bookmarked by a leg, she dreamed a man from thin air and the man said beloved!
Not so many visitors stopped in on Cyrus and Emma Atkins’ house. Tourists and new property owners made a point of poking around and usually leaving with a handsome print – or a postcard anyway – and if they were interested at all and not simply keeping up appearances, then they’d want to look at the Lithography press and be toured through its workings and the stories of its history. Cyrus kept it well oiled and, under his hand, it produced work that won ribbons and the ribbons accompanied the work, hanging until big money took them away. But that was all during the summer. Deep into October, the off-season was full upon Chatham and, like the rest of the Cape, its residents were beginning to check wind and water seals, check the weather twice a day, and turn their attention to the things close to them. It’d be another year before those battened down hatches would creak open again, before that just slightly musty grit of life was spread around, shared and inadvertently wiped on visiting passersby.
There was some tea brewing in the back of the gallery and Emma wanted to drink it in peace. She decided to close early, but when she lifted the “OPEN” sign, intending to flip it over, there was a broad furry coat and a big, well-groomed beard behind it –– what a boy he still was. The door jingled in welcome.
“Hello there, Charlie! Come in. You know I was just closing up, but Cyrus is in the back and I was about to sit down with a cup of tea for company. You will do much better. Come in, come in. I’ll take your coat. And, here, I’ll just switch my own shoes…I’ve been waiting all day long to get out of these heels.”
Charlie watched as Emma pried off her heels and glided into woolen slippers. Such fascinating feet this woman had. Most people Charlie knew tended to fidget with their hands, bite their nails, itch their nose or bite pen caps or something. Emma Atkins was a perfect model of self-control and professionalism. While he worked for her, he used to spend entire minutes, even a tea or lunch break away from lithography carvings and ink proofings, watching Emma speak to customers about the technique, standards, and the care with which everything was done at the Morris-Atkins Gallery. But Charlie didn’t watch what the customers watched. Not the perfectly framed mouth, nor the placating, interlocked fingers. Not the pendant that hung like a sliver from her neck, nor the Armani glasses accentuating a practiced gaze and careful eye. Charlie watched her feet, because, unlike every other part of her body, they never stopped moving.
They sat at a round linoleum-topped table. Charlie placed his hands heavily on it as he sank into a chair and its legs scraped on the white tile. Emma placed herself mostly, but not quite, opposite him, so Charlie skidded his chair over to be more next to her, so rather than looking her in the eye he could keep his gaze on the two feet that played footsy with each other like it was what they’d been looking forward to all day.
“Will you tell me again, Emma?”
The wordless, friendly banter of light brown humms and sighs and grunts, the midnight black of pouring tea, or squeaking of red, groaning chairs stopped and was swapped for silence tempered only by the soft clink of a metal spoon inside the Velveteen Rabbit mug. Emma stirred.
“Just one more time. Tell me how they met?”
“Charlie, why do you want to hear it again? I’ve told it enough times to go blue in the face and you, well, it just can’t be, no, it’s it’s not healthy for you to dwell on these things. Why do you ––“
“Because I love to know what she loves. Because she is…and I –– ”
“Charlie, stop it! I won’t tell it, I won’t let you. You’re a grown man, even if your mother’s always babied you, this isn’t right. She’s…she’s…”
“He’s dead, Emma.”
“How do you…?”
You’d think sometimes Emma hadn’t lived in the Cape nearly her whole life. Emma herself sometimes wondered. Why was she so surprised? Why surprised at all? The amount of gossip, of personal information, that walked the sidewalks with the work traffic in the mornings and evenings wasn’t right. Could it be? But then that’s the way it was and actually the more information was withheld, the larger and less true the rumors became. Chatham was close-knit. All the tourist guides said so, it was true. Just a simple slip in vocabulary, in definition. When you said family in Chatham, the word community is what was understood. When you shook your head at the weather, or grumbled about the cold, the gray humorless winter, the September rain or your children’s bad grades, the nod you received joined hands with your shrug and you both wondered what ever was going to happen to Dr. Woods and that violent nostalgia of his. Who’s going to cure it? Not his wife, no no, not till she stops fooling around anyway.
Charlie looked at her and wanted something a sliver brighter to look at for a while, something that wasn’t quite the truth but had been true once. Liza was thirty-six years old –– a widow now –– and that’s the way the world worked, but Emma indulged the boy and remembered something fresh and sharp and good –– the story that made her a matchmaker.
“Alec is my…” Emma scrunched her toes and lost Charlie’s eyes, “was my son-in-law’s nephew, a photographer, and a good one, but it made him not a dime. Consequently the shutter stayed closed and he bent and blew glass at a thousand degrees to go home with a regular paycheck. Remarkably talented glassblower too though. Really. But red sky at night, sailors delight; red sky in the morning, sailors take warning, and we should have known.
So for a long time before, Cyrus had been piping up about the steady decrease in photographic talent, griping about the burden the next generation is putting on the old on account of its general lack of inspiration, blah, blah, blah. Well somehow all that’d been working down in my mind. I was turning it over, trying to give it a place somewhere and then the phone rang. My daughter and I, you remember Jen right, Charlie? Well we hadn’t talked for a good long time and when Alec popped up on account of some glass blowing show he’d just gotten back from in Puerto Rico, talking about how he was even better at taking pictures and telling everyone about it, no one gave him or his portfolio the time of day. So then I told Jen to give me the number. Six days later he was on a bus and I was about to become responsible for a fairytale match even if it wasn’t ever me that made it. I –– ”
“Hold on, Em! You forgot about her dream, Liza’s dream the night before he got here. She told me all about it that morning! The morning after the dream and the morning of the day they met. You know how she always goes to the Eldredge gardener’s shed?”
“Yeah. Well that’s where she went and she was up all or most of the night just reading, listening and watching that storm. And it stormed hard too. So hard my mom started acting crazy again and talking to it like it was some sort of person that would do like she said. I wanted to go outside in the wind and rain and let the wind hold me up. My Uncle Joshua used to tell me about how he got all the way to forty-five degrees during Hurricane Bob some years ago. My dad wouldn’t let me out of the house. Anyway, Liza was out there in it and when she fell asleep she dreamed she was someplace where a bunch of people were moving around with boxes. People ran around hugging other people, you know. So then he steps down off some platform and she watches him take a couple steps, yell, stop a second and see her, and then run right on by. And you know just as well as I do what he said. What he said, it’s so amazing!”
Charlie lifted his eyes from Emma’s feet and waited. His words had poured out uncontrollably, again. How was it that this man could stand all day aboard a boat and gut fish, or right a Sprite sailboat with a yank, grab its little lost captain by the nape of the lifejacket and reestablish him as a man despite the mistake? How could he do these things with a heart that would never grow older than twenty-five?
Emma Atkins had the words of a daughter and a letter to know Alec by, but they were just about all she’d needed. She’d written to him as distant kin and given him just one instruction:
Alec, my daughter tells me you have an eye. Tell me about imagination.
And he replied.
dear mrs. atkins,
it seems to me that what we see, when we wake up in the morning and our eyelids let in all this stuff around us, is a world we build. it lives inside our heads even when our eyes are closed. we make the littlest thing and stick it where we want it. and the act of creating cements a relationship that animates what you’ve created to the point where a tree will stroke your ego or a statue will pose. we live with this stuff all the time and when we open our eyes in the morning and look around at the lamp that laughed at us while we flexed in the mirror and its shade that did a ballerina pirouette because we’d never seen one before, we see, really see, that all this stuff, in all its depth, can be captured through the click-close of a shutter just as with our eyelids. why? because what you’re getting on film is no longer a generic, or even a specific, lampshade, or a mirror, or a tree, or a statue, or a lamp: it’s a living, personal, creation of yours that is out and running wild in the world. by taking its picture you’ve put a spoonful of your imagination on a page and there is nothing more intimate.
you didn’t ask a question so i didn’t give you an answer, but if i can walk the world with my own imagination beside me then i should be a happy man and if a wise man didn’t say that, one should have. – alec tanner
And it could have been better, Emma thought. But it was good, and she’d replied with a bus ticket.
Emma said to him on the phone that he should hold up a sign with his name on it so she knew who he was. He said to her not to worry, he’d come to her and he’d make sure she knew who he was. She asked how he’d know her, but this was a woman who was giving him a shot at his dream, giving him a gallery in peak season, and he’d be ashamed if he couldn’t pick her out of a crowd and, besides, Alec liked to start a friendship off laughing.
He was part of those castes of individuals who just don’t have to work at it. Never once did he leave a bar without an unasked for phone number. Golden-blond hair, sparkly-cuz-that’s-what-they-are blue eyes, he got a tan in ten minutes, told time by the sun and never wore anything but Tevas because he thought his feet generally stank. But there was something different about this time, something not quite hard, but maybe frightening, maybe unknown. Without having met once, without even a picture, Alec stepped off the bus bound from Boston and spotted Emma instantly.
He stepped down, looked up, and the word rang out loud as glass:
His look was at Emma, but it was Liza that saw.
Vermont is tragically beautiful in fall. Trees not yet gnawed by deer stand stoic and throw out umbrellas of leaves overhead dyed like blood, fire, and loam. Leaves fall in blankets over the ferns that have begun to furl, over fallen tree trunks and into shallow hollows where rain can fall and settle in oases. The air gets its first teeth, teeth that grow by the day till towards the end of apple picking season they tear at your eyes and ears and make your fingers tingle. Frosts can only sparkle and glow like an ocean of tiny diamonds because under sunlight they’re just not strong enough to stick around. White-tailed deer and the occasional bear may be spotted at dusk by hay bales or loitering along woods or on the edges of fields. People rake their leaves and bag them, or leave them in piles big enough to jump in. There are leaf wars, but there’s no sea off the shore.
For seven years, Liza Tanner (maiden name Eldredge) had been a high school English teacher. She’s tall, strong-boned, and does not have an ounce of fat on her despite irresistible urges for white chocolate and filet mignon whenever she can get it – though she’s developed a real taste for venison provided it’s fresh. She writes in a firm hand without looping her Zs or her Gs and never makes the chalk screech. She has bark-brown hair that somehow never shines. It sucks in the sun without bouncing back any, but every lock has a permanent, undeniable wave. In the evenings she writes in pointed, sparse prose about ordinary beauty and the extraordinary power in a single breath of life. She tries poetry too, but thinks it gets gushy and sometimes trite so the only poems she has she’s never shown to anyone (the words are dumped onto the page and then locked away – but she continues to write them anyway). She used to devour sex, always used to roll around, moan in a voice lower than his, wrap and hug him hard to her and require that he do the same. But after, it was hard to smush apples.
Splash red, and speckled brown shot up like a soft fountain and fell down around and wrapped the fruit to make it pretty and make it crunch. Liza held the first apple up to her nose and smelled deep deep deep. She always wondered where supermarket apples came from, or how long they’d been off the tree, because never was there one that still smelled like the autumn breeze it ripened on, the way it should smell. But just barely, there was never more than a hint and that’s why you needed to breathe deeply. It was ritual and tradition and Liza held it there ten seconds at 10 AM on an October Saturday and dropped it in first.
Then the assembly line hummed to itself as the apples passed hands. Traveling from branch to basket, from basket to hand to hand to hand they dropped quickly into the tightening press and cider ran sweet and wet. Liza had to. She just had to, and it almost reached around the edges of her mouth and up to her eyes, almost. But its strength failed and the smile dropped.
They did it every year, all the women in the faculty, or about fifteen in all. Some, who didn’t know how to climb trees with heels or squish apples with manicures, didn’t come, but most did. Out to Lynn’s twenty tree apple orchard to pick it clean, to press them dry, and to sip the fruit of their labors at the end of the day by a living room fire with cinnamon sticks and stories: it was going to be a long year like it always was and the kids never got easier. But then that’s what she liked, wasn’t it? But not this year. Not now. No no no no no she needed to be held.
“Liza! The press is overflowing love, you’re going to break the thing it’s an antique!” Lynn was the next link in the chain and oversaw the loading of the press even if Liza was supposed to – after all it was hers and there weren’t many left like it.
She was looking down at her fingers, at a finger. Apple pulp and bits of red skin clung to it. The juice made it slip around upside down and hang on the underside of her ring finger. His ring.
She opened her eyes up at Lynn and they didn’t speak for a moment. The line stopped. Lynn put an arm on her shoulder but was too late and it fell as Liza turned and walked slowly away. Hands drying sticky in the wind she simply opened a door, sat down, and drove away home. She needed his voice and knew just where to look.
Only six months and all there was was a shoebox. Overflowing but alone, it was filled with scraps of paper, little notes he’d stuck on her nose as she slept; postcards from southern Vermont, a few battered wallet photos and ten napkins taped and folded together written on with scrawling pen that had bled just a bit in places where the dripping condensation from a cold cup had seeped in from behind.
Liza sat cross-legged in the closet and tugged the string hanging directly above her that shed a light shadowed by her shoulders on a grinning piece of two-inch photo paper and a bead of blown glass.
It had never left his pocket. Everyday rough hands sank in and three fingers took light hold and rolled. Its center the size of a ball bearing was red and orange and yellow like fire. From there the bead faded to the size of an acorn in blue the shade of sky a moment before black. And then one day she was dressed all in white and a short boy with light-brown hair approached bearing not a ring but a bead. Between three fingers, against a cheek, Liza let it fall gently down her face like a tracing fingertip. Its smell was his.
Her fingers opened and she pressed the glass to her lips with an open palm and closed her eyes, and shook.
“Hold me, Alec.”
Liza wrapped her arms around her waist, around her shoulders and head and neck. She kneeled and buried her face in the fresh skirts and dresses that smelled like Tide and outdoors and grabbed more and more layers to her. Then she fell back on her heels and let herself topple sideways. She scrunched herself into the smallest ball and held her knees to her nose and cried. Loud this time. Loud enough for both times.
Liza stayed that way for a long long time. She’d left the bedroom window open just a touch though, and the wind rushed by rhythmically. Woosh, crashshshshsh. Woosh, crashshshsh. Like waves.
“Is she really coming home, Phoebe?” Elizabeth Albright didn’t know quite what she thought of this daughter that ran away and got married. In a snap, wandering off and drifting away from everything she knew and then not doing anything at all except sitting up there in the woods all alone since he died. But then she’d been twenty-five too and had had to invent her own mother, so she wasn’t about to ask this one why her daughter didn’t just come straight home.
“You be sure some music’s playing when she comes, but not too loud, Phoebe. Keep it soft.”
“Tell David hello, Bethy. And keep Charlie away for a few days anyway, ok?
“Sure, Phoebes. Sure thing.”
She feared at the Vermont-New Hampshire border and again when the signs said Boston 63 miles. What would she do if she forgot its smell; forgot the way it made her nose crinkle so imperceptibly that she’d wonder had it moved at all; forgot the way her mouth opened on reflex and her tongue lifted barely barely up so it caught the air drawn in over her lower teeth. What would she do if she forgot the smell of the sea?
A bead of mercury. Sliding solo now, all the way down she felt like shooting silver cutting through a river, colored trees and leaves blending with speed into banks that change, smooth, and flatten as the river flows. South. Liza sang with rolled up radio volume, and rolled down windows.
“Goes to my he-e-ead! Makes me forget that I still need you so. It’s up to you-u-u. All I can do I’ve done. Memories won’t go-o-o. Memories won’t go.”
She arched over the Sagamore Bridge at the top of her lungs and wrapped the smell around her, grabbing a handful and licking it off the tip of a finger.
“God it is beautiful. Beautiful every time and every time better. The top of this bridge is like heaven. I never forget but every time I’m surprised. Captivated.” She said it in a whisper and wondered what it meant to be talking to oneself. But then you know what? Screw it. Who would it mean something to and what did it matter?
“Mamma, let’s dance. Can we dance, Phoebe? Mrs. Caleb Eldredge? When I get there, can we just dance all night? And daddy? Can we get drunk? and can you make my bed for me? And, what am I going to do? Why did he…what am…” Her enthusiasm faded. The windows went back up. Then one down a crack on second thought.
I’m coming home.
Everything like it always was and how nice was that. The red sky was black and fog was rolling in over the waves, but stayed on the ground. They were maybe the best combination of sounds in the world: thousands of tiny stones ground together under four rolling tires, waves just down the hill licked up the beach into clumps of dead seaweed all in a line, the radio clicked off, the engine purred like it knew and then sighed. The open car door let the fog in.
She was home and the figures in the kitchen window framed by rose thorns waved and were happy. She watched her father flip on the porch light and unlatch the screen door. She remembered feeling the deadbolt click and tugging out the key at 114. It was locked and how long would it stay that way? And then music.
Her father was calling to get out of the cold and she heard fast angry blues.