"Islands" is a story that didn't make it into the collection, A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales.
Sarah got out a book Tom had given her called The Couple’s Guide to a Child-free, Fun-filled Life. It was short. Jacqueline came from a town in the Poconos where people said “wooder” instead of “water,” although she pronounced the word correctly. She pronounced everything correctly, and had naturally auburn hair and symmetrical breasts. Her husband did freelance work for a micro-lending company in London called Big Change. Sarah’s nephews, the twins of her sister, Edith, were preschool age now and always asking why things were the way they were. No answer made sense to them. Sarah’s boss, Helen, who didn’t have children, had told Sarah by way of consolation that she would be spared the pains of parenthood: the infant’s tantrums, the child’s sullenness, the teenager’s panic, the adult’s neglect. Sarah would be sidestepping an emotional rack that stretched people to the breaking point with worry about what was passing too quickly and what had never been in the first place. The man and woman on the book cover were very attractive. Sarah would have preferred a more realistic couple, one less obviously equipped to fill their child-free lives with fun. This lanky, wavy-haired pair stood on the prow of a thirty-foot sailboat in loose white linens, their arms and smiles entwined, Eskimo kissing against a burnt sienna sunset. They’d probably woken up that day to sex and whole fruit and filter-drip coffee, then spent the afternoon with other beautiful, childless friends for whom money shortages, cancer, boredom, insecurity and cynicism were just abstractions. They made it hard for Sarah to suspend her disbelief.
Tom called when she was reading about a woman who didn’t want children because they would take time away from the pet placement program she ran for senior citizens. The woman’s name was Giselle, and she lived bilingually in Montreal. Old people with pets suffered less from hypertension and high blood pressure than those without them, said Giselle, whose joy in life came from making others happy. If you focus on your own happiness you won’t find it, she said, just like concentrating on an orgasm ensures that you won’t have one. Sarah bookmarked the page. Tom said he’d pick her up in a minute for the Frank Demar party at the casino. She heard honking outside.
“We didn’t talk about our plans for tonight,” she said from the back seat of the truck’s king-size cab, strapping herself in with a belt buckle that had lost its elasticity.
“This is Frank Demar, Sr., the candidate’s father,” said Tom, his voice precise and deliberate, a sign he’d been drinking. Jacqueline’s husband was British and had a light Midlands accent, plus the unruly, exciting hair of Beethoven and Andrew Jackson and Jesus. “My wife, Sarah.”
“We’re swerving,” Sarah said five minutes later, “on the road.”
“Windy tonight,” said the driver, Frank Sr. “Wind coming off the lake, you know.”
She doubled the loose seatbelt strap around her shoulder to tighten it. A big-production country song came on the radio about running into an ex at the supermarket and the vaporous nature of love. Edith, her sister, had gotten pregnant by accident. Three months after she and her boyfriend split up, they had bathroom sex out of boredom at a Super Bowl party. It ended almost as soon as it began. When the ex-boyfriend learned about the pregnancy, he said, It’s not mine, but if it is mine you should get an abortion, and if you don’t get an abortion I’ll deny paternity and not pay anything without a court order, and since I don’t have a job you wouldn’t get much. And if I do have to pay alimony I’ll get visitation rights and turn the kid against you. Sarah was glad for the twins’ sake that the ex-boyfriend wasn’t around, but Edith complained about how tiring it was to raise them by herself, and how self-absorbed they were. Self-absorbed? Sarah thought. Once, Edith said she could sympathize with a woman in the news who in a dead zone of postpartum depression had drowned her three children in the bathtub. Sarah said, Tell me you’re joking. Edith laughed: You’ll understand when you have kids, and Sarah said, No, really, if you’re having these thoughts then me or mom should—, but Edith interrupted her: This is why I can’t talk to you, because whenever I vent a little bit you act like it’s the end of the world. Things don’t have to be so serious all the time.
The ride to the mayoral candidate party, being held at the Seven Suns Casino, took them past the marina and an office park listing cut-rate vacancies, and a slightly elevated housing development called Hillcrest Heights. The truck kept rattling on safety bumps along the side of the highway and Sarah kept telling herself that it was just the wind.
She sat up when they pulled into the casino parking lot, which was big enough to be divided into letter-number sections. Frank Sr. led Sarah and Tom inside, where nature scene murals surrounded a glittering maze of slot machines and star-patterned roulette tables, with a raised open bar in its middle, and along a far wall a stage where a tuxedoed band played torch songs. When Frank Sr. excused himself to go to the bathroom, Sarah said to her husband, “You’re drunk.”
“I just stopped at a restaurant where there was a soccer game on, and Frank Sr., who’s seen a lot of the world, like Colombia, didn’t want to drink alone because Spain was winning. I haven’t done anything embarrassing.”
“It’s not even six o’clock. You should drink some coffee.”
Tom nodded and went off in the direction of the bar. Sarah drifted over to a display booth of Frank Demar campaign materials, with pamphlets and a video montage of the candidate playing baseball with elementary school kids, listening to firefighters, and hugging elderly women in floral print dresses. Demar’s party affiliation wasn’t mentioned anywhere. Her own father had switched from being a Democrat to a Republican five years earlier when the labor union he belonged to lost his retirement money in an embezzlement scheme. On social issues this wasn’t a real defection. He’d long believed in capital punishment and gun rights and zero drug tolerance. She used to argue with him about these things, telling him it cost the state more to execute a prisoner than to keep them in prison for life, and that the country’s homicide rate was worse than the rest of the world’s because of easy access to firearms, and that taxing drugs would pay for rehab programs. But no more. She’d reached the point of why-bother.
The ceiling in the casino was forty feet high, and the central air conditioning roared like a far-off jet engine. Sarah stared at a laminated “proposal pledge sheet” poster written in computer-generated cursive, superimposed over a photo of Demar in a tailored suit. He favored a range of cost-cutting, efficiency-raising measures that would save the city a fortune over the next decade. More cops on bicycles. Motion-detection lights in government buildings. An end to civil service job redundancies. The capstone of his proposals was the Demar Growth Initiative, a plan to secure the state’s next prison-building contract and a private retirement community. Also, he would restore mining jobs to the area by working to realize the mining potential of Thalassa Island. Sarah looked around for someplace to sit down and wondered if anyone from last night’s Carlos Kalnins party was there.
“Can I answer any questions?” asked a woman in a tight red jacket and brown bell bottom pants, stepping out from behind a poster board. “Mr. Demar will be here in a minute, but I could tell you about his platform now.”
“I’m not voting, thanks.”
The woman cocked her head and said, “The mayor’s a critical job. Their actions affect us where we live. Think about safety and the police budget. That sex predator who’s spying on women? Mayor Powell hasn’t done anything about him, not even issued a statement, whereas Demar is calling for increased police presence in every neighborhood. And more police wouldn’t just be for until the predator’s caught, but for always, because Demar knows that solutions can’t be temporary.”
Sarah saw a man who looked like a younger, more slender version of Frank Sr.—the same dark eyes, flat chin and full cheeks—walking toward them. The woman greeted him and smiled brightly and said, “This young woman says she’s not voting, so that’s where you need to start.”
“You’re from Philadelphia,” said Frank Jr., shaking her hand. “My father just told me he gave you and your husband a ride here. I’m glad you could come.”
Frank Jr. had short blown-dry hair that added two inches to his height. “I heard about what happened to you with the peeping tom, and I want to apologize on behalf of Ambleside. You came here on vacation and shouldn’t have to deal with that kind of violation. As mayor, I’m going to work closely with the police to protect people like you in the future.”
“Future people like me will be grateful.”
“Is your husband around? I’d love to meet him, too, if possible.”
“He’s getting a cup of coffee.” Sarah’s first three boyfriends had been alcoholics. One had driven her into a highway dividing wall when she was seventeen, breaking her collar bone and landing him in jail for four days for drunk driving. Another had tried to sleep with her sister Edith and then, when Edith told Sarah about it, said she shouldn’t be upset because it was only sex. The third said on a twelve-beer night that although he often thought about killing himself, he’d never, ever hurt her, because he knew who was responsible for his pain and who wasn’t. After him she vowed never to date another alcoholic. The world was full of men who drank in moderation or avoided booze altogether, and it’d be easy to find one.
“Maybe we could discuss something for a minute? I know that Carlos Kalnins talked to you guys about Mark Josephson, and I hope you’re not inclined to help Carlos with that. Thalassa Island’s a complicated issue with many sides and angles and alternative viewpoints, and its importance for the region can’t be overstated. You’re probably unfamiliar with it all, and I’m sure Carlos presented it as a simple thing.”
“He talked to Tom about it, but we didn’t agree to do anything.”
“Look,” said Frank Jr., “Carlos’s eco park idea sounds good on paper. Create a safe space for endangered animals and boost tourism and keep the island pristine. Everybody wins, right? But here’s why it’d be bad. Carlos and his partners have no money or investors to buy the island and animals and then operate at a loss for a few years, which is what happens at every privately operated park until—if—it moves into the black. The insurance alone would cost millions every year. All those lions? If there were a mauling accident? And we don’t have the transportation or hospitality infrastructure to handle the number of visitors needed for a working eco park. Then if it did finally pay for itself, which is doubtful since there’s so much competition from animal parks all over the country and all over the world—and zoos, which it’s like Carlos has never heard of them—even the rosiest economic forecasts say it wouldn’t produce a tenth of the taxes that mining the island would.”
Sarah looked toward the bar, where Tom was sitting on a stool with one foot touching the ground and the other propped on the stool next to him, a shot glass in his hand, studying his phone as if that hid the fact that he wasn’t drinking coffee.
Frank Jr. said, “What I’m hoping is that Mark will meet with me personally. I know he’s just trying to be culturally sensitive to my people by leaving Thalassa Island alone, and I appreciate that. He doesn’t want to offend the reservation. But I can assure him that there’s a lot of Indian support for mining. You know how many of us are employed by Empire Iron Range? Two hundred and thirty-seven. That’s more than any other business around here. This casino where we’re standing is the second largest employer in Ambleside, and it’s got less than a hundred employees. Plus, Rolling Dunes Casino is opening in Finisterre next year, and that’s going to cut into our business. If you kill mining in Ambleside you chop Sault Chippewa well-being off at the knees.”
Sarah said, “We don’t actually know Mark except by email, so I’m not sure we can help, but if you want—”
“Carlos has charm, I know. He has stage presence because he’s an actor and he’s trained to say whatever will make people like him. But that charm isn’t real. Ask his ex-wife what he’s like when the lights go off. He turns into an ogre. Ask any woman he’s dated since his divorce.”
“His new commercial says that mining would hurt Thalassa Island in the long run, but he doesn’t cite any scientific studies because there aren’t any. It’s irresponsible of him, and he can get away with it because we’re a small community. In a bigger city like Philadelphia, there’d be journalists and fact checkers all over him, challenging his points one by one, but since we don’t have a newspaper anymore I have to do it in counter ads, and that just makes me look defensive.”
It had been a while since Sarah had talked to anyone who really cared about politics, a subject she paid attention to during presidential cycles, when it seemed briefly to be at once the most important and venal and exasperating thing in the world. Jacqueline should have sent her a long, reassuring email by now. Helen should have forwarded her the usual links to massage parlor discounts, Philadelphia society news, and new high-rise construction announcements. Sarah had a growing premonition that something bad had happened. She felt an acid rush of panic and said, “I heard the Sault Chippewa gods want Thalassa Island to be left alone, as a sacred site, because it’s where the human race began.”
Frank Jr. shook his head. “That’s a garden of Eden story. It’s just a metaphor. People use it to promote the lake beast legend for tourists, to give it color, but no one believes it. Mark Josephson didn’t grow up around here, so he doesn’t know what the Sault Chippewa really think, which is why if you and your husband connected me with him I could clear up these things.”
A month before, Sarah had worked on the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s Summer Solstice Celebration. She’d overseen the installation of over three thousand different plants—from acanthi to zinnias—in the Convention Center’s main hall. The botanist who gave the keynote address said, as Sarah chewed a tough roll in the back, that the age of naturally occurring nature was ending. There were more Bengal and Sumatran tigers in captivity than in the wild, as well as Californian condors and black-footed ferrets and Guam rails, and at the rate things were going this would be true of a large proportion of the earth’s species by the century’s end. As a gardener he understood and accepted artificial spaces. He loved Kew Gardens, Versailles and the Netherlands: any and all intentional arrangements of flowers could be beautiful. But as a scientist reminded daily of the earth’s fragility, as someone who had watched video feeds of the Amazon’s deforestation and China’s rural industrialization, he was dismayed. No, he said, dismayed is too tame a word. I’m terrified. I want to stop strangers in the street and beg them to help stop this from happening. Sarah thought, “He’s way off-script.” The reason I don’t is because it’s already too late for anyone to do anything that’ll make a difference. Our planet’s done. We’ve hoisted ourselves high on our own petard. The take-away from this speech, Sarah thought, was that while it might’ve been a good idea to have children in the past, it wasn’t now. In fact you did the unborn a favor by sparing them an encounter with all the constriction and loss and reduced hope to come. Every child you didn’t have wouldn’t have to see things fall apart.
Tom joined them and Frank Jr. repeated what he’d told Sarah, who saw that her husband was drunker than before, asking for clarification when none was needed, talking too loudly, swearing, rubbing his nose as if allergic to the light. At one point Tom interrupted Frank Jr. to talk about Sarah’s painting. It was a rambling, overly celebratory monologue, all about her amazing picture of her mother that made you see qualities in the woman that might not even exist. Frank Jr. said he was always looking for art work to hang in the casino.
When Frank Sr. came over and said he had to get home because the Portugal versus Germany game was on early the next morning, and looked disappointed but not surprised when his son said he hadn’t followed the matches and knew neither the team rankings nor any of the breakout players, Sarah said that she and Tom would go with him. Frank Jr. asked her to think about his request—she could do a lot of good for a lot of people by granting it—and she shook his hand noncommittally and then ushered her rudderless husband into the starry night.
The next morning Sarah was at the Shelley Cove trailhead by 9:30. She followed the steep path down to the beach, which like the day before was empty, and set up her easel and canvas in between piles of driftwood and the lake tributary. At some formless hour in the night Tom had asked why Frank Demar, Jr. wanted them to be middlemen with Mark Josephson. It made no sense. Mark was in Philadelphia, not a witness protection program. She’d learned to sketch faces in high school. For her Drawing 1 class she made portraits of friends and family, who praised her talent and said she was a natural artist. Her teacher, however, told her it was fine to stroke people’s vanity—Sarah had narrowed noses and lightened scars and enlarged eyes—that it happened in amusement parks and at county fairs and on boardwalks all the time, but it wasn’t art. Art distorted in order to reveal underlying truths, not flatter its subjects. Art didn’t care what others thought of it because public opinion was as ephemeral and meaningless as the weather. Sarah thought, As what as the weather? and felt exposed as a fraud and also victimized by this woman with spidery neck tattoos and oversized bangles pushed up high on both arms. Ms. Breyer. What Sarah had always thought art depended on, the admiration of critics and others, apparently didn’t matter. It was like hearing that outer beauty meant less than inner beauty: you wanted to believe it because it was true, but you didn’t believe it because it was false. After that class, she did not take Drawing 2 or pursue visual arts in college or plan ever to practice it again. She was lucky to learn early on what not to do with her life. She thought, Don’t go after what isn’t going to work out, because it’ll break your heart.
The waves lapping on the shore of Shelley Cove echoed against the rocks around her. There was no hint of the lake-born wind Frank Sr. had talked about. Sarah clamped down her sun hat, although the sun was getting lost behind clouds, and decided to paint either Thalassa Island or something closer by, maybe driftwood or a blue heron or the cresting-wave cliff behind her. The key to art, Ms. Breyer had said, was to get down the essential details and leave out the rest. Selection, discrimination, placement: these were more crucial even than technical skill. Two months ago, when Sarah saw her doctor about the lump on her breast that turned out to be a harmless collagen deposit, it took her a moment to feel relief that she didn’t have breast cancer, that she might live another fifty or sixty years, the better part of a century. Could anything be more boring than a painting of driftwood? Everything in art is important but the subject, said Ms. Breyer. In a rare slip, because she’d hid her treason well, Jacqueline had questioned Sarah’s decision to book the Grossman wedding at the Hotel Palomar in front of Helen, suggesting that it cost too much. Sarah had argued that the Palomar was perfect because its Palladium Room fit a hundred and thirty people comfortably, and its podium was wheelchair accessible (Bob Grossman’s brother had Parkinson’s), and she could get a good deal by calling in a favor with their events manager, Susan Crispelli. Her doctor told her to go ahead and plan for a normal future, a wide-open space where anything might happen. Though not anything would happen. Sarah’s uncancerous body wouldn’t let it. Driftwood was dead wood that moved randomly over the earth. What Ms. Breyer had been saying was that no subject in art was intrinsically good or bad—that the most ordinary object could be lifted into the sublime (see “Still Life with Fruit,” by artists through the ages), just as dramatic situations could be portrayed ridiculously. But maybe Jacqueline hadn’t slipped. Maybe she’d criticized the Palomar booking so that Sarah would second-guess herself. The corrosive effects of self-doubt, like that of wind and rain on stone, were well known, and Sarah had never seen a still life painting of fruit she actually cared about, and was sublimity even the point of art?
She drew the island’s outline, a steady diagonal rise from the water to a gently rounded top serrated by trees to a steady diagonal fall back to the water. It was a perfectly symmetrical image, as palindromic as a camel hump or sine wave. She mixed colors: the rock an aluminum gray, the trees a hunter green, the sky a sandblasted blue, the water a glassy mirror of the sky. When she’d started at Robert Evans Event Planning, Sarah had not wanted her superior’s position. She and Tom were new arrivals to Philadelphia in a bad economy, and she was too grateful for a job to think about promotion. She pretended that Philadelphia wasn’t full of what she’d hoped to escape as an adult: winter, red brick buildings, meat sandwiches, sports zealotry, urban blight, pop-up violence. Although it had seemed to be at first, aluminum gray was wrong for the rocky parts of the island, and hunter green was wrong for the trees. The more she looked at the real thing, the more the island’s colors appeared deeper than what she’d come up with. The problem wasn’t the hue so much as the intensity. After Edith visited and said that Philadelphia seemed like a smaller version of New York inhabited by Cleveland people, Sarah suggested to Tom that they move to Los Angeles. It’d be good to be near his family when they had a baby, she said. There’d be free childcare and reliable holiday meals. He said no. In LA he got restless and lethargic and then upset, like a kid who falls apart because he’s too tired to fall asleep. She said they didn’t have to settle in Culver City, where he’d grown up, but rather in Venice or Silver Lake or Echo Park, and he said that despite their superficial differences all LA neighborhoods were the same, suburban enclaves in denial that they were suburban. Months passed and she was never pregnant. At this distance the island’s colors should have been dulled by atmosphere or ozone or the overcast sky. Edith was now dating an older guy named Rick who had five ex-wives. Sarah said, Five, Jesus, that’s a big warning sign. Edith said, Lots of people his age have five ex-wives. But only in the most carefully cherry-picked sample of fifty-two-year-olds could that be true. Sarah’s doctor had recommended a counselor who specialized in women unable to bear children, someone who understood everything from generalized grief to feelings of physical deficiency to the short- and long-term side-effects of the hormone injections used in fertility treatments. Sarah had written down the counselor’s phone number but never used it. She didn’t want to hear that it wasn’t her fault and that by articulating her pain it would go away. Some things, you either got over them in time or they held you under water until the last air bubble drifted up to a surface you’d never breach again. She decided that the way to get the right colors was to apply several layers of paint. Deepen through overlay. To an artist unconcerned with what others thought, to someone who didn’t care about the meaninglessness of public opinion, islands were like driftwood: inanimate objects moving randomly out into the unknown.
Sarah painted for an hour and then texted Tom. A breeze started up. She rubbed her neck and looked around and saw a small boat sailing in to the shore a few hundred feet away. Edith had said that the advantage of dating a man Rick’s age was his calmness and predictability; he’d already had a midlife crisis, and few women under forty would try to seduce him. Sarah cupped a hand over her eyes and squinted at the boat. Its lone occupant climbed onto the shore and tied it to a log and draped a brown tarp over its hull. She couldn’t make out his features. She and he were the only people there, and the only way out—besides by water—was up the trail she’d come down. Edith had said, I can’t afford to be with someone who’s still deciding who he is. That was fine before I had the twins—I mean, it sucked then, but I had no choice because every guy was like that—but now I’m too tired to stress about him running off with another woman. With Rick I know that tomorrow’s going to be just like today. It’s a relief.
The man began walking in Sarah’s direction, but she had no cause for worry because he was just someone (bearded and tangle-haired) out boating (and hiding the evidence) who’d stopped to walk on the (area’s most isolated) beach. She got up and took several steps back and squatted behind a large tangle of deadwood. As he drew nearer, any chance that he might not be the same man who’d been at Mark’s window disappeared. She called 911 and gripped the pepper spray in her purse. At the easel he stopped and leaned in close to the painting. She made herself smaller. The driftwood separating the two of them had smooth stump edges like amputated limbs. The man touched the canvas and then examined his finger. His being there was a coincidence (Jacqueline knew that to get ahead you had to be superhumanly dedicated to your job, to do more for less under closer scrutiny on tighter deadlines), and Sarah’s footprints from the easel to her hiding spot were like a dotted line on a treasure map, and Jacqueline herself would in time be challenged by someone younger. The cycle of displacement was eternal. In the parking garage she’d reacted automatically to being grabbed because there’d been no time to think. The body was an adaptive, surpassingly attuned instrument, though fatally vulnerable. She shut her eyes and heard the swish of the man’s trouser legs and his footfalls in the sand, and the mild waves broke into an answering echo. She prepared to jump up and scream and release the pepper spray in an access of terror. Five, four, three, two, one…. She opened her eyes and he was twenty feet away now, walking toward the path leading up to Blake Park. She let go of the pepper spray and wiped her forehead and saw that the island half a mile offshore was in fact duller than her painting, and she wondered with great disappointment, how she’d ever thought otherwise.
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