The Three-Quarter Moon
Today a man called from Long Beach. He left a long message on the answering machine, mumbling and shouting, talking fast and slow, swearing and threatening to call the police, to have you arrested.
Today is the longest day of the year--but anymore, every day is.
The weather today is increasing concern followed by full-blown dread.
The man calling from Long Beach, he says his bathroom is missing.
By the time you read this, you'll be older than you remember.
The official name for your liver spots is hyperpigmented lentigines. The official anatomy word for a wrinkle is rhytide. Those creases in the top half of your face, the rhytides plowed across your forehead and around your eyes, this is dynamic wrinkling, also called hyperfunctional facial lines, caused by the movement of underlying muscles. Most wrinkles in the lower half of the face are static rhytides, caused by sun and gravity.
Let's look in the mirror. Really look at your face. Look at your eyes, your mouth.
This is what you think you know best.
Your skin comes in three basic layers. What you can touch is the stratum corneum, a layer of flat, dead skin cells pushed up by the new cells under them. What you feel, that greasy feeling, is your acid mantle, the coating of oil and sweat that protects you from germs and fungus. Under that is your dermis. Below the dermis is a layer of fat. Below the fat are the muscles of your face.
Maybe you remember all this from art school, from Figure Anatomy 201. But then, maybe not.
When you pull up your upper lip--when you show that one top tooth, the one the museum guard broke--this is your levator labii superioris muscle at work. Your sneer muscle. Let's pretend you smell some old stale urine.
Imagine your husband's just killed himself in your family car. Imagine you have to go out and sponge his piss out of the driver's seat. Pretend you still have to drive this stinking rusted junk pile to work, with everyone watching, everyone knowing, because it's the only car you have.
Does any of this ring a bell?
When a normal person, some normal innocent person who sure as hell deserved a lot better, when she comes home from waiting tables all day and finds her husband suffocated in the family car, his bladder leaking, and she screams, this is simply her orbicularis oris stretched to the very limit.
That deep crease from each corner of your mouth to your nose is your nasolabial fold. Sometimes called your "sneer pocket." As you age, the little round cushion of fat inside your cheek, the official anatomy word is malar fat pad, it slides lower and lower until it comes to rest against your nasolabial fold--making your face a permanent sneer.
This is just a little refresher course. A little step-by-step.
Just a little brushing up. In case you don't recognize yourself.
Now frown. This is your triangularis muscle pulling down the corners of your orbicularis oris muscle.
Pretend you're a twelve-year-old girl who loved her father like crazy.
You're a little preteen girl who needs her dad more than ever before. Who counted on her father always to be there. Imagine you go to bed crying every night, your eyes clamped shut so hard they swell.
The "orange peel" texture of your chin, these "popply" bumps are caused by your mentalis muscle. Your "pouting" muscle. Those frown lines you see every morning, getting deeper, running from each corner of your mouth down to the edge of your chin, those are called marionette lines. The wrinkles between your eyebrows, they're glabellar furrows.
The way your swollen eyelids sag down is called ptosis. Your lateral canthal rhytides, your "crow's-feet," are worse every day and you're only twelve fucking years old for God's sake.
Don't pretend you don't know what this is about.
This is your face.
Now, smile--if you still can.
This is your zygomatic major muscle. Each contraction pulls your flesh apart the way tiebacks hold open the drapes in your living room window. The way cables pull aside a theater curtain, your every smile is an opening night. A premiere. You unveiling yourself.
Now, smile the way an elderly mother would when her only son kills himself. Smile and pat the hand of his wife and his preteen daughter and tell them not to worry--everything really will work out for the best. Just keep smiling and pin up your long gray hair. Go play bridge with your old lady friends. Powder your nose.
That huge horrible wad of fat you see hanging under your chin, your jowls, getting bigger and jigglier every day, that's submental fat. That crinkly ring of wrinkles around your neck is a platysmal band. The whole slow slide of your face, your chin and neck is caused by gravity dragging down on your superficial musculo-aponeurotic system.
If you're a little confused right now, relax. Don't worry. All you need to know is this is your face. This is what you think you know best.
These are the three layers of your skin.
These are the three women in your life.
The epidermis, the dermis, and the fat.
Your wife, your daughter, and your mother.
If you're reading this, welcome back to reality. This is where all that glorious, unlimited potential of your youth has led. All that unfulfilled promise. Here's what you've done with your life.
Your name is Peter Wilmot.
All you need to understand is you turned out to be one sorry sack of shit.
A woman calls from Seaview to say her linen closet is missing. Last September, her house had six bedrooms, two linen closets. She's sure of it. Now she's only got one. She comes to open her beach house for the summer. She drives out from the city with the kids and the nanny and the dog, and here they are with all their luggage, and all their towels are gone. Disappeared. Poof.
Her voice on the answering machine, the way her voice screeches up, high, until it's an air-raid siren by the end of every sentence, you can tell she's shaking mad, but mostly she's scared. She says, "Is this some kind of joke? Please tell me somebody paid you to do this."
Her voice on the machine, she says, "Please, I won't call the police. Just put it back the way it was, okay?"
Behind her voice, faint in the background, you can hear a boy's voice saying, "Mom?"
The woman, away from the phone, she says, "Everything's going to be fine."
She says, "Now let's not panic."
The weather today is an increasing trend toward denial.
Her voice on the answering machine, she says, "Just call me back, okay?"
She leaves her phone number. She says, "Please . . ."
Picture the way a little kid would draw a fish bone--the skeleton of a fish, with the skull at one end and the tail at the other. The long spine in between, it's crossed with rib bones. It's the kind of fish skeleton you'd see in the mouth of a cartoon cat.
Picture this fish as an island covered with houses. Picture the kind of castle houses that a little girl living in a trailer park would draw—big stone houses, each with a forest of chimneys, each a mountain range of different rooflines, wings and towers and gables, all of them going up and up to a lightning rod at the top. Slate roofs. Fancy wrought-iron fences. Fantasy houses, lumpy with bay windows and dormers. All around them, perfect pine trees, rose gardens, and red brick sidewalks.
The bourgeois daydreams of some poor white trash kid.
The whole island was exactly what a kid growing up in some trailer park--say some dump like Tecumseh Lake, Georgia--would dream about. This kid would turn out all the lights in the trailer while her mom was at work. She'd lie down flat on her back, on the matted-down orange shag carpet in the living room. The carpet smelling like somebody stepped in a dog pile. The orange melted black in spots from cigarette burns. The ceiling was water-stained. She'd fold her arms across her chest, and she could picture life in this kind of place. It would be that time--late at night--when your ears reach out for any sound. When you can see more with your eyes closed than open.
The fish skeleton. From the first time she held a crayon, that's what she'd draw.
The whole time this kid's growing up, maybe her mom was never home. She never knew her dad, and maybe her mom worked two jobs. One at a shitty fiberglass insulation factory, one slopping food in a hospital cafeteria.
Of course, this kid dreams of a place like this island, where nobody works except to keep house and pick wild blueberries and beachcomb. Embroider handkerchiefs. Arrange flowers. Where every day doesn't start with an alarm clock and end with the television. She's imagined these houses, every house, every room, the carved edge of each fireplace mantel. The pattern in every parquet floor. Imagined it out of thin air. The curve of each light fixture or faucet. Every tile, she could picture. Imagine it, late at night. Every wallpaper pattern. Every shingle and stairway and downspout, she's drawn it with pastels. Colored it with crayons. Every brick sidewalk and boxwood hedge, she's sketched it. Filled in the red and green with watercolors. She's seen it, pictured it, dreamed of it. She's wanted it so bad.
Since as early as she could pick up a pencil, this was all she ever drew.
Picture this fish with the skull pointed north and the tail south. The spine is crossed with sixteen rib bones, running east and west. The skull is the village square, with the ferryboat coming and going from the harbor that's the fish's mouth. The fish's eye would be the hotel, and around it, the grocery store, the hardware supply, the library and church.
She painted the streets with ice in the bare trees. She painted it with birds coming back, each gathering beach grass and pine needles to build a nest. Then, with foxgloves in bloom, taller than people. Then with even taller sunflowers. Then with the leaves spiraling down and the ground under them lumpy with walnuts and chestnuts.
She could see it so clear. She could picture every room, inside every house.
And the more she could imagine this island, the less she liked the real world. The more she could imagine the people, the less she liked any real people. Especially not her own hippie mom, always tired and smelling like French fries and cigarette smoke.
It got until Misty Kleinman gave up on ever being a happy person. Everything was ugly. Everyone was crass and just . . . wrong.
Her name was Misty Kleinman.
In case she's not around when you read this, she was your wife. In case you're not just playing dumb--your poor wife, she was born Misty Marie Kleinman.
The poor idiot girl, when she was drawing a bonfire on the beach, she could taste ears of corn and boiled crabs. Drawing the herb garden of one house, she could smell the rosemary and thyme.
Still, the better she could draw, the worse her life got--until nothing in her real world was good enough. It got until she didn't belong anywhere. It got so nobody was good enough, refined enough, real enough. Not the boys in high school. Not the other girls. Nothing was as real as her imagined world. This got until she was going to student counseling and stealing money from her mom's purse to spend on dope.
So people wouldn't say she was crazy, she made her life about the art instead of the visions. Really, she just wanted the skill to record them. To make her imagined world more and more accurate. More real.
And in art school, she met a boy named Peter Wilmot. She met you, a boy from a place called Waytansea Island.
And the first time you see the island, coming from anyplace else in the entire world, you think you're dead. You're dead and gone to heaven, safe forever.
The fish's spine is Division Avenue. The fish's ribs are streets, starting with Alder, one block south of the village square. Next is Birch Street, Cedar Street, Dogwood, Elm, Fir, Gum, Hornbeam, all of them alphabetical until Oak and Poplar Streets, just before the fish's tail. There, the south end of Division Avenue turns to gravel, and then mud, then disappears into the trees of Waytansea Point.
This isn't a bad description. That's how the harbor looks when you arrive for the first time on the ferryboat from the mainland. Narrow and long, the harbor looks like the mouth of a fish, waiting to gobble you up in a story from the Bible.
You can walk the length of Division Avenue, if you've got all day. Have breakfast at the Waytansea Hotel and then walk a block south, past the church on Alder Street. Past the Wilmot house, the only house on East Birch, with sixteen acres of lawn going right down to the water. Past the Burton house on East Juniper Street. The woodlots dense with oaks, each tree twisted and tall as a moss-covered lightning bolt. The sky above Division Avenue, in summer it's green with dense, shifting layers of maple and oak and elm leaves.
You come here for the first time, and you think all your hopes and dreams have come true. Your life will end happily ever after.
The point is, for a kid who's only ever lived in a house with wheels under it, this looks like the special safe place where she'll live, loved and cared for, forever.
For a kid who used to sit on shag carpet with a box of colored pencils or crayons and draw pictures of these houses, houses she'd never seen. Just pictures of the way she imagined them with their porches and stained-glass windows. For this little girl to one day see these houses for real. These exact houses. Houses she thought she'd only ever imagined . . .
Since the first time she could draw, little Misty Marie knew the wet secrets of the septic tanks behind each house. She knew the wiring inside their walls was old, cloth-wrapped for insulation and strung through china tubes and along china posts. She could draw the inside of every front door, where every island family marked the names and height of each child.
Even from the mainland, from the ferry dock in Long Beach, across three miles of salt water, the island looks like paradise. The pines so dark green they look black, the waves breaking against the brown rocks, it's like everything she could ever want. Protected. Quiet and alone.
Nowadays, this is how the island looks to a lot of people. A lot of rich strangers.
From the Hardcover edition.