Life Between Warsby Robert H. Patton
There is no question who killed the tourist scuba diver caught poaching from local lobster traps at dawn off Penscot Island. Robby Cochran letting the guy go unpunished would have been the surprise. But aftermath brings down flutters of doubt that are near miraculous in a thug like Robby, and he's only the first to find the rules and customs he's living by
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There is no question who killed the tourist scuba diver caught poaching from local lobster traps at dawn off Penscot Island. Robby Cochran letting the guy go unpunished would have been the surprise. But aftermath brings down flutters of doubt that are near miraculous in a thug like Robby, and he's only the first to find the rules and customs he's living by overturned by his act. Life Between Wars examines the ripples being caused by one violent incident as they disperse and build to a virtual tidal wave through the Penscot community. Meet teenagers bending on comic crusades for sex and contraband, a would-be nun seeking a last romance to miss from within the cloister, and an eccentric octogenarian certain he's seeing the face of God in his backyard shrubbery. An ex-lieutenant and his former platoon sergeant warily circle one another, too old to be reliving ugly rivalries born in South Vietnam almost two decades earlier, yet too set in the ways to risk the dangers of forgiveness. There is a flamboyant painter, with frightening and thrilling sexual infatuations, along with his delusions of terminal illness. And then there is the handicapped youth whose very nickname, "Johnwayne," both parodies and embodies the mystery of proper American manhood that so compels and befuddles his neighbors.
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Penscot Island was moving. You couldn't feel it, but it was moving--right to left on a nautical chart. Tidal currents were the cause, eroding the island's eastern bluffs while laying along its western shore wave on wave of new sand, forming first a shoal, a spit, a point of dunes and wire grass, maturing finally to a buildable housing lot. In outline Penscot resembled an amoeba streaming through pondwater; or, some said, a drunk on a barroom floor, his head slung low, one leg dragging behind. An offshore lighthouse once attached to, now severed from, the island corpus by gnawing waters heightened the illusion, glinting near his ankle like a misplaced pint.
Penscot was motionless in intervals between the tide's ebb and flood, and at all other times slid slower than a snail and faster than a continent westward. Tourists sometimes read poetry into this migration, a sense of yearning indicated, a longed-for link with the mainland twenty-six miles away, a trip that at present speed would take twenty thousand years. People who lived here year round kept a cooler view, warmed mostly to their situation's menace, the fact of ground moving under them like a tablecloth under china. Still, they knew that whatever happened would happen not to them; their homes would someday spill into the sea, this was sure, but not today and not tomorrow. Twenty thousand years was eternity enough.
The estates along Penscot's Oceanside Road were especially endangered. They'd annually have lost eighteen inches of lawn if the bluffs below weren't buttressed with railroad ties or cinder blocks, and even the costliest constructions were laid low by the few properties that acceptednaked the ocean's massage. Each year erosion cut deeper into the bare frontages and in time outflanked the protected ones. Formidable seawalls defending absent bluffs were a common result. Monuments now, the Atlantic surf tormented them without end.
The easternmost property on Oceanside Road featured seawalls of martial grandeur. In 1942 the War Department built a concrete parapet topped with pillboxes and observation posts in anticipation of Nazi attack, though how the owners, John and Carolyn Winston, worked stairs to the beach, freshwater showers, and a barbecue pit into the design was a question never answered. Wealthy and at one time influential, the Winstons still lived on Oceanside Point, and early one morning far into old age, Mr. Winston slipped from his canopied bed, donned a robe against the September dampness, and hobbled barefoot downstairs.
The stone floor of the solarium was cold under his feet, wet with rain beneath a shattered skylight pane. Mr. Winston took a porcelain vase down from its glass shelf. Powder blue in daylight, the vase appeared gray in the morning dimness and was the size of a burial urn. He dumped its flowers on the floor and carried it up two flights of stairs to an attic stepladder that led to his house's widow's walk, a narrow railed balcony atop the roof peak. Such activity was remarkable. He usually got about with great difficulty, leaning on his wife, his nurse, his aluminum walker, sometimes riding a motorized chairlift so slow in ascending he'd lately threatened to gore the house with an elevator he'd seen advertised in Architectural Digest.
Mr. Winston hadn't climbed to the widow's walk in more than thirty years, though at one time it had been a frequent ritual. How pleasant to pour a brandy-and-soda and carry it here to sip and savor the passing afternoon. Up so high he could breathe pure sky, touch clouds. He could imagine the ocean at his feet a royal blue carpet leading, as to a throne, to England, could survey his wife's estate (her money, her estate, though he liked to pretend) with the pride of practically owning it. The four-horse stable and post-and-rail paddock. The apple grove that on warm days smelled of fruit fallen from the tidy boughs. The garden, its beds configured like church pews bought for a price, fat dusty vegetables yielding to flowers nearer the grape arbor altar. And the arborvitae trees (big bushes really, but big; outside the solarium they stood steady as palace guards) that framed a view of a fairway lawn and a gazebo overlooking the sea, a view that offered even this misspent man a thrill of exaltation--thirty years ago anyway, before he'd suffered the first of several small cerebral events the doctors aptly termed shocks. Today Mr. Winston's memory was like the smudged fingerprints a careless thief might leave behind, barely traceable, the capacity for pride, for exaltation, the priceless jewel stolen.
He climbed the ladder to the overhead trapdoor and pushed. The door lifted high, and cool wet air washed over him. Hauling himself to his feet, he made out the dark twin cones of the arborvitae trees below. Sighting the right hand one over his thumb, he bent over the railing and with the delicacy of releasing a trout to its stream rolled the vase down the roof. It clattered past a dormer, clicked as it leaped the gutter, vanished. He bit the railing where he'd released the vase, with an animal yank of his head tearing off a soft sliver of wood to mark the spot. Pensively he chewed. The eastern sky had colored to brown, the ocean misted and not yet visible, its presence betrayed by the sound of its breathing. He spat out the pulpy wood. His teeth ached as he returned downstairs. He savored the pain.
When he reached the solarium he was being followed shadow to shadow by a girl in white. No ghost, she was alive and of her time. Her black hair was cut spikey with a racing stripe bleached across one temple; the white she wore was a man's T-shirt torn at the shoulder on purpose. A guest in this house, she'd been here four days, time plenty for even vague old Mr. Winston to realize she had an attitude. She was fourteen and considered herself an artist in search of a medium. And she liked her name, which was Araby.
Araby watched Mr. Winston go outside to inspect the tall evergreen bushes at each side of the back door, watched him return for the shotgun stowed in the umbrella stand and go outside again. Poking with the gun barrel he dislodged a porcelain vase from the righthand bush's branches. He scooped into the vase flowers puddling the solarium floor and replaced it on its shelf. Then he shuffled past her like a Halloween zombie and went up to his room. She followed. At his desk he wrote something in a leatherbound portfolio. She couldn't resist, snuck in and read his message. As she tiptoed out he hissed from his bed, "Who goes there?"
She said nothing.
"It's me," she answered.
"For Christ's sake, Marguerite! My wife is home!" But his anger melted as she fled, for he was pleased that his shy little chambermaid would risk all for a shag with the boss. Such, he sighed, was his power over women.
Araby curled in her bedroom windowseat. She'd been lying awake conjuring tragic airs when noise on the roof had summoned her to other investigations. The depression she'd sought in the rain out her window now set in for real. She was stuck in a nuthouse with no way out. She needed what her great-uncle had printed in his portfolio in childlike block letters:
Meet the Author
Robert H. Patton was educated at Brown University and Northwestern University. He is married, a father of four, lives in Connecticut, and is the author of The Pattons: A Personal History of an American Family. This is his second novel.
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