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By Maria Flook
LITTLE, BROWNCopyright © 2004 Maria Flook
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIT WAS THE END OF HER SHIFT and the rain was falling. In the half dark, Alden switched on her desk lamp. A silhouette from its finial loop cast a noose across the ceiling. She unscrewed the dreary ornament and got rid of it. She enjoyed hearing it clang in the metal wastebasket at her feet.
Her moods often pounced on her at quitting time, and she hurried to finish last minute items. She had been having some trouble with a married man she had met in her office at the National Seashore Visitor Center on Cape Cod. He was scouting locations for an Internet travel agency that booked "wilderness tours" and "nature vacations" and had come to collect information about the outer peninsula. He showed up when Alden was surrounded by schoolchildren as she monitored a stranded sea turtle, a creature about the size and shape of a pressure-cooker lid. The turtle had been found on First Encounter Beach, stunned by a sudden drop in the water temperature. During their autumn migration, these stragglers sometimes washed ashore, numbed by the cold. The New England Aquarium retrieved the endangered turtles for observation and eventual release into warmer Florida waters, but the research truck had been late to collect this one.
He had tried to make small talk about the turtle and other wildlife attractions within theNational Seashore, but Alden said that she was just the "bookstore manager" and he should try to find the director at the other end of the corridor. The man went away but soon returned to her bookstall. He wasn't fazed by her initial brush-off and he asked her about her perfume, seeming quite pleased by it. He was surprised, he told her, that "a book clerk" would bother wearing scent, but he was handing it right back to her.
"This perfume?" she said, tugging her cuff to extend her wrist. But she withdrew her arm before he could have a closer inspection. The French scent was a subversive incorporation of musks and spicy florals, bergamot spitballs and gingers. "Like a hothouse on fire," her husband had once told her in his typical ridicule. But her husband was out of the picture.
The travel agent told her his name was Mr. Ison. She thought "Ison" had a clear, ringing note, like the name of a steep mountain or a famous skyscraper building. The Prudential, the Chrysler, the Hancock, the Ison. She kept busy, charting the sea turtle's progress. It had not yet reached room temperature. Ison lingered with the children, pretending to be interested in the stranded animal. He had recognized something about Alden, a willingness or desperation that made her seem receptive.
Alden sometimes looked unraveled, a little akimbo, like a sticky door that needs planing, or a window propped open by a book when its sash weights are broken. She was still trying to regain her footing after her husband had disappeared two years ago. Alden thought she saw her husband everywhere.
She sometimes saw Monty coming out of the automatic doors at the supermarket just as she entered with an opposite river of shoppers. She turned around in an instant and tried to follow him back outside, but the electronic sensors were slow to signal the mechanism, and the door didn't sweep open until after he was gone. Once, she drove past an alley and saw Monty standing beside some garbage cans. She turned the car into the private lane to confront him, but it was just an apparition-a bicycle had been left standing vertical on its handlebars.
Or it was a rake propped in a barrel with a blue jean jacket draped on its tines. Another time, it was a pair of bibbed overalls luffing on a clothesline. Never Monty.
After Monty disappeared, she visited a therapist a few times. The MSW had told Alden that there is the "imagination of hope" and the "imagination of fear." Imagined fears accelerate to a finite disaster scenario. The building burns. The bridge collapses. The 737 nose-dives. The lover cheats on his beloved. Fear eventually climaxes, thank goodness, but hope just escalates. Hope is an ascending fever; hope is the one-and-the- same unfounded expectation that spikes hotter and hotter.
The therapist slapped Alden's hand to get her to stop twisting a loop of hair around her index finger. The woman told her, "Uncontrolled anxiety can eat you up."
He'd been less than a perfect husband, but Alden still hoped Monty would turn up. When she filed a missing-persons report, the police officers looked at her as if she was crazy. They were certain that the schoolteacher had jilted her. If only her husband had remained in town with his new conquest, Alden might have got over him. When she pestered the officers too often, they nicknamed her "Miss Bride Interrupted."
Left on her own, Alden had opened her door to suitors, but they were just "filler" until Monty returned. She sometimes believed that she brought out the predatory and, even worse, the scavenging instinct in these men. Men would gladly pick over her bones, feeling no responsibility for what had befallen her. That was her husband's fault.
ALDEN HAD YET TO TRANSCRIBE MESSAGES from the Audubon hotline, 349-WING, a duty she saved until the end of her day before locking up. She sat at her desk with a pad of paper and pressed the play button on the answering machine. She listened to the tape rewind, a lisping shiver of magnetic plastic that promised a long list of reported sightings. There were a couple of national counts in progress, and Alden logged these notations in different registers that required she keep running tallies. The callers were often regulars, and Alden recognized their voices. A familiar oldster reported a Townsend's solitaire at the old railroad bed at Corn Hill; and three Lapland longspurs were spotted in the wrack line off First Encounter Beach. About seventy northern gannets were plunge-diving just off the beach in front of the Watermark Inn in Provincetown. A flock of eighteen common redpolls. One sharp-shinned hawk. Two marbled godwits. Nine whimbrels. Two more Kemp's ridley sea turtles were seen paddling sluggishly between moorings in Wellfleet Harbor. They should be picked up before they were too numb to swim. She penciled in each sighting, noting its numbers and exact location. She added up any repetitions to get the final counts for migrating waterfowl and songbirds.
Then it was Sarah Calhoon, a fiftyish retiree who often visited the National Seashore bookstore. She wasn't calling to report a sighting, but said, "Alden, did that order of ladybug thumbtacks come in?" Ladybug thumbtacks. Arachnid cocktail napkins. Killer whale shot glasses. These items had come to represent the "good life" for some people. Alden couldn't find solace in animal figurines and trinkets, although she tried to match the enthusiasm of the knee-jerk naturalists and tree-hugger types who came into the bookstore to buy badges. Real naturalists don't have to wear it on their sleeves. But her favorite regulars assembled the way farmers mobilize at the local Feed-and-Grain just to rest their dogs and shoot the breeze. Alden sold them wildlife coffee mugs and tote bags, ladybug thumbtacks in plastic tubs.
Alden reset the tape machine, locked her cash drawer, and left her desk at twilight. A minor storm hit the coast in a typical Cape Cod "sea squall makes landfall" hissy fit. The rain stopped as soon as it started, but a Stephen King-caliber fog rolled across from Chatham Bars. The wind was clammy and the short walk to her car was like fighting through a shower stall of wet Hanes and panties. She got into her Jeep but could hardly see the road. Landmarks disappeared.
The outer peninsula had a chaotic, fiddlehead topography of dunes and swales that curled around in a spiral. Sometimes, when Alden stood on the breakwater at Land's End, she lost her sense of direction entirely. What was supposed to be due west was actually looking south, and northward could be east. Living at the inverted tip, a person needed a heightened kinesthesia or a cartographer's intuition, especially in sea mists.
But the whiteout made her nervous. She tried to remember what the Weather Channel announcer had said: "Fog is just harmless cloud." Mothering cloud that sinks down on its clan to enfold and nourish, the way a white pullet sits on her brood. Its white banks swept across the windshield, closing around her. Alden couldn't see six feet in front of her. No backward, no forward, just the instant interior.
After hours, Alden worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which had started a project to exterminate an overpopulation of seagulls. The herring gulls bred on Monomoy, a barrier beach sanctuary two miles offshore. At first, the extermination project seemed to be working; the gulls were eating the poisoned bait. Heaps of sliced table bread were sprayed with Avitrol and systematically deposited across the sand dunes. The plan backfired when, in their death throes, the gulls flew inland and dropped like flies into the densely populated vacation resorts of Chatham and East Orleans. At the height of the summer season, gulls were falling onto people's decks as men in barbecue aprons grilled swordfish and burgers. Gulls were going belly-up in motel swimming pools. It was Alden's job to collect the carcasses.
Just the other week, Alden was in Snow's Library on Main Street when a crazed gull crashed through the skylight, somersaulted to the carpet, then took wing again. It flew out through the same jagged starburst.
"I guess he's not a bibliophile," a senior told Alden. Together they watched a steel blue flight feather that the gull had lost in its crash test flutter down and stab the carpet. The woman seized it, twisted the feather before Alden's face, and said, "I think it's criminal, what you're doing to those poor birds."
Alden had always thought that seagulls were the rats of the sky, but she told the Audubon crone, "The project will help endangered piping plovers reclaim their nesting grounds. We need to increase the plovers to at least ninety nesting pairs in the next five years." Alden often saw these baby plovers, tiny birds of speckled fluff racing in tight zigzags across the tidal flats. They pecked the foam necklace at the wrack line, chicks hardly bigger than the tufts on a chenille bedspread, searching for immature sand shrimp and beach fleas. It's a baby-eat-baby kind of thing. These wildlife babies tweaked her heartstrings. She told the senior, "But I'm not in charge of this gull project. I just work at the bookstore."
"Plovers. Seagulls. Let nature decide who's king of the mountain," the woman said.
"Like I said, don't blame me. I'm not the mastermind." As a National Seashore employee, Alden had been enlisted to help collect the scruffy seagull corpses after the fact. She was given a canvas rucksack for toting the poisoned shorebirds to the transfer station, where she put them in a predesignated Dumpster stamped with the peculiar, postmodern toxic-waste cartouche. Next to the gull bin was the recycled milk jug bin with the missing children's faces lined up in forlorn rows just like in a Romanian nursery. It wasn't her idea of a posh moonlighting gig.
She was assigned to the Orleans rotary at dusk to patrol its traffic island for any sick or dying birds. Alden parked her car on a service road and crossed against traffic. She entered the tangled moat of underbrush, briar and scrub pine, careful to skirt hummocks of poison ivy. Alden was highly allergic to the pesky vine and just had to look at it for her skin to erupt in seeping welts. She had a fresh lesion where the noxious plant had twanged her bare leg and left a flaming check mark.
On her patrol, she didn't find any stricken birds, but she disturbed a red fox bitch. She watched the startled fox weave across the busy rotary traffic and disappear into a deep belt of spartina growing along Cove Road. She fretted that the fox would get hit, leaving its little kits motherless.
She imagined rescuing these kits. But fox litters usually come in the spring. Audubon do-gooders might move in on dens, thinking the kits were orphaned, when the mother was probably just out hunting rabbits. These naturemongers and wildlife collectors look for their opportunities wherever they might claim one.
Alden sympathized with the fox's denning ritual. She imagined the secret bliss of retreating to a dark parlor with such glorious offspring. Her aunt had had a fox collar jacket, its fur pelt a soft velvet choker. She imagined snuggling in bed with a whole row of these fox collars. Alden often examined her feelings about the maternal ethos-how it can be nurtured or shattered in an instant. She had recently submitted an application to the Department of Social Services for a foster-care license, but she hadn't received word that she had been approved. They told her to send proof of her current residence and employment status and a copy of her marriage license. She had bristled at the suggestion that her marital status remained unconfirmed without the live item or the appropriate paperwork. Single women could often adopt babies; why was she being scrutinized?
Finding no seagulls, she waited on the island for the traffic to thin out so she could get back to her Jeep. Cars cruised nonstop past the big topiary clock that greeted tourists at the Route 6 rotary in Orleans, a mock timepiece carved from a circle of ornamental hedges planted on an incline. All twelve emerald digits were sheared across the top and sides and checked with a spirit level. The clock's green hands were set, in perpetuity, to five o'clock.
Five o'clock. Quitting time. Outsiders driving onto the outer peninsula passed the clock at the rotary circle, and from there they entered the circus of leisure and R & R, retirement and recreation, of life without work. Even locals who held regular jobs at the fish piers, resort hotels, antique shops, and souvenir outlets found some reassurance in the "Quitting Time Clock" as their workday began. They'd have their respite, too, in just eight hours.
Cars rolled past the landmark and entered the rotary counterclockwise, as if in a prideful attempt to reverse time. Alden would be glad to go forward or backward just to lose the stigma that had clung to her since her husband ran off. She tried not to think of anything but her daily routine, the here and now, no matter how monotonous it was. When summer people crossed the Cape Cod Canal at Sagamore, they could plead instant amnesia, but year-rounders couldn't claim the same privilege.
At the canal bridge, the beloved steel-tied arch had a new suicide fence, tall metal tines hooked inward at the top. The fence had been built to enforce the familiar billboard sign "Desperate? Call the Samaritans," which for decades had greeted all traffic funneled into a bottleneck at the arch. When people moved to Cape Cod as a last resort, the geographical cure sometimes wasn't enough. She would read about these suicides in local newspapers. The Cape Codder sometimes reprinted excerpts from suicide notes, hasty scraps found tucked under windshield wipers on parked cars left on one side of the canal or the other. Alden was especially struck by the brevity of these notes. One victim had written the two words "Pain everywhere," and another jumper had complained that his life was just too much to bear, that it was "Everything-all at once." These messages, "Pain everywhere" and "Everything-all at once," echoed in her head when she least expected. Bridge deaths seemed like blatant flag-waving from the damned, or perhaps these unhappy victims had gone too far in their bratty role play, enacting "Pierre, I Don't Care" syndrome with fatal consequences. Once, Alden saw an extension ladder left propped against the new suicide fence. She rationalized that perhaps bridge painters had forgotten to stow it. But the ladder was a mocking invitation to lost souls, and Alden tried not to think that someone had brought his own ladder to the site.
Each time she crossed the narrow span, she tried to empty her mind. The canal had even earned the nickname the River of Forgetfulness, like Lethe. On Cape Cod, the two poles of linear time lost definition. The Quitting Time Clock was disconnected.
Excerpted from Lux by Maria Flook Copyright ©2004 by Maria Flook. Excerpted by permission.
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