Osprey Islandby Thisbe Nissen
As summer begins on Osprey Island, preparations at the Lodge -- the island’s one and only hotel — are underway for the busy season. On maintenance and housekeeping there’s Lance and Lorna Squire, Osprey locals and raging drinkers; and their irrepressible son Squee. There are college boys to wait tables and Irish girls to clean rooms. And a few unusual returnees, too: Suzy Chizek, single mom and daughter of the Lodge’s owners, who’s looking for a parentally funded vacation; and Roddy Jacobs, another former local, who has come back after a mysterious twenty-year absence. But when tragedy strikes, dark secrets explode, dividing the island community over the fate of a young boy suddenly more vulnerable to his violent father than ever. In the uniquely ephemeral atmosphere of a summer resort, Thisbe Nissen unfolds, with charecteristic warmth and charm, an ever-deepening story of lost loves and found romance, of loyalties and betrayals; and of lingering–sometimes fleeting–joy.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
The Washington Post
"Finally, a perfect beach book with a literary bent. . . . The story unfolds slowly, letting the reader take in Nissen's carefully crafted prose, but gains momentum at the end, when everything comes undone."New York Post
"Nissen is particularly good at describing painful obsessive passion. . . . She is a sincere and talented writer."Newsday
"Nissen's feel for character, for the inarticulate layers beneath the surface, assist her in bringing to life some truly memorable souls."–The Miami Herald
“Much like the great Joyce Carol Oates, Thisbe Nissen creates an exclusive world peopled with both the young and the old…Nissen’s writing is calm and poetic.” —Baltimore City Paper
“Well-crafted…secrets abound in a place where family bonds often go beyond blood relations.” —The Chicago Tribune
"Finally, a perfect beach book with a literary bent. . . . The story unfolds slowly, letting the reader take in Nissen's carefully crafted prose, but gains momentum at the end, when everything comes undone."-New York Post
“Incendiary tension, fueled by grief, alcoholism, and island insularity, build to levels so intolerable that one has to fight the urge to read with one eye closed even while tearing through the pages toward the shocking conclusion. Nissen is the kind of writer who sends the reader compulsively in search of everything else she has written.”–Library Journal
“Much like her plain-spoken characters, Nissen is a supremely unfussy voice, arriving at surprising places via deceptively simple routes…as a poignant summer reverie, Osprey Island should no doubt satisfy readers who can’t get away to the beach themselves.” —Fort Worth Star-Telegram
"A perfect summer read."Weekly Dig (Boston)
“Nissen is out to accomplish more than just telling a good yarn. She shows the damage secrets can cause and how years of silence can gather like a tsunami and wash away lives…Engrossing.”Tacoma News-Tribune
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
THE LODGE AT OSPREY ISLAND
Vacation this summer at the Osprey Lodge—open Fourth of July Weekend through Labor Day—Boating—Tennis—Beachfront—Swimming pool—Full-service dining room with local renowned [sic] chef— Cocktail bar with outdoor patio seating—On the shore of beautiful Osprey Island—The Lodge at Osprey Island—A Family Place!
—promotional brochure, 1988
It wasn’t until Lance and Lorna Squire showed up to the barbecue—forty-five minutes late, and drunk, hair combed back wet from the shower—that anyone got dessert. The Osprey Lodge’s head cook, Jock, was chain-smoking beside a table full of watermelon he’d hacked into slices with such samurai ferocity that no one would venture near it for fear of losing a limb. But Lance Squire strolled up, surprised Jock with a clap on the back that made him drop his cigarette in the pooling watermelon juice, and took over. “Come on now, don’t be shy!” Lance barked across the lawn. A few brave souls crept tentatively forth for watermelon. Jock glowered from the sidelines.
Jock’s name was actually Jacques, but that didn’t sound any different from Jock to anyone around there. Jock looked less like a Frenchman than a truck-stop short-order fry cook, and he took great pleasure in presenting himself as such. He hardly spoke except to swear at his waitstaff in vulgar Franglais. The Lodge’s kitchen help spoke mostly Spanish. Each summer Tito and Juan brought in a crew of their friends and relatives who worked for cash under the table and, for reasons that seemed not merely obvious, but enviable, talked only to one another. It was the waitstaff who caught the brunt and gist of Jock’s rampages. The boys laughed—“Steady there, Jocko!”—and went about their business, filling water pitchers and folding permanent-press napkins while Jock hurled epithets around the kitchen. Waitresses always had a bit more trouble: it was hard to keep count of your dinner salads or remember how many steaks and how many filets when Jock was flinging them on the grill, hollering, “What you say? How many you say? How many fucking shit steak slabs you say, gorgeous? We go outside, I fuck you so hard you speak up then, yeah? Fucking how many you say?”
Lance Squire handed out watermelon slices with the artificial magnanimity of a Good Humor man. A mildew-stained plastic banner was tacked to the front of the table, its faded red lettering giving a conciliatory Welcome Staff to the Lodge at Osprey Island. Lance himself hardly needed welcoming; he and his wife, Lorna, had been at the Lodge for more than two decades. They lived year-round in one of the cabins up the hill and served—mostly euphemistically—as caretakers. When she was sober enough to walk, Lorna was the chief housekeeper. Lance was head of maintenance and claimed, loudly and often, that he didn’t touch a drop. He was officially in charge of everything from preseason repairs to upkeep of the Lodge’s small stable of vehicles to, say, rolling the clay tennis courts every summer morning for the early-bird enthusiasts who got up to practice their backhands before breakfast. Most often, though, Lance was too drunk to lay a straight baseline, or dig a posthole, or pick his nose, for that matter, and the Lodge was known for its “rustic disarray,” which, fortunately, guests seemed to find quaint.
Lance Squire Jr.—Squee—was Lance and Lorna’s only child. Eight years old that summer, hyperactive as ever, Squee skipped around the watermelon table, hovering behind his dad, as high on sugar and people and occasion as his folks were on whiskey. Squee waited all year for this Friday in June when everybody—all the college-kid waiters and Irish housekeeping girls—arrived on the island again to prepare for the busy summer season ahead. The kid had a tendency to get himself underfoot, everywhere, always, except at home: Squee was in the kitchen at five a.m. with Jock and Tito and Juan; he trailed the housekeeping girls room to room, telling jokes and stories and bringing them sodas from the bar and peanut butter cookies from the pantry; he sat on a barstool during happy hour at the Dinghy and played cards with Morey until someone else needed the seat; and he hung out at night on the side porch with the waiters until the last beers had been drunk, the last cigarettes stubbed out, and the last staffers straggled up the hill to a lonely camp-cot sleep.
Lance lifted the watermelon knife. “Squid,” he said to the boy, “go get your ma a chair to sit down in.” He jerked his chin toward a tower of plastic lawn chairs stacked against a wall under the deck. The Lodge held a piece of prime Osprey Island real estate on Sand Beach and the hill that rose sharply from its shores, and the hundred-room hotel had been designed to maximize the view. The basement was cut into the slope, exposed in front and buried in back, and a large deck on the main level overhung a stone patio that extended from the basement and bled onto a great lawn, where such momentous annual events as the staff barbecue were held.
Squee darted toward the chairs, the stack of which teetered a good yard above his head. He stared at the tower, reached out and gave it a nudge, then swept his eyes over the crowd on the lawn. He saw no empty chairs.
There was one person in the crowd who was neither sitting, nor eating, nor interacting with anyone at all, and it was this person who noticed Squee’s dilemma. He was one of the newly arrived waiters, a lanky, brooding boy named Gavin who’d just finished his freshman year at Stanford University far away in California, and he stood alone, smoking, as he leaned against a pillar under the deck of the Osprey Lodge.
Gavin ground out his cigarette, sauntered over, and stepped between the boy and the tower of chairs. With a shake he disentangled the top one from the others and set it down before Squee like Superman plucking Lois Lane from the Empire State Building. Then Gavin gave Squee a polite and obliging nod, like a Japanese bow, turned and walked away without a word.
For a moment Squee just stared at the chair. Then he snapped to, turned, and sprinted back toward his parents, grabbing hold of the chair with one hand almost as an afterthought and letting it bump across the patio behind him as he ran.
Though Lance and Lorna were standing not five feet from each other, Squee delivered the chair straight to his father, who took it with little or no acknowledgment of the bearer, laid aside the watermelon knife, wiped his hands on his apron, and set the chair down for his wife as though he were a gentleman. Lorna giggled, demurred, and then sat with a plop, her face wrestling to stay composed, growing redder by the instant as it dissolved in mirth. She was higher than heaven.
For an elongated second Lorna looked truly gleeful, and then the joy on her face swerved into fear as the plastic legs of the chair began to bend and buckle beneath her. She went over awkwardly, slowly enough that the impact didn’t hurt her, just elicited a short “Oh!” of surprise. Squee looked on, frozen: he’d set this terrible domino-train of events in motion and was powerless to stop it now. Lance, too, was halted for a moment by incomprehension. But as his wife tumbled over before him, his confusion turned to anger. He flashed his young son an accusing glare. Then he bent over to help Lorna up off the ground.
Bud Chizek wore a chef’s hat to scoop the potato salad and coleslaw onto Styrofoam plates. Bud and his wife, Nancy, owned and ran the Lodge at Osprey Island and had been doing so since Bud inherited the place from his father almost forty years before. Bud had learned early that housekeeping girls could be imported very cheaply through an overseas Irish employment agency and that a dining room could be quite adequately staffed with college boys who were thrilled to settle for low wages in exchange for a summer at the beach with an in-house stable of attractive, young, and impressionable lasses eager to experience the American way.
Once upon a time the Lodge’s season had run Memorial Day to Labor Day; now there weren’t enough guests to make it worth Bud’s while to open earlier than Fourth of July weekend. The staff arrived on Osprey mid-June and spent the rest of the month getting the lay of the land, getting the Lodge ready for guests, and getting good and drunk most every night. At the barbecue to welcome them to Osprey the Irish girls held their hot dogs awkwardly, as though unfamiliar with the concept of the frankfurter. They sipped generic colas and orangeades and sat tentatively on the grass as though afraid to muss their shorts. The boys—the waiters—clustered by a large trash can like hobos around an oil-drum fire, as though it gave them a greater sense of purpose to guard the garbage, keep tabs on the rate of paper plate discard, see who might fail to heed Nancy Chizek’s infamous sign: don’t have eyes bigger than your stomach—take only what you will eat.
“Is the food this brutal as a rule, do you think?” said one of the seated Irish girls, a buxom, redheaded Dubliner called Brigid. She poked suspiciously at a stewy splotch of potato salad, yellow with unidentifiable flecks of red and green. The other girls shrugged blandly, unwilling to pass judgment just yet on this strange new place and its American accoutrements. They were jet-lagged and knew they’d do better to hold their condemnation until they’d had a good night’s sleep, or at least a pint of beer.
Brigid’s new roommate—with whom she could look forward to sharing, for the duration of the summer, a shoddily wallpapered heat trap on the first floor of the staff house—was a girl from County Cork named Peg who was neat and mousy with smooth skin and thin lips that she pursed as though in great distress. Brigid’s sister, Fiona, had worked at the Lodge the previous summer, and Peg reminded Brigid of her, which was both comforting and repellent. Had they been back at home in Ireland, Brigid and Peg would have loathed each other on sight—an arrogant Jackeen from the city! a bloody mulchie!—but as it was, in this new place, the girls would likely cling to the familiarity of their own until they’d gotten steady enough to detach from the clan.
As paper plates mounted in the trash can, Bud Chizek climbed atop a picnic table, tapping a plastic spoon against the side of a Styrofoam cup. “Hello,” he said. He raised his voice: “Hello and welcome!” He swept a hand out at the panorama of sea and sky before him, a gesture at the crescent that was Sand Beach. “I couldn’t have ordered a better sunset for you tonight,” he said, and his wife, Nancy, applauded softly, proud as a grandmother of that pink-plumped sky. The evening was indeed exemplary, the western horizon streaked like a tropical drink. Seagulls flew in from the beach and lit upon the Lodge lawn to poke their beaks at fallen hot dog buns and discarded melon rinds. And in its nest atop a utility pole near the shoreline, a lone osprey stood displaying its profile to the crowd as if aware of the dramatic silhouette it cut against the horizon.
“So, welcome,” Bud said again, “to the Lodge at Osprey Island. We’re glad you’re all here, ready for another busy season. And I know all of you who just arrived this afternoon have your unpacking to do and settling in, so I’ll let you get to that just as soon as I introduce some important folks who keep this place running.” Affability was something Bud Chizek could manage to muster only through great and diligent effort, but he’d found over the years that if he could display something that approached graciousness during these first few interactions with his summer staff, then he could pretty much drop the charade for the rest of the season and keep them all on their toes, afraid they’d disappointed him somehow and scrambling to regain his favor. “I’m Bud Chizek,” he boomed. “I own this beautiful place here”—he gestured to the Lodge and its grounds and up the hill toward the guest cottages scattered around the tennis courts and swimming pool—“been in my family . . . oh, what is it now, Nance? What did we say?”
“Nearly fifty years,” his wife chimed in from the sidelines.
“My wife, Nancy Chizek,” Bud said proudly, and Nancy gave a wave, turning side to side like the Queen Mother on motorcade, and with as little sense of irony.
Bud continued: “And, with us for the past twenty-six of those summers, our chef, Jock. Let’s give a hand to Jock for this delicious barbecue!” There was a wave of polite applause. Jock continued to glower from behind the serving table.
Bud Chizek looked around at the picnic guests. “OK, on with the family: Where are you, Mia?” he asked into the crowd.
“Here!” A voice came from beneath the deck where Squee was frantically pointing at the little girl seated beside him on top of the Ping-Pong table, paddle and ball in her hands, waiting diligently for her grandfather’s speech to be over so they could continue their game.
“Thank you, Squee,” said Bud. “That’s Lance Squire Jr., there—his folks are our heads of maintenance and housekeeping . . . Lance? Lorna?” Bud looked for them, but they had already retreated up the hill. “Anyway . . . my granddaughter, Mia. And somewhere out there . . . is her mother . . . my daughter, Suzy . . . out from New York City for another summer at the family hotel . . .”
He panned the crowd. His introduction was intended as a jab, and both he and his daughter knew it. Suzy was hardly a part of the family business—hardly a part of her family’s life on Osprey Island but for these summers when she accepted her parents’ offer of three rent-free months of vacation with built-in babysitters and maid service. She and her parents had been on speaking terms again only since Mia’s birth. It appeared that granddaughter trumped grudge. Or at least the idea of granddaughter. Mia and her grandparents never seemed to know what to do with one another once they were in the same place, but the Chizeks liked the sound of the phrase We’ll have our granddaughter with us for the summer. Suzy was never entirely sure why she ever agreed to the arrangement, and usually spent much of the summer trying to figure out what in god’s name she’d been thinking. Suzy Chizek thought her parents ungenerous, judgmental, and phony, and she was quite certain they’d have traded Suzy’s life in a fraction of a second to have her older brother back. Chas, she was sure, would have merited a nice room at the Lodge. A room with a view, say. Suzy Chizek was not a daughter who deserved a view. Bud never gave Suzy and Mia a particularly nice room. Those were for the paying guests, not for the wayward daughter and her (for all intents and purposes) fatherless child, the daughter who’d sworn her distance from Osprey Island’s oppressive confines as soon as the Island High diploma was in her itchy hand. That daughter took what she got: a room that looked out over the parking lot, on the kitchen and delivery entrances.
When Bud’s eyes lit on Suzy, seated at a nearby picnic table, he stuck out a hand in his daughter’s direction. Suzy lifted an arm slightly, the gesture of a gesture, and half smiled, her eyebrows raised to the crowd as she tried to share with them, silently, a mutual understanding of her father’s absurdity. She was thirty-six years old and had put up with introductions like this for more of her life than she could bear to think about.
“And let’s see . . .” Bud Chizek looked around again. “Who am I forgetting?” He paused, searching faces, different each summer yet so much the same: the college boys, the Irish girls, the Island hangers-on.
One person Bud had neglected to introduce was both a new and an old face to Osprey Island, but he was standing in the shadow of the deck’s overhang against the stone wall of the basement, hoping that Bud wouldn’t notice him there. Roddy Jacobs would have preferred to hide in that shadow until the sun had set and he could slip away in darkness than be forced to wave jubilantly at the crowd and endure some patronizingly tactful speech about how glad they all were to have Roddy Jacobs back on the island after so long—God, Roddy, what’s it been? Twenty years?—while old-timers and people who knew enough back then whispered to their neighbors about just what had Roddy Jacobs been doing with himself for the last twenty years? And wasn’t it charitable of Bud Chizek to hire him on to work grounds and maintenance at the Lodge with his old high school buddy Lance Squire during the busy summer season ahead? Didn’t even come back in time for the funeral, they said. That boy waited till his father’s body was cold in the ground before he was going to set foot on this island again.
Roderick Jacobs Sr. had passed on toward the end of the winter. Heart attack. Boom. Gone. Wherever in the world Roddy had been keeping himself, he’d apparently been keeping up with obits in the Island Times, waiting for the one death that conditioned his return. A few weeks later he’d shown up on his mother’s doorstep. Eden still lived in the same house, a clapboard box on the scrubby side of the island up by Lovetsky’s Auto. She had offered Roddy the guest room, his old bedroom, but he preferred the cottage out back. If you could even call it that: forty square feet, maybe, more like a small shed. Roddy outfitted it with a bed, a sink, and a woodstove, and split enough firewood to last the next winter and beyond. And when Bud Chizek hired Roddy on at the Lodge, people figured he was back for good.
There were people who said it was a recipe for disaster—after all, Roddy’d left under such a pall of indiscretion. Most Islanders had found it in their hearts after twenty years to pardon him—they blamed his youth, his mother—but some still felt that having Roddy Jacobs back on-island was just asking for trouble.
It was a tremendous relief to Roddy when Bud adjourned the barbecue and sent people dispersing in all directions—the girls scuttling up the hill toward the staff barracks, waiters scraggling up the beach toward Morey’s Dinghy, where they could get started on the drunks they’d work diligently to maintain until Labor Day. Squee and Mia eagerly resumed their Ping-Pong, so excited to be reunited after another school year apart that they couldn’t keep the ball on the table. Roddy watched as Suzy Chizek made her way across the lawn and ducked under the deck to ruffle her daughter’s hair and kiss her forehead. “I’ll be in the room, Miss Mia-Mi,” she said. “Squee, you look after her, OK?”
Squee grinned—he was two years older than Mia and relished the notion of watching over her—and Suzy crossed to give him a fluff and a kiss as well. He stood for it, if not happily then at least with patience. “It’s good to see you, kid,” Suzy told him.
Squee nodded vigorously.
Suzy gave the Ping-Pong table an affectionate smack as she passed, and as she disappeared up the stairs and into the Lodge above them, Roddy breathed another sigh of relief at being granted a little more time to figure out how the hell to say hello to Suzy Chizek for the first time in twenty years.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Thisbe Nissen is a graduate of Oberlin College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she is a former James Michener Fellow. A native New Yorker, she now lives, writes, gardens, and collages in Iowa City, Iowa.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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