Stiltsville: A Novel

Stiltsville: A Novel

by Susanna Daniel


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"A wise and loving portrait of a marriage. . . . Susanna Daniel writes beautifully of matters of the heart."
— Jennifer Haigh, author of The Condition

Against a vivid South Florida background, Susanna Daniel’s Stiltsville offers a gripping, bittersweet portrait of a marriage—and a romance—that deepens over the course of three decades. Called "an elegantly crafted work of art and a great read" by Curtis Sittenfeld (American Wife, Prep) Stiltsville is a stunningly assured debut novel sure to appeal to readers of Anita Shreve, Sue Miller, and Annie Dillard, or anyone enchanted by the sultry magic of Miami.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061963087
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/28/2011
Series: P.S. Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 359,657
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Susanna Daniel was born and raised in Miami, Florida. Her first novel, Stiltsville, was awarded the PEN/Bingham prize for debut fiction. She is a graduate of Columbia University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Read an Excerpt


On a Sunday morning in late July, at the end of my first-ever visit to Miami, I took a cab from my hotel to Snapper Creek marina to join a woman named Marse Heiger, whom I'd met the day before. When I stepped out of the cab, I saw Marse standing in the well of her little fishing boat, wearing denim knee shorts and a yellow sleeveless blouse, her stiff brown hair pinned under a bandanna. She waved and gestured for me to climb into the boat. She poured me a mug of coffee from an aluminum thermos and started the engine. "Ready?" she said. We puttered out of the marina, under a bridge from which two black boys were fishing with what looked like homemade poles, down a winding canal flanked by mangroves. The knobby, twining roots rose from the water. I sat on a cushioned bench and Marse sat in a captain's chair at the helm. She handed me a scarf and told me to tie back my hair, which I did. We passed an egret standing stock-still on a mangrove root, then emerged from the canal into the wide, open bay. The Miami shoreline stretched out in both directions. Marse picked up speed, and each time we came down on a wave, I gripped the corner of my bench.

I'd grown up in Decatur, Georgia, just outside Atlanta, and had been to the ocean only once, when I was eleven years old. My parents and I had spent a weekend on Saint Simons island, in a one-bedroom rental cottage three blocks from the beach. That weekend, I'd seen a dark fin from shore, but my father had said it was probably just a dolphin.

And though I'd spent a few afternoons on lake pontoons with friends during college, never had I been out on the open water. From halfway across the bay I could see the low silhouette of downtownMiami, where Freedom Tower spiked above the blocky buildings. The bridge connecting the city to Key Biscayne looked like a stroke of watercolor. Above the wind and whine of the engine, Marse named Miami'sparts for me, pointing: farthest southwest were the Everglades, then the twin nuclear reactorsat Turkey Point-just built but not yet in operation-then Coral Gables and Coconut Grove, then downtown. To the east, the Cape Florida lighthouse squatted at the tip of Key Biscayne, signaling the edge of a continent.

We landed hard on each wave and the spray hit my face. Marse's boat-an eleven-foot Boston Whaler with a single outboard engine- was, in my estimation, little more than a dinghy. When we'd traveled fifteen minutes across the bay, Marse pointed ahead, away from shore. There was nothing there but sea and sky, but then a few matchbox shapes formed on the hazy horizon. They grew larger and I saw that they were houses, propped above the water on pilings. I counted fourteen of them. As we neared, I saw that some were painted, some were two stories high, some had boats moored at the docks, and some were shuttered and still. They stood on cement pillars, flanking a dark channel along the rim of the bay, as if guarding it from the open ocean. Marse slowed the boat as we entered the channel, and when we came to a red-painted house with white shutters, she shifted into neutral. A larger boat was tied to the dock, but there was no one around to greet us. Marse cut the engine and the world stilled. "Where are they?" she said. A plastic owl perched atop a dock piling. An open bag of potato chips sat in a rocking chair on the upstairs porch. "Guys?" called Marse. She stepped to the house's dock with the stern line. I took her cue and stepped up with the bowline. I imitated Marse's knot, a figure eight with an inward loop, and after the boat was secured, I heard shouting in the distance. I turned. Two men stood on the dock of a stilt house eighty yards east; they waved at us. One was dark-haired and held a duffel bag, and the other was fair-haired and wore bright orange swimming trunks. Marse waved back, and because the waving went on for several seconds, I raised my arm as well. As I did, the fair-haired boy dove off the dock into the water, then started to swim.

I'd taken the train from Atlanta two days earlier to attend the wedding of a college girlfriend. I'd met Marse at the reception, and we'd spent an hour chatting about Atlanta and Miami, and about the bridesmaids' dresses and the best man's toast. Her given name was Marilyn, but Marse-rhymes with arse, as she put it-was a family nickname. From what little I knew of the city, I concluded that Marse was a true native daughter: she was darkly tan, with premature lines around her eyes, and she dressed in a confident, sexy way that anywhere else would have seemed showy, but in Miami was unexceptional, even practical. She'd grown up in Coral Gables, in a Spanish-style bungalow with a wraparound porch and no air-conditioning, and had never considered moving out of South Florida. When she'd invited me to spend the day with her at a place called Stiltsville, I'd accepted readily. So that Sunday morning, I'd dressed in a pair of Bermuda shorts and my most becoming top-still plain compared with Marse's blouse-and called a taxi.

While we waited in rocking chairs on the upstairs porch for the boys to arrive, Marse filled me in. The dark-haired boy was Kyle, her older brother, and the fair-headed one was Dennis DuVal, whose parents owned the stilt house where we were sitting. Kyle and Dennis were in their last year of law school at the University of Miami; Marse was a year behind them. "You'll like Kyle," Marse said. "Girls tend to."

"And Dennis?"

"Dennis is mine. That's the plan, anyway."

She wore dark sunglasses and she'd pulled off her top to reveal two triangles of purple bikini. Her stomach was flat and tan, with taut creases across the navel. The boys were yards from the dock, arms and legs lashing, sending up brief white wakes. "Does Kyle know I'm coming?" I said.

She nodded. "Don't worry, there's no pressure. You'll be gone tomorrow, anyway."

It was true: my train back to Atlanta left the following afternoon. In the time since I'd graduated from college, I'd dated a few colleagues from the bank where I worked as a teller. I was twenty-six years old, and though I'd come close, I'd never been in love. "What's your plan with Dennis?" I said.

She took lip balm from her pocket and applied it, then handed it to me. "There's this fund-raiser every year at Vizcaya," she said. She didn't explain what Vizcaya was but I already knew-it was a Renaissance- style villa on the bay in Coconut Grove, surrounded by elaborate formal gardens, open for tours and events. I'd visited Vizcaya the day before the wedding, sightseeing. I'd walked alone through the overdressed rooms, then stood on the limestone terrace and watched sailboats cross the bay. "Everyone dresses up and picnics on their good china and drinks champagne."

"You're going to ask him?" I said.

"I'm hoping he'll ask me."

"What if he doesn't?"

She frowned. "You're no fun." She stood and lifted one bare foot onto the porch railing, then folded over to touch nose to ankle. I was tall but Marse was taller, and her limbs were sleek and muscular. "Besides, that's why it's so great that you're here. You'll be my impartial third party. Just watch him, see how he acts."

"I'll do my best."

The boys reached the dock in a flurry of splashing and pulled themselves onto the transom of the big boat. The fair one-Dennis-took a towel from the console and dried his hair, and the other one-Kyle-hauled up a small duffel bag he'd strapped over one arm, then reached into a cooler and opened a can of beer. They resembled, in their unselfconscious mannerisms and the energetic timbre of their voices, overgrown children. Dennis called up, "Welcome!"

"Did you bring the burgers?" called Kyle.

Marse ignored him and smoothed her hair with both hands. "OK?" she said to me.

She wore no makeup and her hair was long, her body lean and tan. "You look great," I said, because she did. We went downstairs side by side. The boys stepped onto the dock and Marse greeted Dennis with a quick embrace. His eyes were blue, his face was pink from exercise, and he'd grown a dusting of red beard since his last shave. He smiled at me. "Who are you?" he said.

"Frances Ellerby," I said. I shook Dennis's hand, then Kyle's. Of the two of them, Kyle was the looker. His eyebrows were thick and dark, his nose was sharp, and his teeth were white. He had a wide, confident smile and ropy muscles. Dennis's nose was crooked (from a boxing injury in college, I would learn), and his teeth were uneven (he'd resistedbraces), and his legs were pale and skinny. "I hope Marse told you about our mission," Dennis said to me. His hair, drying in the sun, stuck up at odd angles. It was more red than blond, and it needed a cut. Freckles spotted his shoulders and earlobes. "Just because this is your first time," he said, "don't think we don't expect you to contribute." "Damn straight," said Kyle. He opened the duffel bag he'd brought from the other stilt house, pulled out a machete, and removed its sheath; it glinted in the sunlight. They had swum to the other house, which Marse told me belonged to a family named the Becks, to borrow the weapon and also to prove which boy was the faster swimmer. Kyle had won.

"What's the mission?" I said.

"I don't want anything to do with it," said Marse.

"She disapproves," said Kyle to me. He brandished the machete in the air, then brought it down over an invisible kill. "Take that," he said, "and that."

Dennis took the machete and set it down on the flat top of a piling. "Let's eat."

The boys cooked burgers on the grill on the upstairs porch while Marse and I fixed potato salad in the kitchen. "What do you think?" said Marse. We could see Kyle and Dennis through the kitchen window. They stood with spatulas in hand, swatting at mosquitoes.

"Of which one?"

She reached over and pinched my elbow. It was an intimate gesture, a gesture fitting old friends. It was Marse's style, I gathered, to rush into intimacy. I was flattered. "Come on," she said.

"He's cute," I said, and she frowned at me. "I can't tell yet. I need more to go on."

Marse put down the knife she was using to dice the potatoes. In her expression, I recognized a cautious optimism I'd felt many times. "I know he's not interested right now," she said. "But I don't see why he couldn't get interested."

She was pretty and strong. There was something dynamic about her, something vital. "I don't see why not," I said.

There was, explained Dennis and Kyle over lunch, an electric eel living in a submerged toilet bowl under the stilt house dock. "It's the meanestlooking creature you've ever seen," said Kyle, chewing his hamburger.

Dennis nodded. "It looks like a very old man. It looks like something that would yell at a kid for cutting through the yard."

I laughed. Marse crushed a peanut shell between her fingers and handed the nut to Dennis. "It's probably been there for years," she said.

"My father sank that bowl a year ago," he said, "and I've swum by it a hundred times without that thing poking out at me."

"Why did your father sink a toilet bowl?" I said.

"For the fish," said Dennis.

"But-" Marse started.

"Real fish," said Dennis. "Playful fish. And coral and plants and such. We replaced the downstairs toilet, and we wanted to see what would grow there."

"You have your answer," said Marse.

"It could hurt someone," said Kyle. "Shit, it flashed its fangs at me, and I'm big. What about a kid? That thing could grab hold of a little arm."

"Ridiculous," said Marse. She handed me a peanut, then winked without letting the boys see. I admired the way she baited them. Dennis stood up. There were crumbs on his lips. "I think it's time," he said, "for the skeptics to see for themselves." Marse clapped. We followed Dennis downstairs, then lay on our stomachs on the dock, watching the rim of the toilet bowl skip beneath the water's surface. The water was the near-cloudy green of jade dishware, shrouding the seafloor. Marse jumped up and snatched the machete from the piling. "Dennis, you are not going to kill that animal." Dennis faced her, smiling slyly, and I saw that he'd never intended, truly, to kill the eel. "We'll catch it," he said. "We'll give it a new home."

"Where?" said Marse.

"I thought we were going to kill it," said Kyle.

"We'll take it to Soldier's Key," said Dennis. "We'll find it a cozy little cave in the reef."

"We'll all be electrocuted," said Kyle.

Marse put down the machete and Kyle reached for it. She snatched it up again. "No," she said, pointing a finger at him. There were two nets on the premises-a flat one with holes the size of playing cards, which wouldn't hold the eel, and a round one attached to a pole, which was too small. Dennis decided to swim back to the Becks' house, where a cabin cruiser was docked, to return the machete and borrow a different net. He took off his shirt and shaded his eyes, searching the channel. It was empty. The only boats nearby were fastened to docks, rocking on their lines. It was early afternoon, the sun directly overhead. Westward down the channel, people stood in tight clusters on the dock of another house. Party noises-music, laughter-reached us in muted chirps. The whole world-the houses, the blue water, the still shoreline in the distance-swam in thick white light.

Dennis dove into the channel, sending up a stream of white bubbles. Kyle tossed him the duffel bag with the machete inside. We watched until he arrived at the neighboring house. He climbed up the transom of the cruiser, then stepped onto the dock. "I don't understand," said Kyle to Marse. "You used to rip the arms off your dolls."

"That's different," said Marse. She slipped out of her shorts and spread a towel. I took her cue and removed my shirt, revealing the top half of a navy one-piece. It was the only swimsuit I owned. Kyle went to the big boat and returned with sweaty cans of beer. I took a long swallow of mine, then unzipped my shorts and wiggled out of them, frowning at my pale legs. Wasted on the young: I didn't know how pretty I was, with my smooth skin and strong limbs. I had the habit of slumping to appear smaller and more feminine. Yet I admired the way women like Marse-she was almost as tall as Dennis, nearly six feet-seemed to relish their height. I lay down and put a palm on my stomach. The fabric was warm from the sunlight. "Here he comes," said Marse.

I sat up. Dennis, returning from the other house, carried a wad of netting above his head as he swam. He struggled to keep the net in one hand while taking clumsy strokes with the other. Every few strokes, a corner of the net dangled and he stopped to gather it up again. "Jesus," said Marse.

Kyle, who'd been lying with his face over the water, splashing at the eel, moved to stand beside us. His shadow darkened our towels. I scanned the channel, empty of boats. We were quiet. We were, I assumed, all imagining the same scenario: if the net came loose and Dennis found himself under it-what then? Could he keep his head above water without thrashing around? He could lie on his back, maybe, and breathe through a square in the net, and Kyle could swim out or Marse could take her boat.

Dennis inched closer. I kept glancing at the mouth of the channel, certain that a speedboat would come screaming down it, spreading white wake. Dennis's s stroke was sloppy. I didn't know him well enough to decide if he would have considered the danger of swimming with a net. Why didn't he drag the net behind him, or put it in the duffel bag? Maybe, I thought, he was one of the careless but lucky, as so many people are.

Kyle bounced on the balls of his feet, as if preparing to dive in. From where she was sitting beside him, Marse put a hand on his leg. "Don't," she said.

A corner of the net dropped behind Dennis's head; he kept swimming, oblivious. I took a breath and Marse looked at me. Kyle called out to Dennis and Dennis stopped swimming. Kyle gestured. "Pick it up," he shouted, and Dennis gathered up the net again, then resumed swimming. I could see the light lines of his legs through the water, the white bottoms of his feet. He reached the dock and tossed the net onto the wood. Kyle kicked it aside and braced himself against a piling, then reached down to help Dennis climb out. I sat down beside Dennis on the dock. Kyle handed him a beer and he drank from it. My toes dipped below the waterline and, remembering the eel, I drew them up. "That was kind of dangerous," I said.

Dennis looked at me. Then he looked at the net, heaped in a puddle on the wood, and up the channel toward the Becks' stilt house. I saw the notion-the net dropping, his body flailing-enter his mind, but he shook his head. "I made it," he said. It wasn't bravado or machismo. He was one of those people, the careless but lucky. He always would be. "Do you want to see it?"

"The eel?" He nodded. Beside us, Marse's little boat rocked on the waves, its lines tautening and slackening. "Yes," I said.

Dennis jumped up and stepped onto the big boat-this was his father's boat, a twenty-one-foot Chris Craft Cavalier with a lapstrake hull-then returned with fins and masks and snorkels. "Marse?" he said, holding out the gear.

She sat up on her elbows and propped her sunglasses on her head. Dennis's eyes slid over her long body. She shook her head. "Fish freak me out."

Dennis handed me the mask and snorkel. "Try these," he said. I pulled the mask over my dry hair, and Dennis came forward to adjust the fit. I watched him through the binocular lenses, and when he was finished, he tugged it off. "All set," he said. "Get wet before you put it on." He laid his hands on my shoulders for a brief moment, then withdrew them. I looked down at the water, at the flash of porcelain beneath the surface. I curled my toes over the lip of the dock, then pushed off.

The water felt like soft warm fabric. Dennis crouched and I swam until I was underneath him, several feet from the toilet bowl. He handed me the mask and snorkel and I pulled them on and tested the suction. Water beaded on the lenses and slid off. I fitted the snorkel to my mouth and blew out, then let it dangle from its loop in the mask. Dennis slid onto his stomach, his face over the water. His shoulders, spotted with watery freckles, flexed as he gestured below. "It's pretty harmless, don't be afraid," he said. "Don't get too close, though, and don't-do not-put your hand inside the bowl."

I swallowed a mouthful of seawater and coughed. "Why would I put my hand inside the bowl?"

"Just swim on by, like you're minding your own business." There was the question of the eel's intelligence. I watched the bowl through the water, keeping my arms and legs clear. I would learn, months later, that electric eels can discharge as much as six hundred volts of electricity-enough to kill a horse. "Do you want me to get in?" said Dennis.

"Stay there," I said. I backed away from the dock, kicking, then turned and dove. Under the dock, the world was dim and calm. My body swayed with the current. I could see, but I couldn't see far. I did not know, then, that there was a difference between the tidal current that tugged at my legs and the surface current, wind-driven, that lifted my hair from my neck and dropped it again. The sandy seafloor sloped toward the house, textured with a thousand vulnerable peaks, the way dunes texture a beach. By nighttime the seafloor would be wholly rearranged, each peak erased and re-formed in mirror image.

A school of needlefish, bright as new nickels, flashed by. I'd traveled several yards from the dock. Dennis stared down at me, his arms across his chest. I dove deep enough to fill my snorkel with water and kicked toward the toilet bowl. By the time it entered my range of vision, I could have reached out and touched it, and the eel did not uncoil or snap or even blink-it just nosed its bald head beyond the rim of its home, and watched as I kicked by.

I knifed one knee between my body and the dock, and levered myself up. "Well?" said Dennis.

"I saw it," I said, breathing hard.

From his towel, Kyle raised his head. "Dangerous son of a bitch," he said.

"I think you should leave it alone," I said.

Dennis seemed pleased. He nodded and handed me a towel. "From now on, no more swimming near the toilet bowl."

"Amen," said Marse.

In July in South Florida, the sunlight fusses and adjusts a hundred times over the course of the day. By mid-afternoon, hours from sunset, the blue of the sky was rich and dense, as if a dusting of powder had been wiped from its surface. Marse and I chatted on the porch for a while, but the conversation grew sluggish and she started filing her fingernails, so I took myself on a tour of the upstairs. Every so often, male voices filtered up through the floorboards: the boys were underneath the house, gathering lobsters from traps for dinner.

The main room of the stilt house was paneled with wood and stocked with old appliances and a shabby wicker sofa with turquoise vinyl cushions-it occurred to me that the cushions would likely float, if called upon. The kitchen and living area shared one open space, with two doors that opened onto the west and north porches. This design gave the house an inside-out quality, like the interior of a cabana or, I imagined, a yacht. A counter separated the kitchen from the rest of the living area, and trimming the edge of the countertop was a dingy decorative rope that sagged down an inch here and there. The windows had thick jalousie panes that operated on turn-screw cranks. On the coffee table was a stack of fishing and boating magazines, and above the sofa was a black-and-white photograph of a man-Dennis's father, I assumed-wearing white canvas pants and a captain's hat and holding a swordfish on a line. Beside the photograph was a hurricane tracking map, its tiny magnets (blue for watch, red for warning) huddled in one corner. Above the sink in the kitchen hung an enormous marlin with sparkling blue flanks and gray-green eyes. A short hallway off the living room led to a small bathroom and two dark bedrooms, one with two beds and a ratty dresser and the other with two bunk beds. All the beds were neatly made with a thin white blanket folded at the foot of each. I wondered how all the furnishings had come to be here, how the house itself had come to be.

There was a shower in the small upstairs bathroom, and a window that faced south, away from shore. There was a two-story rainwater tank just outside the back window, and beyond, the lumpy green bundle of an island a mile away: this was Soldier's Key. A toothbrush lay bristlesup on the window ledge. The mirror over the sink was tarnished and nicked, and in it my cheeks were raw with sunburn and my eyes were bright. Studying my reflection, I felt the queasy thrill of recognizing something unfamiliar in my own face.

I left the bathroom and went downstairs. Marse looked up when I passed but didn't say anything. The bottom story of the house was open on all sides, existing only to elevate the second floor away from the water-except for one corner where there was a tiny bathroom and a storage shed with a generator inside. I opened the door to the generator room and inhaled the briny air. Beside the machine, which was quiet, there were ceiling-high shelves piled with tools and old shoes and fishing gear. I closed the door and walked to the dock, then crouched and looked through the slats of the steps that led from the dock to the first floor. From there, I could see beneath the house to the space underneath, where Dennis and Kyle stood in knee-high water. Sea urchins and sand dollars dotted the beige seafloor. Stripes of sunlight streaked through cracks between the floorboards. Dennis held a net and water inked the hems of his shorts. He noticed me and gave a wave. He pointed at a dark creature crawling across the seafloor. "Dinner," he said. "You like lobster?"

"Yes," I said.

"We're going to feast." Droplets of sweat or seawater fell from his hair. He glanced at the scuttling lobster, then back at me. "We're almost done."

"Take your time," I said, then stepped up from the dock to the first floor. The water tower stood flush with the back of the house. I knocked on it to gauge the water level and it returned a booming, hollow sound.

From below the house, Kyle called, "Come in!" and Dennis laughed. I looked around: the bottom story of the house was as bare as a picnic shelter at a park. The dock made a T with the first floor of the house, and alongside it the two boats rocked calmly on their lines, facing east, toward the Becks' stilt house and the wide ocean beyond. The second story was aproned on three sides by a veranda with a white wood railing, but there was no railing on the first floor. One could simply step off into the water.

There was, however, a shallow wooden ledge affixed to the exterior wall of the downstairs bathroom. It looked like the scaffolding used by painters working on high buildings-and I guessed that this was more or less what it was, used originally when the house was being built, then left behind. The ledge was about eighteen inches deep. To get to where I could stand on it, I had to take a wide step over a triangle of empty air between the bottom floor of the house and the ledge itself. It didn't occur to me until I put my foot down that the ledge might not hold. It did. Once I was standing on the ledge, though, I couldn't manage to turn around. I slid down the exterior wall until I was sitting on the ledge, then crossed my legs so Dennis and Kyle wouldn't see them dangling.

From seaward, the human eye can distinguish prominent shapes- the lighthouse or Freedom Tower or Turkey Point-at eight miles. To a person of my height standing above the waterline, the horizon is two and a half miles away: a stone's throw. Considering the blue expanse of ocean in my vision and the thousands of glassy wavelets and the fathoms of veiled blond seafloor, I would have thought I could see to Cuba. I felt tremendously calm. I felt caught in a swell of well-being. Maybe I was lulled by the waves and the sunlight, or maybe I believed that there were no stakes on vacation, and had abandoned my usual anxieties regarding the future, that unnavigable ocean. When I returned home, I knew, I would spend evenings on the front porch of my apartment house in Atlanta, where I'd lived and worked since graduating from college, chatting with my neighbors and slapping at mosquitoes. Soon the sunlight would weaken and blanch, and I would add a quilt to my bedspread and unpack the space heater. A smattering of my stillsingle college friends would get engaged or married, and I would swim through fits of loneliness like cold undercurrents. But that afternoon, on that clandestine ledge, I felt like a stowaway whose trip had begun. All I had to do was wait.

Splashing sounds came from beneath the house. "Where did it go?" said Kyle.

"I've got it," Dennis said.

With some effort, I swung my legs to one side and eased my stomach onto the bare, warm wood. I peered over the ledge until I could see beneath the house. Dennis was lowering a squirming lobster into a crate filled with other lobsters; their antennae lashed through the slats. Fish darted around the boys' legs. "Join your family," said Dennis to the lobster, and I pushed myself back into a sitting position. The boys splashed through deeper water and hauled themselves onto the dock. "They're angry," said Dennis, and Kyle said, "Sweetens the meat." Their steps on the stairs were noisy and quick. I knew I should join them, but I felt fastened to that ledge, partly from inertia and partly from reluctance to try to stand in so tight a space. Below me, seven feet down, the sandy seafloor was covered by only a few feet of water: it would hurt if I fell, might even break a bone. Dennis called my name. I thought it would confuse him if I answered-where would it seem like my voice was coming from?-so I stood, carefully. Then I heard his steps on the stairs. "Frances!" His voice was gruff and resolute. It grew quieter as he moved down the dock, away from the house, then louder as he returned. "Frances!"

I closed my eyes. It was his concern, the throaty pitch of it, that moved me to answer, even before I could manage to get myself off the ledge. "Here," I said. Then louder, "I'm here."

He appeared beside the water tower, leaning out beyond the back of the house. His mouth was tight. "What are you doing?"

"Nothing," I said. "Looking around."

He glanced south, toward Soldier's Key, then down at the water. "We wouldn't want to lose track of you out here."

"I wouldn't want that either."

The irritation slipped from his face. He looked around again, then stepped onto the ledge beside me. I edged over to give him room, and we stood with our backs to the wall, our arms at our sides. "Are you contemplating fate and the universe?" he said, not unkindly. I smiled. I didn't want to seem overly serious. "I like it here."

"You're welcome anytime."

I wanted to say something about having felt like a different person all day, but I didn't know what I meant or how he would respond, so I stayed quiet. He said, "My father was boating back from Bimini once, and he ran out of gas right out there." He pointed. "He radioed the Coast Guard and told them he was ten miles northwest of the lighthouse, then his radio gave out. They didn't find him for hours. By the time they did, it was night. He asked what had taken them so long and they said they'd been searching for him on the north side of Miami Beach. Then they'd realized he'd given his position wrong-the lighthouse was ten miles northwest of him, not the other way around. I look out there and I think, how could he make that mistake?"

I followed his stare into the thick blue distance, bare of markers or guides. It would take an enormous act of faith, I thought, to trust the jittery needle of a compass. "I can see how a person might get confused," I said.

I don't think Dennis meant to kiss me. He was leaning in to hear me, and when I turned our noses and cheeks met and-this amazes me still-neither of us backed away. Our mouths were uncertain. We kissed without embracing. We kept our eyes open. We could feel even then that we were at the beginning of something, I think-something that might go on and on before it ended. After, we faced each other. "We could go skiing, if you want, before dinner," he said. He reached toward my face. His fingers found my earlobe.

"I haven't skied since college, and then it was in a lake."

"It'll come back to you."

I could feel the warmth from his body and I could smell his clean, sun-soaked smell.

"If we're going to go we should go," he said, "or we'll miss the daylight." I nodded. He stepped from the ledge onto the bottom floor of the house, then reached for my hand and pulled me over the gap. I walked ahead of him up the stairs, and as we went he kept one hand on the small of my back, the gentlest suggestion of a rudder.

The sun was easing toward the horizon by the time we headed off. We took Dennis's father's boat because it was more powerful and because, Dennis said, the hull of Marse's boat was painted blue, which was bad luck. This was mariner lore: the sea might confuse the boat with itself and drag it down. I stood by while Marse affixed a towline and Dennis started the engine and Kyle handled the lines. The channel was dark and choppy and wide. Marse handed me a lumpy orange life vest and I tightened it at the chest and waist, but Dennis loosened it again. His knuckles brushed my stomach through the swimsuit. "It won't come off," he said, "but you don't want it too tight."

Our kiss rose in my gut. "I'm ready," I said, and because the lie was so obvious, we both laughed. He went to the console and put the boat in gear. I stumbled when the boat moved. When I regained my balance, I noticed Marse watching me.

We agreed that Kyle would ski first, then I would ski, then Marse. Kyle rose on skis as if from land, as if the baton were a sturdy hand. I recollected all I knew about waterskiing: Treat the water like a chair. Bend your knees. Let the towline pull you up. Lean back. Relax. Kyle skipped over the waves, and the boat rounded the mouth of the channel and returned, passing the stilt house, before he fell. I don't think he fell, actually-he threw his skis to the side and skidded, sending up white spray, then let go of the line. When we reached him, Marse asked if he wanted to go again, but he said he was wiped out. He climbed into the boat and took a beer from the cooler.

Dennis gathered the skis from the water-they were wooden, with a yellow stripe painted down the center of each. "Kyle will be your lookout," he said to me. "He won't take his eyes off you." "I'm an ace lookout," said Kyle. He'd wrapped himself in a towel. "Just don't leave me there," I said to Dennis. "When I fall, come right back."

"I will," Dennis said.

I slid into the water, avoiding the stilled propellers. I struggled with each ski, then stretched my legs in front of me, drifting from the boat. The water cupped and jostled me; I tipped and righted. Dennis gave me a thumbs-up and I returned it awkwardly, and then the line spun out and I started to rise. Halfway up, I shifted and wobbled, and then I was hunched with my elbows over my knees. I straightened as much as I could without losing my balance. Kyle stood at the stern, watching me. Beneath my skis, the water whitened with friction and speed. The boat's wake, like the crease of an open book, stretched between the engine and my skis. We sped by one stilt house, then another. Kyle clapped for me and pumped a fist in the air. I tried to turn my grimace into a smile. Marse moved to stand beside Dennis, leaning toward him to be heard over the engine.

What People are Saying About This

Margot Livesey

“I fell in love in the opening pages of Stiltsville. There was nothing I wanted more than to spend time in the company of these vivid characters and keep reading Susanna Daniel’s lovely, lucid prose.”

Scott Eyman

“A quietly remarkable novel. . . . Reminiscent of Marilynn Robinson’s Home.”

Curtis Sittenfeld

“A deeply engrossing tale of love, family, friendship, and motherhood, Stiltsville is both an elegantly crafted work of art and a great read. The love story effortlessly spans decades, and the characters are as real and vivid as the novel’s South Florida backdrop. Susanna Daniel is an extraordinary writer.”

Jennifer Haigh

“Set against the wild and changeable landscape of South Florida, Stiltsville is a wise and loving portrait of a marriage, written with keen insight into the ways two lives grow together over the years. This is a rare first novel. Susanna Daniel writes beautifully of matters of the heart.”

Laura C.J. Owen

“Both structurally and in tone, the book recalls linked short-story collections such as Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid, following one character chronologically through a long period. Each piece can stand alone, but the whole is enriched when they are read together. . . . Lovely.”

Dani Shapiro

“In this wise and luminous novel, Susanna Daniel does something truly rare: she creates characters so real that you feel they’ve entered the very room where you sit reading. Before you know it, they’ve also entered your heart, and are breaking it…. A work of tremendous maturity, empathy and humanity.”

Hannah Tinti

“I fell in love with Susanna Daniel’s characters, Dennis and Frances. The dialogue, the pacing, and the tenderness between this married couple is so authentic and true. But it’s the setting of Florida, and especially the place that is Stiltsville, that literally elevates this story to magic.”

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