The bar, dark inside, smelled of French fries. Two fishermen sat at the table by the front window in their work clothes with a pitcher of beer between them. Behind the cash register, Frank swabbed at a wet glass with a towel, his head inclined toward the transistor radio set on the shelf between bottles of scotch and gin. The muffled sound of the Red Sox game carried across the room. Rachel caught only the urgent tone of the announcer's voice, followed by a collective groan from the stadium crowd.
"What's the score?" she called as she threaded her way through the tables to the pay phone in the back.
"Five-one, Orioles. They should have taken the pitcher out two innings ago." Frank raised the towel in a gesture of hopelessness. "I think Billy Herman's brain has been fried by the heat."
"I know my brain's been fried by the heat." Rachel fished in her shorts' pockets for change and waved to May, Frank's wife, in the kitchen.
May stood behind the prep table, a cigarette hanging from her mouth and a mound of hamburger meat in front of her.
Rachel slipped a dime in the slot and waited for the operator to ask for more money to connect the call. After eight rings, a small voice said hello.
"Lizzie? Is that you?"
"Yes," the girl squeaked. "My mother's waiting on a customer."
"Well, tell her I'm on the phone. It's Rachel."
"I know who you are," Lizzie said proudly.
In the silence that followed, Rachel imagined the island's pay phone, the receiver dangling by its cord in the booth by the store. After a couple of minutes, she heard Alice on the other end. "Rachel," she said breathlessly. "I was thinking it was about time you called. Has the ferry left?"
"It just pulled out."
"Guido's been late all week. The engine keeps stalling out. He doesn't take care of that thing."
"I guess Guido's not like his father."
"No, he's not, but we're stuck with him. Is it hot over there?"
"I hope we're not in for another month of this. Your father's working again. He and Eddie are putting on a new roof at the Farnwells', but when it's this hot, they knock off in the middle of the day."
"So he's got some money?"
"I guess. They got paid for half the job in advance."
"Did he give you anything toward his bill?"
"He gave me something. He pays me when he has work. Don't worry about it, Rachel."
Rachel felt, as she had before, the implication behind Alice's words. The islanders had their own way of handling things, and she shouldn't interfere. Neither of them said anything for a moment, until Alice broke the silence. "The box you sent for your father came last week. Brock took it up to the house."
"Tell him thanks."
"Sure. You know Brock. He loves hauling things around. Sometimes I think he was a pack mule in an earlier life. So when are you coming for a visit?"
"Babs and I are going up to Maine. Maybe after that."
"Plenty of people over here would like to see you."
"I know." After a pause, Rachel thanked Alice for the update on her father and said goodbye.
The greasy receiver slipped from between her fingers as she set it on the hook. She stared at the restroom doors on either side of the phone, one marked with a silhouette of a woman in a hoop skirt, the other with a man in tails and a top hat. It did not seem likely that a woman in a hoop skirt had ever entered Frank's or ever would.
Rachel went down the hallway to the kitchen and took a seat on a stool by the prep table. May's ashtray overflowed with cigarette butts. "How's your father?" May asked.
"Okay. He's doing some construction work."
A rotating fan swept back and forth at the end of the table, but it did little more than move the hot air from one side of the room to the other. May's forehead glistened with sweat. She had stacked the hamburger patties on a plate, separated by pieces of waxed paper. Flattened into thin circles, they looked like flying saucers, something out of a science fiction fantasy.
"You know I've never been over to the island," May said as she covered the pile of patties with a last square of wax paper. "I always said I was going to go."
"There's not a whole lot to see on Snow."
Shuffling across the floor in a worn pair of flip-flops, May carried the plate to the refrigerator and set it inside. "It's just you imagine something for years and it keeps getting bigger in your mind."
Rachel could have offered to take May over, but she had not been back to the island since she made the trip for her mother's funeral. "Sometimes I think it was a curse, growing up on the island."
May took another cigarette from the pack in the pocket of her apron and lit it. "It's a curse growing up anywhere, honey. You just got to make the best of it. Look at you-beautiful, young, skinny. You could get married again."
"Not in the Catholic church."
May rolled her eyes. "Go talk to the priest. They can get you an annulment if they want to."
Rachel smiled. May had made this suggestion before. "I haven't met the right man."
"You've got to leave that apartment of yours. Old Mr. Right isn't going to find you hiding up there." May scooped the scraps of hamburger from the table and dropped them in the trash. "But stay away from this dump. There's nobody worth your time in here."
Rachel laughed and told May she would see her later. On her way out of the bar, she waved goodbye to Frank, who was sliding a glass of beer toward a customer. Outside, the heat rose from the pavement in waves.
Walking up the hill from the docks, she passed the Episcopal church. The stone walls gave off an aura of coolness and quiet. It had been over a year since May climbed the stairs to her apartment to deliver the message that her mother had died. April 22, 1964-the date marked the time between before and after. She had expected that with the passage of more than a year, she would move on, but her mother's death still followed her through the days. There were times when she actually felt she was being trailed. As she made the walk to work or went up the street to the butcher's, she sensed the presence of someone behind her, though the sidewalk was empty. Today it was too hot for such illusions. She felt nothing besides the soles of her feet stuck to her leather sandals and the damp cotton of her blouse pressed to her armpits.
Rachel crossed the street and headed for the two-story building where she lived. Inside her apartment, she raised the shade over the living room window, switched on the fan, and fell into a chair. The pigeons sat on the roof of the movie theater, bobbing their heads and cooing, their feathers a sheen of purple in the sun. Through the floorboards, she could feel the vibration of Bernie Goshen's sewing machine downstairs, humming away. Sometimes he did not leave his tailor shop until long after dark. She could have found another place to live, as her friend Babs frequently pointed out, where she didn't have to listen to that "infernal" sewing machine, and she would have a phone like any other normal person, but Rachel liked her three rooms and the view of the main street below, and found the constant reminder that Bernie was downstairs, shortening hems and tapering sleeves, oddly reassuring.
Reaching inside a canvas bag on the floor beside the chair, she removed a spool of white thread and a needle. She held the needle to the light and threaded it, then spread squares of patterned cotton across her lap-calicos and plaids, splashes of white and yellow flowers on pale blue. Choosing two pieces, she turned them over and began sewing them together, linking them with a narrow seam. Later, she would arrange the strips of fabric on the floor, matching them to the design in her book of quilt patterns, but for now this was work that asked only a blank attention to the size of stitches and the straightness of lines. She liked to think of Bernie as a partner of sorts, bent over his table downstairs, deftly pushing the cloth under the needle.
Pulling the thread taut, Rachel watched as the pigeons lifted off the roof of the theater in a mass of beating wings. They hung in the air, darting at each other, their breasts puffed out, and settled back into a row on the edge of the roof. She had left Snow Island, where fewer than fifty people struggled through winters, as soon as she could pack a trunk and board the ferry on her own. She had gone to live in the city, as the islanders called Providence, but now she found herself back in Barton, just a half hour ride from the island, across a stretch of water she knew the way other people knew trails in the woods or the boundaries of their own fields. On clear days, she could see the island as she walked home from her job at the elementary school, a green shadow on the horizon that looked more like a dream someone had gone on dreaming than land. May was right. Growing up on Snow was no more of a curse than growing up anywhere else. Yet Rachel often wondered how her life might have been different if she had not spent the first eighteen years of it confined to a sliver of land six miles long and two miles wide.
She had become a person she never expected to be, thirty-three years old and no longer married, living a nun-like existence above the tailor shop, searching for her mother's face among those that passed in the street below. It was, she had discovered in the two years since she left her husband and came to live in Barton, an existence that suited her. What had mattered in the past fell away. Here in her apartment, with the shouts of children from the playground down the street sounding over the whirring fan, life was stripped down to the essentials. This was the state in which all human beings would find themselves if they admitted the truth, but they could not admit the truth. They surrounded themselves with husbands and wives, children and houses, cars and washing machines, all designed to keep any sense of uncertainty at bay. She had none of these things-a husband or a house, a car or a washing machine. Sometimes she imagined herself as a bird perched on a bare limb hanging over open space. May and Babs went on about how she had to find a man, but it was not a man she needed. No, it was precisely this-the view of the bay in the distance and the hum of traffic going by.
Excerpted from Evening Ferry by Katherine Towler Excerpted by permission.
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