Anyone from Castle Island could tell you that the ferry ran every half hour on the hour from the pier to the mainland, but in actuality there were two ferries (though they were always referred to in the singular) and if their captains were steering straight and the wind wasn’t too interfering, they passed each other in the middle of the sound where the depth was 930 feet. The Kalispell and the Tulalip were commuter ferries and at capacity accommodated a hundred and fifty cars and three hundred passengers. In the early mornings most of the passengers were on their way to the city to sit behind desks in their familiar offices. For these commuters even the mornings were fraught with routine. In the long bathroom of the seven AM boat, women in the bizarre poses of makeup application leaned into the mirrors, spilling over the countertops as though a sudden tidal wave had tipped the placid boat. On the men’s side there was the steady buzz of electric razors, echoing and contained as a jar of flies. Occasionally the early commuters that didn’t go above deck for personal grooming or coffee from the vending machine fell back into their dreams during the crossing. There was sometimes a blue-stubbled throat exposed as a head lolled on the seat rest, or a helpless pair of hands, curled like dead animals in the lap of a poly blend skirt. There was punishment for backsliding into sleep, a large, orange-gloved hand rapping you into consciousness, a sudden struggle with the jumble of keys as the deck lanes ahead lay accusingly empty of cars.
In the afternoons the commuter ferry’s cargo was predominantly tourist. Between five and seven PM the boat swarmed with commuters returning home. The last ferry docked at 1:30 AM, long after the commuters had gone to bed. This boat was less predictable; its most pronounced characteristic being that it was almost always nearly empty. The few that did board mostly stayed in their cars, discretely smoking cigarettes and casting sidelong glances at their neighbors. There was a disconnected sense of unreality that haunted the ferry at this hour. Some of the passengers had been in bars over town, majestically skirting the legal limits. There were the stay-late workaholics as well and those with unprofessed mistresses, and one night there was a woman in a midnight blue Camaro who was leaving Castle Island forever with a suitcase full of money. Later it was discovered that the woman’s name was Ailo Svenson, a stranger to the island.
Ruth Dorset was forty years old and had been a ferry hand for the last seven. She had seen every type of commuter imaginable and was the only one who saw that Ailo Svenson hadn’t been alone when the car boarded the ferry.
Years ago Ruth had worked inside the ferry ticket booths but soon she’d learned that a woman of her build, tall and strong as a man, could make more in the laborious and only slightly dangerous job of deckhand. She waited a month before telling anyone of her intentions, sat in her booth between arrivals with two lengths of rope and learned her clove hitch, bowline and figure of eight. She became adept at making all of the knots necessary to moor and secure a ship. In early winter she applied to the ferry commissioner for a change of position. Ruth entered his office with trepidation over what might be seen as ingratitude toward her current placement and what it would mean should she be denied a new one. Contemplating a new, professional-type outfit for her interview Ruth became anxious. Her closet was a sea of worn jeans and flannel shirts from the “Island Thrift and Goodwill.” At the last minute threw on a short sleeve button down shirt and a pair of jeans from the dryer. She sat down in the orange plastic chair beside the desk, sensible of its puniness under her long arms and legs, spilling over their allotted space. She steadied her hand and placed her resume before the commissioner. He took notice of the short, earnest statement of purpose and of her well-muscled arms. She was in luck; they were always looking for new recruits this time of year, when the bitter winter weeded out the summer’s weakest hires.
Ruth studied her signals for directing the cars, making her hands work with unmistakable authority while her face remained impassive even when the desperadoes, denied entrance at the last second, mouthed profanities and slammed their hands against their steering wheels. She learned to operate the gate, raise the ramp; she manned the aprons and bridges and handled the lines. She urged back the restless herd of day tourists with the conviction of her dispassionate stare. Ruth was the only woman who worked the deck and for the first couple years felt it necessary to make herself indistinguishable from her fellow deckhands and when she found this impossible, to at least staunch the rise of any resentment. She carried a paint chipper on her belt and during lunch breaks while the men sat in conversation; she ate quickly then walked the car decks chipping at the rusted rails and stanchions. In this way she took hours off the work her crew would otherwise be obliged to do at the end of the week. Slowly they began to take notice and finally to feel gratitude.
Ruth’s Friday night shift had ended an hour ago. She’d agreed to babysit her sister’s children but something had come up with Denny, as it usually did, and she was late. Denny had called her for a ride home. He was fresh from the bars and weepily apologetic on the phone. By the time she reached him he’d grown petulant and refused to walk. She watched him slide off the bus shelter bench twice before she walked him to her truck, his full weight across her shoulder. Sweat beaded on his brow and there were red blotches creeping across his neck. Denny’s drinking was more frequent these days but less spirited. The activity seemed almost to have deteriorated into a labor of love performed without reward. Inside his studio apartment she took off his shoes and pants and put a bucket beside his bed before switching off the light.
Ruth looked at her plain leather men’s watch as she pulled into her sister’s driveway. Sarah lived in a planned development that had been constructed the previous spring. Half the houses remained empty. There were yards where the grass, rolled out in broad swaths of green carpet, had never been stepped on.
“I’m here,” she called to the ceiling and dropped her keys into a bowl of oranges on the hall table. There was abrupt commotion as her sister Sarah ran down the steps already holding her purse and coat. She’d been watching the headlights approach from the bedroom window. Sarah was three years younger and delicate in all the areas that Ruth was long and rangy. It was possible they had different fathers though even now, in her last years, their mother wouldn’t confirm or deny this. Sarah had put her hair up in the French braid that had always struck Ruth as elaborate and mystifying. All the way down she talked through the din of her high heels on the wooden stair.
“It’s fine, it’s fine. We’ll just miss the previews is all. Thanks again, really, we need this.”
Pierre appeared from a side room and busied himself with his shirt cuffs. He was a handsome man but in a way Ruth thought of as delicate, like the porcelain figurine of a stockinged prince that sat on Sarah’s mantelpiece amid Siamese cats of various size. They swept past her, shut the door and Ruth heard the lock turn over from the outside. Ruth stared hard at the gold knob. She knew that Sarah was helpless under her compulsions and that she herself may have forgotten to lock the door but she couldn’t shake the strange feeling of being locked inside her sister’s house like a pet.
The hall was quiet now and smelled of the roast chicken they’d had for dinner. From the den the TV made formless sounds that Ruth followed downstairs into a large, windowless room. She paused on the last stair as the TV blinked off. Knowing she was the only adult in the house the two boys would likely be flipping purposefully to find their father’s Playboy channels. She stood behind the couch with a hand on each of their silky heads.
“I’ll be upstairs if you boys need me,” she said. Once in the hall she could hear the TV turn on again. Ruth settled herself at the kitchen table and opened a can of beer. There was a picture on the refrigerator of Sarah, Pierre and the boys taken last Christmas by a mall photographer with a painted backdrop that led to a far off candy cane house. They were folded in neat origami poses around each other, their arms and legs linked variously. The youngest, Sean was eight and had not seemed to have grown into a personality yet other than one of mawkish sentimentality that Sarah seemed to encourage. She kept his hair in long curls that fell over his shoulders and he was often mistaken for a little girl. Nicholas, eleven, had an insidious overconfidence Ruth was wary of. His ears were always open for the gruesome details hinted at in adult dinner conversation, anything omitted out of deference to propriety or embarrassment. He could sense a dark underbelly and with a million barbed questions split their resistance like a squirrel scrabbling at a nut with its little claws. His choice in movies leaned toward the twisted and horrific. It seemed to Ruth that he sought to exist in a constant state of alarm. She attributed this to his sheltered upbringing, as simple as the circle of the cul de sac on which he lived. She wondered how much little Nicholas had divined about her through his parents’ conversations, his father’s end particularly.
A hissing in the darkness roused Ruth from her half sleep at the table. Sprinklers had begun to switch on across the neighborhood. She moved through the house quietly in her socks. It was past ten and the boys had fallen asleep in front of the TV. On the screen a naked woman threw her hair back and forth in counterfeit ecstasy. She took the remote drooping from Nicholas’ hand and changed the channel before turning off the TV. On the coffee table was a book about the Panama Canal. Pierre, who had grudgingly inherited his family’s motel, had wanted to be an architect and there were framed blueprints on the walls. Ruth opened the book and looked at the skeletal illustrations of the canal’s locks. The steel gates were spidery and insubstantial on the page. They made her think of Denny’s gaunt body and the conversation they’d had the day before at the Smiling Dog, a small, dark bar built on the pier beside the ferry dock. He wore his usual black sweatshirt, painted with the head of a howling wolf that she remembered had once been a snug fit but now hung loosely around his shoulders. His pale beard was beginning to grow wild. She knew he grew the beard to look older but his boyishness was a quality communicated mostly by his wide eyes, which held an expression of youthful sweetness. His dejected slouch was a young man’s as well. From the taciturn way he scuffed the bottom rung of the stool with his sneakers she could tell he was under the spell of a solemn intoxication. He grinned at her with a wrecked smile.
“Have I told you about my expiration date?”
Cirrhosis of the liver the doctor had said, the most advanced case he’d seen for someone in their twenties. His hands lay palms up on either side of his drink and he stared into it defiantly.
“I wouldn’t even care,” he said “If my bones didn’t hurt all the time now.”
“Your bones?” she’d asked obediently.
“Just the long ones,” Denny said. He was shelling peanuts and dropping them into his empty glass. They were the only thing he could eat he said because he could do it without thinking. He paused the activity, leaning back in wonderment.
“But it’s like they’re on fire, burning up inside my arms and legs.”
“Maybe we should get out of here,” Ruth said uncertainly. This bar had been their place for longer than she could remember.
“Nah,” said Denny. “No point in quitting now. What I need is a new liver. This one’s shot.”
She had an overbearing desire to get away, be alone and sort herself out, escape from the person who had always facilitated her happiness and easy mind.
Ruth wondered what kind of bill Denny, with no medical insurance, had incurred to hear the cheery news. She turned her attention to the window. A line of cars was beginning to board the five PM to the island. It was time for the commuters to go home in packs of one hundred and fifty. They stretched back up the hill as far as she could see and the people inside sat blinking, unaccustomed to the bright, natural light. A fly landed on the rim of Denny’s glass, it cleaned its front legs, rubbing them against each other and then buzzed away.
This had also been the day that Denny had first spoken of Ailo Svenson. He came upon the topic in a meandering way, talking generally and then more specifically.
“There was a girl I used to know,” he began.
At forty Ruth was old enough to have been Denny’s underage mother but even though she found herself routinely taking care of him in a hundred small ways, she couldn’t deny that she thought of herself as his match. She was a match in temperament, in height and strength. She could carry him to his bed with ease after a night of heavy drinking. Long ago, when she was twenty-five and her age would have been a match for Denny’s she’d have been afraid of him or anyone that reminded her she was female. Her twenties had been spent in near seclusion accustoming herself to her permanent frame that had leveled out at six feet, two inches. She would have been afraid to come to the Smiling Dog after work and sit alone on a bar stool, which was how, seven years ago, she’d met Denny.
He was telling her now about a foster home where he and Ailo had lived when they were children. Ailo’s mother had taken her from Norway the year before but possibly unable to fend for herself in a new country, had left her with a friend and disappeared.
“She asked if she could stay with me awhile. She’s just come down from Canada.”
Ruth took the first sip of beer from her eggy smelling cup. She was aware that part of the health of their long friendship was that no judgment in regard to the other had ever passed their lips. The role of critic was not natural to Ruth and it would never have occurred to Denny with his easy nature to question anything that she did. Ruth didn’t chance looking at him, afraid he might see some glint of recrimination in her eyes. She picked up her beer and took a deeper drink. She felt something akin to vertigo. Neither had ever displayed any desire to nose around in the other’s distant past. They were like the smooth furred otters that could sometimes be seen on the dock past the bar, Ruth thought. There was no importance in who had arrived first or where they’d been before. It was enough
that they were drying on a sun-drenched dock, inhabiting the present moment.
For Ruth, listening to Denny un-labor himself all at once of the entire unsaid past felt like a horrible breach, not because she was uninterested but because she couldn’t picture his world before they’d met or embrace its reality. He might as well have been talking about a dream he’d had. Casting her eyes around nervously, Ruth inadvertently caught a few details. For both Denny and Ailo there had been an orphanage followed by a foster home, that with twelve children had been very much like the orphanage. He was quiet by nature and she only spoke Norwegian so they were lost in the fray. Stealing bits of kitchenware and pillows, they had made themselves a home in the front yard hedge. He taught her to speak English, starting with all the curse words. It was clear that Denny had seen himself as the protector of young Ailo, a role he hadn’t been able to play since. His chivalrous career had peaked at age eight.
This confessional style of conversation wasn’t something Ruth would have thought Denny capable of, but he seemed, for once, completely unselfconscious of his words as though they were water pouring through him and not peanuts that had to be unshelled one by one. As Ruth accustomed herself to his stream of consciousness her bewilderment shrank and crystalized into a tiny sharp bead of jealousy.
* * *
Precisely because Ruth was not the type to celebrate her birthdays, Sarah had threatened, half jokingly to throw her sister a party. Ruth’s stony resistance had only made her more determined.
“It’s your big four-oh!” she said. “You can’t just let it pass by without some kind of recognition. You’re not an old lady yet.”
Ruth wasn’t worried about getting older, her calloused hands were surer than ever and she had reached an agreeable level of seniority at work that she knew had more to do with age than all the extra work she’d put in her first few years. Her concern lay only with the idea of Sarah’s party. She saw herself cornered in Sarah and Pierre’s small living room with a table full of their cul-de sac neighbors that she had met only in passing and poor Sarah with a list of childish activities, fretting and smiling over her failed party, its failure predetermined by Sarah herself who would take her role as hostess more seriously than was comfortable.
Sarah had lost an easy quality that she’d had years ago when she’d first met Pierre. She’d once had a knack for taking life as it came. As the wife of the owner of a struggling motel she was undaunted. Ruth remembered that in the early days of their marriage Sarah had cleaned the rooms, her long brown hair in a high ponytail while Pierre stood behind the quiet reservations desk absorbed in a basketball game on the small TV that was hidden behind the counter. Before the boys were born Ruth and Sarah would make occasional plans, a few beers or dinner, something without Pierre. In the lobby of autumnal colors and dated fabrics, Ruth would wait for her sister to finish cleaning while Pierre watched his game and absentmindedly sketched what looked to Ruth like abstract houses from a Dr. Seuss book. Once, reluctant to touch the perfectly fanned magazines on the coffee table in front of her, Ruth stared purposefully out the window, trying to clear her mind from all sounds and sensations until it was completely blank. Pierre must have sensed some subtle reproach in her pose because he turned down the volume of the TV and coughed lightly.
“This is just how it was when my parents owned the Inn,” he said.
Ruth looked at the orange vinyl chairs and shag carpeting and nodded seriously.
“I mean this was the way it worked. My father here, behind the counter while my mother took care of the rooms. They made it work for fifteen years and at the end of the day they went home happy.”
Ruth supposed that he confided in her because she seldom responded, just absorbed without comment.
“When I got out of school I would come here and do my homework on the rug, right there and when I was done I’d work on drawings, blueprints really. They were additions to the motel, a second half story and a lounge. I was young but they were very technical. I think my father would have used them if the motel had been generating more money.”
When Ruth first met Pierre he’d been an architecture major at the local college but a few months later Sarah was pregnant and he’d dropped out to become the motel’s full time manager, a job for which he was already well trained. Ruth recalled that his attitude then had not been one of self-sacrifice but of interminable adult-ness, as though at twenty-one he’d surpassed them all in maturity, and this was the manner he’d kept.
The upshot of Sarah’s insistence on a party was a compromise that still left Ruth vaguely uneasy. Ruth would have the party but it would be at her house and she would be in charge of guests as well. She decided to grill some burgers outside and invite Denny like a regular Saturday. The only difficulty was the girl, Ailo, but Ruth resolved to take it in stride.
It had rained all Saturday morning but the sun had come out with enough time for Ruth to dry off the plastic deck chairs with a towel and put some coal in the grill. She could smell the sidewalks heating up in the sun, the water warming and dissipating. A car door slammed. As she stood in the doorway Sarah came up the path holding in one hand a giant plastic wrapped bowl and with the other guiding her older son by the shoulder as if he might sprint away at any moment.
“I only had time to do pasta salad,” she said setting the bowl in the refrigerator. There were tired half moons under her eyes. The younger boy was opening and shutting the kitchen drawers. Ruth noted he was becoming rather pudgy.
“There’s pasta salad or nothing until everyone gets here,” Sarah told him. She sighed and massaged the sides of her head until there was a halo of mussed hair sticking up from her braid.
“So where is everybody then?” She asked. Ruth hadn’t mentioned that the only other guests would be the stranger Ailo and Denny, whose existence, after one terse meeting had always gone politely unacknowledged by Sarah.
“Where’s Pierre?” Ruth countered.
“He’s still in the car.”
“Is he afraid to come in?” Ruth asked. She meant it half sincerely since she couldn’t remember Pierre ever stepping past the safety of her threshold.
“I guess he needs a minute, I don’t know.” Sarah walked halfway to the sliding deck door before she seemed to remember she’d quit smoking ten years earlier and landed impotently on the couch.
“The ride over here was just lovely. The boys in the back punching each other in the ears and Pierre has just—checked out. Meanwhile I keep trying to explain to him that we just can’t afford the luxury of his mid life crisis at this particular moment.” As she spoke she shut her eyes and her voice grew simultaneously softer and higher in pitch.
Ruth remembered their teenage years. Though she was younger Sarah was always the one with the boyfriends and the boyfriend related spats. Ruth could still hear the enraged soprano whispers coming from her sister’s bedroom.
By the time Denny and Ailo arrived Pierre had already joined them without word of explanation. He seemed preoccupied but resigned. Ruth’s small house had a spare functionality that reminded her pleasingly of a boat’s cabin but entertaining here was out of the question. There was however, a large fenced yard with a thick-limbed elm and a deck she had stripped and refinished earlier in the season. This was where she would sit and barbecue with Denny on the weekend, escaping the closeness of her house, which they passed through like a hallway between front and back doors to reach the palatial yard.
Stepping out onto the deck, Denny gave a casual, self-conscious wave then stationed himself at the grill. A slight, pale haired girl dragged a folding chair to the table where they sat.
“I am Ailo,” she said.
Ailo had a round childish face and long, reedy limbs. Ruth had the quick impression of disparate shapes converging as something fixed. Her sheet of silver blond hair looked as though it had been ironed. She wore a lacy mini dress as complex and organic as a piece of milkweed fluff. It was clear that of the group she had taken the most care in dressing for Ruth’s party and without understanding why, this depressed Ruth more than anything else that day, that this beautiful girl had been duped into attending what she thought would be a festive event where well dressed strangers were celebrating. Even the perpetually shined and pressed Pierre wore a moth eaten state college tee shirt instead of his usual button down. There were crumbs in the corner of his mouth and he looked older than Ruth had ever seen him. She forced herself to stay at the table for fifteen minutes before going to Denny. Knowing it was a futile and selfish question, she wanted to ask how he was feeling but he was thinking of other things and she resolved not to remind him.
“I’m going to adopt a dog from the pound,” he said, scooting a toasted bun across the grill with his spatula. “I’ve never had a dog. Ailo had a couple in Canada but she had to leave them. I don’t know, I guess they weren’t technically her dogs. You should hear her go on about these dogs though, she really misses them.”
At the table there was laughter and the sound of Sarah’s happy exclamations.
Ailo was taking little red Jell-O cakes out of a basket and smearing them with white sauce.
“She made you those as a present,” Denny said. “It’s a Norwegian birthday tradition. Ailo’s become more interested in her heritage. I think she’s trying to contact her birth mother. She hasn’t said so but I think it’s the reason she’s come back.”
When the burgers were ready Ruth brought out plates and the bowl of pasta salad in one trip, balancing them easily in her large hands. Later, as dusk settled around them they ate the little Jell-O cakes with vanilla frosting.
“Okay, you’re released,” Sarah said to the boys who earlier had been pleading to go inside and watch TV but they had become enamored with Ailo and pretended not to hear. The younger performed somersaults on the patchy grass for Ailo’s applause. Ruth was surprised at the older boy’s silence as he sat at the picnic table. She couldn’t think of a time he hadn’t railroaded a dinner conversation with meanspirited, adolescent asides but now he sat in reverence of Ailo. Ruth was conscious that her own contribution to her party’s atmosphere was dismal and for once she was grateful for Sarah’s way of buzzing from one topic to the next without allowing a moment’s silence.
“Are you settled in at Denny’s place?” she was asking Ailo.
“I haven’t really unpacked yet,” Ailo said. “It’s the perfect size for just Denny but I’m afraid I may be in the way.”
Denny, his mouth full of Jell-O, was vehemently shaking his head. Sarah turned to Pierre. “She should stay at the Inn- you should stay at the Inn!” She reached across the table and grasped Ailo’s arm. Ruth now recognized Sarah’s liveliness as the result of two glasses of wine to which she was unaccustomed.
“We’ll give you the family rate. It’s a very good deal- and you’ll have the whole bed to yourself.” This last part Sarah whispered loudly, giggling at her own audacity.
“Early day tomorrow,” said Pierre standing up. In what Ruth recognized as a too-casual afterthought Pierre took a business card from his wallet.
“Our motel,” he said as Ailo reached out and took the card.
Sarah who had suddenly become sleepy and docile ducked under the table to look for her shoes. They said goodbye at the door and Denny and Ailo followed behind them, he holding her coat. As Ruth stood in the kitchen, wrapping up the uneaten cake, she could see them through the window, two couples following each other into the night to their waiting cars.
The end of August had held on, refusing to give way to fall. Ruth perspired in the heavy workman’s gloves that made her hands look like giant starfish. The ferries were full of children, defiant in their last days of freedom. It had been a week since she’d talked to Denny. His stool at the Smiling Dog remained empty and Ruth had one beer after her shifts then returned home to eat dinner in front of the TV. If he’d owned a phone she could have called him to ask about his health and then divine from his voice what turn his relationship with Ailo had taken.
A blonde head was weaving through the crowd of walk-on passengers. It was Ailo. She wore a long skirt embroidered with shells and a crochet halter-top. At the end of a woven hemp leash a sheepdog mix sat panting on the tarmac. Ruth took off her gloves and ran a damp hand through her short hair.
“Hello boy,” she said softly, crouching.
“That’s Cotton,” said Ailo, “Denny’s dog.”
Denny’s dog. Ruth felt far away from the unclouded pier and the familiar drone of the ferry’s engine.
“His landlord wouldn’t let him keep it though. Cotton’s staying at the motel with me, for now.”
Ruth stood up. She wanted to ask how long Ailo had been there. Instead she said, “Well don’t let Pierre catch you with him. Not a dog person that one”
“It’s a funny thing with dogs,” said Ailo, “the way they can change hands. I guess it’s the same with everything in life. In Canada Rick and I had Irish Setters and a cabin by the lake and a wonderful little kitchen with a wood burning stove, but I don’t have any of that now.”
Sensing that Ailo had begun to cry, Ruth examined the skyline even more intensely.
“Well… life’s shit and then you die,” Ruth said lightly. It was something she’d hear the other deckhands say when they would complain to each other, in their blustering way about their wives or boss. Ruth wondered if what Denny had seen as an intense pining over a couple of dogs was more about the man Ailo had left behind. “You could always go back,” she said hopefully.
Ailo’s tears had turned her eyes a bright blue. Ruth could see that one eye was almost imperceptibly crossed. Her face was wet and squinched and she was breathing thorough her slightly opened mouth. To Ruth she looked like a helpless Persian kitten, useless and easily drowned.
“I overstayed my visa,” said Ailo. “I was deported because he wouldn’t marry me. Too much pressure or something.”
Ruth sensed the anger underneath her numb delivery. “Would you like to come to my house for dinner?” she asked.
Ailo wiped her face with the hem of her long skirt. “Thank you. That would be a nice change of pace for me actually. Ok if I bring Cotton?”
On the phone with her sister that night, Sarah confirmed that Ailo had moved into the motel almost immediately after the invitation had been extended.
“I kind of regret it,” Sarah said. “I don’t know what I was thinking. You shouldn’t let me drink. It’s not like we can afford to give the family rate to family right now, much less people we barely know. Pierre was furious with me.”
Ruth had asked Ailo to dinner in part to suspend the uncomfortable conversation and in part to continue it later. She thought she should learn more about her adversary although she had to admit she was genuinely curious as well.
“It was all so thrilling for about two minutes– the change of scenery and being on the lam.” Ailo had taken the plate Ruth handed her in the kitchen and gone to sit on the floor beside the coffee table. She seemed comfortable there with her long skirt spread over her crossed knees.
“And then I realized I was all alone.” She fell into a deep silence of the kind that always baits the listener into prodding for the thinker’s thoughts. Ruth abstained. Waif-like Ailo fit well in Ruth’s small living room and this made Ruth relax. She looked around her house as she imagined a visitor would, trying to see it for the first time. She had never found occasion to hang pictures on the walls but on each windowsill was a collection of stones, driftwood, feathers and fragile bird skulls, things she had found along the beach. She saw that her carpet could use vacuuming and there were crumbs on the kitchen counter but she didn’t think these were things Ailo would notice. As Ruth watched her stare into the profound depths of the coffee table she could see how easy it would be to love Ailo. Ailo was lovely. Her fresh, unformed nature and her openness to the world would have been appealing to anyone but a lifeline to someone whose own life had fallen short of the mark or who needed their new life to begin. She wondered if Denny was one of these.
“So you called Denny,” Ruth said.
Slowly clarity came back to her eyes. “This whole thing has made me realize how much he’s always meant to me,” said Ailo. “Even when we were living in that overcrowded foster house it was really just the two of us.”
It occurred to Ruth that Ailo hadn’t mentioned anything about Denny’s sickness. “It’s too bad he wasn’t in better health for your visit,” she said carefully.
Ailo nodded sagely. “We’ve talked about that, had some very real conversations. I’d always planned that we would take the road back North but when Denny told me he was sick I knew that we’d have to drive to Colorado. There’s a Sufi camp there where I lived for awhile. They have healers that can help Denny. It’s a beautiful community.”
“Denny wants to leave?” Ruth asked.
“At first no, but he had to agree that my coming back for him at this very moment –the moment that he needs help the most, must mean something.”
After that Ruth asked no more questions. She listened with half an ear as Ailo unfurled what she called her “life journey” and then as she tried to make some kind
of cosmic sense of it, grasping at vague connections. That night Ruth might have told her that it was not necessarily life’s prerogative to make sense.
* * *
The following day Ruth sat in her pickup in the parking lot of Denny’s apartment complex. She knew she couldn’t bring him the six-pack of beer that usually preceded her through his apartment door but she felt the need to be carrying something, as protection almost, something to fill her hands. In the refrigerated aisle of a 7-11 she found herself picking up a three-foot long sandwich. Now it sat ridiculously on her dashboard as she contemplated Denny’s door in her rearview mirror. The sudden fact that what was once the most natural thing in the world had become so unnatural made her angrier the more she thought about it. She had not felt such self doubt since her twenties when she’d realized after everyone else in the world that she would always be a lonely giantess, her looks a novelty at best. It occurred to her now that if she’d looked more like other women she might have been able to think like them and would have realized that the seven years she’d spent as Denny’s sole confidante wasn’t leading to anything other than what people saw when they sat side by side on their stools at the Smiling Dog; a very odd friendship.
In high school there had been a boy who lived down the road from her and Sarah. From their front porch Ruth could see him ride his bike through the quiet neighborhood streets and was always so surprised when he waved to her that she could barely bring herself to wave back in time before he rode past. The three of them waited at the bus stop in the cold, gray mornings and Ruth studied the geometric patterns on the knit hat he wore pulled down over his wet, red hair.
Standing at the bus stop was a quiet ritual. He was older, a senior and his silence was expected and somehow affable. Sarah’s silence towards Ruth through high school was more complicated. Her shunning was almost apologetic but absolute, beginning and ending at the door of their house. One morning the neighborhood boy stopped coming to the bus stop and after a week Ruth’s curiosity got the better of her and she broke Sarah’s unspoken rule.
“What happened to the boy that used to ride with us?” she asked.
“Mike Winston? He got his license.” Sarah’s tone was full of the incredulity Ruth knew she should feel over probably being the only person in school that didn’t know this.
“Why?” Sarah had asked, turning to stare at her “Do you like him?” her sudden attention was like a drug. Ruth’s brain performed a naïve series of thoughts; he had been nice to her, she did like him.
“Yes,” she said.
Sarah hadn’t spoken again until they were on the bus where Ruth could hear her telling her friends, “My sister is in love with Mike Winston. She wants to have his little redheaded babies.”
After that, any time Ruth thought of Mike Winston she could hear peals of girlish laughter and the shame quickly banished him from her mind. When one morning she saw Sarah pass the bus stop in a car driven by Mike Winston she had, by this time, banished him so effectively that she barely felt a thing.
Ruth hadn’t bothered to turn the truck off and she threw it in reverse but stalled it as her foot recoiled from the gas at the surprise of seeing Denny standing by her window.
“Do you want to go down to the pier?” he asked.
For the sake of his liver, Ruth was happy to see that he did actually mean the pier and not the bar, which they sometimes referred to interchangeably. The ocean smelled strong even though the tide was high. They sat at the edge with their feet dangling above the dark water. Their arrival had startled some otters that had hunched crazily off the pier into the water where their movements were transformed into those of lithe ballerinas. Ruth had carried the sandwich like a baby in the crook of her arm. She tore it in half and handed part to Denny.
“I hear you’re leaving soon,” she said. Out here in the sea smelling air, with the hump of familiar islands in the distance she found she could ask this in an almost impersonal tone.
“Ailo won’t stay here,” he said. Ruth thought she could hear a sadness in his voice. “And there’s supposed to be some tent city commune in Colorado where they have doctors that can help me.”
“Healers,” Ruth said before she could stop herself. “Healers is what she told me. You can’t be sure it’s the same thing.”
“That’s true,” said Denny, in his contrition ready to agree with any of the finer points. His skeletal fingers tore off bits of bread from the sandwich, rolled them into balls and dropped them into the water below where the shadows of fish sucked them from the surface without materializing.
“You don’t have to leave to get well,” Ruth said. Denny paused the destruction of his sandwich. She wondered if he was considering her words, if maybe he intuited the meaning behind them, that she wanted to take care of him with nothing in return.
They sat for a long time, speaking only of what was around them, familiar subjects. When Ruth pulled up to Denny’s apartment it was nearly dark and the rain outside had fogged up the truck windows. Denny leaned across the gear shift and enveloped Ruth in a long hug that she couldn’t enjoy because its mood of somber ceremony seemed to indicate she might not see him again. Her cold nose was pressed against his neck and she felt its warm pulsing.
“Okay then,” she said, extricating herself. Denny pulled his tee shirt over his head like a hood and stepped into the rain. Alone, holding the keys in the ignition, Ruth sat in the parking lot, the site of her indecision earlier in the day. It had become a purgatory between being with Denny and away from him. The hard rain made the purpling sky seem closer. She wouldn’t pray for Denny to stay and love her. It was too preposterous, after all she had never been religious and her pride would not let her do it. Instead she prayed for things to stay the same, a small prayer for nothing to happen.
* * *
Ruth wasn’t scheduled to work that night. The seven PM to one AM shifts were the unlucky lot of the rookies but the thought of her snug, warm house wasn’t comforting. She figured that the first bad weather of the season coupled with the inconvenience of a Friday night shift might have been enough to scare off one of the new hires. She was right. When she walked up the apron in her foul weather gear the first mate looked relieved. For half a shift Ruth worked the upper deck but as the eleven PM ferry pulled into the mainland she took pity on a shivering rookie at the bow. Here the lashing rain was driven sideways drenching the first fifty feet of the vessel. The deck became slick as the water ran across the layers of dried oil and Ruth tread carefully as she directed the steaming cars aboard the boat.
By one o clock a welcome numbness had seeped into her body. Her arms were stiff and moved automatically like the hands of a clock. A metallic blue Camaro appeared before her. The pale head in the rain-blurred windshield belonged unmistakably to Ailo. Ruth beckoned Ailo’s car toward her and made it stop with a gesture of her hand. She knew she was safe in her obscurity, clad head to toe in orange rubber with a muffler that concealed all but her eyes. Her height and build could have been that of any man on the crew. In the boarding lights, not yet dimmed for the crossing, Ruth saw movement in the backseat of the car. A man in a hat was trying to hide himself under a gray blanket. At first Ruth didn’t recognize Pierre although she saw him full well. His presence there was so incongruous it took a moment for her to fully believe in it.
Inside the car, Ailo had turned around in her seat and was trying to uncover his feet with little teasing movements. For a moment Pierre seemed to forget his cause. Sitting up he grabbed her face and kissed it before she pushed him back down and laughing, covered his head with the blanket. Through the windshield and rain Ruth could see something excited and visceral in their twin expressions.
* * *
Ruth sat under the buzzing lights of the ferry’s break room waiting for her turn with the old detective. She wondered how far two days and nights could have carried Ailo and Pierre.
Ruth imagined it had started with Ailo. Pierre, though he was a handsome man, was too much of a stick to attempt an outright seduction. He wouldn’t have had the imagination to envision a new life with Ailo all on his own. It was Ailo, untethered and changeable, that must have seduced him with her blatant freedom.
When the detective arrived, casually dressed in an anorak over a fisherman’s sweater, he spoke briefly with the members of the crew that had been working the Friday that Pierre had disappeared. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence. With only one way off the island any police matter involving kidnapping or flight brought a detective to the Island County ferry. Maybe it was because of the flask being passed around that Friday night but most of the crew did not remember the blue Camaro boarding the one o clock ferry. The two that did recalled a fair-haired woman driver with a pretty smile and no passenger. The only consensus among them was that if someone had gotten a proper look inside the car it would have been the someone at the bow where the cars with no headlights filed onto the well-lit ferry.
The old detective had a large face with round, gin blossomed cheeks.
He beamed at her. “I didn’t know when I woke up this morning that I’d get to talk to such a striking young woman.”
Ruth regarded him warily. He asked her pointed questions about her work at the ferry but they seemed more in the spirit of genuine curiosity than anything relating to a possible crime. After a pause of consideration Ruth answered each question in detail until eventually the questions became so unconnected (where did she hale from? Had she tried the restaurant that just opened at the top of the hill?)that Ruth politely told him they might be needing her down below. Working all day with men who wore identical uniforms, performed the same duties and treated her indistinguishably, it felt strange to her to be an object of flirtatious attention here on the ferry of all places. She sat up awkwardly, pulled her waders down over her thick socks and gave the detective a bemused smile. As she tucked his card into her billfold she could not help but see it as a sign that he hadn’t ever gotten around to asking her if she’d seen Pierre on the ferry that night.
* * *
“It serves me right I guess,” Sarah said on the phone, her voice venomous with sarcasm. “If I hadn’t been spending every second of the day taking care of the boys and running the household I might have had more time for midday sex romps at the family motel. And maybe, just maybe I might have noticed him clearing out our bank accounts.”
“If you want to save up for awhile you and the boys could stay with me, maybe rent your place,” said Ruth. With her bare foot she rubbed the belly of the sheepdog sprawled under the table.
“Thanks but that’s the absolute last thing my self esteem needs at the moment- no offense.”
From the rustle of cellophane Ruth could tell that she’d taken up smoking again.
“Bastard,” Sarah said meditatively, sounding instantly calmer. “If we could prove that they left together then the police would have some idea of what car they were looking for but they say it’s all conjecture no matter what I tell them- like I’m the some hysterical housewife. I must sound to them like somebody you’d want to run away from.”
“No,” said Ruth gently. She was prepared as her unspoken penance to listen to a hundred years of her sister’s grievance if necessary. As she looked out her window at the first leaves turning brown and red she thought of Denny in the fourteenth floor hospital bed that her insurance had paid for. Their quickie courthouse marriage had been attended by no one. They’d celebrated with a last beer at the Smiling Dog and then Ruth had gone to work her shift while Denny packed his bag for the hospital.
“It’s going to be strange to sleep here, “ Denny said. They had wanted him in bed in his thin hospital gown even though it was still light outside.
“I’ve never been in a hospital before much less slept in one.” Tomorrow he would have the surgery and now that he was encased in the tight sheets of the all white room Ruth could tell that his relief had given way to worry. They had shaved his beard and his chin had a waxy shine as though polished. She saw now that it was not just his eyes, but his tremulous mouth that made him look like an overgrown boy.
“I wish I’d been a religious man,” he said.
“Pray for something small,” said Ruth. “Pray to be able to sleep.”
Denny closed his eyes. All around the delicate pieces of machinery hummed softly.