I’ll Show You the Way
by Victoria Campbell
The pamphlet detailing the history of the Gingerbread Cottages in Oak Bluffs leaves out the good stuff, like the fact that Valentine House was originally blue, but painted pink when the owner’s wife left him for an across-the-street neighbor. Pink was his wife’s least-favorite color, not a high five to Saint Valentine. When I’m not handing out pamphlets to tourists, I herd troubled teenaged hikers up the mulched paths at Great Rock. At the summit, I dole out band aids for blisters, unfurl extra pairs of socks. As the kids sprawl on mossed boulders and pant, I point to the curve of clay cliffs, the black patches of burned out forest. On cloud free days, I crane my neck to see the glint of Quonset Pond through thick trees and when light flares off the still surface I think about that summer.
We dripped castles from wet sand scooped from the sickled shore of Menemsha Pond then jigged, shrieking, until the castles were flattened and sand was just sand. Bought chewy bricks of fudge from Murdick’s with dollars, canines sinking into tooth-numbing sweetness until our bellies ached and our mouths were brown Os. Bus rides, hitch hiking, the ghost of dust rising from dirt roads. Toes pushing through sneakers, paper bag lunches, boys’ phone numbers. Our mothers’ gentle fingers sifting through our tangled, salty hair feeling for swollen bodies of blood-fat ticks. Slept fitfully in sand- heavy sheets. Heaved rocks at the matted rumps of the three goats penned in Dee’s backyard. That summer we were the self-proclaimed Losers of Maple Street and me, Leslie, and Dee guzzled foaming beers stolen from our parents’ garages on the planks of Leslie’s treehouse. Crashed Dee’s hand-me-down Buick through the front wall of Poole’s Fish Market. Sat dazed as brick crumbled around us, touched fingertips to faces then belly laughed to see lobsters with blue-bound claws teetering on tiny legs in the middle of the street, the glass of the shattered tank glistening in the light of Dee’s beams. Held our hands aloft, mimicked the lobsters’ fused claws. “I am not a crook,” we Nixoned in unison to flashing red and blue. “I am not a crook.”
The Maple Mansion had never lived up to its name, no matter how many times we pounded a cylinder of metal into its ridged bark and waited, gape-jawed, for the sticky flood. Younger us had climbed scrap wood rungs hammered into the side then swung through the trap door to give our baby dolls Kool Aid dye jobs and Elmer’s mohawks. Walls tacked with boybanders and pink-tongued puppies, names of crushes heart-ringed in a spiral notebook.
We were bored, so we sloshed wine and lipped cigarettes from a soft pack. Leslie flicked the lighter and our lungs buoyed, and we shaded our eyes from the climbing, orange-burning sun. We snipped temp tats from dollar store books, wetted skulls and roses and roaring lions to our knuckles. Over pork chops and lentils, we threw gang signs at our siblings until our mothers shooed us to bathrooms to pick the sticky ink from creased fingers.
We believed we had better things to do than watch the news but we still heard about the hurricane. Boats belly up, boarded windows and doors. COME ON IRENE spray painted on barricades of plywood. In our pantries, our mothers counted gallons of water as we rolled our eyes. We were not scared of the storm and, as our neighbors filled back up gas tanks, we spent the night before she was supposed to hit in the treehouse. In the flickering candles, Dee drove the Ouija board’s triangle, calling Leslie’s Uncle Bob from his ocean grave and, when the wind sighed and the candles blinked, our skin crawled under the smudge of a clouded moon. That summer we were so bored we tried to raise the dead.
The storm sapped power for three days and we were house- ridden. We tried our walkie talkies but our over, over, overs yielded silence. We shared beds with our siblings, lit candles, flushed toilets with standing water drawn from bathtubs. Our shingles popped, basements flooded. Wind popcorned sand at windows and doors and our mothers swept hard wood over and over before throwing brooms to floors in defeat. Our dads got drunk then paced then passed out and we drained leftover flat beers. When the eye stilled, we thought it was over, and we rushed for the porch, only to be slapped back by our mothers. “But we want out,” we shrilled. We were solemn, we were glum, but in the dark we shaped ourselves to the sickled backs of our siblings.
Spindle-legged crabs sucked air in backyards and beached fish flopped as water receded and streetlights flared. In the harbor shops, flood lines reached windowsills. Armed with power tools, our fathers amputated splintered branches of trees. A call from Leslie’s mom sent us down the street to flock with neighborhood kids. The goats had gotten loose, we were told, the door to the hutch swiped by Irene and the dumb animals had stumbled bleating, bleeding into the storm.
We pulled on our fathers’ muck boots and hiked deer trails through the rain-trampled grass listening for the chatter of the missing goats. We peered through the shuttered windows of summer people and boasted to one another that it would be easy to slip a lock, to kick back on suede sofas, to help ourselves to loaded liquor cabinets, to bathroom cabinets, to junk food cabinets. When wheels chuffed gravel, we scrammed into the thick woods, our hearts cartwheeling in our chests.
By noon it was baking, so we abandoned our search for the goats, thumbed our way to the beach then stripped down to our underwear. Leftover swells socked the shore but the sun glared yellow and on striped towels we tanned. Bare- chested surfers bobbed on the undulating black and blue and the remains of Irene fell apart over open ocean. That summer, we thought the gale winds were the worst that would happen.
We woke the next morning to the low drone of plane engines, fog pooling across lawns. Our mothers and fathers sat saucer-eyed before televisions, stony newscasters reporting a vanished single engine carrying a family from Boston to Hyannis Port. Cameras rolled footage of black-suited divers bobbing, then disappearing, into the curls of lingering waves.
Under the sun-sick sky, we marched farther into the green woods at Great Rock as we continued our goat quest. The metal wings of low-flying planes spat reflected light and we shaded our eyes from the glare. We chewed flattened tuna sandwiches, tossed the crusts into the damp brush. We were silent as we rested, backs pressed to the warm granite of a pocked boulder.
After the crash, we read newspapers for the first time, trading titles under the beams of the treehouse. From the Boston Globe, we learned the names and ages of the passengers, that the daughter, a few years older than us, had just started school at Boston University. The New York Times informed us that the family had been heading to their summer home for a vacation. The Washington Post’s headlines were the most dire: FAMILY OF THREE PRESUMED DEAD IN SMALL CRAFT MISHAP. And even though Leslie agreed, had announced that they were dead, fucking dead, actually, we couldn’t stop turning pages.
After exhausting the newspapers, we turned to televisions. Our mothers exiled us from houses, filled backpacks with trail mix, bottled water. “Get outside,” they said. “Get some fresh air.” They worried that we had been watching too much TV. They noted that we roamed from house to house, sat cross legged in front of blinking screens, flipping through the cycles of news channels, ears pricking. Expelled from houses, our pupils bloomed and seared in the sun.
Even though we felt queasy at the idea, we still clipped pictures of the lost girl from front pages and lit the nubs of scented candles under the roof of the Maple Mansion. We fingertipped the planchette of the Ouija board, closed our eyes and hummed, recited a chant we found on the Web. By name, we called to the girl, asked her to make her presence known. Our pulses quickened, but under our fingers the plastic triangle was anchored to the board. After five minutes we gave up, released breaths we hadn’t known we were holding.
Two days later, we found the dented body of a plane in the woods near Great Rock. We picked our way toward the pond, swatted mosquitos, planning on wading into the cool darkness. Across the pulsing surface, we saw the foreign shape. Wheels in the air, nose accordioned—without wings, we noted, it looked like a butter dish. Debris haloed the cabin, smoke-stained metal, a severed propeller. I pointed to the red canvas of a suitcase, the curve of a brown penny loafer. The wind had quieted and the pond’s surface was glass and swarms of gnats rose from trampled grass. We stood and stared and when Leslie moved closer, Dee touched her shoulder. Shook her head. We hoofed it back to the sandy path, ran until the woods were behind us and stuck our thumbs out, our feet grounded on asphalt. From the bed of a dinged pickup, we watched the path become a ribbon, become a snake, become a blade of grass.
That same day, Leslie’s younger brother found the goats. The animals had nosed into a secluded summer house and spent the week sleeping and shitting in sleigh beds, gleefully chomping their way through first editions and abstract paintings. Had we been together, we would have laughed at the idea of the square-toothed billies shredding Milton, but by that time we were already moving in different directions and although we’d spend a few nights in the treehouse and swill wine coolers, we never talked about that day in the woods. What we had shared was too much for our narrow shoulders to shoulder and so we let it drop. By the next fall, we’d wave and smile and partner in biology, but we found other friends, other paths to wander.
If you ask someone about that summer, they’ll probably remember Irene. I still lead the kids on the hike to the knoll where we found the wing, watch the wind ruffle the water on the pond and the goose-necked anhingas bob, then disappear, under sloping waves. Tall grasses have covered the deer paths we used to walk and the leaves of trees grow thicker every season, but, if you’re ever on the island, I’ll show you the way.