John Vanderslice’s linked short story collection Island Fog examines the physical terrain, social character, and political climate of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts from both historical and contemporary perspectives. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Arkansas. His stories, poems, essays, and plays have appeared in a variety of journals, including Seattle Review, Versal, Crazyhorse, Sou’wester, Exquisite Corpse, and 1966. You can follow his thoughts on the writing life and the teaching writing life on his blog Payperazzi. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Excerpted from Island Fog
Lavender Ink, New Orleans
©John Vanderslice 2014
Nantucket Island, 2004
He drank the last of his Costa Rican and thought about the letter. He didn’t have much time. He should be at the Athenaeum now, collecting cash and looking inscrutable. But he didn’t want to. It was cold. Another fog had come in, turning the streets invisible. After his 5:00 tour he had no choice but to duck into The Bean and hide out with a warm cup for as long as he could make it last. Maybe there wouldn’t be anyone for 7:30. This early in the season, with the few meandering tourists punished by a dank nipping mist that made notions of any walking tour ludicrous. But there was always someone. There had never been no one, not even on his first day.
Back then he worried that a Nantucket ghost tour was a flaky lark of an idea that could never generate sustainable dollars, not over time. It was an experiment, a start, a try at something other than what he’d always known: working on houses. It was a way to raise some extra cash on the weekends and have fun at the same time. He wasn’t about to quit his day job. But at once he hit an astonishingly deep vein. Even in that first season, with no publicity except for those cheesy xeroxed flyers featuring a screaming woman he cut from a soap ad, even then he got upwards of sixty people on a midsummer night willing to pay fifteen dollars apiece and follow him around town center for an hour and a half, trusting that at each stop he could marvel. In four years, he’d expanded from one tour a night to two, from two nights a week to four. He gave up the construction work—at least during the season—and become a new Nantucket institution, profiled in the Inquirer and Mirror, the Cape Cod Times, Nantucket Life, Yankee, even Victoria. For the last two years he was named Most Entertaining Ghost Walk in the Globe’s Best of Boston survey. If he were to stop now someone would have to take his place.
But then there were nights like these. When even wearing a sweater and lined windbreaker the dampness found a way onto his skin. When he had to worry about a client stepping off the sidewalk into the vapor only to be hit by a delivery truck that hadn’t turned its lights on. When he must tell the same old stories to three or four shivering, underdressed visitors caught unawares by the mid-May dip in temperature. When he had to work to keep their attention, to make the stories suspenseful and mesmerizing, to invest in them all the power they had originally when he first heard them years ago: the fiery-eyed man glaring at two kids from the altar of the Unitarian church; the organ music sounding from a deserted home once occupied by a famously tortured musician; the strangely dressed child whom the young Jill and Harold Isley played with every day near the Quaker graveyard. Twice a night, four times a week, four months out of the year. And on nights like these, while he made his eyes go wide and his voice dip with manufactured drama, all he felt in his heart was the cloying desire for a hot shower and a double scotch.
But tonight, too, sitting in his small seat at The Bean, there was this letter, arrived in the morning mail. He carried it around all day, afraid to open it. Also afraid not to. So, after his 5:00, after he escaped into The Bean, after he’d sweetened his Costa Rican and taken off his windbreaker and straightened his sweater and scratched his armpit and checked his watch and drunk his first draught of the bitter, eye-opening brew, he finally did it. He broke the seal.
I hunted for an e-mail address on you but found none. I uncovered this
snail the old fashioned way: through the phone company. I hope to God it
is current and this is you and you are reading these words right now.
Forgive me. Okay? Please? That’s what I’m saying. Should I grovel?
Okay, I will. Please, please, please forgive me. I didn’t know what I was
doing. I was a fool. I was a tart. I was a whore. I was dazzled by all those
superficial things. By watches, and haircuts, and slacks, and boats, and
restaurants. I was dazzled by cocaine. And Cuban cigarettes. But he’s gone
now. I swear. I’ve thrown him off. The old rag. Fifty-something lizard of
a human person.
What I think about now is You. I think about how good we were together,
how much I enjoyed you even if we were just watching television. And of
course I remember how stupid I was to ask you to leave. I can’t believe I did
that. I ruined it for us, for me. And now I’m getting what I deserve.
Please come back to Boston. I promise you I am different. I promise I’ll
never be so stupid as break us up again. Please believe me.
Goodbye. I miss you. I love you.
Truly yours, Alan
P.S. FORGIVE ME! PLEASE!
It was an assault. An insult. To think he could forget the past and jump back into Alan’s arms at a moment’s notice. And just because Alan, having fallen out with his glamorous beaux, was feeling lonely. Maybe Alan had “thrown him off,” but that was probably a lie. More likely was that Alan, dumped and in a fit of self-pity, was searching for an easy mark to assuage his wounds. Move back to Boston? He was going to broach that in an e-mail? It was too crazy, too out of the blue. Matthew nearly ripped the letter in half. He put both hands at the center—one above, one below—and started the yank. But then different emotions came, swelling beneath his anger like a surf, staying his hands.
I won. I beat him.
And in the moment’s sweet victory, he actually felt sorry for that pathetic, needy gadfly Alan Worthington. For Alan to apologize, to grovel even, he surely must be in a bad way. Finally, drinking off the last of his Costa Rican, Matthew’s pity blurred and sunk and mutated into something like a strand of buried affection. He stared at the letter in front of him, confused.
It was almost 7:30. He had no more time to think about it. He raised his cup and threw it back one more time, hoping for a last watery line to warm him. No luck. He stood up, and for a second had the most disturbing sensation of vertigo: he couldn’t remember who he was or why he was here or where in the world he thought he was going.
Nantucket had been Matthew’s refuge when Alan threw him out. He had never lived there, but had come regularly with Alan in the mid-90s: brief weekend excursions to “soak up the shopping and the prettiness,” as Alan put it. Matthew hadn’t cared about that: the gilt-rimmed, hyper-hygienic, Disneyland slickness of the town center that drew such crowds in July and August, sunglasses around their necks, coffee cups in hands, shopping bags holding thousands of dollars worth of merchandise. What impressed Matthew was the awful weight of history pressing down upon the island, throbbing outward with the sea at the harbor and back again with each arriving vessel. Palpable in the cobblestone streets and the gray shingled houses and the widow’s walks. He felt on certain moments on select narrow streets that time had stopped or had circled around on itself, that he was back inside that living spiraling body, that awful protean force. He felt alive in another reality than that which existed back in Boston, at a juncture with other realities: of whaling ships and money interests and functional Quaker hypocrisies and lamps that emitted real smells when one passed them; when time as he conventionally knew it had no meaning because he, on that street, at that moment, had no past and no future. He was outside his own life with Alan, merely visiting it on the wave of this newfound time, like a spirit from the future or the past.
But these were such short excursions. They would arrive on Saturday morning, take a late ferry back on Sunday, and be up early the next day for work: he on another of the remodeling jobs that were his career, Alan to work for the Boston Lyric Opera. Matthew could never get over the awful sense of disorientation when he stepped off the boat in Hyannis, of feeling thrust into literally another world: America, the 90s, his job, his commitments, his time-bound, hide-hounded life.
Two people showed for the 7:30: a man and a woman, both in their forties. They were dressed in shorts and unlined windbreakers. They hunched at the shoulders, bent their necks, kept their hands submerged in their pockets. Their faces, strained and shivering with discomfort, poked out from beneath thin brown hoods, accenting their teeth. They looked like two anxious groundhogs.
“Would you like to come back on Friday?” Matthew said. “You don’t seem very comfortable.”
“No,” the man answered. “We’re leaving tomorrow morning. It’s got to be tonight.”
But why does it have to be at all? Matthew wanted to ask. He looked at the woman. Perhaps there was a chance with her. But he saw no softness there either, only the same haggard, intent expression. Her forehead was plastered with damp brown hair, her nose royally arched. Her small eyeglasses glinted in the fogged light cast by a street lamp. She nodded at him silently. She wanted this too. They must have been told, Matthew thought. Someone said to them: Don’t come back before you do the ghost walk. So, damn it, they would, come hell or—
“Fifteen dollars,” Matthew said. “Each.”
The man thrust his out hand out. He had the money ready, dewy and crumpled in his paw.
He returned to the apartment house on Cherry Street at nine-thirty. He carried his bike upstairs and stowed it in his living room against the wall. He was chilled and feeling fog wet, so he took a shower. He turned up the heat. He put coffee on. He changed into thick sweatpants and a dry t-shirt. It took a second for him to realize which of his shirts his hand happened upon: “We Sing, Therefore We Live. The Boston Lyric Opera.” He took the shirt off and threw it in the trash. He put on another: “Cisco Brewery, Nantucket Island, Massachusetts.” Someplace Alan had never been. Matthew gave up on coffee and poured himself a whiskey instead. The letter was still folded in his fanny pack.
Would Alan really expect a reply? More to the point, did his missive really represent a sea change? Matthew knew that if he called Alan in Boston he might only be greeted with, “Forget the letter. I was out of mind when I wrote that.” He could actually hear Alan’s voice say those words, the precise timbre. And even if Alan had changed, even if he did say he still wanted Matthew back, so what then? Even then, what business did Matthew have trusting him? After six years, his heart still carried the scar of what Alan had done. It was there like a literal rip in the muscle, turned white only because the initial scab had flaked away. But a scar all the same. It was a lie, Matthew knew, that time healed all wounds. What it does is disguise them. The hard scab disappears but the real cut lasts as a shadow entity. You can’t see it unless you really look for it, and sometimes even if you’re looking you still can’t. You have to know what to look for. It’s not bold red or black, but dim and frosty as an eidolon; invisible against the busy background.
Around two a.m. Matthew woke. Someone was in the room with him. A presence, beyond the end of his bed. Matthew knew it had eyes, even if he couldn’t see them, and the eyes were looking at him. He felt palpable movement, as if ocean air were circulating through his apartment. But that wasn’t possible. All the windows were closed and locked. And this air was no mere air either, not just blank, ordinary wind. More like a conscious presence gorging on warmth, gorging on oxygen, making the bedroom fatal by an unstoppable act of will.
Matthew tried to remember how the victims in his stories escaped, but all he could think of were the ghosts and how they perpetuated their horror: they threw knives and bottles; they sat on your chest until you almost passed out; they laughed at you with red, accusing eyes. Perhaps the worst story he told was of a strange little girl who appeared every night for two weeks to a childless middle-aged woman. The girl might have even been beautiful—what with her straight, clean brown hair and nineteenth century dress—except that she always wore a sarcastic smile. She approached the woman slowly, pointing at her a long, extended index finger. She mouthed one word: “Mama.” Finally, she pounced, beating and scratching and pulling hair so badly the woman cried for her to stop; except the ghost never did. It never left until the woman passed out from pain. Had any of the victims ever died from a ghost attack? Matthew didn’t think so, but in the moment he couldn’t begin to feel certain. His brain was blank. As if half his mind were stolen, leaving only the brute ability to perceive a living terror staring at him from the end of his bed.
Matthew threw off his covers and ran from his bedroom into the living room. Within seconds he was outside, on Cherry Street, dressed only in his underwear, looking up at the sky and feeling the sting of a freezing May nighttime. The fog was gone, but the wind blew. Stars were out, burning fiercely above the tepid nimbus of street lamps. He looked up at the apartment house: a bulky, two story mid-islander, constructed in the early 1830s and remodeled several times after, the last in the 1979, when it had been converted into four separate units. He looked at his own window. The lights were off. There was no sign of movement or occupation. No evil figure showed against the pane. Matthew shivered and convulsed for minutes, till even his tears started to chill him and he decided that it had only been a dream, coming on the heels of an awful day. He went inside and up the stairs to the second floor. The apartment felt so much warmer than the night outside.
The next evening the weather was better. No fog. His 5:00 tour totaled nine. A good number for that time of year. He might have twenty for 7:30. And his five o’clock was a good group too. They stayed alert, asked questions, passed around ghost stories from their own hometowns. Matthew should have been pleased, but he was too distracted to notice. Not from the previous night’s haunting. That, he decided, was pure illusion, a function of whiskey and stress. He’d managed to fall back asleep quickly, and he woke at his regular hour. What distracted him now was the pressing question of Alan. He could make Alan wait for only so long. He eventually must write him. If not, Alan would never stop badgering him. When attention was the issue, Alan would never stop until he claimed it fully. But what should he write? Matthew still didn’t know. It peeved him that in a letter of apology, a letter of actual begging, Alan was still trying to define the relationship on his own terms. To even assume, first of all, that after six years, Matthew would be available and willing. As if Matthew had done nothing with himself that whole time but wait for the call from Alan. I’ve had a lover, Alan. Do you know that? A kind man who was kind to me.
Of course, maybe Alan couldn’t help himself. It wasn’t just that Alan was beautiful—strikingly, astonishingly beautiful, an only slightly feminized version of the young Christopher Reeve—it was that Alan had been his first. It was Alan and no one else who had made Matthew who he was, what he was. Before Alan he was still fumbling through awkward, unsuccessful dates with women, too much the coward to act on the truth of his own nature. He would have stayed that way, stuck and scared and possibly married, if Alan had not hired him to work on his kitchen. Alan said later he immediately recognized Matthew’s secret. So it was not difficult to bring it to the surface. Two weeks into the job, Alan insouciantly suggested they go out: dinner and a movie. They were both bored, single guys, Alan said. Why not be bored together? Matthew understood the consequences—or at least he recognized Alan’s intentions. One look at Alan’s home had told him what he needed to know. He accepted the invitation. And at the end of the evening, after what happened between them happened, he found himself in Alan’s arm’s, dissolved into a moist hurry of tears and confessions: a puddle of stupid gossipy appreciation. For almost three years, this was how Matthew remained: scared, grateful, inferior, eager to please. Because, after all, Alan had done something so huge and meaningful that it seemed a debt Matthew could never repay.
For better or worse, those three years in Alan’s house had defined him—had ended some more dangerous confusion—even if too he was nearly destroyed at the last with pain. Perhaps, eventually, he might have to do it after all: go back to Boston. And maybe it could turn out differently. Maybe. Now that Alan knew what it is like to be the one without control, led around by his heart, and by his heart made to suffer that one excruciating torture.