Sounds from Southwest Harbor drifted up the shore line to the screened-in porch where Henry Simmons sat in a large white wicker chair: fog horns, lapping water, clanging buoy markers, the sputtering of lobster boats going out to their traps. Every July for the last sixteen years, Henry and Charlotte had traveled to this cottage on the harbor. The Moorings, they called it. This summer he came alone.
Henry shivered. He reached for the First Boston coffee mug on the small wicker table. The coffee was cold. He drank it anyway. Setting the mug back on the table, he knocked over several prescription bottles. He looked down at the blank journal page resting in his lap. His pen was capped. He pulled up the blanket draped over his legs and turned off the lamp.
When Henry closed his eyes, he heard other sound, echoes from last November: Charlotte’s shallow breathing, a monitor’s soft beeping, the mechanical voice paging Dr. Dugan. He imagined Charlotte laying on a lab table, her tall thin body covered by a faded blue University Hospitals gown. The dark brown hair Henry had loved for thirty years was pulled back and streaked with gray. A dim green light masked the pale lips he’d kissed each of the last 9,874 days. Henry opened his eyes and shook off the memory.
In the harbor, lobster boats muscled through the fog. Sitting in his pajamas in the cool morning air, Henry saw only running lights and mist.
He closed his eyes again, and the lab reappeared in his mind. It was dark except for the glow of the scanner’s screen. Charlotte lay beneath the machine while Henry sat a safe distance away from its radiation. Hidden in the room’s shadows, he attempted a smile.
Henry watched an image appear on the monitor, line by line. With each pass more black dots filled in the outline of Charlotte’s lungs. The dots were radioactivity absorbed by the cancer that had traveled from her thyroids. “Positive radioactive iodide uptake,” said Dr. Dugan in a flat clinical tone.
The enemy’s face became sharply defined on the computer screen. Dr. Dugan had removed Charlotte’s thyroids and the cancerous lymph nodes. Now the doctor was concerned about her lungs and liver. Black dots were everywhere.
“How could this be?” Henry asked in a whisper. “She was fine until last summer.”
Dugan laughed at the suggestion, then caught himself. “Obviously,” he said somberly, “the cancer began long before then.”
Staring out at the harbor, Henry remembered last summer, their last summer together. Charlotte had tired easily. She eschewed the usual visits to local artists and shopkeepers. Late afternoon naps extended long into evenings. Sometimes Henry ate alone rather than wake her. Charlotte encouraged him to take sailing lessons from Bill Oulette, a friend who ran a nearby boat service. Henry had wanted to learn to sail since they’d first come to Maine, but had chosen not to in deference to Charlotte who had never learned to swim.
Henry’s single lesson with Bill was a disaster. “Henry has trouble taking orders,” Charlotte told Bill’s wife. “Toni, maybe you could teach him?” She reluctantly agreed. Those lessons were interrupted by their early departure for Boston to see Dr. Dugan.
Charlotte wanted Henry get a physical, too. “I worry about you,” she told him.
They went to the physicals together. “You’re in good shape for a man your age,” Arthur Dugan told him.
“I hate that qualifier.”
Henry and Charlotte played bridge once a month with Arthur and Sue, the doctor’s second wife and still his nurse. “Deal with it, Henry. You’re fifty-four. Now go into the waiting room while I examine your lovely wife.”
Henry was reading Fortune Magazine when Sue came and asked him to return to the examining room.
“There’s a problem,” Arthur said. “I felt lumps in Charlotte’s neck. She tells me she noticed them months ago, but was hesitant to say anything. They’re probably nothing, but I think we should have them looked at.” So Arthur recommended an oncologist and set up an appointment. “It’s probably nothing.”
Henry reached for his mug and found it empty. A thermos of coffee lay at his feet. He felt powerless to lift it. He knew he should rise from the chair and abandon the porch. He needed to escape the memories residing there. Charlotte would have done that. Charlotte avoided anything that threatened her equilibrium.
Charlotte had been hopeful when Henry drove her to the oncologist’s office last August. He turned out to be tall, bearded and gangly. “I’ll do a needle biopsy,” he said after examining Charlotte’s neck. “I’ll insert a needle into one of the larger lumps and withdraw cells from it. It’s less invasive than other biopsies.”
The biopsy came back normal. There didn’t appear to be cancer, but the oncologist had recommended removal of the lumps anyway.
“Why?” Henry asked.
“A needle biopsy can be inaccurate. It’s like walking blindfolded through a forest. You reach up and grab a handful of leaves. Later, when you’re out of the forest, you examine the leaves. They may or may not be typical of the forest. We found normal cells, but the lumps may or may not be normal.” Because there was no hurry, surgery was scheduled for October 2nd.
Charlotte wanted to go back to the Moorings before the operation, but the morning of their proposed departure Charlotte had risen slowly. She barely touched her toast and blueberry jam. Finally, she’d turned to Henry and sighed. “I can’t do it.” She began to cry. “I don’t have the strength to go back one last time.”
“That’s fine,” he’d assured her. “The locals would have a stroke if they saw us again before July. Besides, we’ve got all next summer.”
“I’m not so sure,” she said before returning to bed.
Charlotte loved Southwest Harbor. It was a working harbor, a retreat from adversity. They first went there after Jennifer’s death. Subsequent summers offered solace for new trials: the death of Henry’s parents, Charlotte’s car accident, their brother-in-law lost to Alzheimer’s disease. Charlotte and Henry met the natives: Bill and Toni Oulette and their daughter, Stacy; Edgar McKenzie who did odd jobs and watched over the cabin in the winter; and Darlene Novak who owned the Safe Harbor Inn where they ate most of their meals out.
Sixteen summers passed with steady predictability. At the cottage down from the Hinckley Yacht Company, Henry spent the early mornings with a thermos of black Guatemalan coffee, a pair of binoculars, his Pilot pen and a journal. Rising at 5:30, Henry would sit in the wicker chair on the screened porch and write. Mid-morning Charlotte would come out. “Are you going to spend the rest of your life here or can we get breakfast?”
In the afternoon Charlotte and Henry would go to the library, the bookstores and the cafes. Or Henry checked in with his office, while Charlotte frequented artist’s studios, sometimes to buy, sometimes to paint alongside the artists.
Evenings they walked hand in hand past the ships in their moorings, and then dined at the Safe Harbor Inn. Charlotte’s lethargy last summer broke their routine. Henry spent as much time with the Oulettes playing euchre than he did with Charlotte. (He knew Toni and Bill felt sorry for him.)
Suddenly Henry’s thoughts were broken up by voices. Bill Oulette and his daughter, Stacy, spoke in terse sentences as they walked to the dock. They were taking German Tourists on the cruise up the coast. Stacy stood two inches taller than her father. Both were built like fullbacks. Stacy played on the field hockey team at BU. Bill and Stacy nodded to Henry as they passed by.
His drifted back to October 2nd. The operation was scheduled from 8:00 a.m. until 9:30. After three hours Henry had still not heard from the operating room. At 11:13 a man in a Moosehead sweatshirt was called to the surgical lounge phone. When he hung up he began sobbing. People in the lounge pretended not to listen. “Thank God that isn’t me,” Henry thought.
At 12:21 he got his call. It was Dr. Dugan’s surgical nurse. The operation was going fine, but when they’d opened Charlotte’s neck it was riddled with lumps. Dr. Dugan was assisting the oncologist in a radical neck dissection, removing all her lymph nodes. He would also remove her thyroids and parathyroids. This would take several more hours.
Henry was beside Charlotte when she came out of the anesthetic. “It’s almost dark,” she’d said. “I was supposed to be out by noon.” He explained, and she accepted it as if she’d known all along.
Henry took time off from the firm. Their days became a succession of therapies. Stacy Oulette drove over from BU to visit. She’d obviously been pressured to come by her parents. A reluctant visitor, Stacy escaped from them at the earliest possible moment.
When her mother called later, Henry told Toni how thoughtful the visit had been. Henry’s associates sent prayerful cards, but no personal notes. Neighbors stopped by with food, but few knew them well. Charlotte and Henry had a half-dozen close friends, but otherwise kept to themselves.
Edgar McKenzie called from Maine in December to wish them a Merry Christmas and to ask about work to be done on the roof at the Moorings come spring. Henry suggested they might not be back this July. “You may not be strong enough to travel,” he told his gaunt wife while cupping the phone in his hand.
“Henry,” she said, “I’ll be dead by then. Fix the roof.”
Edgar hoped for the best and wished them a happy New Year. In the end the painkillers stole Charlotte from Henry long before the cancer could.
On July 1st, when Henry returned to Southwest Harbor, Charlotte was with him, her ashes sealed in an urn. On July 4th, Bill Oulette took him sailing. Henry released the remains into the harbor. “I don’t know why you want me along,” Bill told him. “I seen you sailing with Toni last summer. You could have done this yourself. You’re nothing flashy, but you can sail a boat.”
“I know. But I’m comfortable with you at the helm.”
“You’re the boss.”
“It’s the first time Charlotte’s been sailing. All these years on the bay, and she never got on a boat. She couldn’t talk me out of it this time.” Bill seemed puzzled by that. “My wife watched a girlfriend drown when she was ten. She shuddered every time I went for lessons. I always told her I felt safe with Toni.”
“Toni does okay. Stacy’s better, but college has filled her head with crap.”
Stacy’s college education had caused tension in the Oulette marriage. Toni abandoned college when she’d gotten pregnant and married Bill. She insisted Stacy get her chance, but Bill’s business sucked up all their money.
Henry and Charlotte had stepped in. “We have a college fund, but we don’t have a daughter any more,” Henry told the couple over cards. “You have a daughter, but no college fund. Let us help.”
Bill opposed it, but relented. Everyone agreed that Stacy shouldn’t know. In Charlotte and Henry’s minds it wasn’t about Stacy. They barely knew her. It was about Jennifer, their seven-year-old daughter who’d died when her bicycle had been struck by a drunk driver on her way home from school.
Henry and Charlotte bought the Moorings the year Jennifer died. They wanted to put their marriage back together. When they arrived at Southwest Harbor, they rarely went out, didn’t install a phone, didn’t read their mail. They sat like sticks watching the harbor, and it brought them closer.
Gradually they were forced to face people: the Oulettes, who were their closest neighbors; Edgar, who fixed their plumbing and later took over all the cabin maintenance, and Darlene Novak who owned the only café within walking distance.
The end of July they returned to Boston to begin their life again, but decided there would be no more children. When they returned to Southwest Harbor the next summer, the Oulettes invited them over for supper and cards. Eventually they played euchre together every Tuesday night, and once a month Henry and Charlotte took Toni and Bill out to eat in Bar Harbor.
By July 14th Henry found it difficult to get out of bed for the sunrise. Some days it was eight or nine o’clock before he made coffee. Often he would wake in darkness, and lay inert, leaden, powerless to leave that warm bed for the cool foggy mornings. He remained in the large empty bed, hoping to turn over one more time and touch the living body of Charlotte.
He still wrote daily in his journal. His resolutions, projects, and reading lists gave way to mundane tasks that now seemed impossibly hard: “make coffee,” “shower,” “walk to post office for mail,” “call the office.” When he left the bed, he went only as far as the wicker porch chair. A maid came to change the linens, clean, and handle his laundry. Toni helped him buy a small sailboat. He spent late afternoons with her trying to get comfortable with the craft.
Now, the morning of August 12th, his first summer without Charlotte in thirty years, Henry sat in his wicker chair, dressed in black flannel moose pajamas. The clock read 10:30. He looked out the porch screens to watch the gulls circling and diving as a lobster man emptied a trap in the harbor. A small skiff was rowing out to the deep green two-masted schooner, Clarence Todd, anchored directly out from the cottage.
Last summer he’d persuaded Charlotte to book passage on the Clarence Todd. They would sail to Nova Scotia with a party of ten for a six-day cruise. The night before their departure, Charlotte asked Henry to cancel the reservation. She couldn’t confront her fear of the water. And she was tired.
“You’ll lose your money,” the captain had told him. “I can’t give a refund this late.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Henry said. “My wife thought she was ready, but she’s not.”
“You could still cruise with us.”
“In the last twenty-nine years,” he told the captain, “Charlotte and I have spent four nights apart. Six days without her would be a lifetime.” A week later Henry took Charlotte back to Boston.
By 11:00 the fog that had almost lifted had rolled back into the harbor. By the time Betty, the maid, was scheduled to come, it would shroud the cottage.
Henry watched Toni walk past his porch door on her way to the dock with her sailing student, a boy of ten staying at Safe Harbor Inn. Henry raised his hand and weakly waved at her. He could see concern on her face. He knew that by 1:30, when the sailing lesson was complete, she would stop by. But Betty would already have been there.
Henry dropped his right hand into his lap. It lay among the bottles of pills Charlotte had refused to take at the end. There were a dozen varieties, in various quantities and dosages, three different medications for the pain. He hoped there were enough for the only task on his list today. He hadn’t slept all night and now he tried to gather the strength to swallow them. A woman appeared in the doorway.
“Charlotte . . .,” he said in a hoarse whisper as the fog engulfed him.
“It’s me, Mr. Simmons,” answered Betty dressed in worn jeans, black tennies, and a faded red Pete Seeger concert t-shirt. “I’m a little early today. My niece has a dance recital, so I’m trying to finish by 2:00.”
Henry controlled his voice. “That’s okay, Betty. I’m fine today. Don’t bother with the linens. Just come back tomorrow. I didn’t sleep well, so I’m going back to bed soon anyway. Enjoy your recital.”
Betty reluctantly agreed and left, carrying her bucket of cleaning supplies and her vacuum cleaner.
“That complicates things,” he thought. “Who will find me now?”
He knew the answer. Toni would come by after her lesson. Carefully he picked up the pill bottles. One by one he stood them up on the end table. He lay back in the chair and in a few minutes was sleeping.
The sound of the screen door shutting woke him. Toni stood at the door dressed in cut-off jeans shorts and a black Blind Pig sweatshirt. She had tied back her long, gray-streaked straight brown hair. She was tanned and stocky, almost Henry’s height. She stood above him, crossed her arms, and watched him awake. She pointed to the pill bottles. “What’s this shit?”
“It’s good to see you, too.”
Toni said nothing.
Henry checked the clock. He’d napped only a few minutes. “Don’t you have a lesson?”
“The third time the little punk capsized the boat, I told him we were going in. I was worried about you. I told Bill at the dock, but he thought I was being stupid. But when was the last time I listened to my husband?”
“Bill thinks I’m unstable.”
“He’s right.” She looked at Henry over the top of her wire-rimmed glasses. “You’re begging the question. I asked what this shit is,” she said lifting up a bottle to examine it. “You planning a going away party?”
“I didn’t mean for you to see me like this. I thought the maid would find me.”
“That supposed to make me feel better? I’m your friend. You kill yourself, but it’s okay because I don’t find the body?”
“It seemed logical.”
“You’re full of crap.” She picked up several other bottles and shook them, noting they all contained pills. “Change your mind?”
“Betty came too early. It didn’t fit my plan.”
“Your plan?” she asked in disgust, plopping down in Charlotte’s chair. “What a pile of manure!” Toni watched his face for a reaction. “Charlotte died in March. Why take pills now?”
“It’s the first time I’ve been here without her.”
“So, why not sail out with her ashes and never sail back? Why not take the pills with a glass of milk after the eleven o’clock news? Then you’d be good and dead by now.” When he said nothing, Toni rose from the chair and left, slamming the screen door on her way out. He watched her disappear into the fog on her way back to the docks.
Henry sat in the chair staring at the harbor until late in the afternoon. He still hadn’t eaten. He thought about walking up to check his mail or turning on the radio to listen to NPR, but chose to do nothing. Around five o’clock, Toni walked in the door. She’d changed into a faded red Hinckley sweatshirt and a pair of worn jeans. She sat down in the wicker chair on the other side of the table. She carried the small backpack she often took on the boat, usually filled with Doritos, bottled water, her journal, and a trashy romance novel to read while Henry sailed. She opened the pack and scooped the pill bottles from the table into it. Henry didn’t protest. Toni crossed her arms and waited.
He finally spoke. “I met Charlotte the summer I graduated from Wharton. She helped start my business. She worked with me through the merger, but by then there didn’t seem to be a place for her. She got an art degree, decorated the new house, and threw herself into her painting. There was an affair with a sculptor that she never admitted. I found pictures. We got through it. Then there was Jennifer. We got through that, too.”
“And you can’t get through this?”
“I don’t know.” Henry stared at his hands. “Charlotte and I believed we could endure anything together. We didn’t need many friends because we had each other.” He looked over to Toni. “I probably talk more to you and Bill playing euchre then I’ve ever talked to anyone except Charlotte. I don’t get close to people easily.”
“It shows.” Toni hesitated. “People here don’t like you. You know that. They think it’s shameful to have this pretty little cottage sit empty ten months a year just so you can fly in every July like some visiting prince. You buy art you have no place to hang, wine you never drink, and more books than you can read in a year. You hired a maid because you can’t even make your own bed.”
Toni watched for a reaction. “That’s what people say.” Toni reached over and turned on the lamp by the end table. “I’ve said it myself.” Henry’s face was pale and expressionless.
“Your wife came to the harbor every summer, but never went out on the water. Never joined a book club or a church. She bought expensive art like most people buy underwear. You weren’t any better. You were ready to buy a sailboat before you even knew if you could sail it.”
She waited for him to defend himself, but Henry just sat there, hands in his lap. “Bill and I scrape by on nothing. Most people on the harbor are like that. But you paid Stacy’s college tuition like it was grocery money.” The anger in her voice surprised him, but he waited for her to finish.
“I’m thankful you’re giving my daughter an education, even more grateful that you haven’t told her you are. And I hope you live long enough to see her graduate. But I have to tell you, there are times when we are sailing, that I hate you.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Good. Why should you? I’m sorry I told you now.” Toni fidgeted. “So, you still going to kill yourself?”
“Not this minute.”
“Probably not. I mean, how could I? You grabbed my pills.” Henry reached over and picked up Toni’s backpack. He dug in it for a moment and then pulled out a bag of potato chips. He tore it open and pulled out a chip.
Toni grabbed the backpack from him. “I keep the pills; you keep the chips.”
She stood up. “I’m making supper tonight because Stacy’s repairing a boat with Bill. Tacos. You get hungry, stop by. But change out of those damned pajamas.” She turned and left, banging the door behind her.
Henry listened to the harbor sounds. He finished the potato chips, crumbled the bag, and threw it in the wastebasket.
Henry Simmons sat on his screen waiting for darkness in hopes that Charlotte’s ashes would awake in the bay and come out of the night to join him.
PAUL LEWELLAN’s stories have appeared in South Dakota Review, Big Muddy, Timber Creek Review, and Opium Magazine. Paul’s latest novel, Twenty-one Humiliating Demands, chronicles an aging assassin taking a sabbatical on a Mid-Western college campus. Paul is an Adjunct Instructor of Speech Communication and Business Administration at Augustana College.