Teddy stopped in the middle of a second round of pocket pats, found Chuck watching him, his wry grin etched into his cheeks just below the scar.
“I had them when I boarded,” Teddy said.
Chuck looked back over his shoulder. “Government employees. Rob you blind.” Chuck shook a cigarette free of his pack of Luckies, handed one to Teddy, and lit it for him with his brass Zippo, the stench of the kerosene climbing over the salt air and finding the back of Teddy’s throat. Chuck snapped the lighter closed, then flicked it back open with a snap of his wrist and lit his own.
Teddy exhaled, and the triangle tip of the island disappeared for a moment in the plume of smoke.
“Overseas,” Chuck said, “when a weather report dictated if you went to the drop zone with your parachute pack or set off for the beachhead, well, there was much more at stake, wasn’t there?” “True.”
“But back home, where’s the harm in a little arbitrary faith? That’s all I’m saying, boss.”
It began to reveal itself to them as more than a triangle tip, the lower sections gradually filling in until the sea stretched out flat again on the other side of it and they could see colors filling in as if by brush stroke—a muted green where the vegetation grew unchecked, a tan strip of shoreline, the dull ochre of cliff face on the northern edge. And at the top, as they churned closer, they began to make out the flat rectangular edges of buildings themselves.
“It’s a pity,” Chuck said.
“The price of progress.” He placed one foot on the towline and leaned against the rail beside Teddy, and they watched the island attempt to define itself. “With the leaps—and there are leaps going on, don’t kid yourself, leaps every day—happening in the field of mental health, a place like this will cease to exist. Barbaric they’ll call it twenty years from now. An unfortunate by-product of the bygone Victorian influence. And go it should, they’ll say. Incorporation, they’ll say. Incorporation will be the order of the day. You are all welcomed into the fold. We will soothe you. Rebuild you. We are all General Marshalls. We are a new society, and there is no place for exclusion. No Elbas.”
The buildings had disappeared again behind the trees, but Teddy could make out the fuzzy shape of a conical tower and then hard, jutting angles he took to be the old fort.
“But do we lose our past to assure our future?” Chuck flicked his cigarette out into the foam. “That’s the question. What do you lose when you sweep a floor, Teddy? Dust. Crumbs that would otherwise draw ants. But what of the earring she misplaced? Is that in the trash now too.)”
Teddy said, “Who’s ‘she’? Where did ‘she’ come from, Chuck?’
“There’s always a she. Isn’t there?”
Teddy heard the whine of the engine change pitch behind them, felt the ferry give a small lurch underfoot, and he could see the fort clearer now atop the southern cliff face as they came around toward the western side of the island. The cannons were gone, but Teddy could make out the turrets easily enough. The land went back into hills behind the fort, and Teddy figured the walls were back there, blurring into the landscape from his current angle, and then Ashecliffe Hospital sat somewhere beyond the bluffs, overlooking the western shore.
“You got a girl, Teddy? Married?” Chuck said.
“Was,’ Teddy said, picturing Dolores, a look she gave him once on their honeymoon, turning her head, her chin almost touching her bare shoulder, muscles moving under the flesh near her spine. “She died.” Chuck came off the rail, his neck turning pink. “Oh, Jesus.”
“It’s okay,” Teddy said.
“No, no.” Chuck held his palm up by Teddy’s chest. “It’s... I’d heard that. I don’t know how I could’ve forgotten. A couple of years ago, wasn’t it?”
“Christ, Teddy. I feel like an idiot. Really. I’m so sorry.” Teddy saw her again, her back to him as she walked down the apartment hallway, wearing one of his old uniform shirts, humming as she turned into the kitchen, and a familiar weariness invaded his bones. He would prefer to do just about anything—swim in that water even—rather than speak of Dolores, of the facts of her being on this earth for thirty-one years and then ceasing to be. Just like that. There when he left for work that morning. Gone by the afternoon. But it was like Chuck’s scar, he supposed—the story that had to be dispensed with before they could move on, or otherwise it would always be between them. The hows. The wheres. The whys.
Dolores had been dead for two years, but she came to life at night in his dreams, and he sometimes went full minutes into a new morning thinking she was out in the kitchen or taking her coffee on the front stoop of their apartment on Buttonwood. This was a cruel trick of the mind, yes, but Teddy had long ago accepted the logic of it—waking, after all, was an almost natal state. You surfaced without a history, then spent the blinks and yawns reassembling your past, shuffling the shards
into chronological order before fortifying yourself for the present. What was far crueler were the ways in which a seemingly illogical list of objects could trigger memories of his wife that lodged in his brain like a lit match. He could never predict what one of the objects would be—a shaker of salt, the gait of a strange woman on a crowded street, a bottle of Coca-Cola, a smudge of lipstick on a glass, a throw pillow.
But of all the triggers, nothing was less logical in terms of connective tissue, or more pungent in terms of effect, than water—drizzling from the” tap, clattering from the sky, puddled against the sidewalk, or, as now, spread around him for miles in every direction. He said to Chuck: “There was a fire in our apartment building. I was working. Four people died. She was one of them. The smoke got her, Chuck, not the fire. So she didn’t die in pain. Fear? Maybe. But not pain. That’s important.”
Chuck took another sip from his flask, offered it to Teddy again. Teddy shook his head. “I quit. After the fire. She used to worry about it, you know? Said all of us soldiers and cops drank too much. So...” He could feel Chuck beside him, sinking in embarrassment, and he said, “You learn how to carry something like that, Chuck. You got no choice. Like all the shit you saw in the war. Remember?” Chuck nodded, his eyes going small with memory for a moment, distant.
“It’s what you do,” Teddy said softly.