Originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Five Quarterly Magazine
Getting to that Manor in Lisa’s dad’s old Taurus was a chore in its own right, but contending with wet denim is a whole ‘nother beast. It is hardened twill bison with sand in its claws. A braying ox with cataracts so strong that you cannot see anything past the grey of her eyes. Lisa and Toby had both warned me about wading in with my clothes on, but I couldn’t hear them over the triumph ringing in my ears. Removing an artifact from the mansion put something new, something savage in me. I marinate in anticipation. Sodium stinging every single undiscovered cut and abrasion.
The story of Dreyfus Manor is a tired account etched into the bases of commemorative statues, overseeing the pay-for-parking lots. It’s small talk amongst locals and a little tale for tourists in between their drink and entree orders. It was the only beach house, or rather mansion in Wautuck that wasn’t razed in an early autumn storm surge during the 30’s. Hurricane Nancy was tropical weather that came out of nowhere, just as the money from local textile mills started turning into rows of waterfront Victorian homes. Great, impossible hotels with pillars and turrets germinated all along the coast, only to vanish. Meteorological instrument buzzed and sang, before Nancy came and drew all that new architecture back. Took the timber of a dozen unfinished mansions back to the horizon, along with thirty or so unlucky people.
The mansion’s Grecian carved, hickory floors are sand and mattress now, with bonfire craters that breed aluminum. One of those fires burned out of control, when it was a temporary sojourn for homeless people in the late 80s. It scorched out the basement and made the first floor permanently reek of thyme. I feel like the whole beach smells like a spice cabinet. Some shadows have been there so long that they have stained the corners. Or it could be soot, it’s anyone’s guess. My brother knew a kid that sprayed a mural of a large chested priestess holding a sword, in the upstairs master bedroom. He’s famous. As soon as everyone finds out what I took he will be a footnote in this town. A musty perfume sticks to us. I suspect it is emanating from my pocket. Old Dreyfus’s buried treasure. I long for a time when homeless men roamed Wautuck.
On the ride back, an unpaved road jostles us around and our words jut out like scoffed up CDs, played in mono. There’s only one working seatbelt in the back, so I tell Toby I will be the sacrifice. My window is up and honeysuckle seeps in as damp air through the vents. It’s too late in the season for fireflies. This recollection won’t have that magic to it – I’ll maybe put them there in a few years when I look back. Insert glowing dots, like people who took photographs in cemeteries that developed with floating orbs. Our bodies are somehow resistant to dread tonight. Even with the New England jungle dark all around us and a thick mask of dusk that saturates everything with a purple tinged ink. We turn a corner, and jean rivet digs right into my leg. Right into the tendons.
“Our whole fucked up country’s in trouble. Something’s about to boil over, man,” Lisa warns us all. Our eyes graze each other in the rearview mirror. Jaded, girl in clumpy mascara and color-damaged hair. One fist on the wheel, showing off a rock collection of bracelets. She’s the only kid I know who drives right at the speed limit. Some wisdom sleeps behind that mascara, I know it, but I never dwell on it enough to prod.
“This solo right here, listen to this solo,” says some girl in the front seat whom I don’t really know, but I would guess is called Hoarse Neck. Her voice is raspy, like an elderly smoker talking through a younger vessel. We stop at a fresh water lagoon, where someone has spray painted ‘667’ and ‘desaparecidos’ on a trout population control sign posted by the DEP. Larry whispers that her shirt is see through and she’s being derivative, but I don’t think he knows what derivative means. No one cares about drum solos or fashion, anyway.
We roost on boulders painted by yet more graffiti. I recognize some kids from my school, tipping cans of flavored beer and chucking empties into the dark. Everyone’s hair has grown out to rest on sunburned shoulders. Everyone talks about how Lisa has gotten quieter, ever since her dad was caught going down on their house keeper. A Jamaican immigrant with skin tags under her arms. According to rumors she sued their whole entire family for sexual harassment. Now Lisa’s dad sells printers at Staples with kids we graduated with.
“Does anybody want a s’more?” A stranger asks around. “You should get that checked, it looks like melanoma,” to Lisa. Someone mentions I look exactly like my older brother.
“Brann Hueller looks like he has an ankle growing out of his neck,” she says, pointing to a scrawny looking boy who, last year, was paunchy and always smelled like smoked meats. Now planted in between two dreary eyed girls in hemp everything. They’re talking about how every thirty years the drifting, dead bodies from Hurricane Nancy circle around again due to tidal patterns.
“She is breathtaking,” Toby says, watching Hoarse Neck consume each s’more ingredient raw. Brann and his cohorts slink away into the bleakness of the forest. A lot of people have left, and we question just how long we can occupy this night. Toby tells me that Brann used to jerk off to oil paintings in our Art History books. Bodies don’t get washed up. Pieces of the houses, maybe in the form of driftwood. Things that the bodies owned, returned all polished and smooth. I have no fucking clue where the bodies are and usually no one asks.
I dig deep into my pocket, and take out my keepsake. “Hey Toby,” and his drunk mug takes a few seconds to comprehend what rests on my palm. I put it back in my pocket, and he just watches the space where my hand was. I tell him not to tell Hoarse Neck or Lisa about what I took. He asks me where I found it and I can see him exploring Dreyfus Manor, in his head. Scanning all those corners splotched by urine that are only washed when rain water seeps in through the wood shakes of the roof.
We point the Taurus towards town and of course we end up at 7/11. The kind that keeps a Crown Vic parked outside to ward off any potential attacks, like an automotive scarecrow. Hoarse Neck buys a hot dog bun with no hot dog, and plunges it into her strawberry milkshake. She tells me about the little red mites that some company uses to dye things red. She says they taste delicious, in her moth-eaten, native tongue. For a second, I can smell that poison spiced air wafting all the way inland. Thyme mixes with propane before disappearing completely.
A guy in a red polo walks out, clutching a tiny bag. My arms burn when I notice that under the neat black hair and gray beard of stubble that it’s Lisa’s dad. More muscly than I remember. None of us say anything. He strolls right by and maybe he doesn’t notice us but maybe he just chose not to. Us in his former car. In his former backseat. I imagine him in the morning commute, with a veiny hand dangling out the window, where Lisa dangles hers. Questioning where he is going. None of us talk, but Hoarse Neck eventually turns up the music and comments on the weather. What her cousins are up to. People I’ve never met, and I swear we age two dozen years on the gray upholstery before revolving back to the bodies of teenagers.
Something keeps me up while Toby falls asleep on my shoulder. Safe in his seatbelt, like the big, wide eyed infant that he is. Is it the stinging must of the mansion still hanging on me? The voice of Nancy’s victims. My briny sweat drenches the pictures in my head until I can no longer recognize them. We have to turn on the heat and it pushes out something from last winter that makes me sick to my stomach. It doesn’t subside until I close my eyes.
It’s midday when I wake up at my parents to the sound of a vacant house. My jeans are draped on a cold, iron radiator and appliances hum into emptiness. I stand on our front patio inside an open bathrobe, where the sun is already simmering behind storm clouds. Bulgy, violet things forming over where the mall is. The day stretches before me like the back of some great jungle cat in a blacklight poster. On the mantle is my trophy. My souvenir.
The neighborhood lets out a heavy, staggered breath. Some boy in lime colored shorts pumps a super soaker while in pursuit of a fleeing girl. She spins around with her water pistol drawn and warns him. Pointing the barrel directly at his chest with her finger trembling over the trigger.