Alice K. Boatwright: Life Sentences

Jack Hillyer waited on the deck while the Masons made a last tour of the house. He studied the scene below him: Easton, tucked against its curving harbor with a ferry standing at the dock, the pale green landing strip carved between dark woods and golden meadows, and, beyond, other islands floating like green hummocks on the shining water.

The cove where he and Patti lived was down to the left, hidden from this vantage point, but he knew exactly where it was and could picture everything in its place: The woods, the cabin, the patch of garden, and Patti. He set Patti on the porch, reading in the butterfly chair, her legs folded up, long red hair pulled back with a rubber band. Not that she was a big reader, but he had seen her that way one afternoon and liked the image. He carried it in his memory like the faded photograph of his two children that he kept in his wallet. He would call it up and say to himself, “This is Patti, the woman I love.”

He glanced at his watch and took out his cell phone to let her know he’d be home soon, but the muffled sound of a door closing made him put away the phone and turn back to the house instead.

Through the large kitchen windows, he could see Gina Mason opening cupboard doors and examining appliances. Bill Mason was talking, his hands turned palm up beating the air emphatically. Finally she stopped and leaned against the dishwasher, her arms crossed. Something about the set of her cheeks told Jack that they would not make an offer on this house.

He did not want to appear impatient, so he sat down on a wooden deck chair and took a few deep breaths. Although it was still August, the air had changed. Autumn was coming and then winter would follow—the long slow season when no one even came to the island, much less bought a house here.

The Masons had looked at six houses that day, and they seemed no closer to making a choice than they had first thing in the morning. They were management consultants from Seattle and wanted a place to get away from the city. “We want a simple life,” Gina said, gesturing as if to wave away their shiny new Range Rover with its bicycle and ski racks. Bill, who compulsively checked his iPhone, wanted a view of the water; she wanted privacy and a garden—all of which Jack had offered them in different packages, but so far nothing had clicked.

This house was on a high bluff and had been beautifully crafted from cedar and glass. Inside, Bill had smiled as he touched the raised paneled doors and hand-planed window frames. He paced off rooms and pointed out to his wife that she could have a desk in front of a window looking out at Puget Sound. He asked a lot of questions about the thickness of the insulation and the location of boundary lines, but Gina just ran the pointed toe of her leather boot over the carpet, watching the pile shift.

“I don’t want wall to wall,” was all she said.

Earlier they had looked at an old farmhouse set at the edge of a meadow full of late summer flowers. There she had stood on the porch a long time, watching the wind in the grass, while her husband waited by the car, jingling his keys in his pocket and asking Jack about sewage treatment on the island.

Jack had met a lot of people like the Masons. They came to the island for a vacation and thought it was heaven. Right away they wanted to buy a piece of it. Of course, they had no idea what it was really like to live here. The ferry trips to the mainland. The rainy winters. The unreliable electricity. The wind and silence. And then suddenly, with spring, backpackers and bicyclists everywhere underfoot.

Jack understood and accepted these things; his family had been sheep farmers and fishermen here for more than a hundred years, and he liked to imagine—somehow—that they’d stay a hundred more. He had only left the island once for more than a few days, and that had been back when he was drinking and thought he should see the world. Unfortunately he could only guess where he’d been from the matchbooks he found in his pockets when he finally made his way home.

Bill Mason came back out on the deck, with Gina trailing behind him. She was in her late thirties, her round body disguised in expensively layered clothes. He was a good-looking man, about Jack’s age—forty-five—and the type who looked just right in a tweed jacket.

“What did you say the tax rate was again, Hillyer?” he asked.

Jack told him and his fingers flew over his calculator. He nodded as he saw the results.

Jack felt a flicker of hope.

“Many people commute?”

Jack nodded. “You can see the airport from here,” he said, pointing to the green landing strip below, “and the ferry system is excellent. It’s still an island, of course.”

“Yes,” said Mason, surveying the cedar facade of the house with its sharply slanted roof and expanses of glass. “My wife and I like that.”

He said the words “my wife” with an unconscious confidence of possession that Jack was sure he’d never feel again about any woman.

“Is there anything else you want to see today?” he asked, keeping his voice neutral. He tried not to judge his clients, but he could size up pretty quickly which ones were hoping for a change that a new house would not provide. His ex-wife Shirley still believed that they’d be together today if only they’d gotten off his damn island. She meant to make him mad calling it that.  Which just goes to show.

Still he had tried, in his way, to make the marriage work. He’d given up farming and gone into real estate like she wanted him to, but in some ways the jobs weren’t that different: he could still work his ass off seven days a week and not make a dime.

Mason put his iPhone into the inside pocket of his jacket. He glanced at Gina, who shook her head just slightly.  “No thanks,” he said. “I guess that’s it for today.”

Tomorrow perhaps they could see the other end of the island, Mason suggested. They’d like to see a few more places. Something with more gardening potential, he added, pointing out the steep slope of the bluff.

“Private though,” said Gina.

“Of course. No problem,” Jack said. “We’ve got plenty of places like that around here.”

He’d noticed people who came from the mainland always talked a lot about privacy. For some, the solitude the island offered was more dazzling than the views.

The cabin he lived in was at the end of a long wooded road with no other houses nearby, and when Patti first moved in, she couldn’t sleep for the quiet. She’d grown up in a high-rise in Manhattan where the noise never stopped. Now in the morning, she would walk outside naked and stand in the yard like a deer, completely at one with the landscape and unaware of its beauty.

Bill Mason was taking pictures of the view, his camera clicking repeatedly to capture all 180 degrees of ocean, islands, and sky. If he’d been alone, Jack thought he might have bought this house.

He stuck out his hand to Gina Mason. “Until tomorrow then?”

“Until tomorrow,” she said. Her hand lay in his like a filleted fish, but he shook it firmly. If he could sell them a house, his winter would be in the bag. Bill Mason was jingling his keys again, ready to leave.

“You go on ahead,” Jack told them. “I have to lock up.”

They looked relieved and got into their car quickly. Jack waved and they waved back, but he saw them begin to argue before they were even out of sight. No doubt he would receive a message later saying “urgent business” had called them back to Seattle. He didn’t envy them.

###

As soon as they were gone, he called home, but the line was busy. That was surprising because Patti always said she had no friends on the island except him. They had met at an AA meeting earlier in the summer. She had appeared at the Fellowship Hall one night in June, introduced herself as “Patti, addict, alcoholic,” and she’d been around ever since.

Jack had been fascinated by her quiet manner, her long red braids, and delicate tattoos. He asked her out for coffee to welcome her to the group. She said OK and after that one thing had led to another.

His friends in the program said it was wrong to get involved with a newcomer, especially a young woman, but Jack didn’t think of Patti as young most of the time. She said she’d stopped counting birthdays ever since she turned twenty, and the things she knew shocked him, made him feel like he was one with no experience. She said she’d come to the island because she got on the wrong bus in Seattle. She’d meant to go to San Francisco, but when she saw the water, the mountains, and the islands she hopped a ferry and that was all there was to it.

Shirley was disdainful about the whole relationship.  If Jack bumped into her at the grocery or the post office, she would curl her lips back and say “Jack,” in a tone that wrapped greeting, recrimination, and goodbye into one. She called Patti “that whore who’s got you wrapped around her little finger.”

He didn’t care what she thought. She had gotten the house and everything in it, while he was living in a rented cabin. He was paying her alimony and the kids’ school tuition, so the way he figured it, he didn’t owe an explanation to anyone.

Not that she could ever in a million years understand what he and Patti had going anyway. At the sight of her puffy face, red with indignation, Jack believed that he had never loved her in twenty-one years as much as he had loved Patti in these past months. They had known each other since kindergarten and nothing about her could surprise him, while everything Patti said and did was filled with mystery.

Patti didn’t confide in him that much when they were alone, but at meetings, sitting around stained card tables in the Fellowship Hall’s dim light, she would say things that made the back of his neck prickle with love and compassion for her. It was one of the things that made him look forward to meetings now. Wondering what Patti might say next. Before that, staying sober had been something he knew he had to do if he didn’t want to die at fifty like his father. He had trouble remembering why he was doing it when he sat alone every evening in the cabin.

Now he and Patti were regulars at the Wednesday and Saturday meetings, arriving early to set out the chairs and staying late to wash the coffee cups. “Our dates,” Jack called these nights out, because Patti didn’t like any of his friends from his married days, and there was nowhere to go on the island, not even a movie theater.

Sometimes he’d take her around to different houses and ask her which one she’d like them to buy, as he ran his hands up inside her blouse and felt her cool smooth flesh.

That was just a game they played, but the reality was if he could sell one more house this season, he’d be able to take her to Hawaii on vacation that winter. He’d never done anything like that before, but with Patti, he wanted to. It was like the less she asked for, the more he wanted to give.

The night before they had sat up in bed looking at brochures filled with pictures of palm trees and white beaches, turquoise water and big pink hotels. The ocean was warm there, he told her, and she said it didn’t matter because she couldn’t swim.

“I’ll teach you,” he said. “It’s natural, like breathing. You’ll love it,” he promised, and she said, “OK, I’ll love it,” and turned out the light.

Jack was a little bit hurt by that, but he tried not to be. It was her style to be abrupt sometimes—a city style—and he had to get used to it. He knew there were things she had to get used to about him too.  She thought it was weird that he had never wanted to go anywhere before.

His own children—born and raised here—didn’t get that either, so why should she? They had left the island as soon as they were out of high school and hadn’t spoken to him since.

“We don’t want to be like you,” Jessie said the last time he saw her. “We want to live in the real world.”

Patti had laughed when he told her that story. “I thought they were in college,” she said.

“They are,” he said.

“That’s not the real world,” she said. Then she pushed him down into the pillows on their bed and covered his face with her long hair. Jack had closed his eyes as she kissed him all over, feeling exquisite gratitude that this bit of the real world had come to him.

He tried the phone again, but now there was no answer. She must be outside, he told himself, picturing her in the yard picking blackberries. The bushes around the yard were loaded with ripe fruit, and he had suggested that morning that they try to make a pie. Before she moved in with Jack, Patti said she’d been living on Triscuits and coffee. He wasn’t much better: frozen this, take-out that, and cereal. Learning to cook had been a project they could share.

The kitchen in this house, with its pristine new appliances, just begged for someone to come and cook in it. As he walked from room to silent room, closing and locking the windows, Jack felt the longing and anticipation in those empty spaces. He touched the satiny woodwork. It was a great house, even though the drive was steep and would be a bitch in the winter.

Shirley had expected him to make a fortune in island real estate. “Places like this don’t stay undiscovered forever,” she’d said. “You’ve got to get in the game now to win.”

Jack didn’t like to think of the island as a game. His family was always after him to break up the acreage his father had left him and make them rich, but he wouldn’t do it. Between his drinking and the divorce, he’d lost everything else, and he meant to hang on to that piece of land.

Patti thought the idea of owning land was funny. “It’s just trees,” she said, when he took her for a walk there. “How can you own a tree?” she asked, but later she told him that she could see from his face what it meant to him.  He was at home there, at peace.

He had never loved her more than at that moment when he felt she saw him as he really was. This person who had lost nothing, because she’d never had anything.

Once he had washed her back for her. She had been sitting in the tub with a magazine and said, “Jack, would you wash my back for me?”  Of course he said yes.

He knelt by the tub and rubbed her back with a washcloth. He could feel each bump of her spine, the flat triangles of her shoulder blades under her pale skin. Touching her like that made him think of Jessie, when she was a child. That kind of intimacy. It went beyond being together as a man and a woman.

Sometimes he was afraid to touch her. He’d put his hands out to her, pull her narrow white hips toward his, and feel afraid. She didn’t seem to notice that any more than anything else.  When she slipped into bed with him at night, maybe he could have been any guy, not Jack, the man who loved her. Who could tell with someone who had started drinking at nine, shooting drugs at thirteen?

Jack tried the cabin again and listened to the ringing phone with a sudden sharp pang of anxiety. He got into his car, turned the key, and the engine rattled into life. Dust flew and stones bumped against the under carriage of the car as he started down the drive. If he didn’t sell this house before the autumn rains, it wouldn’t move until spring. No one in his right mind would buy on this road when it was mud.

###

Driving fast kept his mind on the road, not the destination, and he made it across the island to the cabin in fifteen minutes flat. When he pulled into the yard, he could see right away that Patti was not outside. Not in the garden. Not picking berries. He bounded across the squeaky planks of the porch, past the empty butterfly chair, and pulled open the kitchen door.

“Patti?” he called, but there was no answer, and he paused in the doorway listening to the silence. He didn’t need to call again. The feeling an empty house gave off was one he knew all too well.

In the bathroom, he found their toothbrushes were still side-by-side in the glass on the sink. The new clothes he’d bought her were hanging in the closet. The book she had been reading lay on the bedside table, page ten marked with a torn scrap of paper. Only the woven Nepali bag that she’d been carrying the night he met her was missing.

So why, in the pit of his stomach, did he believe she was not simply out, but gone?

He forced himself to sit at the kitchen table for ten minutes, his legs jiggling with tension; then he went back through the cabin looking for clues to what she had done that day since he left for work. He felt foolish as he opened drawers and desperate as he peered under the bed, but he couldn’t help himself.

If she were only going out, wouldn’t she have let him know?

He thought back to breakfast, when he had last seen her. She had been sitting at the kitchen table, hunched over her bowl of cornflakes like a child, her tangled braids hanging over her shoulders, while he prattled on about his mother and aunts making blackberry pies every August. Wouldn’t it be fun.

Spoon in hand, she had glanced up at him with a blank look that reminded him of Jessie when she was a teenager. But then she had nodded. He was sure she had nodded.

He sat down again at the kitchen table across from her empty chair.

So was that it? Was that the warning? If he hadn’t talked about blackberry pies would she still be here?

But even as self-pity rose up to defend him, he remembered other mistakes that added to the case against him. Times when he’d been short-tempered, pedantic, and dull. All those brochures about Hawaii. All those houses he made her visit. He’d imagined he was broadening her horizons, unselfishly helping her imagine a different kind of future unconnected to her past. But there was nothing unselfish about his love. He wanted her to picture a future with him in it.

He went to get a cold Coke out of the fridge and there, at last, he found his clue.

The ferry schedule was stuck to the door with magnets, and on it he saw a penciled doodle next to the phone number for Island Taxi.

He was sure it had not been there before, but would Patti have taken a taxi?

Maybe, if she were worried that he might see her hitchhiking.

He touched the doodle with his finger, as if he could read in those restless circles her farewell message to him.

###

There was still an hour until the last ferry left the island. It was just possible she’d gotten as far as Easton and changed her mind. At this very moment, she might be loitering on the dock wondering whether to call him.

He grabbed his keys, and the screen door slammed as he left the house and jumped back into the car.  With the cold Coke bottle creating a damp place between his legs, he drove as fast as he dared along the curving road that followed the coast. Rocky beaches and yellow cattail-studded marshes went by in a blur.  He hugged the centerline, watching for bicyclists, but flew past them without slowing down.

When he reached Easton, the back of his shirt was drenched with sweat. He glanced quickly right and left, right and left, while he negotiated his way along the busy route to the ferry landing. When he finally reached the parking lot, he had trouble opening his fingers to let go of the steering wheel.

It was getting dark; the long summer days were not so long any more. A crowd of tired, sunburned backpackers and bicyclists waited by the entrance gate, while a long line of cars heavily laden with children, dogs, and baggage snaked across the lot. Jack scanned the crowd repeatedly, but he saw no redhead with a Nepali bag.

As a last resort, he headed over to the ticket window and, before he even reached it, he could tell from Burt Kemp’s expression what he would hear.

“She bought a one-way for the five o’clock,” he said with a satisfied smile, which told Jack that Shirley and half the island had known Patti was gone before he did. No doubt they were delighted by this juicy news. Not that he gave a shit what they thought. What they thought they knew.

The only thing that mattered to him was knowing when she had known.

Had she kissed him goodbye as if it were an ordinary day, all the time knowing it wasn’t? Knowing there would be no blackberry pies. No swimming lessons. No more date nights.

He drove home slowly, simultaneously dreading the silence of the cabin and longing to be in the place where they had lived together. When he sat down again at the kitchen table, his chest filled with an ache that did not seem survivable, the more so because he knew he would.

And even though he was shocked, he had to admit he had always known this day would come. He had just hoped every day to put it off one day more.

Patti had once told him that she’d never had a relationship that lasted longer than three months. He would have liked to be the first.

He turned off the lights inside and went out to the porch. The butterfly chair creaked and protested mournfully as he sat down—a much heavier weight than she had been. It was a dark night, overcast with no stars or moon, not even any shadows.

###

He didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there when his phone rang.

His heart leapt at the sound, but he could see right away that it wasn’t her.

Still it took a moment for him to give up hope and realize the person calling was Bill Mason.

Jack was so disappointed that he had trouble pulling himself together to focus on what Bill was saying.

His words were both slurred and emphatic as he said: “I’ve been thinking about that house. The one with the view. I want it, and I’m willing to make a cash offer. Can you write that up that tonight? I have to leave for Seattle in the morning.”

Jack heard himself say yes—it was what he always said to clients—but he was thinking about pronouns. The long walk between I and we and back again.

With Mason he ran through the details, then said he would prepare the papers and meet him in two hours.

“Great. We can have a drink together. We’ll toast the future.”

“Sure thing,” said Jack. “That sounds good.”

“You know, Hillyer, sometimes you just have to go for what you want and damn the consequences.”

“Right,” said Jack, “I agree,” and then he rang off.

Inside he went to his desk and opened his laptop. As he typed in the figures on the offer form, he pushed away thoughts of Hawaii. He told himself he would use the money for something else. Something for himself. Like maybe it was time he started building a home on his own land. Something with cedar and plenty of windows. He didn’t have to stay in this crappy cabin. He could move on too, but, if Patti came back, she would know where to find him.

When he reached the bottom of the form, he realized he had pulled up the wrong one. This one, created when he first started in real estate, had a slogan across the bottom that said “Buy Your Plot in Heaven Now.” Shirley’s idea of a marketing strategy.

He didn’t want to take the time to re-do his work, so he printed the form and used a marking pen to carefully cross out the slogan. Then he placed the papers in a new envelope, took a shower, and changed his clothes. Dressing alone in the bedroom he already felt like he’d begun a different life from the one he woke up in.

As he drove to the hotel where the Masons were staying, he reminded himself to expect nothing. Bill Mason might have wanted the house two hours ago, with a few drinks under his belt, but he could already have changed his mind. He and his wife had not seemed like a couple on their last day. Then again he had never imagined that he and Patti were on their last day either.

In a meeting Patti once said, “Drinking may be a death sentence, but sobriety is a life sentence.” Everyone had laughed, thinking she was being witty, but Jack could tell from her expression that she wasn’t making a joke.

He pictured her now on a Greyhound, watching the dark landscape rush by, the Nepali bag on the seat beside her. Thinking what. Going where. He was hurt that she hadn’t taken any of the things he gave her when she left, as if she didn’t want to be reminded of the life they’d shared.

Maybe that was wrong, though. Maybe she would remember, just as he would. Before they met, he’d been drowning in self-pity, if not in booze. She’d been the wave that carried him to shore.

In the small parking lot, Jack got out of the car and stretched, taking a deep breath of the salt-tinged air. The sky had cleared, becoming luminous behind the tall evergreens that encircled the old mansion hotel. He walked up the stone path to meet his client. Who knew what might happen next. The day wasn’t over yet.


For more on Alice K. Boatwright, please see our Authors page.