In the dream, the girl who cared for her in the last days harps on me: the house has fallen into decay, we must tend to repairs then sell immediately, why did I stay away so long, how could I be so heartless.
She oversteps but I say nothing. She stands too close but I do not move back. We talk in the small screen porch which rightly belongs to my grandfather’s home steeped in the scent of boxwood. Yet here we are, overlooking the marsh and the battered dock, pines rustling in an early autumn gust, the aroma of fish tangled in my hair, and the bite of salt, angry on my lips.
The ocean is close, but I cannot see it.
She has a mole to the left of one nostril and she perspires, profusely. My mother would have commented. Naturally, I hold my tongue.
* * *
She natters on about cutting back the overrun brush or the dock view will be utterly compromised. She insists that resale value will tumble in what is already a scandalous market. That’s the word she uses. Scandalous.
I tell myself there are many more scandalous things than a real estate market. Government cover-ups. Bank fraud. Child abuse. I wonder if this girl with the mole has ever encountered a genuine scandal.
She expects a percentage of the proceeds for caring for the old woman, and she scribbles an amount on a slip of paper. She gives it to me, then waits. There is also a name and number. “The handyman,” she clarifies. She claims he knows the property and he’s reliable, but I must pay him or house him – a remark that strikes me as odd.
Did my mother string him along, compensate him in soups and stories, promise him something more – tacitly or otherwise? And what was her arrangement with the girl?
* * *
The exterior is in terrible condition, its hundred-year-old clapboard eaten by seasons of neglect. The interiors are wanting as well: olive appliances from the early 70s will need to be replaced, the linoleum floor that was vile 30 years ago is nearly rancid where the dog’s water bowl used to sit, the kitchen bar she adored needs restoration though the brass details are in surprisingly good shape.
I turn back to the landscape, peering through the screen. If I narrow my eyes, I can make out dunes beyond the brush, but the setting is disorienting. I don’t know if this is Cape Cod or the Carolinas, and I don’t know why I don’t know.
* * *
He’s thirty-something with a red cap pulled tightly over his curls and set backwards, rakishly. He seems too old for this trick of an adolescent, and there is wariness in his expression that leads me to doubt every word he says.
I expect a more serious man, a middle-aged man, his hands calloused and his face heavily lined, but this virile specimen is too shiny; he bears no marks of hard labor, no signs of the sea or the woods, no stains beneath his nails or soil from the garden on his jeans.
The house is silent and I miss the sound of coffee percolating in the kitchen, the clattering of pots in the sink because my mother refused to invest in a dishwasher, Mahler or Verdi on the turntable and God help me, the operatic voices: music to accompany the sighing and sobbing that came and went throughout my years in residence.
The handyman peers out the window, fiddles with his measure, then rattles off a list of repairs he’s already undertaken. He tells me he wasn’t paid for them and now that my mother is dead, I owe him money. But I’m not buying it until I have some proof. My mother wouldn’t either.
* * *
There is nothing remotely remarkable about her other than the mole, which becomes a symbol of sorts though I’m uncertain of what. And so I wonder who the girl is, who she is to him especially; where she found him and if she loves him, if she presented him to my mother, if the two of them lost themselves among the crisp and rhythmic noises of evening in the reeds, if they trysted on the dock, if they trysted on the porch, if they hid their affections from the elderly woman as she sat idly in front of the television.
As for the girl, my mother would have collected her in the same way that she always attracted the hungry, the forlorn, the opportunistic, and the curious. As for the man, she could have desired him and kept him around, saying nothing of her intention to gaze and imagine.
Knowing her, she would manage to tether them to her until she was through with them for reasons only she would comprehend. In her usual fashion she would discard them before they turned on her, before they saw too much, before they ran out of tolerance or malevolent ambition, and just in time to swap them out for others. There were always others. But had she somehow discarded this pair too soon before falling asleep?
I wish she could tell me. Something. Anything. I would take a hand signal, flag waving, an uncharacteristic whisper to explain her unceremonious exit. I find myself staring at the rocking chair in which she died, trying to recall her kinder humors, clinging to her ferocious intelligence, still reluctant to accept that she is lost to me – and the way of that loss, I might term scandalous.
* * *
He shuffles about outside in the bushes and the brush, beyond the overgrowth that threatens to swallow the view not to mention access to the back of the house. I need the handyman. He will have to do.
Suddenly he’s at my side and as persistent as ever. “I work for little,” he says, “but you have to give me something or I can’t do it. Any of it. Your mother allowed me to stay here sometimes. But it wasn’t enough and I told her so, and now I’m telling you. If you have no money then you have to house me and feed me. At least that. I will sleep here, I will eat here, and in exchange I will fix the place up.”
The girl with the mole has wandered off and I’m staring at the starry leaves of my mother’s favorite foliage. Not stars exactly, but this is how I saw them as a child: an orange shower of maple stars in Autumn, a crowning torrent of golden forsythia stars in Spring, an umbrella of softened stars on the weeping willow at the far back edge of the yard, in the corner where the ground was blanketed by lily of the valley.
The wind whips up leaves and needles in the side garden, where once her globe thistles thrived despite a cold and rocky bed.
* * *
“It’s going to be expensive to repair, isn’t it,” I say, and he nods.
“This was folly,” I murmur. I can hear the water that laps against the pilings.
There was no dock in my childhood. The ocean was mine, but I kept it to myself.
* * *
There is no fairness to these improper goodbyes that arrive of their own accord, as everything after is artificially episodic. A more suspenseful scene would have suited my mother – something more engaging than death by television and notification by yellow phone.
I remind myself that this is a dream in a time past dreams, past arguments, past the dismantling of remaining relationships. The mole carries secrets of course, but I’m more intrigued by a magnificent sea hawk flying overhead, its silvery prey gripped in its claws.
The beach is close, though I may not see it. I am not far from the dock, though I will wait until night to find my way.