Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Island in the Sky

James Carpenter


We pretended to be married on our island in the sky. I would come home from work on the oyster grounds just like our daddys did, dock my boat (which was a fat-tired Schwinn that I tied loosely to the base of the tree), and climb that mighty oak. Mary would be waiting, smiling, sitting on her knees in our little patch of grass, as pretty as anything I had seen in my first decade, or since. Then we had to kiss. That’s what we were supposed to do, Mary said. “All married people do it.” She was right. Even Uncle Dude and Aunt Maureen embraced every time he came home from work or left to go beer-drinking at the Dream Inn. But in a few years, Mary and I, as well as her mom and dad, would all lose interest in playing house.

Being first cousins, only a year apart (Mary older), we had shared everything since birth. My family lived across the dirt lane from Dude’s green house, an exact replica of our little red house — houses given to the brothers as wedding gifts from Pop-Pop Hall. Mary and I had shared cribs, playpens, snow forts, bicycles, and then we found our own island — as secluded and special as Oysterton Island, where our family had lived forever.

“Kiss me.” Mary said. She said it a lot. Even more than my mom said it to my dad.

I was only climbing back down to get her a glass of Kool-Aid. But I kissed her goodbye as I was told. And though it always felt a little wrong after we did it — for no reason I could discern without, perhaps, an appropriate Bible verse — it felt like the most righteous thing on earth while we were doing it.

“Watch out for the undertow,” she added, as I hung dizzy by my arms.

Since I had never heard of an undertow, I imagined it the term for the strange, foreboding sensation in my stomach and places south. It remains my private term for unrequited desire.
Those innocent kisses stirred me so profoundly, I spent the next ten years trying to recreate their intensity. I suppose it could have manifested into one of the conditions the psychologists I studied in college referred to. But those moments were so simple, so perfect . . . like my first little league home run, my first guitar that my dad hid in the corner behind the tree on Christmas morning, or finding my dog Jonzie as a puppy on the marsh.

Life will never be that perfect again . . . so perfectly simple as my love for Mary in those wondrous days on our island in the sky.

It was Hurricane Diane and the resulting flood in 1955 that somehow left a patch of Mr. Purdy’s field in our tree. It was just a small tree then, Momma said, and as it grew, that growth of weeds and roots and grass took hold until it became part of it. After decades of blowing sand, falling leaves and acorns, it formed what appeared in the stark winter as an island in the sky.

Oysterton itself is windblown, salty and sandy, like any one of the dozens of islands along the Virginia coast: hot and buggy in the summer, wet and bitter in the winter. Our little island in the oak tree was just as resilient.

I climbed to it the fist time when I was six. It was a terrifying climb, until my father nailed some boards to form a ladder up its massive trunk. A few years later, after I had introduced Mary to my secret place, we took down the lower cross braces so the smaller kids couldn’t follow us up.

When we started playing our game, the patch of grass — worn as flat and lush as my front yard — was large enough for Mary and I to stretch out side by side and stare up through the branches. We would lie there for hours, talking and counting falling stars on warm evenings.
Everything below was water, danger. There were imaginary sharks, stingrays, black slithering eels in the grass ocean — even pirates that I fought off bravely for a hero’s kiss. Without a bicycle boat, we were stranded, forced to hang hand-over-hand along outstretched branches to reach the safety of the dirt drive. I fashioned swords from pickets stolen from Miss Pauline’s fence, made spear guns out of coat hangers and spools, collected bottles to cash for tins of bb’s. Saving Mary from peril those long summer days would remain my fondest childhood memory.

• • • • •

My father never called during the day. I knew something was wrong. When he told me about Mary, the first thing I remember thinking, was that I should have been there . . . to save her. I knew I could have.

I had taken the phone out on the fire escape to have a little privacy. The sky over Boston was foreboding with still another summer storm looming over the Mass Pike. I fought back tears as the rain began to fall. My roommate, Will, was lighting up a joint; he could tell by my posture that something terrible had happened. He wanted to be ready.

Mary drowned. Imagine that. She had been dancing at the Dream Inn on the beach. She may have drunk too much. Her friend Winnie watched her take off her dress — her perfect, lean body would have been illuminated by the neon lights upon the beach — and run into the black surf. Winnie should have gone with her, but she was afraid to swim at night . . . afraid of sharks.

When Mary didn’t come out, Winnie ran screaming into the Dream Inn for help. A half dozen young men would have stripped off their shirts and jumped into the ocean — diving repeatedly beneath the waves, feeling blindly along the bottom for her.

I would have found her in time, or drowned myself trying. I should have been there.

My dad sold our red house on Pop Hall Lane when I entered high school. We moved to a big brick house on Beach Road with tall pine trees in the yard. The trees were un-climbable and kept the grass from growing.

Eventually, the new owners of our little house renovated it — adding a second floor and a garage. They left the tree. I went there after Mary’s funeral.

There was still an overgrown field where her green house once stood. It burned down a year after they moved . . . after Dude and Maureen divorced. Mary was only fifteen then. Aunt Maureen had taken her three girls to live with her widowed father in the town of Sorrow, across the bay.

“. . . Donnie Hall’s boy . . . Jack.” The man repeated suspiciously, looking me up and down.
I had hair down my back then, a beard, and a sizable chip on my shoulder.

“Yeah.”

“And you wanna climb that tree?” He cocked his head in the hazy dusk and looked up at the oak as if seeing it for the first time.

“Long story . . . but, yeah . . . kind of for old time’s sake.” I said.

“You fall down, you ain’t gonna sue me.”

“No, Sir,” I smiled for the first time in days, “I promise.”

It took a while. That tree had grown, and so had I.

When I finally reached our island in the sky, I found it as unstable and shaky as I was. I was able to sit and catch my breath, but I didn’t trust it and held on with my free hand.

In the other hand, I held Mary’s ashes in a metal box. Aunt Maureen had handed them to me with the photocopied journal entry — the only thing resembling a will that was found among Mary’s things. Aunt Maureen never spoke. They led her away and I’ve heard that she was never the same.

I found myself speechless as well, sitting alone in that tree. I felt I should have said something, but instead, I wiped a single tear and opened the box — spreading the ashes carefully over the burnt grass, and weeds and brittle roots as per Mary’s vague wishes. I was careful not to let them fall into the dangerous waters below, where sharks still circled and a single pirate watched curiously from the gangplank of his mighty ship . . . and me, without a single weapon.

Funny, I would not have imagined Mary remembering those days on our island. But she had. And apparently, it had meant as much to her as it did to me.

We had never spoken about it. Even at her wedding, when we’d both drunk too much and smiled at one another from across the dance floor at the Dream Inn. Perhaps we were embarrassed by our past. That seemed foolish to me, a grown man sitting in the top of a tree.

I caught her wedding garter that afternoon. I hung it from the rearview mirror of my car like a bachelor trophy. And all the way back to New England, every time I looked in the mirror to see what I was leaving behind, and saw that white lace, I grieved for Mary, for our lost youth and innocence. It remained there until I sold that car and she divorced, both in the same month a year and a half later.

People talk. There were rumors that Mary jumped off the island into the sea. Even Minnie said it was a “cry for help.” That she wasn’t really trying to kill herself . . . just too drunk to swim against the surf. Part of me wanted to believe that, that it was my help she was crying out for. But I felt I knew Mary better than that — despite the fact that she had grown sad and troubled since moving back to Oysterton.

Watching the island fading in my rear-view mirror as I careened across the causeway bridges, I was losing both my home and Mary again. There were no heroes. . . no trophies; just a plain metal box — washed clean and empty, but for a dried patch of sod and grass, and a page written in her hand, attesting to all that I had held as true.

I like to think that Mary was letting go of the past, jumping fearlessly into the rest of her life for the first time. Sometimes, the right combination of moon and song and drink can enlighten you. It can give you a fleeting glimpse of all you ever needed to be happy; perhaps empowering you to strip off your burdens, let go, and cleanse yourself in the ocean below.
Maybe Mary was finally facing her fears. Realizing, it is not the sharks, or the eels, or the pirates . . . That in the end, it is something as simple, seductive, and deadly as an undertow.

***

James Waine Carpenter is a writer and musician currently living in Niantic, Connecticut. His fiction and music reflect his southern childhood--born on Chincoteague Island, Virginia, raised throughout Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia. James is an award winning songwriter. His stories have appeared in Kudzu Monthly and Storyglossia.

© James Carpenter

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012