Kevin Canty

The Whore of Manzanita

 
Spring is hard in Manzanita. The sun comes out, the flow­ers bloom, the grass turns bright green, then a storm blows in off the Pacific and stays a week. We’ve been here all win­ter, lis­ten­ing to the water splash from the gut­ters at the cor­ners of our hous­es. The ocean heaves and sobs at the shore. We make soup. We walk the dogs on the wet beach or through the drip­ping woods, the green ferns and gray cedars. We make every­thing nice for the tourists, who won’t be here for anoth­er cou­ple of months. 

We hear that Daniel Crouch is com­ing to vis­it his moth­er. He doesn’t come as often as he ought to. He only lives in Seattle. He looks a lit­tle gay in his tiny glass­es and good sweaters, dri­ving a Miata. We’re pret­ty sure he’s not. We have our gays here and we don’t mind them. The gays are good neigh­bors and they keep their hous­es up. But his moth­er, Katie, says he was almost mar­ried the oth­er year and he did bring a girl with him a cou­ple of years ago, back when he was dri­ving that Prius, which also made us won­der. A good-look­ing girl though. Maybe a lit­tle tidy for us, all straight lines and angled hair. But a good-look­ing girl.

He’s com­ing by him­self this time, Katie says. She’s the day bar­tender at the Salty Dog, the reg­u­lar bar. There’s also the Rose and Raindrop but it’s pret­ty qui­et in there off-sea­son. The Salty Dog smells like French fries and beer and is open for break­fast.

And all of us think right away of Jenn McGill. Jenn and Daniel went out in high school, two or three years, and when he went off to col­lege in Eugene she went with him. Then she came home a year lat­er, no expla­na­tion. She’s a tall red-head­ed girl. She runs, stays in shape, assis­tant coach for the girls’ soc­cer team over at the high school. She just vol­un­teers there, she works at the title com­pa­ny here in town. After she came back from Eugene, she went to the com­mu­ni­ty col­lege up in Newport to fin­ish up, met a lawyer named Donald Hake when they were both train­ing for the Portland marathon. Then mar­ried him.

They built a big house with a view of the ocean, had a boy and then a girl. They looked like the cou­ple on top of the wed­ding cake, both of them slim, good teeth, nice­ly dressed though noth­ing fan­cy. Nothing that wouldn’t fit in. Tennis and moun­tain bik­ing. Donald even got involved in pol­i­tics for a moment there, run­ning for coun­ty coun­cil to try and stop a devel­op­ment out by the state park.

Then Donald was com­ing back from day care one evening, right at dusk, and a log truck lost its brakes com­ing out of a side road onto 101. It hit the pas­sen­ger side dead on. One sec­ond before or one sec­ond after, they would have been fine. Siobhan, down at the Ace Hardware, said the same thing hap­pened to her last year except in front of her car, and she was able to stop, just bare­ly in time.

Donald walked away, and the boy — in the car seat right behind him — in his arms. But the girl, Lydia, died on the spot. Never had a chance.

We were all at the funer­al. One of those freak October days, clear blue skies and the sun beat­ing down and the ocean blue as California in the sun­light. The grave­yard here is on a cliff by the sea, a few wind­blown pines around a patch of green grass. The weath­er was so nice that day. Donald held the boy in his arms the whole time, though he was three and real­ly too big to hold that way. Jenn had just gone back to work. She stayed home with the two of them that year. The girl was one.

And after the funer­al, we all went home and embraced our chil­dren and held on to them so tight­ly and so long that we wor­ried them. This was some­thing each of us did in pri­vate and we were all embar­rassed about it so it took a long time to under­stand that almost every one of us had done so. And this was because of Jenn, her face. Donald looked like noth­ing much, sad, of course, but most­ly inside him­self. But you looked in Jenn’s face and you saw some­thing bro­ken and alive. This was just not pos­si­ble, this death, and yet it would not stop hap­pen­ing. She could not be rec­on­ciled. You think you know but you don’t know. Then you see a face like hers and you under­stand, that every­thing you know and every­thing you love can be tak­en from you in an instant.

They made it anoth­er year or so. People don’t. She kept talk­ing, kept show­ing up for birth­days and even baby show­ers. But she had stopped con­fid­ing in any of us. Just one day she was in the big house with the ocean view and the next day in a lit­tle sum­mer cot­tage, way back in the woods. It was a sur­prise but not real­ly a sur­prise.

Then she start­ed with the men. At first she kept it out of town. It was just a rumor, or a series of rumors: a car parked out­side her house all night, a pick­up truck. Somebody saw her in a bar in Seaside, prac­ti­cal­ly sit­ting in somebody’s lap, some­body we didn’t know. The nights the boy was with her, she was fine. He was going back and forth. But nights when he was with his dad, it was like she couldn’t stand to be alone. That was the barstool opin­ion at the Salty Dog, that she couldn’t stand the emp­ty house, and who could blame her?

Then, two years ago in spring, Mary Ann and Forrest Tucker were split­ting up, and Jenn’s name was in the mid­dle of it. None of us knew exact­ly how. But it made sense: Forrest was a run­ner, like her, and a dry drunk. Some adven­ture to fill the long dry hours, some excite­ment that wasn’t going to kill him. And it’s true that Mary Ann had gone a lit­tle far down the earth-moth­er road, with the gar­den and the san­dals and the hairy legs. But she was one of us.

That was it for the birth­day par­ties and baby show­ers. We’d see her in the Safeway or in the school park­ing lot and we would say hi, light up in smiles, make imag­i­nary plans for play dates, hors d’ouvres, shop­ping days in Portland. Nothing ever hap­pened. It wasn’t that we hat­ed her. We all felt sor­ry for her, still. But Jenn was tall, and lone­ly, and beau­ti­ful, and the win­ter here is long, the spring still longer. And we were tak­ing care of our chil­dren, and work­ing, try­ing to keep the house clean and the refrig­er­a­tor stocked. Not all of us were still beau­ti­ful or inter­est­ing. Most of us were tired, and scared of a life alone.

Whatever hap­pened or didn’t hap­pen — we nev­er real­ly knew — she kept it qui­et. It was real­ly more a sense of pos­si­bil­i­ty. Jenn was out there in the mist, glam­or and tragedy. You couldn’t blame them for being inter­est­ed. To have a nice clean pret­ty woman pour you a drink, touch your hand, a strange set of lips to kiss: we imag­ined all these things, in a way we longed for them our­selves. Danger and nov­el­ty.

I don’t like it,” Jane Hart says, smok­ing a cig­a­rette on the deck of the Dog. “Whatever she’s doing.”

Whether she’s doing it or not,” says Siobhan from the Ace Hardware, and we all laugh. Though lat­er it doesn’t seem fun­ny.

Then it’s May, and Daniel Crouch is here. He stays at the Breakers, a nice old motel right on the beach. He has mon­ey, Daniel does. He works for Microsoft, we hear, and has a con­do with a view of the Olympics on the 12th floor of a new build­ing in Belltown, right by Pike Place mar­ket. Katie says it’s weird, how nice it is, like liv­ing in a movie. Apparently he hired some­body to dec­o­rate it for him.

He wants to be called Daniel, not Dan, and def­i­nite­ly not Danny. Which is why we call him Danny Boy.

He hasn’t been back for a cou­ple or years, since before the acci­dent, not even for Thanksgiving or Christmas. One year it was work, anoth­er year he took the angles girl to the Italian Alps to go ski­ing. Katie reports to us from behind the bar. His life reminds us of a real­i­ty show except it doesn’t seem real.

Of course he’s going to go see Jenn.

Then a cou­ple of weeks lat­er he’s back again, and this time he brings his dog. Even his dog is gay, a friend­ly lit­tle Corgi named Sam Spade. The sun comes out one evening and we see them run­ning on the beach, Jenn and Daniel and Sam Spade, down on the hard, wet sand at the water’s edge. Jenn and the dog were set­ting the pace and Daniel was try­ing to keep up. Lisa saw them from the lob­by of the Breakers and said it was a pret­ty sight, the three of them all good-look­ing and healthy. But lat­er, just before she left the Dog, she said there was some­thing sad, too, some­thing she couldn’t put her fin­ger on.

The next morn­ing, they turn up for break­fast at the Big Wave café with wet hair. So that’s that.

Summer brings the tourists and we all get busy. Skinny chil­dren try to swim in the ocean, kites get flown, we sell chi­na pel­i­cans and hip­pie trin­kets to the out-of-town­ers, we sell beach chairs, sou­venir hats, clam chow­der. Daniel comes and goes unno­ticed, most­ly. He’s here often enough, him and his lit­tle dog, and once we even saw him and Jenn with her boy. The boy is five now and his name is Christopher. They were eat­ing french fries by the beach.

We don’t know what’s going on. Katie won’t tell us a thing, and we’re most­ly too busy to ask. We see them togeth­er at the Farmer’s Market, Jenn and Daniel, and they don’t look hap­py, exact­ly. It’s like they’re hold­ing onto each oth­er for com­fort, shared sur­vivors. Maybe we’re mak­ing that up.

The only one of us, real­ly, who called her a whore was Mary Ann Tucker, and she had a right. It was hard to say. Certainly she thought that Jenn had stolen some­thing from her, some­thing that belonged to her.

Then it’s Labor Day, or maybe the week­end after. These are the sea­sons here, three months of tourists and nine months of win­ter is the joke. Usually we get a break, right after the vis­i­tors leave, a month or six weeks of fine bright weath­er and the beach all to our­selves. We see each oth­er in the restau­rants, sit­ting at the good tables. We run our dogs on the beach. Some of the kids even fly kites.

Anyway it’s the start of that. The first week­end to our­selves. And down at the Castaways, in one of the back rooms, the four of them are sit­ting at a table togeth­er: Daniel, Christopher, Jenn and Donald Hake.

Hope Gillerman is the first to see them. She’s work­ing tables that night, though they aren’t in her sec­tion. She says they look unhap­py. Trying to talk, start­ing and stop­ping, the kid look­ing obliv­i­ous, his moth­er let him have a root beer float and then anoth­er, Jenn her­self get­ting through three or four glass­es of wine. What do they have to talk about? The divorce is final, as far as we know, the child-care arrange­ments and so on. And even then, it’s none of Daniel’s busi­ness. They’re ours, these three, the father, the moth­er, the broth­er. Their sto­ry is our sto­ry, is part of the weave of our lives. They belong to us, and we belong to them.

It doesn’t sit well, any­way. Hard to say why. Jenn goes home with the boy and the two men sit at the bar at the Rose and Raindrop, drink­ing Bridgeport IPA and talk­ing, qui­et­ly enough for nobody to hear. What do they have to talk about? They look like men togeth­er, men drink­ing. It’s been rain­ing and Donald doesn’t both­er to take his North Face rain­coat off, just sits at the bar drink­ing in his Goretex jack­et, and Daniel has some kind of stub­ble thing going on, hard to say if it’s a styl­ish stub­ble or just week­end-at-the-beach. But they’re there till almost mid­night talk­ing. It’s a gift men seem to have: the abil­i­ty to talk about noth­ing, at length and in good cheer.

It doesn’t seem right, any­way. The two of them next to each oth­er, laugh­ing some­times. The dead girl, out in the ocean air. It isn’t right.

Summer’s over, the wait is on for win­ter. We have more time to think about things, maybe too much time.

One October night, Daniel’s vis­it­ing but Jenn has to go over to Salem with the soc­cer team, the reg­u­lar coach is sick. Daniel’s stay­ing at the Breakers, same as ever, and after din­ner he goes into the bar there with his lit­tle com­put­er tablet and orders a draft beer, a fan­cy one, and there at the oth­er end of the bar, shit­faced, is Mary Ann Tucker. Lisa is behind the bar that night. She said she held her breath. Mary Ann has been all right, most­ly, since the divorce. But once in a while she goes off the rails.

You’re dat­ing Jenn McGill,” Mary Ann says. It’s not a ques­tion. Daniel dips his head, admits it. Mary Ann says, “That cunt ruined my life.”

That’s enough,” Lisa says from behind the bar.

Every prick in this town has been in that cunt,” Mary Ann says. “She’ll fuck any­thing. Just so you know.”

That’s all. Lisa 86’s her after that. But that’s maybe enough.

We don’t see Daniel for a few weeks. We don’t see Jenn either. She’s there, at the title com­pa­ny dur­ing the day, her car parked in front of the house at night. But she isn’t any­where else. Sue Foley, who works down in Lincoln City, sees Jenn com­ing out of the Safeway there with a week’s worth of gro­ceries. The Safeway that we go to is in Tillamook, half an hour clos­er. All that extra dri­ving so she won’t have to look at us.

Small town talk. That’s what Daniel tried to get away from when he moved to Seattle. That’s all Katie will say about it.

Fall comes, it starts to rain. One night Mary Ann Tucker is home alone with her kids when the door­bell rings. It’s Donald Hake, Jenn’s hus­band. He is almost too drunk to stand up.

A thing like that,” Donald Hake says. “Why would you do that?”

Mary Ann won’t let him in, won’t unlock the screen door. He stands there in the porch light in the rain, weep­ing. Mary Ann clos­es the door and calls the police.

It’s one of the things about a town like ours. In Portland or Eugene he would have gone to jail, would have made the papers. That would have put a dent in his law career. But here, it’s Ray Acker who answers the call, and he just dri­ves Donald home and tells him to sleep it off. Ray went to high school with Jenn. With all of us.

The good part and the bad part. A small town and a long win­ter.

They’re gone by spring. First Jenn, then Donald and the boy. They leave for Seattle and nev­er come back. And who is sleep­ing with who, who is liv­ing where, who is in love and who is just get­ting by, none of us know. None of us but Katie, and she isn’t telling. We ask some­times. But it’s none of our busi­ness, she says, not any­more. None of our busi­ness. Once in a while we see her, out at the ceme­tery. Siobhan from the Ace Hardware saw her there at the end of sum­mer. It was a sun­ny day, and Jenn wore a skirt, and brought a blan­ket, and a water bot­tle, and flow­ers. She stayed the after­noon, and when Siobhan saw her she was lying on the blan­ket, face down, eyes closed, touch­ing the head­stone. She wasn’t mov­ing. Siobhan said it was like she was sleep­ing, but she wasn’t. She stayed until the sun went behind the trees, and then she left. In the dark, the Pacific heaves and sobs and cries and pounds at the shore. Something at the heart of things, some­thing incon­solable.

~

Kevin Canty’s eighth book, a nov­el called The Underworld, will be pub­lished by W. W. Norton in 2017. He is also the author of three pre­vi­ous col­lec­tions of short sto­ries (Where the Money Went, Honeymoon, and A Stranger In This World) and four nov­els (Nine Below Zero, Into the Great Wide Open, Winslow in Love and Everything). His short sto­ries have appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Esquire, Tin House, GQ, Glimmer Train, Story, the New England Review, Best American Short Stories 2015 and else­where; essays and arti­cles in Vogue, Details, Playboy, the New York Times and the Oxford American, among oth­ers. His work has been trans­lat­ed into French, Dutch, Spanish, Catalan, German, Polish, Italian and Japanese. He lives and writes in Missoula, Montana.