Alice wipes her mouth on her sleeve and places her bowl in the sink. “Can you give me a ride over to school?”
“I’m painting a mural at the other end of Sea View.” Martha checks her wrist where her watch should be, but she’s forgotten to put it on. “You take the car. I can walk.”
Alice makes the okay sign with her thumb and forefinger and runs upstairs. In a minute, Martha hears water ringing through the old copper pipes. Despite peeling paint, drafty windows, and faucets that turn the wrong way, the house is solid, built after the 1938 hurricane by a man whose house had fallen into the sea. They can’t afford to live here—the taxes are killing them—but they have nowhere else to go.
Martha pours herself a cup of coffee and walks out to the porch where her mother’s self-portrait hangs. Fiona was an artist too. In the summer, she would set up her easel under an umbrella on the corner of Beach Cove Road and draw pastel portraits for tourists. A portrait by Fiona was a right of passage for local children and a sought-after badge of authenticity for summer residents. Covered in salt and sand, cranky children and grandchildren sat in the faded red director’s chair while Fiona told knock-knock jokes and the rest of the family watched with anticipation. You weren’t a true Rockfleeter until you had your pastel portrait done.
Her paintings were just the opposite: dark, oil canvases, layered with thick smears of paint that shimmered like broken glass. She made them in the winter, after everyone had gone and only Alice remained, too young for school, playing beside her easel. Each spring, Fiona would load the canvases into the back of the van for a circuit of the local galleries. She made it into a party. The girls ate cheese popcorn from sandwich bags and sang “Oh Susannah” and “The Titanic Song.” Martha and Alice were too busy to notice that none of the canvases ever left the back of the van. When they were old enough to realize that Fiona had not sold a single one of her paintings, she had quit and gone to work at the town library.
The paintings were forgotten until Fiona died of breast cancer, without a will. Martha and Alice would have to sell the house, or so they thought. As they cleaned the rooms in preparation for the sale, Martha opened the old cedar closet and found stacks of her mother’s paintings. She stood dumbstruck in the doorway, inhaling the forest smell until she felt giddy with certainty. She had spent the past four years in art school looking at slides, earnestly cultivating a sense of what makes art good. She couldn’t be sure, but she had a hunch that the local gallery owners had been small-minded all those years ago. And that her mother had been very, very good. So they reprised their old gallery tour and found Helen Mackler, whose gallery stocked none of the usual lighthouse watercolors or gulls carved out of driftwood. She made a few phone calls and set up a gallery show, where Alice and Martha sold all of Fiona’s paintings except the self-portrait in blues and greens, which they all agreed was the best.
Martha looks into her mother’s face on the wall, as she often does when she is scared or confused. She’d asked about Tim before he moved in, about Alice’s strange dressing habits, about teaching at the high school (a job she didn’t get), about repairs to the roof.
“Is it time for the library?” she asks the painting now.
Her mother had found a way to survive after her father died; it was Martha’s turn now.
The Devries place is one of those modernist houses that the summer people are building, a steel and glass box on spindle-legs that creeps toward the bay like a reluctant swimmer. All the landscaping is indigenous sea grass and scrub pine. Martha is annoyed at the effort that’s been put into making the yard look natural, but she supposes it is better than rolling out gaudy green sod. The front door, a series of portholes in glossy teak, opens before Martha can knock.