Clarissa Duncan sat in the beater of a truck Michael hadn’t bothered to take, watching the tide inch its way in. Laughing gulls flapped their wings across a misty gray sky and filled the cove with raucous shouts. There would be no sunrise today. The weather was turning.
Seven years ago, on this beach, in a satin wedding gown, a scraggly bouquet of wildflowers clutched against a swell of belly, bare toes curling in cold sand, Clarissa had promised for better or for worse.
She turned the key in the ignition, steered clear of potholes in the sand lot, and headed down the road. She loved how the morning fog on the cranberry bogs softened everything. She’d lived in this town since she was six years old, Amy’s age now. She knew where she was here, even when it wasn’t where she wanted to be.
There was definitely a cold front coming through.
On the bench seat in back, Amy slept, buffered by bags and bundles. Her long lashes fluttered and stilled. Her small mouth puckered in soft whistles of breath. Wisps of blonde hair covered her face, her cheek red from resting on her pressed-together palms.
The bank was coming in a week to change the locks on the house—the house they’d built on land Michael’s father had sold them. For a song, he’d said. The house where Amy had been born. But she’d get through this, Clarissa knew. She had no choice. She’d known when she married Michael that it was no good. He was a song for the singing, and songs end.
Clarissa turned into a long gravel drive bordered by aging willows and ending at a shabby, gray-shingled ranch house. She parked in the turnaround next to Tim’s old Whaler. Glenna and Tim had three kids of their own and three foster kids, all cramped into this small house on the edge of an orchard that Tim had taken over from an uncle.
A beagle pup bounded up to the car, jumping and yelping, waking Amy. She wriggled and rubbed her eyes with her fists and looked up at Clarissa with a pouting face, soft as a baby but so stern. She didn’t fight the unbuckling of her seat belt, just allowed herself to be eased out of the truck. “I want to go home,” she whined. “I want Daddy.”
She took Clarissa’s outstretched hand, though, and plodded along, around discarded toys, trikes, and bikes to the front door, the beagle yapping all the while.
Glenna stood waiting, leaning into the doorjamb, a baby on the jut of a hip, a toddler clinging to her leg. Her face as worn as the faded flannel shirt that hung limp on her bony frame.
“I love you, Momma.” Amy raised her small face for a kiss.
The tribe exploded out the door.
The sisters kissed cheeks. Their eyes met for just a moment before the one went in and the other went on.
The wet and gnarly branches of the apple trees stood out against the flat golden-brown of the salt marsh that surrounded the orchard. Clarissa loved the smell of the marsh and the feel of the salt air on her face.
The village was only four miles away, but it was like leaving behind a world of color, coming from the coast where people from away were buying up fishing shacks and turning them into condo-cottages on manicured lots, with lobster traps as lawn art. Still, there were some fishing families left, their houses small and shabby, their traps piled high.
Most of the shops in the village were still closed for the winter. Too many were closed for good. The old five-and-dime, with its broken neon sign in the second-story window, had been empty since she was in high school. The Corner Drug Store was the only storefront in the Odd Fellows Building still occupied, and it would be empty as soon as old Mr. Gorgitis died. Until then it was a hub: regulars sat at the counter and were never hurried out.
Clarissa pushed the heavy glass door open, grabbed a newspaper from the end of the counter, and headed for the far end.
Eddie had a cup of coffee in front of her before she finished sitting down on the stool. “Sorry to hear about you and Michael.”
Clarissa had known Eddie since she was a kid. Now he was wiping the counter down just long enough for her to talk if she wanted to. She didn’t. She opened the classifieds section to the want ads, skipping over the professionals, scanning the general services. Looked like construction was picking up, and retail. Nothing that suited her particular skill set as an untrained, inexperienced, abandoned wife and single mother.
She wrapped her fingers around the heavy white mug, the kind they’d been serving coffee in since she’d come here Saturday mornings with her father back in the day. “Just us two,” he’d say. She couldn’t remember why those dates had stopped, but they had.
Eddie was back with a business card he shoved across the counter at her. “Call him.”
Clarissa looked at the glossy, black, raised lettering on the cream-colored card. Thomas W. Teal, Esquire. “A little out of my league, don’t you think?”
“He was in the other day and said the Smythes are looking for a house-sitter for the summer. Had one, I guess, but she fell through. They’re in a pickle. Teal’s their attorney, has been for years. It’s worth a shot. Go on.”
She went to put the card in her bag, but Eddie stopped her, his hand wrapping around hers. “He knew your dad. Call him. What do you got to lose?”
She slid off the stool, pulled her cell phone from her bag, and punched in the lawyer’s number on her way outside. Three minutes later she was back inside, flashing her cell at Eddie in a thumbs up. “He’s setting up an interview for later today. Thanks, Eddie.”
“No problem, kid. Now, how about an omelet? On the house.”
Clarissa smiled. “An omelet would be great. Thanks.” And to herself she toasted the possibilities with her lukewarm coffee. No matter what, this was home.
The brick house with its three solid chimneys loomed large against the gray sky, losing none of its foreboding air as she drove up the narrow gravel driveway. Stately rhododendrons and wild-looking witch-hazel shrubs lined one side. The other side was open to acres of untended marshland.
She slowed at the curve, pulled into the dooryard, and parked in the turnaround across from the front door. In the hollow of the side yard was a small pond framed by the gold-green branches of a humongous weeping willow. She watched two white swans follow a current.
Clarissa had been to this house when she was a child, with her father. Hidden in the brambles at the brackish edge of that pond was a rough-cut granite bench, big enough for a very small child, with letters her father had hushed her about carved into the stone seat. She fought her way through a fog of memories to the front door and pulled at the old-fashioned doorbell, low down between the panels of a door so old the wood looked to be curling right off.
She wondered if the bell worked. Should she knock? Just as she raised her hand, the door opened. An oldish man with a child-like expression, wearing a yellow oilskin slicker with the hood up, looked at her expectantly. “Yes?”
“Clarissa Duncan. I’m here about the house-sitting job?”
“Oh. Oh, yes. Of course.” He backed up, fumbling with his raingear and just barely making room for Clarissa to enter the house. Faced with steep steps the color of dried blood, she walked into the square room on her right. It was paneled in smooth, hardwood boards and dominated by a stone fireplace that ran the width of one wall. Every wall but one had a door to another room, and that fourth wall had a window looking toward the barn.
The man was hanging his oilskin from a peg in a closet; the door looked sliced from the wooden wall, the boards matched so neatly. He turned and looked at her. “Oh my. Well. Mum will want to see you.”
Clarissa followed him through a formal dining room, past a second entry with a more elegant staircase, and into the living room. An old woman slept in a wooden rocker by the fire. Her head hung down toward her shoulder, her hands folded neatly in her lap. She wore a long denim dress, a woolen jacket with bright embroidery down the front, and sensible brown leather shoes. Her long hair lay coiled over one shoulder, twisted after a fashion, like a lazy braid. This was Emyline Smith, as famous as she was infamous, and so seldom seen that she might have been invisible.
Slowly the woman opened her eyes. Moth-still, she stared at Clarissa, who did her best not to squirm under the glare of her gaze. The old lady’s face seemed shut off, as if maybe she weren’t really seeing Clarissa at all.
“My mother…isn’t herself these days.” The man stuttered out the words and motioned for Clarissa to sit on the sofa. He sat on a chair nearer to her than to his mother, who’d nodded out again. “She goes upcountry tomorrow.” Having said his piece, he stopped.
At first glance Alden Smythe wasn’t much to look at, but now, as Clarissa watched him looking at his mother, she saw a certain fineness in him. He must be about sixty, she guessed—had never done any real work, probably; not in bad shape, but nothing hard about him. A confirmed bachelor, some said. Others said he was loony.
She liked the silence of this house, which let her sink into the serenity of the room, dark despite the many mullioned windows recessed into walls of books: small and large, leather-bound with gilt lettering, paperback and hard-covered, oversized and miniature. She wondered at the weight of them.
“We’ve always had house-sitters,” Alden started with renewed confidence. “Watching the old place. When we’re not here, you know. We always go upcountry for the season. I’ll be back and forth. I’m off to Europe next week. I wouldn’t surprise you.”
Clarissa laughed. He had, though—surprised her. Breaking the silence like that.
“I would let you know of course.” He looked toward the old woman again. “It’s really having someone here that’s the thing.”
“I have a daughter,” Clarissa blurted out. “She’s six.” There, she’d said it, and the one thing she’d dreaded telling seemed to cheer this man up. He sat up straighter and smiled.
“Oh, well, that’s fine. There have always been children here. Well, not recently, of course, but for generations. Do you want to see the kitchen?”
“Okay.” Clarissa followed him, turning to see Emyline staring after her.
The kitchen was small and dark, with chrome-edged cabinets and an orange Formica countertop, a white orchid on the windowsill, dishes piled in the sink. At the other end of the counter a half-empty bottle of single-malt scotch stood on a tray with an ice bucket, one glass, and an empty plate. On a rolling cart beside the refrigerator was a glass-covered cake plate with the remains of a chocolate cake.
“You’d like to see the apartment?”
He led her through a laundry room and pantry to a third set of steps, which wound up under the eaves to a bright and spacious room with glossy pine floors and smooth white walls. The apartment addition, recent by the looks of it, consisted of a living room with a futon, a bedroom with twin beds, and a full bath. For the house-sitter.
She followed Alden, ducking into the little passageway between the new rooms and the old house, into a tunneled hallway that led them to the steep red steps. Down they went. Alden was surprisingly agile. Clarissa had to stoop at the bottom to avoid hitting the top of the doorframe.
She found herself back in the kitchen, with Alden awkward and expectant.
“We could have cake.” He looked hopefully at her, just the way Amy would. “And perhaps a small libation.”
The old woman was fully awake when they returned to the living room with their plates of cake and glasses of scotch. She stared without recognition.
“Mum.” His voice was unnaturally loud and cheerful. “This is…”
“Clarissa. Clarissa Duncan.”
“Clarissa Duncan, and she’s going to keep the house this summer. We’re having cake.”
Clarissa thought she saw a flicker in the old woman’s eyes. She took another bite of cake and swallowed it down with a hot shot of whiskey.
“If she’ll have us, I meant to say. Will you? Will it suit you?”
“Yes.” Clarissa smiled at this strange, sweet man. “Yes, I think it will.”
Again she felt Emyline’s glare, but when she looked the old woman was gazing nowhere, it seemed.
The sun was burning through the cloud cover when they went out the door together, Alden to his walk and she to the truck. Clarissa watched him in her rear-view mirror, striding with his hands in the pockets of his yellow slicker, stooping for a moment and then going on. Dwarfed by the brick house behind him, the marsh to one side and the field to the other, he looked to be debating something with himself.
Then he was gone from view and she was back on the road, feeling giddy, a little reckless, as she took the twists and turns of this road, “the endless road,” as she and her sisters had called it from the backseat, jumping and wrestling with excitement to be going to the beach. Magda would drive, her scarf flying out the window fluttering like laughter, and their father, when he came at all, would sit silently close to the door, his head leaning on the window, in some far-off place of his own.
Clarissa turned left at the fork, toward harbor and home. The ruts in the road were puddled from the morning rain. She braked hard to avoid a ring-necked pheasant and breathed deeply to sober herself, tasting the ocean in the damp air. High-school kids walked down the center of the road, their backpacks swinging at their sides, pushing and shoving, laughing. They didn’t give her so much as a glance as she passed. She might not have been there at all.
Amy would be home soon from school, with her crumpled papers and playground stories, and Clarissa needed to steady herself to catch her boundless daughter and hold her safe.
Cold evening colors settled in iced-silver hues. No pinks, nor reds, no warmth tonight. Clarissa drew the curtains closed and turned on the overhead light. The living room was empty now except for the sleep sofa, and Tim would be picking that up tomorrow. She should take the curtains down too. She wouldn’t, though. She had no need of them, and Michael…Michael wouldn’t be back.
“Momma.” Amy, in her favorite, outgrown, lightning-bug pjs, tiptoed into the room, dragging her bunny by the tip of his ear. She fell onto Clarissa, hugging her tight. The little face that looked up held secrets of its own now.
Still a little girl, though. Still her baby. Clarissa backed them up to the sofa. Snug harbor.
“Momma, are we poor?”
“Poor? What do you mean poor?”
“You know. Poor. Johnny Graves and Cherry Wester said I was a poor person, and they called Daddy a no-count.”
Clarissa smoothed Amy’s hair, stalling for time until she fell back on one of Michael’s favorites. “It’s a bump in the road, baby, just a bump in the road, but it’s a long long road and we’re looking at a stretch of good weather.”
“I wish Daddy were here.”
“I love you, Momma.”
“I love you more.”
“I love you most.” Amy wriggled so that she could look up at Clarissa. “Tell me a story.”
“I’ll tell you the story my father told me.” She settled Amy on her knee and bounced her gently.
“I’ll tell you a story about Paddy McGory,
And now my story’s begun.
I’ll tell you another about his brother,
And now my story is done.”
“Ah, Momma, that’s not a real story. Tell me the story about when you and Daddy and me were sailing, and the big fish came and jumped on deck, and I was so scared, and Daddy threw the fish out of the boat, and…”
Shards of memory that cut the deepest. Clarissa rocked gently, cuddling Amy, keeping her close, wishing away damages. The little things, the tiny rituals that get us through the day, bring the most comfort and the sharpest pain.
“And we followed that fish for hours,” Clarissa took over, “in the hot sun, crossing this way and that way until we were all turned around and the sun was setting and the sky was red and all the little children went to bed.”
Clarissa scooped Amy up and placed her on her own two feet. Without another word they walked down the hallway into the room with the big bed. Amy snuggled under the covers. Clarissa lay on her side, her hand on Amy’s back, her head cradled in pillows. Within minutes Amy was sound asleep, and Clarissa tiptoed out of the room, careful not to let the door creak as she closed it.
Tomorrow they would leave this house. Clarissa sat among the cartons: closed, sealed and ready to go; half-packed; folded flat, waiting to be filled. So many boxes, so little worth keeping. In her hands was a chipped, bone-china cup that Michael’s father’s mother had brought from Ireland when she crossed the ocean alone. A young girl from the west coast of the old country—a tale that grew more glorious with each telling. She’d lived a long hard life, raising her brood of boys with little help from her invalid husband, but she’d kept the beauty she found and passed on the longings she’d come with to her youngest son, Michael’s father, who had given this cup to Clarissa on her wedding day. “May this cup be filled with blessings. Tea to warm the body. Good whiskey to warm the soul.”
She let go of the cup lest she crush it like an eggshell. Then she wiped the tears from her cheeks and struggled to calm her heart, pounding in her chest like the hooves of horses beating their way around the track, like the smashing of waves on a placid shore. “Don’t bother to lock the door,” the man from the bank had said.
She placed the cup in the trash. She had memories of her own, without the need to borrow more. She wiped her face, pulled her hair back into a twisted knot that immediately came undone, and looked around the room. She was gaining on it.
Glenna looked hard at her sister. “Nothing comes without a price.”
Clarissa laughed her off, kissed Amy, and headed for the Smythes’ house, their new home. The old lady had been moved upcountry, and Alden was off to Europe. But now she thought, looking around the formal dining room as she poured a double shot of scotch from a crystal decanter into a crystal glass, Glenna might be right.
Drink in hand, she went to the entry, picked up her L.L. Bean oversized tote, and went upstairs, happy that Amy was still at Glenna’s. The house was big and strange and spooky, but still it was good to be alone.
The rooms upstairs were much smaller, and the hallway ceiling slanted low enough that she had to stoop as she walked up a triangular step to Emyline Smythe’s bedroom. The curtains were closed, the beds made. It was an elegant room, not a warm one. There were birch logs in the fireplace that looked as if they’d been dusted for show, not for use.
She dropped her bag onto one of the two beds, sat on the other, and took a drink. In the corner was an abundant armoire, which had been emptied for Clarissa once Alden had understood that this, not the appointed apartment with its backdoor feel, was where she wanted to sleep. Next door was a small, green-tiled bathroom, its porthole window looking out to the hill. Above the antique walnut writing desk hung the silhouette of a solemn young woman, framed in varnished gold. A virginal Emyline Smythe in oils. That might have to go.
Clarissa curled up on the velvet divan by the window, where she could watch the pond for the swans—sleeping now, she guessed, in the reedy grasses at the shore. She shivered a bit, wrapped herself in the embroidered, white-on-white silk shawl that had lain on the divan, and drank the last of the scotch. A slow, lazy smile spread over her face.
Tin’s Bended is a character-driven novel that explores the stories we tell ourselves and others, the secrets we keep, and the truths found within the boldest lies, as seen through the eyes of a young woman on the edge of loss, struggling to find her way.
Clarissa Duncan has lost everything she was raised to value. Her house is in foreclosure, her husband has left her with their six-year-old daughter, and she has no job. The opportunity to house-sit for one of the better families in her New England coastal community seems providential.
Alden Smythe is an aging eccentric bachelor whose mother is getting on. Every year, he and his mother spend the summer months in the country, relying on house-sitters to take care of their North Shore property. This year, with his mother not expected to last much longer, Alden is looking for more than a seasonal girl.
Clarissa knows Alden’s world through Grandmother Duncan, her father’s wealthy socialite mother, who instilled manners in her three granddaughters. With her death, however, and the early death of their father, who died in a one-car collision when they were teenagers, the girls lost all social standing.
Clearly Alden’s family is a cut above Clarissa’s. They’re rich, prominent, better than the rest—but are they really? Clarissa gets to know Alden and his relatives, discovering secrets hidden in journals packed away in the attic and family papers stored in filing cabinets. His mother’s journals reveal that Alden’s sister drowned as toddler while in the care of his older brother, days after Alden was born. His mother has reportedly been mute since the death of her daughter; however, Clarissa hears her speaking to Alden’s sister-in-law.
At first Alden seems to have the upper hand in the evolving relationship between him and Clarissa, but Clarissa is full of surprises of her own. The story ends in an epiphany as she realizes that it is better, both for her and for her child, to jump into the unknown rather than settle for a life she knows to be dishonest.
Nina Heiser is a writer living in central Florida, who turned to writing fiction and poetry after retiring from a career in journalism. She worked as a reporter for local newspapers in western Massachusetts and southern Maine. Her poetry has been published online by Tuck Magazine and the Flagler County Art League, and in print by Cadence, the Florida State Poets Association (FSPA) Anthology.
Embark, Issue 10, October 2019