Sixteen years ago, my mom went and had me, even though she knew my dad was in trouble. She said she wanted me from the very beginning. Never once thought of giving me up. Selfish, if you ask me, since a woman can always go out and find a new man. A girl only gets one father, and I’m stuck with this one.
He wakes me wearing a flannel shirt, tall galoshes, and waterproof overalls. It’s just before sunrise, when the house is at its coldest. I sleep in the room where he slept until he was 21, with the same tan carpeting that’s worn alongside the bed. Since he came home last month, he’s been sleeping on the sofa in the basement instead of with my mom. She says she just needs some time to adjust.
“This should work for today,” he says, and hands me a pair of blue nylon jogging pants with dull white trim. They look like the ones he wore when he ran track in high school. I’ve seen pictures in his old yearbook on the shelf above my bed.
“Put on some long underwear, too,” he says. “We’ll get you something waterproof for next time.”
I haven’t promised anybody a next time yet. This outing was my mom’s idea, along with Grandma Minetti, who took us in right after I was born. They say I need to bond with my dad now that he’s home with us.
By the time I change and make my way downstairs, Mom’s awake, standing in the kitchen in the pink cotton robe she’s been wears around the house now. She ties it tightly around her waist and acts modest, as if it’s a stranger living with us, instead of my dad.
She hands me an old canvas hat with tackle pins that belonged to her father. “Look at you in your gear,” she says, and touches my face. Her long crimson nails tickle my skin. “Gramps would be proud.”
My mother’s father caught fish for a living. He died when she was young. They say nobody on this island can support a family that way anymore.
She hugs me goodbye as if I’m going away for a long time. It makes me nervous, but I tell myself there’s no reason to be afraid of my dad. They say that aside from a couple of bar fights, he’d never hurt anybody in his life. And to this day, he swears he didn’t kill that girl.
Outside in the dark, it’s so damp that I can feel my hair start to frizz. I only hear cicadas buzzing, and a few birds already awake and calling for the dawn.
My dad hitches the boat to the old truck that Grandma bought for him. Aside from that racket, it’s so still you’d think we’re the only ones awake on this whole island.
In silence, we drive through our development, where the homes are all split-level and the streets start with the letter P: Pebble, Poppy, Peony. Soon, we’re riding past the estates on the Long Island Sound. The first is modern with dark wood and tall, tinted windows. The next is Spanish-style with curved archways and an orange tile roof. My favorite is a brick one, with narrow eaves above the doors and windows.
My mom says that the girl who died lived along this road. Her parents moved away soon after the trial.
The old truck grinds when my father shifts gears, and he curses it. “You’d better goddamned hold it together until I get some work, Mr. Clutch.”
He’s been looking for a job since he got home, but so far no luck. A lot of people won’t hire a guy like him.
We keep going, until we get to the beach where it all happened. I imagine it like a movie in my head. First, I see the gulls, flapping and cawing in the morning sky. Down below, the dunes glisten in the sun. Seaweed swirls across the rocky sand. Out past the jetties, something that looks like a sandbag washes up on the shore. The closer I get, I see that it’s a girl with dirty blonde hair, tangled and muddy. She’s about my age with a choker of bruises around her neck. Her eyes are an eerie pale green, her skin puffy and tide-washed. On top, she wears a striped polo shirt like my mom wore in high school. On the bottom, she wears nothing at all. Her thin legs are scratched and bent in the wrong directions.
No matter how far I get from this island, and this family, I’ll never stop seeing that girl.
In the car, my dad says, “All Minetti’s have beginner’s luck with it comes to fishing. You know that?”
I wonder if he suspects I don’t belong to him. I’ve thought about it myself. But I look like him, with blue eyes, a widow’s peak, and too-pale skin, like a ghost.
At the inlet past the beach, we drag the boat into the cold, shallow water. Just a few steps into the surf and my canvas sneakers and socks are soaked. Now I know why I needed waterproof gear. Once we’re in deep enough for the boat to float on its own, I hop in and try to keep it steady.
He climbs in and pulls a pair of wool socks from his pocket.
“Thought you might need extras,” he says, and hands them to me.
His knuckles bulge like little pine knots, but otherwise his skin is smooth, and his nails are neat and trim, thanks to Grandma tending to them. “Every man needs a manicure,” she says.
I say thanks and change my socks, trying to keep my balance as he pushes us away from the shore with a double-sided paddle.
“When I was a kid, I could go clamming right here,” he says. “I could stand right where you stood, barefoot, and they’d crunch underneath my feet. Mussels too. And crabs.” He stops and looks out across the water.
“Not anymore. Now you can’t even catch a bass,” he says. “There’s hardly any left. And even if you do, you can’t keep one that’s more than a foot long. The fish police will make you toss it back.”
“That’s because there’s less oxygen in the water,” I say. “We’re polluting it with chemicals. It’s called hypoxia.”
“Well listen to you,” he says. “You do good in school, don’t you? Better than I did.”
He pulls a cord to start the sputtering motor. It sounds about as trusty as the old truck.
Meanwhile, the sun shows us some mercy by peeking her face up over the horizon and warming the air.
He picks a spot and the turns off the motor. It trembles for a few seconds before it stops, as if it’s afraid to lose momentum. Then he opens up his tackle box and fingers the bait.
“All right,” he says, “which one of you is about to meet a quick and painless death at the hands of Big Daddy Angler Man? How about you, Mr. Worm?” He holds one up. It curls itself around his fingers, trying to escape. “Look at it this way,” he says to the worm, “it’s better than ending up in a Cuervo bottle.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” I say. “At least he’d die drunk and happy.”
He laughs the low, gentle laugh of a good-looking guy. He’s got a squared-off jaw and quick smile that strangers might find attractive. Grandma cut his hair as soon as he came home and showed him how to style it with pomade.
He offers to bait the hook for me, but I want to do it myself. I try not to think too much as I pierce the cold, wriggling worm with the hook. Then I cast the line into the water the same way my dad did.
“Now we wait,” he says. “It’s peaceful out here. You can get away from everything.”
I know what he means about wanting to get away.
Sometimes at night, when I lie in bed, I try to imagine what it’s like to live outside myself. As I inhale, I picture my body filling up with silver light. With every breath, I rise, until I am floating above my bed, looking down at myself. I know that if I could make it through the ceiling, I would break free. But just before I get there, Grandma in the next room lets out a gigantic snore, or the neighbors’ black Lab starts barking, and I’m right back in my body, lying awake in my dad’s old bed.
“Is it weird for you,” I ask, “coming back here?”
He laughs a little, but I don’t think he finds my question funny.
“I came to this beach every weekend for my whole life,” he says, and jerks the line as if he’s got something on the end of it. “The thing I missed more than anything,” he says, “is being out here on the water.”
When I was eight or so, Grandma Minetti and I held a séance in the family room. We lit tall candles, clasped each other’s hands over the coffee table, and called upon the spirit of the girl who died.
“Tell us who did this to you,” Grandma said. “Give us the name of the real killer.”
It was hard to keep my eyes closed for so long without peeking. I imagined myself filling up with that silver light, floating up into the space where I might be able to meet the girl herself, still in that striped polo shirt that she was wearing when they found her. I wanted to say I was sorry, even though I didn’t do anything wrong.
Right then my mother walked in on us. The curtains blew in from a breeze and almost reached the flames of the candles.
“Jesus fucking Christ, you’ll burn the house down,” she said. “Besides, he was convicted and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
We never held another séance, but Grandma’s still convinced my dad’s an innocent man. Sometimes I think it would be easier for me if I were convinced, too.
After we’ve been out on the water for ten minutes or so, my dad takes a pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket and taps one out.
“Can I bum one?” I ask.
“I didn’t think a kid like you would smoke,” he says.
“Mom knows,” I say with a shrug, hoping this will make a difference.
He takes a long drag, holding his cigarette between his thumb and first two fingers. For a minute I think he’s going to be protective like Big Daddy Angler Man, but then he says, “Well, if your mom knows…” and hands me one.
I place it between my lips and he lights it for me.
“They still have the old smoke shed out behind the football field?” he asks. “We used to go out there between classes.”
“They won’t let you smoke within a mile of school,” I say. “It’s practically a felony.”
Bad choice of words. I wish I could take it back, but he acts like he doesn’t notice.
The first cigarette of the day is harsh. It makes me a little queasy. But after a few drags, I start to relax and enjoy it.
I promise myself I’ll never smoke full-time, like Grandma. It’s just for now, until I go to college and get as far away from here as I can.
“You know,” he says, shifting his weight and jiggling his line, “It’s been a long time since we talked about important stuff, like guys. What about that one you wrote me about a while back? What was his name?”
“He’s out of the picture.”
I only ever wrote my dad when I got excited about something, like being ranked in the top 10 percent of my class, or getting asked going to the junior prom—which wound up not really happening. He’s been too far away to visit more than a couple of times a year.
“You dumped him?” he asked.
“He hooked up with one of my friends,” I said.
“No other guys? There’s always a guy.”
I shake my head.
“You’re kind of a late bloomer, aren’t you?”
“You don’t know me so well,” I say.
“Nothing wrong with being a late bloomer,” he says. “Some of the girls on this island, they run wild. Get into all kinds of trouble. They get stuck here for their whole damn lives. You’re not gonna do that, I can tell. What do you want to be when get older?”
“You’re asking a lot of questions for one day,” I say.
“Can’t a guy take a little interest in his daughter?”
“Yeah, but it should, like, come out naturally.”
“Sorry,” he says, with a little smile like he thinks he knows better.
We sit for a while longer. The sun shines brighter, staking her claim on the sky. Clouds scatter, intimidated.
“So what about your mom?” my dad asks. “She bring a lot of guys around while I was gone?”
I feel a catch in my throat, because the truth is, I’ve seen her with men over the years—at the Greek diner with the guy from the car repair place, in the parking lot of the Inn with Mr. Stevinski, who’s helping me with college applications. She’s way too smart to bring some man within a mile of Grandma, though.
“She’s been counting down the days till you came back,” I say.
About two months ago, she started crossing the days off the Long Island lighthouse calendar on the fridge. She made a big red circle around the day my dad was due to get out. Every morning, she’d announce how many days we had left.
Grandma started cleaning like crazy, moving furniture and shining the floor with orange-scented polish. I got worried about what it might be like to have a man around the house. For so long, it had been just us girls, watching movies on Friday nights and eating popcorn with Tabasco sauce, doing mani-pedis with Grandma on Sundays. I didn’t want things to change, but I didn’t have a say in it.
“Guess I can’t expect you to tell me any secrets after I’ve been gone so long,” my dad says. “I know how women stick together.”
I feel a tug on my line.
Amazed that some creature from below has chosen me, my bait, I let out a girly squeal.
“Shut it,” he says angrily. “You’ll scare ‘em away.”
He moves behind me, forcing me to lean on him for support. I stiffen and pull forward.
For a second I consider that it might not be a fish, but some kind of monster on the end of my line, and I don’t want to help it escape from the water.
“Keep holding on,” he says, softening his voice. “Stick with it.”
I struggle for a few more seconds. I’m pulling instead of reeling, scared that if I don’t keep two hands on the pole, the fish will win.
“Need help?” he asks. “Big Daddy Angler Man’s right here.”
“I got it,” I say, but I’m not really sure. The battle goes on for what seems like another minute. The pole bends with the strain. I’m sure it will break.
“Don’t let him win,” he says. “You’re stronger than he is.”
Finally, I manage to yank it from the water. The pole feels ten pounds lighter. The line swings behind me, and the fish flies through the air, struggling, dangling from the line.
“Down! Get it down,” he says.
I lower it onto the bottom of the boat, where it thrashes from side to side, staring at me with a cold dark eye.
“It’s too big,” I plead. “We should toss it back.”
“Nah, it’s only about ten inches.”
I think he’s wrong, but I don’t argue as he tosses it into the cooler.
“I knew it,” he says with a chuckle. “Told you all Minetti’s have beginner’s luck.”
Over the next hour, I reel in another one and my dad reels in two. It’s easier for me the second time because I know what to expect. None of the fish we catch are as big as my first.
I still feel a little weird about keeping that big one for ourselves when we really should have thrown it back. If it weren’t for us, that fish would still be swimming around in its home under water.
By late morning, the sun, weary or indifferent, backs off and lets some clouds into her space.
My dad unpacks a couple of soggy ham and cheese sandwiches. I don’t like ham. It’s too slick and salty. But I don’t complain because he wouldn’t have any way of knowing it.
After we eat, he smokes another cigarette, and I sip a Diet Coke. He tells me about the different kinds of fish he used to catch with his father.
“You ever see a fluke?” he asks. “They’ve got both eyes on one side of their head.”
“Sounds highly improbable,” I say, which makes him laugh.
Once I’ve finished the Diet Coke, I feel like I need to pee, and I tell him because it’s going to take us a while to get to a bathroom.
“Didn’t factor this in when I had a girl,” he says, as if he’d had a choice in the matter. “Guess you can’t just pee over the side of the boat.”
It’s just as well, because Gramps’ hat is making my head itch, and I’ve had just about enough fishing for today.
We secure our poles and he pulls the long cord of the motor, which sputters and whines. He pulls the cord again, but it still doesn’t catch. He yanks it harder and harder, when anyone could see that it doesn’t want to start. The motor sounds tired, aggravated.
“Maybe you should let it rest for a minute,” I say.
But he doesn’t take my advice. Instead, he starts pulling on the cord so hard I’m afraid he’ll yank it off.
“Mother fucking thing,” he says. “C’mon, Mr. Motor, I can’t get a goddam break around here.”
He mutters for a few more seconds, getting angrier.
I look away, afraid he’ll turn into something I can’t bear to see—the guilty father, when he’s been the innocent one all day up to now.
Finally, the motor coughs and starts up.
“Hey,” he says, and punches me lightly on the arm. “I didn’t scare you, did I?”
“No,” I say, too quickly.
We head back to the shore.
* * *
On the way home, I think about the girl who died. I imagine that instead of being me, I’m a guy, lying next to her on the sand. She’s drunk, cursing at me. She’s led me out of the cabana, away from the party, and now she’s teasing me, saying no when she’d already said yes by bringing me here. As I kiss her, I can taste beer on her tongue and smell the salt in her hair. She stiffens, tries to push me away. I call her names: Bitch, Slut, Whore.
She looks like all the girls I know who live along the Sound—the girls who steal sugar-free gum and Cokes from the store where I work, daring me to accuse them. They wear preppy polo shirts to school and expensive muslin dresses to Sweet Sixteen parties. They whisper about me, the girl whose father is a killer. They don’t need to steal from me, but they do.
In my daydream, I take the girls’ neck in my hands—at first, just to shut her up. Next thing I know, I’m digging my thumbs into the soft spots of her neck. She struggles, but I don’t give in. I squeeze as she chokes and gasps, until finally, she’s silent. Her arms and legs stop moving, and her body goes limp. Her blue-green eyes are locked open, her mouth agape. She has no power over me, or my family, anymore.
* * *
“So what do you think?” my dad asks, as he rigs the boat back up to the car. “Same time next week?”
I think about my mom, crossing those days off the lighthouse calendar. I wonder if she’s been counting down to her freedom. Maybe like me, she can’t wait to get away from here. Maybe she’ll be the first to go.
I realize now that there are the things about this place I will miss, like being out on the water.
Next to me, my dad’s smile is eager, vulnerable.
“Okay,” I say. “But no ham sandwiches.”
“You got a deal,” he says.
And we head back home together.