Burn Coast

Dale Maharidge

December 17, 2021 
An exclusive first look at Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Dale Maharidge's debut novel Burn Coast. Alongside photographer Michael S. Williamson, Maharidge's book And Their Children After Them won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1990, revisiting the places and people of Depression-era America. Also with Williamson, Maharidge produced Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass. The following is courtesy of Unnamed Press.

She spent the afternoon playing the tuba, seated on the rusted springs of what remained of a couch perched at the edge of the bluff 900 feet above the surf, as an emerging cold front blackened the Pacific sky. When daylight began its retreat, the wind picked up; gusts shot her long white hair straight back as she stood and faced the coming storm. A ritual of purity was needed. At the forest edge she harvested dark green stringers of yerba buena poking through the winter-browned rattlesnake and velvet grasses. She chopped the tiny spade-like leaves of the herb on the Ark’s worn Douglas fir plank countertop, boiled water, made tea from it. After burning sage, she sat in the dark sipping the hot drink, usually calming. Yet tonight she remained deeply troubled. Rushes of Arctic wind slammed the Ark. The 11 buckets that captured drips from the leaking roof each had a unique pitch, a tempo that accelerated or diminished with the intensity of storm surges as night came on. She struck a Diamond match, put flame to the charred wick of a kerosene lamp, replaced the globe. In the maturing orange glow, she stared at the long white rectangular box set atop the Steinway. The previous day the box had arrived at the post office, down in the hamlet. Before she even opened it, the name on the shipping label was upsetting: “Arden Vanderlip.” A handwritten note on a large yellow Post-it was inside the box:

Dearest Arden:
I was cleaning out the hall closet and found these things.
I thought you should have them.

When they’d talked by phone ten days earlier, Zoë insisted that Richard have the co-op, but she reluctantly agreed to take what remained of the investments from that poisoned money. She had not, however, agreed to take these things. Why Richard insisted on calling her Arden, a name she had disavowed 50 years ago, was beyond her. And yet its contents were already pulling her back.

Zoë went to the piano and again peered inside the box; among the items were a white parasol, white gloves, and a white ball gown. She stripped and put on the gown, carried the oil lamp to the bathroom, and stood before the mirror. Decades of being a billy goat on the ridge had kept her trim, her body the same shape and weight as at 17. Not that the gown inspired any sense of longing for another time in her life, even if it fitted perfectly. She returned to the piano and slipped on the gloves, which reached her elbows. Clutching the parasol, she plunged out the Ark’s front door and into the squall, neglecting to bring the Petzl headlamp with her. Opening and twirling the parasol, Zoë stumbled down the steep, harrowing untrailed route to the ocean. The dress flapped in the gale, and the parasol was shredded to its wire frame. When she reached the beach she waded into 52-degree surf. She curtsied to the fierce sea, tossed the parasol against the wind onto a cresting breaker, where it was lost in the crashing foam that surged around her waist. The power of the withdrawing water and the force of the moon pulled her out to sea. She fought the current, fought to regain the shore, fought for life. Then she let go. For once, she gave up. The moon replied, No… and the Pacific thrust her back into the shallows. She gasped and spat, crawled crablike with numbed clubs for limbs to the cold reaches of the highest wet sand. She cursed the heavens. It had been so peaceful, letting go.

Zoë climbed her way back up the near-vertical headland, difficult to scale even in daylight, doubly so with the onset of hypothermia. Rain prickled her flesh. Her tongue drank the ancient waters from coyote bushes, salal, and fir saplings. It was just before eleven o’clock when she made it back to the Ark. The gown was caked with mud, torn by thorns of blackberry and wild rose; the white gloves, blackened from clawing at the earth where she needed to pull herself up. She shivered violently while making a fire in the cast-iron stove. She stripped and hovered next to the flue pipe, taking in the emerging warmth. When a substantial bed of coals formed, she stuffed in the gown and gloves, leaving the door open as the damp cloth smoldered and smoked before igniting. At the piano, she played Wagner’s Lohengrin, eyes going between the keys and the wet cotton crackling in the firebox. She had failed.


Lara called to say she couldn’t get a hold of Zoë. It had been four days since anyone in town had seen or heard from her. She asked if I would go check on her. Things like this you never wanted to handle alone, and my first instinct was to telephone Likowski, but the last time I tried that, he slammed the phone down when he recognized my voice. Instead I called Eddie. His truck wasn’t running, but he said he could ride Buck the back way through the woods. I hurried up my road on foot, out of breath by the time I reached Zoë’s gate. The shiny stainless steel shackle on the brass combination padlock was open. Zoë never left the gate unlocked, especially now with Klaus in jail, J.D.’s lawyer hassling her, and the spate of violence between the Bulgarian mobsters and Mexican cartels. I hiked up the rutted track until her house, called “the Ark” because it was built to resemble a ship, came into view over the crest of a hill. Her black 1994 Volvo hatchback was parked in front of the barn. “Zoë!” I called out.

I peered through the porch window and saw nothing, went to the ocean side of the Ark and looked in those windows. I didn’t immediately enter for fear of what I’d find, but everything appeared in order. I opened the lockless door and stuck in my head: “Zoë?”

The place was empty. I went out to the barn. The heavy door’s bearings squealed as it rolled back. A flock of startled bats blew past my face as my eyes adjusted to the dark chamber: tack hung on wall hooks, piles of moldy boxes, rusting equipment in the corners, plus an ancient Brush Hog, a posthole auger, a fire dripper, a discer from Helmut’s failed attempt to start a quinoa farm. But no Zoë. I opened the unlocked driver’s door of the Volvo. Escaping heat rushed into the fifty-degree air—the sun had been out all morning. The keys were in the ignition, which was where most of us normally left our car keys.

I went back to the Ark. It struck me that the interior appeared exactly as it had early Wednesday morning—the last time I’d been here. I pulled on the stove’s heavy iron door. The stubs of burned branch wood ends were those that I’d placed on the embers. It was clear another fire had not been built. I’d used the last of the wood that night and more had not been brought in. In the bathroom, Zoë’s robe hung on a hook. I inspected the rest of the Ark, climbing a ladder to a hatch leading to the roof deck. The faux mast had snapped off in a storm a few years earlier. Behind the splintered trunk was a cabin patterned after a ship’s bridge. Access to it was disconnected from the rest of the house save for the route I’d taken. It had been Klaus’s bedroom. I’d never been inside. The walls were covered with fading yellowing posters for metal groups. The recognizable ones: Motörhead and Slayer. The room appeared unchanged, either in homage or due to neglect, since the mid-1980s.

Lara called to say she couldn’t get a hold of Zoë. It had been four days since anyone in town had seen or heard from her.

Hooves on the road. I went to the rail and spotted Likowski atop AOC, his new mare, a quarter mile distant. Likowski’s fiancée, Lara, must have called him. He was in full cowboy mode, wearing a white ten-gallon hat and boots; still, he wore dark sunglasses with small square lenses. AOC was at a gallop. Likowski was inside by the time I made it down the ladder. His still-blond hair fell straight almost to his shoulders and his face was narrow—at this point in life he resembled Tom Petty. We didn’t utter a word. I stood next to the stove while he made his own search: on the roof, out to the barn. When he reentered the Ark, he removed the sunglasses and stared at me for an uncomfortably long time, as if on a dare to see who’d speak. He broke: “Is her purse here?”

“Haven’t seen it.”

We searched under the bed, in cupboards, everywhere. No purse. But then it was hard to remember the last time we’d seen Zoë with a purse. We ended up back in the main room.

“Her cell phone?” Likowski asked.

I shrugged. “Tried that too. No luck.”

It was then I noticed a glaring absence: Zoë’s tuba, which usually hung on the wall, was missing. I asked Likowski if he’d seen it in his searching. He hadn’t. He glanced out the window at the Volvo. “Have you tried starting it?”

Likowski went out, got behind the wheel, and turned the key. Nothing happened. He pulled the hood release. The positive terminal from the battery had been disconnected. We stared at the dangling cable.

“We should report this,” I said.

“They won’t do shit.” His tone was withering, just as it had been weeks earlier when he’d told me to fuck off and kicked me out of his sweat lodge. The anger in his voice made me wince.

“I’ll check out the Hildegard cabin,” Likowski said, turning abruptly. The cabin was a tiny (and, frankly, creepy) house deep in the canyon south of the Ark. I went to the bluff where Zoë always played the tuba, walked through brush on the steep downslope. After half an hour of searching the acreage, I had one more tense exchange with Likowski before he wandered away again. I ended up back inside the Ark at the piano and the box, some three feet long, two feet deep and wide. I pulled it down, sat on the floor, and started going through it. Objects were scattered beneath tissue paper, fancy department store gift wrap: a U.S. Army dress blues jacket with one star on each shoulder and a billboard of service ribbons from campaigns in Italy and Germany. The jacket smelled of age, motor oil, and wet dog. Beneath were Italian lira and German reichsmark notes. A menu and bill for dinner in 1943 at a restaurant in Palermo, Sicily. Other menus, train schedules, camp rules for German POWs. A swastika flag with a handwritten note in a cellophane wrap paper-clipped on to it: “From ruins of Gestapo HQ, Prinz-Albrecht-Straße, Berlin.” A distinguished service award signed by General George S. Patton; clipped to it, a picture of Patton with another military man in the bombed ruins of Berlin.

Zoë’s father.

He was handsome and tall. The men, arms around each other, are smiling.

A packet of letters bound in string, all in German, in thick blue or black fountain pen, addressed to “Herr Gen. H. S. Vanderlip” from various addresses in the United States, postmarked between 1950 and 1961. A program from the Debutante Cotillion and Christmas Ball at the Waldorf on the night of December 22, 1959. Near the bottom was a note on a contemporary Post-it, in ballpoint, apparently from the sender: “Arden, we had someone cut open the safe in the office. It took the man hours to do it. That safe was built like Fort Knox! There was just this inside. You had better be sitting down when you read it.” I peeled off the wrapping paper. An inch-thick hardbound volume was inside. Written on the front: “Diary—General H. Spellman Vanderlip, 1942–1958.” By the way it was still wrapped, Zoë had not even tried to look at it. She seemed to have gone no deeper than the top of the box.

I knew Zoë’s father had died years earlier. Why was this stuff just being sent now? A stack of unopened mail was piled next to the box. I riffled through it. Mostly it was junk and bills, but there was a registered letter from Allianz Global Investors in New York City. I stared at the letter. Had I been the last person to see her?

She had called me Tuesday night, weeping, asking me to come over. I was surprised—she never showed emotion like that. Zoë was total WASP, a stoic East Coast blue blood regardless of her outlaw hippie trappings. I stayed with her until dawn. Two days ago. I wondered if she’d killed herself, but I shook off that thought partly because I didn’t want to believe that, partly because she’d had a habit of ghosting herself before, and partly because I didn’t want to think the worst. I pocketed the letter just as I heard someone ride up and yell, “Hello?”

Eddie was dismounting his very large frame from Buck, an appropriately massive black stallion. I always admired the beast for bearing Eddie’s weight. I hoped Eddie was all right. He had been on haloperidol, then graduated to new antipsychotic medications, and he was clearly keeping to his regimen because one of the side effects was weight gain. Easily pushing 240 pounds, Eddie was now a wire-haired Russian razorback boar of a human. He nodded at me standing on the porch.

“Saw Likowski,” I said. “He walked home for his truck, went to talk to the cops in person. They wouldn’t do a damn thing if we just called it in.”

“They won’t do a damn thing either way,” Eddie mumbled.

“He said we should go to the beach, look there,” I said.

I hadn’t been on a horse since Likowski taught me how to ride in the early aughts. I knew enough about the animals to be scared of them, and I vowed never again to get on one, but AOC was gentle. I mounted her and followed Eddie up the road. We went north to where an old brushed-in jeep route jagged off the headland to the beach. The plan was to double back south on the sand; it was too steep for horses in front of the Ark. Regardless, I was in for a sore ass. In moments like this I was critically aware that I wasn’t actually one of them. People like Eddie and Likowski had always been here, it seemed, along with their saddle-hardened buttocks. I had an ominous feeling as AOC followed Buck through the brush of that old jeep trail that was still navigable only because a rancher’s cows used the route as a path.

“If she did get caught up down there, she’ll wash up, just like that girl we found last year,” Eddie said over his shoulder. The woman, who’d been killed by a gunshot to the head, remained unidentified. Authorities believe her body was dumped in the ocean at the beach trailhead, but nothing had been published about the case in months. “Vultures were on her,” Eddie continued, his stutter springing up momentarily. “There’s a m-minus tide this afternoon. We should look for vultures.”

I stared at the shiny rear end of Eddie’s black horse and the large form of the rider atop the animal, and we continued on our way to the beach.


Excerpted from Burn Coast by Dale Maharidge. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Unnamed Press. Copyright © 2021 by Dale Maharidge. 

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