Excerpt

“California”

Mary Beth Hughes

January 25, 2021 
The following is an excerpt from Mary Beth Hughes' short story collection, The Ocean House, about the fractured lives of families from a beach town on the Jersey Shore. Hughes is the author of Wavemaker II, a New York Times Notable Book, and the Double Happiness, which earned a Pushcart Prize. Her stories have been published in The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Georgia Review, and A Public Space. She lives in Brooklyn and Rhinebeck, New York.

Oona wasn’t budging. Her father leaned down for a private conference away from the clutch of mothers on the playground. Oona Claire? he said in a serious whisper.

She turned her head away and growled but quietly.

Arthur stood up, stretched his long arms. The school would close its gates soon, and all the mothers were putting away the fruit leather and the juice boxes. Afterschool play was done for the day, but Oona’s love, William, still hadn’t emerged from the building.

He’s in trouble, said Oona.

What kind of trouble? said Arthur, sitting back down on the railroad tie bench, waving to the successfully departing parents. His wave said, my life is impossible, and the other parents gave polite smiles. He asked too much was the unstated consensus.

William hates his cubby, said Oona. Okay?

He really likes music.

This was a threadbare topic. Oona was good on the rhythm triangle, better than Oona T. She could bang hard enough to get the brrring. Loud!

Arthur dropped his head between his hands. Then his phone vibrated against his heart. He dug it out to scan. Angie the babysitter was canceling for tonight because of her boyfriend’s cold. Fuck me, he said, then looked around. But the place was deserted except for Oona, who was guarding the path between the door and the gate.

Come on, beast. Ice cream. Then you put on a dress and we’ll head over to Nathan’s book party.

Nathan wrote a book?

Nathan wrote a novel. You know that, Oona. Come on, tushy in the stroller.

Not this minute, said Oona. A new phrase she was testing. She ambled closer to the school door, letting herself be catchable. A straight run would be an outrage. This way she was still clear of an argument. Cece the play therapist had talked to Oona about defiance and where it led. Lately she and her father were on a better footing, and Cece said Oona’s good attitude was the spark. Cece had big lips with points she liked to color pink.

There he is! Oona jumped up and down, shouting her father over.

But Arthur was busy typing a plea to Angie the babysitter to rescue him just once more and he would make it worth her while. Bargaining. Begging. He shook the phone as if he could speed up her response. Oona held herself in a shivering hug.

Tomorrow if William is still in a bad mood? I’ll give him some crayons, Oona said, letting her father strap her into the stroller now.

Oona? Over here. Now.

William’s nanny backed out the double doors, angling the stroller so as not to bang his feet. His boots were tied together and flung over the nanny’s shoulder infantry style. He wore red-striped socks and a green eye patch over his left eye. William had been born with a rare ptosis in one eye. His other eye, his mother, Rachel, assured the school, was perfect, in fact superior to most eyes, and her resistance to any kind of special ed track for William was titanic. One afternoon, Arthur had watched Rachel wrestle the head teacher, Miss Sarah, to near tears and felt a familiar jab at the base of his spine. Just where he preferred to ignore it. Shit, he’d said to no one as Rachel made her way swiftly, triumphantly—William stumbling behind her—to the town car at the curb. No black SUV for Rachel. The man opening the door wore a cap. When Arthur reported all this to his friend Nathan, there was no need to explain the impact of the scene. Rachel was a movie star.

Now William’s nanny watched the way out like she was navigating hostile terrain. Oh, Oona, she said. Not today.

And Oona wanted to know: Why?

This William, said the nanny. He is in the mood to be home in his room thinking over what he said to Miss Sarah just now. Isn’t that right, William?

William knocked his head back against the stroller, then yawned.

Are you tired, William? asked Oona. Bad dreams? William looked at Oona and smiled a sleepy tenderness.

All right, lovebirds, said the nanny. Good day, Oona. She wheeled William out of the little playground, while

Oona tapped her toes—one, two—then did as graceful a leap as her small pink parka would allow. She was a dancer, just like her mother.

Tomorrow if William is still in a bad mood? I’ll give him some crayons, Oona said, letting her father strap her into the stroller now. The stroller was a big concession lately brokered by Cece the play therapist. Oona at four could easily outwalk her father. But as long as William used one, Oona wanted one, too. And Cece said maybe the security of the stroller wasn’t a bad idea while the mother was still away from the home.

Try away from the planet, said Arthur and got a recalibrating smile in return.

Immediately, Oona confirmed that her mother was in California, which was still on the planet, right?

Her father said, that’s right. He was sorry. He’d made a mistake. And the next time Cece offered suggestions: regular mealtimes for Oona, a vegetable or two, scheduled weekly communication with the mother, he just nodded. Open. Learning. Right now he was learning patience. Plugging then replugging the inscrutable straps into the right sockets on the stroller. His phone vibrated again. He stood up and pressed it to his ear, making the shush sign to Oona.

Jesus, Angie, you’re my savior. No, that’s perfect. I’ll give you the address and you can pick her up there and then get her some dinner. I’ll be home early. You’ll only miss a sneeze or two. No, no, no, I’m grateful! You’re a rock star.

*

This very week at play therapy, Cece had said that sometimes dreams are like stories and Oona could color her dreams with crayons to read them. So Oona drew a gray squirrel with a pink strawberry hat and said, That’s Mommy coming home.

Cece said, Very nice. Very nice. Then she asked about the coiled-looking brown cloud at the top. Now, where’s that sunshine hiding?

At first, when Oona’s mother had gone to Arizona for just a smidgen of rehabilitation, her father had stayed nearby in a rip-off hotel and tried very hard to help.

A question Oona loved because William’s nanny often said something very similar. Where was her sunshine boy hiding? Where was the lovely sunshine boy she knew? When Oona reported all this to her father—the squirrel, the coil, the excellent sunshine question—he shook his head but kept his mouth shut. They were both trying hard, he finally said. You and me, Oona, giving it the old elbow grease.

And Oona loved this, too, because elbow grease was how her father got through law school, that and the galvanizing foreboding that her mother would be the expensive kind of love.

*

At first, when Oona’s mother had gone to Arizona for just a smidgen of rehabilitation, her father had stayed nearby in a rip-off hotel and tried very hard to help. Then he needed to come home to Oona and to his job. The minute he left, Oona’s spacy aunt Sally, her mother’s older sister, flapped in to assess the situation. She’d found a better, reputable, really medical, really spiritual place in California. So she packed up Oona’s mother and flew her to San Francisco and moved her—just for the moment—into the two-bedroom pool house in Russian Hill. Near family, close to home.

What about this fucking family? This fucking home? Arthur had said, or something along those lines, questions he would ask again and again. Then he caught the next red-eye. If anything, she seemed more gone than ever and that made her tender with him, that and the wide dark-purple sky and the sparkling pool. For one night they nestled in a bed that smelled like fresh bamboo and excellent weed and he whispered into her sleeping ear: Come back.

But the next Monday morning back in New York her sister, Sally, called him at work to say the visit hadn’t helped. The doctors felt the relationship needed to cool down a tad.

The doctors said “tad”?

Then some medical student was cued to join the call for a consultation. The upshot? No more visits. For the time being. And the family would now foot the bills. Going forward, Sally said. As if that settled everything.

At the time, Arthur told his friend Nathan that rehab is rehab. Either she cleans up or she doesn’t. The Napa Valley didn’t have any special edge. Really she could be doing this in Queens. And that could be the possible next step. After California knocked itself out.

Outpatient, inpatient. Eventually the pool house became awkward, so an old friend offered a guest cottage in their vineyard. Outpatient, inpatient. Then a cousin had a carriage house he didn’t need for the moment. Inpatient, outpatient, inpatient. Three months, six months, nine months, a year, and so far, Arthur was right about California.

*

But at Cece’s suggestion, on Sunday evenings, if her father was home and her mother felt up to it and Oona was quick in her bath, the plan was to Skype her mother. This happened once. Mommy, Daddy pointed out, could be hard to track down.

But on this special night her mother’s face filled up her father’s computer screen and Oona’s face was in a tiny stamp in the corner.

Mama? Oona said to the screen. Yes, baby? said her mother.

Do you remember how to get here? Oona knew this had been a problem in the past.

I always know where you are, kitty cat, said her mother. Then she made a movement outside the screen. Someone in a dim corner in California needed her mother to go rest now. Then the screen blooped dark.

Is Mommy in trouble?

Arthur began tapping through Netflix for a treat. Why, sweetheart?

Going to bed early?

Mommy’s a little bit sick, remember? He tapped his forehead. It’s in Mommy’s mind. And being with Aunt Sally is like being captured by a poisonous gelatinous space alien.

Oona’s eyes went wide.

I’m joking! Joking. Anyway, it makes her very tired, Oona.

Are you tired, Daddy?

Oh, just every single minute of every single day.

And then the room went still. He slid a glance at her.

Right away, no warning, Oona opened her mouth wide and began to howl. She shrieked.

Hey! Arthur said. What the hell?

Oona yelled louder, a weird warbling keen that stung his ears. Stop it! Oona! Cut it out.

At bedtime, as usual, they counted the dopey flat green sheep on her duvet cover.

But she couldn’t stop. The more she yelled, the more it was impossible to cut it out.

Oh my god. Shut up! he said, but she kept going. Louder and louder.

Even when his hand flew right up in front of her face—so fast, too fast for both of them—even then she couldn’t stop. But he’d caught his hand just in time, and he stayed that way holding his right hand with his left, frozen, until he started to cry, too.

There was luck in this. And for a half second in some barely known way he understood he hadn’t always been so lucky. He said, Please, please, stop. But he was whispering now, not making any attempt to quiet her. Soon the neighbors would be knocking on the door. The walls were practically rice paper. Who the fuck cared? Really. Who the fuck cared? Shriek away, Oona. Shriek away.

At last a pause.

He peeked to see her hand splayed and round on her red wet cheek, patting, patting, patting. Her triangle rhythm, the one William liked best. One, two, three. And.

Oh, Oona. Oona.

He kissed the top of her head. Then he stood up to get some water from the kitchen. His in the Mets plastic beer tumbler, hers in the preferred plain green shot glass. He sat back down on the sofa beside her and looked through the computer. His T-shirt smelled filthy even to him. Then he perked up and said, Holy cow!

When she didn’t respond, he said, Wow. This is fantastic. What? Oona finally said. What is, Daddy?

Only our favorite, he said. Starting this minute! Thus surrendering once again to the magical power of The Searchers. Oona didn’t really care for The Searchers. But her father settled his laptop on her mother’s old embroidered meditation cushion. He only liked certain parts of the movie. The things really worth watching. Encore? he’d say after an especially mighty scene.

At bedtime, as usual, they counted the dopey flat green sheep on her duvet cover. Good, she said. Just like her mother, Oona was quick to forgive.

And Arthur was trying his best, too. He answered the ritual questions about California and her mother’s imminent return. He put on a friendly face and that’s all that was needed. Goodnight. But they both knew that for him the upset would need to harden in some way then find a release in verbal darts to come. Comments aimed to solidify and eject the misery he now felt only at the base of his throat. Even with the pink T. rex night-light aglow and grape-scented bath soap in the air. Oona’s lips pursed like a cartoon angel in presleep. Goodnight. And still he couldn’t stop the lash of anger but only at his throat, and that was a big improvement.

Cece the play therapist was all about Oona, but she liked to give Arthur pointers when she felt she could safely lob one in. Stuff about breathing and feeling his body. Her latest? Anger like his didn’t just pack up and go away. Pack up? Anyway, who said he was angry?

Well. Miss Sarah, the preschool head teacher, for one. Her classroom assistant, Miss Peg. It was the unanimous unspoken consensus of the parents on the playground. His old friend Nathan, occasionally, but like the waiting mothers at dismissal, it didn’t really bother him much. For them it was more a noticeable quality—the whole quivering highfrequency affect—than a problem.

For Oona’s mother, it had been a problem. One she solved with white wine and Klonopin in the early days. Later, after the baby was born—a tough delivery, an arduous recovery—a new world of opportunity opened up. And with her opportunity came opposition in Arthur. And this opposition, eventually, brought the neighbors knocking, sometimes calling through the door, and when that didn’t work, they went down to the lobby and started buzzing. Once they called the police. It was an unfair fight. Oona’s mother could fade away to black at will. And then Arthur was left alone with all that terrible, terrible fury.

In moments of sorrow, weariness, elation, loneliness, and everyday frustration Arthur sometimes still believed that Oona’s mother also loved him in her heart.

Coursing through the blood, said Cece, as if all fury were identical and biological. She made her hands move like two fish swimming in unison. Feisty fish who may feel good and exciting but created misery and discord wherever they swam in Arthur’s system. His pounding heart? His migraine headaches? His teeth. Naturally, from that moment on, Arthur had his ears open—where the fish were especially seductive—for a new play therapist.

*

Early in the new year, it came to light that Oona didn’t like to answer questions in preschool. When Arthur asked her why not, she said it was because she didn’t know the answers. He said she only needed to think a little and the answer would pop into her mind, right behind her eyes.

Just like in Mommy’s mind?

Well, everyone has their own kind of mind, sort of. You know that, he said. Let’s practice. What’s your name?

Oona!

What’s my name? Arthur!

What’s our best bud’s name? Nathan!

And your play therapist?

Oona waited. Oona waited a little more, and her father nodded. Oona looked into her mind. Mommy loves me in her heart?

That’s right, he said. Totally right.

And they didn’t practice anymore after that.

*

In moments of sorrow, weariness, elation, loneliness, and everyday frustration Arthur sometimes still believed that Oona’s mother also loved him in her heart. Late in the night his phone would vibrate and he’d bring it deep under the covers, old covers, same covers, for long talks drenched in impossibility. Sometimes she was the impossible one. But not always, he knew that. He loved, most of all, to hear the first rasp of irritation rise close inside his ear. Her first cracked note. That, then the cool switchback. The barb, the bite, the swift crazy sock of joy. Then it was a race to who could hang up first. Then all the black hours to follow. Pointless, tuneless, exhausted walks to school, to the office. Then one day, she was back in her sister Sally’s pool house, and the calls stopped for good. The account disconnected.

When Arthur dialed the big house in daylight, Sally didn’t know what he was talking about.

Of course she hadn’t taken away the phone! Anyway, she was just about to touch base with Arthur to arrange for a visit from Oona. She was getting her ducks in a row. Then she’d FedEx Oona’s plane ticket. Okay?

You fucking space odyssey. Oona’s not flying to California on her own. She’s four. Okay? You and your bullshit chitchat, Arthur said, or something along those lines. Then he slammed the phone on his desk.

Surprisingly, Sally phoned Arthur back. She needed him to hear this directly from her. Going forward, all communications would be between the lawyers. Got it? Maybe the kind of chitchat Arthur could understand. At least the only kind he’d ever get from this family again. Then she made an obscene little buzz deep in her throat. And Arthur felt his own throat dissolve in something deeper than anger or disgust, something obliterating, something maybe permanent.

*

Long, long ago, just like Oona’s, William’s parents had been married, too. But only briefly. During the first of William’s many operations, his father had failed to show up at the pediatric surgical wing in a timely way. When he did swing by for a visit he found Rachel’s lawyer in the waiting room with the documents. Everyone on the playground knew this story. Now William lived with his mother on West Tenth Street and on alternate Tuesdays he and his nanny were delivered in the town car for an overnight at his father’s.

Just like Nathan, Oona’s mother had been a fiction writer, but only momentarily.

All her life Oona had lived in only one place, on East Eighteenth Street, now with just Arthur. This had been true since last spring, and now it was nearly spring again. Over and over, Oona suggested to her father, to Nathan, to Cece, and even to Angie the babysitter that they should all just go live in California instead. But no one thought this was a good idea. Mommy needed rest, they all said. Then one day, early in March, Nathan brought over a special Chinese dinner. After the first bite, her father had news, and the news was divorce. Just like William’s parents!

Oona closed her eyes.

But wait. That meant she could see Mommy now, right?

Just like William did?

Of course, said Nathan.

Eventually, said her father. He waved around, indicating a mountain of stuff that would need collecting.

Oona followed the motion of his hand. Mommy’s coming? Here? Now?

Sweetheart, what does eventually mean?

Oona, love bug, your mother is wonderful, said Nathan, nodding hard.

Just like Nathan, Oona’s mother had been a fiction writer, but only momentarily. She’d signed up for Nathan’s workshop at the Ninety-Second Street Y: Put Your Body into Words. All her life, she’d been a dancer. Now she just might find her way to something new. Immediately, Nathan told Arthur she was the most gifted student in the class, which was code for the most beautiful.

Listen up, said Nathan. Your mother has a rare, deeply intuitive way of knowing.

And that’s really what we’re talking about here, said Arthur into his Mets cup.

Exquisite mind, said Nathan. He banged the ketchup bottle bottom hard over his noodles. And Oona started to shiver, always a prelude to disaster.

Oh! Mommy’s a seeker, all right, said her father, shaking a splattering brown chicken hunk on his chopsticks close up to his eyes, as if something horrible and death dealing was attacking his face. Then he let it attack Oona for a moment before putting it down and pulling her in close. Come on, knucklehead. You’ll see Mommy sooner than you know.

Oona leaned against her father’s chest but stiffly.

Come on. Where’s my ferocious beast? Huh? He shook her softly until finally, obligingly, in semibeast mode, Oona clawed the sweet orangey glob on his T-shirt. There she is. There’s my worst nightmare.

Then Nathan scavenged in the kitchen for other condiments. There was loose talk about strawberry cupcakes hiding in a bag and maybe even a select viewing of The Searchers.

And what did the play therapist Cece recommend when she heard the news? A date.

I’m sorry. What? said Arthur.

She threw up her hands as if to say: What, a date would kill you? I think you’ll find a lot has evolved in the last year. Am I out of line?

Of course you’re out of line. Arthur shook his head in wonder. He looked to Oona, who wasn’t listening.

Wait a minute, he said. Wait. Are you saying there’s a reward?

Love. Loud and clear, Arthur reported to Nathan. Recognition. Respect. Definitely respect.

A reward? No, Arthur. Don’t be ridiculous, Cece laughed. But now Arthur was the one not listening.

*

Earliest spring and it was completely obvious what a reward, an upgrade might look like. On the nanny’s next day off, Arthur struck up a conversation with William’s mother, Rachel, on the playground.

Right away Oona could see that Rachel didn’t know the answer to her father’s question. Rachel frowned and turned away and watched the sidewalk until her driver pulled up with the town car, then she placed delicate blue-gloved hands around her pale pink mouth and called out to William in her celebrated voice: Come on, Silly-Billy. Andiamo.

That was the first time. Two weeks later, when Arthur spoke to Rachel, he began by talking very fast, as if her ears were already closing. She kept a stern, frozen face behind her immense sunglasses—one of her very best expressions. So Arthur hunched over his knees, hands clasped between his shins and whispered to Rachel in tortured, halting phrases, the haiku version of Oona’s mother’s desertion.

(I didn’t actually use that word, of course, he told Nathan later.)

Then he mentioned The Searchers, just to open up a little common ground, and Rachel laughed. One loud, helpless bark. She called out to William in a completely different voice, Billy Boy? Angel love. Time’s up.

Angel love? The magnolia trees with their squirrel-fur buds still clung to the building for warmth. But if nothing else was willing to bloom, a fresh intelligence began to emerge on the playground: Arthur showed up. Anger issues? Sure. Needy? Without question. But there he was, day after day, and everyone began to acknowledge that. And he felt it. He believed his shift in status had seeped all the way out to the town car. That’s what Rachel’s new voice said to him. Angel.

Love. Loud and clear, Arthur reported to Nathan. Recognition. Respect. Definitely respect.

Maybe you need a new venue? said Nathan. What’s a venue? said Oona.

*

The first week of April, when William visited his father, his nanny, as always, slept in the cubby-like room off the kitchen. And William, as always, crept out of his own bed, put on his boots, and crawled under the nanny’s foldaway cot and slept there instead.

The next afternoon, wintry cold, Oona huddled next to William’s nanny on the railroad tie bench and ate mango slices. William dozed in the stroller.

Little boy up half the night, no wonder he sleep in school, said the nanny. She shook her head, her thick big turban. Oona put out a hand to touch it. Not with those sticky mitts, said the nanny and found a wipe in William’s backpack. It was getting close to five and most of the mothers were preparing to go home. But Arthur hadn’t arrived yet.

Your daddy probably has a business problem, said the nanny. We’ll give him a little longer, then ask Miss Sarah for advice. The nanny laughed at this and woke William. Right away William started to cry.

Our William is hungry, said the nanny, and she pulled a smile shape of mango out of the plastic bag. No need for tears.

But William only pushed the mango away and cried harder. Oona covered her face the way her father sometimes did. In this disguise she bent down and kissed William’s hand. Seriously, thoughtfully.

There you are, Oona, kissing away the little cloud to make my sunshine appear.

William ignored this but stopped crying. He breathed rapidly, watching Oona with his sad uncovered eye.

You’re a good girl, Oona. I’ll say that. Now, where’s your daddy got to today. He’s usually right on time.

Miss Sarah came out and began to lock the school door behind her. Miss Sarah had a long gray braid as thick as a horse’s tail. To match her face, Daddy said and then made Oona promise to never repeat that. Miss Sarah wrapped her horsey face tight in a thin red scarf and walked straight over to the nanny.

Arthur just called to say he’s been held up at the office. And I have a dentist appointment, said Miss Sarah. He wondered, and I wonder—Could you possibly?

It was nearly dark by the time they reached West Tenth Street, and William and Oona were very tired, but they didn’t cry.

I understand, Miss Sarah, said the nanny as if she were talking to William. I understand. She nodded her head up and down to coax Miss Sarah into the right answer. She knew it, if she’d just think a little.

Miss Sarah finally said, Okay. I’ll try to reach Miss Peg.

Thank you, said the nanny. Just for today, William, let’s wear these pretty boots home.

Straight to voice mail, said Miss Sarah, sighing. And I really can’t stay. She put her hand around her jaw.

Oona, come home! said William. And when his nanny frowned, he added: Please!

Shall I call Rachel for permission?

The nanny shook her head but said, Yes, Miss Sarah, please do that. And then she patted Oona’s hand so she wouldn’t get the wrong idea. Wouldn’t think she wasn’t welcome. Where are your gloves, Oona? I know your daddy didn’t send you to school with no gloves.

It was nearly dark by the time they reached West Tenth Street, and William and Oona were very tired, but they didn’t cry. When they climbed up the stoop to the front door, the nanny used her key to get inside. The house was dim, and there was a note from the housekeeper on the front hall table. The nanny’s forehead wrinkled when she read it, then she said, Coats! Let’s march! And Oona and William were soldiers all the way to the closet. Oona’s parka got a special wooden hanger rounded on both ends. To the mess hall, said the nanny. March!

William led the way down to the kitchen, where Oona and William sat together on the banquette while the nanny heated the soup and buttered the crackers. Oona’s legs pointed straight out on the polka-dot cushion, but William sat on the very edge and teetered.

I’ve never seen such sleepy soldiers, said the nanny, and she put the warm soup in blue-and-white bowls on the table. She gave them each a Chinese spoon, which was bigger than Oona’s mouth. Pretend it’s a cup, William said. The crackers were crumbly. The soup was milky. The dark kitchen had a smell like dry cleaning, sour and small. No wonder William slept so much. He was dozing off again now and the nanny was busy grinding spices with a rock and Oona was a little bit sad. So she told the nanny the soup was good. I like it! But the spoon was too strange for her, so she picked up the bowl, which was slippery.

*

Rachel entered the front door on West Tenth Street peacefully. A white noise machine she’d had fitted into the wall of the foyer like a minispeaker said Wave, said Sand, but not like in New Jersey or god forbid California, more Bali on the unspoiled side of the island. Slim, slow-moving transparent waves, sand-tickling waves. It was a lovely feeling and the sound brought the blue and green colors of the foyer into order. Rachel took a deep breath and smelled the awful chicken soup coming up from the lower level. The architects had tried and tried, but there was no masking the traveling scents in an old house, so she’d fired them.

Moving to the closet, she saw a small pink ratty down jacket. Strange. Then she remembered the message relayed from Miss Sarah and right on schedule pain split her head, pulsing like a heartbeat: pain, pain, pain. As if at the end of a stupendously stupid day she could possibly be okay. As if she could spend precious hours of her life taped into a fur bikini (yes, she got the reference) teaching her mortal enemies yoga and then chopping off their heads once they were relaxed.

She took a brief eyes-only glance around, as she did when a film set had gone berserk

The story made no sense. This little pulsing fragment of her brain was all she had left, and it was crying uncle.

She made her way down the back stair toward the chicken soup smell—the cloves, the coriander, the cinnamon—for yet another word with the nanny. William couldn’t sleep as it was. The spices, come on. She was figuring out how to phrase this tactfully when she caught sight of the messy little girl from school.

And then—so quickly!—Rachel was on the floor. Ow, she said.

Missus Rachel, said the nanny. Are you all right?

She had that implacable expression that Rachel loathed on anyone really but especially in her own home.

It’s all fine, now, said the nanny, nodding. Isn’t that so. And Rachel didn’t know what she was talking about.

She was sitting in soup. The floor, the cushions, William. The soup was everywhere. And the stink! She’d never get it out. What was fine?

She took a brief eyes-only glance around, as she did when a film set had gone berserk. It seemed like someone had half thrown her there. This happened on set, too. Improvisations, followed by lawsuits. She used the table—slimy—as a ballet barre and did a deep plié off the floor, moving as if she still wore the fur bikini and none of the tape to preserve her privacy could be relied on. She was standing, good. She began to speak, but then, no. Oh, no. That would happen later. Instead, she was nodding. And she was exiting.

Rachel made it all the way up into the master suite and stripped right down to the skin. She had itchy gray tape gum on her inner thighs. Her shins were oily orange with soup spice. Obviously, the nanny had to go. First thing tomorrow. Right now, these foul sopping stinking clothes could be kicked straight out the bedroom door—there. Done. Finito.

*

Downstairs, the doorbell jangled just like the notes of Oona’s brass triangle. The nanny stepped carefully around the spilled soup and went to the kitchen door. She unlocked the gate and called up to the sidewalk: Hello? May I help you? She strained to see who was standing above on the stoop.

Hey! It’s me! Looking for Oona? Arthur leaned over the iron railing. He wore his best leather jacket, his cleanest Tshirt, his darkest jeans. He had the stroller with him. Here to join the party?

The nanny smiled, so as not to discourage the bit of brightness he’d brought with him. Not today, Daddy, she said, still smiling. Please wait while I bring Oona to you.

The nanny closed and bolted the kitchen door. But before turning the lock she looked up at Arthur once more in a friendly way, a kind way that said I appreciate you’ve taken the time to come find your daughter. Because that’s what any decent person does: they say hello to goodness, no matter how small, how tangled. Then someday the goodness will roar like a lion and shine like the sun. Just say hello. Hello! Hello! That’s all there is to it, said the nanny to William and Oona.

A question with an answer she knew by heart.

In the foyer, she zipped Oona’s jacket and smoothed the lumps of caught down. Tucked deep in a side pocket she found a hand-knit strawberry cap, maybe something from Oona’s toddler life.

Who made this pretty thing? Tiny, perfect, the nanny folded it carefully and put it back where it belonged. Oona watched the cap come and go. She kept her head down low and didn’t cry.

Say goodbye to your friend, now, William.

But William couldn’t say goodbye after all that stuff about hello.

Come, William, said the nanny. A nod will do. No? All right then. How about we open up this door for your daddy? What do we say to that, Oona?

A question with an answer she knew by heart. Oona twisted the knob and there he was. Hi, Daddy! Hi! Right there. Hi! Right there. Right there.

For L.S.B. with love

__________________________________

Excerpted from The Ocean House by Mary Beth Hughes. Excerpted with the permission of Grove Press. Copyright © 2021 by Mary Beth Hughes.




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