I had heard Charlie was living in the bushes and in one way it was unbelievable and in another way it made perfect sense. It was Devon and Jake who told me, on the Vineyard last summer. I’d come up from New York right after Devon wrote me about her diagnosis. I’d left the Island long ago and my visits had slacked off; I didn’t like the changes that had come to the Vineyard, which made it too much like every place else. There were so many year-round people that the solitary splendor of the off-season months no longer existed and autumn and spring had taken on the chaotic cadence of summer. It had been an old dream to own a home there one day, but I no longer thought about it.
“I picked him up hitching just yesterday,” Jake had said, over dinner at his aunt’s house in Cromwell’s Cove, the small collection of summer cottages nestled near the Vineyard Haven harbor. “His hair looked like a dog chewed on it. He went into a nod right in my truck. He woke up just as we were passing the harbor. ‘Where to?’ I asked him. He pointed to a clump of sea grass by the side of the beach road. I let him out and he disappeared into the reeds.”
“It’s Kenny’s fault,” Devon spat out. Kenny is Charlie’s brother. “He was always the evil twin in that relationship.” Devon was dying of cancer, but she looked luminous. After the lump had been found in her breast, instead of going for an ultrasound, Devon took off for Barbados because a friend had a house there where she could live for free during February, the worst month on the Island. Six months later, the cancer was everywhere: her lungs, her bones, her liver. She was supposed to be dead but here she was, sipping cranberry juice with lime and nibbling a fresh shrimp.
“Where is Kenny now?” I asked.
“Who knows?” Devon said. “Who cares?”
Jake reached for a shrimp from the big green bowl on the coffee table. “If it’s Kenny’s fault,” he asked, “then why isn’t he living in the bushes instead of Charlie?”
The first time I met Charlie he was drunk on Tequila. He stumbled into the kitchen of the house on Narragansett Street that I’d shared with Devon, Kenny, and the boys’ cousin Jake all those years ago. Devon and I had been college roommates; we’d spent the previous summer after graduation cocktail waitressing on the Vineyard. Devon had run off with the bartender from The Sunken Row Boat, sailed to St. Thomas on his sloop, and washed up back on the Vineyard after she’d caught him cheating with a chambermaid from one of the big hotels. She’d spent the winter on the Island and met Jake, who’d introduced her to the Cromwell brothers. I had been working at a dreary advertising job in Manhattan and Devon’s letters made me miss the Island, its sun-shot skies and easy flow of life, so when she said they had an extra share in the house they’d be renting for the summer, I quit my job, sublet my apartment on Sullivan Street, and headed back up to the Vineyard, leaving plans for my return to the city open-ended.
Charlie, Kenny and Jake were bona fide summer people; Cromwell’s Cove had been in their family for generations but they wanted to live on their own, away from the purse-lipped scrutiny of so many relatives. Kenny was two years older than Charlie and people often mistook them for twins. Indeed, people sometimes thought Jake was a third brother, and you did have to look closely to spot the differences, but they were there: Kenny the taller, with slate gray eyes, not the deep-sea blue of his brother’s, and even when he went a few days without shaving, there was something carved and polished about him. He was a carpenter/poet who wore a black beret and was convinced he would die by the time he was twenty-five. Charlie always looked scruffier, even freshly showered, his clothes color-splattered from his days spent painting houses. He had some kind of scar above his right eyebrow. Jake had a quieter beauty that had snuck up on Devon; he was also more thoughtful and could spend whole evenings in absolute silence and then suddenly blurt out an insight that made him sound brilliant, depending on how much you’d had to drink. We all drank a lot then, but there was nothing dark or lethal about it. We were not yet old enough that our drinking outpaced the number of regrets we’d collected.
One evening, Kenny took me to meet his parents on their boat, docked in Edgartown. They had sailed up from Jamestown, Rhode Island, where he and Charlie had grown up. It was cocktail hour and all along the harbor the sounds of martini shakers and clinking ice cubes rivaled those of clanging buoys and rocking waves. Kenny’s parents looked like brother and sister, the same watery blue eyes crouched behind wire rim glasses. They were very quiet. When I questioned his father about the publishing world, he smiled thinly and mumbled his answers. I thought this was the bashful quality that Kenny had inherited, by turns sweet or sly, but when I later described the scene to Devon, she exploded.
“They’re drunks, for God’s sake,” she said, as though I was an idiot. “Flat-faced, fall-down drunks. How do you not know that? He wasn’t mumbling, he was slurring his words. Didn’t you ever listen when Kenny told those stories about his father crawling across the kitchen floor while his mother cried?”
“He never said they were drunk,” I said, feebly.
Devon snorted. “He didn’t have to.”
That first night I met Charlie in the kitchen on Narragansett Street, he and Kenny had just come from the Ritz Cafe on Circuit Avenue and Charlie was holding his side, sliding across the warped kitchen floor, claiming he’d been bitten by a tse-tse fly and needed a Tetanus shot. There was something screechy and incoherent about him; in a family of quiet drunks, he really stood out. Once, he’d hijacked one of Jimmy Mayhew’s tour buses and driven it way Up Island, pointing out sights that didn’t exist, like the Chilmark waterfalls. Some of the passengers were amused, but others were outraged. Kenny, on the other hand, was a lovely drinker: happy, agreeable, eyes closed against the world. That day in the kitchen, he sat at the table, his head on his arms, smiling as if wrapped in a private dream.
Charlie wore a dirty white sweatshirt with cut-off arms. He huddled in a corner by the stove, whimpering that he probably wouldn’t live out the night.
Suddenly, the lights went out.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you guys,” Devon called from the bathroom. “The electric bill came again.”
That was a good summer, one of the best. Even though I met a cad who broke my heart. I would come home from waitressing and sit on the roof under the stars, smoking and crying. Devon was sympathetic at first, bringing me coffee in bed each morning. “Island loves,” she’d sigh. “They’re the worst.” But by mid-July, she lost patience. “Snap out of it,” she scolded. “There’s too much fresh flesh on this Island for you to be moping around. Get out there and graze!”
One day Charlie came by while I was sobbing in the living room. He gazed at me, then out the window, then at the ceiling, then back at me. His sun-bleached hair was falling into his eyes. “Where’s my brother?” he asked.
“Working,” I replied, sniffling.
He stood there, watching me. “Come on,” he said.
I looked back at him. “Where?” I asked.
He thought for a moment. “To ride the merry-go-round five times and get drunk at the Ritz,” he said. I was sick of myself by then, so I followed him down to the Flying Horses Carousel and we rode it until we were dizzy, then staggered over to the Ritz, where we drank shots of peppermint schnapps until it was dark outside the windows of the bar. When I woke up the next morning, for the first time in a while, I was hungry. I remember lying in bed with the sun on my face, planning what I would eat for breakfast.
Martha’s Vineyard isn’t New York or Boston or even Providence. You’d think that someone living in the bushes would attract a fair amount of attention, but everyone seemed to take it pretty much in stride.
“Still?” I asked Jake, when I came back in April for the memorial service. He picked me up at the ferry and we drove to Lambert’s Cove Beach. It had been Devon’s favorite of all the Vineyard beaches. Everyone was to take turns scattering her ashes.
Jake shrugged. There were four houses on the haven of land his family owned; I knew his mother was selling theirs and that there had been family squabbles among the aunts and siblings and cousins. I wondered why Charlie hadn’t crashed in at least one of the changing sheds, but didn’t want to ask. Then I wondered if people crashed anyplace, anymore; I remembered years when I had wandered into strange houses, strange rooms, and just lain down and gone to sleep. The thought now made me shiver.
“I gave up after a while,” Jake said. “It’s not like it’s something he had to do. People have choices.” He sounded angry as he pulled into the parking lot. The first sprigs of gray were threading through his temples. He and Devon had been in love, but he’d married someone else. The day was cold and damp; I pulled my coat tighter around me and put my arm through Jake’s as we walked the twisted, sandy path to the beach. Through the trees, I could already see a crowd gathering.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t love her,” Jake said. “I was just afraid she would eat me alive.”
“So typical,” Devon said, the last time I’d spoken with her before she went into hospice. She had just come from the clinic in Hyannis, where the doctor told her it was over. He’d originally said three months, but it had already been over a year, so she just laughed. Then he showed her the x-rays covered with huge white circles. The circles were the cancer eating through her body. “It took my breath away,” she told me. Then she started talking about Charlie.
“Kenny hooks him on heroin so they can get high together, then cleans up, moves away, and leaves him hanging in the wind,” she said. “Charlie is now the John Hathaway of our generation.” John Hathaway had been the one bum on the Vineyard when we were coming up. He walked around barefoot, in a safari suit and jungle hat, binoculars dangling around his neck, rooting through garbage. He’d gone to good schools, but his family had long since turned their backs on him.
“Is Charlie eating out of trash cans now?” I asked Devon.
“Who knows?” she said. “He looked great when he got out of rehab, but then Jake picked him up hitchhiking on County Road, swaying like he was about to fall over. He asked Jake to let him off at the Ritz after he’d been clean for like, two days. Is he still getting high, that’s what I’d like to know.”
“Where’s he getting it from, that’s what I’d like to know,” I said. “The mean streets of West Tisbury?” We laughed together then, as we had in the old days when we were both equally young.
Then Devon sighed through the phone wires. “I feel bad,” she said. “But given my current circumstances, I just don’t have the patience for self-destruction that I used to.”
On the beach, the water was choppy. The sky was almost white with fog. Everyone was going around a circle, sharing a Devon memory. I told about that summer twelve years ago, when she managed a deli on Circuit Avenue and it went bankrupt; how she owed money all over the Island, but showed up at my bedroom door one Sunday morning with a sixty dollar bottle of burgundy she’d charged at Jim’s Package Store, saying it was for brunch at Black Dog. “So Devon,” someone murmured, amid soft laughter. After my turn I barely listened as the others spoke; I was remembering the fall after that summer. Our landlord had moved back into the house on Narragansett Street right after Labor Day; Kenny went back to Jamestown to live with his girlfriend for the winter, Jake was staying at his parents’ place in Cromwell Cove until it got too cold to live without heat, and Devon was caretaking a big yellow house with red shutters on Pequot Avenue. The owners had taken the eight a.m. ferry back to Boston; by six o’clock that night, all the bedrooms were occupied by Devon’s friends and the living room was full of sleeping bags and back-packs and dogs.
I had learned that I loved Devon more from afar than when sharing living quarters with her, so I moved into a gingerbread boarding house in the Oak Bluffs campground, charmed by my room in the small turret tower with its triangular windows surrounding my bed.
I would go over to Devon’s to do my laundry, though. One day, when no one was home, I was sitting at the dining room table, drinking red wine, waiting for my clothes to dry. Charlie came in. I had never seen him sober before. It was a Sunday in late September, one of those golden days that came around in fall that made it so hard to leave the Vineyard, with carpets of red leaves and streaky blue skies shot through with sunlight warm enough to rob the chill from the air, which always smelled of salt water and wood smoke. Charlie sat down at the table and started talking about art. I knew that he painted houses for a living, but I didn’t know he painted canvases. He talked and talked. About texture and content and form. He described his tiny studio over an old carriage house in West Chop; the owner let him live there in exchange for painting the big house. His voice rang through the silent, sunny house until he put his fingers to his lips and didn’t say any more.
“I’d like to see your paintings one day,” I said. He nodded. We sat at the table as the silence ticked around us. Then Charlie leaned forward and gently untied the bandana I was wearing so that my hair fell past my shoulders, down my back. He stood and held out his hand. I took it and followed him upstairs, walking toward the fragile light streaming through the windows.
The memorial was almost over when I saw movement in the tall pines that bordered the path to the beach. We had scattered the ashes and now everyone was drinking Veuve Clicquot out of Dixie cups.
“Can I borrow your truck?” I asked Jake, watching the trees.
“Are you okay?” Jake asked.
I nodded. “I’d just like to see more of the Island before I head back,” I said.
Jake handed me the keys. He touched my Dixie cup with his own. “It’s good to see you,” he said.
Charlie was creeping through the pine-strewn scrub next to the path near the parking lot.
“Need a ride?” I asked, as if we had seen each other only yesterday.
He was fairly bald now, his skin translucent. There were lines around his eyes, but no more than anyone else’s. The scar above his right eyebrow had never completely faded. The collar and cuffs of his shirt were frayed. He was wearing a long-sleeved blue and white windbreaker.
Charlie smiled. “Hey,” he said. His voice sounded as though there were pieces of gravel stuck in his throat.
We got into Jake’s truck and pulled out of the sand-scattered lot.
“How are you?” I asked.
He leaned his head back on the seat and closed his eyes. “Tired,” he said.
“Are you still in touch with Kenny?” I asked.
“He lives in California now,” Charlie said, without opening his eyes. “Outside of Los Angeles.”
We drove down Lambert’s Cove Road in silence. I turned left at Tashmoo Farm, heading toward the harbor.
“Remember that time we rode the merry-go-round?” Charlie asked. His smile was pale, ghostly on his lips.
I smiled back. “How are your paintings?” I asked. Devon told me that he’d traded them for drugs, sometimes drinks when he couldn’t get anything stronger. She said that one was hanging over the bar at the Sunken Row Boat, overlooking the Oak Bluffs harbor. It was a painting of one of the Portuguese fishing boats that had perished during Hurricane Kristina, with details so fine that if you looked up close with a magnifying glass, you could see members of the crew shooting craps in the hold. The name of the painting was, “Chances.” I remembered the first time I’d seen it, propped up on a crooked easel in the tiny studio over the carriage house in West Chop.
Charlie didn’t answer. I looked at his face. I thought about the way his face looked when he’d talked about his paintings that day in the house that Devon was caretaking. I thought about the way his hair had fallen into his eyes after we made love and how I kept brushing it back, brushing it back. I remembered the morning after, how we’d hitchhiked to Lucy Vincent Beach, stopping to buy fruit and cookies at Alley’s General Store. That day, winter had seemed as far away as another continent. We found a spot high in the dunes, where Charlie shucked off his clothes and then dove into the frigid water. I stayed on the blanket, eating strawberries. When he came back, he stood for a moment, dripping on the sand, the light from the sky surrounding him. He spread his arms wide enough to hold the world. “Face it,” he said. “It will never get better than this.”
Beside me now, in Jake’s truck, Charlie had fallen asleep. His chest rose and fell beneath his windbreaker. A thin line of drool trickled down the corner of his chin, on to the ragged collar of his shirt. His breathing came in slight, shallow gasps, as though he was dreaming under water. I drove on toward the harbor, where the boats were rocking against the waves, waiting for distant shores.
Judy Chicurel was a fellow in the inaugural class of the Writers’ Institute Fiction Program. She is the author of If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2014). Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Granta, LitHub and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She is currently working on her next novel.