The town of Westriver had wanted the lighthouse to be used by the state university, but the school already held property on one of the bay’s many islands and had little use for a decaying relic of the former maritime economy within spitting distance of shore. When the property went to general auction, it caught the attention of my mother, a former Ohio beauty queen and colonel’s wife who had always found something romantic in the salt-encrusted solitude of New England fishing villages. My father was coming on retirement and eager to make up for decades of marital neglect. For $400,000 he made my mother a lighthouse keeper’s wife, then a lighthouse keeper’s widow.
We moved in a month after my father’s funeral. As far as lighthouses go, it was an un-scenic, unremarkable place, a beacon stuck awkwardly on top of a two-story saltbox. Inconvenient, too, removed from shore by one hundred feet of water with no bridge. The town had tried different spans over the years, but each one had been washed out by the first big storm of the winter. To get to the house, you took a suspension car, big enough for two, across the rocky channel. That’s what Mom and I did that September day when we moved in. We packed light. Even so, I was disturbed at how much the line dipped as the basket was pulled across by the small electric motor at the other end. I grabbed the sides to steady myself, trying to ignore the sound of the waves below.
“It’s fine, honey,” my mother shouted. “Don’t worry.” She placed her hands on the front of the basket, closed her eyes against the spray kicked up by the crashing waves, and pulled herself forward, stretched out like a ship’s figurehead.
“How do you spell ‘Ms.’?” my mother asked me. We were sitting at the new kitchen table, the counters around us stacked with taped cardboard boxes. We’d opened one to get out two wine glasses which now stood on the table along with a bottle of Shiraz, half empty.
“Isn’t it just ‘em,’ ‘ess,’ ‘period’?”
“No, the word, not the abbreviation.”
“I’m not sure. Why?”
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen ‘Ms.’ spelled out. It’s always abbreviated. I know ‘Miss’ is just that. And ‘Mrs.’ is ‘misses,’ as in, ‘Kathy Weymouth misses her dead husband.’ ‘Miss’ is for unmarried women, and ‘Misses’ is for married. So what am I?”
“I guess you’re a ‘Miss.’” I topped off my glass. A few drops rolled down the side of the bottle. I wiped them and licked my fingers.
“I can’t be a ‘Miss.’ I’m too old for that. Besides, I was married. It seems disrespectful to your father to not somehow indicate that.”
“Use ‘Ms.’ then.”
“Oh, I can’t do that. It’s so vague, so indeterminate. Like a child born with both sex organs. If only this were colonial times. Then people could just call me ‘Widow Weymouth.’ It sounds dignified.”
“It sounds morbid.”
“Maybe it should.”
We finished the bottle without saying much else. I was only seventeen and not that used to drinking. I felt pretty loose after my third glass. All there was to listen to was the squawking of the seagulls, and it occurred to me, seeming somewhat profound at the time, that that was communication, too.
Finally, after tipping back her glass and flinging the last few drops to the floor, my mother stood and spoke.
In Virginia, at Arlington, at my father’s funeral, the honor guard had presented my mother with the flag from my father’s casket. “On behalf of the President of the United States…” He gave the whole spiel, my mother just nodding. When he was finished, he looked at me.
“Your father was a brave man,” he said.
“Thank you.” What else could I say?
At the lighthouse, we put the flag above the fireplace. My mother never got around to unpacking any of our family photos, and so the flag was the only thing in the house to remind me of my father. I liked how neatly it was folded; how the whole draping thing could be tucked away, set on the mantel, and forgotten.
My mother spent most of her days going to antique stores and yard sales around town, trying to gather objects that felt like they belonged in our home in a way we didn’t. Each desk or shelf or cabinet or table brought another story into the house.
“Look, you can see where his forearm wore the varnish smooth from writing.”
“Look, you can see the nicks from forks and knives being dropped, the rings from coaster-less glasses, the burns from dishes brought too hot to the table.
“Look, the back right leg is chewed down. They had a dog. A little one.”
The haunting was never obvious in the beginning. No violent levitations. No unsettling apparitions. No unearthly howls. It was like having a very quiet and reclusive house guest. My mother and I would hear a drawer slide shut in a bedroom when we were reading downstairs. We’d wake in the morning and find the bathroom faucet dripping as if it had just recently been opened. We’d sit on the couch and notice the faintest lingering imprint of a body’s weight on the far cushion after we’d been out of the house all day.
We noticed these things but never spoke of them. Whatever it was that caused these most minor disturbances in our lives was barely worth acknowledging. And it added something to a household that felt depressingly empty with just my mother and I to occupy it.
I still had school, which wasn’t horrible. I arrived with a degree of celebrity; I was the lighthouse kid, the hero’s son. I cultivated a detachment hinting at brooding depths. This worked wonders with a certain kind of girl: the behind the school cigarette-smoking type; the safety-pin-earing, second-chair flutist type; the permanent-markered-Converse lit mag type. They’d ask about the lighthouse; I’d offer to show them the beacon. I’d take them across the water in the little basket, up the stairs, and into the tower. I’d let them play with the light.
“What are we looking at?” one of them asked one afternoon.
“The Atlantic,” I said. “Due east. Calm seas.”
“What’s next out there? If we took a boat?”
“Portugal. Maybe the Azores.”
“It’s warm there, right?”
“Warmer than here. It’s the currents. The ocean carries heat all the way up from Mexico and just drops it off at Europe’s door.”
“I want to go there.”
“OK.” I came up behind her. I kissed her neck and put my hands under her shirt.
I heard footsteps from downstairs. My mother was out.
“Who’s here?” the girl asked.
“Should we move?” I asked my mother one night at dinner.
She sipped her wine then put down her glass.
“Well, the house is haunted.”
“I suppose it is,” my mother said. “Does it bother you?”
I glanced to my right at the third chair my mother had brought to the table a few nights before. As of yet, there had been no sign of the ghost’s accepting her dinner invitation.
“Not as such. No, I’m not bothered. But it does seem a little strange, potentially undesirable.”
“Maybe.” My mother picked at a piece of chicken and took her time chewing it.
“He’s not hurting anybody,” she said. “But if you feel uncomfortable, we’ll leave.”
“I guess not.” I stood from the table and scraped what was left of my chicken pot pie into the garbage. In the living room I noticed my father’s flag was gone from the mantel, but it didn’t seem strange that night. I don’t know if that was the first night it was missing, or just the first night I noticed. I was practiced at ignoring absence.
I woke one night to sounds coming from my mother’s room. Moans and gasps and desperate whispers. Creaking and banging. Sex sounds. My mother calling out my father’s name.
She glided into the kitchen the next morning and poured herself a cup of coffee. I looked up from my oatmeal.
“Yes, dear?” She flashed me one of her beauty queen smiles.
“Please, tell me you’re not fucking a ghost.”
She didn’t say anything. Just stopped smiling and sat down at the table across from me. She started working on the previous day’s crossword puzzle.
“Judge not, dear.”
“It’s just like that movie,” the girl said from the bathroom. I was lying on the bed and pulled my pants back up. She gargled and spat.
“It’s romantic.” She walked back into my room and dropped on the bed, resting her head on my chest, her fingers playing across my stomach. I leaned against the wall, my hands behind my head.
“It’s incredibly weird is what it is. And it would be like a lot of movies, most of which sucked.”
“What if it is your father?”
I’d thought about it. My mother seemed pretty well convinced. But I still hadn’t seen the thing. I was always just missing it. And in that sense, it was very much like my father.
“It’s not,” I said. “And even if it were, I don’t want a ghost for a father.”
That night at dinner, my mother set three places and dished out the lo mein onto three plates. My father’s flag in its wooden frame had found its way to the table, resting in front of the plate across from my mother’s.
“Are we expecting company?”
My mother gave me one of the looks she reserved for those times when she wanted to break the normal dynamic of our relationship and really assert herself as an authority figure.
“Don’t be wise, mister. Be polite.”
I reached for an eggroll but stopped short. “How rude of me. Guests first.” I bowed slightly from the waist.
“I mean it,” my mother said. I took an eggroll and tore off half in my mouth, chewing loudly with my mouth open. My mother’s eyes showed a fleeting anger, but she composed herself and spun her fork in the noodles, gazing absently at the empty seat across from her, the polished wood of the flag’s frame shining in the overhead kitchen light.
“I think it’s him,” my mother said. “In some ways.”
“This isn’t a conversation I want to have.”
I reached for the zinfandel and dropped a good portion into my juice glass. My mother didn’t object. She made a point of chewing her noodles, like it was something that took concentration. I drank off half my glass, staring at her.
“I want you to spend some time with him. Go fishing or something.”
I pushed myself away from the table, yanked out my napkin, and tossed it onto my plate, where it began to absorb the brown sauce and grease. I marched out of the room, making space in my mind to feel a pleasant self-righteousness, enjoying the sound of my heavy steps across the creaking floorboards.
“Keep it down tonight!” I shouted over my shoulder from the hallway. I took the stairs two at a time, seeing the steps in the slow strobe of the flashing beacon at the top of the house.
I came home from school the next day and found two fishing poles and a life vest outside my bedroom door. A small note taped to one pole read, “Please.”
“Mother!” I called. There was no answer. I walked down the hall to her room. The door was open, the room empty, the bed made. I checked the rest of the second floor, then the first, then climbed the tower to the beacon, but found no sign of her. From the top of the tower, I looked down to the shallow slope of the island on the ocean side, where the rock had been worn down to a shelf that dipped into the water. There, tied to a rock, bobbing in the surf, was a rowboat, its two oars laid across the seat, its prow pointing to sea.
“Fine!” I yelled. “Fine!
I ran outside and threw the rods in the boat, making a show of putting on my life vest for my mother, who, I was sure, was watching from some secret hideaway. I pushed off and climbed in, waving at the house before I grabbed the oars. It only took a few paddles before I realized how ridiculous I was being. But it was a perfect early fall day, the sky clear and the air crisp but not yet cool, and I thought some time alone might help things. I worked the boat toward shore to go back south along the coast to where the river emptied, and where, it seemed likely, I’d find some fish.
I hadn’t been in a boat since I was twelve and my mother and I had vacationed at my uncle’s lake house. Whatever my uncle taught me about rowing that summer I had forgotten. The rhythm eluded me, and I tired, fighting against the waves.
“If you are here,” I said to the empty seat at the back of the boat, “it would be nice of you to help out.”
Eventually I rowed to the mouth of the river, the smooth swirling showing where the waters met and the currents mixed. I dropped the oars and picked up one of the fishing rods, drew my arm back and arced it forward, letting out the line the way my uncle had shown me that summer. The line fell short, but I left it, tugging the string occasionally to make the lure spin and shimmer underwater.
I drew the line in and cast it out. Nothing bit, and, after a while, I recast, slowly pulled it in, and cast again, losing myself in the ease and thoughtlessness of reeling and casting. I worried about my mother, spiraling into delusion. I wondered what would happen to me if my mother were committed to a state hospital. I just had to make it to eighteen before I could start collecting from my father’s pension. Then I could leave, go west, bring one of the girls with me. Get a job, get an apartment, fall into an easy existence, those simple rhythms of life I imagined everyone else took for granted.
I had already imagined myself into a cabin in Wyoming, a job as a ranch hand, when I finally looked around and saw the shore was noticeably receding and farther away than I would have liked. I panicked and dropped the rod in the water, grabbing at the oars. I knew I was supposed to try to move across the current, but, with my nerves the way they were, coordination was a lost cause, and the boat was pulled farther out. I tired and decided to rest and save my energy until the riptide dropped me and I could row back to shore.
I sat back and watched details of the shoreline shrink and obscure. The horizon was dimming in the east. It would be dark soon—it was darker earlier and earlier—and I felt an unfamiliar fear of being alone, of being lost, of being on the ocean, so vast and indefinable. I swore at my mother for her persuasive insanity. I swore at myself for my stupidity. I swore at my father for his life and where it had brought us.
After a while—it was dark by then, the moon a sliver and the stars growing thick—I noticed that the boat wasn’t moving. Or it was moving, but not with the same determination of the current. I picked up the oars and put them in the water. I looked up and tried to find the North Star to get my bearings, but I couldn’t remember if it was off the Big or Little Dipper, and then I wasn’t sure if it actually pointed north or if that was just a name for it. I looked at the moon, which hadn’t been out that long, but I couldn’t remember if it rose in the east or the west, and the last thing I wanted to do was row in the wrong direction.
I scanned the horizon, and there it was, the lighthouse, blinking steadily, on and off, like it was winking. I turned the boat and started rowing.
I pulled the boat onto the rocks just as dawn began to creep into the sky. I climbed the stairs to my bed, piled myself under blankets, and shivered to sleep. I woke up that night just long enough to eat a bowl of cereal and drink a glass of orange juice before sleeping another twelve hours and waking for school.
I came home to find my mom in the living room, arranging flowers in a vase, laughing to herself, my father’s flag back on the mantel.
“Oh, honey, I haven’t seen you. How was fishing the other day?”
I didn’t answer. I walked to the mantel and grabbed the flag. I walked back out the door and onto the rocks, my mother calling after me.
At the waterline small waves were breaking against the rock ledge, washing up to my toes.
“Honey,” my mother called behind me as I ripped the back off the frame and tore out the flag.
I dropped the frame and heard the glass break on the rocks, then tugged at the flag, undoing its precise folds. The wind opened it, stretching it to its full length and breadth. My left hand held the starry blue field, my right the red and white stripes, and the flag pulled at me as it rose and fell in the air.
“Sweetie, what are you doing?” My mother was next to me now.
I let go, and the flag was snatched away, riding on the wind for a moment before dropping into the water, where it floated on the surface, the current already dragging it away from us. My mother shouted something that wasn’t a word and scurried down the rocks, up to her waist by the time I caught her and pulled her back. Her body tensed in my arms, and then she stopped fighting, just started shivering. I wrapped myself around her, and she may have been crying. Her face was already wet and her body was already shaking.
We watched the flag drift out past the rocks until it was picked up by a bigger wave, pushed under in the breaking foam, and then lost. My mother took a deep breath and exhaled as she leaned back against me.
“We should move,” she said. I nodded into her shoulder.
Eventually we stood up and walked back inside.
That spring, after a dentist from Portland bought the lighthouse, my mother and I went to Arlington to visit my father’s grave. We walked the rows of small white headstones and snapping flags, dazzling in their sameness, until we came to my father’s plot. I was surprised to see grass already grown over the grave, the ground almost level and settled.
I put my arm around my mother’s shoulders.
“There’s your father,” she said.
I knew she was right. And it just felt horrible.