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Stern Menby Elizabeth Gilbert
Unlike some crustaceans, who are coldly indifferent to the welfare of
their offspring, the mamma lobster keeps her little brood about her
until the youthful lobsterkins are big enough to start in life for
Crab, Shrimp, and Lobster Lore
William B. Lord
The birth of Ruth Thomas was not the easiest on record. She was born
during a week of legendary, terrible storms. The last week of May
1958 did not quite bring a hurricane, but it was not calm out there,
either, and Fort Niles Island got whipped. Stan Thomas\'s wife, Mary,
in the middle of this storm, endured an unusually hard labor. This
was her first child. She was not a big woman, and the baby was
stubborn in coming. Mary Thomas should have been moved to a hospital
on the mainland and put under the care of a doctor, but this was no
weather for boating around a woman in hard labor. There was no doctor
on Fort Niles, nor were there nurses. The laboring woman, in
distress, was without any medical attention. She just had to do it on
Mary whimpered and screamed during labor, while her female
neighbors, acting as a collective of amateur midwives, administered
comfort and suggestions, and left her side only to spread word of her
condition across the island. The fact was, things didn\'t look good.
The oldest and smartest women were convinced from early on that
Stan's wife was not going to make it. Mary Thomas wasn't from the
island, anyway, and the women didn't have great faith in her
strength. Under the best of circumstances, these women considered her
somewhat pampered, a little too fine and a little too susceptible to
tears and shy. They were pretty sure she was going to quit on them in
the middle of her labor and just die of pain right there, in front of
everyone. Still, they fussed and interfered. They argued with one
another over the best treatment, the best positions, the best advice.
And when they briskly returned to their homes to collect clean towels
or ice for the woman in labor, they passed the word among their
husbands that things at the Thomas house were looking very grave
Senator Simon Addams heard the rumors and decided to make his
famous peppery chicken stock, which he believed to be a great healer,
one that would help the woman in her time of need. Senator Simon was
an aging bachelor who lived with his twin brother, Angus, another
aging bachelor. The men were the sons of Valentine Addams, all grown
up now. Angus was the toughest, most aggressive lobsterman on the
island. Senator Simon was no kind of lobsterman at all. He was
terrified of the sea; he could not set foot in a boat. The closest
Simon had ever come to the sea was one stride wide of the surf on
Gavin Beach. When he was a teenager, a local bully tried to drag him
out on a dock, and Simon had nearly scratched that kid's face off and
nearly broken that kid's arm. He choked the bully until the boy fell
unconscious. Senator Simon certainly did not like the water.
He was handy, though, so he earned money by repairing
furniture and lobster traps and fixing boats (safely on shore) for
other men. He was recognized as an eccentric, and he spent his time
reading books and studying maps, which he purchased through the mail.
He knew a great deal about the world, although not once in his life
had he stepped off Fort Niles. His knowledge about so many subjects
had earned him the nickname Senator, a nickname that was only half
mocking. Simon Addams was a strange man, but he was acknowledged as
It was the Senator's opinion that a good, peppery chicken
soup could cure anything, even childbirth, so he cooked up a nice
batch for Stanley Thomas's wife. She was a woman he dearly admired,
and he was worried about her. He brought a warm pot of soup over to
the Thomas home on the afternoon of May 28. The female neighbors let
him in and announced that the little baby had already arrived.
Everyone was fine, they assured him. The baby was hearty, and the
mother was going to recover. The mother could probably use a touch of
that chicken soup, after all.
Senator Simon Addams looked into the bassinet, and there she
was: little Ruth Thomas. A girl baby. An unusually pretty baby, with
a wet, black mat of hair and a studious expression. Senator Simon
Addams noticed right away that she didn't have the red squally look
of most newborns. She didn't look like a peeled, boiled rabbit. She
had lovely olive skin and a most serious expression for an infant.
"Oh, she's a dear little baby," said Senator Simon Addams,
and the women let him hold Ruth Thomas. He looked so huge holding the
new baby that the women laughed--laughed at the giant bachelor
cradling the tiny child. But Ruth blew a sort of a sigh in his arms
and pursed her tiny mouth and blinked without concern. Senator Simon
felt a swell of almost grandfatherly pride. He clucked at her. He
"Oh, isn't she just the dearest baby," he said, and the women
laughed and laughed.
He said, "Isn't she just a peach?"
Ruth Thomas was a pretty baby who grew into a very pretty girl, with
dark eyebrows and wide shoulders and remarkable posture. From her
earliest childhood, her back was straight as a plank. She had a
striking, adult presence, even as a toddler. Her first word was a
very firm "No." Her first sentence: "No, thank you." She was not
excessively delighted by toys. She liked to sit on her father's lap
and read the papers with him. She liked to be around adults. She was
quiet enough to go unnoticed for hours at a time. She was a world-
class eavesdropper. When her parents visited their neighbors, Ruth
sat under the kitchen table, small and silent as dust, listening
keenly to every adult word. One of the most common sentences directed
at her as a child was "Why, Ruth, I didn't even see you there!"
Ruth Thomas escaped notice because of her watchful
disposition and also because of the distracting commotion around her
in the form of the Pommeroys. The Pommeroys lived next door to Ruth
and her parents. There were seven Pommeroy boys, and Ruth was born
right at the end of the run of them. She pretty much vanished into
the chaos kicked up by Webster and Conway and John and Fagan and
Timothy and Chester and Robin Pommeroy. The Pommeroy boys were an
event on Fort Niles. Certainly other women had produced as many
children in the island's history, but only over decades and only with
evident reluctance. Seven babies born to a single exuberant family in
just under six years seemed almost epidemic.
Senator Simon's twin brother, Angus, said of the
Pommeroys, "That's no family. That's a goddamn litter."
Angus Addams could be suspected of jealousy, though, as he
had no family except his eccentric twin brother, so the whole
business of other people's happy families was like a canker on Angus
Addams. The Senator, on the other hand, found Mrs. Pommeroy
delightful. He was charmed by her pregnancies. He said that Mrs.
Pommeroy always looked as if she was pregnant because she couldn't
help it. He said she always looked pregnant in a cute, apologetic way.
Mrs. Pommeroy was unusually young when she married--not yet
sixteen--and she enjoyed herself and her husband completely. She was
a real romp. The young Mrs. Pommeroy drank like a flapper. She loved
her drinking. She drank so much during her pregnancies, in fact, that
her neighbors suspected she had caused brain damage in her children.
Whatever the cause, none of the seven Pommeroy sons ever learned to
read very well. Not even Webster Pommeroy could read a book, and he
was the ace of smarts in that family's deck.
As a child, Ruth Thomas often sat quietly in a tree and, when
the opportunity arose, threw rocks at Webster Pommeroy. He'd throw
rocks back at her, and he'd tell her she was a stinkbutt. She'd
say, "Oh, yeah? Where'd you read that?" Then Webster Pommeroy would
drag Ruth out of the tree and kick her in the face. Ruth was a smart
girl who sometimes found it difficult to stop making smart comments.
Getting kicked in the face was the kind of thing that happened, Ruth
supposed, to smart little girls who lived next door to so many
When Ruth Thomas was nine years old, she experienced a significant
event. Her mother left Fort Niles. Her father, Stan Thomas, went with
her. They went to Rockland. They were supposed to stay there for only
a week or two. The plan was for Ruth to live with the Pommeroys for a
short time. Just until her parents came back. But some complicated
incident occurred in Rockland, and Ruth's mother didn't come back at
all. The details weren't explained to Ruth at the time.
Eventually Ruth's father returned, but not for a long while,
so Ruth ended up staying with the Pommeroys for months. She ended up
staying with them for the entire summer. This significant event was
not unduly traumatic, because Ruth really loved Mrs. Pommeroy. She
loved the idea of living with her. She wanted to be with her all the
time. And Mrs. Pommeroy loved Ruth.
"You're like my own daughter!" Mrs. Pommeroy liked to tell
Ruth. "You're like my own goddamn daughter that I never, ever had!"
Mrs. Pommeroy pronounced the word daughtah, which had a
beautiful, feathery sound in Ruth's ears. Like everyone born on Fort
Niles or Courne Haven, Mrs. Pommeroy spoke with the accent recognized
across New England as Down East--just a whisper off the brogue of the
original Scots-Irish settlers, defined by an almost criminal
disregard for the letter r. Ruth loved the sound. Ruth's mother did
not have this beautiful accent, nor did she use words like goddamn
and fuck and shit and asshole, words that delightfully peppered the
speech of the native lobstermen and many of their wives. Ruth's
mother also did not drink vast quantities of rum and then turn all
soft and loving, as Mrs. Pommeroy did every single day.
Mrs. Pommeroy, in short, had it all over Ruth's mother.
Mrs. Pommeroy was not a woman who would hug constantly, but
she certainly was one to nudge a person. She was always nudging and
bumping into Ruth Thomas, always knocking her around with affection,
sometimes even knocking her over. Always in a loving way, though. She
knocked Ruth over only because Ruth was still so small. Ruth Thomas
hadn't got her real size yet. Mrs. Pommeroy knocked Ruth on her ass
with pure, sweet love.
"You're like my own goddamn daughter that I never had!" Mrs.
Pommeroy would say and then nudge and then--boom--down Ruth would go.
Mrs. Pommeroy probably could have used a daughter, too, after
her seven handfuls of sons. She surely had a genuine appreciation of
daughters, after years of Webster and Conway and John and Fagan and
so on and so on, who ate like orphans and shouted like convicts. A
daughter looked pretty good to Mrs. Pommeroy by the time Ruth Thomas
moved in, so Mrs. Pommeroy had an informed love for Ruth.
But more than anyone else, Mrs. Pommeroy loved her man. She
loved Mr. Pommeroy madly. Mr. Pommeroy was small and tight-muscled,
with hands as big and heavy as door knockers. His eyes were narrow.
He walked with his fists on his hips. He had an odd, scrunched-up
face. His lips were always smooched in a half-kiss. He frowned and
squinted, like someone performing difficult mathematics in his head.
Mrs. Pommeroy adored him. When she passed her husband in the house
hallways, she'd grab at his nipples through his undershirt. She'd
tweak his nipples and yell, "Tweaky!"
Mr. Pommeroy would yell, "Whoop!"
Then he'd grab her wrists and say, "Wanda! Quit that, will
you? I really hate it."
He'd say, "Wanda, if your hands weren't always so warm, I'd
throw you out of the damn house."
But he loved her. In the evenings, if they were sitting on
the couch listening to the radio, Mr. Pommeroy might suck on a single
strand of Mrs. Pommeroy's hair as if it were sweet licorice.
Sometimes they'd sit together quietly for hours, she knitting woolen
garments, he knitting heads for his lobster traps, a bottle of rum on
the floor between them from which they both drank. After Mrs.
Pommeroy had been drinking for a while, she liked to swing her legs
up off the floor, press her feet against her husband's side, and
say, "Feet on you."
"No feet on me, Wanda," he'd say flatly, not looking at her,
She'd keep pressing on him with her feet.
"Feet on you," she'd say. "Feet on you."
"Please, Wanda. No feet on me." (He called her Wanda although
her true name was Rhonda. The joke was on their son Robin, who--in
addition to having the local habit of not pronouncing r at the end of
a word--could not say any word that started with r. Robin couldn't
say his own name for years, no less the name of his mother. What's
more, for a long time everyone on Fort Niles Island imitated him.
Over the whole spread of the island, you could hear the great strong
fishermen complaining that they had to mend their wopes or fix their
wigging or buy a new short-wave wadio. And you could hear the great
strong women asking whether they could borrow a garden wake.)
Ira Pommeroy loved his wife a great deal, which was easy for
every-one to understand, since Rhonda Pommeroy was a true beauty. She
wore long skirts, and she lifted them when she walked, as if she
imagined herself fancy in Atlanta. She wore a persistent expression
of amazement and delight. If someone left the room for even a moment,
she'd arch her brows and say charmingly, "Where have you been?" when
the person returned. She was young, after all, despite her seven
sons, and she kept her hair as long as a young girl's. She wore her
hair swung up and around her whole skull, in an ambitious, glossy
pile. Like everyone else on Fort Niles, Ruth Thomas thought Mrs.
Pommeroy a great beauty. She adored her. Ruth often pretended to be
As a girl, Ruth's hair was kept as short as a boy's, so when
she pretended to be Mrs. Pommeroy, she wore a towel knotted around
her head, the way some women do after a bath, but hers stood for Mrs.
Pommeroy's famous glossy pile of hair. Ruth would enlist Robin
Pommeroy, the youngest of the boys, to play Mr. Pommeroy. Robin was
easy to boss around. Besides, he liked the game. When Robin played
Mr. Pommeroy, he arranged his mouth into the same smooch his dad
often wore, and he stomped around Ruth with his hands heavy on his
hips. He got to curse and scowl. He liked the authority it gave him.
Ruth Thomas and Robin Pommeroy were always pretending to be
Mr. and Mrs. Pommeroy. It was their constant game. They played it for
hours and weeks of their childhood. They played it outside in the
woods, nearly every day throughout the summer that Ruth lived with
the Pommeroys. The game would start with pregnancy. Ruth would put a
stone in her pants pocket to stand for one of the Pommeroy brothers,
unborn. Robin would purse his mouth all tight and lecture Ruth about
"Now listen me," Robin would say, his fists on his
hips. "When that baby's bawn, he won't have any teeth. Heah that? He
won't be weddy to eat that hard food, like what we eat. Wanda! You
have to feed that baby some juice!"
Ruth would stroke the baby stone in her pocket. She'd say, "I
think I'm about to have this baby right now."
She'd toss it on the ground. The baby was born. It was that
"Would you just look at that baby?" Ruth would say. "That's a
Each day, the first stone to be born was named Webster,
because he was the oldest. After Webster was named, Robin would find
another stone to represent Conway. He'd give it to Ruth to slip into
"Wanda! What's that?" Robin would then demand.
"Would you just look at that," Ruth would answer. "Here I go,
having another one of those goddamn babies."
Robin would scowl. "Listen me. When that baby's bawn, his
foot bones'll be too soft for boots. Wanda! Don't you go stick any
boots on that baby!"
"I'm naming this one Kathleen," Ruth would say. (She was
always eager for another girl on the island.)
"No way," Robin would say. "That baby's gonna be a boy, too."
Sure enough, it would be. They'd name that stone Conway and
toss him down by his big brother, Webster. Soon, very soon, a pile of
sons would grow in the woods. Ruth Thomas delivered all those boys,
all summer long. Sometimes she'd step on the stones and say, "Feet on
you, Fagan! Feet on you, John!" She birthed every one of those boys
every single day, with Robin stomping around her, hands heavy on his
hips, bragging and lecturing. And when the Robin stone itself was
born at the end of the game, Ruth sometimes said, "I'm throwing out
this lousy baby. It's too fat. It can't even talk right."
Then Robin might take a swing, knocking the towel-hair off
Ruth's head. And she might then whip the towel at his legs, giving
him red slashes on his shins. She might knock a fist in his back if
he tried running. Ruth had a good swing, when the target was slow,
fat Robin. The towel would get wet from the ground. The towel would
get muddied and ruined, so they'd leave it and take a fresh one the
next day. Soon, a pile of towels would grow in the woods. Mrs.
Pommeroy could never figure that one out.
Say, where'd those towels go? Hey! What about my towels, then?
The Pommeroys lived in the big house of a dead great-uncle who had
been a relative of both of them. Mr. and Mrs. Pommeroy were related
even before they were married. They were cousins, each conveniently
named Pommeroy before they fell in love. ("Like the goddamn
Roosevelts," Angus Addams said.) To be fair, of course, that's not an
unusual situation on Fort Niles. Not many families to choose from
anymore, so everyone's family.
The dead Pommeroy great-uncle was therefore a shared dead
great-uncle, a common dead great-uncle. He'd built a big house near
the church, with money made in a general store, back before the first
lobster war. Mr. and Mrs. Pommeroy had doubly inherited the home.
When Ruth was nine years old and stayed with the Pommeroys for the
summer, Mrs. Pommeroy tried to get her to sleep in that dead uncle's
bedroom. It was under a quiet roof and had one window, which spied on
a massive spruce tree, and it had a soft wooden floor of wide planks.
A lovely room for a little girl. The only problem was that the great-
uncle had shot himself right there in that room, right through his
mouth, and the wallpaper was still speckled with rusty, tarnished
blood freckles. Ruth Thomas flatly refused to sleep in that room.
"Jesus, Ruthie, the man's dead and buried," Mrs. Pommeroy
said. "There's nothing in this room to scare anybody."
"No," Ruth said.
"Even if you see a ghost, Ruthie, it would just be my uncle's
ghost, and he'd never hurt you. He loved all children."
"No, thank you."
"It's not even blood on the wallpaper!" Mrs. Pommeroy
lied. "It's fungus. It's from the damp."
Mrs. Pommeroy told Ruth that she had the same fungus on her
bedroom wallpaper every now and again, and that she slept just fine.
She said she slept like a cozy baby every night of the year. In that
case, Ruth announced, she'd sleep in Mrs. Pommeroy's bedroom. And, in
the end, that's exactly what she did.
Ruth slept on the floor next to Mr. and Mrs. Pommeroy's bed.
She had a large pillow and a mattress of sorts, made from rich-
smelling wool blankets. When the Pommeroys made any noise, Ruth heard
it, and when they had giggly sex, she heard that. When they snored
through their boozy sleeping, she heard that, too. When Mr. Pommeroy
got up at four o'clock every morning to check the wind and leave the
house for lobster fishing, Ruth Thomas heard him moving around. She
kept her eyes shut and listened to his mornings.
Mr. Pommeroy had a terrier that followed him around
everywhere, even in the kitchen at four o'clock every morning, and
the dog's nails ticked steady on the kitchen floor. Mr. Pommeroy
would talk quietly to the dog while making his breakfast.
"Go back to sleep, dog," he'd say. "Don't you want to go back
to sleep? Don't you want to rest up, dog?"
Some mornings Mr. Pommeroy would say, "You following me
around so you can learn how to make coffee for me, dog? You trying to
learn how to make my breakfast?"
For a while, there was a cat in the Pommeroy house, too. It
was a dock cat, a huge coon-cat that had moved up to the Pommeroys'
because it hated the terrier and hated the Pommeroy boys so much that
it wanted to stay near them at all times. The cat took the terrier's
eye out in a fight, and the eye socket turned into a stink and mess
of infection. So Conway put the cat in a lobster crate, floated the
crate on the surf, and shot at it with a gun of his father's. After
that, the terrier slept on the floor beside Ruth Thomas every night,
with its mean, stinking eye.
Ruth liked sleeping on the floor, but she had strange dreams.
She dreamed that the ghost of the Pommeroys' dead great-uncle chased
her into the Pommeroys' kitchen, where she searched for knives to
stab him with but could find nothing except wire whisks and flat
spatulas to defend herself. She had other dreams, where it was
storming rain in the Pommeroys' back yard, and the boys were
wrestling with each other. She had to step around them with a small
umbrella, covering first one boy, then another, then another, then
another. All seven Pommeroy sons fought in a tangle, all around her.
In the mornings, after Mr. Pommeroy had left the house, Ruth
would fall asleep again and wake up a few hours later, when the sun
was higher. She'd crawl up into bed with Mrs. Pommeroy. Mrs. Pommeroy
would wake up and tickle Ruth's neck and tell Ruth stories about all
the dogs her father had owned, back when Mrs. Pommeroy was a little
girl exactly like Ruth.
"There was Beadie, Brownie, Cassie, Prince, Tally,
Whippet . . ." Mrs. Pommeroy would say, and eventually Ruth learned
the names of all the bygone dogs and could be quizzed on them.
Ruth Thomas lived with the Pommeroys for three months, and
then her father returned to the island without her mother. The
complicated incident had been resolved. Mr. Thomas had left Ruth's
mother in a town called Concord, New Hampshire, where she would
remain indefinitely. It was made pretty clear to Ruth that her mother
would not be returning home at all. Ruth's father took Ruth out of
the Pommeroy house and back next door, where she was able to sleep in
her own bedroom again. Ruth resumed her quiet life with her father
and found that she did not much miss her mother. But she very much
missed sleeping on the floor beside the bed of Mr. and Mrs. Pommeroy.
Then Mr. Pommeroy drowned.
All the men said Ira Pommeroy drowned because he fished alone and he
drank on his boat. He kept jugs of rum tied to some of his trap
lines, bobbing twenty fathoms down in the chilled middle waters,
halfway between the floating buoys and the grounded lobster traps.
Everyone did that occasionally. It wasn't as if Mr. Pommeroy had
invented the idea, but he had refined it greatly, and the
understanding was that he'd wrecked himself from refining it too
greatly. He simply got too drunk on a day when the swells were too
big and the deck was too slippery. He probably went over the side of
his boat before he even knew it, losing his footing with a quick
swell while pulling up a trap. And he couldn't swim. Scarcely any of
the lobstermen on Fort Niles or Courne Haven could swim. Not that
being able to swim would have helped Mr. Pommeroy much. In the tall
boots, in the long slicker and heavy gloves, in the wicked and cold
water, he would have gone down fast. At least he got it over with
quickly. Knowing how to swim sometimes just makes the dying last
Angus Addams found the body three days later, when he was
fishing. Mr. Pommeroy's corpse was bound tightly in Angus's lines,
like a swollen, salted ham. That's where he'd ended up. A body can
drift, and there were acres of ropes sunk in the water around Fort
Niles Island that could act like filters to catch any drifting
corpses. Mr. Pommeroy's drift stopped in Angus's territory. The
seagulls had already eaten out Mr. Pommeroy's eyes.
Angus Addams had pulled up a line to collect one of his
traps, and he'd pulled up the body, too. Angus had a small boat, with
not much room for another man on board, alive or dead, so he'd tossed
dead Mr. Pommeroy into the holding tank on top of the living,
shifting lobsters he'd caught that morning, whose claws he'd pegged
shut so they wouldn't rip each other into a slop of pieces. Like Mr.
Pommeroy, Angus fished alone. At that time in his career, Angus
didn't have a sternman to help him. At that point in his career, he
didn't feel like sharing his catch with a teenage helper. He didn't
even have a radio, which was unusual for a lobsterman, but Angus did
not like being chattered at. Angus had dozens of traps to haul that
day. He always fished through his chores, no matter what he found.
And so, despite the corpse he'd fished up, Angus went ahead and
pulled his remaining lines, which took several hours. He measured
each lobster, as he was supposed to do, threw the small ones back,
and kept the legal ones, pegging their claws safely shut. He tossed
all the lobsters on top of the drowned body in the cool tank, out of
Around three-thirty in the afternoon, he headed back to Fort
Niles. He anchored. He tossed Mr. Pommeroy's body into his rowboat,
where it was out of his way, and counted the catch into the holding
crates, filled his bait buckets for the next day, hosed off the deck,
hung up his slicker. When he was finished with these chores, he
joined Mr. Pommeroy in the rowboat and headed over to the dock. He
tied his rowboat to the ladder and climbed up. Then he told everyone
exactly whom he'd found in his fishing grounds that morning, dead as
"He was all stuck in my wopes," Angus Addams said grimly.
As it happened, Webster and Conway and John and Fagan and
Timothy and Chester Pommeroy were at the docks when Angus Addams
unloaded the corpse. They'd been playing there that afternoon. They
saw the body of their father, laid out on the pier, puffed and
eyeless. Webster, the oldest, was the first to see it. He stammered
and gasped, and then the other boys saw it. They fell like terrified
soldiers into a crazy formation, and broke right into a run home,
together, in a bunch. They ran up from the harbor, and they burst,
fast and weeping, past the roads and the collapsing old church to
their house, where their neighbor Ruth Thomas was fighting with their
littlest brother, Robin, on the steps. The Pommeroy sons drew Ruth
and Robin up into their run, and the eight of them shoved into the
kitchen at the same time and rushed into Mrs. Pommeroy.
Mrs. Pommeroy had expected this news ever since her husband's
boat was found, three nights before, without her husband anywhere
near it, floating far off course. She already knew her husband was
dead, and she'd guessed that she would never recover his body. But
now, as her sons and Ruth Thomas hurled themselves into the kitchen,
their faces stricken, Mrs. Pommeroy knew that the body had been
found. And that her sons had seen it.
The boys knocked into Mrs. Pommeroy and took her down to the
floor as though they were mad brave soldiers and she was a live
grenade. They covered and smothered her. They were grieving, and they
were a real weight upon her. Ruth Thomas had been knocked over, too,
and was sprawled out, confused, on the kitchen floor. Robin Pommeroy,
who did not yet get it, was circling the pile of his sobbing brothers
and his mother, saying, "What? What?"
What was a word Robin could say very easily, unlike his own
name, so he said it again.
"What? What? Webster, what?" he said, and he must have
wondered at this poor snarl of boys and at his mother, so silent
under them. He was far too little for such a report. Mrs. Pommeroy,
on the floor, was quiet as a nun. She was cloaked in her sons. When
she struggled to stand up, her boys came up with her, stuck on her.
She picked her boys off her long skirts as if they were brambles or
beetles. But as each boy dropped off to the floor, he crawled back on
her again. They were all hysterical. Still, she stood quietly,
plucking them from her.
"Webster, what?" Robin said. "What, what?"
"Ruthie," Mrs. Pommeroy said, "go on home. Tell your father."
Her voice had a thrilling, beautiful sadness. Tell yah
fathah . . . Ruth thought it the prettiest sentence she had ever
Senator Simon Addams built the coffin for Mr. Pommeroy, but the
Senator did not attend the funeral, because he was deadly afraid of
the sea and never attended the funeral of anyone who had drowned. It
was an unsustainable terror for him, no matter who the dead person
was. He had to stay away. Instead, he built Mr. Pommeroy a coffin of
clean white spruce, sanded and polished with light oil. It was a
This was the first funeral that Ruth Thomas had attended, and
it was a fine one, for a first funeral. Mrs. Pommeroy was already
showing herself to be an exceptional widow. In the morning, she
scrubbed the necks and fingernails of Webster, Conway, John, Fagan,
Timothy, Chester, and Robin. She worked their hair down with a fancy
tortoise-shell comb dipped in a tall glass of cold water. Ruth was
there with them. She could not stay away from Mrs. Pommeroy in
general, and certainly not on an important day like this. She took
her place at the end of the line and got her hair combed with water.
She got her nails cleaned and her neck scrubbed with brushes. Mrs.
Pommeroy cleaned Ruth Thomas last, as though the girl were a final
son. She left Ruth's scalp hot and tight from the combing. She made
Ruth's nails shine like coins. The Pommeroy boys stood still, except
for Webster, the oldest, who was tapping his fingers nervously
against his thighs. The boys were very well behaved that day, for the
sake of their mother.
Mrs. Pommeroy then performed some brilliant work on her own
hair, sitting at the kitchen table before her bedroom dresser mirror.
She wove a technically complicated plait and arranged it around her
head with pins. She oiled her hair with something interesting until
it had the splendid sheen of granite. She draped a black scarf over
her head. Ruth Thomas and the Pommeroy boys all watched her. She had
a real gravity about her, just as a dignified widow should. She had a
true knack for it. She looked spectacularly sad and should have been
photographed that day. She just was that beautiful.
Fort Niles Island was required to wait more than a week to
stage the funeral, because it took that long to get the minister to
come over on the New Hope, the mission boat. There was no permanent
ministry on Fort Niles anymore, nor on Courne Haven. On both islands,
the churches were falling down from lack of use. By 1967, there
wasn't a large enough population on either Fort Niles or Courne Haven
( just over a hundred souls on the two islands) to sustain a regular
church. So the citizens shared a minister of God with a dozen other
remote islands in a similar predicament, all the way up the coast of
Maine. The New Hope was a floating church, constantly moving from one
distant sea community to another, showing up for brief, efficient
stays. The New Hope remained in harbor only long enough to baptize,
marry, or bury whoever needed it, and then sailed off again. The boat
also delivered charity and brought books and sometimes even the mail.
The New Hope, built in 1915, had carried several ministers during its
tenure of good work. The current minister was a native of Courne
Haven Island, but he was scarcely ever to be found there. His work
sometimes took him all the way up to Nova Scotia. He had a far-flung
parish, indeed, and it was often difficult to get his attention
The minister in question was Toby Wishnell, of the Wishnell
family of Courne Haven Island. Everyone on Fort Niles Island knew the
Wishnells. The Wishnells were what was known as "high-line"
lobstermen, which is to say that they were terrifically skilled and
inevitably wealthy. They were famous lobstermen, superior to every
fishing man. They were rich, supernatural fishermen, who had even
managed to excel (comparatively) during the lobster wars. The
Wishnells always tore great masses of lobster from any depth of
water, in any season, and they were widely hated for it. It made no
sense to other fishermen how many lobsters the Wishnells claimed as
their own. It was as if the Wishnells had a special arrangement with
God. More than that, it was as if the Wishnells had a special
arrangement with lobsters as a species.
Lobsters certainly seemed to consider it an honor and a
privilege to enter a Wishnell trap. They would crawl over other men's
traps for miles of sea bottom just to be caught by a Wishnell. It was
said that a Wishnell could find a lobster under a rock in your
grandmother's flower garden. It was said that families of lobsters
collected in the very walls of Wishnell homes, like rodents. It was
said that Wishnell boys were born with tentacles, claws, and shells,
which they shed during the final days of nursing.
The Wishnells' luck in fishing was obscene, offensive, and
inherited. Wishnell men were especially gifted at destroying the
confidence of Fort Niles men. If a Fort Niles fisherman was inland,
doing business for a day in, say, Rockland, and he met a Wishnell at
the bank or at the gas station, he would inevitably find himself
behaving like an idiot. Losing all self-control, he would demean
himself before the Wishnell man. He would grin and stammer and
congratulate Mr. Wishnell on his fine new haircut and fine new car.
He would apologize for his filthy overalls. He would foolishly try to
explain to Mr. Wishnell that he'd been doing chores around his boat,
that these filthy rags were only his work clothes, that he'd be
throwing them out soon, rest assured. The Wishnell man would go on
his way, and the Fort Niles fisherman would rage in shame for the
rest of the week.
The Wishnells were great innovators. They were the first
fishermen to use light nylon ropes instead of the old hemp ropes,
which had to be painstakingly coated in hot tar to keep them from
rotting in the seawater. The Wishnells were the first fishermen to
haul traps with mechanized winches. They were the first fishermen, in
fact, to use motorized boats. That was the way with the Wishnells.
They were always first and always best. It was said that they bought
their bait from Christ Himself. They sold huge catches of lobsters
every week, laughing at their own sickening luck.
Pastor Toby Wishnell was the first and only man born into the
Wishnell family who did not fish. And what an evil and well-conceived
insult that was! To be born a Wishnell --a lobster magnet, a lobster
magnate --and piss away the gift! To turn away the spoils of that
dynasty! Who would be idiot enough to do such a thing? Toby Wishnell,
that's who. Toby Wishnell had given it all up for the Lord, and that
was seen over on Fort Niles as intolerable and pathetic. Of all the
Wishnells, the men of Fort Niles hated Toby Wishnell the most. He
absolutely galled them. And they fiercely resented that he was their
minister. They didn't want that guy anywhere near their souls.
"There's something about that Toby Wishnell he ain't telling
us," said Ruth Thomas's father, Stan.
"It's faggotry, is what it is," said Angus Addams. "He's pure
"He's a dirty liar. And a born bastard," Stan Thomas
said. "And it may be faggotry, too. He may just be a faggot, too, for
all we know."
The day that young Pastor Toby Wishnell arrived on the New
Hope to attend to the funeral of drowned, drunk, swollen, eyeless Mr.
Pommeroy was a handsome early autumn day. There were high blue skies
and keen winds. Toby Wishnell looked handsome, too. He had an elegant
frame. He wore a lean black wool suit. His trousers were tucked into
heavy, rubber fishermen's boots to guard against the muddied ground.
There was something unreasonably fine about Pastor Toby
Wishnell's features, something too pretty about his cleancut chin. He
was polished. He was cultivated. What's more, he was blond. Somewhere
along the way, the Wishnells must have married some of the Swedish
girls born to the Ellis Granite Company workers. This happened back
at the turn of the century, and the soft blond hair had stuck around.
There was none of it on Fort Niles Island, where nearly everyone was
pale and dark. Some of the blond hair on Courne Haven was quite
beautiful, and the islanders were rather proud of it. It had become a
quiet issue between the two islands. On Fort Niles, blonds were
resented wherever they were seen. Another reason to hate Pastor Toby
Pastor Toby Wishnell gave Ira Pommeroy a most elegant
funeral. His manners were perfect. He walked Mrs. Pommeroy to the
cemetery, holding her arm. He guided her to the edge of the newly dug
grave. Ruth Thomas's Uncle Len had dug that grave himself over the
last few days. Ruth's Uncle Len, always hard up for money, would take
any job. Len was reckless and didn't generally give a damn throughout
life. He had also offered to keep the body of drowned Mr. Pommeroy in
his root cellar for a week, despite the protests of his wife. The
corpse was sprinkled heavily with rock salt to cut the smell. Len
Ruth Thomas watched Mrs. Pommeroy and Pastor Wishnell head to
the grave. They were in perfect step with each other, as matched in
their movements as ice skaters. They made a good-looking couple. Mrs.
Pommeroy was trying bravely not to cry. She held her head tilted
back, daintily, like a nosebleeder.
Pastor Toby Wishnell delivered his address at the graveside.
He spoke carefully, with traces of his education.
"Consider the brave fisherman," he began, "and the jeopardy
of his sea . . ."
The fishermen listened without a flinch, regarding their own
fishermen's boots. The seven Pommeroy boys stood in a descending line
beside their mother, as still as though they'd been pegged to the
ground, except for Webster, who shifted and shifted on his feet as if
he were about to race. Webster hadn't stood still since first seeing
his father's body laid out on the pier. He'd been moving and tapping
and shifting nervously ever since. Something had happened to Webster
that afternoon. He had become goosey, fidgety, and unnerved, and his
reaction wasn't going away. As for Mrs. Pommeroy, her beauty troubled
the silent air around her.
Pastor Wishnell recalled Mr. Pommeroy's skills on the sea and
his love of boats and children. Pastor Wishnell regretted that such
an accident could befall so skilled a sailor. Pastor Wishnell
recommended that the gathered neighbors and loved ones avoid
speculating on God's motives.
There were not many tears. Webster Pommeroy was crying, and
Ruth Thomas was crying, and Mrs. Pommeroy was touching the corners of
her eyes every so often, but that was it. The island men were silent
and respectful, but their faces did not suggest personal devastation
at this event. The island wives and mothers shuffled and stared
actively, reckoning the grave and reckoning Mrs. Pommeroy and
reckoning Toby Wishnell and, finally, reckoning their own husbands
and sons quite frankly. It was a tragedy, they were surely thinking.
Hard to lose any man. Painful. Unfair. Yet beneath such sympathetic
thoughts each of these women was probably thinking, But it was not my
man. They were almost fully occupied with relief. How many men could
drown in a year, after all? Drownings were rare. There were almost
never two drownings in a year in such a small community. Superstition
suggested that Mr. Pommeroy's drowning had made all the other men
immune. Their husbands would be safe for some time. And they would
not lose any sons this year.
Pastor Toby Wishnell asked those gathered to remember that
Christ Himself was a fisherman, and that Christ Himself promised a
reception for Mr. Pommeroy in the full company of trumpeting angelic
hosts. He asked that those gathered, as a community of God, not
neglect the spiritual education and guidance of Mr. Pommeroy's seven
young sons. Having lost their earthly father, he reminded those
present, it was now ever more imperative that the Pommeroy boys not
lose their heavenly Father as well. Their souls were in the care of
this community, and any loss of faith by the Pommeroy boys would
surely be seen by the Lord as the fault of the community, for which
He would punish its people accordingly.
Pastor Wishnell asked those gathered to consider the witness
and testimony of Saint Matthew as a warning. He read from his
Bible, "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe
in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his
neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea."
Behind Pastor Wishnell was the sea itself, and there was Fort
Niles harbor, glittering in the hard afternoon light. There was the
New Hope mission boat, anchored among the squatty fishing boats,
gleaming prominently and looking lean and long by comparison. Ruth
Thomas could see all this from where she stood, on the slope of a
hill, next to Mr. Pommeroy's grave. With the exception of Senator
Simon Addams, everyone on the island had come to the funeral.
Everyone was there, near Ruth. Everyone was accounted for. But down
on the Fort Niles dock stood an unfamiliar big blond boy. He was
young, but he was bigger than any of the Pommeroy boys. Ruth could
tell his size even at that significant distance. He had a big head
shaped something like a paint can, and he had long, thick arms. The
boy was standing perfectly still, with his back to the island. He was
looking out to sea.
Ruth Thomas became so interested in the strange boy that she
stopped crying over Mr. Pommeroy's death. She watched the strange boy
during the entire funeral service, and he did not move. He faced the
water for the full duration, his arms by his side. He stood there,
still and quiet. It was only long after the funeral, when Pastor
Wishnell walked down to the dock, that the boy moved. Without
speaking to the pastor, the big blond boy climbed down the ladder of
the pier and rowed Pastor Wishnell back to the New Hope. Ruth watched
with the greatest interest.
But that all happened after the funeral. In the meantime, the
service continued smoothly. Eventually, Mr. Pommeroy, idling in his
long and leggy spruce box, was packed down in the dirt. The men
dropped clods of earth upon him; the women dropped flowers upon him.
Webster Pommeroy fidgeted and paced in place and looked as if he
might start running any minute now. Mrs. Pommeroy let go of her
composure and cried prettily. Ruth Thomas watched in some anger as
the drowned husband of her favorite person in the entire world was
Ruth thought, Christ! Why didn't he just swim for it instead?
Senator Simon Addams brought Mrs. Pommeroy's sons a book that night,
in a protective canvas bag. Mrs. Pommeroy was making supper for her
boys. She was still wearing her black funeral dress, which was made
of a material heavy for the season. She was scraping the root hairs
and rough skin from a bucket of her garden's carrots. The Senator
brought her a small bottle of rum, as well, which she said she
thought she wouldn't be having any of, but she thanked him all the
"I've never known you to turn down a drink of rum," Senator
Simon Addams said.
"All the fun's out of drinking for me, Senator. You won't be seeing
me drink anymore."
"There was fun in drinking once?" the Senator asked. "There
"Ah . . ." Mrs. Pommeroy sighed and smiled sadly. "What's in
"A gift for your boys."
"Will you have supper with us?"
"I will. Thank you very much."
"Ruthie!" Mrs. Pommeroy said, "bring the Senator a glass for
But young Ruth Thomas had already done so, and she'd brought
him a chunk of ice, too. Senator Simon rubbed Ruth's head with his
big, soft hand.
"Shut your eyes, Ruthie," he told her. "I've got a gift for
Ruth obediently shut her eyes for him, as she always had,
ever since she was a very small girl, and he kissed her on the
forehead. He gave her a big smack. That was always his gift. She
opened her eyes and smiled at him. He loved her.
Now the Senator put the tips of his two index fingers
together. "OK, Ruthie. Cut the pickle," he said.
Ruth made scissors of the fingers on her right hand and
snipped through his fingers.
"Get the tickle!" he exclaimed, and he tickled her ribs. Ruth was too
old for this game, but the Senator loved it. He laughed and laughed.
She smiled indulgently. They sometimes performed this little routine
four times a day.
Ruth Thomas was eating supper with the Pommeroys that night,
even though it was a funeral night. Ruth nearly always ate with them.
It was nicer than eating at home. Ruth's father wasn't much for
cooking a hot meal. He was clean and decent enough, but he didn't
keep much of a home. He wasn't against having cold sandwiches for
dinner. He wasn't against mending Ruth's skirt hems with a staple
gun, either. He ran that kind of house and had done so ever since
Ruth's mother left. Nobody was going to starve or freeze to death or
go without a sweater, but it wasn't a particularly cozy home. So Ruth
spent most of her time at the Pommeroys', which was much warmer and
easier. Mrs. Pommeroy had invited Stan Thomas over for dinner that
night, too, but he'd stayed at home. He was thinking that a man
shouldn't take a supper off a woman freshly grieving the funeral of
The seven Pommeroy boys were murderously glum at the dinner
table. Cookie, the Senator's dog, napped behind the Senator's chair.
The Pommeroys' nameless, one-eyed dog, locked in the bathroom for the
duration of the Senator's visit, howled and barked in outrage at the
thought of another dog in his home. But Cookie didn't notice. Cookie
was beat tired. Cookie followed the lobster boats out sometimes, even
when the water was rough, and she was always very nearly drowning. It
was awful. She was only a year-old mutt, and she was crazy to think
she could swim against the ocean. Cookie had been pulled by the
current once nearly to Courne Haven Island, but the mail boat
happened to pick her up and bring her back, almost dead. It was awful
when she swam out after the boats, barking. Senator Simon Addams
would edge near the dock, as close to it as he dared, and would beg
Cookie to come back. Begging and begging! The young dog swam in small
circles farther and farther out, sneezing off the spray from the
outboard motors. The sternmen in the chased boats would throw hunks
of herring bait at Cookie, yelling, "Git on outta heh!"
Of course the Senator could never go out after his dog. Not
Senator Simon, who was as afraid of water as his dog was inspired by
it. "Cookie!" he'd yell. "Please come on back, Cookie! Come on back,
Cookie! Come on back now, Cookie!"
It was hard to watch, and it had been happening since Cookie
was a puppy. Cookie chased boats almost every day, and Cookie was
tired every night. This night was no exception. So Cookie slept,
exhausted, behind the Senator's chair during supper. At the end of
Mrs. Pommeroy's supper, Senator Simon caught the last morsel of pork
on his plate with his fork tines and waved his fork behind him. The
pork dropped to the floor. Cookie woke up, chewed the meat
thoughtfully, and went back to sleep.
Then the Senator pulled from the canvas sack the book he'd
brought as a gift for the boys. It was a huge book, heavy as a slab
"For your boys," he told Mrs. Pommeroy.
She looked it over and handed it to Chester. Chester looked
it over. Ruth Thomas thought, A book for those boys? She had to feel
sorry for someone like Chester, with such a massive book in his hand,
staring at it with no comprehension.
"You know," Ruth Thomas told Senator Simon, "they can't read."
Then she said to Chester, "Sorry!" thinking that it wasn't
right to bring up such a fact on the day of a boy's father's funeral,
but she didn't know for certain whether the Senator knew that the
Pommeroy boys couldn't read. She didn't know if he'd heard of their
Senator Simon took the book back from Chester. It had been
his great-grandfather's book, he said. His great-grandfather had
purchased the book in Philadelphia the only time that good man had
ever left Fort Niles Island in his entire life. The cover of the book
was thick, hard, brown leather. The Senator opened the book and began
to read from the first page.
He read: "Dedicated to the King, the Lords Commissioner of
the Admiralty, to the Captains and Officers of the Royal Navy, and to
the Public at Large. Being the most accurate, elegant, and perfect
edition of the whole works and discoveries of the celebrated
circumnavigator Captain James Cook."
Senator Simon paused and looked at each of the Pommeroy
boys. "Circumnavigator!" he exclaimed.
Each boy returned his look with a great lack of expression.
"A circumnavigator, boys! Captain Cook sailed the world all
the way around, boys! Would you like to do that someday?"
Timothy Pommeroy stood up from the table, walked into the
living room, and lay down on the floor. John helped himself to some
more carrots. Webster sat, drumming his feet nervously against the
Mrs. Pommeroy said politely, "Sailed around the whole world,
did he, Senator?"
The Senator read more: "Containing an authentic,
entertaining, full, and complete history of Captain Cook's First,
Second, and Third Voyages."
He smiled at Mrs. Pommeroy. "This is a marvelous book for
boys. Inspiring. The good captain was killed by savages, you know.
Boys love these stories. Boys! If you wish to be sailors, you will
study James Cook!"
At that time, only one of the Pommeroy boys was any kind of a
sailor. Conway was working as a substitute sternman for a Fort Niles
fisherman named Mr. Duke Cobb. A few days every week, Conway left the
house at five in the morning and returned late in the afternoon,
reeking of herring. He pulled traps and pegged lobsters and filled
bait bags, and received ten percent of the profits for his work. Mr.
Cobb's wife packed Conway his lunch, which was part of his pay. Mr.
Cobb's boat, like all the boats, never went much farther than a mile
or two from Fort Niles. Mr. Cobb was certainly no circumnavigator.
And Conway, a sullen and lazy kid, was not shaping up to be a great
Webster, the oldest boy, at fourteen, was the only other
Pommeroy old enough to work, but he was a wreck on a boat. He was
useless on a boat. He went nearly blind with seasickness, dying from
headaches and vomiting down his own helpless sleeves. Webster had an
idea of being a farmer. He kept a few chickens.
"I have a little joke to show you," Senator Simon said to
Chester, the nearest boy. He spread the book on the table and opened
it to the middle. The huge page was covered with tiny text. The print
was dense and thick and faint as a small pattern on old fabric.
"What do you see here? Look at that spelling."
Terrible silence as Chester stared.
"There's no letter s anywhere, is there, son? The printers
used f instead, didn't they, son? The whole book is like that. It was
perfectly common. It looks funny to us, though, doesn't it? To us, it
looks as if the word sail is the word fail. To us, it looks as if
every time Captain Cook sailed the boat, he actually failed the boat!
Of course, he didn't fail at all. He was the great circumnavigator.
Imagine if someone told you, Chester, that someday you would fail a
"Ha!" said Chester, accordingly.
"Have they spoken to you yet, Rhonda?" Senator Simon asked
Mrs. Pommeroy suddenly, and shut the book, which slammed like a
"Have who, Senator?"
"All the other men."
"Boys," Senator Simon said, "get out of here. Your mother and
I need to talk alone. Beat it. Take your book. Go outside and play."
The boys sulked out of the room. Some of them went upstairs,
and the others filed outside. Chester carried the enormous,
inappropriate gift of Captain James Cook's circumnavigations
outdoors. Ruth slipped under the kitchen table, unnoticed.
"They'll be coming by soon, Rhonda," the Senator said to Mrs.
Pommeroy when the room had cleared. "The men will come by soon for a
talk with you."
"I wanted to give you some warning. Do you know what they'll
be asking you?"
"They'll ask if you're planning on staying here, on the
island. They'll want to know if you're staying or if you're planning
to move inland."
"They probably wish you'd leave."
Mrs. Pommeroy said nothing. From her vantage point under the
table, Ruth heard a splash, which she guessed was Senator Simon's
pouring a fresh dollop of rum on the ice in his glass. "So, do you
think you'll stay on Fort Niles, then?" he asked.
"I think we'll probably stay, Senator. I don't know anybody
inland. I wouldn't have anywhere to go."
"And whether you do or do not stay, they'll want to buy your
man's boat. And they'll want to fish his fishing ground."
"You should keep both the boat and the ground for the boys,
"I don't see how I can do that, Senator."
"Neither do I, to tell you the truth, Rhonda."
"The boys are so young, you see. They aren't ready to be
fishermen so young, Senator."
"I know, I know. I can't see either how you can afford to
keep the boat. You'll need the money, and if the men want to buy it,
you'll have to sell. You can't very well leave it on shore while you
wait for your boys to grow up. And you can't very well go out there
every day and chase men off the Pommeroy fishing ground."
"That's right, Senator."
"And I can't see how the men will let you keep the boat or
the fishing ground. Do you know what they'll tell you, Rhonda?
They'll tell you they just intend to fish it for a few years, not to
let it go to waste, you see. Just until the boys are big enough to
take over. But good luck taking it back, boys! You'll never see it
Mrs. Pommeroy listened to all this with equanimity.
"Timothy," Senator Simon called, turning his head toward the
living room, "do you want to fish? Do you want to fish, Chester? Do
you boys want to be lobstermen when you grow up?"
"You sent the boys outside, Senator," Mrs. Pommeroy
said. "They can't hear you."
"That's right, that's right. But do they want to be
"Of course they want to be fishermen, Senator," Mrs. Pommeroy
said. "What else could they do?"
"But forever, Senator? Who stays in the Army forever,
Senator? They'll want to come back to the island to fish, like all
"Seven boys." Senator Simon looked at his hands. "The men
will wonder how there'll ever be enough lobsters around this island
for seven more men to make a living from them. How old is Conway?"
Mrs. Pommeroy informed the Senator that Conway was twelve.
"Ah, they'll take it all from you, for sure they will. It's a
shame, a shame. They'll take the Pommeroy fishing ground, split it
among them. They'll buy your husband's boat and gear for a song, and
all that money will be gone in a year, from feeding your boys.
They'll take over your husband's fishing territory, and your boys
will have a hell of a fight to win it back. It's a shame. And
Ruthie's father probably gets the most of it, I'll bet. Him and my
greedy brother. Greedy Number One and Greedy Number Two."
Under the table, Ruth Thomas frowned, humiliated. Her face
got hot. She did not entirely understand the conversation, but she
felt deeply ashamed, suddenly, of her father and of herself.
"Pity," the Senator said. "I'd tell you to fight for it,
Rhonda, but I honestly don't know how you can. Not all by yourself.
Your boys are too young to stage a fight for any territory."
"I don't want my boys fighting for anything, Senator."
"Then you'd better teach them a new trade, Rhonda. You'd
better teach them a new trade."
The two adults sat silently for some time. Ruth hushed her
breathing. Then Mrs. Pommeroy said, "He wasn't a very good fisherman,
"He should have died six years from now, instead, when the
boys were ready for it. That's really what he should have done."
"Or maybe that wouldn't have been any better. I honestly
don't see how this could have worked out at all. I've been thinking
about it, Rhonda, ever since you had all those sons in the first
place. I've been trying to figure out how it would settle in the end,
and I never did see any good coming of it. Even if your husband had
lived, I suppose the boys would have ended up fighting among
themselves. Not enough lobsters out there for everyone; that's the
fact. Pity. Fine, strong boys. It's easier with girls, of course.
They can leave the island and marry. You should have had girls,
Rhonda! We should have locked you in a brood stall until you started
There was another splash in a glass, and the Senator
said, "And another thing. I came to apologize for missing the
"That's all right, Senator."
"I should have been there. I should have been there. I have
always been a friend to your family. But I can't take it, Rhonda. I
can't take the drowning."
"You can't take the drowning, Senator. Everyone knows that."
"I thank you for your understanding. You are a good woman,
Rhonda. A good woman. And another thing. I've come for a haircut,
"A haircut? Today?"
"Sure, sure," he said.
Senator Simon, pushing back his chair to get up, bumped into
Cookie. Cookie woke with a start and immediately noticed Ruth sitting
under the kitchen table. The dog barked and barked until the Senator,
with some effort, bent over, lifted the corner of the tablecloth, and
spotted Ruth. He laughed. "Come on out, girl," he said, and Ruth
did. "You can watch me get a haircut."
The Senator took a dollar bill from his shirt pocket and laid
it on the table. Mrs. Pommeroy got the old bed sheet and her shears
and comb from the kitchen closet. Ruth pushed a chair into the middle
of the kitchen for Simon Addams to sit on. Mrs. Pommeroy wrapped the
sheet around Simon and his chair and tucked it around his neck. Only
his head and boot tips showed.
She dipped the comb in a glass of water, wetted down the
Senator's hair against his thick, buoy-shaped head, and parted it
into narrow rows. She cut his hair one share at a time, each segment
flattened between her two longest fingers, then cropped off on a neat
bias. Ruth, watching these familiar gestures, knew just what would
happen next. When Mrs. Pommeroy was finished with the haircut, the
sleeves of her black funeral dress would be topped with the Senator's
hair. She would dust his neck with talcum powder, bundle the sheet,
and ask Ruth to take it outdoors and shake it. Cookie would follow
Ruth outside and bark at the whipping sheet and bite at the tumbling
clumps of damp hair.
"Cookie!" Senator Simon would yell. "Come on back in here
Later, of course, the men did visit Mrs. Pommeroy.
It was the following evening. Ruth's father walked over to
the Pommeroy house because it was right next door, but the other men
drove over in the unregistered, unlicensed trucks they kept for
carting their trash and children around on the island. They brought
blueberry cakes and casseroles as offerings from their wives and
stayed in the kitchen, many of them leaning on the counters and
walls. Mrs. Pommeroy made the men polite pots of coffee.
On the grass outside, below the kitchen window, Ruth Thomas
was trying to teach Robin Pommeroy how to say his name or any word
beginning with r. He was repeating after Ruth, fiercely pronouncing
every consonant but the impossible one.
"ROB-in," Ruth said.
"WOB-in," he insisted. "WOB-in!"
"RAZZ-berries," Ruth said. "RHU-barb. RAD-ish."
"WAD-ish," he said.
Inside, the men offered suggestions to Mrs. Pommeroy. They'd
been discussing a few things. They had some ideas about dividing the
traditional Pommeroy fishing ground among them for use and care, just
until one of the boys showed interest and skill in the trade. Until
any one of the Pommeroy boys could maintain a boat and a fleet of
"RUBB-ish," Ruth Thomas instructed Robin, outside the kitchen
"WUBB-ish," he declared.
"RUTH," she said to Robin. "RUTH!"
But he wouldn't even try that one; Ruth was much too hard.
Besides, Robin was tired of the game, which only served to make him
look stupid. Ruth wasn't having much fun, anyhow. The grass was full
of black slugs, shiny and viscous, and Robin was busy slapping at his
mosquitoes were a mess that night. There hadn't been weather cold
enough to eliminate them. They were biting Ruth Thomas and every-one
else on the island. But they were really shocking Robin Pommeroy. In
the end, the mosquitoes chased Robin and Ruth indoors, where they hid
in a front closet until the men of Fort Niles began to file out of
the Pommeroy house.
Ruth's father called for her, and she took his hand.
Together, they walked to their home next door. Stan Thomas's good
friend Angus Addams came with them. It was past dusk and getting
cold, and once they were inside, Stan made a fire in the parlor wood
stove. Angus sent Ruth upstairs to the closet in her father's bedroom
to fetch the cribbage board, and then he sent her to the sideboard in
the living room to fetch the good decks of cards. Angus set up the
small, antique card table next to the stove.
Ruth sat at the table while the two men played. As always,
they played quietly, each determined to win. Ruth had watched these
men play cribbage hundreds of times in her young life. She knew how
to be silent and useful so that she wouldn't be sent away. She
fetched them beers from the icebox when fresh beers were needed. She
moved their pegs along the board for them so that they wouldn't have
to lean forward. And she counted aloud to them as she moved the pegs.
The men said little.
Sometimes Angus would say, "Have you ever seen such luck?"
Sometimes he'd say, "I've seen better hands on an amputee."
Sometimes he'd say, "Who dealt this sorry rag?"
Ruth's father beat Angus soundly, and Angus put down his
cards and told them a terrible joke.
"Some men are out fishing one day for sport, and they're
drinking too much," he began. Ruth's father put down his cards, too,
and sat back in his chair to listen. Angus narrated his joke with the
greatest of care. He said, "So, these fellas are out fishing and
they're really having a time and drinking it up. They're getting
awful stewed. In fact, these fellas get to drinking so bad that one
of them, the one named Mr. Smith, he falls overboard and drowns. That
ruins everything. Hell! It's no fun having a fishing party when a man
drowns. So the men drink some more booze, and they set to feeling
pretty miserable, because nobody wants to go home and tell Mrs. Smith
her husband is drowned."
"You're terrible, Angus," Ruth's father interrupted. "What
kind of joke is that for tonight?"
Angus continued. "Then one of the guys has a great idea. He
suggests maybe they ought to hire Mr. Smooth-Talking-Jones to go
break the bad news to Mrs. Smith. That's right. It seems there's a
fella in town, name of Jones, who's famous for being a real smooth
talker. He's perfect for the job. He'll tell Mrs. Smith about her
husband, but he'll tell her so nice, she won't even care. The other
guys think, Hey, what a great idea! So they go find Smooth-Talking-
Jones, and he says he'll do the job, no problem. So Smooth-Talking-
Jones puts on his nicest suit. He puts on a tie and a hat. He goes
over to the Smith house. He knocks on the door. A woman answers.
Smooth-Talking-Jones says, \'Pardon me, ma'am, but ain't you the Widow
At this, Ruth's father laughed into his beer glass, and a
thin spray of foam flew from his mug to the table. Angus Addams held
up his hand, palm out. Joke wasn't finished. So he finished it.
"The lady says, \'Why, I am Mrs. Smith, but I ain't no widow!'
And Smooth-Talking-Jones says, \'The fuck you ain't, sweetheart.' "
Ruth toyed with that word in her mind: Sweethaht, sweet-
hot . . .
"Oh, that's terrible." Ruth's father rubbed his mouth. He was
laughing, though. "That's terrible, Angus. Jesus Christ, what a
rotten joke to tell. I can't believe you'd tell a joke like that on a
night like this. Jesus Christ."
"Why, Stan? You think it sounds like someone we know?" Angus
said. Then he asked, in a strange falsetto, "Ain't you the Widow
"Angus, that is terrible," Ruth's father said, laughing even
"I'm not terrible. I'm telling jokes."
"You're terrible, Angus. You're terrible."
The two men laughed and laughed, and then settled down a bit.
Eventually, Ruth's father and Angus Addams commenced playing cribbage
once more and grew quiet.
Sometimes Ruth's father said, "Christ!"
Sometimes Ruth's father said, "I should be shot for that
At the end of the night, Angus Addams had won one game and
Stan Thomas had won two. Some money was exchanged. The men put away
the cards and dismantled the cribbage board. Ruth returned the board
to the closet in her father's bedroom. Angus Addams folded up the
card table and set it behind the sofa. The men moved into the kitchen
and sat at the table. Ruth came back down, and her father patted her
bottom and said to Angus, "I don't imagine Pommeroy left his wife
enough money to pay you for that nice coffin your brother built."
Angus Addams said, "You kidding me? Pommeroy didn't leave any
money. There's no money in that goddamn family. Not enough money for
a pissant funeral, I can tell you that. Not enough money for a
coffin. Not even enough money to buy a ham bone to shove up his ass so
the dogs could drag his body away."
"How interesting," Ruth's father said, completely
deadpan. "I'm not familiar with that tradition."
Then it was Angus Addams who was laughing. He called Ruth's
"I'm terrible?" Stan Thomas said. "I'm terrible? You're the
Something in this kept them both laughing. Ruth's father and
Mr. Angus Addams, who were excellent friends, called each other
terrible people all that night long. Terrible! Terrible! As if it was
a kind of reassurance. They called each other terrible, rotten,
They stayed up late, and Ruth stayed up with them, until she
started crying from trying to keep herself awake. It had been a long
week, and she was only nine. She was a sturdy kid, but she'd seen a
funeral and heard conversations she didn't understand, and now it was
past midnight, and she was exhausted.
"Hey," Angus said. "Ruthie? Ruthie? Don't cry, then. What? I
thought we were friends, Ruthie." Ruth's father said, "Poor little
He took her up into his lap. She wanted to stop crying, but
she couldn't. She was embarrassed. She hated crying in front of
anyone. Still, she cried until her father sent her into the living
room for the deck of cards and let her sit on his lap and shuffle
them, which was a game they used to play when she was small. She was
too old to be sitting in his lap and shuffling cards, but it was a
"Come on, Ruthie," Angus said, "let's have a smile out of
Ruth tried to oblige, but it wasn't a particularly good
smile. Angus asked Ruth and her father to do their funniest joke for
him, the one he loved so much. And they did.
"Daddy, Daddy," Ruth said in a fake little-girlie voice. "How
come all the other children get to go to school and I have to stay
"Shut up and deal, kid," her father growled. Angus Addams
laughed and laughed.
"That's terrible!" he said. "You're both terrible."
Copyright © 2000 by Elizabeth Gilbert. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.'
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