Marcus Weems was the sixth-richest man in the state of Alabama, but he lost his wife to cancer like everybody else. Of course he brought the full leverage of his affluence to bear on her condition — Sloan Kettering, Johns Hopkins, M.D. Anderson, names of hospitals like the board of directors for some conglomerate of suffering — but the diagnosis had come too late, all the treatments and the clinical trials for naught, and Suzette Weems died at home with her family at her bedside, the day’s last light outside her windows reflected on Mobile Bay.
In addition to her devoted husband, Suzette Weems was survived by two daughters: Meredith, 29, wife of Harris Stokes and mother of infant James; and Emily, 21, treasurer of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority at the University of Alabama. They were capable and well-adjusted girls, achingly dear to Marcus. After the funeral, Emily requested incompletes in her fall classes and resumed permanent occupancy of her room, perfuming the house with the lavender and praline bouquet of her shampoo. At least three nights a week, with infant James in tow, Meredith abandoned her husband to sleep over as well, regularly enough that she stocked the empty bureau of her youth with diapers and onesies and nursing bras. Marcus thought he understood. They believed that their presence would provide a bulwark against his loss. They loved him and he loved them back and he was willing to humor them for a while. Together, they strolled the Point Clear boardwalk, gulls wheeling, infant James strapped to one of them by a contraption that put Marcus in mind of a papoose. They played backgammon in the evenings, and Marcus let them win, as he had when they were children. The holidays passed in a haze of dirty dishes and wads of wrapping paper and strained good cheer. Marcus was 68 years old. He’d started late on marriage, fatherhood. He’d wanted to be certain that he was prepared to do it right. And he had. Just look at his magnificent daughters. But now, at night, when everyone was asleep, he found himself creeping from room to room in the dark, picking up letter openers and coffee table books and putting them down again like he’d forgotten what they were for.
In January, he nudged Emily back to school and convinced Meredith that her husband required her attention. They went reluctantly, but they went, casting worried glances through the rear windshields of their cars. Marcus had, in the course of his career, parlayed a modest inheritance into a fortune in commercial real estate. His holdings included a condominium complex on Dauphin Island, a barrier island off the coast. Without informing his daughters, he put his house on the market — a pocket listing, priced to move — let the condo manager know he was coming, and drove alone across the bridge over the Sound. The Admiral’s Quarters rose up from the sand where the beach was at its widest. Marcus claimed a corner unit on the fourth and highest floor. Two bedrooms. One bath. Combined kitchen and living area. Every accoutrement tastefully bland. Among real estate professionals, it is a widely held belief that beach rentals, especially condominiums, are rarely haunted by anything more than the detritus of previous guests — those battered paperbacks, that bottle of hot sauce, those loose pennies in a drawer. From his balcony, Marcus could see an old public pier jutting like a ruin over the dunes, the shore tugged out by tides in such a way that the pier no longer reached the waves.
His daughters were predictably stunned by this turn of events, not to mention wounded, furious, concerned, and a number of additional sentiments, which they expressed in weepy monologues over the phone. Marcus could hear the wind whining around the building as they spoke, and the distant hissing of the surf, sounds indistinguishable from his tinnitus, a cocoon of white noise that made it difficult to focus on his daughters. Didn’t he realize, Emily wanted to know, that they had lost their mother, too? Shouldn’t he have at least consulted them, Meredith demanded, before listing the house? They had a talent for phrasing questions in such a way that the answers were implied. And they were right. His behavior was selfish and impulsive and thoroughly out of character. Daddy, they called him. Still. Like little girls.
He bought a bike, secondhand, from a rental shop down the road, a lady’s bike, though Marcus didn’t mind, a lipstick-red Schwinn Hollywood Roadster, handlebars outfitted with a bell and basket, everything but the basket freckled with rust. Dauphin Island is bisected lengthwise by Bienville Boulevard, 12 miles of sandy pavement paralleled by sidewalk. Down this sidewalk rode Marcus Weems. Exploring. Acclimating. As if the island were a scale model of his life without Suzette, or of the space left inside him by her absence and he wanted to plot its boundaries. Mornings, he rode to Lighthouse Bakery for a cup of coffee and a bear claw. He rode to Pirate’s Booty Bait and Dry Goods in the afternoon to stock up on peanut butter and white bread. The west end of the island had been stripped of all but the most obdurate shrubbery by careless development and countless storms, nothing down there anymore but vacation homes on stilts and a ribbon of beach visible only at low tide. One day, Marcus counted 26 for-sale signs. The day after that, he counted 29. Most of the year-round residents were hunkered down on the east end, tucked in along the Sound or on the leeward side of the dunes. Marcus coasted past their houses, pulled lazy U-turns in their cul-de-sacs. He rode past Dauphin Elementary, the only school on the island, and past Cadillac Park, live oaks dripping beards of Spanish moss, and past the bird sanctuary where so many weary species, headed north for warmer months, first caught sight of land. He kept on riding until he ran out of boulevard, all the way to Fort Gaines, best remembered by history for its failure to prevent the Yankee fleet from breaching Mobile Bay.
Here, Marcus dropped the kickstand and dismounted. Like the long-gone captains of the Confederacy, he stood watch at the edge of Dauphin Island, his old life just out of sight across the water. What he felt in those moments, pelicans skimming the chop, tankers lugging cargo to ports unknown, was not loneliness or loss, as you might expect, not the weight of tragedy but its opposite, pure lightness, the hole left inside him by Suzette’s death as big and hollow as a zeppelin and just as buoyant, as if the shape of her absence might lift him up and carry him away.
Near the end of his first week on the island, after a particularly exhausting call from Meredith, Marcus crossed Bienville Boulevard on foot to Dauphin Bar and Grill, one of three yellow A-frames huddled in a gravel parking lot. The other two housed Island Ice and Slice, a snow cone and pizza joint, and Massacre Island Surf Shop, so named because in 1699 the explorer Pierre Le Moyne dropped anchor long enough to misinterpret the nature of a mound of human bones — most likely the burial site of some forgotten tribe — and leave the island with that short-lived but gruesome designation. These three establishments, Marcus would soon discover, were owned and operated by three brothers: Alton, Ike, and Homer Tenpenny. Homer doubled as the mayor of Dauphin Island.
He found the Tenpennys posted up at the bar, along with half a dozen local drunks, the walls adorned with Crimson Tide football paraphernalia and faded photographs of men with fish. Marcus helped himself to a table by the window and eavesdropped while they griped. For 15 minutes, no one acknowledged his arrival. Finally, Homer interrupted the discussion long enough to take Marcus’ order — burger, well-done — and pass it through to the kitchen before returning to his place behind the taps and picking up the conversation where he’d left off. Favorite subjects included liberals, immigrants, and tourism revenue in steep decline, each topic a different route to the same conclusion: Every single thing was going to hell. If the Tenpennys could be believed, the population of Dauphin Island was down at least 200 souls the last few years, the island itself shrinking all the time, erosion caused by dredging in the ship channel.
“By the time I’m gone,” Homer said, “won’t be nothing left.”
Marcus appreciated the resignation in their anger. He took a curious sort of pleasure in the redundancy of their complaints. These men — or men like them — had been having this conversation — or one like it — forever and would go on having it until their dire prognostications came true at last. Marcus added a memorable tip to his bill and retired to his condo for a nightcap on the balcony, natural gas wells burning way out in the Gulf like the first glimmers of an inkling, like the signal fires of his grief.
In the morning, he showered and shaved and hiked along Bienville Boulevard to the local real estate office. The adjacent storefronts — a former video game parlor and a former gift shop and a former kayak rental place — were all defunct. Marcus ducked inside behind the tinkling of a bell. The realtor, Norma Bird according to the nameplate on her desk, flinched at the sound, one hand going to her chest, her glasses slipping down her nose. She had been feeding papers into a shredder.
“I’d like to inquire about some property,” he said.
By Marcus’ standards, real estate on Dauphin Island was remarkably inexpensive. He’d have to move some funds around, divest himself of some investments, but by the time he’d left the office, proceedings had been initiated on the purchase of the 29 available houses on the west end, along with an out-of-business barbecue restaurant called the Salty Pig, a 12-unit motel on the Sound, 14 additional houses on the east end, and all three available storefronts in the strip mall. As Marcus was signing the last of the paperwork, Norma Bird reached out and gently poked her index finger into his ear and he started like she’d given him a pinch.
“I’m sorry.” She barked out a laugh and covered her mouth as if shocked by what she’d done. “That was totally inappropriate. Totally, totally, totally. This is just so unreal.”
Marcus supposed it wasn’t very often that the sixth-richest man in the state strolled into her office and offered to buy every listing on the island. A measure of shock could be expected and forgiven. He spent the remainder of the afternoon on the phone with lawyers and moneymen, the hair in his ear retaining a faint, residual tickle from her touch. He was in his kitchen, later, pouring bourbon over ice and boiling hot dogs and listening to Mozart’s Concerto No. 4 in E-flat Major on CD when the doorbell chimed. He drifted in that direction, sipping the drink, his second of the evening, his mind swimming with whiskey and music and the vaguest beginnings of a plan. There were state and federal permits to sort out, and he’d have to sell off a shopping mall to foot the bill, but Marcus had plenty of industry and government connections, and as he pressed his eye to the peephole, it all seemed possible, whatever it was. There in the hall, distorted by the lens, stood the Tenpenny brothers. Ike smoothed a palm over his hair. Alton straightened the lapels of a madras blazer. Homer pressed his eye against the peephole on his side, blotting out the view.
“You’re the big tipper,” he said, when Marcus opened the door.
Marcus invited them in, set everybody up with a drink. He offered to throw a few more hot dogs in the pot but they declined. They sat at a table on the balcony in unseasonable warmth, and Marcus waited for the Tenpennys to get down to business. There were no sunset beachcombers leaving footprints in the sand.
“Norma Bird came by,” Homer said. “I guess we’re here because we’d like to know your intentions.”
His brothers nodded. Alton’s neck was spotted with razor burn, and Marcus wondered if he’d spruced himself up for this meeting.
“I want to buy the island.”
“Uh-huh. I see. And what do you mean to do with it?”
“I’m not sure about that,” Marcus said.
Homer pursed his lips and stared for a moment into his drink.
“This is a community,” he said, raising his eyes.
“It’s dying,” Marcus said. “It’s nearly dead.”
The Tenpenny brothers were quiet. They had no rebuttal. Marcus went back inside the condo, leaving them with their thoughts. He found a pen and jotted a figure on the back of a takeout menu from a seafood restaurant that had gone belly up years ago. He refilled his drink, returned to the balcony, and slid the menu across the table. Ike retrieved a pair of bifocals from his breast pocket so he could read it.
“That’s how much I’ll give you for the A-frames,” Marcus said.
Ike held the menu close to his glasses, then backed it away as if trying to bring an optical illusion into focus.
Marcus told them he would understand if they needed time to consider his offer. He explained that he had experience with loss. In the end, they polished off their drinks and shook his hand to seal the deal.
Massacre Island was eventually renamed for the great-grandson of Louis XIV, the 22nd Dauphin, a frivolous and empty-headed prince who would become a dreadful king. Because of its deep-water harbor, the island served as a port for the territory of French Louisiana, but even then, even 300 years ago, shifting sands were conspiring to fill in the harbor. The settlement was burned to the ground by Jamaican privateers in 1717, leveled twice more that century by hurricanes. After the Civil War, the history of the island, like its present, is unmemorable, marked primarily by personal tragedies and low-budget vacations and a gradual but inevitable wearing away.
Marcus wheeled the Schwinn up and down Bienville Boulevard seeing not scruffy houses clinging like barnacles to the fringe of a vanishing beach but the empty, windswept shores of his imagination. Demolition costs would be exorbitant but not, he didn’t think, out of reach. He’d have to unload an office park or two, maybe borrow against some undeveloped land. One of his lawyers had turned up a Corps of Engineers proposal to truck 100 million tons of sand onto the island as backfill against the past and buffer against the future. The state would never fund such an extravagant conservation scheme, but Marcus could. He pictured houses tearing themselves down and hauling their parts away, the wind and tides giving back the beach, Dauphin Island rising unblemished from the Gulf like time-lapse film run in reverse.
In this new light, the light of evening and recollection and caprice, the island looked newly beautiful to Marcus, that useless old pier a monument as profound as the Parthenon, the tufts of seagrass sprouting from the dunes a reminder not of the futility of life but its tenacity.
He saw no benefit to telling his daughters about his plan. He knew what they would have said. They were good girls. They would have tried to reason with him. They might have loved him half to death. So he deleted their emails and let their messages pile up in his voicemail. Sometimes, at night, alone in his condo, he could almost hear their trapped voices straining to reach him through the line, and though a part of him longed to hear his daughters speak, he was afraid that if he let himself listen to even one message, the rest would come flooding out behind it and he would drown in their good sense. His youngest daughter became so frustrated that she wrote him a letter, the first he had received from her since summer camp. He couldn’t resist slipping a thumbnail under the flap. The letter was penned in a familiar looping script on official Kappa Kappa Gamma stationery, Emily’s name third from the top in the chapter masthead. In its pages, she added confused and abandoned to the list of feelings she had expressed over the phone. She worried that Marcus had become unhinged by grief, a poetic phrase out of character for such a practical young woman, the treasurer of a sorority. He pictured her laboring over the line at her little desk in her little room at the Kappa Kappa Gamma house, early drafts wadded in the trash can by the door. She didn’t know the half of it, Marcus thought.
Norma Bird had started the paperwork on 52 more houses, the marina, the service station, the bakery, the seafood market, a nine-hole golf course, and all 11 churches on the island, each new purchase pouring a little more substance back into Marcus, filling him up again. Technically, the public beaches and the parks and the bird sanctuary were not for sale, but an exploratory conference call with the governor left the impression that the state of Alabama, which had enough financial woes without sweating the overhead on Dauphin Island, was open to creative fiduciary arrangements. There were a handful of holdouts among the locals, but Marcus was sure they’d come around. You will be hard-pressed to find a real estate operator savvier than Marcus Weems. He had learned over time that three things were necessary in any delicate transaction. First, you had to offer a fair price, one that benefited buyer and seller equally. Next, you had to convince the seller that his position was untenable, as in his many negotiations with struggling farmers and sons of struggling farmers reluctant to forsake the family land. Last — and this was Marcus’ true specialty, the reason he succeeded where others failed — it was incumbent upon the buyer to make the seller believe that the transaction would leave a legacy he could be proud of.
Marcus bought round after round of drinks at Dauphin Bar and Grill, the place crowded every night now and not only because someone else was picking up the tab. He spun for his audience a vision of the island returned to its right and natural state. On cocktail napkins, Norma Bird kept track of the tipsy offers Marcus was prone to make on these occasions. When he’d had a few too many, he tended to go on about his wife, how beautiful she had been, how wise, how all his money failed to save her.
“I proposed four times before she said yes. Once I chased her all the way to San Francisco. Her sister lives out there. I showed up at the door with a string quartet and a diamond big as your fist, but still she turned me down. That was the third time. She said I only wanted what I couldn’t have. You believe that? Me standing in the middle of Lombard Street, 2,000 miles from home.”
Homer Tenpenny patted him on the back.
“Time to settle up,” he said.
The next day, it began to rain and did not stop for a full week, a misty, spitting rain interspersed with downpour that rendered the Gulf invisible from Marcus’ balcony. His view reached no farther than the end of the old pier. He swam his slow Australian crawl in the indoor pool and wondered what to do with the Admiral’s Quarters. The complex would be a blemish once the island was restored, but if he tore it down, where would he live? In the sauna, sweat running in his chest hair, he entertained fantasies of living in a teepee or digging some sort of bunker, but he recognized these idylls for what they were and blamed them on the heat. At dinnertime, he popped his umbrella and hustled over to Dauphin Bar and Grill. The rain had chased the crowds away, but Norma Bird was nursing a beer two stools down from one of the holdouts, a ship’s captain who owned a saltbox with crooked shutters on the Sound. Peebles something? Something Peebles? Marcus recognized the locals by their property but had trouble recalling their names. This man was close to Marcus’ age but had no wife, no children, no reason to stay except inertia and lack of imagination.
“I’ve been here a long time,” he said.
“But it won’t be here,” Marcus replied, “once everybody else is gone.”
Peebles something shrugged and thanked Marcus for the beer and Marcus proceeded to drink himself into such a stupor that Norma Bird insisted on walking him home. Their hips bumped under his umbrella, her arm around his waist, rain beating on the pavement all around them. Halfway across the street, she stopped and turned to face him. She palmed his cheek. “You’d never know it to look at you,” she said, and though he didn’t understand exactly what she meant, he understood that a great deal more was implied. Her very nearness startled him, sobered him. His breath misted her glasses. For a long few seconds, Marcus covered her hand with his own. Then he left her standing under his umbrella in the rain.
He was on his way back from Norma Bird’s office one afternoon when he noticed Emily’s Land Rover, the car he’d bought as a high school graduation present, idling in front of the Admiral’s Quarters.
Emily spotted him on his bike.
“Daddy, is that you? I see you. Daddy, you get over here right now.”
He rolled up beside her car, ringing the bell on his handlebars in greeting.
“You’re in big trouble,” Emily said.
Despite the angry words, she let him kiss her cheek. Meredith was in the backseat with infant James.
“You’d better let us in,” she said. “I need somewhere to nurse the baby.”
Marcus thumbed the code on the keypad and pedaled through the security gate into the parking garage, Emily’s Land Rover at his heels. Once inside the condo, Meredith fished a newspaper clipping from her purse. The headline: “Mysterious Land Grab by Local Real Estate Tycoon.” The article included a photograph of Marcus. He remembered when it was taken. Maybe 10, 12 years ago. Before Suzette’s diagnosis. Their house had been featured in a lifestyle magazine. In the photograph, he looked awkward but game. The newspaper had cropped Suzette out of the shot.
“What on Earth?” Emily said.
“I’m sorry you had to hear this way. I really am.”
Infant James was at her breast. Marcus had never felt comfortable in the presence of a woman nursing a baby, especially not his daughter. He directed his gaze out the sliding glass doors to the balcony, an evasion that made him look guilty, though that was not the way he felt.
For an hour, Marcus listened while his daughters pleaded their case, first Meredith, then Emily, sometimes both at once, their voices twining in his ears, his eyes focused on the breakers rolling ceaselessly up onto the beach. Theirs was not, he understood, an unreasonable position. They addressed him as respectfully as he could have hoped, given the circumstances. He refused to believe that he could lose them over this. Finally, Meredith tucked her breast back into her blouse and Emily concluded their remarks. “This is not what Mother would have wanted.”
Marcus hesitated. Such sensible girls.
“I was thinking I would have your mother reinterred. There’s a beautiful little cemetery on the Sound.”
Emily burst into tears. She covered her face with both hands and made a noise like a squeaky wheel. Meredith stared at her father, perplexed, infant James already sleeping in the crook of her arm.
“There’s plenty of money,” Marcus said. “You don’t have to worry.”
Emily dropped her hands into her lap. At the same time, she raised her heels and stomped them down, a gesture that called to mind the outbursts of her adolescence. “Oh, Daddy, how could you be so dumb?”
“Once everything is settled on the island, you’ll be welcome to visit. We’ll have it all to ourselves.”
Meredith put a hand on Emily’s shoulder. “We should go. We’re sorry to bother you, Daddy.” She stood slowly, her eyes never leaving his, as if in the presence of a skittish horse. Pregnancy had filled his oldest daughter out — her hips, her calves. She looked complete to Marcus, grown at last.
“Could I hold the baby?” he said. “Just for a second before you leave.”
Meredith balked at offering her child up to her father, but she relented. Marcus bounced his sleeping grandson in his arms, breathed him in, the smell of him sweet and plain. Sunlight sifted across his face. Infant James twitched and scrunched his cheeks. His cheeks were smooth and pale, round as Christmas baubles. Marcus wondered, not for the first time, what infants dreamed.
Then came the lawyers and the injunctions and all pending transactions put on hold until matters could be settled by the court. His daughters wanted Marcus declared non compos mentis. The documents arrived by UPS. Marcus read the pages carefully, tapped the edges together, and filed them in a kitchen drawer with Emily’s letter and his car keys.
He biked down to Fort Gaines, locals waving as he passed, honking their horns. He parked his Schwinn in the shadow of the fort and gazed out across Mobile Bay in the direction of his old house. Even now, perhaps, a buyer was wandering the quiet rooms, footsteps echoing on the hardwood. That house had been designed by the architect Fritz Belmont Jr., a beautiful setting for what had been a beautiful life by any standard, a place so big and rambling that sometimes Marcus could hear his daughters calling and not know where to find them. Picture him sitting there with Suzette, exchanging a smile, a touch, light streaming in through the windows, Marcus rising from the couch or the kitchen table and following the sound of their voices along the hall or up the stairs, pushing open doors, peeking around corners, knowing, as he moved toward them, that anything they desired, be it comfort or praise or some silly, pretty thing, anything in the world was his to give.
Back at the condo, still smarting with reminiscence, he spotted a trio of fishermen set up on the beach in front of the old pier, rod handles jammed into the sand. Used to be you could fish from the rail. Marcus had seen the photographs on the wall at Dauphin Bar and Grill. In one of these, the young Tenpenny brothers are posed with a five-foot bull shark, a crowd of gawkers behind them, the bull shark sprawled damply across the planks. Marcus had heard them tell the story, how they’d taken turns on the reel. Even at high tide, they would have had to haul the shark 10 feet through nothing but air to wrangle it onto the pier. A miracle the line didn’t break. Marcus imagined the shark hovering up and up and up, Tenpennys and gawkers cheering it on. Now these fishermen whipped their lines out past the surf, the pier looming at their backs. They waited and Marcus, on his balcony, waited with them. He felt like he was watching for a sign. He willed a fish to strike but nothing was biting. Marcus went back inside to fix a drink. To their credit, he thought, his daughters had managed to hold off for this long, to give him this much rope. In the morning, he got his legal team on the phone.
The hearing took place in Mobile, the county seat. Marcus’ lawyers wore the finer suits — sleek grays, deepwater blues. They battered the opposition’s expert witnesses, Meredith and Emily watching from the plaintiff’s table with tissues crumpled in their fists. Marcus did not love them any less. If anything, he loved them more, loved their certainty and their grave faces, each manifesting a different aspect of their mother — Emily her upturned nose, Meredith her ears, perfectly shaped, like the ears from a drawing in a textbook. Both of them had Suzette’s pragmatic eyes. And he felt, quite suddenly, during a particularly contentious back and forth regarding the house on Mobile Bay, the rush and tug of some tremendous force dragging at him like an undertow. He could not be sure if this sensation was born of the hearing itself or the presence of his wife in the features of his daughters or the realization that the bounty of this life is not greater than its disappointments, but he clutched the arms of his chair as if to keep from going down. The courtroom was windowless, drop-ceilinged, lit by rows of fluorescent bulbs. Beneath the table, anxious litigants had worn the carpet to its backing. The stenographer was missing a button on her blouse. But look — despite everything, his daughters shimmered. They understood nothing. They were trying to save him from himself. They might never forgive him if they failed.
During the lunch recess, Marcus instructed his lawyers to surrender. But he was winning, they assured him. Precedent was clearly on his side. Buying Dauphin Island was definitely eccentric and arguably irresponsible but in no way unlawful or provably deranged. Marcus waved away their protests. “Whatever they want,” he said. A few hours later, with visible regret, the judge read the settlement into the record. Control of Marcus’ assets was granted to his daughters, his acquisitions on Dauphin Island rendered null and void.
In the ensuing weeks, Meredith and Emily secured a spot for Marcus at a retirement community for active seniors. He would have his own private cottage, a view of Mobile Bay, access to the therapy he needed. There were grief counselors on staff. Support groups. Amazing how many residents had, in so many different ways, lost someone they loved.
Marcus went along with their plans with quiet dignity. He was younger than his new neighbors but not by much. He played bingo, attended movie night. He took lessons in conversational Spanish and watercolor painting and ballroom dancing. He was popular among the widows, all the more so for his lack of interest. He was not a prisoner. He had his car, but Marcus stayed close to the grounds, riding his bike on miles of paths, looping through his memory beneath the pines.
The azaleas bloomed in April. Meredith visited every Tuesday and every Thursday, and Marcus was careful to look presentable for her. He had been so busy for so long buying up other people’s property, other people’s lives, that he took an unexpected comfort in remaking himself to suit his daughters.
Infant James was crawling now.
“He looks like you,” Meredith said. “He has your chin.”
“He looks like his grandmother,” Marcus said.
In May, Meredith and her husband picked Marcus up and they made the pilgrimage to Tuscaloosa for Emily’s graduation. Because she’d asked for so many incompletes, the actual diploma would be blank, but the university had agreed to let her process with the rest of her class. Marcus took pictures like a proper father and posed for more pictures with his children. He held his grandson in his lap. The sky was clear. The clouds were white. The air reeked of old bricks and cut grass and nostalgia.
Everything as it should be.
Occasionally that summer, a family from Birmingham or Atlanta would rent a house on the west end of Dauphin Island or a condo at the Admiral’s Quarters. For a day or two, they would be charmed by the rustic quality of the place, the sense that nothing ever changed, but the children would grow bored and that rustic quality would begin to look more down-at-heel. They almost always left feeling sad but relieved, as if headed home from a wake. Fort Gaines was placed on a list of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places. Apparently, its walls were sturdy enough to withstand the blasts from Yankee cannons but not budgetary shortfalls and salt air. Alton Tenpenny suffered a fatal heart attack in August. Ike filed for bankruptcy and moved in with his son, a high school baseball coach in Selma. Homer carried on alone. Of all the residents of Dauphin Island, Norma Bird was the most sorry to bid farewell to Marcus Weems, the most disappointed that his vision was never realized. Yes, those commissions would have made her rich, but she’d also been inspired by his belief that the island could be restored. Those hot blue days, she played solitaire on her computer, the office so quiet she kept imagining the jaunty ring of a bicycle bell outside. Then, in September, that in-between month, no longer summer, not yet fall, Hurricane Raphael blew in, smashing houses and ripping trees up by the roots and dragging countless tons of sand back out to sea.
Michael Knight is the author of the novels The Typist and Divining Rod; the three short-story collections Dogfight and Other Stories, Goodnight, Nobody and Eveningland (in which “The King of Dauphin Island” appears); and a book of novellas, The Holiday Season. He teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee.