Natural disasters caused Katie’s mother to fall in love with Dennis rapidly, and with complete abandonment of reason. They first met during Hurricane Ana where they were both Red Cross Disaster Services volunteers. Then they saw each other again during the aftermath of Tropical Storm Claudette, spending two weeks together coordinating meals and emergency shelters. More hurricanes and storms and floods followed. By the time of Hurricane Fabian, six months later, Rose and Dennis were secretly engaged.
Now Katie waits in Gate 59 at Logan International as the sun rises, glinting off the airplanes scattered around the tarmac. It is a crisp, spring morning and a never-used suit carrier rests against her legs. Inside, all folded up, is her only wedding-appropriate dress that she will wear later today. The man sitting next to her talks on his cell phone, closing his mother’s bank account, claiming her life insurance policy because she just died. Katie tries to stay focused on her newspaper, but finds herself listening in on his conversations, glancing over at the notebook spread on his lap with intricate lists and phone numbers. He checks things off after each call. Then there’s the announcement that it’s time to board.
Her mother started volunteering with the Red Cross almost fifteen years ago, right after Katie’s father died. Katie was a senior in high school, her older brother and sister had already moved away, and her mother wanted something to get her out of the house in the evening. Obstructed breathing became Rose’s specialty. She even had her own Resusci Annie and baby dolls, which lay side-by-side in the back seat of the car. Then she switched to Disaster Services, getting on the hurricane circuit, following storms around the country.
When Katie lands in Fort Myers, her older brother is idling outside the terminal in a white rental car that smells of stale chewing gum and a hint of vomit.
“I hate Florida,” Vincent says, as they sit in midday traffic.
“But you’ve lived here twice.”
If you throw a dart on a map of the United States, Vincent has probably lived in a nearby city where he knows at least eight good bars. He works as a session musician and moves suddenly and often, prompted by his horoscope, an email from a long lost friend, sidewalk graffiti. In the past two years alone, Vincent has lived in Nashville, Seattle, Austin, and now LA, where he’s been for a whole six months. It’s his fifth move to the city, motivated this time by passing a homeless man crossing the street and muttering, “sometimes you have to ad-lib.” Vincent went home and packed his bags and was gone within hours.
Katie has never left the greater Boston area, and the past decade has been spent in and out of art school. Finally she got her degree and landed a job at Fun Town, a children’s play space, where she dresses up like a clown and oversees craft projects: popsicle stick sculpture, gluing Cheerios, dried-out pasta and string onto paper plates. She just moved to the top floor apartment of a three-family building near Davis Square. Her three new roommates only communicate with each other through angry notes about the bills and masking tape labels on their individual containers of food in the refrigerator.
The traffic eases when they reach a narrow strait crowded with bait shops, motels, seafood restaurants. They decide to stop at one called Barnacle Phil’s.
“Nobody in Florida is actually from here,” Vincent explains quietly while they stand in line at the kitchen window. One dollar bills cover the walls of the place and everyone else appears to be a regular, helping themselves to the stapler inside the kitchen and adding their dollar to the collage, once they’ve finished.
A girl with braces hands them their order number and they sit at a picnic table overlooking a canal while they wait for their fried fish sandwiches. Sea grass shoots up through the wooden floorboards. On the dock below, a woman holding two large plastic cups filled with beer laughs as she tries to climb onto a motorboat.
“I so totally hate Florida,” Vincent says after their food arrives.
“Do you have any insight into why exactly Uncle Mike isn’t coming? Mom gave this long, convoluted explanation about a convention in Vancouver that was pretty clearly a lie. What gives?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“Not to me.” He stirs a French fry in a blob of ketchup in his sandwich basket.
“You think he wants to watch his dead brother’s wife marry someone else?”
“But it’s been fifteen years! And what is a wedding without Uncle Mike anyway? He always has killer weed.”
“I have complete confidence that you will be able to find another source.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” he scratches his goatee and checks his phone. “We better motor. Mina will freak if we are late.”
Katie didn’t find out that her mother even had a boyfriend until her mother mentioned him one evening last summer. “Dennis is a widower too, but they never had any children,” she was saying to Katie’s older sister, Mina, when Katie walked through her mother’s kitchen door. “Her idea, not his. Says he loves kids. Biggest regret of his life.” She stopped talking when she saw Katie.
“Mom has been dancing until two in the morning.” Mina squeezed Katie’s hand. She was in town on a business trip from New York City.
“Sounds like the Red Cross is getting pretty wild.”
“Just go get the candles from the living room.” Her mother’s fingers mimed walking.
Katie kept listening in the hallway. “So the first night, we were setting up cot beds and Dennis says to me we should have a race, see who can make up the first ten beds the fastest. ‘Course he won. Tells me I owe him a drink, so we went out that night and then it just kind of went on from there,” Katie heard the glugging of wine. “There was a group of us who went to this bar that stayed open late just for the volunteers. They even had a jukebox that played old songs.”
Her mother dished out pot roast, mashed potatoes and green beans, the meal she always served on Sunday nights, even on a hot, late summer evening. She passed around a picture that she had inside her wallet of Dennis wearing a powder-blue shirt dotted with tiny white sailboats, unbuttoned just enough to reveal a thick silver chain, a deep, orangish, tan. “He lives in Florida, but he says he’s going to visit,” her mother stifled a smile. “He’s going to come visit me.”
When Katie and Vincent arrive at the Shipwreck Motel, they find their older sister Mina sitting by the pool with her laptop, page proofs, and a blue frozen drink that has a matching blue umbrella in it. “These are the only way to go.” She indicates the drink and doesn’t quite stand, just pivots herself out of her lounge chair and gives them each a slight kiss.
“How long before we gotta leave for the wedding?” Vincent is already eyeing the poolside bar, which is shaded and busy.
“It’s just a party. They didn’t want the whole ceremony thing, remember?” Mina has been down for two days already and, as usual, knows more about what is going on than Vincent and Katie combined.
“You mean I came all this way for a party?” Vincent taps out a cigarette.
“So how long we got before the party?”
“Hour, hour and a half.”
“Who’s driving?” he asks.
They all look at each other.
“Fine, I’ll do it,” Mina says. “But I’m gonna be a little pissy about it, just so you know.”
“That all works for me. Drink anyone?” Vincent asks his sisters and drifts away before they can reply.
“Are you sure?” Katie wipes the sweat off her forehead. She is still wearing her leather jacket.
“Totally. And you should swim. It definitely takes the edge off.” Mina hands her a magnetic key strip, the kind that looks like the cheapest credit card ever invented. “We’re up there.” She points to a room on the second floor, the sliding door opened onto a tiny overhang of a balcony, orange curtains blowing outwards. It overlooks the pool, just like all the others, a square frame of identical units.
She drags the suit carrier up to the room, where her sister’s clothes are all put away, her dress hanging neatly in the closet. Mina has everything that Katie doesn’t: a duplex, a good job with benefits, even a retirement plan. And she is the only person who will lend Katie money when she’s short on her rent. Her weekends are spent going to college classmates’ weddings, or on endless hunts for rustic-looking furniture and knick-knacks to decorate her apartment.
Katie flings the bag on the bed, rips off her clothes and changes into a bathing suit.
When she returns, Vincent is still at the pool bar, deep in conversation with a woman who looks like she’s been there all day. When she’s not talking to Vincent, she’s kissing the other man sitting next to her. A man in a tiny, racing bathing suit watches them and sings along to “Hotel California.” Katie joins her sister instead.
The pool is busier now. A woman yells at a little boy wearing orange water wings on his stubby arms. “I’m going to count to three, young man.” She is trying to grab at him. But he spits a mouthful of water at her and swims well beyond her reach. Katie jumps into the pool, darting around the swirling families and their flotational devices, and tries to swim a few laps.
The first time Katie met Dennis was in a mediocre North End restaurant. Her mother had just finished giving him a mini tour of the Boston Tea Party boat, the Freedom Trail, Paul Revere’s house. He looked much the way he did in his picture and asked Katie if she was ready “to rock and roll” when the waitress came to take their order. He had a lot of questions about the entrees, talking loudly and slowly, as if the waitress didn’t speak English.
“Dennis has never been to New England before,” Katie’s mother said after the waitress left. He asked Katie about her job, but his cell phone rang when she started to answer. “Call me later,” he whispered and snapped the phone shut, before putting it into his shirt pocket. Rose excused herself to the bathroom, and Katie and Dennis just sat there, not saying anything. Dennis chewed the ice in his drink, Katie shredded her paper napkin, and finally her mother returned. “Well,” she said, as the food arrived.
“So Rose tells me you’re an artist,” Dennis said.
“Trying to be. I just finished school.” Katie looked down into her lap. She hadn’t painted at all since graduation, and got rejection letters for teaching jobs almost every week.
“I’m an art dealer of sorts.” He pierced a meatball. “I sell used jewelry. And coins too. But some of my clients, they might want a painting. Or one of those things you can put on your lawn. What are they called?”
“I don’t know.”
“A garden gnome! That’s it. Anyway, I could really unload some stuff for you, if you want.”
“I don’t make those,” Katie concentrated on her fork. Dennis signaled for the waitress to bring them another round of drinks.
“Katie won a state championship,” Rose said quickly.
“That was in high school, Mom.” Katie tried to formulate a question about coins, but couldn’t think of anything, so she asked Dennis about the flight instead.
After dinner, they walked over to the harbor and Dennis insisted on taking a picture of the two of them. “My girlfriend and her beautiful daughter in the moonlight,” he said, the camera flashing, her mother’s arm wrapped around Katie’s rigid shoulders.
Vincent brings over umbrella drinks to Katie and Mina, icy blue liquid spilling over his hands as he tries to balance them.
Mina announces that it’s time to get ready so they gulp down the drinks and head off for their room. The air-conditioning is on full blast and slaps Katie’s skin, cooled down from the pool.
Mina has the first shower.
“Did you know that Aunt Sylvia is having an affair?” she shouts from the bathroom. “With her best friend’s husband.”
“Who told you that?” Katie tries to shake out the creases in her dress.
The water stops. “Mom.”
“I bet she made that up.”
“Yeah, probably,” Mina comes out wrapped in towels, steam following her. “Hey, did you get the check I sent you?”
“I did, thanks. Sorry I forgot to tell you. I deposited it on Tuesday, I think. Oh wait, maybe it was Monday.”
The bathroom sink is so low that Katie has to squat down to brush her teeth. After showering, she dries herself off with a tiny, abrasive towel and changes.
“That dress is great on you,” Mina looks her up and down when she emerges from the bathroom.
“Is it too wrinkly?”
“No, it’s totally fine.”
Katie blow-dries her hair while her sister puts on mascara, both standing in front of the blackened mirror next to the television.
“Can I tell you something?” Mina says when Katie turns off the dryer.
“I’m being laid off.”
Katie sits down on one of the double beds. “But you’re the editor.”
“They’re being sold to another company and they want to go in a new direction. This is my last issue.”
“Can they do that?”
“Apparently so. Don’t tell anyone. Especially Mom.” Mina puts on lipstick.
“That really sucks.” Katie leans over to buckle high-heeled shoes that will be giving her blisters in about twenty minutes.
“Well, I guess I could use a break. And I’ve got other offers.”
Katie looks at her hands, regretting not painting her nails. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be, really. I just needed to get that off my chest.”
Vincent knocks at their door.
“Don’t tell him,” Mina whispers before he comes in.
“Your room actually smells worse than mine,” he lights up a cigarette.
During the drive to the restaurant, Katie worries about the rent bill she has to pay next week. She can’t ask her sister for even more money. She glances at Vincent in the backseat, balancing a vodka tonic between his knees. He’s wearing their father’s old, brown jacket with corduroy patches on the elbows that he wore everyday to teach the Civil War at Benjamin Franklin High. He winks at her and stirs his drink with his finger.
Though Katie has been working back-to-back birthday parties on the weekends, she still can’t cover all her expenses. A little girl told her she was the worst clown ever. “This party is canceled,” the girl shrieked, pointing at Katie who was sweating underneath her wig, her bright, red clown nose. Right before Thanksgiving, Katie’s boyfriend broke up with her, after almost a year together. He played bass and his band was constantly on the verge of signing with a major record label. They were lying in his bed when it happened. “I think we should try to slow things down,” he said. At first, Katie thought he meant something sexual. But then she got it. “Oh,” she looked around at her clothes scattered across the floor. All she was thinking was how to get them on without walking around naked in front of him. “You could still come to my shows,” he got up to go take a shower. Katie dressed quickly and left without saying goodbye.
When she got home, there was a message from Mina to call her STAT. Katie made coffee with her coat on, pulled the phone out to the back porch, stepping around suitcases, a vacuum cleaner, newspapers, and bottles for recycling that never made it to the sidewalk. Then she began flipping through a pile of parenting magazines, trying to get new ideas for work.
“Mom is moving to Florida,” Mina said. “They’re getting married,” she added.
Katie sipped her coffee and didn’t say anything.
“You there?” Mina asked.
Katie could hear a car alarm braying over and over and pictured Mina sitting out on her fire escape having a cigarette. “Are you outside?” she asked.
“I don’t want to get smoke on this leather chair I got last week,” Mina said. Katie rolled her eyes.
“I heard that,” her sister said. “Are you okay?”
“How come Mom tells you everything first? I just saw her two days ago and she didn’t say anything,” Katie ripped out an article about shellacking leaves.
“Maybe she was worried that you’d be upset.”
“That’s crazy. Why would I care?” Katie watched two teenage couples in the vacant lot behind her building passing around a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag. One of them jumped on an empty soda can over and over.
They get lost a few times but finally find the restaurant which juts out onto an inlet, the sky blazing orange behind it.
“Okay, here we go,” Vincent says after they’ve parked in one of the few remaining spaces.
Inside, a large bar dominates the whole right side of the dark wood-paneled room, already crowded with people. Lobster traps, buoys, and netting dangle from the ceiling. It looks just like the kind of restaurants Katie and her family used to go to at the end of a day at the beach. It seemed like every Saturday during the summer was spent driving up to the North Shore. On the way home, they’d always stop at a seafood restaurant and Katie’s father insisted on sitting right next to the cover band while they ate, talking their mother into at least one dance before they left. Katie, sticky from the beach, would often fall asleep in the back seat of the car, wedged in between Vincent and Mina. When they got home, her father would have to carry her up to bed, where she’d wake up the next morning, sometimes still wearing her bathing suit.
“Where’s Mom?” Katie shouts above the band, a woman with a tin whistle, a fiddler, guitar player and drummer. “How does she know so many people already?”
“It’s easier when you’re old,” Vincent shrugs.
“Mom’s not old.” Mina punches him in the shoulder.
“But he is.” Vincent says.
“Can we leave?” Katie asks.
“No! Go find Mom and I’ll get drinks, okay?”
“I’m coming with you.” Vincent follows Mina.
As she threads her way around through the crowd, Katie doesn’t recognize a single person. She feels a rubbery hand gripping her left arm and she turns to face an older man.
“You must be one of Rose’s daughters,” he smiles, revealing a set of yellowing dentures that click slightly when he talks.
“Yes, I’m Katie.” She shakes his hand.
“You look exactly like her. She is so much fun,” he grabs Katie’s hands and holds onto them. “I’m Jackson the restaurant manager. Would you dance with me?”
Before she can reply, he’s leading her out onto the space in front of the band where other people are dancing. Holding onto her arms, he guides her across the floor in time to the music, like he’s doing his own version of the waltz. A few nearby couples give Katie appreciative smiles. After two songs, she manages to extract herself from him, explaining that she needs to find her mother.
Mina and Vincent aren’t at the bar. Quickly scanning the room, she still can’t find anyone she knows, not even Dennis. Then she sees her mother wearing a veil, talking to Mina on the far side of the room. She heads straight for them, toes smothered in blisters.
“Oh Katie,” her mother squeezes her hard, then pulls away, holding onto her hands. People like to hold hands in Florida, Katie thinks. “I can’t believe you guys are really here!”
“Of course we’re here, Mom,” Katie says.
“Can you two help me with this stupid veil, I can’t get it to stay on. There’s this room in back we’ve kind of taken over.”
Katie and Mina follow their mother to this smaller room that looks like it’s used for Christmas dos, graduation dinners, promotion parties. Rose sits down at one of the tables, while Mina and Katie stand behind her, trying to fasten the combs in her hair.
“Ouch,” she says. “You’re stabbing me.”
“Sorry,” they both say in unison.
“Is my dress too tight?”
“It’s perfect. You look beautiful,” Mina says.
Katie nods in agreement and makes a small humming noise. “Mom, do you have any band-aids? My feet are killing me.” It comes out whinier than Katie intended.
“All right, Katie. Calm down. I’ll have a look for you,” her mother searches around in her bag. “Shoot, I know I have one somewhere in here.”
Mina mouths to Katie. “What’s with the veil?”
“I know,” Katie mouths back.
“Mom, do you need a drink or something to eat?” Mina asks.
“I would love that. I haven’t eaten all day. And a glass of white wine would be just perfect.”
Mina heads off to get the food and wine. Her mother hands Katie a small, circle-shaped bandage. “Sorry, this is all I could find.”
“Did you try the dolphin fish yet?” her mother says. “It’s local. And it’s not really dolphin either. They just call it that.”
“No, not yet.”
“Well, you really should. It’s very tasty.”
They look at each other.
“Do I have anything stuck in my teeth?” Her mother curls her lips all the way back, contorting her whole mouth into a snarl.
“No, you’re fine.”
“Good! I hate it when you’ve been walking around talking to people and then it turns out you’ve got a big blob of spinach that nobody thought to mention.”
She reaches around again in her purse.
“Mom…” Katie starts to say, but it doesn’t seem like her mother’s heard her.
Then she pulls out $100 from her purse and hands it to Katie. “Here,” she says.
“Just take it.”
“I can’t!” Katie tries to hand the money back, but Rose waves it away, as if it were a bug.
She adjusts her veil, checks her bra strap. “Oh, here’s Dennis,” she says, as he comes into the room.
‘Katie!” he hugs her tight. “So great to see you! I was just wondering where my bride went. You ready to rock and roll?”
“I think I am. You coming?” she says to Katie.
“Yeah, I just need to put on the band-aid. I’ll be right out.”
When she returns to the main part of the restaurant, Katie leans against the wall, watching her mother move around the room, sometimes laughing so hard that she tilts her head back. Dennis is right by her side, holding her hand.
The band plays a slowed-down version of Rock Around the Clock, then Come Fly With Me. Across the room, Katie can see Mina getting roped into a conversation with Jackson and a few other people. Katie grabs two drinks and goes to look for Vincent. But he isn’t anywhere in the room, so she tries the deck. She finds him alone on a bench facing the water, smoking a joint.
“I hate weddings,” he says, holding in the smoke.
Every Sunday morning when Katie was little, they would all get up and make pancakes with their father so their mother could sleep late. Katie and Mina would sit on the counter, cracking eggs into a bowl, stirring the batter. They’d listen to Vincent reading the comics out loud while jazz played on the radio. Her father moved quickly around the kitchen, making coffee, pouring juice into glasses, setting the table. His large hands were a blur above the stove as he grilled bacon and flipped pancakes. The smell of bacon and syrup would saturate the house and linger for the rest of the day.
The sky turns gray while they pass the joint back and forth.
“Hey listen, I gotta ask you a favor,” Vincent looks at her. “Could you lend me some money? I’ll pay you back.”
“I’m totally broke, I can barely pay my rent. I’m really sorry.”
“No sweat. Maybe I’ll hit up Mina.”
He stabs out the joint.
“Did you know that when thrush migrate, they fly all the way from Alaska,” he says after a while. “And they stop here before going on to fuckin’ Panama. Can you believe that shit?”
“How do you even know that?”
“I dated this chick who was in a bird-watching club.”
“You’re weird, Vincent.”
He shoves Katie slightly. A group of pelicans skim the water, and one lands on a wooden piling nearby. “You know what’s good about pelicans?” Vincent lights up another joint. “Pelicans don’t migrate. They just fuckin’ stay where they are.”
They sip their drinks and watch the pelicans until it’s too dark to see them anymore. Katie isn’t sure how long they’ve been out there when Mina appears in front of them. “They’re about to do the cake thing.” She reaches for the joint. “Gimme some of that.”
Inside, a crowd has gathered around Rose and Dennis. Katie and her siblings hover off to the side, watching their mother cut a piece of cake, drop it in Dennis’ mouth. Everyone claps as Dennis sucks on her fingers.
“Shouldn’t we make a toast?” Katie whispers to Mina.
“Mom said she didn’t want any of that. Too embarrassing,” she replies.
The band starts to struggle with The Way You Look Tonight. Dennis and Rose dance, his hands touching the small of her back, while she grips tightly onto his shoulders and burrows her head into his chest. Other couples start to join them.
One of the waitresses walks directly in front of them and Vincent stops her, as if he’s ordering a drink. The next thing Katie knows, he’s dancing with her, cigarette tight between his teeth.
The song merges into Come Fly With Me and Vincent picks her up and swings her around while she screams.
“That didn’t take long,” Mina whispers to Katie.
“She is the hottest one of them.”
The waitress seems to suddenly remember that she’s at work so Vincent dances with their mother instead. Rose laughs when he says something in her ear.
Dennis is walking quickly right towards them.
“Incoming at eleven o’clock,” Katie says without opening her mouth.
But Jackson gets to them first, grabbing Katie’s wrists. “Come on, sweetheart,” he says to her, leading her towards the band. She notices Mina pretending she can’t hear what Dennis is saying, then pointing at her shoes as if they are the reason she can’t dance with him.
After a few more songs, the band says goodnight and thank you, and the lights come on, like they’re at a show. Vincent whisks by saying he got the name of a club from the waitress, that he’ll just see them later back at the motel.
“Shit, I think I left my sweater in the bathroom,” Mina says.
So Katie stands with her mother while people come up to say goodbye. The sudden brightness highlights just how stoned she is. Once everyone has gone, Dennis tells her mother to meet him outside after he settles the tips with Jackson. “Katie, it means the world to us that you were here tonight,” he calls back over his shoulder.
Outside, the parking lot is mostly empty now, except for a cab waiting to take her mother and Dennis home.
“That was fun!” Her mother’s cheeks are flushed from the wine. Her veil is loose now, the combs have started to come out, and she scrunches it back down on her head.
“It really was, Mom.”
“Did you have fun?”
“Did you meet Mary and Louise?”
Katie opens her mouth to say something, but a lump has formed instead.
“And Jackson? You met Jackson. I saw you dancing with him. That was nice of you. You know Katie, you’re really…”
But then Dennis grabs her from behind and she squeals. They all say goodbye, Katie promising to come over in the morning. “First thing?” her mother asks.
Then, there she is, Katie’s mother, in the back seat with her new husband, waving goodbye, her hand reaching outside the rolled-down tinted windows. Katie can see she is crying and she waves back frantically until they are finally out of view.
Palm trees blow in a warm wind as Katie cradles her elbows, alone, outside the darkened restaurant.