MY MIDDLE-AGED MEMORIES of the house by the sea, like the photographs my family took there, have a veiled provenance. Caught amidst swirling instances of indecision, they seem of a piece with the frothy state of betwixt-and-between that gave the place its grain: sharp grass and velvet mud, rush of water and crunch of shell, rough-planked interiors and placid exteriors. The image of the place is vivid to me now, but its meaning is hidden, flickering and uncertain, boxed up and piled in shadows.
My father’s great-grandfather had purchased the house by the sea around the turn of the last century, and it had been the scene of many family holidays down to my father’s childhood. In the decades preceding my birth, however, a series of disputes among brothers and brides had set the place off-limits for a generation. My father had spent summers there as a child, but through college and engineering school and the early years of his marriage only fleeting visits had been possible; by the time I was born, the place was shunned by all sides of the family. But then some uncle unknown to me had died; some sort of resolution had been offered or fallen into, and that winter my cousins and I had heard our parents judiciously scheduling various visits over the phone.
Our turn came in late July, bringing hope of a respite from struggles within our household and without. The fraternals and collaterals of my father’s side were not the only contested realm in our family; my parents, too, had skirmished often in the last few months, a running battle that seemed to wax and wane with every change in fortune. What could I do to change the tide? I was twelve years old, and both of them were perfect in every conceivable way. If my father could not keep his job, it must have been part of some tremendous design, the chief elements and ends of which lay outside my narrow borders. If my mother were drinking rather heavily — if the streaked and reeking pitcher she carried to breakfast and dinner always seemed too full, and to slop too often as she poured her glass — it must have been a necessary salve. And their faces grew fond whenever we talked about the house by the sea. Their memories of it were happy, their expectations of a salutary return too bright and hungry to brook any doubt.
We drove up mid-week, my mother preferring to miss a couple of days to avoid the weekend highway. I sat wedged sweatily between bocce and badminton sets, amidst suitcases, boxes of books, and pantry goods, while the road effected its slow reduction from multi-lane tollway to rolling blacktop to washed-out, sandy way snaking through scrub oak and huckleberries. The place itself sat on a low rise of windswept grass sheltered by broad sycamores, offering a stately contrast to the low, fey thatch of leather-leafed oaks. The tall pile of white clapboard and slate-gray porches looked slightly out of place, as if a suburban colonial had hitched up its skirts and tripped barefoot through the scrub to settle here before a swerve of sea.
And what a swerve it was — twelve feet beyond the back porch step, the windswept lawn gave way to a low, broken fieldstone wall at which the tidal current lapped. Beyond that landfall spread a sweep of water rippling its way amidst tussock-topped islands, a puzzle of beguiling insularities scattered a mile or more out to where the mud dropped away and the proper sea stood behind its shattering pale of surf. Close by the fieldstone break, a small sailboat lay hauled out on a hump of long grass, its sail and rigging furled and wound like some forgotten aegis. With the sun riding high amidst a tumult of clouds, the flats alive with a tapestry of wind-woven water to robe the granite beaches’ whitened bones, the picture thus presented was a fair and memorable one.
By the time the last box was deposited on the kitchen table and the car doors finally closed, however, this scene had rearranged itself entirely. The tide having run out, the seascape was now a ruin of runneled mud and shellheap. Here and there lay mirrored pools of water like lozenges. People ranged across the distances of the newborn strand; in a couple of place boats lay stranded on their gunwales. I stumbled out to the edge of the grass and uttered a cry of astonishment.
“The tides run here like no place else,” my mother called to me, settling into a chair on the porch with a heap of napkins for folding. “That’s the quality of this stretch of coast,” she continued, her bob of black hair bristling in the wind. “You come to visit one place, and turn around to find yourself in another.”
“You’ve been here before?” I asked.
“When daddy and I first met,” she replied, nodding. Referring to my father she used “daddy,” a habit of her own family away down South, which to me always sounded strange.
“How was it then?” I asked.
She exhaled a long time. “The picture it presents today,” she replied at last, “is utterly different.”
I wondered what she could mean, but she only told me to run along and see what I might find on the mud flats. So I ventured out, straying far out among pools and rippled sands, climbing onto islands parked on the flats like feral ships run aground. I thrilled to the quiet implacable quality of time on the flats — the water trickling in almost imperceptibly as the islands’ shadows stole across the sand — and especially the esoteric sense of being somewhere that wasn’t. An hour before, these trackless, well-packed rills and dunes had been seafloor; in the space of six hours, they would be hidden again by waters. It was as if two wholly different places existed in one frame, diurnally revealed as the moon swept round the earth. Only the occasional holler or crash of wood from the old house on the rise reminded me of enduring reality.
That evening my father and I sat in the yellow glow of lamps as the moist cool stole in at the windows. The house’s interior belied its stolid exterior — within, it looked like a circus tent woven together of unfinished planks. It had a roughhewn feel, but for the bookshelves lining nearly every wall with their ancient, salt-rimed sets of Harvard Classics and Blue-and-Gold Ticknor novels leaning softly into one another. My father sat with one of these books flopped fatiguedly open in his lap while I scooted about on my knees testing the drawers and cupboards. Off in the beadboard-lined kitchen, my mother was washing the dishes with infinite care, setting down plate after glass in a soft, moist, syncopated rhythm.
“You’re unlikely to find anything of interest in the cupboards,” my father intoned. “It’s not as if we’re the first to visit this place in any long while. Uncle Neal and his kids were here for the last three weeks, and my cousins have been coming for years unabated. Those ruffians have likely ransacked the place for trinkets by now.”
He wasn’t quite right. I had managed to find a few prizes: a greasy bottle of tanning lotion, a frosty pill of beach glass, a tiny troll doll that looked as if had been chewed upon. I was about to give up when I found — not in a drawer, but in a kind of hinged magazine rack nestled behind the lampstand — a camera. And a marvelous camera at that: a black, steel-lipped scallop-shell of leather, which popped open to reveal a lens retracted into a kind of bed of bellows, set in a face of polished chrome beneath a plate of lensed plastic.“Let’s see,” said my father, taking the camera in his large red hands and pudging up his face as he turned it over. He explained that it was an old Land camera, an old style of Polaroid, which took pictures on instant film that developed, with the application of a chemical squeegee inserted into a pocket in the camera’s shell, in about a minute’s time.“It says it’s got film in it,” he said, pointing at a tiny fogged window with the number “7” framed within. I asked if I could take a picture with it, to see if it worked. “Well I don’t see why not,” he replied, dropping his book and grinning wanly as I aimed the camera at him. I pressed the cool back to my face—there was a smell of rust and old leather that seemed to carry me to faraway places—my finger fumbled for the shutter button, and the whole machine shuddered a moment before a plane of photo paper came flicking out like a tongue, emitting a clean, alkaline smell that blended pleasingly with the former mustiness.
“Now take it out,” he said, nodding at the dangling photo. I did, and he showed me how to withdraw the squeegee from its little scabbard to drag a foul blue gel across the photo’s milky emulsion. “Set it here,” he said, indicating the broken-edged marble table top next to his armchair. I laid it down gently, as if it were made of glass, and we both leaned over it as the image resolved by uncanny, slow degrees.
And after a breathless moment, there it was: a photographic image. But not of my father, not of the armchair, not of any scene offered in the house by the sea. Instead we saw a sunlit pagoda at the end of a red-railed bridge nestled amidst blossom-heavy boughs.We stared at the photograph a moment, and then our eyes met. I asked my father if the picture could have been taken by someone else and jammed in the mechanism until we released it. “It doesn’t work that way,” he replied, shaking his head uncertainly and reaching for the camera. He handled it a moment like a broken thing, turning it over soft-handedly as if it were an injured bird. Then quickly he aimed the lens at me — I smiled reflexively — and pressed the shutter button. The mechanism wheezed; a new photograph protruded, its imagery still veiled. Treated and set upon the table, its streaked surface slowly dried and brightened to reveal a woman standing between railroad tracks in shorts and fluffy bedroom slippers, her face turned from view.His face screwed up in fretful curiosity, my father got up and strode about the room, taking three pictures in rapid fire. He aimed at the ceiling, the floor, and the door to the kitchen; a disappointed-looking pier, a collapsed hot-air balloon, and a white Labrador retriever with its leash in its mouth, resolved in turn before our eyes.
My mother stole in behind us as we looked at the images on the chipped marble. “Where’d you find those?” She asked.
My father stood upright, aimed the camera, and snapped, my mother presenting an instant rictus of flashbulb smile. He yanked the photo from the camera, squeegeed it, and handed it over. Her smile dissolved as she watch the image appear. She showed it to us: newly-pollarded trees marching along a road; tall, leafless elms on a smudged horizon.#The next morning, my father drove into town looking for a place that carried the right kind of film, while my mother sat at the long dining table and looked over the photographs made by the camera. She was shuffling them before her as if they were a game of solitaire.
I asked what she was looking for, but she didn’t want to talk. “Did you have your breakfast?” she asked. “Then why not go for a sail?” she continued at my nodding reply.
“The tide is coming in.”
Though her faraway tone made me curious, I wordlessly complied. As she was occupied with the photographs, I slipped the camera from its place on the lampstand and took it along. The little window indicated there was one shot left, and we had no replacement film as yet. But I wanted to discover what I would find the next time I pushed the shutter button.
I had learned to sail in summer camp, and although the boat was new to me it readily disclosed its secrets. On the grassy bank by the water I stepped the mast and unfurled the sail. Laying the camera carefully in the little forward cuddy cabin, I pushed the boat into the turbid water, tucked into the cockpit, and set a long reach across an elbow of tidal current where it bent to cradle the nearest island.
I sailed a long while in that uncentered labyrinth, the white pile of the house dipping and hiding as I tacked amidst the bars and islands hemmed in by the far-off surge of surf. I only turned back when the centerboard began scraping the sand as the tide ran out. Heading homeward, I stopped on the near island and removed the camera from the latched cuddy. Standing on the shore, I quickly aimed at the house and snapped a photo. When the image at last appeared, it showed the house as I was looking at it, with — and this I had not noticed while taking the picture — my father standing amidst the long grass by the water with his hands upraised. I looked up across and there he stood, still waving, his shouts a rumor on the water. I waved the oddly accurate photograph at him as if he should see it over the distance and then quickly shoved off for home.
He was furious. “You took the camera?” he spluttered.
“I didn’t know I shouldn’t,” I replied.
“It’s special!” he shouted. “It’s very special — very special. It shouldn’t be taken out of the house.”
I turned the photograph over to him. He looked up and gazed across the outflowing water to the island as if to make sure it was there.
“A very special camera,” he mumbled, turning and walking up the grass. Flicking a look back over his shoulder, he said, “bring it now.”
But we did take it out of the house, and soon. Over the next few days it was our family’s entire business to investigate the ways of the camera. We had already discovered that beyond the house it took pictures of the scene it was presented with; only inside did it reveal other locales and unknown persons. One day we took the camera with us on a drive to the village nearby, shooting entirely conventional pictures of ourselves seated on stone walls or eating fried clams by the harbor. It occurred to my mother that perhaps the photographs we took while away from the house might be shared with some other camera in some other place. She brought along a small dry-erase board from the kitchen to hold in front of ourselves whenever we took a picture, thus to furnish unknown (and perhaps nonexistent) others with dates, places, and names. In this way our family photographs took on the quality of messages in bottles — although we flung them into an abyss, a sea we never could see. But there were: me with fudgesicle and flip-flops, my father’s white t-shirt luminous, my mother’s jacket collar popped against the sea-summer chill, all of us floating to the surface on our estranged smiles.
Indoors each night we clicked away, amassing an inventory of enigmas. I still remember many of the photographs, though I no longer have them to hand: a sumptuous spiral staircase, its banisters of dark wood, its treads clad in rich red carpet; a hand-cranked ice cream maker streaming with meltwater; the artfully-framed boughs of an aged oak from which peered the eyes of what looked like a dog, but must have been some forest creature. Rarely did the photographs depict people; when they did, their faces were turned away or veiled. Unlike our own photographs, in which we grinned foolishly around our scrawled-upon sign. This discrepancy made me wonder whether we had guessed the camera’s workings correctly; but my parents never remarked upon it, and as with many other mysteries I kept my own counsel.
As these days and nights passed in the house by the sea, a change came over my parents. Each had latched onto an obsession: for my father, the camera’s mechanism became the object of all his intent. Numerous times he dismantled the machinery with great care, holding the tiny, flashing parts up to the lamplight and examining them minutely. I would find him rummaging in the closets, peering into the attic, splintering back loose floorboards as he hunted in vain for some explanatory circuitry embedded in the very timbers of the house. My mother, meanwhile, each night arranged and rearranged our growing deck of exotica, seeking patterns in the tumult of imagery. Some nights she attempted a geographical sorting, although the locations proved too uncertain to venture guesses upon. She placed them into two rows, one with people and one without; the animals she first counted with the people, then shook her head and slid them one by one to the unpopulated side. She smoked as she worked, wreathing her short hair, her spectacles, and her fruitless cartomancy in glamorous rings and clouds. She played any number of suits and tricks: wild and domestic animals, urban scenes and rural, indoors and out, marine and terrestrial; even the colors obsessed her. But as her ashtray filled, these shufflings disclosed no distinct meaning to her ever-reddening eyes.
At night, shouts and thumps from the upstairs bedroom continued unabated. I was not unaccustomed to such night sounds, and yet as the camera worked its way into our family life they took on a fresh vehemence. One night — the air heavy and still, the beam from a faraway lighthouse flickering as it searched the muslin curtains — I climbed the stairs and stood in their bedroom doorway. Shadows reared and loomed as my parents stalked and shouted and the ceiling fan spun on its stalk. “Can’t we put things back together?” my father pleaded. “We can put things back together.”
“You can take it apart and put it back together any which way,” mother replied. “You’re good at that, aren’t you? Always putting things together and taking them apart. But it doesn’t change anything. It’ll work the same no matter how you put it together. It’s the nature of it to do what it does to us.”I thought they were talking about the camera. When they looked at me, I asked them what was wrong, whether it was the camera, what we could do to fix it. My mother came to me, sweaty and wet-cheeked; soap and ashes enfolded me as she took me in her arms, saying, “and here he is, our little picture. Only he’s no self-portrait, is he? He’s something else altogether. Where did he come from? Where did you come from, little picture?” She took me back to my bed and stayed with me, crooning that refrain — “where did you come from, little picture” — until I fell asleep.
When I awoke the next morning, she was gone — back to the city, my father said. We returned ourselves in a couple of days, me sitting in the front seat. He dropped me off at home and left to stay with friends in the next town over. When mother went away — some months later, after my father had returned home — she took with her the photographs we made at the house by the sea. I supposed that she was looking for the places we had glimpsed in them, hoping to stitch them together into some reality more brightly colored. It was a solace that she took both the images of ourselves and the mysteries together in one small box. But I never learned whether she found a sorting to make the photographs yield their story.
We went to the place the next July, daddy and I, but my father wanted nothing to do with the camera. He dismantled it one last time, put the pieces in the drawer, and never spoke of it again. We frittered away the month generously sailing the inlets and sounds, picking rocks and shells on the flats, fishing or watching the stars wheeling in the night. A few times my father would turn in early, and I would sneak into the parlor to examine the disassembled camera. In subsequent summers I tried the puzzle of the parts until I made the camera whole again. And then — for by then I was going alone to the house by the sea — I started taking pictures. Only my object had changed: now I was hoping for an image that might show mother to me. I consumed many packets of film, discovered many images of unknown people, places, and things. Finally, the manufacturer stopped making film stock for the camera and the flow of cryptic images ceased. Looking through pictures of unknown dogs and uneaten wedding cakes, perfectly-set tables and unkempt lawns, only one image provokes my curiosity. In it, a woman looks across a street as if making ready to cross, or maybe she’s waiting for someone. She wears a quilted jacket, its collar popped familiarly; her bob of black hair seems to bristle as she steps away.