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  Copyright © Tara Ison

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Ison, Tara.

  Rockaway : a novel / Tara Ison.

  pages cm

  ISBN 978-1-59376-560-6

  1. Artists--Fiction. 2. Inspiration--Fiction. 3. Revelation in art--Fiction. 4. Aging parents--Care--Fiction. 5. Domestic fiction. I. Title.

  PS3559.S66R63 2013



  Cover design by Debbie Berne

  Interior design by Tabitha Lahr


  An imprint of COUNTERPOINT

  1919 Fifth Street

  Berkeley, CA 94710


  Distributed by Publishers Group West


  to Michelle







  THIS IS WHAT I’ll paint, she decides: shells.

  She is staying in a beach house at the last edge of asphalt before sand, a home that belongs to her best friend’s grandmother, who is away recovering from hip replacement surgery. She is here, emphatically, to paint. Back home in San Diego, a gallery owner, impressed by Sarah’s art store display canvases daubed with rich Old Holland oils, had proposed an exhibit. If there were some interesting, recent work, perhaps. Paintings that expressed and defined who Sarah is, now. This was an important opportunity, she realized, something worthy of focus. But can’t you paint here?, her parents had asked. There are too many distractions here, friends, work, family, she’d replied, hitting the fam hard, like in famine.

  You’ll be fine without me, she told them. I need to do this. I need to get away.

  She called her best friend in Connecticut, who’d married a millionaire and now had a country estate where they planted a garden for the pleasure of growing their own fennel and arugula. They raised sheep to knit their own lumpy, organic sweaters from. The cost of feeding and shearing the three sheep, and having their wool carded, came to over a thousand dollars a sweater. Sarah tried not to envy her friend these sweaters, but it was hard. Instead, she called the friend to request a haven.

  Emily, about to have her third child by water birth, told her with kindness it wasn’t a good time right now, and then generously offered her Nana Pearl’s house in Rockaway, New York. Right on the beach, Emily said, it would feel like home. It would be empty for three or four months during the convalescence, except for Bernadette and Avery, the caretaker couple who lived in a studio guesthouse. She could stay there the entire summer. No one would bother her. The perfect retreat. And,

  This’ll be really great for you, Sarah, Emily enthused into the phone. I’m so happy you’re doing this, finally.

  Sarah quit her longtime default job managing the upscale art supply store in La Jolla, California, a blandly beautiful seaside town outside of San Diego where she had grown up. For years she’d shaved off ten percent of her paycheck and put it aside the way Mormons do to secure the earthly or heavenly future; she figured she’d saved just enough money to live, for a while. She gave notice on the beige, formica-and-asbestos, meant-to-be-temporary apartment she’d lived in since coming home from college, garage sale’d most of her kitchenware and furniture to San Diego State freshmen, and jammed the rest of her belongings, boxed-up and blanketed, into an 8’ by 7’ by 5’ storage vault she rented for thirty-five dollars a month. She broke up with her shrugging, default boyfriend, David. She packed up palettes and fresh brushes and fat, unpunctured tubes of paint, solvents, primers, and siccative oils, set her email to an emphatic auto-reply (I am currently offline and unreachable, away on a painting retreat!), and instructed her parents not to call.

  Of course we understand, they said, of course we’ll be fine, don’t be silly, this will be so wonderful for you, go, go!

  The Rockaway house—one of the oldest in the neighborhood, she remembers Emily telling her, 1902 or ’03—was surprisingly huge, dark gray stucco and fancy white trim, an awkward blend, she thought, of late-Victorian gothic and Cape Cod seashore glamour. The house, set off from the sea and sand by a low brick wall encircling the property, was at the dead end of a small flat street off Rockaway Beach Boulevard, at the western peninsula tip of Long Island, ten minutes of highway and one bridge across Jamaica Bay from Brooklyn. The house’s longest stretch on the second floor spanned seven bedrooms and three bathrooms linked without hallways, all with ceiling-high windows facing the gray-green Atlantic and full of wave crash and sea-tanged air. Her friend Emily’s mother Leah, plus Nana Pearl’s five other children, had grown up here; the house was peopled with photographs of these children, their children, and their children, including a recent shot of Emily with pregnant stomach and beatific smile, her husband and their two exquisite kids in their lumpy homeknit crewnecks. Dozens of eyes gazed on as Avery, the husband of the caretaker couple, guided Sarah upstairs, past walls collaged with grinny family photos.

  “And this is Aaron, and Michael, Leah, and Rose,” he said, pointing. “And this is Rose’s daughter Susan, and this is Fran’s son and his girlfriend, and—”

  “I know all these people,” Sarah said politely. She and Emily had been best friends since third grade.

  “Ah, you are knowing Emily? This is Emily, with her husband and the children . . .”

  They eventually arrived at the largest corner upstairs room, an oblong with huge picture windows on two sides framing the Atlantic Ocean like seascapes, gritty hardwood floors, threadbare rugs, and a queen-sized bed with a white iron headboard and flowered chenille spread. Waiting for Sarah was a large box shiny with packing tape, crammed full with the stretched and framed blank canvases she’d UPS’d ahead.

  “This is a good room for you, yes?” Avery said in a booming, Sri Lankan lilt. He was a squat barrel-type man, ochre, tattooed, his bald head rooted solidly to his shoulders. “This is Pearl’s room. So much sunshine. You can be looking out. It is good for you and your painting.”

  “It’s great. Really, thank you,” Sarah said. She swung open one of the picture windows, breathed in the turquoise light, the inviting sweep of beach, the steady seashell hum. She couldn’t remember when she last went swimming in the ocean, at home, but this ocean looked richer than the Pacific, more promising, as if undersea jewels and magical, tentacle’d creatures awaited. She graciously tried to tug her bags from him, which he had insisted on carrying for her.

  “And here are many rags for you, for the painting. But I am thinking, you will not be lonely here?” He looked concerned.

  “Oh, no. I’m here to work. I’m getting ready for an exhibition.” She smiled gaily at him, studied the room—the easel, that’ll go there, by that window, maybe clear off that nightstand, yes—and began to unpack her palette knives from the small wooden case she’d clutched to her side. I have an entire summer, she thought. Today is May 2nd. No, the 3rd. May 3rd, 2001. I have three months, maybe four. She envisioned filling her blank canvases with color, form, expression, and bringing them forth i
nto the world, the rich smells of linseed oil and turpentine mingling with the ocean salt, infusing the house with her artistry, her presence. “I’m here for the working,” she said, in response to his skeptical face. “The being alone is good. It’s perfect. It’s what I’m wanting.” She hoped the gerunds would make it easier for him to understand.

  IN HER FIRST moments on the empty beach—A walk first thing will clear your head, she tells herself, freshen and focus your vision, maybe you’ll even go for a swim in that promising sea—she spots a clamshell larger than she’s ever seen, sticking up from the sand like a highway-divider flap. She brushes it free of grit and plans to hold onto it as a keepsake of this time, until she realizes the entire beach is mosaicked with these huge clamshells, like expensive, themed floor tiling. She switches her allegiance to oyster shells, which, though plentiful, are smaller and harder to spot in the sand. Every day after her morning toast and coffee, then again in the late afternoon before tea and fruit, she makes a ritual of striding the sand to gather one or two oyster shells hued in grays, only the rare, perfect, unbroken ones. They look like little spoons, she thinks. If you were trapped on a desert island, you could collect oyster shells to make yourself spoons. She pictures herself shipwrecked, blissfully, eternally alone, living on seafood and shredded coconut, painting with fresh-squeezed squid ink and wild berry juices. She brings the shells up to her room—pausing to rinse them, and her bare feet, free of sand with the hose Avery leaves on the front porch—and lays them out carefully on the dresser top she’s cleared of Nana’s prolific family photos; as the days pass it looks like dinner service for four, then six, then eight, then twelve, awaiting a houseful of convivial guests and a course of soup. She shreds open her UPS box, carefully props her canvases against the walls of her room, arranged so their creamy faces can gaze expectantly upon her.

  She remembers an old prison movie from TV, where the warden warns an incoming inmate in a voice lethal with courtesy: Your time here can be hard, or your time here can be soft. It’s all up to you.

  Exactly, she thinks. She feels buoyant, untethered, full of faith.

  “AH, YOU ARE finding a shell!” says Avery’s wife Bernadette. She has sooty hair in a thick spine of braid down her back, a wizened apple-doll face. Sarah has placed an albescent clamshell near the kitchen sink as a spongeholder, and Bernadette nods acceptingly at this new addition to the household. She and Avery comment on her every action when she’s in the kitchen—Ah, you are cooking now?—making her self-conscious. She had not realized they would all be sharing the kitchen, that she would feel so observed. They are intrigued by her way of roasting broccoli, how she disassembles an artichoke. So much work, grinding the coffee beans every morning! Do you not like spicy food? they query in thunderous voices, making her feel bland and defensive. They are the type of intrusive people she always winds up being unavoidably rude to, and then feeling guilty about. She begins taking her meals on plates up to her studio/bedroom, ostensibly to eat while she paints. When they cook, after she’s left the kitchen, their shouted, mingled lilts to each other and the smells of curry and cardamom waft.

  During beach walks her head pulses with the (interesting, recent) art she will make. Images flash in bold, flat-bristled strokes; shapes and colors snap like flags. The new work will offer insight. Will communicate and express her vision. But when she returns to her easel overlooking the sea, the visions split off to pixels, scattered as broken bits of shell in the sand. Her blank canvases stare at her, wide-eyed and waiting. The pulses creep into faint throbs at the back of her head.

  Relax, Sarah, she tells herself. You haven’t done this in a while, is all. You’re not used to having this kind of time and focus and space. You’re still acclimating. Don’t overworry it.

  She starts carrying a sketchpad with her on beach walks, one of the many bought for this sojourn, all hard-backed like bestsellers. She dutifully strolls back and forth along the shoreline, admiring the expansive and eclectic beachfront houses—Cape Cod, Queen Anne, Art Moderne—sits on a baby dune of sand, cracks the pad open to thick, blanched pages. But then, sitting and clutching a stick of pricey high-grade charcoal, she sees nothing. Her hand wavers over the page as if palsied. The sunlight hurts her eyes, blanks out her brain. The breeze threatens her with grit. It is oddly chilly here, for summer. She retreats into the house with the sheet of paper ruined, crisped from sun and sticky with salt, all for nothing.

  The tap water here runs out cloudy; when she fills a glass she must pause for the swirl of opaque minerals and molecules to settle. The glass clears from the bottom up, fizzing slightly, while she jiggles a foot, holding the slippery glass carefully, waiting.

  You have to remember, she thinks: Rituals take time. They are invisible in the happening, we don’t see them until they have become.

  She decides not to shower or wash her hair until she has completed one perfect painting.

  BERNADETTE AND AVERY recycle; there is a box for used cardboard and paper, one for glass, one for plastics, one for metals. One bag holds flattened aluminum foil, veined from use. They pillage the kitchen trashcan, looking for anything that has slipped through the system. Sarah is annoyed at their quizzical examination and redistribution of her wrappings and peelings. She takes to packing up her garbage in her backpack—the empty bottles, the hair combings, the used dental floss and tampons, the ruined sketch pages—to drop privately in a public Dumpster when she goes into town, and listens to the explosive, packaged clink of breaking glass with satisfaction. She has walked to and from the nearby specialty deli shop twice, carrying her milk and produce, overpriced German beer and French pinot noir, an expensive bag of coffee beans, the splurge on ultra-dark European chocolate, but eventually Avery insists on the need for a bicycle—the nearest grocery store is thirty blocks away, down the long strip of Rockaway Beach Boulevard that spines the length of the peninsula. He pulls from the shadowy garage a girl’s rusting bike, left by one of Nana’s children or grandchildren, wheels it down the driveway. He affixes a pink wicker basket, fusses happily with bolts and air pressure and alignment. She watches, nervous, eyeing the back-and-forth traffic down on the boulevard, tucking the hems of her long cotton pants into her socks; she has not ridden a bicycle in years, is embarrassed at her awkwardness in mounting and her little yelps of fear as she test-pedals around their quiet dead-end street. A subtle memory teases: her father teaching her to ride a bike, she remembers, sees him running alongside, patient and panting in warm summer sun, holding the high looped sissy bar steady so she won’t fall, then letting go, watching and cheering her on. She remembers breeze, the sense of freedom and flight, then relives the sudden wobble, the panic, the skid, an abrupt falling, the hot pain of skinned knees leaking small grids of blood. She remembers his feet, adult rubber soles running to her, his strong adult hands and comfort murmurs, the soothing sting of antiseptic. The reassuring plasticky smell of a Band-Aid. Okay, so you’ll be okay, Sarah? Then let’s get you back on that bike! Climbing back on that bicycle, yes, steadied for her by his hand and encouraging smile. She remembers her newly emboldened pedaling. She smiles at the memory. Faint as ghosts now, all those babyhood scars.

  She shakes her head, and clutches harder at the handlebars. Avery, clasping a wrench, nods approvingly and points her toward civilization. She turns onto Rockaway Beach Boulevard, gasping a little at every jolting chink in the road, accompanied by the tinny and self-generated pling pling of the bicycle’s bell. Cars pass her by like benevolent sharks, and ten or twelve blocks along finally she relaxes enough to unhunch her shoulders and look around.

  It’s a time-warped, patchwork little neighborhood, a jumbled mix of blue-collar row houses with tiny, well-tended front-lawn patches of grass, larger Arts and Crafts bungalows with encircling porches and wicker furniture, modest mid-century ranch-style homes, and the odd glass brick-and-concrete Postmodern effort, all of it entirely unlike the faux-Mediterranean, gated-community sprawl of La Jolla. She remembers Emily’s history of R
ockaway, the once-upon-a-time playground of elite New Yorkers looking to escape the city heat and summer at the beach; now there are large, shabby-looking buildings in the distance—housing developments? she wonders, warehouses, abandoned factories?—bruising Brooklyn accents—although yes, she remembers, Rockaway is technically part of Queens—kids yelling in Spanish and the constant thwunk of basketballs somewhere on cracked schoolyard macadam. She passes so many synagogues, yeshivas, and Catholic churches she begins to wonder if she is pedaling in circles, until she spots the commercial district up ahead, at the intersection of the boulevard and Beach 116th Street. There is a liquor store, a Baskin-Robbins, and a lingering Blockbuster, a chain grocery store she has never heard of, two hardware stores, a Chinese restaurant, a CPA, the dime store where Avery works part-time, a Buy the Beach Realty, and a Pickles and Pies Delicatessen—Egg & Roll, $2.39. There is the subway station for the A train that sweeps down through Manhattan for its long stretch across Brooklyn and Queens, tunnels beneath Jamaica Bay, and emerges onto the Rockaway peninsula to spit out weary passengers. There is also a ladies’ apparel place, which Sarah at first mistakes for a vintage clothing shop, offering the print dresses and quilted housecoats her grandmother used to wear, the window mannequin wearing a sagging nylon brassiere and cut off at the waist. She buys turpentine at one of the hardware stores. She buys a knish.

  In a junk shop she finds a thick book: A Collector’s Guide to Seashells of the World, which she buys with the notion of identifying some of those scattered shells she’s seen; her walks on the beach, now, will be purposeful, will be research. She pedals home on the rickety plinging bicycle, her thighs burning. The pretty cover photo of a mollusk trembles in the wicker basket—This is what I’ll paint, she thinks, pleased: shells—and she rides over the road cracks carefully; there is a new half-gallon of merlot in her backpack, and she worries that if she falls the bottle will shatter and a shard will puncture her, nick her spine or pierce a lung.

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