Margot watched Donnie standing at the ferry’s bar with a Shirley Temple in her hand and an extra long, extra, extra mild cigarette bobbing between her lips. As she leaned closer to hear what the bartender was telling her, a forgotten match burned precariously close to her fingers. Donnie was comfortable within the culture of drinking, and still clung to the habit of smoking cigarette after cigarette while bending her elbow before the alluring sparkle of bottled spirits. It occurred to Margot that there must be a reason all the recovering alcoholics she had ever known stayed as far away as possible from that long cool length of polished wood. Donnie jerked her hand back then did an odd, skittish little dance on the match as if it were an aggressive beetle.
Months before, Margot had explained to Donnie that her consumption of wine had gone too far and that they could no longer see one another unless Donnie gave it up completely. Donnie’s indignant reply had been that she may have a drinking problem but she was no drunk. Within months her illness had advanced to the point that one night, terrified by the inexplicable appearance of three loathsome men sitting at her dining room table with faces not dissimilar to Les Mademoiselles des Avignon, three nudes Picasso, in a misogynistic furor, had painted with faces of canine ferocity. The three "Monsieurs des Avignon" seemed to be in collusion, the nature of which Donnie knew was some unutterable evil. She dialed 911 and by the time the police arrived, she was crouched outside her door with a butcher knife in her hand. The police took one look at her, at the empty table she pointed to, and called the paramedics.
When a mutual friend called to tell Margot that Donnie was in detox, it never occurred to Margot that they had not parted on the best of terms; she hung up the phone and went to visit her friend. Margot was taken aback by Donnie’s appearance. The flesh on her arms hung loosely from her bones. Her skin had erupted with layers of acne, while her legs had swollen to twice their size. Her torso was bloated and misshapen from the cheap wine that had been Donnie’s staple. When she changed her dress, her small breasts were limp and lay flat against her chest. Margot averted her eyes as if having seen the forbidden nudity of an aged aunt, not a woman of 38.
Alice, Margot’s sister, sat on a bench with a frugal bottle of spring water in her hand. Although she was incapable of work, having been diagnosed with clinical depression, and a touch of other mental maladies, she had managed to save enough money every month from her meager federal allowance to take a train across the country to Boston to visit Eastern attractions and spend time with Margot. From there Alice had spent a week in Washington DC and a week in New York, seen the presidents’ memorials, the Statue of Liberty, various museums, and caught a Broadway show for a pricey $60.00.
After a reluctant Spring, the third day of Summer arrived with a gasp. Every Bostonian who could walk, wheel or crawl had left their house, apartment or condominium to swelter in the humidity and hope for a touch of sunburn. The three women had opted for their share on one of the ferries that criss-crossed from Boston Harbor to George’s Island.
"You want to go outside?" called Margot to Alice. Alice jerked her head up as if suddenly roused.
"Okay!" They walked like the land-lubbers they were to the stern of the boat and sat among the other passengers on the wooden benches. The sun immediately set to work on their tans as sea gulls circled the ferry for hand-outs. Margot vowed to take a ship to Barcelona and savor each day like a caramel sucker. She, who had always dreamed of living in a house boat, studied the smaller crafts, some sailing boats, some motor and a few yachts. She desired every boat they passed just to spend an entire day on one, rocked by the Atlantic Ocean.
Margot looked at her sister who sat with her face to the sun, the bottle of water clutched to her side, a tiny smile on her face. Alice didn’t talk much. Margot hated to see her sister on drugs and was convinced she was overdosed. Alice’s right eyebrow raised involuntarily, a trait inherited from their mother. Then Margot remembered John, her ex-husband, had years ago called Alice a little Buddha¾ before the breakdowns, and prozac and straight-jackets and god-knows-what else. Alice had always had a habit of sitting immobile with a tiny smile on her face while her then husband, Raymond, baked small, hard, inedible pastries, dyed green with food coloring.
They had been a strange couple until one day, Raymond went to visit his mother and never returned. His mother would answer the phone and never once, not once let Alice talk to him. Raymond’s mother sent him back to school where he learned how to fix computers. After six years and a scarcity of unsuccessful dates, his mother found him a young girl from her native country, the Philippines, paid for the girl’s passage to America, and married her to Raymond. Ten months later, he got what he had always wanted, a child, something Alice had always maintained she would never have. Margot, who never understood what her sister saw in him, now held a deep contempt for Raymond because of the cowardly way he had left her sister and been the catalyst that initiated Alice’s breakdown. It was true that Alice’s problems had begun much earlier, but somehow it might have been easier on her if he had had the courage and decency to simply talk to her, give Alice the respect of an explanation after spending sixteen years of their lives together.
Margot studied Alice, and sighed. Alice could sit there the whole trip and never utter a word. Margot caught a shadow of sadness in Alice’s brow. A frown perhaps to just squinting in the sun? This was the child she had nagged her mother to bring into the world, the little sister she had always wanted. Then when her sister was seven and Margot was fourteen, she had abandoned her for boys and girlfriends. When Margot went to visit Alice in the Psych-Ward, the doctor informed her that Alice had been depressed since the age of seven. Margot stopped. There was no point to this line of thinking. Everything that had happened had already happened and there was nothing she could do to undo it.
"The dye was cast," said Margot aloud. Alice opened her eyes. "How often do you take those anti-depressants?"
"Everyday," said Alice.
"What do you take?"
"I don’t know."
"How do you know they’re not giving you teeny dosages of cyanide?"
Alice closed here eyes and smiled as if Margot had told a joke.
The speaker crackled and the Captain’s heavily accented voice announced that the sky was about to erupt. The passengers needed to move inside if they didn’t want to get wet. Towards the island, a few cumulous clouds skimmed the sun-filled sky, but when they turned to look, an ominous storm was in close pursuit.
"I’m so hot, I could use a rain shower," said Margot. She and Alice stayed put as everyone else hurried inside. Nothing happened for ten minutes. People began to venture back when the torrent started. Ten seconds in the rain was enough for both of them and the two sisters crowded inside with everyone else. Donnie who had not budged was on her fourth cigarette. The bartender leisurely scratched his backside as he spoke to her. Donnie saw them and waved as if they were on separate boats. She pushed herself away from the bar and teetered over. Margot wondered if Donnie’s body memory of drinking was so strong that it automatically associated the proximity of liquor with the mannerisms of inebriation. For a moment Donnie even smelled like white wine to Margot, but she knew her nose was playing tricks on her.
"You’re all wet!" squeaked Donnie. Her voice had a tendency to crack and break from twenty years of countless cigarettes. "Oooh, look at that rain¾ and thunder! Lightning!" laughed Donnie.
"The way you love me is frightening," sang Margot. Donnie lay her hand on Margot’s forearm for balance and fished in her straw purse for another extra long, extra, extra mild cigarette.
Everybody please take a seat," warned the captain over the speaker. Donnie obediently plopped down next to Alice giving Margot the opposite seat so she could observe them simultaneously.
The ferry came to a stop and they looked out to find themselves at dock. The speaker squawked again and the captain advised the passengers to remain seated. The lurching waves scraped the ferry against the dock and caused it to groan like a wounded sea serpent. The sky lit up and clapped five times in succession, each time giving the impression that the heavens were about to crack open. An Italian tourist sat next to Margot and announced, "This boat is old like Noah¾ God will punish us! I will find a water jacket!" he said and ran off to look for one.
"If God wants to punish us, we shouldn’t defy him with life jackets," remarked Margot. Donnie paled. Alice who looked like she was enjoying herself, chuckled.
"Oh look!" pointed Donnie.
They all peered out of the steamy window. The occupants of a sailing boat were trying to secure the boat to the dock. A young man in a red slicker jumped on the boat, grabbed a young woman and literally threw her as she jumped to the dock into the arms of another man also in a red slicker who was waiting to catch her. A second young woman appeared and she was also thrown and caught.
"It’s like a movie," commented Alice, and indeed, it was.
"Take a picture," whispered Margot but Alice didn’t hear her and her camera remained in its case, as well as the cameras of a dozen other mesmerized passengers. The sailing boat, appeared wounded as her masthead wobbled at the base. She lurched so violently, tossed like a paper cup by the angry waves between the ferry and the dock, that the four men working on her could not seem to winch her properly.
Donnie started crying. "Oh god, something’s going to happen to us!" Alice and Margot turned to her in astonishment.
"Don’t be silly, we couldn’t be in a safer boat right now."
"That’s not what that little man said," She wailed. Margot noticed that Donnie was not actually shedding tears.
"For pete’s sake, he was hysterical."
"What do you know?"
"We’re not in one of those sailing boats right now, that’s what I know. Why don’t you pray?" Donnie was both Irish and Southern and to Margot’s surprise, Donnie made the sign of the cross and folded her hands in prayer. Margot now realized how easily a crowd could be moved to panic.
A little girl pointed to Donnie and in a clear, high-pitched child’s voice said, "Look, Mommy, why is that lady praying?" Others turned to look at Donnie, who most certainly had seen Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette. Alice’s eyes were wide as she regarded Donnie. Margot went to the bar and ordered a gin and tonic then sat back down again, making a great show of stirring it. Donnie finally opened her eyes and stared at the drink.
"How can you drink at a time like this?" she demanded.
"How can I not?" Margot downed the rest of the cocktail, watching the captivated Donnie through her plastic glass then set the empty container down with flair, and a satisfied "Ahhh."
"Can I buy you a drink, Alice?"
"That sounds good!" Alice laughed, "Whatever you’re having." Margot returned to the bar and ordered two more which they both drank down in record time, giggling over who could finish first. Then Alice excused herself and went to the ladies’ room.
"That was a mean thing to do," said Donnie.
"Having a drink like that, and buying one for Alice. You know it’s not easy for me."
"You’d better get used to it, it’s a drinking world."
"You did it on purpose¾ teasing me with it!"
"I wanted to get your mind off the boat," said Margot, circumventing the truth.
"Not by having a drink in front of me. You should be trying to help me."
"I’m not responsible for your recovery, Donnie. You are."
"Oh don’t give me any AA platitudes. You’re my only friend."
"Don’t be ridiculous, what about Bill and Mike? What about what’s-his-name, the one who washes your dishes when you get laryngitis or something?"
"I mean girlfriend. I’m so afraid I’m going to start drinking again. I’m so lost and all alone. Everybody I know drinks and I can see that some of them drink way too much."
"You need different friends."
"Oh yeah, just go make more friends. Friends that don’t drink? Where does anybody find them?"
"You must meet a lot of people in your AA meetings."
"I stopped going to them. Meetings were all right in the beginning. It’s too boring doing it everyday."
"It’s a choice you have. You can either be bored by them or drink and bore everyone else around you. It’s only a matter of time."
"Maybe I should just go get one right now," said Donnie on the verge of tears.
Margot wanted to walk away. Donnie expected everyone to take care of her. That was why she gravitated towards male friends, except for Margot.
"Besides, most women don’t like me," said Donnie, wiping her eyes.
"You mean you don’t like women."
"I do too!"
"Tell that to all your women friends," she said ironically.
"You’re the only one who came to see me when I was in the hospital, besides Bill and Tommy. Mike only called. Some friend!"
"So what’s wrong with that? I really don’t know what you expect from life, Margot."
"And now you’re being mean too. Why?"
Friendship was never enough with Donnie. She demanded obedience, solicitude, caretaking. That was something a woman could more easily extricate from certain men, and it was true, none of Margot’s female friends had ever expressed anything less than distrust for Donnie.
"It’s up to you to find out what you need to change. Go to a shrink."
"I did for thirteen years."
"If that didn’t help, what am I supposed to do?"
"It helped. You should have seen me before."
Margot shook her head suppressing a smile and looked out the window where the four men had finally succeeded in securing the sailing boat to the dock. Only the two young men in red slickers stood on the dock, huddled over a couple of cigarettes, waiting for the storm to subside so they could empty the ferry of passengers and fill it up again. "We’re the comedians in our own tragedy," she said.
"Look at you¾ I’m trying not to cry and you can barely keep from laughing!" said Donnie.
Years ago, when Margot was in college, she and her father came into increasing conflict over politics, life-styles, even art. One time, her father, looking through a James Baldwin book she was reading, pronounced Mr. Baldwin a smut writer. As the argument escalated, the points each made became razors. Finally, Margot delivered the coup de grace when she likened her father who had set out a snack of coffee and cookies for himself before the argument began, to "the pious Emperor Theodosius, sitting on his bum, eating roasted pig while cheering the anti-paganists as they destroyed the Library of Alexandria." Her infuriated father crossed the room in an attempt to grab her by the collar and shove her out the front door, but she was already gone. Later Alice, told Margot that during the entire quarrel, Margot and her father had maintained a smile.
"It’s a family trait, we laugh in the face of adversity."
Donnie got up and ordered a drink and sat down. Margot watched Donnie run her finger along the lip of the frosted plastic glass.
"If you drink that, you won’t have any ‘girl’ friends," smiled Margot.
Donnie pushed it towards Margot with one of her little girl gestures, which probably worked better on Mike or Todd, or whatever their names were.
"I don’t want it," said Margot.
"Then throw it away."
"Throw it away yourself."
Donnie picked up the plastic cup and brought it to her lips. Margot could almost taste the wine Donnie was about to drink. Then, in a desperate gesture, Donnie opened the sliding window and attempted to toss it out but the wind from the storm blew the wine back in and soaked Donnie. Margot tried to keep from laughing, but couldn’t.
"What happened to you?" said Alice, back from the ladies room.
"She threw a bucket of swill off the wrong side of the boat," said Margot, remembering a similar event described in a novel about seafaring she had read decades ago as a child.
"Never mind!" snapped Donnie, wiping her face with the front of her blouse.
The storm ended as suddenly as it had begun.
"We should turn around and go back. The storm might start again any minute," said Donnie, her voice quavering as she lit another cigarette with an economy of movement.
Alice turned her head away from the smoke but otherwise showed no emotion. Margot, like the protective older sister, almost told Donnie to blow in another direction because of Alice’s asthma, but Alice needed to speak for herself. She knew Alice wanted to stay. She was the consummate tourist.
"Why don’t we stay awhile, so Alice can look around?"
"Yeah," Offered her sister.
Donnie looked petulant, hoping for sympathy but got none. "There’s nothing to see but that depressing old fort."
"We’ll just look around an hour; it’s getting pretty late. I’ve never seen it either," said Margot.
They got off the boat, Alice was far ahead of them, then Margot, and Donnie was, of course, last. Donnie didn’t own a pair of sensible shoes. She wore cowboy boots in the snow that forced her to gingerly pick her way through it and cloth flats in the summer¾ nothing with a sole that gripped. She slipped as soon as she stepped onto the wet gangplank, but one of the men in red slickers was ready for her and caught her before she could fall. They must be used to timid middle aged women, thought Margot. Donnie looked adoringly at the man and thanked him with a flutter of eyelashes.
Alice scampered up the hill, camera held in front of her like a divining rod. Donnie stuck close to Margot in anticipation of another slip. It required a tremendous will from Margot to not run after her sister. The day was gorgeous again: the barometer had been eased by the recent down pour and the air now held a delicate mist that softened the verdant flora of late June. She wanted to do cartwheels as she had done as a child. She wanted to show off, demonstrate her prowess as a fit woman in her forties. She hadn’t done a cartwheel in ten years.
Margot looked at Donnie and said, "We’re all so finite."
"Aren’t we though?" agreed Donnie, and as they so seldom agreed these days, Margot wondered what Donnie meant. Alice had disappeared inside the fort.
"Can we stop a moment? I’m out of breath." Donnie coughed her smoker’s cough as proof.
Margot looked longingly at the fort and consented. They sat on a stone wall.
"Somebody vandalized this wall. Isn’t that a crime?" said Donnie.
Margot looked where Donnie was pointing. Someone had written in lipstick, "Without self-examination, our lives are not worth living."
"That’s the kind of thing that really fries me," said Donnie.
"‘Self-examination,’ it just leads to a lot of whining."
"Plato said that."
"No he didn’t."
"Just because he said it doesn’t mean you can’t think it leads to whining."
"People spend entirely too much time thinking about themselves."
"He was Greek. You know Greeks believed everything in moderation."
"I just don’t agree," insisted Donnie.
"That’s because you’re an old fashioned kind of girl." Margot thought about Plato, who had lived five centuries before Christ.
"I am but what do you mean by that?" Donnie asked suspiciously.
"Like 50’s people, who just said, "get over it," or "don’t think about it," or "snap out of it."
"Well yes I am then," she conceded with satisfaction.
"Let’s go look inside now," said Margot. Donnie seemed more cheerful, as if Margot had paid her a complement. They were as different as night and day. In the beginning it had been amusing, but now it simply wore on Margot. Once inside, Margot called to Alice who appeared from nowhere, her eyes twinkling mischievously. She snapped a picture of them.
"They say, there’s a ghost here," said Alice with obvious relish.
"Who said that?" demanded Donnie.
"I wouldn’t be surprised; it used to be a prison also," said Margot.
"I overheard some man telling his friend. It’s supposed to be the wife of a Confederate soldier who died here," replied Alice, studying Donnie’s expression.
"Oh that’s terrible!" said Donnie.
"Donnie’s from Georgia," explained Margot to Alice who looked at Donnie as if with new understanding. Margot had spent nine months in Mississippi and Donnie had the same blind protectionism as numerous Southerners Margot had met. If pressed the discussion could "get ugly"¾ as Southerners were so fond of saying. Margot pressed. "I would rather have been here than suffered disease and starvation in Andersonville." She felt like a gifted but wicked child, squeezing a bug between two slides and observing the struggling insect under a microscope.
"Their own soldiers were starving, the whole South was starving! You Yankees saw to that!" Donnie fumbled in her bag for her cigarettes, brought one out that was comically bent and with an angry swipe of the match against the flint, lit it.
"Oh here we go again, face it, without Burning Sherman, you Southerners would have never been able to canonize yourselves," said Margot. "The South was stupid, thinking they ever had a chance of winning. They started it in the first place.
"You should have stayed in Georgia, Donnie, where the ‘Yankees’ who do venture down there mind their Ps and Qs."
Donnie opened her mouth, then snapped it shut. She sucked on her cigarette furiously, helpless confusion in her eyes. Margot regretted her words, no, her anger, but she was not about to take anything back.
"Let’s go up these stairs," said Alice, her voice breathy with anticipation. Donnie was pouting again and sat on the ledge where anti-Confederate cannons had once surveyed the horizon. Margot regarded her for a moment then turned and joined Alice. They made their way up the rain-wet stone spiral stairs and found themselves outside again. They cut across in silent agreement before descending down another set of stairs that would lead them into a different room than where Donnie sat stewing. Margot noted the sun on Alice’s face as she stood by the window and took a picture of her. Then Alice took a picture of Margot. Margot keep singing, "Thunder, lightning, the way you love me is frightening." The walls provided a natural acoustics that amplified her voice and gave it depth. They found a kitchen made of red bricks and deep ovens for baking bread. They imagined where the barracks were, and the long tables for eating. They looked for the ghost. Before they knew it, it was time to return to meet the next ferry.
They found Donnie smoking on the ledge exactly where they had left her. Two cigarette butts lay at her feet.
"Are we ready to go?" Donnie stood up reinvigorated. She no longer looked upset. Indeed she was a 50’s kind of girl. "We’d better hurry, we don’t want to miss the boat," and she was off ahead of them, her slippery shoes giving her no grief. Alice and Margot lagged behind, reluctant to leave the island, having seen too little of the thick walls that had witnessed generations of human drama¾ including theirs. Soon Donnie was far ahead of them.
Margot’s voice was loose and rich, relaxed from having sung inside the fort. "She’s like one of those stable horses you pay $5 an hour to ride. Stumbling and grunting as you pull them out of the stable and galloping home as soon as you turn them around."
Alice laughed out loud which made Margot feel good. Alice kept chuckling as they watched Donnie slow down and mince her way across the wet dock like a Boston Terrier in high grass. From a distance or because of it, she looked frail, a small figure battling drink.
Then Margot felt a terrible sadness. Her sister was in her thirties and already suffering from high blood pressure and asthma. She was also prediabetic, the very thing their father’s mother had died of at 51. Margot felt strong, like she would live into her 90's. Alice and Donnie would just be memories by then while she would be a grumpy, opinionated, lonely old woman who had outlived everyone. Would she be capable of self-examination at 90¾ or would she have gone beyond that? Would she still feel responsible for having abandoned her sister 80 years before? What would she think of Donnie? She looked at her sister, walking next to her and wanted to hold her hand.
"I need to be kinder to Donnie. I’m mean to her. Do you think without self-examination our lives are not worth living?"
"Even with self-examination a life might not be worth living," said Alice.
Margot wanted to say to her sister, You’re life is worth living to me! but she was afraid the unargumentative Alice would answer with a silence more eloquent than a thousand words from Margot. "Just tell me to shut up when I’m mean. I don’t want to be mean. Just tell me when I’m doing something wrong." She wanted to ask her for so much more but a lump rose in her throat.
"I love you," said Alice. She too was trying to keep from crying. They both looked at each other, then burst out laughing, tears rolling down their cheeks.