Trompe l’Oeil : An Excerpt



House I

For the Murphys, there was always the house and the idea of the house, one relatively more stable than the other. From a distance it appeared camouflaged, a silver-gray box perched on stilts; beyond it the sea. To each side, other sea-weathered boxes, variations, one smaller, another with a single peak. The air smelled of salt, seaweed at low tide, smoke from charcoal grills or summer campfires on the next beach. From the deck and the beach below, one could see the Massachusetts coast stretching out and falling away, and in the space beyond, the sea, a vast openness, Massachusetts Bay merging with the Atlantic, the curving arm of Cape Cod reaching far to the southeast and the distant east, leaving the shoreline unprotected from Atlantic swells. A beautiful rough corner of the coast: a spit of land on which the town’s early residents would never have built, instead choosing the far side of the harbor, or the inland cliffs. But the longer one lived there, the more permanent the house seemed, even as it rocked in the wind. The storms might slam in directly, but there were long stretches of beach to walk, where small stones mixed with sand, and the sea’s blue, the mixed greens and grays, shifted with the light, going violet or sapphire or slate. Out unshuttered front windows, from the weather-beaten deck, from the east- and northeast-facing bedrooms, the sea appeared and reappeared.

Different years, different versions. First, the house had been a ramshackle summer outpost Nora and James had scrimped to buy from James’s uncle, a place of ease despite or because of the off-plumb doorjambs and slanted floors and salt-worn wood. Outside stairs led up from the narrow street to the broad wraparound deck, where in summer they drank cocktails with their friends; a windowed door opened into a large kitchen, drafty or breezy depending on the month. They renovated and winterized; still, the wind was undeniable, and at night the house swayed lightly, enough so that water in a bowl might register the smallest of tides. Grand ill-tempered swans moved between the shelter of the brook-fed pond to the beach, crossing the narrow bridge of land down the road from the house and into the shallows, startlingly white against the sea.

At first, the Murphys spent summers there. Or Nora and the children did. James drove down for weekends and August vacation time. Theo and Katy were in grade school then, the youngest, Molly, still at home. From one year to the next, the scenes of leisure blurred into each other, as if contiguous with the preceding summers, all other seasons forgotten. Cousins and friends arrived for beach days and barbecues and drinks out on the deck. And then, the year James’s promotion came through, they planned a shorter season in Blue Rock, to follow a two-week trip to Italy.

It was a slippery moment in their marriage, a crossroad. They had agreed to move from their small house in Newton to a place with more room, but only that. Where to remained vexed. James pushed for the wealthier cloistered suburbs; Nora missed Cambridge, where they’d once lived. In careful tones, they avoided the straining subtext, and when the Newton house sold, they put the furniture in storage, deferred. James had dreamed of travel; Nora had studied art. Rome would give them perspective. And there would be summer in Blue Rock, which from the vantage point of spring always seemed an endless unspooling of days, July a broad yellow plain with no apparent horizon beyond the brimming gold edges of August. For each of them, there was the pull of summer light over the sea, like something remembered from the deepest dream, a vast fluctuating gem that seemed to alter the rooms of the house, the narrow road, and, with luck, briefly, oneself, into their most vivid incarnations.

In June, just after the school year ended, the family flew from Logan Airport.

Nancy Reisman’s debut novel, The First Desire, was a New York Times Notable Book and a recipient of the Goldberg Award from the Foundation for Jewish Culture. Her story collection, House Fires, won the Iowa Award for Short Fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Tin House, Glimmer Train, the Yale Review, SubTropics, Michigan Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review, Five Points, Narrative, The Best American Short Stories (2001), and The O’Henry Award Stories (2005). Reisman has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Tennessee Commission on the Arts, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She teaches at Vanderbilt University and lives in Nashville, TN.