Excerpt

1969

On a Sunday morning in late July, at the end of my first-ever visit to Miami, I took a cab from my hotel to Snapper Creek marina to join a woman named Marse Heiger, whom I’d met the day before. When I stepped out of the cab, I saw Marse standing in the well of her little fishing boat, wearing denim knee shorts and a yellow sleeveless blouse, her stiff brown hair pinned under a bandanna. She waved and gestured for me to climb into the boat. She poured me a mug of coffee from an aluminum thermos and started the engine.

“Ready?” she said. We puttered out of the marina, under a bridge from which two black boys were fishing with what looked like homemade poles, down a winding canal flanked by mangroves. The knobby, twining roots rose from the water. I sat on a cushioned bench and Marse sat in a captain’s chair at the helm. She handed me a scarf and told me to tie back my hair, which I did. We passed an egret standing stock-still on a mangrove root, then emerged from the canal into the wide, open bay. The Miami shoreline stretched out in both directions. Marse picked up speed, and each time we came down on a wave, I gripped the corner of my bench.
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I’d grown up in Decatur, Georgia, just outside Atlanta, and had been to the ocean only once, when I was eleven years old. My parents and I had spent a weekend on Saint Simons island, in a one-bedroom rental cottage three blocks from the beach. That weekend, I’d seen a dark fin from shore, but my father had said it was probably just a dolphin. And though I’d spent a few afternoons on lake pontoons with friends during college, never had I been out on the open water. From halfway across the bay I could see the low silhouette of downtown Miami, where Freedom Tower spiked above the blocky buildings. The bridge connecting the city to Key Biscayne looked like a stroke of watercolor. Above the wind and whine of the engine, Marse named Miami’s parts for me, pointing: farthest southwest were the Everglades, then the twin nuclear reactors at Turkey Point—just built but not yet in operation—then Coral Gables and Coconut Grove, then downtown. To the east, the Cape Florida lighthouse squatted at the tip of Key Biscayne, signaling the edge of a continent.

We landed hard on each wave and the spray hit my face. Marse’s boat—an eleven-foot Boston Whaler with a single outboard engine—was, in my estimation, little more than a dinghy. When we’d traveled fifteen minutes across the bay, Marse pointed ahead, away from shore. There was nothing there but sea and sky, but then a few matchbox shapes formed on the hazy horizon. They grew larger and I saw that they were houses, propped above the water on pilings. I counted fourteen of them. As we neared, I saw that some were painted, some were two stories high, some had boats moored at the docks, and some were shuttered and still. They stood on cement pillars, flanking a dark channel along the rim of the bay, as if guarding it from the open ocean. Marse slowed the boat as we entered the channel, and when we came to a red-painted house with white shutters, she shifted into neutral. A larger boat was tied to the dock, but there was no one around to greet us. Marse cut the engine and the world stilled. “Where are they?” she said. A plastic owl perched atop a dock piling. An open bag of potato chips sat in a rocking chair on the upstairs porch.

“Guys?” called Marse. She stepped to the house’s dock with the stern line. I took her cue and stepped up with the bowline. I imitated Marse’s knot, a figure eight with an inward loop, and after the boat was secured, I heard shouting in the distance. I turned. Two men stood on the dock of a stilt house eighty yards east; they waved at us. One was dark-haired and held a duffel bag, and the other was fair-haired and wore bright orange swimming trunks. Marse waved back, and because the waving went on for several seconds, I raised my arm as well. As I did, the fair-haired boy dove off the dock into the water, then started to swim.
Mom.1970s.Stiltsville
I’d taken the train from Atlanta two days earlier to attend the wedding of a college girlfriend. I’d met Marse at the reception, and we’d spent an hour chatting about Atlanta and Miami, and about the bridesmaids’ dresses and the best man’s toast. Her given name was Marilyn, but Marse—rhymes with arse, as she put it—was a family nickname. From what little I knew of the city, I concluded that Marse was a true native daughter: she was darkly tan, with premature lines around her eyes, and she dressed in a confident, sexy way that anywhere else would have seemed showy, but in Miami was unexceptional, even practical. She’d grown up in Coral Gables, in a Spanish-style bungalow with a wraparound porch and no air-conditioning, and had never considered moving out of South Florida. When she’d invited me to spend the day with her at a place called Stiltsville, I’d accepted readily. So that Sunday morning, I’d dressed in a pair of Bermuda shorts and my most becoming top—still plain compared with Marse’s blouse—and called a taxi.

While we waited in rocking chairs on the upstairs porch for the boys to arrive, Marse filled me in. The dark-haired boy was Kyle, her older brother, and the fair-headed one was Dennis DuVal, whose parents owned the stilt house where we were sitting. Kyle and Dennis were in their last year of law school at the University of Miami; Marse was a year behind them. “You’ll like Kyle,” Marse said. “Girls tend to.”

“And Dennis?”

“Dennis is mine. That’s the plan, anyway.”

She wore dark sunglasses and she’d pulled off her top to reveal two triangles of purple bikini. Her stomach was flat and tan, with taut creases across the navel. The boys were yards from the dock, arms and legs lashing, sending up brief white wakes. “Does Kyle know I’m coming?” I said.

She nodded. “Don’t worry, there’s no pressure. You’ll be gone tomorrow, anyway.”

It was true: my train back to Atlanta left the following afternoon. In the time since I’d graduated from college, I’d dated a few colleagues from the bank where I worked as a teller. I was twenty-six years old, and though I’d come close, I’d never been in love. “What’s your plan with Dennis?” I said.

She took lip balm from her pocket and applied it, then handed it to me. “There’s this fund-raiser every year at Vizcaya,” she said. She didn’t explain what Vizcaya was but I already knew—it was a Renaissance-style villa on the bay in Coconut Grove, surrounded by elaborate formal gardens, open for tours and events. I’d visited Vizcaya the day before the wedding, sightseeing. I’d walked alone through the overdressed rooms, then stood on the limestone terrace and watched sailboats cross the bay. “Everyone dresses up and picnics on their good china and drinks champagne.”
Stilts.RedHouse
“You’re going to ask him?” I said.

“I’m hoping he’ll ask me.”

“What if he doesn’t?”

She frowned. “You’re no fun.” She stood and lifted one bare foot onto the porch railing, then folded over to touch nose to ankle. I was tall but Marse was taller, and her limbs were sleek and muscular. “Besides, that’s why it’s so great that you’re here. You’ll be my impartial third party. Just watch him, see how he acts.”

“I’ll do my best.”

The boys reached the dock in a flurry of splashing and pulled themselves onto the transom of the big boat. The fair one—Dennis—took a towel from the console and dried his hair, and the other one—Kyle—hauled up a small duffel bag he’d strapped over one arm, then reached into a cooler and opened a can of beer. They resembled, in their unself-conscious mannerisms and the energetic timbre of their voices, overgrown children. Dennis called up, “Welcome!”

“Did you bring the burgers?” called Kyle.

Marse ignored him and smoothed her hair with both hands. “OK?” she said to me.

She wore no makeup and her hair was long, her body lean and tan. “You look great,” I said, because she did. We went downstairs side by side. The boys stepped onto the dock and Marse greeted Dennis with a quick embrace. His eyes were blue, his face was pink from exercise, and he’d grown a dusting of red beard since his last shave. He smiled at me. “Who are you?” he said.

“Frances Ellerby,” I said. I shook Dennis’s hand, then Kyle’s. Of the two of them, Kyle was the looker. His eyebrows were thick and dark, his nose was sharp, and his teeth were white. He had a wide, confident smile and ropy muscles. Dennis’s nose was crooked (from a boxing injury in college, I would learn), and his teeth were uneven (he’d resisted braces), and his legs were pale and skinny. “I hope Marse told you about our mission,” Dennis said to me. His hair, drying in the sun, stuck up at odd angles. It was more red than blond, and it needed a cut. Freckles spotted his shoulders and earlobes. “Just because this is your first time,” he said, “don’t think we don’t expect you to contribute.”
Stiltsville.1970s.4
“Damn straight,” said Kyle. He opened the duffel bag he’d brought from the other stilt house, pulled out a machete, and removed its sheath; it glinted in the sunlight. They had swum to the other house, which Marse told me belonged to a family named the Becks, to borrow the weapon and also to prove which boy was the faster swimmer. Kyle had won.

“What’s the mission?” I said.

“I don’t want anything to do with it,” said Marse.

“She disapproves,” said Kyle to me. He brandished the machete in the air, then brought it down over an invisible kill. “Take that,” he said, “and that.”

Dennis took the machete and set it down on the flat top of a piling. “Let’s eat.”

The boys cooked burgers on the grill on the upstairs porch while Marse and I fixed potato salad in the kitchen. “What do you think?” said Marse. We could see Kyle and Dennis through the kitchen window. They stood with spatulas in hand, swatting at mosquitoes.

“Of which one?”

She reached over and pinched my elbow. It was an intimate gesture, a gesture fitting old friends. It was Marse’s style, I gathered, to rush into intimacy. I was flattered. “Come on,” she said.

“He’s cute,” I said, and she frowned at me. “I can’t tell yet. I need more to go on.”

Marse put down the knife she was using to dice the potatoes. In her expression, I recognized a cautious optimism I’d felt many times. “I know he’s not interested right now,” she said. “But I don’t see why he couldn’t get interested.”

She was pretty and strong. There was something dynamic about her, something vital. “I don’t see why not,” I said.