85 days before Labor Day
Nora hustled for a starboard seat as the ferry rounded the tip of Provincetown. Bullying voices—from Richard, the foundation board, her agent, savage bill collectors—hissed in her head. She had cast them collectively as her monkeys. The monkeys were always with her, picking at the scabs of her past, taunting her like a teenage nemesis.
Her stomach still churned from the rough ride. She tried to focus on the view: a squat lighthouse at the sandbar’s edge; the crescent bay shimmering sunset purples and reds; eroded piers punctuating the shoreline in poetic ruin.
It had been a long day. The Acela train to Boston had broken down almost causing her to miss the last scheduled boat. She’d practically inhaled a bad hotdog and watery gin and tonic during the wait, not expecting a squall that made the trip like a roller coaster ride through Cape Cod Bay.
She fought her gut with deep breaths of air, begging it not to embarrass her in front of the other passengers. The monkeys convinced her that a small subset were her soon-to-be students, certain to recognize her later as that woman who’d hurled over the bow. She clenched her jaw and lowered her head between her legs. Beads of sweat popped along her hairline.
As the ferry approached the dock, she scoured for more evidence that she had made the right call coming to this storied place, a creative refuge she hoped would free her from the mind muck, free her from whatever it was preventing her from finishing her commissioned mural for the Marble Foundation. Her agent, Ashton, had negotiated a final extension to Labor Day, but threatened to drop her if she didn’t deliver. College, grad school and credit card debt had obliterated the advance. Survival mode in Manhattan crushed all inspiration. Every idea she had for the project gurgled up soulless. They had threatened to sue her for the advance if she didn’t create a “work of substance”—whatever the fuck that meant. And then there was Richard, who berated her as “childish” while dangling promises of financial and professional support to manipulate her. Asshole.
With the boat nearing its berth, she took in large black and white photos of aged women mounted on the side of a wharf building. They leered at the harbor in expressions of resolve, grief, expectation—their wrinkles like grooves in the sand of low tide. She followed their eyes as the ferry passed. They seemed to reproach her locked stare like she was an intruder, firing up the monkeys again: Richard’s going to cut you off. He’s right. You’re an undeserving child.
Locals milled about on the dock awaiting loved ones. The boat rattled as gay men tossed suitcases around like toys. She waited on the sidelines depleted, not up for the competitive commotion. With the last tourists filing out over the metal plank, she called a taxi and made her way to the oversized roller bags pushed to the edge of the storage rack.
She tugged at the luggage, overstuffed with touchstones that anchored her sanity: Dyson hairdryer; miniature wooden Buddha; lavender scented candle; sketch pads; favorite brushes; Rabbit vibrator; Gombrich’s, The Story of Art; her treasured Georgia O’Keeffe stenciled scarf.
She settled under the covered waiting area and pulled out a bottle of water. Wet armpits darkened her olive-green t-shirt. Nausea ruled out a check for body odor. She hoped her unit had a tub—all she wanted was a bath.
The house was as she recalled from the pictures in her fellowship packet, but now with a lush rose garden in full June bloom. The cabbie lugged the bags up a staircase with bougainvillea-coated banisters. A migraine loomed as the monkeys prepared for her evening torment. Too exhausted to explore the apartment for a tub, she entered the master bedroom, closed the blinds, threw off her clothes and slid into bed.
Shade-filtered light awakened her the following morning. Released from sickness, she ambled across the foyer to the bathroom. The mirror reflected a pale but rested face. Everyone said she was beautiful, striking even, but she couldn’t see it. She loved her wavy jet-black hair, but her face was too round, her chin too abbreviated, her gray eyes too big—googly really. Whatever.
She picked up a typewritten note next to a three-ring binder and keys on the coffee table.
“Welcome, Nora! We’re thrilled to have you staying with us. I’ve left keys to the house and the bait shack (art studio), along with a guest book that will orient you to Ptown. If you follow Pearl Street to the water, you’ll see the Bull Ring Wharf deck to the right. The first unit is ours and you should feel free to use it as much as you like. Turn left out of the house and the Fine Arts Work Center (FAWC) is in the next block. My mobile is 646.450.7357. Text or call anytime. I’m sure we’ll see you around the property. Make yourself at home. Sincerely…Oliver.”
Famished and desperate for coffee, Nora flipped through the binder for cafe recommendations and found her way to Spindler’s. The scene buzzed with young, attractive gay men sipping drinks, checking iPhones. Soft lounge music wafted from the speakers, bringing evening to morning. Lust hung in the air—men still on the make after morning sex. They looked straight through her.
She knew a gay resort would not help her non-existent sex life, but the art fellowship and teaching gig at the Fine Arts Work Center threw her a lifeline. She could now say she was in residency making tremendous progress on the commissioned work, mollifying Ashton and the Marble board. That she had to rely on Richard’s connections and checkbook to seal the deal regularly fired up the monkeys, but she had no choice—she’d exhausted all possible excuses for the delay and was quickly running out of money with no clear prospects on how she would repay him. He made you beg for support, didn’t he? That’s when he said you were undeserving.
The front unit of the 19th century bait shack sat on the western edge of the Bull Ring Wharf condos on a shared deck. As Nora approached the studio, she passed a picnic table with an odd tableau of knives and a metal sharpening device. She ogled the set-up, menacing and Medieval in composition, before opening the faded-red, window-paned door to the studio.
Light flooded the nine-by-twelve-foot space with a thirteen-foot-high pitched roof. A long, cushioned bench spanned the right side of the room. A small window on the opposite wall faced the garden of the neighboring property. The wood floor looked original, scarred and beaten by a century of fishing hooks, tackle and knives.
She studied the three pieces of original art decorating the space: An abstracted seaside landscape in black and white ink on mylar—harrowing and otherworldly in its rendering of the shoreline and sky; a small square piece with soft interlocking gray spheres in charcoal; a miniature oil painting, also of the seaside, was textured in deep blues, the sea bleeding into the sky with a twinkled dot of white designating the sun. She noted the names of the artists in her journal—the first two by James Balla and the third by Denny Camino.
Books nestled atop a high shelf: Anna Karenina, Beloved, The Hours, Mrs. Dalloway, The Elementary Particles, American Primitive. Her shoulders relaxed with a faint sense of possibility, art and literature merged.
A large rectangular window in the front wall framed a sweeping view of Provincetown harbor. Small motor craft and sailboats dotted ebbing water. Closer in, blue green dune grass edged the weather-beaten deck of the property. Overturned canoes and kayaks lay just beyond.
Nora sat in the desk chair and took in the view. Two boys frolicked in the water. One with a snorkeling mask and neon green trimmed trunks bounded farther into the sea, while the other spun in place until disappearing below the surface. A paraglider floated by in the distance. Dune grass swayed as a breeze wafted into the room. There is a new sketch from this window every minute of the day.
The wind picked up, redolent with seaweed, salt, aged wood. Goosebumps coated her arms. She closed the window, removed her shoes and sat on the bench. Tears welled up with a scan of the room. She envisioned the space with an easel and her collection of paints, charcoals, pencils and sponges. Her frame shook gently. Is this all really for me? Please God. Let this place be the answer.
She sucked in a few breaths and fished out an old tissue from her satchel. The tears returned with more intensity. Fuck Richard. I don’t care what he thinks. This was the right move and I have to make it work.
She unballed the moist, eyeliner-stained tissue and dabbed her eyes dry. She thought of a run to clear her head before setting up the studio. As she closed the cloth curtains that provided privacy from the communal deck, an old man tapped on the door. He wore a floppy hat attached to a dirty string that hung under his neck of sagging, wrinkly skin. Gray stubble set off pink jowls that hung on invisible cheekbones.
“May I help you?” Nora asked, opening the door slightly. His eyes were deep blue with dark bags underneath, as if filled with viscous liquid.
“Who are you? Did Oliver sell this place already?”
He said “bastard” under his breath. She turned on her Manhattan edge.
“Excuse me. Who are you?”
His tone shifted.
“I’m Heath. I have the unit at the end. Not as fancy as this one.”
He looked toward the back of the building, down a narrow alley that Nora hadn’t noticed. His age, decrepit bearing and wistful glance inside the elegant space softened her. He reminded her of her favorite, now estranged Uncle Hank, who had fallen on tough times and disappeared. Heath sounded like a Southern name, which haunted her. She had grown up in the backwoods of South Carolina and gone to great lengths to disavow her roots. The working-class drawl had disappeared and only bubbled up when she was shit-faced.
“Nice to meet you, Heath. I’m Nora. I’m Oliver’s guest here for the summer.”
“So you’re living in this unit? Better not let the Nazi condo board find out.”
He scoffed and rolled his eyes. Under his breath he said, “fucking bitches.”
“Oh no,” Nora replied. “I’m a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center. I’m staying upstairs at Oliver’s and using this studio for the summer.”
“I see. I see.”
He peered into the studio again, then to the table with the knives.
“How much he chargin’ you for this place?”
“I was just about to head out.” He was now creepy and in her way.
“Of course. Of course. Sorry to intrude. I’ll get back to my knives. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you.”
He moved back from the door and winced in pain as he pivoted toward the table. He moved tentatively, like an injured dog.
Nora took in the space one last time and locked the antique door. Heath ran one of the knives over the metal sharpening edge, wet with water. He kept focused on the task, zen-like in concentration. No one in their right mind would use such an idyllic setting to undertake something so mundane. She slipped behind him and headed to the apartment. As she approached the house, her phone buzzed with an unknown number. Her entire body stiffened. She ignored the call, wary of bill collectors.
She quickened her pace up the stairs. Oliver had included a list of local restaurants in the guestbook. The stipend from FAWC was barely honorific, and waitressing had come to the rescue more than once since high school. She noted what looked to be the best spots, freshened up and headed back out to submit a few applications.
She made her way east to the Mews, taking in the novel storefronts along the way: Kid’s Stuff; Utilities, which looked to be a nice kitchen supply store; Strangers and Saints, a restaurant she did not remember from Oliver’s list; assorted galleries interspersed with quaint houses, most of which had been restored with a refined Cape Cod sensibility.
She entered the restaurant’s large dining room with a back wall of windows facing the bay. Tightly arranged dark wood tables and high tops filled the space. A long, antique bar dominated the east wall. Save a barback tidying up liquor bottles, the restaurant was empty and silent. As she approached the bar to get his attention, an odd voice beckoned her from behind.
May I help you?” the voice said confidently, with a lightness and femininity contradicting the baritone.
She turned around to take in the androgynous figure, a six-foot two-inch Black trans woman, thin with small breasts under an off-white stretch halter top that revealed her flat stomach above tight fitting jeans. Her face belied the delicate frame with its square jawline, high cheekbones, wide forehead, slightly flat nose, dark eyes and thick lips. Her make-up was flawless, accentuating the contours of the sculpted features and beautifully augmenting the chocolate complexion. She wore an auburn wig of fine straight hair, which capped the visage with a striking flourish reserved for professional runway models.
“Hi. Yes. I’m Nora. I was wondering if you were looking for any waitstaff. I just moved here for the summer from New York.”
“I’m Darius, the host and manager. Pleased to meet you, gorgeous!”
“Back at you!”
“Let me get you an application and then we can chat if you have time?”
“Of course, yes. Thank you.”
“Oh, and I prefer the pronouns they/them.”
“I got you.”
Nora sat at the bar and completed the application. Darius returned to the host stand.
“Here you go,” Nora said.
Darius studied the application with business-like seriousness. “Impressive background. What brings you to town?” Darius looked up from the page, their neck unfurling like a giraffe. The wide oval eyes, set under fake eyelashes that curved at least two inches into open space, penetrated her with unexpected intensity. She felt on edge despite the general warmth and friendliness of the initial encounter.
“I’m a painter and on a summer fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center.”
“Fantastic institution,” Darius interjected.
“Yes, absolutely. I feel really privileged to be connected to it. So yeah, I’m here looking for work to supplement the small stipend we receive as teaching fellows.”
“Got it. Well, just to be clear, we’re not necessarily hiring here at the Mews. Anything would be temporary and likely very last minute.”
“Oh yes. I understand. I’m grateful for the opportunity. Happy to be on your list of subs if anything works out in the future.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves shall we,” Darius said, as they pursed their lips and stood slowly, the legs and long torso extending to tower over Nora.
Nora stood abruptly, upsetting the table and toppling over a water glass.
“Of course. No problem at all,” she said, standing up the tumbler.
“Terrific. Great meeting you, Nora. We’re going to have so much fun—maybe!” Darius squawked, once again cheery and effervescent.
“Great meeting you as well.”
Nora slipped out the door and headed west. She filled out applications at Spindler’s, Pepe’s, Harbor Lounge, the Squealing Pig, and Cafe Edwige. Satisfied with her progress and encouraged by the generally positive reception, she returned home and changed into her running gear.
The wind picked up as she crossed Route 6 and headed toward Race Point Beach. She continued on the access road as it began its gradual climb to the Province Lands Visitor Center. She took in the spectacular view of the ocean, surrounding dunes and small scattered ponds in between. Her thoughts drifted.
Grocery bags had crowded the sparse kitchen counter space when she entered Richard’s apartment that evening. She could tell he was in a mood, his face still red from the cold or some random altercation he would eventually get around to griping about. She helped him unpack, not uttering a single word. He would let her know when he was ready.
His mood didn’t help her confidence. She knew it was going to be hard, but she was not prepared for one of their reckless fights. Not this night. Not with mama’s news.
With the groceries put away and order restored on the countertops, he softened. The thick furrowed lines between his eyebrows relaxed almost imperceptibly. She knew every signal, every nuance. And what they meant. How she was to behave.
He grabbed her by the waist and kissed her lightly. His lips were salty and pungent, which she liked. She could still smell the city on his shirt. She nuzzled in the scruff along his chin and neck.
“You know me too well,” he purred.
She smiled and moved to set the table. He boiled water for the pasta and assembled the Cuisinart. He seasoned the halibut and prepared the gremolata, an orange juice variation he claimed to have invented. Which was a lie. Lying was a pastime for Richard.
He bitched about the bad service at the grocery and the latest gossip at the department. She zoned out, rolling over in her head whether or not she should go to South Carolina to see her mother. The phone message was conveniently vague: She could be discharged tomorrow, or be in the ICU indefinitely. But it was not the time to share that. It would derail her plan.
“Nora, darling, are you OK?” he asked, holding his wine glass mid-air with one hand and a small carving knife with the other. She hated his false attempt at concern. He just didn’t like when he wasn’t the center of her attention.
“We need to talk about the Fine Arts Work Center.”
He looked at her as if she was insane. It was the same face he’d made when she confessed she had no interest in pursuing a Ph.D. in art history. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said.
She wanted to smack him. When they met in her grad program she knew he was the father figure she unapologetically needed at the time. That he was her art professor seemed a minor inconvenience easily managed with discretion. They’d spent countless nights cuddled on his couch discussing the latest art exhibitions, their future together. He’d said he would support her no matter what her ambitions were—another lie.
“It’s a fucking party town. Is that your big plan now? To teach and hang out at divey bars all summer?” He pointed the knife at her, moving it in small arcs as he spoke, as if conducting a miniature orchestra.
“I need to get out of the city.”
“You’ll get nothing done. Nothing.” He jabbed the knife at her like it was his forefinger. “You’ll be right back here at the end of the summer looking for me to solve your next set of problems. Like when they sue your ass for the advance.”
Why was he like this? Why was he such an asshole? She felt dread at the base of her spine. “I’m suffocating here. Can you not see that?”
Then something changed in him. She couldn’t figure out if it was barely disguised disdain or legitimate confusion. She tried to explain it all again, apologizing for the serial delays and contract extensions that hurt her credibility. She reminded him that he knew the executive director and an influential board member.
“All I’m asking is for you to make a phone call.”
“For god’s sake, Nora, I can’t always be the one to save you. You’re asking me to put my reputation on the line.”
“It’s one fucking phone call.”
He ignored her and tossed the pasta, shaking his head. The halibut seared in the frying pan. He scooped the pasta onto warmed plates and crowned each with a thick chunk of fish. He spooned the orange gremolata over the white flesh.
Nora looked down at the artful presentation. She thought back to the vinyl tablecloth and paper plates of her youth; to the meatloaf still a little cold in the center because it’d been frozen and not fully heated through, but you couldn’t say a thing lest God strike you dead.
She recalled the last time she saw her mother: “Thy sin cannot abide in this house,” her father had said as they both looked her up and down and closed the door on her forever.
Richard looked past her as he poured more wine. They ate in silence.
She continued her run and refocused on the vista. Endorphins crept in, combatting the memory of desperation. Richard eventually relented with more groveling, but she didn’t have the money to visit her mother—a convenient excuse that temporarily muted her guilt. Henrietta Landry died a week later.
Upon reaching the beach she paused to take in the waves. Sea air washed over her. Salt teased her lips and tongue. She spotted a seal and followed its bobbing head across the surface until it disappeared into the horizon. Off to the left of Race Point Lighthouse, Hatch’s Harbor glistened in spellbinding light, a swirling paean to ocean surges and shifting sands. Her muscles tightened from the cool wind, signaling it was time to head back.
When she arrived home, she stopped at the base of the stairs to stretch. She checked her phone and discovered a missed call. She played her voicemail and took in the deep voice. Brian, general manager of the Squealing Pig, was interested in interviewing her.
She called him right away and arranged for a meeting after lunch.
Nora arrived five minutes early for her appointment. The smell of disinfectant permeated the air as a Black woman mopped the floor. A tall, ruggedly handsome man with thick salt and pepper hair emerged from a door in the back of the space.
“You must be Nora,” he said and smiled broadly as he extended his hand. “I’m Brian, the manager.”
“Nice to meet you.”
Brian ushered her to a table in the corner near the front window.
“So where are you from?”
“Actually, South Carolina originally.” Her body temperature shot up.
“And not a trace of accent.”
“Well, get a few drinks in me and it comes roaring back.”
“I see. You have great experience,” he said, reviewing her application. “Stanford and RISD—impressive.”
“Thanks,” Nora replied softly, slightly embarrassed that her elite education had landed her an interview at a burger joint named the Squealing Pig.
“Waitressing at the Union Square Cafe. That’s quite upscale. How’d you swing that?” he asked pointedly, as if laying a trap despite the almost perfect smile.
“A friend of a friend is the manager there. I went through intensive training, proved I was a quick study and they gave me a shot.”
“Cool. Cool. Well the Pig ain’t no Union Square Cafe. Why are you talking to us?”
“Honestly, I just arrived in town and I’m looking for some supplemental income that will give me flexible hours. I’m a painter and a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center for the summer. I’m comfortable in diverse restaurant environments. As you can see on the application, I waitressed at Hill Country for a couple of summers while in college as well. I’m not afraid of a little grease.”
He stared at her for a few seconds in silence then asked, “Do you have any tattoos?”
“Does that make a difference?” she asked, her voice cracking. She felt her cheeks flush and hoped they were pink, not red.
“No, not necessarily,” he responded, once again smiling broadly.
He now seemed creepy, like Heath.
“I’d prefer not to answer that question.”
“Cool. How about I give you a call in a couple of days?”
“OK.” A drop of sweat cleared her loose-fitting shirt and landed above her left hip. “Is that it? Is there anything else I can tell you?”
“No,” he said, rising suddenly. “I have all I need. I’m a good read of people. It’s all cool. Just talking to a bunch of folks. Will be in touch. Thanks for coming in.”
He escorted her to the door.
Dejected, Nora made her way to the Fine Arts Work Center campus to retrieve drop cloths, paints and an easel. Her gut roiled in agitation. She didn’t have any tattoos, but wasn’t going to submit to any question about her physical appearance.
The monkeys kicked in: You’re broke, Nora, and you just fucked that up! You think you’re better than you are. That’s always been the problem.
She tried to distract herself from the chatter by focusing on the strolling tourists, but it simmered below the surface, incessant. As she entered the campus art supply room, her phone vibrated with a local number.
Darius greeted her and said, “Listen, tonight’s your lucky night if you’re available. One of our waiters flaked at the last minute and none of our subs are free.”
Nora agreed to be there within the hour. She aborted her errand and darted to the apartment to shower. She slid into black skinny jeans and a black tank top.
Darius had changed into a tight-fitting black dress with spaghetti straps. Their eye make-up was now smoky, with a bluish tint that conjured film noir. A black bob wig accentuated the elegant look, finished off with a pair of patent leather pumps that read Jimmy Choo despite the large size. A necklace with a handcrafted pendant that looked Native American—perhaps Hopi— hung just above their breasts, bringing an earthy irony to the outfit that felt perfect.
Darius looked Nora up and down. “Cute. But I’m the only one allowed to show bare arms—restaurant policy. There is a black shirt in the back office that you can wear. Go get that on and we’ll get you set up.”
After retrieving the uniform, Darius oriented her to the various tables and introduced her to the bartender, Gina, an older woman with short blonde spiked hair and skin harshly wrinkled by the sun. Darius then gathered the rest of the waitstaff, introduced Nora and reviewed the dinner menu. Nora took copious notes, intimidated by the long list of specials. Pangs of insecurity shot through her head as she took in the confident expressions of the other waiters and support staff. She had not waitressed for a few years and it was clear this was a well-run establishment and she would have to prove herself quickly.
Darius clapped twice, signaling the end of the meeting. They showed Nora the ordering system and led her downstairs to the kitchen. The chef-owner, Wesley, greeted and thanked her for subbing with such short notice.
Darius wrapped their long thin arm around Nora and hugged her close. As they scaled the stairs, Darius said softly, “You’re gonna be great. If you have any questions or if anyone gives you any ‘tude, you bring it to me, OK?”
“Yes. Thanks, Darius.”
Upon reaching the landing, Darius shouted across the room, “We’re about to open darlings. Smiles everyone! Smiles!”
The staff fanned out. Nora inspected her tables and consulted her notes again. Her back, arms and legs itched with anxiety as the first guests arrived. Darius channeled them to one of her tables, a deuce by the window overlooking the water. The light of early evening began to fade. Thick dune grass wafted in the wind, shiny from the graze of beach lamps.
Nora greeted the couple who exuded that air of sophistication and taste that certain middle-aged gay men seemed to pull off effortlessly—cultivated without the burdens of children, ripened with international travel, and honed with the art world and lots of disposable income. They were casually dressed in keeping with the general feel of the town, but the quality of fabric and cut of their shirts confirmed an attention to detail, a proclivity for the finer things in life.
“I’m Nora and I’ll be taking care of you tonight. Would you like bottled still or sparkling water or tap?”
“We’ll take sparkling,” the handsomer of the two responded with a smile.
“Coming right up.”
With this first request, the years of waitressing rushed back. Her confidence built after getting through the list of specials. Darius was easy on her and limited her table count so she wouldn’t get overwhelmed. By mid-evening she was helping to bus other tables, impressing the staff with her work ethic. As the night wound down, she’d proven herself a capable, humble, collaborative member of the team. Over drinks with the group, Darius raised a toast in her honor:
“To Nora, our new secret weapon!”
Everyone applauded, clinked glasses and thanked her for a successful evening.
Nora made her way back home, stopping for an ice cream at Scoop. An unfamiliar sense of accomplishment washed over her as she slid into bed exhausted. It was just one night. She didn’t even know how much she would be paid. Still, it was a start.
Torrence Boone, a native of Baltimore, has always found setting a powerful source of personal, professional and creative inspiration. A current resident of New York City, he has lived in the Bay Area, Boston, Palm Springs and Provincetown, MA. A multi-faceted business career, most recently as Google’s VP of Global Client Partnerships, has taken him around the world to six continents and their most important cities.
With degrees from Stanford and Harvard Business School, Torrence brings these collective experiences to his literary ambitions, fueled by diverse workshops at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and a M.A. in Fiction Writing from Johns Hopkins. He derives literary inspiration from his favorite authors: James Baldwin, Raymond Carver, Joan Didion, Lauren Groff, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Anne Lamott, Dennis Lehane, Cormac McCarthy and Maggie Nelson.
He is currently completing his debut novel, The Bait Shack.