“So . . . You’re here.” Einar Karlson spoke to her through the screen door on the back porch. “When did you get out?”
Lizette stood at the bottom of the backstairs and looked up at her father swaying behind the rusted mesh, saw his wariness and stiffened her own guard. She pulled a wad of damp envelopes from the metal box beside the steps. He put her mail there so she could pick it up whenever she liked, avoiding him if necessary. She sorted out the county disability checks and dropped them into her lumpy canvas bag then studied the postmark on a mildewed envelope—December 1972. “What’s the date?” she asked, without looking up.
“Come in?” he suggested. “Have some tea?”
Lizette shrugged, continued sorting, mostly junk—art school ads and half-off sales from Christmas. She realized the holidays were over, that she’d missed them, but since her mother died, she hadn’t felt like celebrating anyway.
“It’s February 2,” he said. “I presume you know it’s 1973.”
She climbed the steps, paused on the narrow porch. The screen door swung out and her father held it open while she hesitated. The wood felt spongy under her feet, softened from years of Seattle rain and a lifetime of entrances and exits.
He took the pipe out of his mouth, cupped the bowl protectively in his hand as she passed. She noticed gray rime on the pipe’s stem, smelled the cherry tobacco on his blue plaid shirt. He smiled a pained welcome. What am I afraid of? she wondered as she moved past him into the kitchen. He’s old and weak. A pang of sorrow popped up in her chest. At least her mother would never be old like him, she thought, and a ripple of comfort passed through her. She also knew she’d never hear her mother laugh again, not that it happened all that often in this nut house. She looked around the kitchen at the sad walls, at the old cuckoo clock, oddly out of place in a house filled with sculpture, paintings and historic Indian artifacts.
The kitchen felt warm, not from cooking, Lizette realized, but from more than twenty-five years of memories that heated the surfaces – the old green Formica kitchen table and vinyl chair seats, the canisters and potholders. Recollections radiated from the cabinets and walls. Clicks and pings, sounds of her childhood, came from the house’s furnace, the heat closing in on her. She watched her father’s bony shoulders work as he ran water into the tea kettle, thought about how big he used to seem, how shriveled he looked now. His shirt hung from his clothes-hanger frame, its fullness overlapped under his cinched belt. He settled in the chair across from her, his presence too close, pressing on her diaphragm, making her pull for air.
She crossed her arms over her chest and recalled the rumble of his voice when she was a child, sitting on his lap and resting her head against him, hearing the stories, feeling his resonance. Always stories. He told tales of the first people. The Indians who lived here before the explorers came, about Chief Seattle and his people, about the animal spirits who ruled the world. She conjured the energy of the university students who’d gathered in her family’s living room in the evenings, who’d talked earnestly about their theories and research, and she remembered how her father, the famous anthropologist, would listen to their ramblings, amused. They were finding out things he’d known and written about before many of them were born. Her mother would appear at those times like a spirit, offering plates of Swedish cookies, her blonde hair braided and coiled into a crown. Then she’d glide out the kitchen door to her art studio in the back garden.
Lizette remembered sitting cross-legged on the floor beside the couch. He’d bring little treasures out of his study—totems, the two-headed soul catcher that was carved from a bear femur, dance wands, rattles, skin drums with thunderbirds, and finally the chief’s headdress with long ermine pelts attached. He’d always offer to let someone else try on the chief’s headdress, never fitted the elaborate piece to his own head, held it out, acting like an acolyte with ancient sacraments.
Most of all Lizette had waited to see the mask of Watches Underwater. Even after centuries, the colors leapt from the carved cedar, Watcher’s unflinching eyes eternally scanned the upper world for danger, vigilant and prepared to warn the creatures in the sea below of any threats. The mask’s red puckered lips showed the legend perfectly, she thought, and pictured the beautiful woman floating on her back just below the water’s surface, watching, supping air with those voluptuous lips, watching, and she ached now to put the mask on her own face, but knew her father wouldn’t permit it. “It’s not a toy,” he’d said when she was small and tucked the artifact back into its box. She knew he’d deny her now so she let her desire fade. The tea kettle whistled. Her father went to the cupboard and pulled down two mugs.
“What kind of tea?” he asked.
“Uh . . . orange spice,” Lizette said, looking at the blue and white plate above the sink with her name written around the rim: Elizabeth Lena Karlson—April 10, 1947. Her nursery totem. Her middle name, her mother’s name, Lena, cried to her from the Delft ceramic. The plate had hung there for more than a quarter century, she thought, an artifact displayed like it had been dug from an ancient midden, a Swedish custom that announced her presence to those who ventured into her parent’s kitchen. She remembered that when she was small her father had called her “Little Liz,” sometimes “Liz Bit,” eventually transforming her name playfully to Lizette. After that everyone called her Lizette—teachers, neighbors, playmates, and the clerk at the art supply store where her mother had worked and sometimes taught painting classes in the back room.
The store manager had framed some of Lizette’s paintings and hung them behind the work table where the clerks made picture frames. A couple of them sold, and her mother took her for ice cream, told her she’d put the sale money in Lizette’s college account at the bank, that she was going to the Pratt Art Institute in Chicago or the Sorbonne in Paris and she’d grow up to be a famous artist, if she studied and developed her own technique, if—her mother added in an acid tone—she’d stop copying others. Lizette had asked for a double scoop of pistachio and felt she’d somehow done something good and wrong at the same time. Her mother ordered plain vanilla and they sat on wire chairs at a small table, silent, licking their cones.
She snatched herself back and watched her father reach for a blue tin on top of the refrigerator. He popped the lid and took out a handful of cookies, dropped them on a plate. Lizette picked up a cookie, pecked at the edge, set it down, scattered powdered sugar on the table.
“Where will you stay?” Einar said, sitting down and reaching a veiny hand toward her. Lizette did not reach back. She sensed he wanted to say something, but instead of speaking to her truthfully, she watched him shift away, felt his dodge. “Have you made plans?”
Lizette doubted his interest. “I’ll be on Orcas Island, at Marian’s,” she said flatly. “She has the ranch now, since her father died.”
She looked up and saw his stunned expression. He didn’t know Hal Cutler had died, she thought, and realized how isolated he’d become in the years since her mother died, his life narrowed to an occasional faculty meeting, TV at night, maybe an ambitious teaching assistant between the sheets once in a great while.
“He’s been gone over a year, I think. You know the cabin by the water, below the main house?” He nodded. “That’s where I stay. Marian said it’s mine as long as I want.”
“That old shepherd’s shack?” She heard the judgment in his voice, winced. He tried again. “Good spot. Not the best light, though. Kind of rough. No running water or electricity. But, I guess it’s better than hanging around downtown.”
“It’ll do.” She felt the disapproval in his voice, almost added that it was none of his business what she did, decided to avoid an argument, studied her ragged fingernails, switched tempo.
“Spring’s coming and the sun will move higher,” she said. “A lot of my things are stored out there, some canvases I’ve been working on and I can help out around the ranch.”
“What happened this time?” Einar tried to keep his face blank, voice flat. “How long did they keep you?”
* * *
Set in the Pacific Northwest during a time of great tumult in America, Adrift in the Sound is the story of Lizette’s journey through this troubled era, it’s about madness, betrayal and the redeeming power of love.Adrift in the Sound was a Mercer Street Books finalist for best novel in 2011, rated 5-stars by Amazon readers.
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