Dent Island lies in northern Puget Sound—36 miles long and half that wide, shaped about like a stomach except at Fort Beaver, the belt line, where it cinches in almost to nothing, and at the ends, where it tapers. It’s a $7, 40-minute ferry ride from the mainland over the coldest water you will ever cross, and visitors are encouraged. Every spring, in fact, the island tourist commission buys advertisements in West Coast travel magazines that say, “Dent Island—come fall in love all over again.”
And they do come, every year, like indoor ants. All summer long, twin lines of them on bicycles, with wraparound sunglasses and yellow helmets, moving up and down State Road 535, the island’s only artery. A few are inevitably maimed—there are always the Winnebago accidents, when one driver is blinded by the sun coming off another’s windshield and takes out a section of bicyclists about the length of a guard rail—but mostly they survive and return. And the picnics, the places you see picnics. The British Columbians in particular will eat anywhere.
Californians, on the other hand, are more apt to drop into the picturesque town of Austin for lunch, hoping to see Barbra Streisand, who is supposed to have a hideaway somewhere near the ferry landing, or to buy antiques at bargain prices. It does not occur to them, even after spending $80 on lunch, that the locals are not easy pickings.
You cannot avoid these people; they are everywhere and often in need of medical assistance. In rutting season they are attacked by deer. At the RV park they are attacked by yellow jackets. And still they come back. One stumbled out in front of me on Low Moan Road last year, grabbing at my door like it was the last helicopter out of Saigon, and a little later, as we stood looking down the long gully to the spot where his Land Rover had come to rest, he told me that somehow he had to make time in his life for himself, too.
In extreme cases, they threaten to move in.
As it happens, the house I live in now—at least most of it—was built by visitors, a middle-aged couple, whose other property was on the waterfront of Lake Washington, probably the dearest real estate between New York City and Tokyo.
The lady of the house began the project as a weekend retreat, a place to get away, I suppose, from other people with just as much money as she had. A place where she could hear herself think. A few months into construction, though, she had a change of heart and decided to go bigger. She had visions of the sort of house where friends would wear white gloves to afternoon teas. But not a complete change of heart. She went back and forth on it, back and forth—weekend retreat one day, country manor the next—and drove the builder out of his nut, of course, and then her husband. If he wasn’t already.
She was in the kitchen the first time we came through with the real estate agent, baking gingersnaps, holding it together for the sake of appearances. She had an apron on, and new jeans and cowgirl boots she’d bought to attend the county fair. Horrific thighs. Out the window, her husband, Don, was splitting firewood at the edge of the meadow below the house. Don was going to miss the island, she said. He loved the outdoors, the feel of slamming home the old ax.
She spoke these words affectionately, but you could see things between them were headed south. We were over there four times before we bought the house and never saw him closer to her than a hundred yards. Twice driving past, we spotted him just sitting in the meadow in his new pickup, reading the newspaper.
By the time we showed up, of course, the lady of the house had made a decision that afternoon teas and white gloves were not negotiable, and then she found out—probably during the five months she and Don waited around for the fucking electrician to show up—that there are no white gloves on this island except the ones that belong to the mimes. There’s a nest of them over in Austin, so many that once in a while in the winter you see them miming for each other. The competition for wintertime attention around here just breaks your heart.
Besides mimes, there is a theater group in town, and colonies of painters, musicians and glassblowers scattered near town, in the hills. There is an ex–movie star—nothing on the scale of Barbra Streisand, of course, but a face you’d know if you saw it—who keeps to himself, and an annual writers workshop for lesbians. More greasy jeans than a pack of Hell’s Angels. Four years ago a troop of touring monks was hired by the island arts council to visit Austin for a day and conduct a seminar on conga drumming, and 26 people showed up with their own conga drums. This in a town of 720 people.
All to say that Dent Island does not lack culture. It is also true that many kinds of people live and work here—stockbrokers, fishermen, lawyers, Boeing engineers, one fucking electrician—and not all of them are cultured or even appreciate culture, and some of them will not even drive through Austin with their families because of all the culture that hangs around in the street there. These are the same people, by the way, you will notice not waving back when you are out on your bike in your yellow helmet looking for Barbra Streisand’s cottage.
The island has two school districts—more because of its size than its population—and in June a few years ago the southern, more rural district, which includes the towns of Austin, Tyree and Eagleton, hired a 31-year-old woman named Anita Louise Conners to develop an advanced-placement curriculum. The old-timers said Ms. Conners bore a pleasing resemblance to the actress Jane Russell—from the day when you didn’t have to worry about putting out your eye on some implant a doctor had installed—and perhaps in that spirit, the school board, many of whose members had lived through the Great Depression, gave her an unusual, 12-month contract, which caused some bruised feelings over at the high school as well as a dustup in the local paper. For most of a month it was civil war on the op-ed page, tit lovers against the teachers’ union.
While the argument was going on, Ms. Conners set up courses in gender studies, African American and feminist literature, creative writing and Shakespeare.
But wait, there’s something else. Ms. Conners was from Harvard. And when the regulars down at Uncle Moses’s Bed & Breakfast—who are the island’s native sons and offer the truest glimpse inside the place—when the news reached Uncle Moses’s B&B that the new teacher who was causing all the stir was from Harvard, it might as well have been Barbra Streisand herself, riding up the street on Trigger. Just fuck the daisies.
Uncle Moses’s B&B, I ought to explain, is not now and never has been a bed-and-breakfast. It is a bar named (how would the tourist commission put this?) in celebration of our visitors, and “Just fuck the daisies” is a local expression with roots in a 30-year-old incident at Dent Harbor Golf and Country Club that the board of directors, in issuing a one-month suspension to past president Dick Springer, labeled “an egregious violation of common courtesy and the dress code.” To this day, in polite company, the denizens of Uncle Moses’s use the euphemism “an egregious violation of common courtesy and the dress code” when they mean something so perfect, or so perfectly fucked-up, that it cannot accurately be described except in terms of having sex with flowers.
Not to say there is anything wrong with Harvard, per se, any more than there is anything wrong with daisies. It is just that there is, as the Dent Harbor Golf and Country Club board of directors noted in its letter of suspension, a time and a place for everything.
My own reaction to the news of Ms. Conners’s educational credentials was more like this: How can you be from a place like Harvard anyway? What about the other places? I went to the University of South Dakota—and I was there longer than most of the faculty—but it’s not where I’m from. I am from the one-bathroom tract houses in Georgia and suburban Chicago that my stepfather bought as he raised his family on a teacher’s salary. I am from my seat next to my sister’s at the kitchen table, from meat patties, baked potatoes and frozen green beans. I am from Philadelphia and the newspaper business.
Where I am not from, of course, is Harvard. My sister went there, though, and my brother Tom, who for all I know could be even smarter than she is, went to the University of Chicago, and my youngest brother went to Yale and graduated in about 12 days. I am the one who missed, by a twat hair, becoming the only person in the history of either side of the family not to graduate from any college, at least since the Civil War. On the other hand, there is now hope that I am a late bloomer, as only last year I was named Dent Island’s best local novelist in the annual best-and-worst edition of the paper. (Actually, I tied for best novelist with Sheriff Cliff Doane, whom I forgot to mention back in the cultural highlights section but who nevertheless wrote a novel, The Island Strangler, and can occasionally be seen signing copies of it down at the Dog Ear bookstore in Austin. Yes, I’m afraid we do for a fact have a sheriff who invents serial killers.)
But what I was getting around to before I was sidetracked into this business about colleges was that Ms. Conners apparently had it all—carriage and brains and a Harvard diploma—and arrived on the island with high expectations for herself and the academic growth of our community. I have heard that early on someone asked her, “Why here?” and she only gazed off into the trees and said she found the place perfectly suited to her needs.
What do you make of an answer like that? Better yet, what do you make of walking into your house and finding your 15-year-old daughter sitting cross-legged on the couch, studying Maya Angelou?
The next year, in creative writing, Ms. Conners assigned the class to write a story imagining a meeting between Bill Clinton and Othello. This was right after Toni Morrison stirred up the East Coast with an essay claiming Clinton was America’s first black president. My daughter was sitting cross-legged on the couch again when she told me what she was writing.
Clinton? I thought, Christ, what about Coolidge?
The year after Toni Morrison, it was a course called Navigation 4, designed to prepare the island’s university-bound students to research and write papers that might help them stay in college after they were admitted.
Now, as it happened, also taking Navigation 4 that semester was a friend of my daughter’s, a sweet, serious kid named Harriet Nelson, who preferred, for obvious reasons, to be called by her last name. Her parents had pulled her out of high school one day at the beginning of her junior year and stood in the hall while she emptied her locker into a cardboard box, crying and embarrassed, the whole school watching, all over a boy she liked and they didn’t.
They put her in the island’s alternative school, where she sat with the barkers (whom we try to keep away from the tourists) and the paper eaters and the Fuller twins, who one night took the lug nuts off all the county school buses, and fell further behind and further away all the time.
Three months into her senior year, however, the boy she loved turned 18 and quit school to go to Reno, Nevada, and learn to deal blackjack, and Nelson was allowed to return to Dent High and her friends. It was good news, but like a lot of good news it was too late. There had always been something a little sad about the kid, and resigned, and she already knew that she wouldn’t be leaving the island—the worst hand you can be dealt around here when you’re 17.
To her credit, she held off the outside world and what it had in mind for her as long as she could, which was what she was doing when she signed up for Ms. Conners’s Navigation 4. It was a course for students going places, and Ms. Conners taught it as if it was already college, as if they were all adults.
Ms. Conners had turned moody that year, which I understood to mean that mother nature was sending out mixed signals (have a baby or tear out somebody’s throat—how do you decide?). That or just boredom. Sometimes in the winter all there is for excitement around here are mud slides and the occasional reminder that you are always on the clock. (Unless you live in town, sooner or later you are going to hit a deer on the way home—it isn’t called Dent Island for nothing.)
The first incident of moody behavior I heard about was when Ms. Conners arrived one morning 45 minutes late for class, looking like she’d slept in her car, and told the story of Ralph Ellison’s losing 400 pages of a novel in a house fire. And as she told the story she began weeping.
A few weeks later, a concerned parent called the principal after Ms. Conners, wearing a funeral veil, lectured for an hour on the similarities between fiction writing and a high-wire act known as the Flying Wallendas. The principal’s name is Dr. Potter, and the Wallendas’ story, as you probably know, is that they were a circus family, and about 11 of them were hanging from the same bicycle one afternoon a hundred feet in the air, and the next thing you knew they were all lying around like flies on the windowsill at the end of fly season, little, bent, upside-down legs everywhere you looked.
Toward the end of the semester, Ms. Conners asked the class to imagine what it was like to be swallowed.
And while this was going on—while Ms. Conners was giving up on Dent Island—Nelson was giving up on Navigation 4. And for the same reason. I didn’t say this to my kid, but I think we all have a voice, something from down by the pond, that knows what it knows.
And so during the last week of her senior year, my daughter came home one day with the news that Ms. Conners, who had been particularly moody that week, had given Nelson an F on her research project. The project was 60 percent of her grade, which meant that she was going to fail the course, which, combined with the months she lost sitting with the paper eaters and the lug-nut looseners at the alternative school, meant that she didn’t have enough credits to graduate.
A summer makeup course was possible, but even if she found the time—and she had to work that summer; she knew she would always have to work—her diploma would come in the mail or at some shotgun-wedding sort of ceremony in Mr. Potter’s office.
“Ms. Conners knows she’s going to miss graduation?” I said.
She said Nelson’s parents had gone to school and tried talking to her in person, but she wouldn’t budge. “She finally said she’d let her redo the paper, but it’s too late,” she said.
My stepfather, as I mentioned, was also a teacher and made it his business all his life not to tell kids like Nelson it was too late. He never told me that either, and I was some version of Nelson myself.
“Ms. Conners said there was nothing she could do,” she said. “The deadline for the grades to be in is tomorrow.”
Then she went into her room with one of the dogs to work on the speech she was supposed to give at graduation. She had been chosen to talk to her classmates about the challenges awaiting them in the real world.
At dinner I asked how the challenges of the real world were shaping up. I was trying to get her to include the challenges awaiting her principal, Dr. Potter. Specifically, in the real world of Dr. Potter, every spring the seniors were going to turn his VW upside down in the parking lot, no matter where he parked it, which would trigger a relapse of his wife’s condition, meaning she would end up writing a letter to the editor calling the whole island inbred, which the paper would print, and then he would have to apologize for that in a letter of his own. They love a dustup over at the paper, but my kid didn’t think it was appropriate to bring up Dr. Potter’s problems at graduation.
She gets that appropriate stuff from the other side of the aisle, by the way, but then her mother and I have been tugging at her from different directions for years, a lot of it, in fact, at the dinner table. It started like this: Even as a baby, she hated peas. You’d spoon them into her mouth and she’d lean over the side of the high chair and spit them on the dogs. When she was four, she’d push them into a little pile on the far side of her plate, where they wouldn’t touch any of the other food. Myself, I did not think a life without peas was necessarily meaningless.
“Why not try them?” her mother would say. “You have to try them once …. ”
I was sitting across the table. This was before we came to the island, and we lived in a cabin on a little lake in New Jersey. The roof leaked, the floor was rotting, and we didn’t have much money, but that house was a good time. My wife and I never in our lives got around to talking about bringing up the child; we each just did what we did. On the evening I’m telling you about now, I took a $20 bill out of my pocket. “Twenty dollars to eat one pea,” I said. “To get you ready for the real world.”
She looked at her mother; she looked at her plate. Whatever you’re thinking, I don’t want to hear it. She did not grow up believing life was $20 a pea. She grew up believing she could pick out some of the good parts, though, which in this case was the expression on her mother’s face. At that moment you could have exactly fit a vacuum attachment into her mouth. My daughter sorted through the peas with her spoon and chose one—a small one—and ate it. Then she picked up the $20 and went to the silverware drawer to get a clean spoon. “Happy?” her mother said.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I am.”
Nelson had written her Navigation 4 report on graffiti. Her title was “Is Graffiti Really Art?” The paper was supposed to be 15 to 20 pages long, and it went like this:
Graffiti is everywhere. The ghetto, the subways, the schools, the sidewalks, our churches, synagogues, cathedrals and places of worship. Even perhaps our redwood forests and other national monuments and treasures. What causes the youth to “sign” in this unruly manner which causes others discomfort? Is it society? No one really knows. Who could know but the youths? But more importantly, is it art? Well, that is the question. That is truly an interesting question. Art is beauty, and beauty, according to Aristotle and other age-old philosophers, is in the eye of the beholder. Each of us has their own opinion, so in the end, who can really say what is art?
Fifteen handwritten pages, three sources—a recent article in Time magazine, Webster’s New World Dictionary, the New Oxford American Dictionary—big margins, the bottom two lines devoted to the word overalong with an arrow showing Ms. Conners where to find the next page. Enough padding to insulate the state of Vermont.
Ms. Conners had quit marking the mistakes in spelling, grammar, punctuation and all the rest after two pages and instead wrote a simple one-line note at the end, calling the paper a betrayal of the spirit of the class.
Nelson stood in our kitchen while I looked it over, her eyes tired and starting to well tears. Knowing what was in the paper, knowing that she was 17 years old and this was the end of the road.
I sent her home and went over to the little house in the trees where I work. The place seems smaller at night, and I never go there after dark without being reminded of the other place, the one by the lake, and the nights I worked there after I got home from my job at the newspaper. My first book came out of the typewriter while my wife and my daughter slept in other parts of the house, and I would get up from the desk every half hour at two and three and four in the morning to look at them, just stand there for a little while in the doorway, on a floor that sagged under my weight, watching them sleep.
Which is as much excuse as I’m going to make. I did what I did, and Nelson came over at six in the morning and picked up the paper, took it home and rewrote it word for word. A day passed, and the deadline passed with it.
Then another day, and then the phone rang Thursday morning. It was Ms. Conners.
“I find myself in a very odd position,” she said.
Lord, when I think of those words now.
Ms. Conners was waiting, but I did not spend 10 years writing a newspaper column in Philadelphia without learning when to shut the fuck up. It is the key to everything, I think, learning when to shut up.
She said, “Let me begin by saying I have been struggling with this…. No, let me just begin by saying Harriet has told me that she went to you and your daughter for help with her paper.
“I said, “A nice kid, isn’t she?”
“Yes, well, they both are. The thing is, I’m in quite a quandary, as it were, and I was hoping you might be able to straighten me out. After reading the paper several times, I find that I can’t shake the question of how much of it she actually wrote….” And she left that out there for a while, perhaps expecting a confession, or an adult conversation.
I said, “Well, I think you could say I gave her a steer in the right direction. I showed her the things she had in there that didn’t belong where they were.” Which was true, in its way. I’m assuming that she read it when she copied it. “And then I made some suggestions about how she might reword what was left. The kind of things you must do all the time.”
There was another pause, and then she said, “You understand, my concern here is fairness. I want to be fair to her, but I also want to be fair to the rest of the class. I want to be fair to myself.”
And there it was, the mother lode. “Fair to myself.” But I had shut the fuck up for Nelson, and I stayed shut the fuck up. Although I wanted to I didn’t tell Ms. Conners that I knew who had betrayed the spirit of the class, that Nelson was not the one who came in pretending that literature was important until she found out she couldn’t write it herself.
“She wrote every word,” I said.
Nelson got a C-minus on the paper—Ms. Conners told me that twice before she hung up, making sure I understood that it was a C-minus, apparently under the impression that I could be insulted academically—and a D for the course.
It was my first graduation. For one reason or another I never went to any of my own or my brothers’ or my sister’s, so I don’t know if it’s the same in other places, but the audience behaved as if they were at a basketball game. Yelling, whooping, stomping. Paper airplanes, streamers. There was even a wave in a section of the audience for a kid from one of the big island families.
My daughter got up and gave her speech, which I regret to report did not mention Mr. Potter’s VW or his wife, and while she was speaking I noticed Nelson sitting with her chin in her hand beside an empty folding chair, as if my kid had already left for the world and left her behind, and later, in the courtyard, I saw them hugging each other and crying.
Nelson works in the coffee shop now, the one you drive by on the road to the ferry, and still comes over to visit when the pea lover is home from college. She had a baby a year out of high school and loves the kid to death.
Ms. Conners left the school district that same year, in handcuffs, after a now-famous tryst with an 11th-grade student, which, if you can believe the sheriff’s office, had been going on for two years.
Myself, I am once again poleaxed at my habitual misreading of the human condition, wondering why I even bother to have opinions. My wife says I’m being too hard on myself, but the island tourist commission got closer than I did: “Dent Island—come fall in love all over again.”
Ms. Conners ended up with five years’ probation and a six-figure book deal, and everybody else involved sued the school district and was interviewed on afternoon television. Ms. Conners had to undergo mandatory counseling and register as a Class 2 sex offender wherever she went, which I thought was taking things too far. I remember being 14, and I would have cut off a toe for a shot at Ms. Conners, and looking at the nub right now, my guess is I wouldn’t much regret it. I can testify in court that I’ve done worse things to myself with less reason.
Among the people who do not see it that way, however, you may count the regular inhabitants of Uncle Moses’s B&B, who take an unexpectedly puritan view of the matter.
Down at Uncle Moses’s, Ms. Conners’s name—when somebody has the bad taste to bring it up—still stirs a certain gnawing resentment. A grudging feeling, probably as old as sitting around getting shitfaced itself: a feeling that somehow we have been used as a stepping-stone to the big time.
[Photo Credit: Jordan Rowland]