Chapter 1 – Kismet
November 13th, 2008 – Provincetown
You never really know a place unless you live there. Until last night, Provincetown was a state of mind—a place that spoke to my heart. Now I’m actually here, I’m not so sure….
Setting down his pen, the young man cradles a cup of hot chocolate, then scans the near-empty café. His light blue eyes reveal exhaustion and disillusion. When the theme from Mission: Impossible shatters the midmorning stillness, he snaps shut a leather-bound journal and rejects the call.
Right on schedule. Brandon’s never up before eleven after a night of party’n play. What could he think we have to say to each other?
Offshore, a nor’easter closes in on the back beach. Ominous clouds darken the dunes of East Harbor, then the East End. Raw, heavy mist bathes trees and buildings in a prelude to the pelting rain to come. As the storm moves ashore, Long Point recedes into a murky, gray infinity.
When the phone rings a second time, the young man mutes it, eyes the screen until the name fades, then stares out at Commercial Street in search of distraction. There isn’t much to be found. Provincetown has entered its dormant phase. Worn, tawdry, and forlorn, the scene before him shows no trace of the vibrant mecca that captured his imagination just weeks before. It had been Carnival then; thousands of revelers, raucous laughter, outrageous costumes, and general goodwill had crowded Commercial Street in a euphoric celebration of summer, sun, and sex.
In the muted November light, the bleak streetscape retains few traces of those frenetic days. Cockeyed, scruffy buildings with peeling paint, faded fliers tacked to telephone poles—their events long forgotten—boarded windows with hastily scrawled thanks for “another great season,” all contribute to a petulant air, as if the town begrudged those who decamped at summer’s end.
The only person in sight, a stooped old woman with a large paper bag in each arm, shuffles along the sidewalk. She’s tiny, even elfin. Her face is furrowed; her back hunched under a thick wool coat laden with damp. When the downpour starts, she seeks refuge in the café. As she tugs the door open, a gust of wind rips it from her grasp. Before the young man can come to her aid, the bags give way. Cans, bottles, and packages roll down the steps and into the street.
“Goddamn son’s a bitches,” she mutters, hands on hips.
When he sprints past her to save a large can of beef stew from an oncoming car, she yells into the quickening gale, her shrill voice rising high above the wind.
“Thanks, dahlin’. You’re my knight in shinin’ ahmah.”
While her knight scavenges the flooding gutter, she seats herself at his table. Her dark, penetrating eyes never leave him, watching his every move with amusement and subtle assessment. By the time he’s salvaged everything in a pile by the door, she’s ensconced like royalty, greedily downing his hot chocolate.
“Hey kid, your phone’s lightin’ up. Oops, you missed the call—some Brandon fellow. ”
Incredulous, the young man stares at her, his blond hair plastered to his head, his sopping clothes glued to his pale skin. Her eyes twinkle, and the corner of her mouth starts to curl as if she’s losing the battle to suppress a smile.
“I didn’t answer, in case he was a trick. Didn’t want him thinkin’ your grandmother was nosin’ ’round your love life.”
She chuckles lasciviously, then extends a gnarled hand.
“He’ll call back, no doubt. Dorrie Machado.”
“Marcus Nugent,” he responds, dazed by a dose of frigid rainwater, the loss of his hot chocolate, and a strong sense of déjà vu.
“Well, Marcus Nugent, thank you for savin’ those goddamn groceries. Most folks wouldn’t do such a good turn for an old lady they didn’t know from Eve. Somebody brung you up right, that’s for damn sure.”
Marc studies her wrinkled face. She’s eighty if a day, with close-cropped white hair, a little flap of skin under the chin, and leathery, wind-burned skin. There’s something mischievous in this woman’s bearing—a smug sense of knowing—as if she’s watching an opening act with full awareness of the final outcome.
“You’re new here, Marcus. I ain’t seen you ’round.”
“Just got here early this morning. Please call me Marc. I’ve never liked Marcus. It sounds too much like a character from ancient Rome.”
“If that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get. Now tell me, Marc. Are you running from somethin’, or did you come here to find love?”
“You heard me. Don’t go gettin’ all bitchy-queenie with me. I’m askin’ are you runnin’ or searchin’? There’s only two things that bring you boys to town this time of year. I know that much after more than eighty years of livin’.”
“I’m not sure that’s any of your business.”
“Ha. Ha. Ha.”
Dorrie’s brittle cackle fills the room, coaxing a grin from the man behind the counter as well as two men at an adjacent table who’ve been surreptitiously studying Marc’s physique, his sodden clothing having left little to the imagination.
“If you’re gonna live in this town, dahlin’, everybody’s gonna know your business whether you want them to or not. There are busybodies at every corner, just waitin’ to get the goods on you, and not all of them are old bags like me.”
Dorrie glares at the two interlopers to drive her point home.
“Better get used to that sorta bullshit from the get-go!”
As the two men rapidly split a newspaper between them and dive for cover behind its pages, the counterman produces a large cardboard box for the groceries. A wide, self-satisfied smile softens Dorrie’s rough-hewn features, showing decades of cigarette stain. Marc smiles back despite himself.
“You got a cah?” she asks, looking up at him with a slight tilt of her head, like an inquisitive fowl.
“A place to live?”
“Tell you what. You get me anotha one of these here,” Dorrie says, holding up his empty cup, “and a ride home, and I’ll do somethin’ ’bout that.”
His phone vibrates. Dorrie nods in satisfaction.
“Ah! Brandon! Him again. I figured as much. You’re a runnah!”
Marc shrugs, orders two hot chocolates, and throws in two pieces of chocolate cake for good measure.
The rain stops as suddenly as it had begun.
Come on-a My House
“Just a sec, dahlin’. I gotta have me a smoke.”
Dorrie turns her back to the wind, lighting up with all the skill of a fisherman in a squall.
“Those are lousy for you.”
“Oh, I don’t pay no never mind. I already know how I’m gonna die, and it ain’t from this shit.”
When she finishes, she tosses the butt on the sidewalk, then crushes it with her foot.
“Where to?” Marc asks.
Dorrie points a crooked finger toward the center of town.
“The West End. Follow Commercial Street all the way to Pilgrims’ Park.”
Marc drives the deserted street past the Town Hall, the “meat rack’s” empty benches puddled with rainwater, then the Boatslip, nearly as lifeless and forlorn as the gray harbor it surveys, and finally the West End parking lot, where the only car in residence is an ancient Cadillac convertible pockmarked with rust. Descending a slight hill to the Red Inn, he spies the cluster of trees bounding Pilgrims’ Park.
At first, the park seems nothing more than a few benches, granite pavers, and some rustic plantings in the middle of a roundabout. When they reach the Provincetown Inn, the expanse of the moors and its granite breakwater come into view, providing one of the best vistas in town.
Dorrie points toward two large wrought iron gates supported by massive granite columns. On the right-hand column, a bronze plaque announces One Commercial Street. The left bears a matching plaque with a single word: HomePort. Someone has spray-painted an o over the e.
“Stop the goddamn car.”
Dorrie’s ferocious scowl is more than a match for her tone. She gets out to wipe the still-wet paint with a handkerchief.
“Idiots,” she grumbles when Marc offers help. “They think they’re so smart. Every year, all across town, it’s the same damn thing. The f in Whorf’s Court becomes an e; the second o in Cook Street becomes a c. It ain’t funny to begin with, never mind when you’ve seen it over and over again for years.”
Dorrie gets into the car with more difficulty than she’d exited it.
“Good thing we got that cleaned off before Lola saw it. She’d have a conniption fit.”
There are two houses beyond the gate. The first, halfway up a steep hill, is built in a traditional Provincetown style. Modest in scale, it’s clad in weather-beaten shingles and white fascia boards. A mottled green door sports a sheer curtain behind its etched glass. On each floor, two windows with delicate lace curtains face the drive. A back door and an adjacent half-window are just visible at the far right of the house. Farther up the hill, the chimneys, gables, and tower of an ornate Victorian mansion soar above the treetops like a castle at the edge of a forest.
Dorrie points to a gravel parking space beside the smaller house.
“Park here. Move quick once I open the door, in case Lola’s snoopin’.”
Before Marc can respond, Dorrie is walking briskly toward the front door. He races to the trunk and grabs the box of groceries.
“No! No! Leave those be,” she yells from the steps. “They go to the big house. Bring the steak, though. I’ll need to wash it and wrap it in somethin’ different. The paper’s shot.”
Marc retrieves the soggy steak and dashes into an immaculate parlor whose highly polished furniture is draped with aged lace and antimacassars. Sepia photographs adorn two end tables and all four walls of the low-ceilinged room. Most are of schooners under sail, with a miniature of the ship’s captain inset in the upper-left corner. The furniture, photographs, and dim light cast a muted glow—the color of freshly brewed tea in a delicate cup.
Dorrie ushers him through to a spotless kitchen, then plops down at a Formica-topped table.
“Okay, now,” she says, catching her breath. “It’s nearly eleven. I gotta get you primed to deliver the order to Her Majesty. Here’s what you do. Walk up to the house, don’t drive. Lola won’t answer the door if she sees a strange car pull up, ’specially if it’s a man she don’t know. Go ’round to the kitchen. It’s the red door. Knock real loud. She could be anywhere in the joint, but don’t worry, she’ll hear ya. She’s got ears like a huntin’ dog. It may take some time for her to get to the door, though.”
Dorrie sounds as though she’s planning a military incursion.
“When she asks who you is, tell her you give me a ride home from gettin’ her groceries, and that I told you ’bout the gardener’s job. Be sure to tell her first thing so she don’t throw you out on your ass. She don’t trust nobody, that one, but mentionin’ the job might get you in. She ain’t had a gardener since the Brazilian left, and she’ll be wantin’ one before the snow flies.”
“Gardener? For the winter? That doesn’t make any sense. Besides, I’m not a gardener.”
“Perfect. She don’t have a garden.”
“That makes even less sense.”
Dorrie lights a cigarette and takes a long drag.
“That’s it in a nutshell, dahlin’. Don’t expect nothin’ to make no sense over there. Lord knows after all these years, I don’t. Just roll with it. You need a roof over your head if you’re plannin’ to stay in this town, and there ain’t a place cheaper than Lola’s where you get paid to stay ’stead of the other way round.”
“It’s all kinda backwards. She pays for company and calls it employment. The work is piddlin’. Run some errands, drive to the doctor now and then, and shovel a bit of snow. Nothing a city slicka like you can’t handle. And for that you get paid and a place to live.”
“I’m not a city slicker. I grew up in the country.”
Dorrie dark eyes brighten with amusement.
“All the bettah.” She hands him the steak, freshly wrapped in butcher’s paper. “Get on with you, then, before it starts to rain again. They give rain for all day.”
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