By Kevin P. Keating
For three consecutive nights someone with a fondness for fire and poetic spectacle has been burning the mailboxes on Île Saint-Ignace, one of the celebrated wine islands of the Great Lakes, and now, on the first Friday in September, twelve hours before the official start of the annual Barge Party, a dark tendril of smoke comes creeping across a cloudless summer sky, curling curiously around the old lighthouse, probing its copper weathervane, its obsolete lantern room and its great, pale gray blocks of fossiliferous limestone excavated a century ago from the abandoned quarry at the center, at the very heart of the island. In secret the perpetrator plants the seeds of discord, cultivates a diseased garden of strife, an unbalanced botanist who does his best work at that extraordinary moment just before sundown when tourists gather at the water’s edge to admire the fleeting bloom of soft colors above the blue burst of lake. He works quickly, too, using materials close at hand, easily obtainable, inconspicuous—a box of matches with long wooden sticks, a rag soaked in alcohol and stuffed into a wine bottle filled with motor oil and gasoline. Poor man’s grenade, weapon of protest, of resistance, of insurrection. With a skillful strike of a match behind a cupped palm, he ignites the homemade wick, and then with a smirk, a stealthy smile, a sideways sneer of sinister achievement, he disappears down a shady lane, some say on foot, others say on a bicycle, its chain well-oiled for a silent getaway, the tires inflated to the recommended pressure for maximum escape velocity.
Since no one has witnessed these criminal activities, and since no one can say for certain whether the guilty party is male or female, much less know what the culprit is thinking, it is perhaps imprudent to use masculine pronouns, but most of the islanders insist the villain is a sociopathic teenage boy from the mainland, a canal rat, an undereducated punk with a terrible green glance brimming with class envy and testosterone-driven rage. Michael Bettelheim has seen his neighbors stomping out smoldering bundles of bills and the evening edition of The Observer, has heard them cursing in the streets, making ugly and unsubstantiated claims, leveling accusations, promising to deliver swift justice. In town and on the ferry, they offer him passively hostile frowns and, having worked their suspicions into convictions, turn their backs on him in what seems to be a ritual display of baronial anger. Cruel caricaturists, unapologetic snobs, they refuse to consider the possibility that one of their own prim and priggish children might be responsible for these crimes. The residents are beginning to panic and have planned an around-the-clock neighborhood watch. Vigilantism, reprisals, strategic counterattacks are no longer beyond the realm of possibility.
On these pressing matters Michael says nothing and concludes nothing. He has successfully purged his mind of all toxic ideas, all neurotic nonsense, but now, while making the thirty-minute crossing aboard the General Zaroff from Île Saint-Ignace to the mainland city of Jolliet Harbour, he is forced to reconsider the precise meaning of the smoke. Its literal meaning is becoming increasingly clear to him, but its trajectory, its final destination, its ultimate outcome remains uncertain. Rather than dissolve in the prevailing winds and assume an ethereal and indeterminate form, the smoke, as it rises above the warty hackberry trees that crowd the island’s leeward side, only darkens as it inches closer to the mainland. It starts to look, at least from Michael’s vantage point, like a deep and brutal scar, as if the invisible incisors of some ravening, celestial beast has ripped through the protective layers of the earth’s atmosphere. Eternal night gushes from the angry wound. Can it be a minatory symbol, a promise of divine retribution, a hint that the time fast approaches when Michael, for his moral cowardice, for his inability to take meaningful action, will fall prey to some cosmic injury? The stakes have proven too high, too imponderable for rational calculation.
He runs a hand along the hood of the army green jeep and tries to assure himself that life is good and the world is on its proper course. Heavily rusted and rough to the touch, the jeep, one of several in his uncle’s fleet of classic cars, is long overdue for a meticulous restoration. Michael strikes a match against the back of his boot and lights a cigarette, the last of his secret vices. He walks to the ferry’s stern and rests his elbows on the railing to take advantage of the unrestricted view from horizon to horizon. As he watches the gulls bank steeply in the sky, he feels a vibration in his back pocket. Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of his sobriety, and all day long his phone has been buzzing with messages from well-wishers, old friends, former bandmates, fellow dipsomaniacs on the mend, not to mention his degenerate cousin Horace to whom he hasn’t spoken since last year’s Barge Party. But what baffles Michael most is the amount of time it has taken for his mother to call. Burdened by a sense of filial duty, he closes his eyes and prepares himself for the usual tense conversation.
He spins the cigarette butt into the churning wake and through a ring of smoke says, “Hello, Mom.”
For a moment he hears only her raspy breathing, and with each passing second his mother’s menace seems to multiply. In her moody, churlish silence he detects a dangerous combination of self-interest and political paranoia.
“Do you see the smoke, Michael? Can you smell it?”
Her voice has a frightening, melodious pitch, as if she just finished screaming at some quaking subordinate, the head gardener maybe, a housekeeper, or possibly her own reflection in the endless dark depths of a cracked mirror.
Michael fights the temptation to roll his eyes, a childish habit and one that his mother can invariably detect, even over the phone. She has a name for this power, Love’s Telepathy, and firmly believes she is in touch with invisible forces. She claims to possess a talent for reading signs and wonders, the out-of-season flowering of a tree, the unexpected infestation of water snakes on the pebble-strewn shore, the arrangement of Tarot cards on an oval table in a candlelit room, the macabre procession of gibbering ghosts in bad dreams, a crazy coil of black smoke unspooling above the lake. She feels no need to sift through the contradictory evidence or to keep an open mind about matters of guilt or innocence. For her even hard facts tend to be superfluous, and she can usually get her man, as it were, simply by concentrating on the crime in question and entering into the desperate and dangerous labyrinth of pure speculation.
“So nice of you to check in, Mom. How are you?”
But he knows, before she utters another word, that she has been drinking. Instead of her usual glass of Riesling or Pinot Noir, she has developed a habit of plundering the family cellars for bottles of ice wine. An epicurean pleasure, as she describes it, but in recent days her drinking has spread beyond the cocktail hours and the post-dinner nightcaps into high-noon lunchtime sloshes. Michael can picture the scene quite clearly in his mind, Ciara Campbell Bettelheim sitting alone at a corner table in the winery’s tasting room, pouring the syrupy liquid into a crystal cordial glass that she carries in her crocodile handbag. With all the solemnity of a private ritual, she taps her manicured nails against the sparkling flute, her fingertips stained with the blood of the grape, and admires the wine’s full body and lush color, the same decadent shade of amber as those well-bred island girls, perfect athletes, walking advertisements for the booming tourist industry, who frolic on the beach, kicking over sandcastles and playing volleyball. The Bettelheim Family Cellars produce some of the finest Cabernet Franc grapes in the region, so say the connoisseurs in their fancy culinary magazines, and Michael, in the days before his widely publicized downfall, was once the happy beneficiary of this modest bit of fame.
“Arson,” says his mother, “is such an egregiously cowardly act. What do you make of it?”
He pretends to consider the question and runs a hand through his hair, neatly cut, edged and parted in a razor slash. His new corporate look. “I really don’t know…”
“Well, I know, Michael. I know you’re not out of the woods. Not officially. Smooth sailing, that’s what you want, isn’t it? That’s what we all want for you right now. A few more hours and you’re a free man. Until then you don’t need any more trouble in your life.”
“There’s nothing to worry about, Mom. Nothing that concerns my interests, anyway. Or yours.”
“You sound awfully sure of yourself. Has the word ‘saboteur’ ever crossed your mind? You do understand why I’m obligated to ask, why I’m compelled to ask? The police want to implement a curfew. They have direct orders from the chief to keep an eye on tourists, guests, aliens. Everyone on the island is a person of interest, residents and strangers alike. No one is above suspicion.”
Unable to suppress a sardonic smile, Michael says, “That should be our family motto—nemo est extra suspicionis.”
“Yes, darling, our family has learned so much from the Romans.”
Kevin P. Keating is a graduate of The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.