I painted this illustration
for a now deleted subplot of my novel.
A gaunt lady wove in and out of the nighttime crowd on the boardwalk. I felt her eyes lock on mine with a look of unguarded desperation. A shiver ran through me: she looked like Rose, my godmother, but Rose was dead.
I grabbed my mother’s thin arm, but she pulled it back.
“Don’t cling,” she said. She was biting her thumbnail, jerking her head back and forth, looking for my dad, trying to spot his red hair in the crowd, hoping he’d turn up. Fat chance. He was out there somewhere, making the gears turn, but not for us.
I tried to find Rose again, but she’d vanished into the crowd. I felt her absence like a stab of pain.
Just then I sniffed pine smoke. All around, grownups were talking, kids running back and forth, laughing, the preacher ranting, Lenny crying out his song, but in the midst of all this I heard Rose’s voice:
“I’m stuck in the Place-between-Life-and-Death.”
Oh, God. Her face flashed before me—hollowed, worn out—a lined mask of weathered brown skin stretched over prominent cheekbones. And her eyes, so sad, so weary. I looked around but I still didn’t see her.
“Rose?” I whispered. “Aren’t you dead?” I could hardly bear to think about her, found gassed to death in her tarpaper shack.
“I’m here.” Her warmth engulfed me. Her voice seemed to be echoing in the crowd. No, inside my head. “I have to finish telling you my story, Sarah.”
Her story—all that was left of her. I longed to hear it.
“I miss you,” I said. It came out as a breath.
“Once this was our world,” she said. “Coney Island was Narrioch, the place without shadows, and I was the last Canarsee to walk the earth.”
All of a sudden my blood was pounding.
“Was it Evil Aunt Suzie?” I cried out. “She murdered you! Didn’t she?”
Uh-oh. Mom was gawking at me, a horrified look on her face.
“You’re seeing things!” she cried.
Rose seemed to disappear into the dark recesses of Uncle Max’s saloon.
“Wait!” I tried to go in, but Mom caught my arm.
“Who are you talking to?” She had stopped yelling, but her voice was ice-skating to the brink of hysteria.
“I’m just, um…thinking out loud,” I said. “Don’t worry.” I forced a smile. “I’m not going crazy.” But maybe I was. I felt as if I belonged in some other world. Rose’s world.
And that was just the first night of the scariest summer of my life.
This is another darling I killed, this one last seen in about 2010. The character of Rose was based on a real person: a Native American cleaning woman who cleaned houses in Brighton Beach in the 1950s when I was a kid. Her missing hand and the sad way she died had a profound effect on me.