The wide oak door swung inward.
I stepped inside the house of Rufus and Maxine Kite and closed the door behind me. Having had no prior intention of entering this house uninvited, the part of me grown intolerant of risk screamed to leave.
I called out, “Is anyone home?”
To my immediate right an archway opened into a long living room with a hearth at the far end, on the grate of which glowed a bed of bright embers.
A grandfather clock loomed in a nearby corner. Its second hand moved every four seconds.
I glanced left into the dining room, the table set for three. When I touched the saucer at one of the place settings my finger disturbed an alarming layer of dust. It had settled in the bottoms of the wineglasses, on the surfaces of each plate, even upon the yellowed tablecloth.
Strings of cobweb were everywhere.
I proceeded deeper into the house, past a staircase that climbed into darkness. The foyer narrowed into a corridor and under the stairs I noticed a little door in the wall.
The air grew damp and stagnant, fraught with the odor of must.
I entered the kitchen.
Through the windows behind the sink I could see the sound. On the breakfast table a row of grayish-blue fillets and a thin-bladed filleting knife had been left out on a cutting board beside a glass mixing bowl, half-filled with cornmeal.
Standing over the sink, I looked into the weedy backyard that sloped down to the water. There was a plot of tilled earth near the house that might’ve once been a shade garden, though nothing grew there now.
A dock stretched out into the sound. Thoroughly rotten, its collapse seemed inevitable when the next storm blew in.
Leave and come back. You should not be here like this.
I started back toward the front door.
A tiny old woman stood in the kitchen doorway.
She appeared to have just woken, her pearly mane in such extraordinary disarray it seemed to be more the result of an explosion than a nap. I could see the silhouette of her spindly frame behind the threadbare fabric of her nightgown.
Barefooted, she walked into the kitchen, opened a cabinet, took down a tin of ground coffee.
“Sleep all right?” she asked.
“Um, I uh—”
“You’re in my way. Go sit down.”
I took a seat at the table as she filled the coffeepot with water from the faucet.
“Now this isn’t that fancy shit. So if you’ve turned into one of those dandies who has to have their coffee soaked and freshly ground and God knows what else, tell me now.”
“Maxwell House is fine.”
Mrs. Kite noticed the fillets on the cutting board.
She set the coffeepot down hard on the butcher block countertop and pointed at the raw fish.
“Rufus is going to ruin our lunch. You can’t leave fish out. You can’t! leave! fish! OUT!” She sighed. “Your coffee will have to wait, Luther.”
Sitting down across from me at the breakfast table, she picked up one of the fillets.
“I don’t believe it,” she said. “There’s no chili powder in this cornmeal. You know, I’m starting to think your father doesn’t know how to fry bluefish. And besides, you’re not supposed to fry bluefish.”
She dropped the fillet and stood up. From the spice rack on the counter she plucked a small plastic bottle and returned to her chair. When she’d shaken half the bottle of chili powder into the cornmeal and stirred the mixture with her finger, she looked up at me, bewildered.
“Who are you?” she asked, a completely different person.
“My name’s Alex. Alex Young. I came here to—”
“Who let you in?”
“You did, Mrs. Kite. I knew your son, Luther, at Woodside College.”
“Luther? He’s here?”
“No ma’am. I haven’t seen him in a long time. We were friends at school. Is he in Ocracoke right now? I’d really like to see him.”
As the wave of lucidity engulfed her, her eyes traded confusion for sorrow. She pinched the bridge of her nose between her eyes as though her head hurt.
“I’m sorry. Sometimes my brain gets scrambled. What’s your name?”
“Alex. Do you know where—”
“And you were friends with my Luther?”
“Yes ma’am. At Woodside. I came here to see him.”
“He’s not here.”
“Well, do you know where he is? I’d love to—”
“I haven’t seen my son in seven years.”
Her eyes blinked a dozen times in rapid succession. Then she grabbed a handful of cornmeal, sprinkled it onto a fillet, and began patting it into the meat.
She slammed her hand down on the table and my heart jumped.
“Luther, ass out of the chair, bring me a glass of water.”
I got up and walked over to the sink. It overflowed with smelly dishes.
“When are you heading down to Portsmouth?” she asked as I washed a dirty glass.
“I don’t know.”
I filled the glass from the tap and offered it to her.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“You asked for a glass of—”
“The hell I did. Get that out of my face.” I set the glass on the counter. “If you are going down to Portsmouth today, I want you to go before it gets late. You got no business being out on the water after dark. And let me tell you another thing. I want the lodge left in immaculate condition. Your father and I are thinking of going down next weekend, and I don’t intend to spend my time cleaning up your shit.”
She started on another fillet and as I watched her in the dreary natural light of the kitchen, I thought of my grandfather, Alexander, stricken with Alzheimer’s in his late 70’s. I knew the symptoms well and in the course of five minutes it had become clear to me that some form of dementia was ravaging the brain of Maxine Kite. It appalled me that she’d been left alone.
I started for the doorway.
“Where you going?” she asked.
“The bathroom. Mom.”
Leaving Luther’s mother to her bluefish, I stepped out of the kitchen into the dark corridor. A door stood cracked at the end and as I walked toward it the house resumed its unnerving silence.
I could no longer hear Mrs. Kite in the kitchen or the moan of the wind outside.
At the end of the hall I pushed open the door and entered a small bookless library. A dying fire warmed the study, its barren bookshelves gray with dust.
An old and soiled American flag was displayed behind glass on one wall. It was shopworn, nearly colorless, riddled with holes made from fire, and so defiled I felt awkward and ashamed for looking at it.