Rockport Boys

Megan Arkenberg

"Their family trees are full of beautiful men who were hanged as witches or lost at sea, and all their houses are haunted."

IT’S HARD TO stay haunted in California, she says, taking a slow drag on her cigarette. That hungry something is in her eyes again, the animal glint you saw in her smile under the gas station’s fluorescents, only out here in the fading sunlight it looks a little softer. A little more like longing. You nod, shaking the last of the six-dollar syrah into your glass, and lick the rim of the bottle. It tastes like aluminum foil. And she closes her eyes.

She’s moved again, she says, put the mountains between her and the Pacific. The sunlight here feels hot, unfiltered and clean, almost chemical. Now the bad nights, when they come, ride in on rain and too much coffee. It was time to shift anyway, she figures—you can understand that. Four days a week, she loads the second-hand pickup truck with tomato plants, spring garlic or crates of persimmons and heads to the markets, down the straight country roads with numbers for names, the radio blaring in static-broken Spanish and seaglass rosary beads jangling from the rearview mirror. The rosary and the radio station came with the truck. You don’t hear about Rockport, Gloucester or Dogtown out here, and nobody would recognize the names if you asked. Mostly, she keeps quiet.

She feels your eyes on her and shifts in her camp chair, which creaks with the movement. Where to start. She says this flat, not a question, not really wondering. When she opens her lips the smoke escapes in a rush, and the wind carries it south. San Francisco—the final cracks in her throat—San Francisco, that’s where she met him, though even then she’d known that whatever brought him there hadn’t brought him to stay.

What brought her there, you want to ask, hearing the ghost of Arkansas or Tennessee sweetness in her voice. But you know, intuitively, that it’s not part of this story.


SHE BROUGHT A photograph out of the trailer when she went in for matches for the citronella candles. It sits on the gravel between you now, the candle light guttering over five identical smiles. Purposely or not, the boys in the picture had arranged themselves symmetrically, tallest in the middle, heads slightly turned to display sharp cheekbones and jawlines. It was on his desk, she says, the day she met him. That’s him, second from the right. But he doesn’t look much different from the other four, the same soft, dark, side-parted hair over a high pale forehead, the same well-groomed eyebrows and round hazel eyes. Eyelashes so black and long your thoughts could get tangled in them, lips the color of watermelon candy.

Rockport boys, she says, they’re New England all the way through. The air around them smells like burning leaves, old barn boards, the Atlantic Ocean. Their family trees are full of beautiful men who were hanged as witches or lost at sea, and all their houses are haunted. In her head, she calls them the Rockport boys, although the five of them came from all over Cape Ann, one from as far west as Ipswich. Hers, the second from the right, he was from Gloucester, the west side of the Annisquam river. Such New England names.

She doesn’t have a name for those who love the Rockport boys, she adds. Except, perhaps, doomed.


THE DAY SHE met him, in San Francisco, the fog rolling in thick with winter morning, she was carrying a shipment of pale, fluted orchids to a bookstore-come-coffee-house just off Valencia. Its name was an obscure and forgettable literary reference, its furniture a carefully curated collection of antiques. The flowers, bundled in clear cellophane and stuffed upright in a narrow cardboard box, looked breakable, like a delicate piece of ceramic. The bookstore’s office was on the building’s second floor, at the end of a narrow staircase that opened off the alley, and that morning, at the top of the stairs, the door on the right had been left ajar.

It was the wrong door. Some species of nonprofit organization, which helped pay medical bills for single parents, unmarried partners left off each other’s insurance. There were four desks in the long white room, mismatched, as though they’d been rummaged from separate estate sales. He sat at the second desk from the back. The east-facing window let in a band of pink that sliced across the shoulders of his gray dress shirt. His hair lifted off his forehead as though he’d just run his fingers through it, the fine strands hyper-visible in the sunlight, like dust motes. He was ripping pages from a stack of carbon-paper triplicate forms, tossing the yellow sheets in a wire basket on the desk near his elbow, the remaining white and pink pages into an overflowing bin at his feet.

“Fuck,” he said. He looked up, saw her staring.

“Excuse me?”

“No, sorry, not you. Just this—” He lifted a form from the top of the stack. “Rejected applications. This was a car accident on the Bridge. Little girl was sitting in the front seat, almost went through the windshield. It took twenty seven stitches to fix her eyebrow. But there’s no money for that.” He peeled the yellow sheet decisively from its siblings, set it in the basket, let the other two float down. They missed the bin, landed on the bare floorboards.
She’d figured out she was in the wrong room, and he must have too, seeing the embroidered flower company logo on the breast of her polo. But she stayed in the doorway, caught off-guard by his voice, which was so at odds with the precision of his shirt, his haircut, the neat marshalling of the pens in the mason jar beside his computer monitor, layered tallest to shortest.

“First week on the job?” she asked.

“No. Takes a bit longer than that to wear on you. It’ll be my fourth month at the end of December.” He leaned forward in his chair now, over the stack of unprocessed papers. She watched the light pick out the thin creases at the corners of his eyes. “What about you? How long have you delivered flowers?”

She felt herself smiling with an eerie sense of dislocation, as though she were looking down from a great distance. As an attempt to engage her in conversation, to get her to linger in the long, improperly insulated office that smelled faintly of drywall and liquid paper, it was transparent. And there she was, lingering. Doomed.

She came back to the office when their shifts ended, and they went downstairs to the coffee house, to the pair of blood-brown leather armchairs beneath the window in the back. A barrista was setting orchids in miscellaneous glass vases on the café tables, the flowers interspersed with cut twigs and sheaves of dried wheat. The shape in her latte foam looked like a wishbone, or a dove. At the cash register there was a cardboard box of prints by some local artist, black ink on off-white paper, titles written in pencil on the back. The boy—whose name, he said, was Ethan—bought her one titled Homeward #3. It was a picture of the Bridge. She watched his eyebrows arch with his smile, thought of twenty-seven stitches, said nothing.


THE FIRST DREAM, if you can call it a dream, came that night. There was a woman’s voice, not making words exactly, just there, thrumming beneath images of her delivery van, its floor littered with cardboard to-go cups and dying, shriveled petals; of her cluttered apartment kitchen, which the dream stretched out and filled with strangers; of Ethan, leaning towards her and laughing, his hair lifting off his forehead, one hand flat on the arm of her leather chair.

She woke near four in the morning and found her inner thighs covered in slick, watery blood. She stripped the bed mechanically and padded into the bathroom, cleaned herself up and stood at the sink, rinsing the sheets in cold water. The blood was thin and pale, with a faintly sour odor that made her stomach turn. Dim thoughts of anemia fluttered in the back of her head. She braced herself, almost listening for the arrival of cramps, but they didn’t come. She put a clean sheet on the mattress, not bothering with a blanket, and drifted back into dreams.


SHE ASKED HIM about the boys in the picture. She’d seen it on his desk that first day and hadn’t mentioned it, although it sparked her curiosity, those five coldly handsome faces, nearly identical above the knots of their candy-striped ties. Were they brothers? Of a sort, he said. Family of a sort. But it wasn’t a pretty story.

They’d meant to walk up Valencia, that evening, but they found a bench in front of a deli on 24th that was closed for renovations and sat, talking, their thighs touching now and then as he shifted his slight weight, his shoulders rounding as he stretched his palms across his knees. She told him about her family. About the way she remembered her mother, always curled up on the couch as she tiptoed in after school, bruised brown eyes, exhausted from the night shift at a gas station convenience store. About the sister she hadn’t seen in almost a decade, who had gone north, to Chicago or maybe Milwaukee, and started work in factory that made packing materials. About the uncle who had found a dead woman hitchhiker in a ditch beside a liquor store parking lot, ten years before she was born. They never found out who the dead woman was, and half the town became convinced it was the uncle that killed her.

“Not sure why I’m telling you this,” she said. He was smiling at her, but the silver had gone out of his eyes. That’s what it was like, she decided, like the eyes of a taxidermy animal, the mirrors behind them, or the silver backing they put on fake diamonds to make them come alive. Only sometimes with him the mirrors slipped, the silver peeled off, and his eyes were just glass.

“Ugly stories get out,” he said. His voice sounded strangely childish, the words coming from the front of his mouth, as though he were afraid he might accidentally swallow them.


THE BLOOD KEPT coming, she adds. A clump of ash falls from the end of her cigarette, lands on her blue-jeaned thigh, and she flicks it away with a fingernail. Never stopped the whole time she knew him, or for a few weeks after; pale, watery, not really like menses. It got heavier for a while, and no amount of cold water or hydrogen peroxide could get it out of her underwear. She doesn’t remember ever wishing the bleeding would stop, just wanting it out of her body. Out, out, out—she punctuates this with her fingernail dragging across denim, hip to knee.


“YOU’RE FROM ONE of those old families,” she guessed, “the ones who can count the ancestors who came over on the Mayflower.” He had just told her he’d grown up in Massachusetts.

“No,” he said, drawing it out and laughing, his fingertips caressing the short brown neck of a bottle of Negra Modelo. “Jesus, Puritans?”

“Then witches. Salem witch trials.”

He smiled at that.

They were up on the fire escape behind her apartment, a thin balcony of steel mesh painted lime green. He sat on an old yoga pillow, the flannel blanket from her couch draped around his shoulders. She leaned against the railing and let the cool, wet wind rake its fingers through her hair.

“I’m right, aren’t I? You’ve got somebody in your family tree hung at Salem?”

“Sure,” he said.


He shook his head, took a swig from the bottle.

“Come on, who? I bet I know her from the history books.”

“It wasn’t at Salem,” he said. “And it wasn’t a ‘her.’ And it wasn’t witchcraft, exactly.”


He still held the bottle to his lips. He closed his eyes, tipped his head back and drank, the amber beer spilling over his chin, dripping onto his sharp fog-colored collar. She thought maybe he wasn’t going to answer. Then he set the bottle down on the mesh with a resounding clang.

“You ever hear of Cape Ann?”

She shook her head.

“It’s up at the top of Massachusetts bay. Popular with tourists now, big on clams and whale-watching in the summer. In the center of the cape, there’s this place, Dogtown. Old colonial settlement, abandoned soon after the Revolution. It’s had its share of nastiness since then. Murders, sexual assaults.” He wiped at his chin with the back of his hand. “Even before then, I guess. In the late 1680s, this man, my great-grandfather times eight or whatever, he came to Cape Ann with his family. Settled in Gloucester as a rope-maker. Never said where he’d come from. One morning, they found him hanging from a black cherry tree in Dogtown. Wasn’t even a Dogtown at the time—wasn’t anything but a cluster of trees, and some rocks.”

“He hung himself?”

He shrugged.

Somewhere ahead of her, over stately waves of Victorian rooftops, the Twin Peaks curved up into cloud.

Streetlights, warm and yellow, flickered on in rows like orderly stars.

“One suicide in three hundred years,” she said, “isn’t an especially ugly family history.”

“There have been more,” he said. Just that.

SHE OPENED THIS book once, she says, a brand new paperback right out of the bookstore, the spine still flat and uncreased. And on page 112, there was a streak of something thin and brown, almost in the margin. Like coffee. Maybe like blood. Unexpected and bizarre and anything but innocuous. That’s what she was like, the crying woman, the woman who came with the dreams. A streak of horrible brown right where you didn’t expect it.

She sat up in bed one night, not long after that evening on the fire escape. She had been dreaming about Ethan, dreaming about fucking him, and there she was, standing by the plywood bookshelf in the corner of the bedroom: a sad woman in brown. Her hands moved across the shelves, the spines of books, the votive candle in a blue glass cup, leaving a black, wet trail in the dust. She was crying, and the lap of her skirts was wet with something dark. There was a sound when she walked, a faint scuffing noise like something was dragging at her ankles.

The mattress creaked. She looked over at the bed, her eyes flat disks of silver in the street light. A moment later, she was gone.


“YOUR OTHER FOUR,” she asked abruptly, watching the barista compact the ground espresso beans for their cappuccinos, “do they have the same story?”

He was flipping through the cardboard box of prints, the ones with titles penciled on the back, his fingertips skimming along the upper left corners. “Yes,” he said, and paused, one picture pinned upright beneath his index finger. It took her a moment to recognize a record shop in Chinatown. “It’s a pretty elite club, isn’t it?”

“Suicidal depression running in the family?”

The barista raised her blonde eyebrows.

“Or a family curse,” he said. The words came from the front of his mouth again, and he bared his teeth, and she couldn’t tell if he was being serious.

They took their coffees to the back, the worn leather chairs. High on the window, behind the lace curtains, a brown spider was spinning her web across the cold, damp glass.

“So why are your families cursed?”

“Jesus. You won’t lay off it, will you?”

“I’m a morbid fuck,” she said. “And I think I believe you.”

He rested his head on the back of his chair. Looked up at the flaking plaster of the ceiling, the antique curtains, the tiny industrious spider. “I thought—” He swallowed, started again. “I thought I had an idea, once. Or at least a hint. The five of us got talking one night. There was beer and pot and someone was blaring metal out of his shitty car speakers. And we figured out there was a nightmare, or not quite a dream, just this…this experience that all of us kept having.”

She set her cup down on the end table.

“It’s a crying woman,” he was saying, “in an old-fashioned brown dress. She’s bleeding, I think.”

“And she makes a strange sound when she walks.”

His head snapped forward. Two spots of dark purple-pink colored his cheeks, and as she watched, she could swear she saw the color drain. He let his head fall back against the leather.

“Fuck,” he said. “Fuck you. Don’t do that.”

She drew her legs up onto the cushion. He flinched when her knee brushed his. “Guess I don’t need to tell you that I had the same—experience.”

He didn’t respond.

“So what’s it mean?”

“Would I be here if I knew?”

I don’t know, she thought. Where’s here?

They sat in tense silence, sipping cooling cappuccino. His candy-colored lips barely seemed to touch the cup. He was beautiful, she thought, like something fragile. Like a delicate piece of ceramic. And she longed, not to love him, but to protect him. Wanted that so badly that it hurt.

“So that’s the ugly story you’re running from,” she said. “A dead woman, a family history of suicide, and a very elite club.” She mimicked his precise pronunciation. “What do you think she’s after? Revenge?”

“I did nothing to her,” he said, almost savagely. Then the silver behind his eyes slipped away. She touched his cheek, which felt as cool and damp as the windowglass. He let her kiss him.

SHE PAUSES AND asks if you’d like some more wine. Your glass is almost empty. But you shake your head, setting the glass aside, and lift the photograph from the gravel. You see what she means by the mirrors behind his eyes, because they aren’t there in the picture. He looks like something made of porcelain and glass.

She found a drawing a few weeks ago, around the side of the trailer, she says. Right after the rain. Doesn’t know who could have done it—the nearest house is a mile through the orchard in back, and the highway is twice as far. The picture showed a tree drawn in something brown and gritty, like wet charcoal. Someone was hanging from one of the branches. She thought it might be a woman, hanging by her wrists, wearing a full old-fashioned skirt, but whoever drew it had forgotten to include the head.

But no, she says, there was a head, sticking out under the skirt. The woman was upside down, hanging by her ankles, and her dress had fallen down over her torso, around her grasping arms, her head. It must have been a low branch she was hanging from. Her long hair seemed to coil up on the ground, the ground that the artist hadn’t bothered to depict, not even with the straight line of a horizon.

She’s not sure what it means, she says. Or maybe she’s too sure. Maybe she knows what she wants it to mean, and that’s what frightens her: not the knowing or the not knowing, but the wanting.


HE STOOD AT the end of the concrete balcony, the very edge of it, the scuffed toes of his oxfords out over the green-blue churning of the Pacific. His arms were folded on the chest-high rail and he was shivering. With cold or excitement, she never knew.

“I wish I knew why she was weeping,” he said. He had to shout a little to be heard over the surf, the babble of tourists behind them. “I’d help her if I knew how. Sometimes I think that’s why she keeps coming back. She knows I’d help her if I could.”

She remembers trying to light a cigarette, but the wind was too sharp and wet. She wrapped her arms around his waist instead, rested her cheek on his shoulder.

“There was a girl back in Massachusetts,” he said. “She had dreams, too. Or just one of them. She dreamed she had a miscarriage. Didn’t think she was even pregnant, in the dream. Something inside her just died and slipped out.”


THE NEXT TIME she delivered the pale orchids to the bookstore, the supervisor at the nonprofit met her in the stairwell. “I used to see you together,” he said. “I thought maybe you could see that he gets his things.”

He’d been gone for two weeks. Hadn’t shown up one morning, didn’t return any calls. No one at the address he had on record had ever met an Ethan Phillips. And his desk was exactly as he’d left it, stacked with rejected applications, a photograph of five smiling faces standing between the computer monitor and the jar of neatly marshalled pens. There were three streaks of something gritty and brown on the glass frame.

She never saw him again.


SHE LEARNED, LATER, that they had found a girl. Not here—back east, in that weird patch of Cape Ann they called Dogtown, that same summer he’d showed up at the nonprofit in San Francisco. She was hanging upside down from a tree, her hands bound behind her back with duct tape, which was gummed up with dead leaves and pine needles as though it had been dragged some distance over the ground. Twenty-seven stab wounds, at least two of which had hit major arteries.

There were multiple sets of DNA in the short, dark hairs clinging to her sweatshirt, her jeans, in the flakes of skin and dried blood beneath her nails. No matches in any system. But a boy killed himself that autumn, walked into the bay just north of Rockport, and his naked body washed up in a condition that the newspapers declined to describe in further detail. He was, perhaps, the boy on the far left of the photograph, but it’s hard to say. They all looked so alike.


THE LAST OF the sun slips behind the mountains, and the curve of your wineglass winks in the light of the small, sour-scented candles. The lanterns and smoke-stained glass jars make a magic circle around her gravel patio, holding back the weight of the dark. This is where it ends, she says, snuffing her cigarette. This is where it ends, this ugly story, at least for her: the white trailer, the bed sheets twisted around her legs some mornings, the taste of metal on the roof of her mouth and in the back of her throat. Longing nested in her abdomen, below her ribs, like an unwanted child she can’t carry to term. That’s the damned thing about it, this wanting, which has nothing to do, she tells herself, with black eyelashes or candy-colored lips. Nothing to do with what he did or what his eight-times-great-grandfather did or why, or with the bloody-footed thing that follows her in her sleep. Maybe she was always doomed to this toxic kind of restlessness, and the boy with tragic glass eyes was nothing but the occasion.
The Rockport boys, it seems they all disappear eventually. Into the old houses back east that have sat there contemplatively for centuries, brooding over brown rivers with Indian names. Or into the woods, into strange and shadowy Dogtown, or the half-dozen places like it all up and down the coast. Or maybe out to sea.

She tells you the Northern California sun chases away ghosts. The days when she thinks about him, the days like this, are fewer and fewer. Only sometimes in the winter, when the cool rain which comes less and less is sheeting down the windows of the trailer, she feels that longing opening inside her. It’s like holding all of space in your stomach, she says. All the stars and planets, all the galaxies. All the emptiness and the cold.

©2016, Megan Arkenberg

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