The day before my sister’s pretend wedding, the family gathered in Maine for our annual meeting, at my grandfather’s island house, so he could tell us how much of a disappointment we’d been. Dressed like a clam digger in rubber boots, filthy canvas pants, and an old sweatshirt full of pipe ash holes, he rose from his wing chair and leveraged himself to his feet with his cane. Stains extended from his collar to his knees, because at mealtimes he used himself as a plate. Like other monarchs, he may have confused menace with majesty and mistaken the wary looks of his subjects, cowering in the wicker, for devoted affection. He delivered his judgment, not in words, but through his leaky blue eyes, which lingered on each one of us before coming to rest on my sister.
“I am going to die,” he announced, and lifted Julia, his corgi, into his arms. The wicker groaned. Of course he was going to die—at some point. He was ninety-four.
“Are you ill?” my aunt asked. With his flushed cheeks and one bony hand gripping the cane as if it were a sword, he didn’t look sick. Just spiteful. Most years he accused us all of a failure of cheerfulness and left it at that.
“No, there is nothing wrong with me. I’m going to die, that’s all. I am going to die on Saturday.”
“But that’s tomorrow,” my sister said. “I’m getting married here tomorrow.”
“You can go ahead and do whatever you want to,” he said to the far side of the room. To where my fiancée, Melissa, stood next to a row of windows framing the Atlantic Ocean. “Who is that woman?” he asked.
Melissa raised her ink-black eyebrows and looked at me.
“Is that why there’s a big hole in the ground?” my sister said, tipping her tennis racket west.
We’d all noticed the hole (three feet deep, a little bigger than a coffin) on the way up from the dock, but no one had mentioned it until now in the hope that ignoring it would fill it in.
“It’s not even in the graveyard,” my sister added.
“You’re not putting me in the graveyard with all those people,” my grandfather said to me for some reason.
“Those are our ancestors, and one of those people was your wife,” Uncle Alden said.
“Is—is my wife.”
“You’re going to kill yourself on the day I get married?” my sister said. She and my father had distinguished themselves as the only two people to stand up to my grandfather. My father lived in Oregon and hadn’t been back to Maine for a decade.
“Of course I am not going to kill myself.”
“You can’t just decide to die,” my sister said. “I can do whatever I damned well please!”
We all lowered our heads, except for my sister, who rolled her eyes.
“I am getting in that hole on Saturday. And someone,” my grandfather added, nodding at me, “will cover me with dirt when I stop breathing.”
“Why him?” Uncle Alden said. “Why does he get to bury you?” “Because he inherits the house. As of Saturday, the whole thing belongs to him.”
A great sigh seemed to rise from the floorboards, and Uncle Alden’s head flopped forward. I felt dizzy and saturated, like someone who’d just downed eleven seltzer and lemons at a sports bar to prove he could sit there and not drink. At one time, before my first trip to COPE in Tucson, I’d spent every summer here on the island crammed into this eighteenth century falling-down Cape with my sister and grandparents and cousins, all people I loved but also vaguely resented. I had always assumed that one of us—probably my Uncle Alden—would own it someday, but not me. I lived in Tucson and had no money.
would keep me in the running as someone who had suffered enough for her to take seriously.