Karen Brown

The Rubber Company Heiress

One night, returning from the beach with the children, Mia drove up to the house and found a woman and a small boy asleep on her front porch. She had opened her car door, and taken a bag in each hand, and gone up the walk to the bottom step before she saw them. It was late, and the porch light was off. The darkness fell on her shoulders, around the bags in her arms, wooly and particled like strokes of charcoal. The woman was fair-haired, her lips parted.There was the smell of the wilted gardenia blooms. She and the boy lay on the wicker settee, the boy held to the woman's chest with a pale, thin arm. Mia caught her breath. She had left the car door open, and the interior light was on, and her children had awoken, sandy and disgruntled. She heard them arguing, first inside the car, and then out on the pebbled drive, their feet shuffling, their voices echoing sharply against the house fronts that stood lightless, impervious.The woman opened her eyes and looked at Mia, a gaze without recognition or any sense of alarm. Mia would remember, for a very long time after, the way the look held her.

Her name was Esme. She would return the following morning with a plastic bag filled with tiny, yellowish limes. She wore a printed sundress that hung from her shoulders by string straps. Her little boy, about four years old, clung to the dress's folds. She told Mia the limes grew in her neighbor's yard, and the woman kept leaving them on her back porch.

"They're key limes," she said, handing the bag over.

Mia thanked her. She said she'd make a pie.

"Sam drops them on his army men." Esme put her thin hand on the little boy's head and ran her fingers through his hair. She had an idea to use the limes for drinks. Mia said she'd invite them in, but everyone was still asleep, tired out from the beach. Esme nodded and folded her arms across her breasts. She glanced behind her, up and down the street, her hands suddenly clenched and desperate. Mia thought of the look in her eyes the night before, and couldn't shut the door on her.

They knew each other that spring, and then all through the long, wet summer, the air conditioner running and the windows fogging up, the roof beginning to leak—a slow drip that showed as a rusty mark on the kitchen's plaster ceiling. The mildew crept in to mottle the towels left hanging on the backs of bathroom doors. The house was old, the walls in each room with their own map of cracks, the smell of damp and varnish and disintegration long ago becoming, when she lay in bed at night, comforting. Outside on the porch the cat's water bowl turned green. Small frogs drowned in the pool.

Both Mia and Esme were from the northeast, where the grass was soft, and the air moved through the canopy of old hardwood forests with a sound like falling water.They reminisced about the wood thrush and the loon, Dutchman's breeches, jack-in-the-pulpit, pastures filled with Queen Anne's lace, the texture of beach sand, the way rocks jutted out along the coast, slick with algae, and dotted with brown snails. Mia told Esme that the Florida humidity wasn't something she'd expected at first. She said it was wearing clothes that made it so awful. "If I could be in a bathing suit all year long, beside a pool, I would be fine."

Esme took a sip of her drink. She left the imprint of her lips on the rim.

"When you go outside, pretend you're stepping into a warm bath." Mia's daughter, Dani, stood over the table with a tray of large, baked sugar cookies. She had cut them into shapes to signify each of her friends—a guitar for one, a skateboard for another. She'd mixed up different bowls of colored icing. It was the day before the last day of school. Dani was fourteen. She told them a story about one of the friends, a girl who was having sex with a boy she let in through her bedroom window at night.

"So which one is for her?" Esme asked, gazing at the tray.

"This is stupid, isn't it?" Dani held a knife covered with yellow icing. She was tall, like Mia. Her hair hung long and dark, nearly to her waist. It was afternoon, and outside the sun shone, merciless, baking the white pebbles in the drive. Esme took another sip of her drink. On the counter were the sliced limes, the mint leaves, the sugar bowl.

"Why do you say that?" Mia said. "It's very nice of you."

Dani looked at Esme, waiting for her reply. "You think it is, don't you?"

Esme's face revealed a brief wave of sadness. Mia saw her eyes fill.

"I think you're such a beautiful girl," she said. "Look at you."

When she was done icing the cookies, Dani wrapped them in clear plastic and tied them with curling ribbon. Mia and Esme licked the remaining icing from the bowls, staining their fingers, their lips. Esme said they should tell each other about something momentous that had happened to them once. Mia told the story of the plane crash.

"It was early in the morning. I was blow-drying my hair for school," she said.

The bus always came before she was ready, and the driver would wait.When Mia got on everyone was quiet from the waiting, and she'd move down the aisle to her seat with their eyes on her—some bright and admiring, others resentful. She grew up in a house at the top of a traprock ridge in Connecticut. It was a modern design, cantilevered, with windows on all sides. The sun rose in one window, and set in another. The view of Hartford was spectacular. The trees below were a green sea in summer, the leaves flipping one way, then the other, as if brushed by an invisible hand.The hill hummed with insects that drifted up onto their cedar deck batting translucent wings. In the winter, when the plane crashed, the tree branches made thousands of black X's against white snow.The plane was a small, single-engine. Its approach rattled all the house's windows. It hit their hillside and became a ball of flame that left a black, smoking scar, a charred hull of metal later cordoned off with fluorescent yellow tape.

"So, who was in it?" Esme asked.

Mia had been fifteen. Her parents didn't discuss the marred hillside below their windows, but Mia had scanned the newspaper headlines for the story, and discovered the article, one that divulged only a cursory amount of information—William Curtis, 44, a contractor from Simsbury. She didn't tell them how the limited facts about who it had been let her imagine the rest, or how that spring she'd taken the path through the fields that led up the side of the ridge, and pushed her way through blackberry brambles with tiny green shoots to the place, almost filled in by new growth. The neighborhood children had already been there to find shards of metal, glinting like mica, items that might have spilled from a luggage compartment: a leather belt, a shred of pinstriped fabric, the heel of a shoe. One child said he found a finger bone—the proximal phalanx, he claimed, having looked it up in his father's anatomy text. Mia hadn't gone there for any of that. She'd been afraid of the physical debris. She'd wanted to feel something.Telling the story now, she still didn't know exactly what.

Dani finished curling the last of the ribbons. "There was probably a ghost," she said, matter-of-fact. She looked up at her mother, her eyes wide and softly lashed. "Like Esme's."

Mia looked at Esme. "What is she talking about?"

Esme took a fingerful of blue icing. "My ghost," she said. "In my house."

Behind her Mia saw the dog, Shine, rise up onto his old legs. "Take the dog out," she called, and one of her sons, the youngest, Robert, who had been sitting watching television, came to the doorway.

"Why can't she?" he said, nodding toward Dani. He wore a pair of shorts, and no shirt. His ribs made a delicate impression against his skin. Mia wondered if he had been eating.

Dani scowled at her brother. "He's not my dog," she said.

Robert came in and took the dog by the collar and tugged. Mia remembered that as a toddler he would climb up onto people's laps and fall asleep. His eyes were like her husband's, round and dark as olives. She thought that when she was old, he would be the one to care for her. Shine moved slowly toward the door at the back of the kitchen. Robert tugged harder. Mia heard him swear at the dog, softly, trying the word out. She sighed. "What ghost?"

Esme looked around to be sure that her little boy wasn't nearby. He was still in the other room, watching television with Mia's oldest son. She told the story of the man who died in her house in April 1935, five years after he built it."He slit his wrists," she said."He walked all around the house, bleeding, until he died."

Mia watched her, waiting. Esme's hair was very thin and fair. She always wore it tucked behind her ears. Her eyes were the most revealing Mia had ever seen. Sometimes, she couldn't look at her directly. "The house stayed empty for years. No one wanted to buy it."

"Who told you this story?" Mia asked.

"Old Esther," she said."My key lime neighbor."

Mia shook her head."Why would she tell you such a thing?"

Dani stacked her cookies carefully into a glossy pink gift bag. "This is stupid, isn't it?" she said.

Esme reached out and took Dani's arm."Oh God, it isn't," she said. "It's the sweetest thing anyone has ever done."

Then, she looked at Mia. "I thought I saw something in the house," she said. "I mentioned it to Esther. I was just kidding, you know. I told her I thought I had a ghost."

"When was this?" Mia asked. She stood, and slowly collected the empty bowls. She'd had two drinks to Esme's five. She was large-framed, but graceful. She wore silver bracelets with turquoise her husband said were like hippie bracelets. He stood in the half-light of their upstairs bedroom once and told her to put them on. He liked to hear the sound of the bracelets when she moved her hands on him. This was years before, when they were first married. Since then, Mia had kept them in a wooden shaving dish with a lid that had once been her father's, and still smelled of almond soap. Her children had played with it—removing the lid, taking each bracelet out, then putting everything back again, the bracelets fitting snug inside the round dish.

"The night you found me," Esme said. "On the porch."

Mia had assumed Esme was drunk that night. She'd awoken, and sat up, and seemed to not know where she was. In the dark, all Mia could see was Esme's pale face, her pale hands waving around as she apologized. She'd gone for a walk, and lost her bearings, she'd said. She stood then and stumbled down the porch steps carrying the little boy. Mia had reached her arms out to steady her. Esme lived a few streets behind them, in a bungalow with her husband. Mia had offered to drive her home, and at her house Esme had to ring the bell because she'd forgotten her key, and her husband came to let her in. Mia heard them exchange a few hushed words. Then the husband, Jack, came up to the car.

"She said she was leaving, but I was half-asleep, and I just didn't believe her." He shook his head. His hair was cut like a little boy's. He had green eyes. On his face was a creased mark from the pillowcase. He said he was sorry.

"It's fine," Mia said. "It was no problem."

He hesitated there by Mia's open car window. The cool interior air of the car escaped, and the humidity moved in. She thought he might offer some other explanation, but he didn't. He put his hand up to shake."Jack Sanford," he said. He took her hand in his and her bracelets jangled. Mia felt as if they were making a pact. She wasn't sure she wanted to be aligned with him, but there it was, a sort of understanding.

She collected the bowls and put them in the sink on top of the dishes from that morning. Esme told them that the man's wife had left him—taken her two children and gone back to her mother's in Ohio. "He'd been bereft," Esme said. "Inconsolable." She said the words carefully, looking at her hands.

"Esther told you this?" Mia said.

Esme gave Mia a solemn look. She nodded. Mia stacked the dishes in the sink. Dani told Esme how one of her best friends stole her boyfriend.

"And what made him your boyfriend?" Esme wanted to know. Her voice was a little slurred. She held her head up in her two hands.

Dani shrugged. She stood by the table with her pretty gift bag full of cookies. "We made out for like three hours," she said.

Esme let her head fall to the tabletop. She left it there, pressing her cheek flat. "Oh, the oldest trick in the book." Her voice was bitter and sarcastic. Mia saw her daughter's face deflate. Sam came in with Shine. Mia smelled the blooming frangipani. All year the ugly stems had tapped against the window, stubby and gray, waiting for leaves, for the buds of their flowers. Sam knelt beside Shine on the kitchen floor and placed his arms around the dog's burly neck.

"You're going to die soon," he said, morose.

When Dani was little she would only talk to girls and women."No boys," she would say in her lisping voice. Men made her timid, and hesitant. She didn't trust their deep voices, their rough faces, their stiff collars threaded with neckties. Mia and her husband often had dinner parties, and Dani would flee the men's outstretched arms, struggle out from within their embraces with a panic that Mia worried over at first. But, like everything, she outgrew this phase, and moved into another. Her sons, too, had quirks that she learned to ignore. One fought her, red faced and flailing, when she changed his clothes. Another took things— his father's glasses, Mia's car keys, and hid them throughout the house— in an end table's tiny drawer, in the small brass box from Morocco, inside her husband's dress shoe. Esme's little boy was no different. He would go off to play alone in places no one could find him—closets, behind couches, in cupboards. Esme always made sure that someone was watching him.

"Otherwise, he'll disappear," she said.

Mia shook her head, disbelieving. She had invited Esme and Jack over for dinner. It was evening, and earlier it had rained. Mia and Esme sat outside at an iron table on the back yard patio, everything wiped dry with a towel. The pool lights shimmered on the wide-leafed philodendron, the ferns that multiplied around the old oak. Mia saw Dani peering out at them from her upstairs bedroom window. She watched her crank the window open.

"I'm going out," she called down.

"No, I'm afraid you're not," Mia said.

"Yes, I'm afraid I am," Dani said.

"What is all of this afraid business?" Esme asked. She held her two pale arms out. The blue veins ran up the undersides. Mia gave Esme a look. Esme widened her eyes.

"Oh," she said. "The new old boyfriend."

Dani's new boyfriend drove a car. He came by the house and shook Mia's hand and claimed he was fourteen. He seemed bashful, and acceptable, with wisps of hair over his ears. The car had been parked around the block, hidden from her, but he and Dani had been seen, and Mia was informed. She hated to know. When the neighbor told her, a woman with a tiny, pursed mouth, she found she wanted to silence her, forcibly, with a hand to her tight lips.

"Look at her up there," Esme said. "Rapunzel!" she called out.

The men had gone to Mia's brother-in-law's for more wine, and Mia was glad to see them go. She felt awkward around Jack.

"I know too much about him," she told Esme. She didn't fault Esme for needing to tell her the things she did, but when she looked at him she imagined him naked and vulnerable in bed. She saw the dark of the bedroom and the brightness of the sheets, Jack on his knees, grasping Esme's hips. She heard the whimpering sound Esme said he made at the end, trying to be quiet so he wouldn't wake Sam. She wanted sex all the time, she said, because she was afraid he would leave her. Mia never revealed anything to Esme about her own husband, and Esme never asked. During the time they spent together, Mia saw herself as the vessel to be filled.

Soon after the men left, Robert appeared at the French doors, small and sheepish.

"I only went to the bathroom," he said. His face was miserable. His shorts hung loose and low on his hipbones. "And now I don't know where he is."

Esme stood and knocked over her empty wine glass. It fell to the brick patio and broke, a small detonation. She looked up at Mia, stricken. Mia told her it didn't matter.They both went into the house to search for her little boy, calling his name. Mia said she would look upstairs. She checked the hall linen closet, and then the narrow closet in the bathroom. She went into the bedrooms and looked under the beds, and then in the old cedar closet, checking the latch on the door to the attic. Robert went with her, calling Sam's name, offering to play a game with him, to let him watch whatever he wanted on TV. Downstairs she could hear Esme's footsteps, sharp and panicky on the wood floor. Mia found nothing. Esme met her at the bottom of the stairs, her eyes flashing.

"Sam," she called out, "If you don't answer me now we will never come to visit again." She'd told him, over and over, that when he heard his name called he must come forward and show himself, or at least answer back,"I'm here," and tell her where to find him. He did none of these things now.

"I don't know where he'd go," Esme said.

Mia told her not to worry. They looked in the downstairs rooms again together—the study, the kitchen pantry, under the dining room table, behind the butler door. Esme said that at home he would go into his bedroom closet, where he had set up a little fort, with his coloring books in a tidy stack, and his crayons in a metal tin that had once held English biscuits. Esme went out the front door and onto the porch, calling Sam's name. Her voice met the blankness of the house fronts. It fell into the darkness where the street curved away, carried over the dense lawns and shrubbery and beds of caladium. Mia put her hand on Esme's shoulder.

"He wouldn't have left the house," she said.

Esme pressed a hand over her mouth and made a sound, like a sob.

Robert, standing beside them, glanced up. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he said. He ran back into the house, calling Sam's name.

Mia looked out at the neighborhood houses, the wide front porches, the lighted windows. She went down the pebbled driveway, calling, and listened to the responding silence. She would not let herself believe that a child could disappear, and yet the moment expanded and she imagined Sam just beyond their reach and unable to call out; trapped in some close space they'd forgotten to search, or worse, hurtling away in a strange car, fallen to the mercy of someone they could not trust. Mia felt a wave of fear for the boy, as if something like this had actually occurred. She and Esme looked at each other, each with a horrible guilt for allowing it to happen. And then Robert came to the doorway. "I found him," he said.They hurried inside. He had been behind the living room drapes. "Asleep," Robert said, his face open and eager to explain.

Esme scooped Sam up in her arms. She took him back outside to the patio, and Mia brought the dustpan and broom. The little boy sat curled on his mother's lap. The fear of the last moments was gone, the tragedy sidestepped, and they wouldn't speak of it again.

"Dani wasn't in her room," Mia told Esme.

Esme raised her eyebrows, and gave Mia a small, resigned smile.

The men came through the French doors. Jack glanced at Sam in Esme's arms, and tossed a pack of cigarettes on the table. Mia's husband opened the wine, his shirtsleeves rolled up, his keys jangling in his pants pocket. He smelled of his lemongrass soap. Mia stood with the dustpan filled with glass shards. She remembered the times he'd left her, and how it felt to be without him. She didn't know why she always thought this when he was there.

"A car," Esme said, "is a rolling bedroom."

Mia's husband looked at Esme, curious, as he filled their glasses. He eyed the glass in the dustpan in Mia's hand. "Someone done for the night?" he said. He wouldn't look at Mia. All of this was formality. He did what she asked of him. "Have dinner tonight with some friends?" "Take the boys to the football game?" If she asked him to have sex, he might even do that, but she was not going to test it out.

"Jackie, get me a new glass," Esme said.

Jack glanced at Mia, who knew where the glasses were kept. She saw that he tried to relay something with the glance, but she ignored it. She imagined him sighing, his face between Esme's knees. Mia thought that Dani's boyfriend was parked nearby on a side street, the engine running, the air conditioning on, the inside of the car lit violet by the dashboard gauges. The boyfriend waited, tense and aroused, edgy with love. She thought of Dani's escape through the darkened streets, through air laden with night-blooming jasmine, her hair flying out behind her. She imagined her breathless arrival, the smell of her as she climbed into the car—the coppery scent of her sweat, and the jasmine that followed her, clinging to her skin.

Mia's husband took the dustpan from her hand. He brought it inside and appeared with another glass, which he filled and placed in front of Esme.

"We don't want you to miss this," he said.

Esme smiled, wanly. "I don't want to miss anything," she said.

That afternoon Dani had noticed Mia's bracelets. She remembered playing with them as a little girl. Esme told her they would look pretty on her, and so Dani asked Mia if she could wear them. Until Esme, Dani had kept everything secret. Mia knew that most of her new openness was for Esme, but she didn't care. She listened, quietly, saying nothing. Mia slid the bracelets from her wrist. On her daughter, their sound was lighter, the sound of their wine glasses touched together. Inside the boyfriend's car the bracelets would catch the streetlights and flash.

Now, Mia's husband sat down at the table. "This wine is amazing. Chateau d'Armailhac, 1929.Try it."

"One glass," Jack said, scraping a chair over the bricks, sitting down beside Esme and Sam. "Then we'd better get going." He lit a cigarette.

They drank the wine, which was very good. Mia said its vintage was the year their house was built. Her husband's mouth formed a small smile.

"That's true," he said, turning to Jack and Esme."This house was the residence of a doctor. There's another entrance on the front porch for his patients."

Her husband told a few stories of their house. He always lapsed into these narratives when they had new guests. Mia listened, as she always did, her face a calm mask. She imagined the injured and sick dragging themselves up her porch steps, waiting there for the doctor to return from a birth in Sulphur Springs, or a suspected case of influenza in Ybor City. She saw them gripping limbs broken in falls picking citrus, or with towels pressed to gashes from the rusted blades of garden implements. She imagined the ghosts of the ones who died there, of congestive heart failure, or wounds too deep to sew up, spread out on an examining table in what was now their television room. The pool lights flickered over the green plants.The crickets stirred.The dinner things were abandoned inside on the long table. Mia knew they were there, waiting, the food drying to the plates. Esme's eyes closed, briefly, then opened, closed, and opened.

"This is all so wonderful," she said, suddenly. Her wine sat untouched. Her little boy's head fit under her chin.

Mia's oldest son came around the side of the house with a loping stride, his hair long over his eyes. "No one answers the door?" he said. He'd forgotten his key, and he was angry. Usually, either Mia or her husband would turn to him and tell him to watch his tone of voice. But neither of them said anything.The boy went through the French doors and into the house. Mia heard him kick off his shoes into the baseboard. She understood his fury—her own heart thudded with it. Her husband glanced up at her, waiting for her to do something. How easy for him to abandon the role of father. She saw it all from his perspective, as if it had never happened.

In late August, Esme and Mia lay by the pool. The children swam for a while, shouting and playing, and then grew bored, and moved inside. Every so often one of them would come to the French doors.

"What are you doing out here?" they'd ask.

"Mommy's a sun goddess," Esme said.

They had drinks in tall glasses. When the afternoon thunderstorms rolled in, they stayed on their lounges.The dark clouds burgeoned.They climbed the sky, building and obliterating. The sun slipped in and out, skittish. The wind picked up and flapped the edges of their towels, moved the oak's branches, sighed through the fern. Dani came outside. Mia heard her bracelets as she walked around the pool's perimeter.

"They say that if you can hear thunder, you can get struck," she said.

Esme groaned. She rolled onto her back from her stomach. Her bathing suit was untied, and it slid off. Her breasts were white as a china cup. "I still see some sun," she said. Dani shifted her hip. She stood over them, her shadow narrow and indignant.

"The sun is the number one thing that causes wrinkles," Dani told them. She jangled the bracelets on her wrist. "Just so you know."

She turned and headed back into the house. Sometimes, Mia fell asleep, and awoke with a start in the heat to a feeling like suffocating. Perspiration pooled on her body, in her belly button. She flayed sheets of water off with her hand. Esme brought books and magazines and read parts out loud wearing small wire-framed glasses.

"Listen to this," she'd say. "The house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace."

Esme was reading Bachelard. She was reading Vogue's reports of attendees at parties in the Hamptons. She read about Wyatt Earp's common-law wife, Mattie, who ran away at sixteen, met Earp, and settled with him in Tombstone.

"While he was out making money and chasing criminals, Mattie developed an addiction to laudanum," she read. "He met someone else and left her. I wonder which happened first, though? The leaving, or the laudanum?"

Mia said no one could know.The sun dulled her senses. She propped herself up and looked at her own long legs. She felt transformed in her skin's new color. She felt the possibility of a beginning emerging in shadows on the morning grass, from the scent of the house's floorboards, and the birds winging from its eaves.

One day Dani came out and slid a chair near them. Esme glanced up.

"Oh, good," she said. "You're joining us."

It was late, nearly time for the storm. Last night, Mia's husband had come in long after sunset. He gave her a perusing look. "What?" she demanded, strangely uncomfortable.

"Nothing," he said.

She moved about the room, gathering the boys' clutter, their discarded food wrappers, their cups and damp towels. She turned to him, her arms full. He was still there by the stairs, watching. His eyes were dark and piercing.The light from the lamp shone pale on the table. The rest of the room was in shadow. Once, they made love on the sofa, on the musty carpet. She wondered if he remembered this now, looking at her. He seemed pinioned in his clothes—the tie, the sleeves of his fine shirt, the belted slacks.

"Jack tells me his wife is sick," he said.

Mia stood with the things in her arms. Her husband watched her, waiting at the bottom of the stairs. She wanted to go to him and loosen his tie, undo his belt buckle and slide her hand along his hipbones.Then, she would be the one waiting for a reaction,waiting for his startled sigh, his answering need.Today, lying by the pool with Esme and Dani, she thought of the man in the plane, the way the hillside must have beckoned that morning with the sun on the snow. She wondered at the way surrender made us all weak, or strong. She considered its outcome. Esme told them that she attributed her mistrust of her husband to her father's abandonment of her family when she was small. Mia's heart did a small dip, like a body bending under a limbo stick. Esme propped her head in her hands and looked at Mia. The sun slipped behind a cloud. Dani lay quietly, as if asleep. Mia watched the bones of her chest rise and fall.

"He inherited my grandfather's rubber company, and all kinds of money," Esme said. "And then he drank too much, and left us."

"What kind of rubber company?" Dani asked.

Mia sat up and had some of her drink—iced coffee with Kahlua.

"They made extruded rubber parts," she said.

"Like what?" Dani asked, her eyes still closed.

"Plugs," Esme said. "I think they made plugs."

"Like the old bathtub plugs?" Dani propped herself up now, and looked at Esme.

"It was an old New England company, handed down through generations."

Mia asked Esme where her father was now.

"We didn't know where he went. Then we heard he was a short order cook here in Florida, living in a trailer, so when my mother died I came looking for him."

Mia and Dani glanced at each other across Esme's chaise."When was this?" Mia asked her.

"When I was a teenager," Esme said. She looked at Dani. "A little older than you."

"What kind of restaurant did he work in?" Dani asked. "Was it a Chili's, or a Ruby Tuesdays?"

Esme said she imagined it more like a diner with burned out bulbs and Formica counters and flies circling stale baked goods. "Those awful vinyl seats with broken springs. Turquoise or red, with slits and the stuffing coming out, and people's initials carved into the tables."

Mia said there used to be a place like that near the river years ago, and they'd go there after the bars closed. It was surrounded by live oaks, and the parking lot was just dirt and dead leaves. Mia remembered lurching from the car and over the dry leaves toward the blinking doorway. A screen door, she remembered. They went in through the kitchen. A boy's mother owned it and they had a key. She'd been with her husband—a boy himself then, whose hand gripped hers with the desperation of youthful love. She thought, suddenly, of the careful way he used to remove her clothes.

Esme nodded.Yes, that kind of place. "Or a pub, where they sell pitchers of beer, and have food."

"There's a pub by the trailer park on Gandy Boulevard," Dani said, quietly.

Esme grunted."Well, there you go," she said."That's probably where he is."

"Didn't you ever look there?" Dani asked.

Esme said no."Maybe I'll go today."

"Are you still looking?" Mia asked.

"I haven't found him yet," Esme said.

"Maybe he's looking for you," Dani said.

Esme supposed that might be the case. The sky was discolored, like a bruise. The breeze lifted the pages of Esme's books and magazines. They heard thunder. Dani jumped from the chaise."Get up, get up," she said. She bundled her towel into her arms. Mia and Esme moved slowly. Esme scowled. "This is the best part."

Dani ran on her long, thin legs to the door of the house. Mia saw wet drops on the pool deck. The rain came fast, on her shoulders, her face, and then the smell of rain on hot concrete that made her think of her childhood, and its moments of awkward sadness. Dani called to them from the doorway.

"You shouldn't stay out there. The rain holds all kinds of pollutants that get through your skin."

Mia helped Esme gather her things. They left the empty drink glasses to fill with rainwater that Mia would empty the next day, the sadness in her mouth, knot-like and hard to swallow.

They drove to the pub by the trailer park on Gandy in their wet bathing suits. They'd put on T-shirts and shorts as cover-ups. Esme's mascara had run. She had a fresh drink in the cup holder. Dani had insisted on going with them, and she sat in the back seat, giving directions—turn by the pink stucco apartments, go down that alley, it's only one way. Mia didn't ask how she knew about the place. The trailer park was called Shangri-La. It was off a road that ran along the bay. First there were million dollar homes, then a strip mall, and then the trailer park. Its one narrow shell road led toward the water, and growing all around the sign in front, and down both sides of the road were banana and papaya trees, and pink hibiscus, and four o'clock blooms beginning to open. The pub was near the entrance. The name on the portable marquee read The Iguana. The building's green paint flaked off the siding. There were two dusty windows with beer signs flashing, and a few cars nosed in toward the front door, as if the drivers had been aware of an emergency, and in a hurry to get there.

"They have great onion rings here," Dani said.

The rain had left milky puddles in the lot. Everything steamed, and the mosquitoes gathered around their ankles. Inside was air-conditioned and dark. It smelled of the fryer grease, and whiskey spilled to soak into the wood floor, and cigarettes. Esme sniffed and her eyes grew wet. Mia watched her, believing she might throw up.There were two TV's nestled into opposite corners, both broadcasting the same early evening news program, the background brightly hued in the bar light. Dani led them over to a wooden booth.

"Is this where you usually sit?" Esme asked. She had brought her purse. Inside were the photographs she'd shown them—herself as a toddler with pigtails beneath an oil portrait of a woman in a blue silk nineteenth century dress, holding a frilly-capped child on her lap. Another at six years old, heading off to school with a lunch box. "So he'll know it's me," she told them in the car. She had other photos to show him, once she found him—of Sam as an infant, and then grown, posed with Esme and Jack in front of the haunted bungalow. She had all of these photos rubber-banded together, ready to go. At the table, she took out the photograph of her father. He was large-shouldered in a madras shirt. He sat on the rocks at Governor's Island, in the Thimbles, wearing wrap-around sunglasses, holding a can of Black Label beer. Dani looked at it for a long time.

"Is that you in the background?"

Esme said she hadn't been born yet. Dani handed the photograph back. Mia grew chilled in her suit. Esme's lips looked blue."What should we do now?" Mia asked.

Dani handed out large plastic menus."Well, we order," she said."We don't want to look like we're here for anything else."

A woman came from around the bar to see what they wanted. She wore shorts and a tank top, her arms fleshy and sunburned. Esme said she'd like a pitcher of beer. Dani ordered fries.The two of them sat side by side, their shoulders touching. Mia didn't know what they were doing there, but that she had let it happen, all of it.

"If he's here," Dani said, "he's putting the fries in that metal basket, and lowering them into the grease, and he has no idea they are for you, his long lost daughter."

Esme smiled, weakly. The waitress had delivered the beer and two chilled glass mugs, and Esme lifted hers to her mouth. Mia thought the mug seemed too heavy for her. She didn't want the beer herself, but she sipped it anyway. Esme lowered her glass to the table, and no one said anything for a while, so Dani took over.

"This probably isn't the first place he's worked," she said."He might have been in Everglades City. There's that old lodge there with a restaurant on the water."

"Then he moved on," Esme said."To somewhere else."

"Maybe Weeki Wachee, where those women dress up like mermaids, and you can watch them through a glass window on one side of the spring.There's a lunch place there."

Mia remembered taking Dani to Everglades City when she was little, and another time to the spring. Mia couldn't watch the women, their legs zipped into mermaid tails, taking breaths through small tubes, staying under the water for all that time, their hair swirling around them as they spun and flipped.They'd kept their eyes open.Their smiles were lipsticked. Still, she'd felt a terrible panic for them.

"Maybe one of the mermaids took him in," Dani said.

Esme nodded, smiling. "He liked long hair. Once my mother cut hers, and he was furious."

It turned out that the cook at the pub was a woman.They saw her back there when the door swung open. But Dani asked the waitress if there hadn't been a man cooking for them, and she said there was a while back.

"Did he live in one of the trailers?" Dani wondered.

The woman shrugged. "He might have," she said.

"Do you think he might still be there?" she asked.

The waitress smiled. "I don't know why he wouldn't be," she said. "Most of those people have lived there for twenty years or more."

Esme paid the bill. Dani told them that she and her friends came here because it was close enough to walk from her girlfriend's house, and sometimes there were guys who paid for their food, thinking they would sit at the bar and talk to them. Mia held the door and they went outside. The air had shrugged off some of its thickness.A breeze moved the palm fronds, and the clouds piled up, their undersides tinged orange and violet.

"You don't talk to these guys, do you?" Mia asked.

Dani rolled her eyes. "Of course not," she said. "What do you think I am?"

Esme laughed. "A good girl," she said. She winked at Mia, and she told them they could leave, that they didn't have to keep looking. She was unsteady, and Mia looped an arm through hers. Dani walked ahead and stood at the Shangri-La entrance.

"But we're here now," she said. They headed down the shell road between the trailers.They smelled the remains of the residents' dinners, the charcoal and lighter fluid used in Weber grills.The trailers were old, with rusted aluminum awnings, and air conditioners that dripped and hummed in the windows. They sat in patches of bright grass, amidst statuary of windmills and geese, and small animals posed on hind legs, their little stone heads cocked, ready to flee. From the trailers came the sound of televisions, and from one, a recorded brass instrumental, and the efforts of someone playing badly along with it. Residents had come out and were sitting in folding chairs, toasting the sunset.They waved in greeting, kind and accepting, the smoke from their cigarettes spiraling into the clear air. None of them was Esme's father. None of the trailers seemed to be the one they were looking for. Dani went along, and showed the picture of the rubber company heir, and some people looked at it a long time, as if they might have remembered him.

One older man grinned."That's him," he said, jubilant. He wore thin white socks and leather slippers. His hands sat gnarled in his lap.

"It is?" Dani asked. She leaned closer with the photograph, and her long hair spilled over her shoulder.

The old man put his wiry fingers around Dani's wrist."It is," he said.

"Who is it?" she asked.

Mia came up and put her own hand on the man's arm, which was achingly thin, the skin papery, and he let go of her daughter, and grew confused. "But, it's the man you're looking for," he said, his voice shrill.

The road curved and they had a glimpse of the bay and the colors spread out on it between the trailers.This would be the place her father chose, Esme said, if he happened on it years ago.The smell from the bay was acrid. Beyond the sea wall the tide receded and left mud flats and flitting insects. Esme stood, swaying a bit, staring out at the water.

"My mother died when I was seventeen," she said.

"What happened to her?" Dani asked.

"She had ovarian cancer," Esme said. She turned back around and looked at Mia. "I inherited everything then."

Mia sensed that Esme would now reveal that she herself was sick, and had little time left, and Mia knew she could not hear it, that she did not want her daughter to know, and Esme, seeing maybe Mia's fear, said nothing. They walked over the shells to the car. Dani talked about her boyfriend and how he was a good kisser, better, even, than the boyfriend she lost, and Mia saw the plain face of the white hillside etched with tree branches. She watched it loom and widen with the speed of its rush toward her, and her last thought was that she had not done enough, that she would never have done enough to meet it.