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In the Small Hours

Edgartown, 2022

By CJ MillerPublished 6 months ago Updated about a month ago 16 min read
6

Migrants Land on Martha’s Vineyard, Country Divided

September 14th, 2022

Approximately fifty migrants, the majority of whom are Venezuelan, arrived on the Massachusetts island today via Florida. Local authorities were unaware of the flights. . .

Chapter One

The year I outgrew my favorite swim trunks, it felt as if America herself was coming apart at the seams.

I, Adam Vanderhoop, turned the brazen age of nine that June. It was the summer I mastered the breaststroke; that I finally jumped off of Big Bridge, known to visitors for its starring role in Jaws; that I discovered multiple, opposing truths can coexist, however uncomfortably.

That I learned it can't all be frivolity and clear skies. My parents, in lockstep with the nation's id, were on the verge of splitting for keeps.

It was the summer that, the auspicious gusts of autumn nipping at my heels, I was introduced to Marisol.

•♾️•

Life on Martha's Vineyard was nothing if not formulaic. August presented as a bell curve, its sleepy start mimicking that of carefree July before careening towards an excess of activity. This excitement gradually tapered off on a note that, no matter how replete with memories, registered as loss.

Summer meant saying goodbye in metered doses. End-of-season fireworks rained down over Inkwell Beach, eliciting weary barks from the canine contingent; the Ag Fair's wheel sliced the clouds to ribbons before taking its planned leave, fried dough following suit; and, for one vibrant, enchanted evening, lanterns in every hue graced the cottages of Oak Bluffs, lending an otherworldly aura to the mundane.

Dubbed Illumination Night, this event became my interior escape, one I would retreat to often amidst the steely doldrums of January. We wandered the sidewalks through pools of light, collectively the shade of stained glass, our eyes mirroring flashes of gold and emerald, of crimson and cobalt, each bleeding into the next in the manner of watercolors.

After, the magic vanished alongside the tourists, packed up and shipped off on predawn ferries, bound for locales far and diffuse. The fragrance of sunblock evaporated, making room for that of sea-lashed fishing piers and lingering, sturdy blooms. Mediocre ice cream joints closed up shop, their blackened storefronts haunting the main drags as though we were knee-deep into October.

We returned to pencil cases and homework, to first-day-of-school outfits, stiff fabrics too warm for the balmy weather. Coastal mansions sat abandoned, at the mercy of leathered caretakers, their owners firmly ensconced in real-world activities; the sound of lobsters cracking but a sweet evocation of months gone by.

A seasonal resident of some prominence once asked me, and perhaps not in jest, if the Vineyard unplugs come winter. I imagined that he saw this place as a model village: tree-lined, glinting, powered by none better than twelve volts and a prayer.

In response, I'd simply repeated the sentiments of my elders—yes, regular people live here, thank you, with routines that operate independently of the rich. The lauded.

I recall being uncertain as to why these questions nagged us so. Now, a few decades onward and gazing over my shoulder, the defensiveness strikes me as plain. Despite our protestations, it was hard not to feel like playthings in a diorama. Year-round struggles were regarded as mere texture against a Rockwellian backdrop, when they weren't being ignored entirely.

The notion that MV was out of touch, a Paradiso for the privileged, was, like any rumor, greatly exaggerated. Blue-collar workers kept the machine oiled and humming, snow be damned. Grocery prices, obscenely inflated beyond those of off-island, meant my father's skin was forever callused, overtime his constant. We faced the same challenges as the mainland—addiction, a dearth of affordable rentals, the need for a food pantry—compounded by the hermetic seal that is isolation.

If humanity has a shared flaw, I suspect it's the haste with which we dismiss those deemed separate. Different. This I would come to witness in spades.

•♾️•

"Would you guys shut up? I'm trying to listen to the reporter."

On the day the incident went viral—the day a couple of planes touched down at our rural airport, confusion abounding—the Vanderhoop household became a veritable apiary, each member buzzing with a sense of authority.

This was, I must reiterate, 2022: everybody had an opinion on current affairs, both global and domestic. I chose to cast myself as a rare equalizer, an abstainer, resentful of anything that put my relatives and neighbors at odds.

Such a perspective, I admit, is a luxury afforded only to the very young.

"Disgusting," my mother said, visible heat creeping up her neck. "People aren't pawns. You can't shuffle them around without consent."

"They're getting more help here than they would've at the border," my father countered. "'More than we give to Islanders in crisis."

With this, she fell silent. Well-to-do patrons aside, the Vineyard lacked a dedicated shelter. Long-term residents had been forced to leave due to costs and, ultimately, homelessness.

For his part, my brother Todd was glued to his screen, sopping up TV coverage like gravy and regaling us with Twitter's finest takes.

"These idiots don't know the difference between MV and Nantucket. And someone nicknamed us White Supremacy Isle."

The absurdity struck a chord, uniting us in annoyance. For one, immigrants of various backgrounds made up a solid percentage of our population.

My father also spoke of his Tribe, the Wampanoag, at length. They've been the stewards of this land, originally called Noepe, for millennia, a fact that went unpublished by journalists of every stripe.

"They act as though we're not still around. That we didn't survive the long frosts."

Mom, in a move that came surprisingly close to supporting him, chimed in about the legacy of Oak Bluffs, a storied destination for the Black community since the 1800s.

Opting to function as Switzerland, I made but a single suggestion: locals and migrants alike should be given keys to the myriad vacancies. Maybe, just maybe, the towns could find a way to borrow these properties—with or without permission—for the highest good.

"That would be fair," I concluded, smug despite what I thought were pure intentions. "These summer houses are going to waste."

Dad sighed and pinched his brow.

"Would it be fair to those paying the bills, kid?"

A man of blunt delivery, he somehow refrained from mentioning that I'd just invented communism.

By dinnertime, Mom was determined to volunteer at the church hosting those displaced.

"Adam," she announced, leaving no opening for debate, "You're coming with me."

•♾️•

At sunrise, we headed for downtown by way of South Beach, a dune-speckled strip that seemed to continue on in perpetuity. Its contours yawned and unfurled, the elements forming a bleary ombré—impressionism rendered tangible. Earth's tiers were awash in retiring peach; in an amalgam of firmamental azure; in sands and grass, delicate blades made to bend on the humming wind.

Once old enough for my license and a struggling pickup, I would discover that rambling about an island is much like existing within a pinball game. Everywhere you turn there are boundaries, unyielding and eager to dish out a thwack. Containment is a tough sell when one is sixteen.

Thankfully, in that pre-Dodge era, the view still struck me as infinite, my imagination the better for it.

This swath of Katama, a remote section of Edgartown, was littered with aforementioned summer homes, many consisting of gray shingles, their trim chalk-white and crisp as a plucked apple. Hydrangeas and tea roses framed ultra-green lawns, completing the affected, if pretty, portrait. They stood in quiet repose after Labor Day, and so frequently did we pass them that my senses barely took notice, relegating whole lots to blobs of gesso on a familiar canvas.

That morning was an exception, however. I devoted myself to fictional tours of echoing hallways, mice the sole occupants. A vignette that depressed me deeply.

In contrast, the car radio was tuned to an oldies station, the Five Stairsteps promising that, someday, things would get brighter.

Owing to a fleet of news vans, traffic was oppressive near the waterfront. We parked behind St. Andrew's Episcopal, a brick building with flourishes that hinted at gingerbread.

A tall maple presided over the lawn, its limbs like an open embrace. Shielding my vision from glare, I inspected the verdure for signs of impending change. Early rivulets of copper were, it pleased me to find, wending about at leaf's edge. Ochre and russet couldn't be far off.

We joined the chaos as a press conference was drawing to a close. A so-called Island official had been interviewed on our behalf. He was, in reality, from the Cape, a conclusion I reached without effort.

His parting words to the crowd were, "I'm proud to be in Martha's Vineyard!"

I yanked on my mother's cotton sleeve, my whisper dripping with petty enthusiasm.

"Mom! He said in."

She squeezed my fingers, telegraphing that I should hush, but her smirk revealed that she, too, had clocked the dreaded faux pas.

You arrive in a city, those sprawling, expanding grids that swallow one whole, absorbing the neuroses of all who pass. But, as any honeybee poised atop a prime blossom knows, you are only ever on a New England island, the restricted size making it that much more conquerable.

This two-letter trap had become something of a litmus test. A crude method of assessing bona fides. Martha, despite coy denials, operated as a temporal hierarchy: day trippers, summer people, washashores, and generational braggarts, constantly vying for rank in our cold war.

Then again, one is never in Cape Cod.

•♾️•

"Adam. How nice of you to join us."

Inside, I was greeted by a prim, bespectacled woman named Eleanor Lansing, a Spanish teacher who'd come out of retirement for the occasion. We were, unfortunately, well acquainted—she lived at the end of our road, often refusing to toss back errant baseballs or meandering Frisbees.

Dad referred to her as the DAR Lady, a wink at her publicized projects centered around the Revolution. I snuck by with a muttered hello—she was busy guarding the entrance from the media and rolling her Rs without cause.

Her presence was not a surprise, nor a selfless move. The Lansings plural—husband and wife—had a reputation for seeking this very type of limelight, exchanging minimal help for social clout. At worst, they traded on the culture of others, acting as self-appointed spokespeople on topics outside their wheelhouse.

Our island was home to many Portuguese-speaking folks, my grandparents among them. Spanish, however, was nowhere near as prevalent. Temptation to feature in a scenario that would benefit from her expertise—on camera, no less—had obviously proven irresistible.

While too naive to comprehend these issues in full, they resonated with my takeaway of Eleanor's character. Somewhere, she must've been hiding a baseball cemetery, perfectly good stitching turned to ruin.

•♾️•

There was a playroom set up in the basement, freshly stocked with crayons and yogurt, poster board and juice boxes in every flavor—nearby merchants had been generous. The space was tidy, its primary colors cheerful, but mildew wafted off walls just the same. Unavoidable, really, a stone's skip from the docks.

That's where I found the cluster of kids, each sporting whale-themed sweatshirts and munching Popsicles. I joined them in the latter, never one to refuse a treat.

The mood, palpable in its intensity, was nervous and hopeful. A girl around my age with a chestnut braid was curled up by herself, sketching a lighthouse.

She caught me looking on and smiled, her shyness frank. "Marisol," she offered. As an afterthought, "Mari."

"Hi," I replied. "I'm Adam. I live here, uh... in West Tisbury."

She wasn't fluent in English. What Español I knew, gleaned through music and cartoons, was of scant use. Regardless, we devised a rhythm, making up for missing terms with animated gestures and expressions galore. The curse of adulthood is that it robs you of tenacity; of the belief that you can bridge any gap if you deem it important. We wore no such shackles.

Mari had little interest in discussing the flight that delivered her here, and I respected that wish. The most we said about it pertained to a Vineyard map found wilting on the table, the air humid and salt-laced, copies of which had been handed out during the flight.

I was loyal to—if lonesome in—the theory that MV's contours resemble a triceratops. She insisted the island's silhouette took the form of a hat. One with three points, a style she mimed for my benefit.

"Soldier?"

"Yeah... I see it!"

She tended to hunt for the proper word in my language. I was inclined to try and work things out, be it feebly, in hers. In years to come, sealed away in a college library whilst pulling an all-nighter, I would be reminded of this gift through the works of O. Henry.

That afternoon, I made a conscious effort to raise Mari's spirits, sensing she was burdened by events unmentioned. Halfway through a giggly round of Ten Little Indians/Diez Inditos, a tune I'd picked up at camp, Ms. Lansing came stomping towards us, distaste written across her stern features.

"Adam," began the admonishment, almost biblical in her thin mouth. She grabbed a wrist bearing my Native blood and, impervious to the irony, said, "We no longer use Indito. Stick to indigenous. That's the acceptable label. Got it?"

I didn't. To my mind, there was a potential through-line, one that warranted exploration; clues that the words may share etymological DNA.

Afraid to offend, I let that inquiry die on my grape-tinted tongue, cheeks flushed in shame. Of all the things stolen in the name of polite censorship, the most precious was the ability to ask why without presumption of malice.

"Señora?" said Mari, her meek demeanor quelling some of the tension.

"Mm?"

Until that second, the woman hadn't so much as acknowledged the girl's presence.

". . . mochita. . . madre. . ."

". . .gaviota. . ."

They carried on with this exchange that surpassed my ability to translate. I could tell, from body language alone, that it left Mari disappointed. Later, I would learn that she'd asked about retrieving something misplaced at the high school, the migrants' initial gathering spot.

This something would, as it happens, come to shape the trajectory of my future.

•♾️•

By midnight, the lion's share were asleep on cots, including Mari's parents. She and I remained alert, too pleased with the other's company to turn in. To halt our inventive conversation.

Copious amounts of sugar might have also played a part.

By one o'clock, we'd exhausted every discreet pastime. Fearing she'd become bored, I decided to switch gears.

"Want me to ask Mom for her phone? We could mess around with some apps or watch YouTube."

The video option received a thumbs-up. With that, I was on a mission.

My mother was in the office with Cathy Sylvia, colleague and fellow volunteer. Keen not to disturb anyone, I crept towards the threshold at a snail's pace, imploring my sneakers not to squeak on the slick planks.

Mom's distinctive lilt came drifting, ever slightly, into the hall. Curious, I inched forward, the proverbial feline and its nosy demise forgotten.

"I don't know anymore. I've gotta make a decision about leaving, and soon. The worst part will be telling the boys. I'm dreading it."

"Take the week. Mull it over," Cathy suggested. "Don't rush this, Leanne."

"Guess that's why I'm here. It's easier to throw yourself into someone else's problems. Less overwhelming than sorting out my own shit."

Mom swiped at a tear. "God, I sound selfish."

She did. Even to my biased ear, she did, and it produced an anger to which I was unaccustomed. I knew, instinctually if not explicitly, that assistance provided for the wrong reasons was bad. Condescending.

Ironically, the substance of what she conveyed had yet to hit me, and I wanted to postpone the pain.

As if reading my distress, she refocused.

"What can we do that will actually make a difference? They can't bunk here much longer. One bathroom and dozens of people?"

"The governor's going to release a statement in the a.m. They may be moving on. It's his call."

I'd heard enough. A palm resting against my soured gut, I set a course for that bathroom, scared I was about to be sick. We weren't an angelic bunch by any means, but I'd always assumed my family would make it. They were my mooring.

And what would become of Marisol? I was invested, and intensely at that. The brevity of our connection mattered not a bit. Not to me. At their most decent, camaraderie is natural among children; they cling to similarities and discard what divides. Free of the urge to judge, we were able to care without delay.

Before I could think straight, Mari was by my side, her arm hooking my elbow, wondering, in our quirky vernacular, whether I was okay.

Her generosity shook me. I stared at the ceiling's rustic beams, blinking, willing myself not to cry.

Though my nausea had subsided, we stumbled into the bathroom for the sake of remaining quiet. Mari perched on the pedestal sink, feet kicking, the sconce above casting a glow across her freckled face. It gave the vague impression of a halo.

Best I could, I filled her in. She glanced away, scanning the space's lone window pane, no doubt as worried as I was.

"My bag," she said at last, urgency in her tone. "Lost. I need... need to find."

"Is it special?"

She nodded.

"You sure it's at the high school?"

"Yes. Near the bird."

The bird. For a long beat, this stumped me. It was only when the school's emblem, a gull carved into numerous surfaces, floated to the top that I understood.

Vibrating, I joined her in surveying the starless night, its possibilities flowering beneath largesse. Bellowing frogs at once felt like friends, the crickets our sudden cheerleaders. The world over, plotting in our favor.

"We could go get it. Together."

•♾️•

Time has made soft whose idea it truly was; who spoke that inspired, consequential sentence.

Who traced the knotty trim, removing a satisfying layer of dust, checking to see whether the lock would open.

Who scoped out the bushes below, in need of a landing pad.

What I can tell you is this: yes, a hundred times yes can be conveyed with a mischievous ascent of the head.

A mutual stare. A conspiratorial grin.

Then and there, we embraced this holy trinity of childhood contracts, sans speech. And so, in the small hours of September 16th, while the bone-tired slumbered and the powerful decided our fate, I gave Mari's clambering foot a boost.

She hoisted one leg up and over the sill. I watched her lean sideways and, consumed by the darkness, disappear into unseen shrubbery. A rustling and gentle thud followed.

The Vineyard, by quaint and intentional design, has always wanted for street lamps.

As she scrambled onto the stone path, I realized someone else was awake. The clickety-clack of sandals on hardwood was fast approaching from the common area, loud as a telltale heart.

Mari's voice cut through the waiting moment.

"Adam. Go."

Behind me, the doorknob twisted.

"Go. Now."

My pulse fluttering something fierce, I crawled out of that womblike, red-doored parish, prepared to run, a waning moon our only guide.

It was the moment I learned that fear is but the shadowy side of exhilaration.

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6

About the Creator

CJ Miller

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  • Sonia Heidi Unruh5 months ago

    So captivatingly written! Brilliant metaphors abound. One of my favorites is the double meaning of the "baseball cemetery, perfectly good stitching turned to ruin." Adam's winsomely precocious voice, teetering on the border of innocence and "opposing truths," sucked me right in. This novel (as I hope it becomes) is giving me To Kill a Mockingbird vibes. So well done!

  • ✍️ If you are not published, you should be. I became a fan after a mere few minutes, especially after the following: "Life on Martha's Vineyard was nothing if not formulaic. August presented as a bell curve, its sleepy start mimicking carefree July before careening towards an excess of fun. This excitement gradually tapered off on a note that, no matter how replete with memories, registered as loss." Your brilliance, for me, is literary and visceral. Bravo! 👏✍️👏

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