Port of Angels

By the time they found Emma, the animals had gotten to her. My sister tells me this without hesitating. The beach is dark and we can’t see each other’s faces. Everywhere the tufted grass and all the lights of Port Angeles bearing down on the water.

She makes small talk, comments on the weather. She throws rocks and laughs, and also cries a little. It’s December, Christmas Eve, one year exactly since her friend was raped and murdered on the waterfront path. Keisha knew the family, had known Emma from parties, considered her a friend though, at fifteen, she was five years Keisha’s junior. Keisha says she was a smart girl who’d made a dumb mistake. Who hasn’t made dumb mistakes in their life, she asks me. My sister is twenty-one years old. I try not to count them.

It’s quiet for a while, except for the lapping water and cars cruising up and down the length of the Spit. I had my first kiss here, copped my first feel. It’s one of those places.

Look at the clouds, I finally say. They look like an inverted halo.

I like it better when the stars are out, she says.

You can see some right there.

But not all of them.

We can see the town curving up the foothills, thinning out and merging into the deeper shadows where houses give way to woods. We can see the gaps, imagine the mossy solitudes, trace the coastline out into the depths beyond the harbor.

It’s the first time we’ve talked in a year, maybe longer. Keisha is the missing one, the appended child, youngest of seven. Even in the weird quilt of our family, Keisha stands out. She came to us through foster care, two years old and small for her age, with mild cerebral palsy and an irrepressible smile. We fell in love with her instantly. The last child to move out, Keisha had to see it all, our mother’s decline, our father’s affair and remarriage. 

Now she is homeless, mostly unreachable, adrift in some reality of her own making. Though for the moment I have her back, standing in the far dark of The Spit, a mile-long pinky of land jutting out into the harbor.

Earlier, I’d found her sharing a pipe in a pickup with Joseph, our nephew who is her age. They stashed the pipe, embarrassed to be caught. I thought it was pot so I didn’t say anything, although later I won’t be so sure. Joseph and Keisha grew up together and started huffing aerosol cans at age eleven. They might as well be twins. All those years when Joseph was in juvie, and then jail, and then disciplinary boot camp, prison, and beyond, Keisha was the person who wouldn’t dismiss him, no matter what. Now, she’s the disappointment and he’s a father with responsibilities. Joseph sometimes tells me that the community college has a program where high school dropouts can get diplomas. They offer financial aid.

On the beach I ask Keisha if he’ll do it, get his diploma.

There’s no way, she says.

Would you ever do it?

I only need three credits to graduate.

If you need help… I say. If you have papers to fill out… I say.

Later we drive around, killing time. All around us, there are people in warm houses surrounded by their families. Or maybe they’re lost, like us, needing some kind of jolt. We can’t find it anywhere, even though we’ve gone out to our old house on the bluff and marveled at the three first I planted out front. Twenty feet tall now, they shift in the wind like things possessed, though we drive by without stopping. If we had stopped, we would have sat in the car for thirty seconds, then driven off. We joke sometimes about our ritual drives, the annual lectures of responsibility I deliver, each of us hoping I won’t leave her standing alone on the road again, looking tearful and betrayed. This is what we do in our family, we joke.

We drive past a different house. I tell Keisha that I had a crush on the girl, Michelle, who used to live there. Keisha doesn’t remember her. I’ll bet she’s in there right now, I say, hoping for a second that she is, that everything was still the same as it had been. We look in the big living room window as we drive by, but we can’t see anybody. I used to jog around the neighborhood with Michelle. Back then, in high school, I was too fat for her. I was too fat for anybody. I had this giant orange jacket that made me look like a hot air balloon. Michelle married a Navy guy, I hear, and named their child Robert. After me, I like to think sometimes. Mostly, I try not to think.

At some point our time will run out, I’m aware of it always, that Keisha will return to her stray life and I’ll go back to pretending she’s part of the family. That she didn’t run away on her eighteenth birthday, drop out of school and become a ghost with no address, no reliable phone. But here, in our old neighborhood, the past seems real, the houses that haven’t changed, the faded wooden sign that still announces one’s arrival at “The Bluffs.” All dingy cheer, with actual peacocks that used to parade the lower cul-de-sacs, missing feathers, like some awful parody of opulence. This tiny arc of lights out past the highway patrol station, this loose assemblage of toy-strewn yards, lots gone fallow. We moved here when I was in high school, and soon the stories took hold. The rumored pedophile who lived in a house near the ravine. Or the neighbor kid who would fling cats over the bluff edge. We were all nursing our own disorders. What he must have experienced as they took their first, writhing flights. What terrifying beauty, their sudden transformation from animal to something greater before they ruptured on the driftwood far below.

I’m the only one of us who comes out this way anymore, sometimes with Keisha, and sometimes alone. Sometimes I get out of the car, walk through the lot next door and stare over the edge, taking it all in. Sometimes I want to absorb everything sad about our neighborhood at night, little rows of tenderness whose heat you can nearly feel, water stretching out into the depths and oblivion beyond. And sometimes I feel nothing. Our family moved away ages ago. Nobody that matters lives out here anymore, the house on the bluff just the last place we all lived together. And even the bluff itself, thirty stories high at points, is melting away, our backyard a ribbon of grass that any good tremor could hurl into the strait. 

I bring Keisha out here because I want her to feel something too, but it only punctuates our differences, how far removed I’ve become. When our mother finally succumbed to the cancer that ravaged her lungs and her brain, the family had moved to a different house entirely, a rental on a street behind a roadside fish fry. I was in college then, already withdrawing. That house was in a confused, sprawling neighborhood, not quite commercial or residential or rural, just a few random buildings sprouting along the highway like a clustering fungus. Keisha’s elementary was on the corner, and the new Costco was across the highway. At night, we could see its glow looming eerily over the houses and the RV lot beyond. 

I have no other memories of the house our mother died in, no memory of its layout or walls, or the carpeting, which must have been cheap and old, worn thin in places, embedded with dog hair and cigarette ash, crusted by bits of food and alive with mites and spores, the unseen world that thrives on human residue. How many lives has it yet to witness, that anonymous carpeting, the bit of filth that received my mother’s body when she collapsed, which is the last thing she must have touched before she died?

The only place open after eight on Christmas Eve in Port Angeles is Jack-in-the-Box. Keisha’s hungry, so we go there. I can’t think of a more pathetic place to be on Christmas Eve than Jack-in-the-Box, but the place is mobbed. They’ve run out of ketchup. I’ve stopped sleeping with guys I don’t know, Keisha says out of the blue.

I don’t know what to say to that.

She pokes at her French fries. Keisha’s pregnant, but she won’t tell me that tonight. She won’t tell me for months. I’d done nothing, it seems, to win her confidence. We look around and don’t say anything. There’s a girl here who’s hitting on everybody. She appears to be with a large guy who could be her father, but probably isn’t. Like every other man, I’m looking at her, trying not to be obvious. Keisha sees right through me. She tells me her name is Amber, that they went to school together. This was back when Keisha still went to school, when she owned more than a backpack with some sweatshirts shoved inside. Amber notices a couple of guys and goes over to their table. I wonder if she’s actually a prostitute, but I’m distracted by a kid behind the counter who’s talking to a cop and shouting to someone in the back.

Keisha tells me, Everyone thinks you’re some kind of god because you went to college.

I don’t feel godlike. For Christmas this year, I bought everybody the same box of candies, only in different flavors.

Amber’s on the phone now, promising to see somebody and calling them sweetie, saying I love you. The counter girl yells for somebody to box up that chicken right now. She tells the cop that they’ve found three fake twenty-dollar bills and one fake hundred in the past week alone. There’s an ultraviolet light propped on the counter that they use to check. She waves her hand under it to demonstrate, fingers glowing obscenely. She has no idea how sad she looks.

Suddenly, Amber is at our table, hugging Keisha and staring me down. She calls Keisha girl and says it’s been years. She asks, Are you in college? Are you working?

Keisha says she’s just hanging out. This is all Keisha ever says when asked those questions. She goes from house to house, sleeping on couches that smell of damp animal. She walks downtown alone to stare at cargo ships docked along the waterfront. She finds goodness in the unwashed kids, the old men hanging out on street corners or crawling off the late-season fishing boats that won’t move again for months, the slow paralysis of rainfall on evergreens that keeps us here for far too long. 

Amber’s been drinking all night and wants to know if we’ll join her later. She gives directions to a bar. She tells us how drunk she is and looks at me meaningfully. Her kitchen-sink dye job, her belly shirt and waistline tattoo. I’ve never known girls like her, or they never bothered with me.

I’ve got four years of college, she says. You’re looking at the new drug counselor up at the school.

They let you do that, Keisha says.

It’s not a crime to drink. Amber looks at me again. You never told me you had a brother, she says. She pretends she’s going to take Keisha’s number but asks for mine instead.

Your bus is leaving, the large man says to Amber from the door. I’d forgotten all about him. I’ve forgotten so much it feels natural now. Somehow I’m reminded of my father shooting raccoons from the kitchen window. These are the things we don’t talk about, the small traumas, threads of ourselves converging, our memories come back to betray us: Keisha as a child, Keisha happy, Keisha who found our mother on the living room floor and crawled back into bed, afraid of what would happen next. The raccoons were a nuisance, raiding our yard for ducks that our mother kept. We’d find the remains in the morning, the feathers and bone, shit-streaked lumps with the heads gnawed off. This was years ago, before our mother’s illness, before everything in us fell apart. There was a shape on the fence that my father was shooting at. He used the .22, the one he gave me when I turned twelve. He watched it convulse, a mess of legs in the chiaroscuro of porch light and shadow, before he kicked it over the bluff edge. 

At that caliber, they don’t sound like gunshots the way we think of gunshots. Just a pop, then the hiss of air remaking itself.

We go back to the car. It’s raining again, that thick mist that sinks right through us. It’s been like this all week, like everybody’s cliché of the Pacific Northwest. All around us, mountains climbing up the throat of God, clouds massing over the port, all the shared and separate histories washed into a haze of lightness and reflection. I’m thinking about Emma again, and her half-eaten face. When our family read the news of a young girl found dead on the beach downtown, wasting under the shrubs behind the Red Lion Inn, everyone thought it was Keisha. I try not to think about that. The rain is pushing back off the pavement into a low fog. I can’t see anything. I think about that bar Amber told us about, but I don’t go there. Keisha just looks out the window while I drive around. We don’t know where to go. We never know where to go.


Rob Arnold is a CHamoru poet, essayist, and arts leader whose work has appeared in Ploughshares, Hyphen, Gettysburg Review, Poetry Northwest, RED INK, The Volta, and Solstice, among others. His poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and have received support from the Somerville Arts Council, the Jack Straw Cultural Center, and Artist Trust. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, where he serves as executive director of Poets House.