author bio
witches on a lakeThe Witches

Rebecca Curtis


Part One

All summer long, in morning, afternoon and early evening, the Broads were dotted by white sails. They were crossed by speedboat wakes and gold-tipped ripples, a blue expanse that stretched for miles until broken by the Forty Islands. To leave the Broads and reach the lake's north end—where couples had dinner at night on the patios of restaurants along the shore—a boat had to navigate the islands. There were plenty of pleasant if circuitous routes. The direct one was a rocky pass called the Witches. Most of the rocks in the channel were submerged, but a cluster in the center, black and shiny with globular tops, protruded several feet into the air. They didn't really look like witches, though. They were more like women's bent heads: like six lumpy women who'd risen out of the lake and were peering back down into it. The stretch was infamous, mostly for some diving accidents in the seventies—women who dove in bikinis from the decks of pontoons and broke their necks on an underwater crag. Mostly the pass was known for hull damage. But my stepfather liked to tack through the corridor.

He had a twenty-four foot yacht. He'd bought it used, for $10,000. It had come with an old chart of the lake, a horn you could sound that would be heard for miles, two moldy lifejackets, and a bottle of Blue Glo-Clean for the toilet. He taught me to sail when I was twelve. Whether you had a motorboat or a sailboat, he said, you'd get to know the lake pretty well; but if you had a sailboat, you'd get to know it better. You would pass through it slower, he said, and be more vulnerable to other boats, their wakes, and the lack of wind.

The surrounding mountainous towns were populated by a mix of retired second-home owners, professionals who commuted to Nashua or took pay-cuts to practice nearby, and the locals who served them in the village cafes and shops. The lake was glacial and twenty-six miles long. At its bottom were coal barges, several steamships, some railroad cars and an abandoned underwater naval sound laboratory. My stepfather knew the names of all two hundred fifty-six islands, and I knew a couple, like Ship and Moose, adjacent, each just big enough for a single house. Whenever we anchored off Sleeper, bright green and roughly circular, my stepfather leaned forward and said levelly, "That island's for sale. If ten men had $200,000 each, they could go in and buy it." He took me with him on weekends, whenever he wasn't working at the garage. My mother didn't like to sail and was often tired. I didn't have much to do. I had track and my homework, which didn't take long. I was tall for a girl, five-eleven, and awkward.

Sometimes we sailed four hours there and four back to Center Harbor to get an ice cream. Fortnights we entered the races our yacht club held. By fifteen I knew every public landing and pump-station, the names of the other crafts in our mooring field, and the dour expression of each old man who spent the week sitting, pale legs forked and pointing towards the path to the dinghies, in a lounger on the clubhouse deck.

After we'd motored through the mooring field and made the point, my stepfather would stand erect. He'd say, "Where'd you like to go?" I'd say, "I don't care." He'd shut the motor off and ask me to get out the jib. I'd drag the sail bag from the hold and lug it onto the deck. He'd be standing in the same position, but his hand would jingle in his pocket. He'd say, "How about the Weirs?" I'd say, "All right." He'd say, "Great! Why don't we take the Witches? It's a shortcut."

The water was slate in the pass and the firs on the islands leaned over as fuzzy black walls. Far off down the corridor were white dots of birds on spars. The waterway was narrow enough that an oncoming craft might have caused a collision; none ever came on. When we neared the birds swiveled their necks and stared. Eventually a few lifted their long wings and their white bodies raised and puffed as if about to shit. I held the tiller and my stepfather stood atop the head, calling back directions. You had to stay an exact course between spars—just so far right of the black and left of the red. The wind was low in the pass and the boat slowed until the sail flapped and sagged. I was always convinced, as the spars approached, that we'd scrape something and our keel would chip or break off entirely. Instead we'd slide into the bay, where there was a beach and a yellow cliff that held up a boardwalk with a penny arcade, a souvenir shop that sold fake Indian jewelry and pipes, and La Cucaracha, a Mexican restaurant.

When I was fifteen or so my stepfather and my mother began to fight a lot. The boat was expensive, she said—its maintenance, fees—and he was always on it. She was tired of being home alone. My brother was four and wore her out. She wanted to go somewhere tropical. She knew other wives who'd gone with their husbands and thus she knew which islands were the least developed and where to stay and had brochures. "Maybe next year," he said. "We don't have enough money." Privately, on the lake, he showed me catalogues. Spinnakers. It was why we came in second or third in the races. Our boat was the best in its class, but heavy. The guys with spinnakers had the edge. They cost two or three grand. He showed me the one he'd picked out: green with white stripes. It wasn't the most expensive one, he said, because it lacked technical innovations. But it was high quality. The fabric was light yet durable. On a day with strong wind, it would pick up gusts from the stern the jib missed. He pointed. Far off in the Broads was a boat with a rainbow-colored spinnaker. The sail pulled the yacht behind it like a toy. We watched it together. It grew smaller rapidly. My stepfather looked down at his feet. "I can't really afford it," he said.

He was right. My mother needed a winter coat. Also new curtains, new dishes and new comforters for the beds. My brother needed soccer cleats, a guitar and guitar lessons. To make it up, my stepfather worked overtime and had side jobs. I wasn't sure how the side jobs worked; I think he sometimes told guys, "Come back after the owner's gone and I'll fix it for this much. Cash." He'd stay late a few weeks at the garage and come home after dark and say, "the Austin Healey's done," or, "I fixed the clutch on that TR3." My mother would nod. The next night he'd make dinner. Afterwards he'd ask, "Is there anything you'd like that I can get you?" She'd stare at a spot on the wall. "Baileys Irish Cream." He'd pick it up at the store and they'd drink it on the couch and he'd rub her back as they watched TV. But at the month's end they'd meet in the dining room, take the bills out of the china cabinet and discuss which to pay. Without fail my mother would say, "I think we should sell the boat."

They seemed oddly matched, but most adults did. I knew, because my mother had told me, that she'd modeled as a teenager. She was tall, willowy, with long dark hair, sly, narrow blue eyes and a crook at the top of the nose. I knew my stepfather had offered her a ride one day, and that was how they met. I didn't want to know more. But once, when she'd been complaining about him, I retorted, "Why'd you marry him?"

She leaned against the wall and crossed her arms under her breasts. "Well," she said. "You were six when I moved here. You wouldn't know this, but it's difficult when you're a single woman with a child. There's a lot of expenses. My cousin said she could get me a job in the library, shelving books. I didn't need a degree, and they'd train me to index on the job. It sounded interesting. And my cousin said I'd meet lots of men working at the library." She blinked. "Men with professional jobs."

"So what happened?" I said.

"I met some," she said. "But not everyone wants to marry a woman who already has a child. Earl was unusual. He liked you. He wanted to be your father."

I started saying no thanks when my stepfather asked me to sail. He seemed to accept this. When the races came around, he asked the other guys if someone would let him on their crew. He'd walk all around the lodge and its yard and the guys would say "No thanks," or "Full." Eventually one guy would say, "All right, Earl, come on."

I spent time on the track and in the library. I didn't miss sailing or even the lake. But at the end of high school, on the night of our senior prom, when a girl I'd loved as a kid asked me if we could take my stepfather's boat out and go somewhere quiet where she and her fiancé could talk, I said, "Sure." When she asked where we should go, I said, "The Witches."

Part Two

We motored to the pass, anchored, and floated off the rocks. I sat on the prow and they sat in the stern. The girl's fiancé was twenty-six but nearly crying. She was telling him that she'd decided to go to college after all, not move into an apartment with him as they'd planned. He was trying to convince her to stay in town.

Most nights the lake would have been black. But there was a cloud cover that reflected the town's lights, and the pines leaning out from the islands were visible. I could see the lumpy rocks bending up from the water off the stern, and in a few the deep crevices like fat women's necks with grayish lichen climbing on them. Sometimes they seemed to be moving, because they were still and the water was rough. The movement was a ball at the end of a string. The air was warm for May, fifty degrees, and through the clouds I could see a few green stars. I was feeling lonely. In my purse were diamond earrings the girl had asked me to hold. Her fiancé was hunched on the stern's bench, his elbows were propped on his knees.

His name was Dirk Drew. His mother was dead and his father was a drunk. He'd graduated late from high school because he'd been in juvie awhile. Before that he'd been a soccer star. Now he hunched. But every spring one beautiful girl fell in love with him before leaving him for someone else. He was stupid, but often made good jokes about how stupid he was. He had craggy features, dark curly hair, and worked at the marina, on the docks.

The girl, Crystal Williams, was an all-state skier and captain of the cheerleading team. Her father was a six-four blond tax attorney, her mother a buxom blonde kindergarten teacher. Crystal had a heart-shaped face and green eyes. I would have sat on the prow for five hours, or six. But after two, she put her hand on Dirk Drew's knee and said she wanted to go for a swim.

Dirk Drew looked at her. "It's two a.m.," he said.

She took her sweatshirt off.

"The water's freezing," he said.

"I live on the lake," she said. "I've gone swimming in April." She sounded annoyed. "I've gone swimming in March." Crystal stood up, took her T-shirt off, then dropped her sweatpants and T-shirt on the deck. She unhooked the railing and stood in the gap with her arms raised. In the deck lights, her naked body looked gold.

"There's rocks," I said. "Don't dive."

She dove and after a minute, we heard her laugh. She was backstroking. I could see white where her breasts protruded from the water.

"It's warm," she said. "Warmer than the air."

I was surprised by how comfortable she appeared. She floated without kicking her legs at all. But as she'd said, she'd grown up on the lake.

"Come swim," she called up, and she said it to me.

Dirk Drew told her to come back in the boat. He told her she was drunk. He said that she'd regret giving up what she was giving up in him and that no one else was ever going to treat her like he had. He was drunk.

"Swim then," he said, after a minute. "Ruth and I are going inside."

I knew he wasn't attracted to me. I was too tall. My black hair was rough. My nose was not delicate and I had a square jaw.

"Come on, Ruth," he said, and his hand came out.

She was still swimming, her arms sweeping back elegantly. He was half watching her, too. The boat was drifting among the rocks. I could hear the water washing against them, a kind of music. My stepfather had told me not to swim between a boat and a dock. Sometimes the water could shift suddenly, by current or wind, and the boat would press its several tons of weight against the dock. She wasn't swimming between a boat and a dock, but she was swimming between a boat and a half-dozen rocks. I felt a sort of misplaced déjà vu and opened my mouth. I meant to say, "Let's put the ladder down." I thought I had; I looked at Dirk Drew, and expected him to get the ladder from the locker under the bench. But I must have said, "All right." Because Dirk Drew nodded and ducked through the cabin door, and I followed him, and he shut it behind me, locked it and said, "It's cold tonight."

Part Three

In the spring of 1996, most people in our town were aware of certain events—the Bosnian Serbs had withdrawn from Sarajevo after years of horror; Dole, a war hero, was challenging Clinton, an incumbent; the Tutsis and the Hutus were still quarreling; the Unabomber was Ted Kaczynski. Furthermore we had our own problems: our schoolteachers were underpaid and the best ones were leaving; our library was never used; developers were planning to build a $50 million condominium project on some parkland. All we cared about was the prom.

It was held in the ski lodge. Each year it was a grand affair—a catered dinner, photographers, champagne. The entire police force was on duty. A committee of mothers, who'd planned for months, judged a beauty contest and choreographed a couples march down a red velvet carpet. Parents attended and observed events from a balcony over the rafters. Men from the town slipped in at midnight and squeezed onto the balcony too. That afternoon, I'd asked my stepfather to stay home. At first he seemed surprised. He walked outside to consider it. When he returned he said he'd like to come. I'd answered that I'd like him not to. He'd repeated that he thought he'd like to, if only for a little while. My mother had no desire to go, but she was angry that I was causing discord over something trivial. My stepfather just kept repeating that he wanted to take pictures, had been looking forward to it for years, and had paid for my dress. In the end, he promised to stay home if I let him take photographs of me on the lawn.

 I'd put the dress on and been embarrassed. It was tight, shiny, black and too small. My boobs were practically falling out. The rhinestone necklace—my mother had come to my room, held it out and said, "Take it, you might as well"—looked cheap. But they'd taken the pictures and wished me good night, and my date and I had left.

Soon after we got there, my date wandered off into the crowd.

I wasn't disappointed, and after he left I danced in the lodge as if I wasn't alone, until I accidentally stepped on, and tore a hole in, a woman's long, tangerine-colored gown. She made a noise and her boyfriend, who I recognized from my math class, turned around. I apologized to the woman, but she continued to stare at me, so I offered to pay for the damage. She gathered up the orange silk and studied it sadly. "This dress is special," she said. "It's not a question of money."

"Okay," I said. "I'll pay double." As soon as I said it the woman looked satisfied. But her boyfriend did not turn back around. Instead he watched me dance. After a minute he said, "You're the worst dancer I've ever seen."

I moved away as if my rhythm required it, and looked up at the balcony and saw my stepfather. He was leaning over the railing, peering through the layer of pink streamers strung between the beams. I knew he'd taken off his bathrobe, slipped his clothes back on, and snuck out of the house to come to the prom. He was forty-five. A guy whose idea of a great day was breaking some ones and spending the quarters at the penny arcades. I felt as if I couldn't talk. And I sensed, or guessed, that my stepfather couldn't talk to the other adults on the second floor, either. He had a smile fixed on his face, as if someone had just told a good joke at his expense. He was standing alone, and his head was turning back and forth levelly, as if someone large were standing behind him and turning it for him. He'd put on a brand-new red wool sweater.

 I went down to the cellar, a cavernous space beneath the lodge where my stepfather took me each fall to buy used skis. There was a bench against one crumbly rock wall. I sat on the bench and read the plaques on the walls. I studied the poles, crossed and nailed to a beam, of two skiers who'd gone to our school in the eighties and almost made it to the Olympic tryouts. I was listening to the music through the ceiling vents and dancing by myself when Crystal appeared. She started dancing with me, and after a while a slow song came on and she reached up—she was only five-five—and placed her arms around my shoulders. When the song ended she brought her face near mine and said, "Let's leave."

When she explained to me that we should lift my stepfather's boat and go out on the lake, I felt confused. She had her own boat—a speedboat. When I asked why she didn't use it, she said she'd dinged it waterskiing the week before. When I asked her why she'd asked me for a ride instead of one of her friends, she looked up and smiled. She had wide lips and a lopsided grin that showed her incisors.

"I miss you," she said. "We haven't hung out in a really long time."

I'd known her as a kid. When we were six, maybe seven, she'd come to my house and we'd spent nights in a blue tent, a plastic one my mother had set up in our backyard. Our house was surrounded by forest, mostly pine and birch because the woods dropped down towards a river—and in the night we'd done stupid kid things. She'd taken her clothes off. We'd been doctors, or Indians. She'd lain on her back. I'd said, "I'm going to kiss your nipples."

She'd said, "Okay." I'd done it, kissed each nipple twice. I'd kissed her belly button. Then I'd felt strange and stopped. Neither one of us had said anything.

She'd said, "It felt weird."

I'd said, "I know."

She'd sat up.

I'd been afraid because I'd sensed she'd grow disgusted by me. I'd thought it was going to happen right then. But she'd sat up, on my pink sleeping bag with the pink dwarves on it and said, "Now me."

In high school, she sat next to me on test days. When her friends asked her why she had, she told them she did it to copy my answers. She wasn't a good cheater—she copied every answer I chose. The problem was, I wasn't a good test taker. No matter how much I studied, I made mistakes. So at the last minute I had to slip my paper away and change several right answers to wrong ones, so our tests wouldn't match and she wouldn't get caught.

We didn't leave the lodge right away. Instead we walked upstairs so she could march when they called her name and get her crown. We sat at a corner table with a pink cloth rose in a vase. We watched guys shimmy in their tuxes and girls float by in bulbous gowns. After a while Crystal said happily, "There's your stepfather."

He was thirty feet above us, on the opposite side of the balcony. He'd taken the red sweater off. He had on a blue plaid shirt. I saw other parents pushing close to share his balcony spot, and that he was preventing them by holding his elbows out wide at his sides. He clutched a camera. When he saw us looking up at him, he frowned.

Crystal waved. He waved back. Then he disappeared.

Crystal frowned. "Why didn't you wave?" she said.

I didn't answer.

She leaned forward. "You're being childish."

Her gown was shiny purple. Her bust was a V of black lace. Her dark blonde hair was twisted into a cone-shaped coil on her head. "My parents are here," she said. "They took a million pictures of me. They even danced on the floor." She touched her hair. "I don't know what your problem with your stepfather is," she said. "But whatever it is, you better get over it. Because soon you'll leave town and he'll miss you forever."

On the way to the yacht club we stopped at her house, and Dirk Drew and I sat in her driveway. The Williams' family garage was four-cars; the house was long and cream and seemed flat, but on the lakeside, it extended down four stories.

Dirk Drew sighed, and his breath fogged up the car. His huge legs were squeezed under the dash. He fiddled with something in his hands: a floatie key ring.

"So," he said. "I've never talked to you."

I nodded.

"You're Ruth," he said. "I'm Dirk Drew."

I nodded again.

He was wearing a blue sweatshirt with a long horizontal rip at nipple-height.

I said: "What's with the hole."

He paused, then said, "Sometimes when I'm waiting to pick up Crystal at the high school, I steal from the lobby."

I waited. He looked down at the hole and plucked it.

"It's a field-hockey sweatshirt," he said. "I had to rip out the field-hockey stick part."

"Oh," I said.

"Hey," he said. "What are you doing after you graduate?"

I didn't know.

"I don't know," I said.

"Well, he said, "I'm starting a business."

"What kind of business?" I said.

He leaned across the parking brake: "A taxi service for the lake. It's a great idea. Lots of people who live on the islands, or you know, have summer homes, they need rides sometimes to get groceries when they're too drunk to drive boats. And there's no taxi service. A guy with a fast boat, who started a taxi service, would make loads of money. And me and my business partner, we're going to need a secretary."

Everyone who lived on the lake had two or three boats. I knew they didn't need rides. I knew they didn't really need anything. I knew that the taxi service was a bad idea. But I could feel his enthusiasm.

 "Crystal's not really interested," he said. "She doesn't have secretarial skills." He examined the floatie. He squeezed it. "You're pretty," he said.

I said nothing.

"Oh yes you are," he said. "I've seen you around, and you're kind of big. I mean tall, not fat, and you have nice eyes. Anyway"—he touched my arm—"you'd just have to answer the phone when someone needs a ride."

Just then Crystal got in the back seat of the car, and said she'd forgotten to take her earrings off. Her long white hand thrust itself up front and in the palm were two diamonds. "Hey Ruth," she said. "Take these and put them in your purse."

Part Four

When we stopped at my house, my stepfather was sitting at the kitchen table in the dark. I walked past him, went upstairs and changed. He was still at the table when I came back down. He asked me how my night had been. I didn't answer. "You know," he said quietly, "I didn't mean to go."

He stared at his hands and told me that he'd only meant to go for a drive. He'd happened to take the camera with him, and happened to end up at the lodge. I'd looked so beautiful in my dress. He'd enjoyed seeing me in it. And—he said angrily—there were lots of other parents there, so what was the big deal?

I stepped outside, and he appeared in the door frame. His hands were limp at his sides. He said, "I got some good pictures." When I was almost at the car, he yelled, "I had a great time!"

I drove to the marina fast. We hit 120 on the straightaway by the airport and Dirk Drew clutched the handle on the ceiling meant for dry cleaning and asked where I learned to drive, was it China, and when we pulled into the lot pebbles flew up and cracked the glass and Crystal looked at her long hands and said, "Where should we go?" I shrugged and said, "The Witches."

And then we sat there for two hours while little by little Crystal let Dirk Drew know that she was going to college, and he asked if he could come with her and secretly live in her dorm room, and she stood up and said she felt like a swim.

The air was fifty-five degrees, and the clouds were refracting the lights of the town into the pass, and we leaned over and saw her floating on her back, the current carrying her hair towards the rock behind her, and Dirk Drew said somberly, "I'm going in." I guessed he loved her and always would. He turned and hunched to fit through the door hole—and I stayed at the side of the boat with her. She glanced up at me, flicked her hand toward the cabin and said, "Go, don't be an idiot."

He was on the couch smoking a cigarette. He crushed it in the sink when I came in. He walked towards me and kissed me. His mouth tasted like smoke; he put his hands around my back.

"It's a nice boat," he whispered. "But it's no good for the taxi service."

"We should put the ladder down," I said. I felt sad. That is, I had the impression I did. But in retrospect, maybe I didn't feel sad at all, because I recall noting the feeling and trying to memorize it. When I spoke, Dirk Drew's eyes widened; then I took my T-shirt off and he forgot.

For some reason, on the lake, I always thought of my mother. Once she'd said to me—although she later forgot saying it— 'If it weren't for you I could have had a career.' I was disloyal and repeated the remark to my stepfather in the Broads. We were motoring, and he was drinking a beer. He was quiet for a minute.

"Your mother says a lot of things," he said. "I offered for her to take some classes once, and she said she didn't know what she wanted to study." He paused. "I think your mother likes being at home," he said. "Maybe she gets tired of it sometimes. We all make our own decisions." He farted.

"I guess you know how we met." he continued. " I was thirty-four. I'd retired from the military and I had a Corvette. It was a '72. I bought it cheap off a guy who didn't want to deal with fixing it. I was pretty pleased with myself. I was so happy with my life that I made a firm decision not to date. Well, I was driving in the village one day, by the village store, and I saw a girl walking on the street. She was wearing a loose blue dress and carrying a nylon briefcase. I passed her. Then I looked back and thought to myself, 'That girl is really attractive.' And then I thought: 'I should offer to give that girl a ride.'" He sipped the beer. He had a goofy look on his face.

"That was the best decision I ever made," he said.

I'd come home from track and she'd be lying on the couch in the living room. I'd clean up and make dinner. I made exactly what she would have made: boiled Brussels sprouts, baked Tater Tots and fried hamburgers. But my stepfather would come home from the garage and say, "Wow! You made a wonderful dinner!" and when we sat down to eat he'd say, "This is delicious. You're a very good cook."

After dinner, he'd ask her, "Would you like to go for an evening sail?" and she'd say "No, thank you." After a bit he'd say, "What about a little drive?" and she'd say, "Maybe in a little while," and fall asleep.

We drove down to the yacht club where, because his grandfather had, he had a mooring. I'd watch him study the other men—the old ones with wide Anglo faces and blotchy red cheeks, the fat middle-aged bankers, dentists and car-dealership-owners and their sons—sitting on the long gray deck of the clubhouse. I'd watch him mentally decide whose dinghy he should ask to borrow. I'd watch the men glance at each other while he thought. He'd ask the guy he'd asked the least recently, or the one who'd been nicest to him the week before. Usually the man would say, "No Earl, I'd rather you not." On a good day the man would say: "I suppose so, Earl, go ahead." Or just: "Bring it back when you're done." We'd walk over to the dinghy, and row it out. We'd go out on the lake, and he'd tell me stories about when he was a kid.

We were lying in the V-berth when we heard the crunch. I was half-dreaming. The crunch was a sound like metal on rock; there was also a distant ringing sound like a telephone from another house.

Dirk Drew's head lurched. He got up, got dressed, walked to the cabin door and fumbled with the lock. Eventually I got up and unlocked it for him. Then he climbed onto the deck, got the ladder out from the locker under the bench, and hooked it over the boat's side.

When I came out of the cabin, he was climbing back up with Crystal slumped over his shoulder. He staggered onto the deck, lowered her into the stern, and helped her to sit down on a bench. Then, while holding her torso upright with one hand, he pulled her wet hair out of her face for her, and draped it over the seat-back. He let go; she grinned and fell onto her own lap. After that, he held her shoulders against the seat so she wouldn't fall down.

He spoke her name lovingly and looked into her eyes. But as soon as he took his hand off her forehead, her mouth opened up and blood leaked out.

I knew I wasn't extremely intelligent. But I felt smart then. Her body was purple and her eyes were wide. She looked lovely, except for the half of her face where her skull had been crushed.

Part Five

"She's dead."

"Shut up," Dirk replied. "You're not a doctor."

He said we needed to do CPR. He pulled her off the bench and laid her down face-up on the deck. He knelt by her head, tipped it back, and breathed into her mouth. He sat up, gasped a while, and went down again. When he realized that I was just watching, he made me squat on her thighs and push my hands into her belly every ten seconds. The fourth time I did it, water and a brown slug slipped up out of her lips. Dirk Drew wiped her mouth but his hand shook and he smeared blood all over her face. We performed CPR for ten minutes. Afterwards Dirk Drew looked up and said, "What am I going to do?" I didn't answer. I was thinking I'd been wrong about his loving her forever. Because all he'd kept saying to himself between breaths, was, "They're going to send me to jail. They're going to send me to jail."

I wiped my hands on a towel. "What about me?" I said.

He let her head go. It hit the deck with a thud. "They won't do anything to you," he said. "You're a girl."

He was tried and convicted for manslaughter. Since he'd already been in juvie, he got ten years. My stepfather said he didn't think that made much sense. Accidents happened on the lake, he said. It was a shame that Dirk Drew, a not-bad kid, was going to get his life taken away. True, there'd been irresponsible actions. And true, Dirk Drew had clearly been having sex with a minor. He turned to me. "How old was Crystal, eighteen?" She was seventeen. "Well," he said. "It's the upper end of minor." My stepfather went on to say that anyway, obviously that wasn't the issue, he suspected it might be a factor. Of course, he didn't understand how these things worked. But he guessed that Crystal's parents were behind it. They were yacht club members themselves, and that week, for the first time ever, my stepfather was invited to their house for a beer. At their house, they gave him a beer and asked him how he was. He said he was terribly sorry. They thanked him for the sentiment. They mentioned they thought I should leave town. They said I was lucky I hadn't been charged. My stepfather said I was leaving town, and they said they thought that was for the best. They weren't angry, they added, at my stepfather. They knew that he must feel terrible. All they asked was that he sell his boat.

He looked up from the beer and said, "Now just a minute—"

"Earl," Mr. Williams said. "There are codes, regulations," and he covered his mouth and fake-coughed.

"Well my boat's up to code," my stepfather said.

Mr. Williams looked straight at my stepfather. "We're not really asking," he said. Then he looked at his watch.

My stepfather paid movers to pull it out of the water. He washed and waxed the hull. For two weeks he went down every night and worked on it. He emptied and cleaned the head and polished the sink and he scrubbed the Bunsen burner and sewed up the rips in the couch. Only once he came home and said, "But it doesn't make any sense."

My mother stepped behind him and massaged his shoulders. When she spoke she used the soft voice she used late at night when they were sitting together on the couch. "Earl," she said. "You're not thinking rationally. You're not objective. Try to see the issue from the other side. The boat was going downhill. It was going to need repairs. It was junk."

After a time, he looked at her and his chin lifted. "You're right," he said.

He'd hoped to get two grand but he was talked down to six hundred because of the dent. The day he sold it he said, "I'm glad that's done. That guy was a nice guy. He wanted something his son could bang up and fart around in." He paused. "Those were his words," he said.

My stepfather called a sister in Austin and asked her to give me a place to stay. He promised to cover my rent, and to mail me money too, at least at first, so I could buy my own groceries.

He sent me letters once a month or so. He wasn't a good letter writer. They always began, "I'm not a good letter-writer," and then he'd go on about the weather in the town, the height of the corn in the fields, a movie he and my mother had seen. I wrote back about twice a year. I thought he and my mother were fairly happy, and they probably were, but improbably, one spring she met an art dealer who lived in Boston. Two weeks later she moved into his house on the Charles. Ten months later, she married him.

As for my stepfather, he continued to write me letters that began: "I'm a terrible letter writer so I thought I'd write you a letter. This month I cut the oak tree that was growing along the edge of the field because..."

And then he died. I didn't hear about it until six months after it happened; my mother called and said she had bad news. She said he'd been sick a long time. She said she hadn't seen him herself, during his illness, but that she'd spoken to him on the phone, and that he'd been pleasant. She'd missed the funeral, but my half-brother had flown back from boarding school to attend. She hadn't told me about it because I was far away, and she knew I was busy. But she'd heard from a friend in town that the service had been nice, and that several of the guys from the yacht club had showed up and said nice things about him, like that he always had a quarter for any guy who wanted an orange soda from the machine, and would run to the end of the dock if a guy needed help tying up. They said if your wife had made you a sandwich that you didn't feel like finishing, he'd eat it, and that he was always first to show up at the annual boat launch and the last to leave.

She said he'd left me an envelope, which she'd been told by the lawyer not to open, but that seemed oddly thick. Which made a certain sense to me, for one reason.

The week I left town, I rode my bike to the garage where my stepfather worked. He was in the shop under the chassis of a Ford, but when I called his name he crawled out and offered me coffee from the office pot. I'd passed through the office and seen the coffee and it was burnt, so I said no thanks. He asked me a few things, then said it was good to see me and that he should get back to work.

I said, "I'm sorry about the boat."

"Oh," he said, "well." He looked out the garage window and said he'd been thinking of selling it anyway. A boat was a lot of work. It took a lot of maintenance. He'd had to go down to the club once a month and use goggles and a snorkel to wax it, in order to really get under the hull, even in April when the water was cold. He felt relieved, he said, not to have to do that anymore. My mother, he said, was also glad. He'd have more time now to help out around the house. She deserved some help. She'd also, he added, been wanting to take some trips. They were going to do that together. He was looking forward to it. His hands spread low at his sides. He was going to work hard, he said. He thought he could save up. He could put aside fifty a month. It might take a while. But he thought maybe at some point in the future he'd get another boat, more a racer, since this had been a cruiser, and a racer was lighter and designed for speed.

© Rebecca Curtis  2007

This electronic version of "The Witches" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author. A slightly different version of the story appears in the author's collection Twenty Grand, published by Harper Perinnial, 2007.  Five Chapters published this revised version in July, 2007. Book ordering available through and

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Author Bio

Rebecca Curtis. Photo: Sean HemmerleRebecca Curtis’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, including its debut fiction issue, as well as Harper’s, McSweeney’s, and n+1.  She is a recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, and her work has been selected for The O. Henry Prize Stories. She teaches in the graduate program at Columbia University.


photo: Sean Hemmerle

November-December 2007 #61