I recently read a study that claimed happy people aren’t made. They’re born. Happiness, the report pointed out, is all about genetics -— a cheerful gene passed merrily, merrily down from one smiling generation to the next. I know enough about life to understand the old adage that one person can’t make you happy, or that money can’t buy happiness. But I’m not buying this theory that your bliss can be only as deep as your gene pool.
For three years, I did backflips in the deep end of happiness.
The joy was palpable and often loud. Other times it softened -— Zach’s milky breath on my neck, or Annie’s hair entwined in my fingers as I braided it, or Joe’s humming some old Crowded House song in the shower while I brushed my teeth. The steam on the mirror blurred my vision, misted my reflection, like a soft-focus photograph smoothing out my wrinkles, but even those didn’t bother me. You can’t have crow’s-feet if you don’t smile, and I smiled a lot.
I also know now, years later, something else: The most genuine happiness cannot be so pure, so deep, or so blind.
On that first dawn of the summer of ’99, Joe pulled the comforter down and kissed my forehead. I opened one eye. He wore his gray sweatshirt, his camera bag slung over his shoulder, his toothpaste and coffee breath whispering something about heading out to Bodega before he opened the store. He traced the freckles on my arm where he always said they spelled his name. He’d say I had so many freckles that he could see the letters not just for Joe, but for Joseph Anthony Capozzi Jr. -— all on my arm. That morning he added, “Wow, junior’s even spelled out.” He tucked the blanket back over me. “You’re amazing.”
“You’re a smart-ass,” I said, already falling back to sleep. But I was smiling. We’d had a good night. He whispered that he’d left me a note, and I heard him walk out the door, down the porch steps, the truck door yawning open, the engine crowing louder and louder, then fading, until he was gone.
Later that morning, the kids climbed into bed with me, giggling. Zach lifted the sun-dappled sheet and held it over his head for a sail. Annie, as always, elected herself captain. Even before breakfast, we set out across an uncharted expanse, a smooth surface hiding the tangled, slippery underneath of things, destination unknown.
We clung to each other on the old rumpled Sealy Posturepedic, but we hadn’t yet heard the news that would change everything. We were playing Ship.
By their pronouncements, we faced a hairy morning at sea, and I needed coffee. Badly. I sat up and peeked over the sail at them, both their spun-gold heads still matted from sleep. “I’m rowing out to Kitchen Island for supplies.”
“Not when such danger lurks,” Annie said. Lurks? I thought. When I was six, had I even heard of that word? She bolted up, hands on hips while she balanced on the shifting mattress. “We might lose you.”
I stood, glad that I’d thought to slip my underwear and Joe’s T-shirt back on before I’d fallen asleep the night before. “But how, dear one, will we fight off the pirates without cookies?”
They looked at each other. Their eyes asked without words: Before breakfast? Has she lost her mind?
Cookies before breakfast . . . Oh, why the hell not? I felt a bit celebratory. It was the first fogless morning in weeks. The whole house glowed with the return of the prodigal sun, and the worry that had been pressing itself down on me had lifted. I picked up my water glass and the note Joe had left underneath it, the words blurred slightly by the water ring: Ella Bella, Gone to capture it all out at the coast before I open. Loved last night. Kisses to A & Z. Come by later if . . . but his last words were puddled ink streaks.
I’d loved the previous night too. After we’d tucked the kids in, we talked in the kitchen until dark, leaning back against the counters, him with his hands deep in his pockets, the way he always stood. We stuck to safe topics: Annie and Zach, a picnic we’d planned for Sunday, crazy town gossip he’d heard at the store -— anything but the store itself. He threw his head back, laughing at something I said. What was it? I couldn’t remember.
We had fought the day before. After fifty-nine years in business, Capozzi’s Market was struggling. I wanted Joe to tell his dad. Joe wanted to keep pretending business was fine. Joe could barely tell himself the truth, let alone his father. Then he’d have a moment of clarity, tell me something about an overdue bill or how slow the inventory was moving, and I would freak out, which would immediately shut him back down. Call it a bad pattern we’d been following the past several months. Joe pushed off from the counter, came to me, held my shoulders, said, “We need to find a way to talk about the hard stuff.” I nodded. We agreed that, until recently, there hadn’t been that much hard stuff to talk about.
I counted us lucky. “Annie, Zach. Us . . .” Instead of tackling difficult topics right then, I’d kissed him and led him to our bedroom.
I feigned rowing down the narrow hall, stepping over Zach’s brontosaurus and a half-built Lego castle, until I was out of view, then stood in the kitchen braiding my hair in an effort to restrain it into single-file order down the back of my neck. Our house was a bit like my red hair -— a mass of color and disarray. We’d torn out the wall between the kitchen and living room, so, from where I stood, I could see the shelves crammed to the ceiling with books and plants and various art projects -— a Popsicle-stick boat painted yellow and purple, a lopsided clay vase with Happy Mother’s Day spelled out in macaroni letters, the M long gone but leaving an indent in its place. Large patchworks of Joe’s black-and-white photographs hung in the few spaces that didn’t have built-ins or windows. One giant French window opened out to the front porch and our property beyond. The old glass made a feeble insulator, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to part with it. We loved its wavy effect on the view, as if we looked through water at the hydrangeas that lapped at the porch, the lavender field waiting to be harvested, the chicken coop and brambles of blackberries, the old tilted barn, built long before Grandpa Sergio bought the land in the thirties, and finally, growing across the meadow from the redwoods and oaks, the vegetable garden, our pride and glory. We had about an acre -— mostly in the sun, all above the flood line, with a glimpse of the river if you stood in just the right spot.
Joe and I enjoyed tending the land, and it showed. But none of us, including the kids, were gifted at orderliness when it came to inside our home. I didn’t worry about it. My previous house -— and life -— had been extremely tidy, yet severe and empty, so I shrugged off the mess as a necessary side effect of a full life.
I took out the milk, then stuck Joe’s note on the fridge with a magnet. I’m not sure why I didn’t throw it out; it was probably the sweetness of the previous night’s reconciliation that I wanted to hang on to, the Ella Bella . . .
My name is Ella Beene, and as one might imagine, I’ve had my share of nicknames. Of all of them, Joe’s was one I downright cherished. I’m not a physical beauty -— not ugly, but nothing near what I’d look like if I’d had a say in the matter. Yes, the red hair intrigues. But after that, things are pretty basic. I’m fair and freckled, too tall and skinny for some, with decent features -— brown eyes, nice enough lips -— that look better when I remember to wear makeup. But here’s the thing: I knew Joe liked the whole package. The inside, the outside, the in-between places, the whole five foot ten of me. And since all my nicknames fit me at their appointed times, I let myself bask in that one: Bella. So there I was. Thirty-five years old, beautiful in Italian, on a Saturday morning, making strong coffee, preparing a breakfast appetizer of cookies and milk for our children.
“Cookies. Me want cookies.” The sailors had jumped ship and were trying to make their eyes bulge, taking the glasses of milk from the kitchen counter and a couple of oatmeal squares. Our dog, Callie, a yellow Lab and husky mix who knew how to work her most forlorn expression, sat thumping her tail until I gave her a biscuit and let her out. I sipped my coffee and watched Annie and Zach shove cookies in their mouths, grunting, letting crumbs fly. This was the one thing Sesame Street taught them that I could have done without.
The sun beckoned us outside, so I asked them to hurry and get dressed, then went to pull on a pair of shorts and finally stick a load of darks into the washer. As I added the last pair of jeans, Zach ran in buck naked and held up his footed pajamas. “I do it myself,” he said. I was impressed he hadn’t left them in the usual heap on the floor, and I picked him up so he could drop in his contribution. His butt was cool against my arm. We watched until the agitator sucked the swirl of fire trucks and blue fleece below into the sudsy water. I set him down and he careened out, his feet slapping down the wood hall. Except for shoe tying, which Zach was still a few years from, both kids had gotten alarmingly self-sufficient. Annie was more than ready for first grade, and now Zach for preschool, even if I wasn’t quite ready for them to go.
This would be a milestone year: Joe would save the sinking grocery store that had been in his family for three generations. I would go back to work, starting a new job in the fall as a guide for Fish and Wildlife. And Annie and Zach would zoom out the door each morning on their ever-growing limbs, each taking giant leaps along that ever-shortening path of their childhood.
When I first met them, Annie was three and Zach was six months. I had been on my way from San Diego to a new life, though I wasn’t sure where or what it would be. I’d stopped in the small, funky town of Elbow along the Redwoods River in Northern California. The town was named for its location on the forty-five-degree bend in the river, but locals joked that it was named for elbow macaroni because so many Italians lived there. I planned to get a sandwich and an iced tea, then maybe stretch my legs and walk down the path I’d read about to the sandy beach along the river, but a dark-haired man was locking up the market. A little girl squirmed out of his grasp while he tried to get the key in the lock and balance a baby in his other arm. She pulled loose and raced out toward me, into my legs. Her blond head grazed my knees, and she laughed and reached her arms to me. “Up.”
“Annie!” the man called. He was lean, a bit disheveled and anxious, but significantly easy on the eyes.
I asked him, “Is it okay?”
He grinned relief. “If you don’t mind?” Mind? I scooped her into my arms and she started playing with my braid. He said, “The kid doesn’t have a shy bone in her body.” I could feel her chubby legs secured around my hips, could smell Johnson’s baby shampoo, cut grass, wood smoke, a hint of mud. A whisper of grape juice–stained breath brushed my cheek. She’d held my braid tight in her fist but she hadn’t pulled.
Callie barked and, from the kitchen, I saw Frank Civiletti’s police cruiser. That was odd. Frank knew Joe wouldn’t be home. They’d been best friends since grade school, and they always talked over morning coffee at the store. I hadn’t heard Frank coming, but there he was, slowly heading up the drive, his tires popping gravel. Also odd. Frank never drove slowly. And Frank always turned his siren on when he made our turn from the main road. His ritual for the kids. I looked at the microwave clock: 8:53. Already? I picked up the phone, then set it down. Joe hadn’t called when he got to the store. Joe always called.
“Here.” I grabbed the egg baskets and handed them to the kids. “Check on the Ladies and bring us back some breakfast.” I opened the kitchen door and watched them run down to the coop, waving and calling out, “Uncle Frank! Turn on your siren.”
But he didn’t; he parked the car. I stood in the kitchen. I stared at the compost bucket on the counter. Coffee grounds Joe had used that morning, the banana peel from his breakfast. The far edges of my happiness began to brown, then curl.
I heard Frank’s door open and shut, his footsteps on the gravel, on the porch. His tap on the front door’s window. Annie and Zach were busy collecting eggs at the coop. Zach let out a string of laughter, and I wanted to stop right there and wrap it around our life so we could keep it intact and whole. I forced myself out of the kitchen, down the hall, stepping over the toys still on the floor, seeing Frank through the paned watery glass stare down at a button on his uniform. Look up and give me your Jim Carrey grin. Just walk in, like you usually do, you bastard. Raid the fridge before you say hello. Now we stood with the door between us. He looked up with red-rimmed eyes. I turned, headed back down the hallway, heard him open the door.
“Ella,” he said, behind me. “Let’s sit down.”
“No.” His footsteps followed me. I waved him away without turning to see him. “No.”
“Ella. It was a sleeper wave, out at Bodega Head,” he said to my back. “It rose out of nowhere.”
He told me Joe was shooting the cliff out on First Rock. Witnesses said they shouted a warning, but he couldn’t hear them over the wind, the ocean. It knocked him over and took him clean. He was gone before anyone could move.
“Where is he?” I turned when Frank didn’t answer. I grabbed his collar. “Where?”
He glanced down again, then forced his eyes back on me. “We don’t know. He hasn’t shown up yet.”
I felt a small hope look up, start to rise. “He’s still alive. He is! I need to get out there. We need to go. I’ll call Marcella. Where’s the phone? Where are my shoes?”
“Lizzie’s already on her way over to pick up the kids.”
I ran toward our bedroom, stepped on the brontosaurus, fell hard on my knee, pushed myself back up before Frank could help me.
“Listen, El. I would not be saying any of this to you if I thought there was a chance he was alive. Someone even said they saw a spray of blood. We think he hit his head. He never came up for air.” Frank said something about this happening every year, as if I were some out-of-towner. As if Joe were.
“This doesn’t happen to Joe.”
Joe could swim for miles. He had two kids who needed him. He had me. I dug in the closet for my hiking boots. Joe was alive and I had to find him. “A little blood? He probably scraped his arm.” I found the boots, pulled the comforter off the bed. He would be freezing. I grabbed the binoculars from the hall tree. I opened the screen door and stepped out on the porch, tripping on the dragging blanket. I called back, “Am I driving myself? Or are you coming?”
Frank’s wife, Lizzie, loaded Zach into their Radio Flyer wagon with their daughter, Molly, while Annie stuck her arm through the handle and shouted through her cupped hands, “We’re taking the rowboat to shore. Watch for pirates.”
I waved and tried to sound cheerful. “Got it. Thanks, Lizzie.” She nodded, solemn. Lizzie Civiletti was not my friend; she’d told me that, soon after I came to town. And yet neither was she unkind. She would protect the kids from any telltale signs of panic. As much as I wanted to go to them, to gather them up to me, I smiled, I waved again, I blew kisses.
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