Before All This


From his ladder, Eddie Oliveira could overhear Andreia and Teresa on the front porch, painting each another’s toenails and talking. The girls had slept late and only come down the back stairs about an hour earlier, in T-shirts and pajama pants, to the kitchen, where they’d poured themselves bowls of cereal, then shuffled barefoot out to the front porch to fold themselves into wicker chairs and eat in silence, looking out over the saltwater marsh across the street.

Eddie had enjoyed listening to the slow soundtrack of their gradual wakings-up: spoons clinking against bowls and their low murmurs starting, accompaniment to the creaking of his ladder and the clink-and-swish of his brush. Eventually, their voices found their regular daytime pitch and their conversation found its way to the usual topics: where they’d rather be today if they could be anywhere; the perks and drawbacks of various nearby beaches; and whether they were nervous about starting at new schools in a few weeks. His daughter Andreia was fourteen and would be starting high school; his friend’s daughter Teresa was twelve and moving to the new junior high.

Eddie set down his brush when he heard Andreia—skillfully, he thought, and kindly—corral a short silence to ask Teresa how she thought her mother was, “you know, really doing,” and to tell her if she wanted to talk about it, she could. He leaned in, curious to hear what Teresa actually knew.

Teresa was the daughter of Eddie’s friend and sometimes-sternman, Rui Covalho, and had spent a good portion of the last eleven days here while her mother was in the hospital and Rui drove back and forth to Westville Memorial, twenty-five minutes away. They’d already kept Sonia much longer than anyone expected, especially since she’d only gone to the ER with what everyone guessed was the flu.

As it turned out, Teresa’s answer was only and exactly what her father had been reporting formally to them all out on the front porch every night when he came by to pick her up on his way home from the hospital. His reports were so formal, in fact, that Eddie had to guess he was composing them at the hospital, sticking them on Post-its on his dashboard, and then spending his drive home practicing. Eddie had seen him do this with excuses for Sonia before, and he recognized the memorized sound of it, the invented pauses and extra ums, the well-timed removal of the baseball cap, the casual head-scratches.

Here on the porch for his daughter, night after night, in bits and pieces, Rui had assembled this report: that it was, in fact, West Nile, just as the doctors had feared—but not to worry. That they were getting—that they were working on getting—the fever under control. That they wanted to keep her just a little bit longer, just to make sure. And that everyone at home should get some rest and try not to worry, and they’d be able to see her soon.

Then he’d exhale and pull his hat back on, just like he always had back in high school when he finished an oral report. And then he’d check Teresa’s face—the way he always did with Sonia—for any flicker of suspicion. To Eddie’s surprise, there had never seemed to be one, in either case, and here, with Andreia giving Teresa an opportunity to come clean, she hadn’t. It was all, fever under control and just to make sure and see her soon. So Teresa believed what she’d been told. The fact that Rui hadn’t picked her up on three out of the last four nights hadn’t seemed to faze her. Here she was, looking happy more than anything else, just to be tagging along behind a fourteen-year-old, wearing her clothes and quizzing her on everything under the sun.

Eddie was, to be honest, rattled by the difference between the two girls. After all Andreia had seen, done, known, and figured out all on her own by the age of eleven—even younger than Teresa was now—here, it seemed, was her unblemished counterpart: what she could have been. Teresa was only two years younger, but with no more suspicion or life-wisdom than a preschooler.

To offer Andreia amnesty from having to come up with an appropriate follow-up, Eddie climbed down from his ladder and went around to the front steps to refill his paint pan. The girls had pushed their chairs nose-to-nose now, thrown their legs across each other’s laps, and threaded tissue between their toes. A roll of toilet paper sat on the porch’s shingled half-wall, visible from the road.

“Mornin, Pigpen,” he said, taking the roll off the ledge and tossing it into Andreia’s lap.

Dad,” she protested, throwing it back at him.

He dodged the roll while offering Teresa a military salute. “Pigpen Junior.”

A brass plaque leaned up against the house, next to the front door. It read cpt. jose duarte almeida correia nunes, c. 1851. Eddie wouldn’t attach it until he’d finished painting, but he tapped it now with his knuckle. “Once we’re in the register, I hope you know you can’t be running your pajama-girl salon out here and getting nail polish on my wicker.” He used both hands to flatten down his thick hair and preen an imaginary moustache, then stood at attention and said, “Captain Nunes insists his deck be ship-shape!”

He winked at them. “Get it? Ship-shape?”

The girls exchanged glances, first groaning and then giggling, and Andreia said, “You have so much paint in your hair now.” He bugged his eyes and stuck out his tongue before marching around the corner to where he was keeping the paint cans. It was good to hear them both laugh.


The house wasn’t big—only a story and a half, two bedrooms, and one tiny upstairs bathroom. It had small windows and low ceilings, and it wasn’t right on the shore like the houses of the white captains—but it was legitimately “period,” and he had filed the paperwork, was using the approved paint colors, and hoped within the next few months to have been responsible for listing the home of Newell’s first Portuguese whaling captain.

He was fully aware that anyone who knew him had stopped asking about the project because they were tired of getting an earful about how the Portuguese—and Azoreans in particular—had been the muscle behind the entire whaling business for a century before Herman Melville even showed his face. About how most of the baleeiros were starving when they started hitching rides to America—just like the Irish had—and how that had forced even high-skilled whalers and fishermen to agree to next-to-nothing lay shares, because according to the folks doing the hiring, there was “always another Portagee,” and a good chance the next one would accept less. The Irish had eventually transcended this perpetual-underclass status (it was obvious why, but no one wanted to hear that either), while around here, especially if you hung around the commercial docks or restaurant kitchens, it would be hard to argue that the Portuguese ever had.

He filled his pan, tightened the buckets up, and gave the girls a curtsy as he passed on the way back to his ladder. They were playing cards now while their polish dried. They both had their thick, dark hair pulled back into messy ponytails. Teresa had braces, and Andreia wasn’t wearing any eye makeup yet—one of the reasons he always liked seeing her in the morning, before the day got going. These were good girls. Patient girls. It had never been easy to be the child of a lobsterman, but the last few years had made the ten years before that look like high times.