Ruth’s cottage, much like her, was decrepit. It leaned away from the road, a small crooked structure with hunter green shutters burned gray by a million summer afternoons. There was an unpainted window box under the one window that contained a brightly colored ceramic mushroom and a rusted tin can the filled with rain water and swollen cigarette butts. In order to keep it cool in the summer Ruth would prop her door open with an old terra cotta pot and hang a faded sarong from the frame, allowing tantalizing glimpses whenever the wind would blow of her iron framed single bed or the dirty hooked rug on the floor.
She was a drinker – not in the lazy way of so many in town – but with purpose. With intent. She would leave the cottage late in the afternoon when the sun was low on the moors, gray hair swept behind her with a comb or under a canvas gardening hat, to occupy the darker corners of the Old Colony or maybe the Surf Club. She wore her dark sunglasses even after the sun had left the mirror of the bay and moths bumped and burned on the bare bulbs of undiscovered back porches. If you weren’t careful you would forget she was there, still but for the smoke curling out of her mouth, her lipstick uneven, her fingers yellow with nicotine and age. Did I mention she smoked? Are you surprised? Her drink of choice – vodka neat. The well is fine.
I was not as attentive as I could have been. I still had the beautiful ignorance of youth, unaware there is a debt to be paid for the sadness of strangers. I would occasionally make a lasagna, one of the three things I ate that long summer, and leave some on a plate by Ruth’s door like offerings at a temple, but that was the extent of our interactions. The empty china plates would be left on the cracked brick walkway when she was done, carelessly, and I would collect them, warm from the sun, and wash away the memory of her scraping silverware and the slow palsied run from plate to painted mouth while the artist next door climbed to her third story atelier and boys exchanged kisses on Herring Cove.
It was rumored she had been, if not a legendary beauty, a kept woman of style in New York City. She spent her days and nights alone in an apartment he paid for, waiting for the key in the lock that would animate her the same way the opening of a jewelry box lid would send the plastic ballerina spinning. I assumed she had loved him and that they had the tragic tearful fights that are unavoidable when one can’t have all that they want, but age has opened my eyes to the possibility of a cooler and more distant love. It was rumored he had died unexpectedly, leaving her with nothing but memories of afternoons laying in a tangle of bed sheets and a co-op she neither liked nor could afford. Perhaps she was so inconsequential he had never intended to provide for her regardless of his untimely demise. Either way, he was gone and she was penniless – just another gambler that learned too late the house always wins.
No one knows how Ruth came to live in Provincetown, but such mysteries are common in a seaside town where the tide offers up gifts and then takes then away without notice. All we knew is that one day she was there, and then she wasn’t. Her goal of dissolution, of erosion, was finally achieved. The days silently accumulated since I had seen her last, until finally, without warning, I realized I would not see her again.
Ruth’s cottage no longer exists. It was leveled long ago and in its place is a two story summer rental where people from New York City or Hartford come for weeks at a time to drink margaritas and turn red under the relentless August sun. Their laughter floats over the second story balcony in the warm twilight, lazily like a leaf, seesawing until it rests on those same broken patio stones Ruth used to walk across each night, the smoke from her Camel trailing behind her like dragon’s breath. She drifts past Town Hall, the monument, past the dwindling fishing fleet, Long Point, the wind picking her up, over Day’s cottages, the kettle ponds, out over the deep gray Atlantic, her gray hair unpinned, turning, wearing her away until there is nothing left but sand and the brittle shell of her bones to be crushed under the heels of lovers who have no idea of the solitary iron bed and dirty hooked rug that waits.