“What’s wrong with the name it already has?” Lisa asked.

“No, no, no,” my father said, forgetting, I think, that this wasn’t his decision. A few days later, after the buyer’s remorse had kicked in, I’d wonder if I hadn’t bought the house as a way of saying, See, it’s just that easy. No hemming and hawing. No asking to look at the septic tank. Rather, you make your family happy and iron out the details later.

The cottage we bought is two stories tall and was built in 1978. It’s on proper stilts and has two rear decks, one above the other, overlooking the ocean. It was rented to vacationers until late September, but Phyllis allowed us to drop by and show it to the family the following morning, after we checked out of the house we’d been staying in. A place always looks different—worse, most often—after you’ve made the commitment to buy it, so while the others raced up and down the stairs, claiming their future bedrooms, I held my nose to a vent and caught a whiff of mildew. The sale included the furniture, so I also made an inventory of the Barcaloungers and massive TVs I would eventually be getting rid of, along with the shell-patterned bedspreads and cushions with anchors on them. “For our beach house, I want to have a train theme,” I announced. “Trains on the curtains, trains on the towels—we’re going to go all out.”

“Oh brother,” my father moaned.

We sketched a plan to return for Thanksgiving, and after saying good-bye to one another, my family splintered into groups and headed off to our respective homes. There’d been a breeze at the beach house, but once we left the island the air grew still. As the heat intensified, so did the general feeling of depression. Throughout the sixties and seventies, the road back to Raleigh took us past Smithfield and a billboard on the outskirts of town that read WELCOME TO KLAN COUNTRY. This time we took a different route, one my brother recommended. Hugh drove, and my father sat beside him. I slumped down in the backseat next to Amy, and every time I raised my head, I’d see the same soybean field or low-slung cinder-block building we’d seemingly passed twenty minutes earlier.

We’d been on the road for a little more than an hour when we stopped at a farmers’ market. Inside an open-air pavilion, a woman offered complimentary plates of hummus served with a corn and black-bean salad, so we each accepted one and took seats on a bench. Twenty years earlier, the most a place like this might have offered was fried okra. Now there was organic coffee and artisanal goat cheese. Above our heads hung a sign that read WHISPERING DOVE RANCH, and just as I thought that we might be anywhere, I noticed that the music piped through the speakers was Christian—the new kind, which says that Jesus is awesome.

Hugh brought my father a plastic cup of water. “You OK, Lou?”

“Fine,” my father answered.

“Why do you think she did it?” I asked as we stepped back into the sunlight. For that’s all any of us were thinking, had been thinking, since we got the news. Mustn’t Tiffany have hoped that whatever pills she’d taken wouldn’t be strong enough and that her failed attempt would lead her back into our fold? How could anyone purposefully leave us—us, of all people? This is how I thought of it, for though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost faith in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else. It’s an archaic belief, one I haven’t seriously reconsidered since my late teens, but still I hold it. Ours is the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of, so I couldn’t imagine quitting. Backing off for a year or two was understandable, but to want out so badly that you’d take your own life?

“I don’t know that it had anything to do with us,” my father said. But how could it have not? Doesn’t the blood of every suicide splash back on our faces?

At the far end of the parking lot was a stand selling reptiles. In giant tanks were two pythons, each as big around as a fire hose. The heat seemed to suit them, and I watched as they raised their heads, testing the screened ceilings. Beside the snakes was a low pen corralling an alligator with its mouth banded shut. It wasn’t full-grown but perhaps an adolescent, around three feet long and grumpy-looking. A girl had stuck her arm through the wire and was stroking the thing’s back while it glared, seething. “I’d like to buy everything here just so I could kill it,” I said.

My father mopped his forehead with a Kleenex. “I’m with you, brother.”

When we were young and would set off for the beach, I’d look out the window at all the landmarks we drove by—the Purina silo on the south side of Raleigh, the Klan billboard—knowing that when we passed them a week later, I’d be miserable. Our vacation over, now there’d be nothing to live for until Christmas. My life is much fuller than it was back then, yet this return felt no different. “What time is it?” I asked Amy.

And instead of saying “Who cares?” she snapped, “You tell me. You’re the one with a watch on.”

At the airport a few hours later, I picked sand from my pockets and thought of our final moments at the beach house I’d bought. I was on the front porch with Phyllis, who had just locked the door, and we turned to see the others in the driveway below us. “So is that one of your sisters?” she asked, pointing to Gretchen.

“It is,” I said. “And so are the two women standing on either side of her.”

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