An excerpt from Susan Conley's latest novel about a family on Maine's coast weathering life's storms.
Read our interview with Susan Conley about the novel, motherhood, and Maine’s fishing industry here.
It’s late afternoon at the end of a long October when the Fleetwood Mac song comes on. We’re halfway down the peninsula, and I tell the wolves I was raised on Stevie Nicks, so could they please let me listen to the whole thing. Because Sam, the younger one, has a bad habit of changing the station.
“Mom,” he says in his deadpan and stares out the cracked windshield. “I already knew that about you growing up on Stevie Nicks.”
He’s sixteen and gangly, with poking collarbones like little car door handles. He wants to be a professional basketball player, but will settle for rock musician. His face has grown long and gaunt, so he doesn’t look like himself but the person he’s in the process of becoming.
I tell myself it’s a beautiful face. It’s important to tell myself that many things about teenage boys are beautiful so I don’t panic.
The song’s about a woman who climbs a mountain at the end of a love affair and sees her reflection in the snow-covered hills and becomes less afraid. It’s in a challenging register for me, so I’m almost crowing while I sing. But for many months I’ve wanted to be less afraid, and I feel for a moment like Stevie Nicks is a close friend. Like she knows me.
“Every time I turn on the radio,” Sam says in his most sarcastic voice, “it’s Stevie the Good Witch of the West Nicks. The thing is, Mom, I don’t want to grow up in Maine on Fleetwood Mac like you did.”
His hair is the color of straw and hangs below his ears, and I can’t tell if the hair is a joke or a bad fashion statement that involves rarely washing it. But I grin at him and move my head to the beat, because at least he’s speaking. Sometimes my son’s silence in the car is flammable.
Charlie’s in the backseat. He’s our moral police. Seventeen going on something like thirty-three. He thinks sports are a hoax and believes in the laws of physics and a senior named Lucy who recently moved to Maine from Burundi. He’s taller and sturdier than Sam and has my husband’s dark, wavy hair that doesn’t move even in high winds.
I am trying not to think about my husband. He is renowned on the peninsula for his gargantuan energy and for being a fisherman who doesn’t come home empty-handed. Ten days ago his boat engine exploded off Georges Bank and he broke his right femur and got airlifted to a hospital in Nova Scotia, where he’s recovering from surgery.
I’m not allowed to talk to the boys about how much I miss him. I’m not allowed to talk to the boys about my dread or my worry or any of my emotions, really. This isn’t because the boys aren’t emotional. It’s just that no outward expression of emotion is sanctioned in this phase of wolf development.
I’ve still somehow convinced myself that I am needed more here with them than with my husband. Even though the boys answer most of my questions in monosyllables. Since I got back from the hospital two days ago, I have not been able to take my eyes off them.
The tourists have all left, so there are no other cars on the road. Just a fading sun that knives through the pine trees and puts its little spell on me. I keep asking myself who I want to be. For Kit and Sam and Charlie. It’s a coping strategy I read about in the hospital last week. Who do you want to be for the people who need you? Kit told me last week he didn’t know who he was anymore now that he couldn’t fish. The newspapers write about all the real estate money pouring into our state and how good the restaurants are. But most fishermen I know are selling their trawlers and fending off lenders, and I began making a film about this a year ago. About how almost none of the fishermen here can afford to fish anymore. It’s my fourth documentary.
“You think you know me,” I say to the boys. “But you might not know all of me.”
“Oh, we know you, Mom.” Sam turns and rolls his eyes at his older brother like I’m a nut job.
He’s wearing the Adidas T-shirt with the logo of the green leaf on the pocket, which he’s convinced is marijuana. The shirt has some mysterious dime-sized stains, and is way too big, so he looks like someone not getting enough nutrition or hygiene.
“Mom. Please.” Charlie’s trying to sound like he and I are the adults in the car. He had debate team today, and the button-down shirt he’s wearing is permanently scarred with wrinkles. The look is young mad scientist.
I love this song and the boys in this car being forced to listen to this song. I turn it up really loud, the way I used to when I was a different person and did not have two wolves.
The contract you make when you’re with a fisherman is that he will go fish. Kit has left me on our island to fish almost every week since I married him. But he’d been gone three months before the accident, and I think the boys and I have missed him so much we cannot say. Tall and lanky, with steady blue eyes. My loner with a thousand friends.
The whole crew was badly injured in the explosion—Kit’s cousin Dyer, plus the two younger guys and the woman with the tattoo who Dyer hired to be the cook. All of them got serious burns and broken bones, but Kit’s the only one still in the hospital.
Thank you that none of them died. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. It’s rare you get an engine explosion and someone doesn’t die.
Since Kit got hurt, it’s been a clothing pageant at our house. The boys wear his old sweaters and baseball hats and fight over who gets his boots when they bail the boats. Their allegiance to their father is not surprising. A man who puts great value on being steady. He can’t walk to the general store in the village he grew up in without stopping to talk to everyone he sees. This has always been part of loving him— the people he collects—and I’ve made my peace with it. But he doesn’t show his complicated emotions even to me.
When Kit called the boys from the hospital the first time, he said they needed to listen to me while he got better, and that they were lucky to have a mother who loved them like I did. I was standing next to his electronic bed, and I smiled, but what I was really thinking was what would become of my husband if he could not fish.
Three months apart is a short expanse of time or very long. Marriage has a way of contracting and expanding like this, and you can lose track of what is real time and what’s fabricated time. But since Kit went to Nova Scotia, I’ve felt more alone than I did the other times he’s been gone.
I hadn’t wanted him to leave. I told him this. I knew our separation would feel more concrete, because he’d be away much longer this time. And this is what happened. I became caught up with the film and with the wolves, and perhaps I tried to temporarily replace my husband with these things.
It looks like an omen now, because he was injured. But what I wanted was for him to sell his boat. I didn’t tell him this. I couldn’t in the end. It’s too hard to make a living fishing in Maine, and it’s not always about lack of fish. It’s about lack of quota—the number of fish you’re allowed to catch—and it’s about lack of fish processors and buyers. But really in the end it’s about price, which is so low right now it’s killing Kit.
His cousin Dyer had the swordfish boat and the longline license in Nova Scotia. Kit made a speech to me about providing for his family before he left. It was a matter of pride for him to go. Which was also a matter of money. When is marriage not in some way a question of money? I think once you start worrying about money, you don’t stop.
“Mom,” Charlie says. “The voice, Mom. Please.”
We pass Kit’s uncle’s gun shop with the black vinyl siding, and the trailer on the hill next to the gun shop where one of the older cousins lives who’s trying to scrape by off clamming. But no one can really live off clamming here anymore because of the red tide and the closures.
“What are you doing with your mouth, Mom?” Sam puts his phone in his lap and stares at me. This is rare, that he actually sees me.
The sign outside the grange hall reads Bean Supper Friday at Five.
“With my mouth?” Now he’s worried about my mouth?
“Yeah. Moving your lips like that.”
How to talk to the wolves. This is often the question. With their splotchy faces and tree-bark smell and bones growing longer in their sleep.
“I’m singing to myself, so that you guys can’t hear me.”
“That’s strange, Mom. Please stop. Please don’t do that. Please just sing normally.”
I don’t ask Sam how I can sing normally when I’m not allowed to sing at all.
For a long time it was my joke at church and at the library and at my sister-in-law Candy’s store that my boys were not the kind who would turn on me. Candy tells me the important thing is not to take any of what teenagers do personally. She’s three years older than Kit and is Sewall village’s unofficial mayor. She says it’s a phase with my boys—their need to separate from me.
She’s lived in Sewall her whole life, and she has one boy and two girls, all of them grown. She says it’s bad with the girls too, but different. You know more what the girls are thinking. Maybe the pain of separation comes on faster with them, and they become your friend again sooner.
Boys can be harder to read, she says. You have to pay close attention. The boys will say they’re okay when they’re really suffering or have become secret delinquents. “But no matter what,” Candy says, “no one will love you more or be meaner to you than your own kids.”
Pay attention, Jill, I tell myself. Pay attention to the road. My mother used to accuse me of not paying attention because I could hold two conversations at once. The one inside my head and the one everyone else listened to. This was in Harwich, the mill town two hours north of here where I grew up.
Sam can do it too. Hold two conversations in his head at once. Sometimes he appears lost in the ether. It makes me want to grab his attention. But he has a name for mothers who appear too eager—ones who coddle or cheer too hard at their basketball games. He calls them try-hards, and please let this never be me.
It’s difficult not to try hard with Sam. But the boys want me to chill. They use this word maybe a half dozen times a day.
“You don’t know that I went to the prom with Jamie Rogers and we listened to this song on the drive home. He wore a white tuxedo.” I’m trying to hold their attention, because it’s a glorious thing when they give it to me. The ocean follows the car like a conscience, telling me to turn the car around and go back to the hospital.
Charlie stretches his legs out between the front seats. “You went to the prom with someone who wore a white tuxedo? That’s pretty cheesy, Mom.”
“This whole Fleetwood Mac album,” I say, “is so good. Never forget it.”
“Never.” Sam smiles, and changes the station on me.
But I’ve already won the afternoon because he’s still talking.
Excerpted from Landslide by Susan Conley. Published February 2, 2021, by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Susan Conley.