We were at the beach for three days before Lisa and our father, who is now ninety, joined us. Being on the island meant missing the spinning classes he takes in Raleigh, so I found a fitness center not far from the rental cottage, and every afternoon he and I would spend some time there. On the way over we’d talk to each other, but as soon as we mounted our stationary bikes we’d each retreat into our own thoughts. It was a small place, not very lively. A mute television oversaw the room, tuned to the Weather Channel and reminding us that there’s always a catastrophe somewhere or other, always someone flooded from his home or running for his life from a funnel-shaped cloud. Toward the end of the week, I came upon my father in Amy’s room, sifting through the photos that Tiffany had destroyed. In his hand was a fragment of my mother’s head with a patch of blue sky behind her. Under what circumstances had this been ripped up? I wondered. It seemed such a melodramatic gesture, like throwing a glass against a wall. Something someone in a movie would do.

“Just awful,” my father whispered. “A person’s life reduced to one lousy box.”

I put my hand on his shoulder. “Actually there are two of them.”

He corrected himself. “Two lousy boxes.”

One afternoon on Emerald Isle, we all rode to the Food Lion for groceries. I was in the produce department, looking at red onions, when my brother sneaked up from behind and let loose with a loud “Achoo,” this while whipping a bouquet of wet parsley through the air. I felt the spray on the back of my neck and froze, thinking a very sick stranger had just sneezed on me. It’s a neat trick, but he also doused the Indian woman who was standing to my left. She was wearing a blood-colored sari, so she got it on her bare arm as well as her neck and the lower part of her back.

“Sorry, man,” Paul said when she turned around, horrified. “I was just playing a joke on my brother.”

The woman had many thin bracelets on, and they jangled as she brushed her hand against the back of her head.

“You called her ‘man,’” I said to him after she walked off.

“For real?” he asked.

Amy mimicked him perfectly. “For real?”

Over the phone, my brother, like me, is often mistaken for a woman. As we continued shopping, he told us that his van had recently broken down and that when he called for a tow truck the dispatcher said, “We’ll be right out, sweetie.” He lowered a watermelon into the cart and turned to his daughter. “Maddy’s got a daddy who talks like a lady, but she don’t care, do she?”

Giggling, she punched him in the stomach, and I was struck by how comfortable the two of them are with each other. Our father was a figure of authority, while Paul is more of a playmate.

When we went to the beach as children, on or about the fourth day, our father would say, “Wouldn’t it be nice to buy a cottage down here?” We’d get our hopes up, and then he would bring practical concerns into it. They weren’t petty—buying a house that will eventually get blown away by a hurricane probably isn’t the best way to spend your money—but still we wanted one desperately. I told myself when I was young that one day I would buy a beach house and that it would be everyone’s, as long as they followed my draconian rules and never stopped thanking me for it. Thus it was that on Wednesday morning, midway through our vacation, Hugh and I contacted a real estate agent named Phyllis, who took us around to look at available properties. On Friday afternoon, we made an offer on an oceanfront cottage not far from the one we were renting, and before sunset our bid was accepted. I made the announcement at the dinner table and got the reaction I had expected.

“Now, wait a minute,” my father said. “You need to think clearly here.”

“I already have,” I told him.

“OK, then, how old is the roof? How many times has it been replaced in the last ten years?”

“When can we move in?” Gretchen asked.

Lisa wanted to know if she could bring her dogs, and Amy asked what the house was named.

“Right now it’s called Fantastic Place,” I told her, “but we’re going to change it.” I used to think the ideal name for a beach house was the Ship Shape. Now, though, I had a better idea. “We’re going to call it the Sea Section.”

My father put down his hamburger. “Oh no, you’re not.”

“But it’s perfect,” I argued. “The name’s supposed to be beachy, and if it’s a pun, all the better.”

I brought up a cottage we’d seen earlier in the day called Dune Our Thing, and my father winced. “How about naming it Tiffany?” he said.

Our silence translated to: Let’s pretend we didn’t hear that.

He picked his hamburger back up. “I think it’s a great idea. The perfect way to pay our respects.”

“If that’s the case we could name it after Mom,” I told him. “Or half after Tiffany and half after Mom. But it’s a house, not a tombstone, and it wouldn’t fit in with the names of the other houses.”

“Aw, baloney,” my father said. “Fitting in—that’s not who we are. That’s not what we’re about.”

Paul interrupted to nominate the Conch Sucker.

Amy’s suggestion had the word “Seaman” in it, and Gretchen’s was even dirtier.

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