2024 Reading Challenge

2024 Reading Challenge
Jill Elizabeth has read 1 book toward her goal of 285 books.

2023 Reading Challenge

2023 Reading Challenge
Jill Elizabeth has read 5 books toward her goal of 265 books.

Excerpt: The Stark Beauty of Last Things by Céline Keating

About the Book

The Stark Beauty of Last Things is set in Montauk, the far reaches of the famed Hamptons, an area under looming threat from a warming climate and overdevelopment. Now outsider Clancy, a thirty-six-year-old claims adjuster scarred by his orphan childhood, has inherited an unexpected the power to decide the fate of Montauk’s last parcel of undeveloped land.

Everyone in town has a stake in the outcome, among them Julienne, an environmentalist and painter fighting to save the landscape that inspires her art; Theresa, a bartender whose trailer park home is jeopardized by coastal erosion; and Molly and Billy, who are struggling to hold onto their property against pressure to sell. When a forest fire breaks out, Clancy comes under suspicion for arson, complicating his efforts to navigate competing agendas for the best uses of the land and to find the healing and home he has always longed for.

Told from multiple points of view, The Stark Beauty of Last Things explores our connection to nature—and what we stand to lose when that connection is severed.

The Excerpt

The morning after the April Fools’ Storm, Theresa awoke with a jolt. The quiet was uncanny. Storm surge covered the entire pathway to the beach, trailers appearing to ride the skim of water like houseboats.

She pulled on boots and waded through the water to the beach. In both directions, the sand was completely gone, and what was left of the dune was ripped through, as if by a mighty cleaver.

She slogged along to where she had been doing her restoration work. Some of the seaweed mats were flung haphazardly on the slope while others were floating, coming and going with the tide. On the dune face, only a few strands of the grasses remained.

At the base of the dune, she picked up the tiny body of a sanderling. It had almost no weight, and its head was wobbly, partially detached. She touched the downy feathers with a finger. She could feel underneath where the bones were crushed and broken. It was hard to imagine the bird once raced on stick-like legs along the water’s edge. She took a tissue from her jacket and swaddled the tiny body, crossing the sides over to form a neat packet, and placed it in her breast pocket, as if being near her heart would warm it back to life. She walked back to her trailer to bury the small bundle under a stunted pine tree.

In the following days, she reworked whatever seaweed mats were still viable, using her hands to mound wet sand around the remaining plugs of grass, tears of anger and frustration blooming now and again. She spread fiber mesh over the seaweed mats like a hairnet and shoveled sand on top. The storm season was over until fall. If they were lucky, the summer’s littoral drift might help build the dunes back up.

Town board members came for a walkthrough of the devastation, and there were hopeful murmurings that federal money for a dune restoration might get allocated. Clancy contacted her to say he was working to get her the Moorlands payout and would let her know. Even so, Theresa felt an oppressive sense of hopelessness.

Occasionally, she allowed herself to imagine what she would do when she had the money to purchase a trailer of her own. An image of pale wooden floors, high ceilings, and bright white curtains entered her mind, something she’d probably seen in an ad. She saw a sectional couch in heavy white cotton, and a hanging basket chair in the corner of the room, with a thick pillow patterned in a colorful tropical print. She closed her eyes and imagined a cat, smoky-gray from head to tail, with just a spot of white on its paws, leaping into the chair, setting it rocking.

She’d never made the rental trailer her own. She didn’t want to waste money on something she didn’t own. She’d put a red throw over the couch and tacked up two posters—one of surfers and one of the nearby bluffs—but those didn’t mitigate the effect of the generic, used trailer, circa 1990. She’d never thought it would take so long to save up and never thought prices could escalate so rapidly. When her family moved to Montauk, a retired cop could afford one of the modest houses in town. Now only the hedge fund guys could pull that off.

A thump on her door broke her reverie. She glanced out the window. BB.

“Hey, what’s up? Get another good find?”

He had been so excited the day before when he had unearthed a Swiss Army knife with his metal detector.

“There’s a meeting. You gotta come.” His foot on the bottom step jiggled. She hesitated. “Emergency—you gotta come,” he repeated forcefully.

“For you, BB, I’ll do it.”

This meeting would be her first. She and BB fell in behind a stream of others hurrying to the community room. People grabbed folding chairs from where they were stacked against the wall and passed them out, setting them up in haphazard rows. The door kept banging open and shut as people entered.

Joe Tretorn did a cartoon-like double take when he spotted Theresa walking in. BB headed for the front row where the older residents were already seated, the ones who had lived there since the early days, when the TP was all surfers and parties. It was hard to picture them going wild on the beach. Theresa leaned against the back wall.

“We have some unexpected bad news,” Tretorn said. “A septic issue was spotted earlier today, and the whole system has to be inspected. It’ll need to be completely cleaned and pumped. After storms when there’s been flooding tanks can fill up with silt and debris. Hopefully that’s all that happened, and the pump-out will take care of it, but we could be looking at having to replace the whole system. More immediately, there’s a risk of sewage backup. The only way to prevent that is to relieve pressure on the system.” He inhaled dramatically. “Reduce use.”

There were groans throughout the room.

“I know, folks, I’m sorry. And because this poses a potential health issue, we think it would be wise to close completely for a bit. We know this is a hardship for our year-round residents, but we must ask you to work out plans to stay someplace else. We should know more by later today or tomorrow.”

This was all just too much. Theresa left the meeting and went back down to the beach. She rushed from cove to cove to cove, stumbling over stones, as if to outrace what felt like a malevolent, almost biblical, curse: first erosion, then the storm, and now sewage?

Where was she supposed to go? She couldn’t even stay with Molly. Molly herself was homeless at the moment.

Finally, she stopped at one of the easternmost coves to catch her breath. She stared at the green sea lettuce swaying between the rocks in a tidal pool, following its gentle motion, taking long deep inhalations to slow her breathing. After a few minutes she threw her head back, stretched her arms wide, and slowly turned 360 degrees, searching the beauty around her as if for an answer as to where she could go.

And then there it was.

© Céline Keating 2023

About the Author

CÉLINE KEATING is an award-winning writer formerly of New York City and now living in Bristol, Rhode Island. She is the author of two novels, Layla (2011), a Huffington Post featured title, and the award-winning Play for Me (2015). Her short fiction has been published in such literary journals as Prairie Schooner, Santa Clara Review, and more. She has contributed articles to Acoustic Guitar, Coastal Living, Writers’ Digest, and Poets & Writers magazines, and is the co-editor of On Montauk, A Literary Celebration. Céline grew up in Queens, New York. She earned a Masters in Creative Writing from City College, CUNY. For many years a resident of Montauk, New York, she serves on the board of environmental organization Concerned Citizens of Montauk. Find her online at celinekeating.com

Photo credit: ©AlexaBrandenberg2022

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