28 Summers: The gripping, emotional page turner of summer 2020 by 'the Queen of the Summer Novel' (People) (3 page)

BOOK: 28 Summers: The gripping, emotional page turner of summer 2020 by 'the Queen of the Summer Novel' (People)
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“So now’s the part where I ask you a favor,” Cooper says.

“Oh,” Mallory says. He wants a favor from
her?
This is new. Cooper is a policy wonk for the Brookings Institution, a think tank in DC. His job is important, prestigious even (though Mallory’s not going to pretend she understands what he actually does). What could he possibly need from her? “Anything for you, you know that.”

“I’d like to have a bachelor…well, not a
party
per se, but a weekend. Nothing crazy, just me, Fray, obviously, and Jake McCloud.”

Fray,
obviously,
Mallory thinks, and she rolls her eyes. And Jake McCloud, the mysterious Jake McCloud, Cooper’s big brother in his fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta—Fiji—whom Mallory has never actually met. She’s had some intriguing phone conversations with him, however.

“Oh yeah?” she says.

“And I was thinking maybe I could do it there on Nantucket over Labor Day weekend?” He pauses. “If you don’t mind three guys crashing on the sofa…or the floor…wherever.”

“I have two spare bedrooms,” Mallory says.

“You
do?
” Cooper says. “So it’s, like, a real house? I always got the impression it was more like, I don’t know, a shack?”

“It’s not a
house
-house but it’s better than a shack,” Mallory says. “You’ll see when you get here.”

“So it’s okay, then?” Cooper says. “Labor Day weekend?”

“Sure,” she says. Labor Day weekend, she thinks, is when Leland said she might come, but those plans are tentative at best.
“Mi casa es su casa.”

“Thanks, Mal!” Cooper says. He sounds excited and grateful, and after she hangs up, Mallory runs her hands over the worn-smooth boards of the deck and thinks about how good it feels to finally have something worth sharing.

  

On the day this conversation takes place, our girl is so tan that her skin looks like polished wood, and her mousy-brown hair is getting lighter. From certain angles, it looks nearly blond. She has lost eight pounds—that’s a guesstimate; the cottage doesn’t have a bathroom scale—but she is definitely more fit thanks to the fact that her only form of transportation is a ten-speed bike that she found listed in the classifieds of the
Inquirer and Mirror.

Aunt Greta’s cottage is now Mallory’s cottage. Greta’s attorney, Eileen Beers, takes care of transferring the deed and changing the name on the tax bill and insurance. Signed, sealed, delivered. But something nags at Mallory, a question she wasn’t brave enough to ask Senior but she does ask Eileen.

“Shouldn’t the cottage rightly go to Ruthie? They were”—she isn’t going to use the word
housemates,
but a more suitable term eludes her.
Girlfriends? Lovers?
—“partners.”

“Ruthie got the Cambridge house,” Eileen says. “She prefers city life. And your aunt was very clear that she wanted you to have the Nantucket cottage. When she wrote the will, she said it was a magical place for you.”

Magical.

Mallory used to visit Nantucket during the summers when she was in grade school and then middle school—right up until Uncle Bo died. She’d felt awkward the first summer, she remembers, because Aunt Greta and Uncle Bo didn’t have children and, according to Mallory’s mother, wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to deal with one.

“They were smart to ask for you and not your brother,” Kitty said. “All you do is read!”

One entire side of Mallory’s suitcase that summer was packed with books—Nancy Drew, Louisa May Alcott, a contraband copy of
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.
In subsequent years, Mallory didn’t pack any books because she’d discovered that the length and breadth of one wall in the cottage’s great room was a library. In the summer, her aunt and uncle abandoned their work reading for pleasure reading. Over the course of six summers, Mallory was introduced to Judith Krantz, Herman Wouk, Danielle Steel, James Clavell, Barbara Taylor Bradford, and Erich Segal. Nothing was off-limits, nothing was deemed “too adult,” and nothing took precedence over reading; it was considered the holiest activity a person could engage in.

Mallory loved her aunt and uncle’s cottage. The common area was one giant room with wood beams and chestnut-brown paneling. There was a dusty brick fireplace, a rock-hard green tweed sofa, two armchairs that swiveled, an ancient TV with rabbit-ear antennas, and a kidney-shaped writing desk under one of the pond-facing windows where Aunt Greta wrote postcards and letters to people back in Cambridge. A long narrow harvest table marked the boundary between the living room and the kitchen. The kitchen had vanilla-speckled Formica counters and fudge-brown appliances; a black lobster pot sat on the stove at all times. There was one bathroom, with tiny square tiles that sparkled like mica, and Mallory’s room had twin beds, one with a mattress that felt like a marble slab, where she kept her books, and one a little bit softer, where she slept. She sometimes ventured into the third bedroom, but that room had only one window, and it faced the side yard, whereas Mallory’s bedroom had two windows, one that faced the side yard and one that fronted the ocean. She fell asleep each night listening to the waves, and the breeze was so reliable that Mallory slept without a fan all summer.

This island chooses people,
Aunt Greta said.
It chose Bo and me, and I think it’s chosen you as well.

Mallory remembered feeling…
ordained
by that comment, as though she were being invited into an exclusive club.
Yes,
she thought.
I’m a Nantucket person
. She loved the sun, the beach, the waves of the south shore.
Next stop, Portugal!
Uncle Bo would cry out, hands raised over his head, as he charged into the ocean. She loved the pond, the swans, the red-winged blackbirds, the dragonflies, the reeds and cattails. She loved surf-casting and kayaking with her uncle and taking long beach walks with her aunt, who carried a stainless-steel kitchen bowl to hold the treasures they found—quahog shells, whelks, slippers and scallops, the occasional horseshoe carapace, pieces of satiny driftwood, interesting rocks, beach glass. As the days passed, they became more discerning, throwing away shells that were chipped and rocks that wouldn’t be as pretty once they dried.

She loved the stormy days when the waves pummeled the shore and the screen door rattled in its frame. Uncle Bo would light a fire and Aunt Greta would make lobster stew. They played Parcheesi and read their books and listened to the classical station out of Boston on the transistor radio.

There is still one photograph in the cottage of Aunt Greta and Uncle Bo together, and Mallory had studied it when she’d first moved in. It’s a picture of them on the beach in their woven plastic chairs, their hair wet and their feet sandy. After looking at it a few seconds, Mallory realized it was a picture she herself had taken with her uncle’s camera. Aunt Greta was wearing a red floral one-piece bathing suit with a tissue tucked into her bosom so her chest wouldn’t burn. Her dark hair, cut short like a man’s, was standing on end. She was beaming—and one could sense in her expression the carefree exuberance of summer. Uncle Bo was wearing sunglasses and had a copy of James Michener’s
Chesapeake
opened across his hairy chest.

They look happy in that picture,
Mallory thought. And yet, if she wasn’t mistaken, this was taken the summer before Uncle Bo died, so a scant year before Aunt Greta got together with Ruthie and thereby fractured her relations with Mallory’s family.

Mallory has of course wondered if her aunt was a lesbian all along and if her uncle was, perhaps, gay. Maybe theirs was a marriage of convenience or a marriage of deep, intense friendship, a meeting of minds if not bodies.

Mallory doesn’t care. She misses her aunt and uncle, but she suspects some spiritual shreds of them remain here, because although Mallory was often lonely in New York, she has not felt lonely in Nantucket even once.

  

Mallory works Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays as a lunch waitress at the Summer House pool. Her favorite coworker is a young African-American woman named Apple who also happens to be the guidance counselor at Nantucket High School. Mallory asks Apple if there are any openings at the high school for teachers or even substitute teachers.

“I majored in English,” Mallory says.

“You might get lucky,” Apple says. “Mr. Falco currently teaches honors and AP English but he just turned seventy and he’s deaf in one ear, so we’re thinking maybe he’ll retire? In which case, in September, I’ll put your résumé right in front of Dr. Major, our principal. We could use some new blood.”

Mallory is grateful, though she doesn’t want to wish her summer away. The Summer House pool has jaw-dropping views of Sconset Beach and the Atlantic Ocean. Guests can enjoy lunch on the chaises or sit at one of the patio tables under an umbrella. The food isn’t bad—Mallory steers people toward the burgers, the grilled chicken sandwiches, the salads topped with crab cakes—but most of Mallory’s business is drinks. The bar’s specialty is something called the Hokey Pokey, which has four kinds of liquor in it; the drink costs ten dollars and most people have two or more of them. Mallory makes nearly two hundred dollars a day in tips. She works with either Apple or a girl named Isolde, who is kind of a bitch but who knows her stuff. The bartender’s name is Oliver. He’s cute and has an Australian accent, making him a key contributor to the Summer House pool’s success. Oliver brings in the young ladies (“Ollie’s dollies,” Isolde calls them). And the crowd of young ladies at the bar lures in the men with money.

It’s the best job Mallory has ever had. Working three days a week is enough because she has the nest egg from Aunt Greta tucked away in the bank. With a part-time job, Mallory still has time to read, to swim and sun, to explore the island on her bike, to go out with Apple after their shifts.

Every night before Mallory falls asleep, she silently thanks her aunt Greta. What a gift. What an opportunity.

Everybody hurts; she knows this. But not Mallory this summer.

  

The last Friday in August, the phone rings late at night. Mallory lets the answering machine pick up—but when she hears Leland’s voice, she stumbles out of bed. She has barely talked to her friend all summer. Mallory sent her one letter early on describing her cottage, her new job, and her ongoing flirtation with Oliver the bartender. (This ended in an ill-advised one-night stand that Mallory’s mind now swerves around as though it’s emotional roadkill.) In response, Mallory received a long and descriptive letter about summer in the city—an Indigo Girls concert in Central Park; a work lunch at the Cupping Room in SoHo, where Leland was seated at a table next to Matt Dillon; the bounty at the Greenmarket in Union Square. Leland’s writing was so lush and powerful that Mallory saved the letter in case Leland became famous and the Smithsonian came calling.

Mallory snatches up the phone in the dark. “Hello? Leland?”

“Mal.” Hearing just this one syllable, Mallory can tell that Leland is drunk. Martinis at Chumley’s, perhaps, or maybe she joined the throngs at Isabella’s, where Jerry Seinfeld was known to hang out. God, Mallory doesn’t miss New York at all.

“Hi,” Mallory says. “It’s late, you know. Everything okay?” There’s a part of Mallory that fears she will one day get a phone call that takes away her new life as swiftly as it was granted.

“So, listen…,” Leland says.
Listen
comes out as “lishen.” “I called and booked my flights. I land Friday at eight p.m. and I’m sorry but I have to leave Sunday instead of Monday because my friend Harrison is having this rooftop thing—”

“Wait, wait,” Mallory says. Her thoughts feel like a tangled skein of yarn. “Which Friday are we talking about?”

“Next Friday,” Leland says. “Labor Day weekend. Like we planned.”

Planned
is an overstatement. What Mallory knows for sure is that when she and Leland hugged goodbye, Leland had said, “I hope to come visit you. Maybe Labor Day weekend?” To which Mallory said, “You’re welcome anytime, Lee. Obviously. You’re my best friend.”

And then in the letter, Leland had closed with
Labor Day is still on my radar!

Certainly it has been on Mallory’s radar too, though it feels like Leland missed an intermediary step, the step where she called to make sure Labor Day weekend still worked for Mallory, at which point Mallory had intended to tell her that Cooper, Frazier Dooley, and Jake McCloud were coming for Cooper’s bachelor-party weekend and Leland should pick a different weekend. But that step was skipped too, which is a little irritating. They are no longer the little girls who ran indiscriminately between each other’s houses; they’re grown-ups.

Leland has bought plane tickets. She lands Friday at eight.

“I have something to tell you,” Mallory says. She isn’t sure how her news will be received. “Labor Day weekend, when you’re here…”

“Yeah?” Leland says.

“Cooper will also be here!” Mallory adds a handful of verbal confetti to the announcement to make it sound like a wonderful surprise: “I haven’t had a chance to write to you about this, but he’s getting married at Christmas to a waitress named Krystel.” Mallory pauses to let this sink in before she zaps Leland with the rest of it.

“I know,” Leland says. “My mother told me.”

“She did?” Mallory says, then she thinks,
Of course she did.
Kitty and Leland’s mother, Geri Gladstone, are best friends and play tennis together every single day from May through September at the country club. “Okay, good—so Coop asked if I could host a little bachelor weekend here over Labor Day and since I wasn’t a hundred percent sure you were coming, I said okay.”

“Bachelor weekend?” Leland says. “Does that mean what I think it means?”

“Yes,” Mallory says. “Fray is coming.”

Mallory had thought that for Leland, the prospect of seeing Frazier Dooley would be twenty nails in the coffin as far as her visit was concerned, but all Mallory hears is heavy breathing followed by a string of slurred declarations in a tone that sounds like Leland is trying to convince Mallory—or maybe herself—of something.

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