Authors: Terry Gamble
Any day now, Adele is coming—the last of the cousins expected. I’ve made lists, changed the sheets. There are flowers in almost every room.
“Listen,” says Dana.
I hear the distant strumming of a guitar. “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring.” The dulcet tones of Beowulf.
“Bach,” I say, wondering if Mother can hear it. I mostly remember her listening to Percy Faith and the Boston Pops. What would she make of the segment Ian and I did on the musician from Hoboken who played the electric fugue?
Out on the lake, a fleet of sailboats races to the mark. They move in silence, but I can imagine shouting, the metallic bleat of winches. I can almost hear my father barking orders.
The scrambling of bodies. Whenever we sailed, I somehow ended up in the wrong place. Or was I the wrong child altogether? A daughter, not a son as my parents had hoped. A pale, feather-plucked girl whose mind was prone to wandering. Maddie,
get out of the way!
Stay the course. Know your purpose. Would that I had been able to grasp the tiller so firmly and without question.
“Listen,” says Dana again.
Bach has been replaced by a voice that sounds like one of the Indigo Girls—at once soaring, earthy, and tremulous.
“That’s Jessica,” says Dana with pride.
Dana pulls off her sun hat and runs her fingers through her blunt, no-nonsense hair. “It always feels like everyone else is at a party, know what I mean? Like there’s something delightful and wonderful going on, and I’m not part of it.”
I stare at her. Dana of the boyfriends and the beer parties and the fraternity rings. Perhaps I should feel smug, but instead I feel the wrench of her loss and disappointment.
“You were always so popular,” I say.
Chagrined, she blinks at me. “Maddie,” she says, “that was
dele has called to say she isn’t coming because her Ascended Master has said this is an inauspicious time.
“Translation,” said Dana. “No cook.”
Now the phone has rung again, and Derek is in the dining room, saying “mmm-hmm” and staring with deep-water eyes at the pictures on the wall. From the kitchen, I watch him as I did when I was young. According to Dana, his marriage to Yvonne isn’t going well.
This time it’s different,
This time she’s gone off with another man,
and he doesn’t want to talk about it.
Derek, I notice, is stabbing the phone table repeatedly with a Bic pen. Finally, he says, “Aunt Ev’s passing over, Adele,” and a final “okay” before he hangs up the phone. He glances at Dana and me standing in the kitchen door. “Adele’s coming.”
“That,” he says, stroking his chin, “is still subject to debate.”
Derek and I stare at each other. I find physically beautiful subjects such as Derek problematic to film, but for now I linger on his tangled brow and
lashes that, at fourteen, I had coveted for myself. That his wife may be leaving him I find amazing, but I keep my curiosity to myself.
Back in the kitchen, peeling carrots, Dana says, “Adele probably has to throw tea leaves.”
“You throw the
, not tea leaves.”
Dana looks askance as if such trivial knowledge is the intellectual equivalent of junk food. Dana is the kind who folds her underwear and lines it up by color, categorizes pencils, erasers, and paper clips into divided plastic trays. Like our mother, she is partial to crafts, especially knitting, the counting of stitches, the preordained pattern with little left to chance. She says, “As if we don’t have enough to think about.”
It’s part of the problem of Sand Isle, this not having enough to think about. I pick up a carrot and start to hack. “I saw the Dusays’ new house,” I tell her, running the blade away from me and flinging a fine curl of peel into the sink.
“What did you think?”
“We-ll.” The word
comes to mind. Well-proportioned, beautifully chosen materials, ballroom-size porches of stone and wood. “It sort of misses the point,” I say, scooping a fistful of carrot peels out of the sink and tossing them into the trash. I wonder how much a garbage disposal would cost.
Dana sniffs. “Exactly,” and I feel a wave of affection for her, just as I feel a wave of affection for this old place with its crooked floors and redundant hallways, doors slung like drunkards in off-kilter jambs. It is a house that has had to adapt to circumstance. If it burned down, no one would rebuild it. Who would choose to build a house without rhyme or reason, a complete lack of plan?
In the living room, someone is banging on the piano with the gusto of a child. The noon whistle in Harbor Town begins to wail. Sedgie, carrying a book, pushes into the kitchen with the offended air of a cat that has been doused. As he slumps down at the table, I glance at the title under his arm.
“We’re playing Buffalo in the fall.”
“Cheery combination,” I say, running water down the drain.
“As a matter of fact,” Sedgie goes on, “I need someone to feed me my lines.”
“Sorry,” says Dana quickly, telling him she has plans for a swim.
“What about you?” says Sedgie, as if seeing me for the first time. “You work with actors.”
“I work with
.” Thirteen years since I graduated from film school, and my family still hasn’t a clue. “How about Jessica? She’s dramatic.”
“Ah, the enigmatic Jessica. Sappho or Aphrodite?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” says Dana.
I pick up another carrot and, studying Sedgie, bite into it. “Sedgie is being pompous.”
Again from the living room, a cacophony of notes.
“Jesus,” says Sedgie, who goes off to speak to Beowulf.
“I never know what he’s talking about,” Dana says. She has made a big bowl of tuna salad with plenty of Hellmann’s. After smearing another dollop on individual slices of bread, she starts to scoop the tuna onto them. “So what do you think?”
Weighing the pros and cons about coming clean with my concerns regarding my sister’s daughter, I pop a bag of Ruffles, dump the contents in a bowl. “She seems fine.”
“She lacks direction.”
“Didn’t we all at that age?”
Dana fingers her ring. “I was practically married.”
I look at Dana and wonder how we ended up so differently. Bolstered by knitting and religious conversion, she has set her point, followed it. “You were the exception.”
“Good little Dana,” she says, making quotation marks with her fingers.
In her earlobes, she wears the diamond studs Philip gave her for their twentieth wedding anniversary. I try to imagine that degree of marital consistency.
She finishes the sandwiches, cuts them in half, slices off the crusts, and places them on an old Minton platter. From the piano in the living room comes Mozart’s
, followed by the booming sound of Sedgie’s laugh.
fter lunch and a desultory sort of cleanup, the cousins drift to their rooms to put on swimsuits and head for the beach. On the way to the Lantern Room, I look in on Mother. Her bed shoved up to the window, she is propped up against the pillows wearing her bed jacket. One eye is closed, the other open. Her profile is still regal in her collapsed face. I want to lean forward, push it all back into place, and, with a drink and a cigarette, settle in with her, ready to share the gossip. She always liked a story at someone else’s expense. It’s not
, she would explain to our father.
It’s exchanging information
. Thus she would exchange information with the aunts over drinks, with Dana in her bathroom, with her friend Bibi Hester at the club.
“So, Mom,” I say, “everyone’s here but Adele.” I sit on the edge of her bed, opting to talk to the open eye. She seems to regard me, though her face is slack and still as the morning lake. “I don’t know what to do about Jessica.” She listens silently. “She’s even more impulsive than I was. If Dad were alive…” I trail off. Perhaps it’s better he’s not around to see where the shifts in the wind have taken us. Ten years ago, he suddenly dropped to the ground after a bubble burst in his brain. We couldn’t believe it. How many times had our mother threatened that something we might say or do would kill him? Then suddenly and without warning, our father was gone. No preparation. No pronouncements. And for the first time in more than forty years, our mother was free to swear with impunity. She could have colored her hair, grown out her nails. She could have taken up with a gay man as she’d always threatened. But she didn’t. Instead, she started wearing
ill-fitting clothes with high polyester counts. Many days, she didn’t put on lipstick. She sat for hours at the kitchen table, smoking and making lists. Dana would come over and take her to the store, but for years she drank only consommé and vodka for lunch. During that time, my mother and I hardly spoke because, as she put it, I’d killed my father.
Now she can’t move. I stare into her open eye that fixes back on me. “Dana doesn’t know this, but Jessica’s thinking of having a baby. She’s not going to even bother with a husband. No fuss, no muss. No messy divorce and custody battles or shuttling the kid back and forth.” For a moment, my mother’s eye and mine seem to duel. She can’t say anything. Perhaps she’s not even appalled. Perhaps that side of her that’s beyond numb has finally snuffed out all semblances of moral indignation.
The last bit of closeness I had with my mother was right after Sadie was born. For the brief duration of Sadie’s life, my mother became involved with selecting a layette, talking about cradle cap, producing a silver monogrammed brush with the softest of bristles. That summer in Sand Isle, I wouldn’t let Mother smoke in the house, so she’d stand on the porch, then come inside to hold Sadie. I made a video of her dancing with the baby, my mother’s creased cheek nestled against Sadie’s, the two of them dancing to music only my mother could hear.
I rearrange her hands on the blanket cover. It is scalloped, piped in the same blue satin as her initials on the white piqué. “I’ll tell Beowulf to keep that racket down,” I tell her. “He thinks he’s the new Shostakovich.” I rise to leave. To my surprise, on my mother’s lips I see the faintest of smiles.
t is what my father would have called “a Michigan day.” The lake is impossibly blue, competing with the sky. A steady breeze, the hypnotic lapping of waves, the heat from the sand warming the beach towels. I make a frame with my fingers and view it all through filmmaker’s eyes, panning the triangle of white that is our sailfish sail as it cuts out toward the middle of the bay, flops to a reach, scurries parallel to the shore with
the wind behind it. I have planted myself alongside a wide circle of football-size stones, carefully arranged by Derek in what appears to be the genesis of an art project. Holding up my imaginary camera, I zoom in on the frenetic arm thrusts of Dana, who is swimming to the bay buoy.
Sedgie has camped away from the water, closer to the dunes and the shade of scrubby beach pines. He is in a lawn chair, wearing a Panama hat, sunglasses, smoking a cigar, and reading Ibsen. Wrapped as he is in beach towels, the effect is that of a Mexican in a serape. My camera focuses on his hand holding the cigar, the way he turns the page. Then my lens drifts across the scraggly pines, pulls back, zeroes in on Jessica and Beowulf, rolled onto their tummies, lying side by side. Beowulf is examining Jessica’s wrist. I wonder if he’s telling her about his father and mother’s marital problems; I wonder if Jessica telling him
parents don’t even have a clue. Or, being twenty, do they even think about their parents? If I were to interview them I might say,
Do you think your parents don’t have lives?
I focus tightly on Jessica’s newest tattoo, linger there.
Now I go for scenic footage. In sepia tones, I imagine documenting summers past—even the long-ago ones of parasols and ridiculous swimsuits, the skirted ones Dana and I wore as children, my mother’s first two-piece, the briefest gash of belly appearing between the bra and culottes. My mother holds on to her broad-brimmed hat with one hand, waves at the camera with the other. The film is silent, but I can see that she is telling Dana and me to wave as well—two skinny girls with pixie haircuts under rubber bathing caps, jumping up and down for the camera.
The image fades, segues to the shore. The beach is coated with stones as my great-grandmother described in her letter—a geological treasure trove of fossils, metamorphic and igneous rocks, tiny shells, beach glass, and fish bones that fill the frame for a moment before I pull back for a shot of Derek’s embryonic Stonehenge. Fade to black. Cut. I squint at the sun-drenched lake to make out Dana’s distance. She has turned around and is swimming back. Derek, his sail eased, is cutting in behind her. From my left comes the high-pitched wail of a Jet Ski. Like a megaton mosquito, it
works its way toward us, seesawing over waves. My film-editor eye takes in the distance between the sailfish and Dana, the tempo of Dana’s strokes, the velocity of the keening engine.
Eee-yaw, eee-yaw, eee-yaw
I rise to my feet, seeing that Jessica and Beowulf are also scrambling up. Simultaneously, we take off toward the lake. I start to yell while Jessica reaches down to grasp a fistful of stones. Soon we are all picking up rocks and throwing them at the Jet Ski, screaming at the top of our lungs. Dana doesn’t seem to hear. Her stroke is intense and purposeful. Our shrieking is drowned by the whine of the engine; our missiles fall short. I wade into the water just as Derek maneuvers the sailfish between the Jet Ski and Dana. Seeing Derek and the boat, the Jet Ski veers off, circles back toward where it came from, our catcalls and expletives chasing after it like angry bees.
Dana reaches the shore, rises up from the waves, and slicks back her hair. Seeing all of us standing there but unable to read our faces, she says, “What?”
“Whoa, Aunt Dane,” says Beowulf, “you almost got chopped.”
Jessica starts toward her mother, and then stops, her worried expression hardening into one of annoyance. My heart pounding, I stand among the stones. Derek, again the hero, is pulling the sailfish up on the beach. A low-flying plane zooms overhead. Looking up, Sedgie says, “Lear” the way we used to call out species of birds.
edgie has taken charge of the kitchen. It is a talent I didn’t realize he had. Tonight we will have leg of lamb just like Louisa made. New potatoes. Mint jelly. Even blueberry pie. Between sips of sherry and a clatter of pots and pans, Sedgie is barking orders. He is wearing Louisa’s old “Kiss the Cook” apron. I wish Ian were here to see it.
Standing next to Jessica scrubbing potatoes at the sink, I am overcome with that midsummer sanguinity born of good food and fresh air, the sting of the day’s sun, and lots of noisy company. In spite of myself, I feel almost happy.
“So,” I say to Jessica, who is brown as chocolate, “do you really think you’re ready for a kid? They puke and poop and keep you up all night. Worst of all,” I say, “they’ll turn out just like you.” I say this with affection.
Jessica is up to her wrists in blueberries as she mixes them with sugar. “Mine will be different.”
We all think we’re different—that the fruits of our labors or our loins are in some way exempt from the banality of other people’s reality. We think that we can produce something loftier, transcendent. No pettiness in our marriages. No shallowness in our kinder. Our work will have impact and meaning.
Jessica licks at her fingers, leaving a cockeyed mustache of blueberry above her lips. At moments like this, she looks vulnerable. Even the tattoos and the piercings and the unlikely colored hair seem more childlike than menacing. I spit on the towel and make a move toward her face.