Authors: Susan Minot
They were gathered on the public dock of Bishops Harbor loading into boats. Ann Grant spotted him as she came down the ramp. He had changed into a dark jacket. He was talking to Lizzie Tull, Lila’s college friend and another bridesmaid who was small and wide-faced with a little tent of frizzed hair. He was hunched over adjusting himself to her level, his hands shoved in his pants pockets. Lizzie was babbling on the way she did with strangers and men and Ann was irritated to see Harris Arden responding with an open ingratiating expression. Up until then he’d seemed perfect.
Clint Stone, the boatman, sat at the helm of the
. Ann said hello wondering if he remembered her. She had not grown up around servants and wasn’t sure of the protocol though she assumed there was one. Clint Stone tipped the brim of his cap, a Maine greeting which could mean anything.
The girls were dressed in pretty much the same thing, narrow cocktail pants, flat shoes, little shirts which buttoned up the back and cardigan sweaters which buttoned up the front. They differed in the small detail. Lila Wittenborn wore a charm bracelet, Lizzie Tull a pearl necklace. Lila’s cousin Eve, her hair dyed platinum since Ann last saw her, had beaded embroidery on her sweater. Ann Grant who had a horror of uniforms was wearing a Mexican shirt.
They crossed the cove in two boats.
The evening water was glassy and dark green at the edges and bright in the middle with the setting sun. Ann Grant sat in the crafted wood of the
beside Mrs. Wittenborn who held a cut crystal cocktail glass rimmed with beet red lipstick.
I could strangle Dick for not letting us live in New York, she was saying. You must be loving it.
Ann admitted it was more exciting than Boston.
Lila sat in the stern beside her father, her thick hair not separating in the wind. She caught Ann’s eye and they both smiled. The day after tomorrow, they were both thinking. Lila was the closest thing Ann had to a sister. The Wittenborns had taken in Ann as they did many people, hardly noticing. Mr. Wittenborn wore an ascot, blue blazer and captain’s hat, his eyelids fluttered, gazing out with pity on the world. Lila held the top of her cardigan closed against the wind and put her head on her father’s shoulder.
… Endlessly at the Stork Club, Mrs. Wittenborn was saying. She had married Mr. Wittenborn when she was seventeen and still looked as young as her daughters. The cocktail splashed out of her glass when the boat encountered some wake. Oops, she said unconcerned.
Harris Arden was in the other boat, the
. His back was to Ann, sitting on the edge, and he was still listening to Lizzie Tull. A champion tennis player, she was demonstrating a stroke. Carl Cutler, the groom, was at the helm. Carl was the sort of responsible steady person you let drive your boats. He was quiet and determined with a plodding manner and at twenty-nine was a successful businessman operating on the principle that you didn’t give in to personal likes, kept what made a profit and dropped what didn’t. His affection was reserved exclusively for Lila and he showed a rare mooniness when you saw them holding hands. Ann Grant had never seen him flirt or even look with interest at another woman.
The high pitch of a speedboat’s motor rose behind them, overtaking the quiet motoring boats. Heads in the
turned. A boat came whizzing by, its bow above the water’s surface. At the helm was Gigi in a long turquoise dress, hair flying, standing on the driver’s seat, bending down to the steering wheel. A chiffon scarf rippled from her neck.
Mrs. Wittenborn barely turned her chin to look, keeping her knees and shoulders facing forward. There goes your daughter, Dick, she said, sipping her cocktail. What has she got on?
Ann’s mother had a similar attitude—what one wore was of vital importance.
It’s the Holts’ boat, said Mr. Wittenborn.
In the front a young man was flattened out on the cushions. The wake spread behind like a fish bone.
Mrs. Wittenborn muttered. Ann thought she heard, I can’t do a thing about her, then thought it might be, I can’t understand a thing about her.
The motor ground like a chain saw.
Who’s with her, Kevin or Joe? Mr. Wittenborn had an odd way of talking, with little catches in his voice.
I think Kevin, Lila said. She’d witnessed so many catastrophes with her sister her attitude was one of jaded alarm.
Gigi cried across the water. I’m writing Lila and Carl!
Must be in script, said Lila, long suffering.
Gigi jerked the wheel to turn and fell off the chair.
Dick, said Mrs. Wittenborn.
Mr. Wittenborn frowning took a deep breath. Clint Stone reached for the throttle and eased it back, not needing direction. When the
was slowed down, Mr. Wittenborn stood up.
Above the idling motor he shouted. That’s enough!
Gigi wasn’t even looking in their direction, scrambling up to the controls, delighted to be scaring herself. Ann noticed something glinting around her neck which looked very much like the diamond necklace Mr. Wittenborn had given Mrs. Wittenborn when after two daughters she bore him a son. (The girls had been celebrated with pearls.) Mrs. Wittenborn was taking advantage of the diminished wind to light a cigarette.
Gigi! Mr. Wittenborn insisted. Gigi!
The statuesque figure was back at the wheel. She struck a pose with an arm flung back. Her hair was the same light brown color as her skin and her teeth at a distance were very white. She’d been striking the same pose since Ann Grant had first met her at age ten, with her jagged bangs across one eye. The A is the hardest! she screamed.
Jesus, came from Lila under her breath.
Kevin Holt had his arms braced against the railing, his smile tight with fear. Then the boat tilted so sharply you could see the floor and Gigi became a blue star with arms and legs extended and they all watched helplessly as she pitched over the stern.
Mrs. Wittenborn jumped up, spilling her drink on Ann. Now she’s overboard for godsakes! Clint! The throttle revved. The
was closer and Carl got there first and before anyone knew what was happening a large figure had shed his dark jacket and leapt off into the tranquil water and was swimming toward Gigi’s bobbing head. His arms plowed the water in long pulling strokes. My God, thought Ann, watching Harris Arden, he’s a hero too.
The motorboat turned into a fly, passing her face. She brushed at it but it was gone. Someone sat on her chest. The fly turned into a lawnmower out the window. Grass grew on the pillow beside her. She could feel a man in the room.
Hello, Ann. It’s Oliver. Ollie Granger’s voice always had a little heft of pleasure in it.
Have you completed your mission? she said.
Not quite, he answered right away.
The A is the hardest part.
Yes it is.
I have an Indian princess in my mouth, she said.
That sounds right, said Ollie Granger.
We didn’t need lights.
No, we didn’t. A look of concern came over Oliver Granger’s face.
With no change in her tone Ann Lord went on, When are you going back to Maine? Is Lily up?
She’s there now.
Tell me about all the dinner parties I’m not missing in the least.
One after the other, said Ollie Granger.
Torches on poles lit up the open deck of the Slaters’ house which jutted out over jagged rocks. Helping themselves to chicken and potato salad the guests talked about the accident till Gigi and Harris Arden appeared after a half hour changed into dry clothes and since no one was hurt there was a lot of joking and teasing. Ann Grant was approaching Harris Arden when she saw Gigi, now in a yellow shift, the necklace returned to her mother’s jewelry case, bend forward parting her hair to show what might be a bump and Harris Arden examining it doctor-like then saying something to Gigi who laughed and looked up at him with what could only be described as adoration. Ann veered off. When she took her plate she carried it to a bench at the far end of the dock beneath a pyramid of geraniums opposite the little group which had formed around the hero.
Buddy Wittenborn edged over to make room for Ann.
She was embarrassed she’d had any feeling for the person. He was in her sights and she couldn’t help watching him and soon she developed the idea that he wanted to be talking to her as well and for that very reason was staying away. A little circle of devotees had gathered around him, the girls with glazed looks, the boys tilting their ears, even Mrs. Slater with her stiff neck and white hair was giggling now and then. Ann glanced over, hardly listening to the ongoing controversy about the bridesmaids’ jackets. Lizzie was lobbying for, Ann had cast her vote against, the small shoulders did not look right on her. Gail Slater, Lila’s oldest friend, also a bridesmaid, looked alert and interested and maintained neutrality. Buddy silently buttered his corn. Harris Arden had changed into one of Buddy’s shirts, red and white striped with a monogram, a shirt Buddy would wear only if forced. He balanced a plate on his knees and his long legs made the plate higher than anyone else’s. He held a chicken leg with one bite taken out and stared at Eve Wittenborn’s painted mouth as she talked (Lila’s cousin though a bridesmaid was not enough of the inner circle to be consulted). Despite her new look of a movie star Eve Wittenborn
remained earnest and dull. When she stopped talking only then did Harris Arden take another bite of his food. Ann glanced away, feeling she’d looked too long, and as Lila was saying frankly she was sick of discussing it and they should wear what they wanted, the image stayed with her of him with his wet hair closer around his head and of his drumstick hovering in the air and his mouth parted listening.
There was a commotion across the deck, Ann saw Gigi fall onto Harris Arden’s chest calling him my hero. Everyone laughed and Ann hated him. He recoiled a little from Gigi despite looking down at her bare legs as she crossed them. Then his gaze moved down to the wooden planks and traveled out across the deck and rose and stopped landing on Ann.
Her first instinct was to look away. He was staring straight at her. She struggled to look back. His eyes without the dark glasses covering them had something merry in them, though she could not read their intent. How was he looking at her? Curious? No. She returned the stare. Here I am. She tried to maintain that. Here I am. Her heart was crashing: Neither smiled. She felt as if the whole factory of herself had been thrown into operation with one switch. Who would look away first? His mouth was closed with the teeth crowded behind it, the dent in his lip made a shadow. Everything had a different position without anything having moved. She saw it all from a different angle. His eye had a spark of light in it. She couldn’t look anymore, she looked away.
The air was trembling then it was as if a telescope brought everything into vivid focus and she felt the scallop shape of the geranium leaves and the smooth slivered wood of the weathered seats and the air where her shirt bloused out not touching her skin. A figure passed by and the shadow slid over her. Behind the spruce trees came the snap of the flag flown when the family was in residence. She felt the snap in her spine.
Gigi clinked her glass with a fork. The talk stopped and everyone turned. Here’s to my sister Lila, she said, standing up on the bench and raising a glass. Her voice was as husky as if she’d been smoking
cigarettes since she was three. Lila is … Lila’s great. Everyone loves Lila. She paused. But no one as much as I do.
A low disembodied voice came out of the darkness beside Ann Grant. Except, said the voice of Lila’s brother, me.
The door clicked shut.
Too bad you can’t crawl in with me, she said.
Wouldn’t that be nice.
I’m not the same. Needless to say.
He took her hand. Your hand is still the same. The same old hand.
Same old, she said.
The same young one, I should say.
Thank you. That’s nice of you.
The same sweet hand.
She looked across the room to all the things which had come to her over the years and by now ought to give her some satisfaction. The inkwell nestled in a bronze bird’s nest, the primitive oil of a church she’d found in that junk shop, the French enamel saucers with the fly pattern … they would last and not she. Is this what she would leave behind? The things in the house were not herself. The children would be left and they had come from her but they were not herself either. Nothing was herself but what had happened to her and the only place that was registered was inside. And even that was a kind of vapor.