Authors: Alice Mattison
SAID SHE'D TAKE THE PLUMS BACK TO THE COTTAGE
with her, because if she left them at the lake no one would remember to bring them. They were the tart red plums of July. Frances, who had eaten one a while ago, didn't care whether her mother took them.
“Come on,” said Aunt Pearl, who had started quickly up the hill but then turned to wait, watching Frances's mother, who didn't hurry. Aunt Pearl's freckled arm was raised and her hand shielded her eyes. She looked restless to Frances, who was watching from a little way into the water. Aunt Pearl didn't wear a beach jacket, just her blue bathing suit, and when she was ready to leave the beach, all she had to do was walk away, but Hilda put her terrycloth jacket on over her bathing suit, then gathered up her knitting. Next she leaned over for the paper bag of plums, which was on one of the Adirondack chairs. When Hilda leaned over, her beach jacket opened and her breasts looked big. Frances, who was eleven, did not yet have breasts.
Hilda caught up with Aunt Pearl, and Aunt Pearl stretched her hand out: she wanted a plum. Frances knew that she would eat two or three on the way back to the cottage, her free hand under her chin to catch the juice. Now Hilda fed her the first one, reaching up to offer it. Aunt Pearl was tall.
They hadn't suggested that Frances come along. Of course, they were only going to the cottage to change their clothes and start supper. Her mother wanted to eat early because people were coming from one of the other cottages after supper to sing or play cards.
Frances's teenage cousin Simon, Aunt Pearl's son, stood at the edge of the lake in his shoes and socks and trousers and shirt, looking straight ahead at the water, not answering when Uncle Mike shouted at him. “Stupid,” said Uncle Mike, and Frances's father, Nathan, who was sitting in an Adirondack chair at the edge of the beach, flinched. Uncle Mike had stopped shouting for a while but now that the women had gone up the hill he began again.
Frances liked sitting on the rock because her feet stayed wet. She liked listening to Uncle Mike too. She didn't mind when he shouted at Simon, though she knew she ought to be angry with him. Mostly she found it interesting, and waited almost eagerly for the next thing he'd say. Her parents would never talk that way. It gave her the edgy, excited feeling that some permission had been grantedâto both herself and Simonâthough Uncle Mike shouted at him
to do things. She had stayed in the water longer than she would have if Uncle Mike hadn't been criticizing Simon for not going swimming at all.
Simon stood so close to the water that although his shoes looked dry, Frances thought there wasn't room between his shoes and the water for so much as a pine needle. He would not go into the water or even put on a pair of swimming trunks, though his parents had gone to the trouble and expense of buying a bathing suit and bringing it from the city. His family had been at the lake for three daysâvisiting Frances's family, who stayed for a monthâand so far Simon hadn't gone into the water once. It was shameful not to learn to swim, and Simon could barely swim. It was hot, and anyone with sense would want to cool off in the water. Uncle Mike shouted all this at Simon's back.
Years earlier, Frances had been lying in bed one night, supposedly asleep, listening to her parents talk through the slightly opened door. “Mike takes his belt to Simon,” her mother had said.
“No,” said Nathan. Frances had known what her mother had meant. It was a strange way of talking, to take your belt to someone. It could mean that Uncle Mike carried his belt across the room and gave the belt to Simon, but it didn't. She had wanted to question Simon about this subject, but she never did. She was five years younger than he was, and he was kind to her, but they didn't talk much.
She was facing the shore. When she looked up she saw her mother and aunt, now far along the dirt road that went to the cottages. There were many cottages, and theirs was far away. She knew how her mother and Aunt Pearl would walk: slowly, talking all the time, sometimes giving each other a push if one of them made a joke. They would stop when Aunt Pearl wanted another plum, and Hilda would open the bag and hold it for her, teasing about how much Pearl ate.
Simon was looking out at the lake. Frances thought he was trying to look as if he had something on his mind and hadn't troubled himself to notice who Mike was talking to. At the edge of the beach, near where the grass started, Frances's father turned his hands over and over on the arms of the Adirondack chair.
Nobody but their family was at the lake, even though there were many cottages and it was a hot day. It was after five o'clock, that was one reason, but none of them could figure out any other reasons. She and her parents sometimes talked about what the other people were missing. Frances's father liked the beach the most. He would take a long swim and then sit in the sun, moving his chair as the shade advanced in the afternoon. He said he needed many hours of sun to bake the winter out of him, and Frances pictured him in his classroom at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, where they lived, teaching history in his suit, always chilly, waiting for summer, when he could spread out his bare arms. He was glad to see his brother, Mike, and Mike's wife, Pearl, and their son when they visited, but now he looked unhappy, studying Simon's back as if he were trying to read something written on it.
“Worthless,” said Uncle Mike. He hadn't said Simon was worthless, but something else. Frances ran her mind back to see. Uncle Mike had said it was worthless to talk to Simon. Just then, carefully timing his first movement to a moment when it would not seem responsive to anything his father had said, Simon turned around and began to walk back toward the cottages.
Uncle Mike snapped his head around quickly, watching Simon. Sometimes he looked like a young man. He was much younger than his brother, Nathan, and he looked younger than he was. His hair was not gray, and it swooped sideways across his forehead. His bathing suit was the tight kind with a bulge in front, not like Frances's father's trunks, which were loose like shorts. Mike was smoking a cigarette, and now he dropped it and kicked sand over it with his bare foot. For a moment he looked as if he might order Simon to stop walking, but he didn't. He moved forward now and stood at the edge of the lake where Simon had stood. When Simon turned around, Mike had been in mid-sentence, saying, “I'm not the kind of father who â¦” but he stopped and seemed to swallow the sentence like something coming out of his mouth that he'd now rather keep.
His face worked as if he were going to speak again.
“Daddy,” said Frances, “do you want to watch me float?”
Now she would have to get wet again. She didn't know why she had said that. Her father stood up slowly and came toward the edge of the water, and Frances got off her rock and pulled her bathing suit down where it had crept up on her backside. She walked out to where the water reached her knees. This part of the lake was in shade now, in a shadow cast by trees at the side of the beach, and the water was dark, but it felt warm. She lay down, arching her back, tipping her head backward. Her hair streamed out. She held her body as still as possible. She could see one cloud, a rough triangle, and trees far away across the lake behind her.
“Very good,” her father said sadly, but loudly and slowly, so she could hear.
She stayed still as long as she could. Sometimes her legs would go down and she would give a little kick. After a while she heard Uncle Mike's voice again. Her ears were in the water and she couldn't hear what he said. Now her father spoke again and this time she couldn't hear him either. They were angry. They were probably arguing about Simon. Frances rolled over and began to swim. She would do more laps, slowly and carefully, keeping her elbows close to her body when her arms were underwater. She swam back and forth next to the rope until she was tired. As she swam, she wondered if Uncle Mike might praise her, but when she finished and stood upâso tired that her legs were unsteady for a momentâneither of them was paying attention to her. It had to be late. There were deep shadows.
“A whole way of looking at things,” Mike was saying. “An entire way of looking at things. It's not just McCarthy.”
Frances came out of the water and wrapped a towel around her shoulders. She was cold. She tied the laces of her sneakers together and put them over her shoulder, one in front, one behind. She didn't want to hear about McCarthy. Uncle Mike was holding an imaginary saxophone in his hands, his feet planted far apart as if he were playing, his fingers moving. But he was talking. “
understood the way you look at things.
could see it.”