Copyright © Neal Eric Yeomans
In Memory of John Cheever
Our father built the beach house a long time ago. My brother and I would come up every summer when we were kids and those days, which I still vividly remember, would pass by in a slow, dreamlike way. We all loved the place. Father knew that the beach house was one of his masterpieces. He was in a position to say so, for he had designed many houses during his career. The Hopewell name meant luxury and quality to many people. He told us to always be proud of being a Hopewell and we were.
As I’ve mentioned in that above paragraph, Duffy and I used to come up to the beach house all the time during our sunburnt youth; but gradually we began to part from the place and from each other over the years. Life eventually separates even the closest of families. However, Father and Mother never missed a summer season. They would drive up during a weekend in May and spend several days there opening all the windows, taking the plastic coverings off all of the furniture and oversee Wally—a gentle, dim-witted fellow with a glass eye—as he cleared the grounds of the previous winter’s leaves.
One might wonder how their elderly parents pass the time without their children around. I can guess. As a fiction writer, I am in the business of wondering obsessively about people and what they do with their time; even my own parents were not spared from this curiosity of mine. There was probably breakfast on the veranda, cocktails with Father’s friends from the country club, and evenings spent walking on the beach and the whole history of their sixty-year marriage seeming to hover over them in the cool nighttime breeze like a restless spirit. I imagine there was something else that also hung in the air during those evening excursions around our property. A feeling. It was a feeling—also unspoken as they walked hand in hand back up to the house—that made my parents think that there would not be many more walks or summers together.
In fact, this turned out to be true. Two years ago Father was down at the beach—alone this time, Mother had gone into town to get some fresh fruit at the farmers’ market—and while he was bird watching, he suffered a pulmonary embolism. When Mother came back and found him lying there in the sand with the birds flying everywhere, Father was dead and a seagull had plucked out one of his eyes. At his funeral a week later, Mother had a decided on a closed casket so no one would have to look at his face.
We arrived on the afternoon ferry. Tess pointed out Duffy waiting for us on the dock. I could always pick out my brother in a crowd and, after more than a decade of marriage, my wife could easily do the same. Bells. Shouts and waves from the people on the dock. The smell of sea-water and the bright sun putting a haze on everything. It was summer again.
The ferry steered into port. The cars ahead of us moved slowly off the boat. A slight traffic jam. Car horns honked. People began to depart with their backpacks and coolers and bicycles. Our teenage son, Justin, sat in the backseat looking out the window like he did when he was five and wearing Batman underpants and everything was still new and fascinating. He was happy then. We were happy.
I pulled up next to Duffy. At such close proximity, I was shocked to see how old my brother looked. His hairline was receding rapidly. He had put on some weight. I noticed he wore a pale blue T-shirt, tan shorts and – horror of horrors – these sandals with white socks that seemed to reach almost to his hairy knees. He looked devastatingly middle-aged and I wondered how he was judging me at the moment, for I am only eleven months younger than him. He shook my hand through the window and then got in the back seat with Justin. Duffy’s hand was sticky. Even when we were kids, Duffy’s hands were always sticky.
The ride to the house was a quick one and what little conversation there was in this short span of time was dominated by my brother. He and his family have already been here for several days. Mother seems to be getting frailer every year and she might be developing some hearing trouble. He talked about his girls, Claire and Lizzie, and how all the kids are growing up so fast now. We all listened attentively enough, Tess and I interjecting when necessary. It was that familiar stream of consciousness conversation of any car ride, with subject matter veering off into other directions or coming upon a dead end all together. When we finally arrived, Duffy had just finished telling us all about his latest doctor’s appointment where he had been told to start watching his cholesterol.
The house looked the same as it had for the past thirty years. Duffy helped me with the suitcases. Mother and Mitzy were on the porch. I liked the sound my city shoes made as I walked up the wooden steps, those same wooden steps Duffy and I would run up and down all summer long as barefooted boys.
“Hello, darling,” said Mother. She kissed me on the cheek. “How was the ride in from the mainland? I heard it was choppy out there.” She stepped back and smiled at me after saying this, perhaps remembering the little kid I had once been.
“No,” I said. “It was fine. Just fine. How are you, Mitzy?”
Duffy’s wife was a thin, almost skeletal woman with stringy brown hair and sad eyes. Every time I saw her, I was constantly reminded of those A.S.P.C.A. commercials featuring dogs who have been starved or beaten by their owners. We all knew Mitzy had spent some time in a psychiatric institution shortly after the girls had graduated from middle school. Her smile was timid. “I’m doing well, John. Thanks.”
“Tess, you look lovely, dear.”
“Thank you, Mother.”
“And who is this strapping young man?”
I put my arm over Justin’s shoulder. “Mother, this is baby Justin. He’s fourteen now. He’s going to be taller than me pretty soon.”
Duffy brushed by me with a suitcase. “You always were a little shit, baby brother. Come on. We’ll take this stuff right upstairs.”
“Duffy,” said Mother. “You know I don’t like it when you swear. It makes you sound like an uneducated bum. When you two come back down, join us out on the veranda. I made lemonade.”
I followed Duffy inside. The entryway was bright, cheery, and the smell of brine permeated the whole house. I always had a sense of being rejuvenated when I would return to our little strip of paradise. I had been away for far too long. Upstairs, at the end of the hallway, Duffy opened a familiar door. The hinges squeaked.
“Mother had the maid change all the sheets this morning,” said Duffy, setting one suitcase on the floor next to the walk-in closet.
“I’m sure she watched the poor woman like a drill sergeant. She probably bounced a quarter on the bed just to make sure that the sheets were tight enough.”
Duffy laughed. “No comment.”
I put the suitcase I was holding down on the bed and gave the room a once over. Duffy and I used to sleep in here. The bunkbeds were taken out long ago. I walked across the room to the window. I looked out onto the backyard. I saw an old man staring up at our ancient dogwood tree. When I was ten, I fell out of that tree and fractured my wrist. “Is that Wally down there?”
“Yes,” said Duffy. “Mother still keeps him on. I don’t think she’ll ever let him go. In a way I think she would be lonely here without him.”
I continued to look out the window. “I always wondered how he lost that eye.”
“Maybe it was a seagull,” said Duffy. “Perhaps it was that same seagull that ended up taking Father’s eye.”
I winced at the thought of this.
After Duffy had shown me the new vanity that he had installed for Mother in the bathroom, we went back downstairs. Everyone was out on the veranda. Mother was at a table ladling lemonade into a small glass for Tess. The two of them were laughing at some joke I hadn’t caught. Mitzy was staring out at the water. She seemed lost in her own thoughts. The wind chimes lightly clattered in a nice breeze.
“You have to see my girls,” Duffy told me. He had got a beer from the fridge on our way out and I could smell his sour breath.
The kids were sitting at the rustic-looking table that Father had sanded down and fixed up himself when my brother and I were just beginning to shave. They sat in deck chairs, laughing and texting friends on their iPhones. Justin was making the girls laugh. His copper hair seemed almost fiery red in the sunlight. When Duffy and I came up to them, they didn’t notice us right away. “Girls, did you say hello to your Uncle John?”
They waved at me. Lizzie and Claire were no longer the chubby, ponytailed girls I remembered from holiday Christmas parties. Now they were thin, tanned, and their teeth straightened by expensive orthodontic work. Standing there, I could sense that Duffy and I had interrupted something between our children. At that moment, Tess came up to me. She had two glasses in her hand and she handed me one.
“You got a girlfriend yet, Justin?” asked Duffy.
“No,” he said flatly.
A beat. Lizzie looked at her sister and then at Justin. “You guys want to go down to the beach?”
They quickly disbanded. Duffy had overstepped his bounds. Everyone knew it. I took a sip of my drink.
“It’s good, isn’t it?” Tess asked. “It’s lemonade with just a slight amount of vermouth. Mother has been experimenting.”
After a dinner of grilled chicken, asparagus, Mother’s famous potato salad and some slightly burnt cornbread, it was time for cocktails. The kids had finished dinner and left the dining room table eons ago and now the rest of us walked down to the beach with our glasses full and our legs a little wobbly. Duffy was already down there getting the fire started. He had brought the chairs from the veranda and after a few minutes of confusion —who was sitting where, inquirers about how long the fire was going to last and who had remembered to bring the bug spray—we all settled down and watched as the sun dipped in the horizon and the flames cracked and popped. The long day was coming to an end.
“That was a wonderful dinner, Mother,” said Duffy. “You out do yourself all the time.”
Mother pulled her shawl around her shoulders. “Thank you, Duffy.”
The stars were out and the crickets were talking to each other in their cricket language in the bushes. I could hear the far off sound of a buoy. Family conversation droned on. Mother was talking about her upcoming party, the famous Hopewell House Party that was only a few days away. It was an annual affair, a fun tradition that would ring in the start of the summer as Mother opened the doors of our seaside residence for the neighbors, friends who had been summering along the shores of these white sand beaches for over twenty years and had fond memories of my parents. The previous year Mother had canceled—the sudden death of Father being such a shock to her system—but this summer she was going to be back in full form. We were all looking forward to the party, even me, who generally dislikes such social gatherings.
I was watching Mitzy. All through dinner she was silent. She kept filling her glass with more wine. She sat across from me now and a smile appeared on her face, a smile that was a little eerie when seen through the flickering orange flames.
“So tell us, John,” Mitzy finally said. “Did you find another teaching job yet?”
No one said anything. I looked at my wife. She closed her eyes. “Well…I’ve put my resume out to a few places in the city. No one has got back to me yet.”
“That’s surprising,” said Mitzy. There seemed to be a trace of sarcasm in her voice.
“Honey,” said Duffy. “I think you’ve had a little too much to drink.”
Mitzy shook her head. “No. I’m fine. I’m serious though. With John’s outstanding teaching record, places should be clambering to hire him. He’s also a famous writer! He’s had an honorable career, except for that little indiscretion last semester.”
“Can we please not talk about this?”
Mitzy shot my wife a glance. “Tess, I admire you. I mean you stuck by your husband like an honorable wife should do. I mean many women would have left their husbands after finding out something like that. I can’t even imagine what I would do if Duffy did something like that to me. I’d probably have another nervous breakdown.”
Duffy had already got up from his chair by this point and was standing over Mitzy. He was helping her to her feet and she was slurring her words. “I think it’s time we head in for the night,” he said. “It’s getting a little cool out here anyway.”
“You would…would never cheat on me?”
Duffy didn’t answer his wife. He slowly guided her up the little path that lead back to the house.
“Poor girl,” said Mother. Duffy and Mitzy were now long out of hearing distance. “She really has never been able to handle her liquor all that well.”
My palms were sweaty. I couldn’t speak. Tess just stared ahead into the fire. Suddenly there came the sound of footsteps. We all looked up. Wally came out of the bushes looking like some sort of Wildman. The flames of the fire were reflected in his glass eye.
“Wally,” said Mother, “don’t scare us like that.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Hope…Hope…Hopewell,” he said. Wally always had a terrible stutter. “I finished clearing out the…the shed. But I need to talk…talk to you about that…that dogwood tree.”
“Yes, what about it?”
Wally wiped the sweat from his brow with a red bandana that he took from the back pocket of his chinos. “It…is dead. That tree is dead. It needs to be…cut down.”
Mother shook her head. “Nonsense. That tree has been there for years. There is nothing wrong with it.”
“It…is…dangerous, Mrs. Hopewell. It could fff…fall anytime.”
“Alright,” Mother said, exasperated. “I will call Pete Thompson tomorrow morning and see if he could come by at some point and take a look at it. Okay?”
Wally nodded. “Is there anything…else that you need…me…to do?”
Mother looked at my wife and then she looked at me. There suddenly was a chill in the air.
“Yes,” she said. “Could you put this fire out for us? I think we’re going to head in soon. Duffy was right. It is a little cold out here.”
I was in bed. The house was silent. Outside the window came the sounds of the waves lapping the shore. I couldn’t go to sleep. I was thinking about a former student of mine in one of my creative writing classes, a girl with the vaguely suggestive name of Marcia Bone. She was brilliant. She had told me that she wanted to be a writer like me one day. I had recently been let go at the university where I had been teaching when my affair with this student became public knowledge. When my wife found out about it, she left me in a dramatic moment of uncontrollable rage which resulted in our bedroom being thoroughly trashed. She eventually she came back after a few days. I don’t know why she came back. I’m sure she doesn’t know either.
“Do you think we should get divorced?”
She’s reading my mind. I turned on my side and put my arm around Tess. “No. Absolutely not. I’m determined to make this work, to make things better. I know what Mitzy said out there tonight upset you, but Mother is right. Mitzy is ill. She doesn’t know what she’s saying.”
“I hate her,” said Tess.
“Just remember that Duffy has a lot on his plate. Not just with Mitzy, but with the girls also.”
“I hate him too.”
The next morning, I was having breakfast alone in the kitchen. I didn’t know where anyone was. I sipped my coffee and concentrated on the newspaper spread out on the counter in front of me.
“Ready to roll?”
I pulled myself away from an article about torrential flooding in Texas and looked up at Duffy standing in the doorway. He was wearing ripped shorts spotted with paint and had on a light jacket zipped up halfway. A towel was slung over his shoulder.
“What do you mean?”
“I want to take the boat out, maybe do a little fishing and swimming. Come on. I got some sun screen and another towel for you in the truck.”
Duffy had inherited Father’s old Ford pickup. We drove into town. It was still early in the season and not many boats were out on the water. Father, Mother, Duffy and myself all chipped in and purchased a Kadey-Krogen yacht years ago. Duffy took care of the annual docking fees. The name of the boat was Endurance.
We didn’t go out too far. I could still see the summer houses along the beach. We held a steady course along Melrose Island. We eventually killed the engine. Duffy wanted to drift for a little while. We drank a couple of beers, our feet dangling off the starboard side of the boat like a couple of boys.
“This is what life is all about,” said Duffy.
“Yep,” I responded without much enthusiasm.
Duffy set his beer can down. “I’m sorry about what Mitzy said last night. You know how she is.”
“I do, but I don’t think Tess really does.”
“Mother is going to talk to them both.”
“Good old Mother. She’s always putting out fires.”
Duffy took a swig of beer, burped. “I found a half-burnt joint on the floor of the garage this morning. I also think some wine is missing from the cellar.”
I thought of Justin and Lizzie and Claire. I thought about how little I know about my son. “Kids will be kids.”
The sunlight was sparkling on the water. There were no other boats around.
Duffy stood up. He lugged off his shorts and stood naked beside me. “I’m going in. You coming? I’ll race you out to that buoy.”
“You go ahead. You know I never cared much for the water.”
“Suit yourself. You don’t know what you’re missing.”
He jumped into the water.
I watched him swim for a little while. Sometimes—actually many times when we were kids—I wished that Duffy would die.
We arrived back a little before two o’clock. Duffy had been victorious out on the water. He had caught several large fish for our dinner. I even caught one; a small minnow that I eventually let go. I took the hook out of the mouth. The blood dried quickly on my fingers.
Duffy started to clean his catch as soon as we got home. I went out back to see Mother. She was looking at that old dogwood. There was a big X spray painted in blue on the trunk.
“What’s the verdict?” I already knew the answer.
Mother shook her head. “It has to come down. It’s dead. I don’t understand.”
“Nothing lasts forever,” I said.
We both knew this to be true.
I must admit that my brother had developed some impressive culinary skills over time. The fish—along with a fresh garden salad—had been delicious. I had two glasses of white wine during the course of the meal. When dinner commenced we retired into the den. Justin and Claire were showing Mother and Tess videos on Duffy’s laptop. All three had become transfixed by some dancing cat. They sat watching that stupid cat for at least a half hour or more.
I thought of something. I looked up from my worn copy of Maugham’s Of Human Bondage and said, “Mitzy wasn’t at dinner. Is she feeling alright?”
Lizzie came into the den, thumbs punching the keypad on her phone. She plopped down beside me on the overstuffed sofa. “Mom is in one of her moods again,” she said to no one in particular. She didn’t elaborate any further and she didn’t stop texting either.
“Is she upset? Is your father with her?” I asked.
Lizzie didn’t answer me. I don’t think she even noticed that I was sitting right next to her. I went back to Maugham. The viral videos eventually lost their appeal. Thank God for small favors. When Duffy came into the room, everyone was playing Monopoly. Tess was winning. He collapsed into his armchair.
“She’s sleeping,” said Duffy.
“Who?” Claire asked. She had just collected two hundred dollars from Justin.
“Your mother,” said Duffy. “Remember her? She’s been in bed all day. I don’t think she has even got up once. She doesn’t want to eat. She doesn’t want to talk.”
“It could be a slight flu,” said Mother.
“Or Lyme Disease,” said Tess. “Did you notice if she has any tick bites?”
Lizzie rolled the dice. “It’s not any of those things. Mom is just a whack-job.”
Mitzy seemed to get worse over the next three days. She finally got out of bed, but she moved about the house like a ghost. I began to watch her more closely. It was that writer part of me at work. I would glance at her around doorways. I would look up over my newspaper when she would walk past me. A noticeable change had taken place in Duffy’s wife. You could see it in the drawn face, in the eyes. She paid little attention to any of us. I got the sense that I was watching someone who was already dead.
Friday became Saturday afternoon and it was time for the party. I stood at the front door with Mother and greeted our guests as they came inside. The women kissed me and the men shook my hand and told me how much I resembled my late father. I just nodded and smiled graciously.
The weather was perfect. The sky was a deep blue. No clouds. No chance of rain.
Duffy was at the grill firing up hamburgers and hotdogs. He was wearing his big chef’s hat and a KISS THE COOK apron. There was a crowd around him, just like there always was when we were kids. Mitzy stood beside her husband like the proud wife that she claimed she was. Her eyes still had that disconnected, sunken look. I moved silently amongst these people from my childhood with my scotch in hand, listening to snippets of conversation.
“—my husband is leaving Hamilton and Longreen at the end of September. He’s been with them for twenty-eight years and he’s very—”
“Pat has cancer. She’s been on the chemotherapy for—”
“—it was a heart attack. He had to have a quadrupole-bypass and Joan said—”
“—the kids are out somewhere. They didn’t say where they—”
A man sitting in a lawn chair waved me down. Arthur Stebbins had been a partner of my father’s in the real-estate business. He was in his late seventies now and growing senile. He had a bald head, wore tiny spectacles and hearing-aids and had a bad case of lymphedema in both legs. I went over to him.
“Hello, Johnny. It’s a beautiful day.”
I was conscious of his hearing problems. “Yes, it is. Perfect day for a party like this.”
He handed me his cell phone. I looked at the pictures on the screen. There was a small girl—five years old or so—in a pink tutu on a green lawn. She was smiling. I swiped the screen. Here was another girl, a little older, in a bikini. She had a gap-toothed smile. I handed the phone back to him.
“I collect little girls. That bikini one is my favorite,” said Mr. Stebbins. “I saw that girl on the beach just yesterday.”
He began to lick the screen of the phone with his tongue. I didn’t say anything and walked away.
Tom Talbot was over by the garage. I made a bee-line for him.
“Hello, Tom. How are you?”
“Great. Jesus, this place hasn’t changed at all.”
Duffy and I used to pal around with Tom back when we were teenagers. Tom had a nice car. Tom had a girlfriend. Tom had smoked pot and experimented with LSD. Tom was cool.
“You got that right,” I told him. “How’s Janet? Where are the kids?”
“Pete and Emily went out with your son and Duffy’s kids down to the lake to go swimming. As for Janet, she left with Scott Preston a little while ago. I think she’s been sleeping with him. I don’t care. We’re getting a divorce at the end of the summer anyway.”
“I’m sorry. How are you holding up?”
“I’m fine. I got these.”
He pulled out two blue pills.
“What are they?”
He handed me one.
“Just take it. It’s some great stuff.”
I shrugged and stuffed the plastic blister into my pocket. Tom nodded and patted me on the back. It was great to see an old friend again.
Tess was by herself at the punch bowl like some high school girl who hadn’t been asked to dance. I finished my scotch. I went up to her and kissed her behind the neck. She looked at me above her sunglasses, her expression carefully set. “What is it? It looks like those U.V. rays are getting to you. Are you wearing the sunscreen?”
“Yes. I put it on before coming out here.”
She was wearing a pink blouse and skirt. Her stomach was exposed, lightly browned and flat. I thought she looked great. I couldn’t stop smiling at her.
“Jesus. What’s wrong with your face? I hope you don’t have Bell’s Palsy.”
“No. Of course not. I want to talk to you. Not here. Come on. Follow me.”
“What is it?” she asked when we were alone on the front porch.
The sky had gone pink. Dusk. I pulled out the pills from my pocket. “Look what Tom gave to us to try. He’s says they are amazing.”
“What is that?”
“I don’t know really. But we’re going to find out.”
I tore open the plastic blister and swallowed the first pill. I handed Tess the other one. She looked at it a bit reluctantly.
“Mother is not going to like the fact that we’re doing drugs here.”
“What Mother doesn’t know won’t hurt her.”
Tess swallowed the pill. I suggested that we go upstairs and lie down.
We lay in bed watching the shadows on the ceiling. The sounds of the party were receding, but whether this was due to the drugs or the approaching evening I do not know. My head felt light.
Tess looked over at me. “Do you feel anything yet?”
“I think so.”
“I don’t. This is stupid.”
The light was fading. I felt myself floating. A fog seemed to surrounded the bed. The walls were melting. I was laughing when Tess put her hand in my pants. She was laughing too. I rolled on top of her and began to kiss her.
Things made no sense.
Things made perfect sense.
The smells of us on each other.
I swam up out of a deep sleep to the sound of someone knocking on the bedroom door. For a moment I didn’t know where I was, but then the room reasserted itself. Lamp. Alarm clock (Christ! It was five in the morning). Tess sleeping under the covers, her hair splayed on the pillow. The knocking persisted. Who the hell was that?
I got out of bed and threw on a pair of jeans before opening the door. I couldn’t find my shirt.
Mother stood before me. She was in her bathrobe and slippers and her grey hair was up in pink rollers. “Are you and Tess feeling better?”
I yawned. “What do you mean?”
“No one knew what happened to the two of you last night. You must have turned in early. Duffy and I were left to do the dirty work, cleaning up and shooing everyone out of here.”
I suddenly remembered the blue pills. The frenzied lovemaking. “Yeah. I think it was something we ate.”
A door at the end of the hall opened. Duffy came out of the room in pajama bottoms and a ripped T-shirt. His hair was wild. He looked around in confusion. “Have you two seen Mitzy? I can’t find her.”
Mother looked at him quizzically. “She’s not in there with you?”
For a brief moment I thought I saw a flash of concern in my older brother’s eyes. “No. We went to bed last night and that was the last time I saw her. That was about eleven.”
“She’s probably up already,” said Mother. “I wouldn’t worry. She’s probably making herself some breakfast this very minute.”
The three of us went downstairs. Still no Mitzy. The living room was quiet and there was no one sleeping on the couch. She wasn’t in the kitchen either or the bathroom. I even checked the laundry room. Nothing.
We met outside on the back porch. The sun was starting to come up. A new day was beginning.
“Maybe she went for a drive,” said Mother. “I noticed she’s been smoking again. Perhaps she went up to that Mobile station in town to buy a pack of cigarettes.”
“I’ll check out front and the garage and see if any of the cars are gone,” said Duffy.
He went and Mother followed.
I walked down to the beach. I wasn’t wearing any socks or shoes and the cool sand felt nice on my feet. The surf was gentle. A flock of seagulls took flight. For the first time in a long time I didn’t think about what those birds had done to Father.
I was about a mile down the beach when I came across the pile of clothes. At first I wasn’t sure what it was, perhaps some trash that got tangled up in some driftwood or seaweed.
The clothes were Mitzy’s. Her nightgown was neatly folded and her sandals placed on top. It was strange scene. Something shimmering caught my eye. It lay on a flat stone beside the carefully folded nightgown. A diamond. A diamond ring. Mitzy’s wedding ring.
I looked at the ring for a long time before I slipped it on my index finger. Mitzy wasn’t here. That was clear to me now. I looked out at the water. The seagulls were flying towards the rising sun.
Loved what you read?
Discover Neal Eric Yeomans’ debut: