“Gwen, dear,” she says serenely, stretching out her wrist, from which a black bathing suit is dangling. “I fear I am going to require your assistance here.”
This is not how I imagined my first day at work. Flipping burgers, sprinkling jimmies, and frying shrimp is looking really good. Or weed-whacking. Or simply hijacking one of the lawn mowers and getting the hell off island.
“Close your eyes, dear,” Mrs. E. says briskly, possibly seeing me visibly brace myself. Her own eyes look sad.
I squeeze them shut, then immediately realize I actually have to see what I’m doing in order to pull black spandex onto an octogenarian with a broken foot and a cane.
So, okay, I’m not that comfortable with my own body. Who would be when their best friend is Vivie the Cheerleader?
When their school job is timing for a bunch of buff boys in Speedos? When your mom marks time by saying things like, “That was before I was such a blimp”?
But this takes body consciousness to a whole new level.
I’m bending over, yanking the suit over her soft, blue-veined calves, when she makes a little sound.
“Am I hurting you?” Oh God. I should have stayed at Cas-tle’s, should have scrubbed toilets with Mom, should have. . . .
“No, no, dear girl, it’s just that after a certain age, one barely recognizes oneself. Especially in a state of undress. It’s rather like the portrait of Dorian Gray, if he were female and wore a swimming suit.”
“Yoo-hoo!” calls a voice from downstairs.
“That will be the ladies,” Mrs. Ellington says, a bit breath-lessly, as I tug the swimsuit over her hips. “Go let them in. I believe I can manage from here.”
I open the door to find Big Mrs. McCloud, as she’s always called on Seashell (her daughter-in-law is Little Mrs. McCloud), Avis King, Mrs. Cole, as always clutching her tiny terrier Phelps like a purse, and, surprisingly, Beth McHenry, who used to work with Mom cleaning houses until she retired. They’re all wear-ing straw hats, sunglasses, and bathing suits. Among the ladies, there are no cover-ups, no sarongs, just brightly flowered suits with skirts, freckled skin that’s seen a lot of sun, wrinkles, and what Mom would call “jiggly bits.” I didn’t imagine my day would involve so many octogenarians in swimwear, but it’s kind of nice to see it all displayed so proudly. I usually wrap a towel around my waist when I’m in my suit in public. Avis King, who is built like an iceberg—small head, ever widening body—marches in first.
“Where’s Rose?” she growls, sounding like Harvey Fierstein with bronchitis. “Don’t tell me she’s still asleep! It’s high tide and perfect weather.” She looks me up and down critically.
“Lucia’s gal, am I right? You’re the one hired to be her keeper this summer. Ridiculous waste of money, I say.”
“Hello, Gwen!” Beth McHenry says, smiling at me, then furrowing her brows at Avis King. “Lordy, Avis. Rose did get a concussion just a week ago. Henry’s only being careful.”
“Pish. Just because Rose has a few memory lapses and a bum foot!” Mrs. McCloud pronounces. “Twice last week I hunted for my reading glasses when they were on my head, and put my car keys away in a box of saltines. No one’s hiring me a watchdog.”
“I’d like to see them try,” Mrs. Cole murmurs in her sweet voice.
“Typical of Henry Ellington, though. Just like his father.
Won’t come take care of the situation himself, hires other peo-ple to do it.” Avis King shakes her head. “How can you possibly know you’ve got good help unless you look them straight in the eye and interview them yourself? Any fool knows that.”
Help? My shorts and gray T-shirt suddenly morph into one of those black dresses with the ruffly white aprons servants wear in Grandpa Ben’s movies. I resist the urge to bob a curtsy.
Then I hear the slow thump and drag of Mrs. Ellington descending the stairs and hurry to reach her, but before I can, she appears in the doorway, smiling at her friends. “Shall we move on, girls, before the tide turns? Come, Gwen!”
After the beach, the ladies scatter, Mrs. E. lunches and naps.
Then asks me to read her a book, and hands me—I swear to God—something called The Shameless Sultan.
Yup. Whatever else it may be, calm, quiet, well-ordered, lucrative . . . apparently the Ellington house is not going to be a refuge from the overdeveloped muscles and half-naked torsos that decorate most of the books at home.
But at least I don’t have to read aloud to Mom.
“‘Then he took her, as a man can only take a woman he yearns for, pines for, throbs to possess,’” I read softly.
“Speak up, dear girl. I can’t hear a word you’re saying.”
Oh God. I’m nearly shouting the words now—over the sound of the lawn mower rumbling from the front lawn. At any moment Cass could come around the corner to find me pining and throbbing.
I read the next sentence in a slightly louder voice, then halt again as the mower cuts off.
Mrs. Ellington waves her hand at me impatiently. “Gracious!
Don’t stop now!”
That sounds frighteningly like a line from the book. I dog-gedly continue. “‘With every movement of his skilled hands, he took her higher, hotter, harder—’”
“Just with his hands?” Mrs. E. muses. “I was under the impression more was involved. Do continue.”
Was that the sound of the carport side door opening and closing? No, I’m getting paranoid.
“‘Waves of rapture such as Arabella had never dreamed existed swept through her ravished body as the Sultan moved, ever more skillfully, laving her supple curves with his tal-ented—’”
Someone clears their throat loudly.
Mrs. E. looks over at the porch door with her expectant smile, which widens even further at the sight of the figure standing there. “My dear boy! I didn’t know you were coming.”
“No,” a male voice says, “apparently not.”
I’ve closed my eyes, waiting/hoping to literally die of embarrassment. But the deep, rumbling voice does not belong to Cass.
Instead it’s a middle-aged man wearing a pale blue V-neck cashmere sweater, creased khaki pants. He walks farther onto the porch with an air of ease and authority. Do I have to explain what I was reading, or do I just pretend it’s all good, la-la-la?