They’re a millennial update of The Great Gatsby . . . casual, careless, confident. The Field House apartment door opens and Cass comes out . . . one of them.
I’d gotten used to seeing him around Seashell, fitting in. His hair messed up by the wind and from him running his hands through it, his T-shirts sweaty, rumpled, the wrong color. But now he’s all Hill Boy—dark blue shirt that’s probably designer, judging by how it sculpts his torso so perfectly, pants that actually have a freaking crease in them. I doubt he ironed them himself. Nothing wrinkled, nothing out of place.
“Look how well he cleans up!” Thorpe calls, laughing.
“C’mon, Sundance, let’s get out and get you to forget your troubles.”
“Look what IIIII’ve got.” Jimmy waves a dark brown glass bottle of some expensive-looking beer. “Plenty more where that came from.”
Cass is laughing. He shakes his hair off his forehead in his “I’m just out of the pool” way, which at this moment seems as though he’s shaking off not water but the dust of this crummy island. He slides over the back passenger door, shoving Jimmy to the side with a hip, still smiling. He doesn’t look over toward me, doesn’t see me.
I have the weirdest feeling of loss. As though while Cass was on the island he was becoming a little bit ours, a little bit of an island boy. But it looks as though, after all, he really belongs across the bridge.
“‘Her body was like that undiscovered country that he had long yearned for and never found. And so he took her, plant-ing his flag in her uncharted regions, as only a man can take a woman he yearns for, pines for, throbs to possess,’” I read to my rapt audience.
Mrs. E. is not alone in her taste for romance novels.
The reading circle has expanded to include tiny Mrs. Cole and Phelps, Big Mrs. McCloud, and Avis King. I can hardly be accused of corrupting minors, since Mrs. Cole is the youngest at seventy-something, but I feel uncomfortable anyway. Maybe because my mom loaned me the book. Or because during one of the pirate’s more exotic seductions of the pregnant princess, Avis King made me reread a paragraph three times while she and the others tried to decide if the pirate’s feats were physically possible. And really, his flag?
Jump-starting this discussion, Avis King, growling in her pack-a-day voice: “He’d have to be extremely physically fit.”
Mrs. Cole, high-pitched and defensive: “I’m sure pirates were. All that sacking and pillaging.”
Avis King: “Clarissa, you’re all in a muddle, as usual.
Vikings sacked and pillaged. Pirates spent a lot of time on the high seas on cramped boats without room to exercise.”
“This pirate certainly gets a lot of exercise,” Mrs. Ellington says approvingly. “I do like these modern romances. None of that foolish cutting away to the next scene just when things are getting good.”
Big Mrs. McCloud, imperious as a queen: “Pirates all had bad teeth too. Scurvy.”
Avis King: “Let’s just move along, girls?”
But we can only continue a short way before there’s more speculation. “The princess must be having a boy if she’s inter-ested in getting up to all that with the pirate in her condition.
“Oh Clarissa, that’s a myth,” says Avis King. “There was no difference at all in how I felt about Malcolm when I was expecting Susanna or William.”
“I don’t know . . .” Mrs. Cole muses. “I barely wanted to eat at the same table as Richard when I was with child with Linda, but with Douglas and Peter . . .” She stops, smiling reminis-cently.
Mercifully, the ladies all ask for iced tea at this point. Mrs.
Cole follows me into the kitchen. “This is hard,” she says softly, in her whispery little-girl voice. I assume she means the pirate and the princess and concur.
“Well, it is kind of explicit, and that can be unnerving.”
“Oh heavens”—she flaps her hand at me—“not that! Do you think I was born yesterday?”
Well no, which is part of what makes it awkward.
“No, it’s that dear Rose has headed up all our summer traditions. Now she spends so much time sitting about. Doing nothing. Planning less. That’s what I hate the most. The not planning. Like there’s no future there,” she confides, softly.
“She’s the oldest of us, but never seemed that way. I don’t know what Henry Ellington’s thinking, leaving her on her own so much. When my Richard broke his hip, our children and grandchildren were there all summer, waiting on him hand and foot. Drove him crazy, if you must know. But far better that than this . . . absence.”
Just then the phone rings. As if summoned, it’s Henry Ellington. “Gwen? How’s my mother doing?”
The problem is, having discussed his mother with him a grand total of once, I don’t know how much truth he wants. I say something about her appetite being good, and how she’s gotten to the beach, and he cuts in with, “What about resting?
Has she been getting her naps on schedule? Same time every day?”
Does it really matter about the time? She naps, but yes, we’ve occasionally come back later from the beach or gone for a drive to some farm stand in Maplecrest where they have these elusive white peaches Mrs. Ellington craves. I stammer that I try.
“I’m sure,” he says, his voice softening. “I know Mother’s will of iron. But do your best. I’ll be coming down to see her today, as a matter of fact. But I’ll probably get there while she’s napping. Then I’d like to make dinner. Would you be offended if I sent you out to the market for us? It’s my father’s birthday and she’s always sad. I thought I’d make her his favorite meal— that was their tradition.”
Indeed, Mrs. E. is fretful and out of sorts by early afternoon.
She agrees to go up to bed slightly early, then keeps calling me back to open a window, close a shade, bring her a cup of warm milk with nutmeg. She fusses that I put in too much honey, not enough nutmeg, the milk is too hot, there’s a scalded skin on top. Finally, she lets me leave. I sit outside her door sliding my back down the wall, checking my texts from Viv and Nic, waiting for another summons, but all is quiet, so I inch slowly down the stairs, stepping over the fourth one that creaks like the crack of a rifle if you hit it the wrong way.