Thinking those thoughts is starting to seem like the snooze button on an old alarm clock, one I’ve hit so often, it just doesn’t work anymore.
“Gracious, Gwen, where are you today?” Mrs. E. waves her hand in front of my face, calling me back to the here and now.
On her porch, nearly at the end of the day. A day I’ve spent daydreaming about Cass and preoccupied about Henry, going through the motions with Mrs. E., who deserves better.
“Clarissa Cole tells me the yard boy, dear Cassidy, is teaching your brother to swim.”
The island grapevine is evidently faster than a speeding bul-let. Mrs. E. rests a hand, light as a leaf, on my arm. “Oh, uh, yeah—yes. He’s got a lesson tomorrow.”
“Would it be too much to ask if an old Beach Bat could come along?”
“Merely to observe. I spend too much time in the company of the elderly, or”—she lowers her voice, although Joy-less the nurse has not yet arrived, having called to say she’ll be late, and somehow making that sound like my fault—“the cranky. I’ve missed several days with the ladies on the beach—just feeling lazy, I’m afraid. It would be a pleasure to see how your dear boy handles this.”
“He’s not my dear boy, Mrs. E. We just go to school together.”
She looks down, turning the thin gold bracelet on her wrist, but not before I catch the flash of girlish amusement. “So you say. Well, I was a young woman a very long time ago. I cannot, however, pretend that I haven’t noticed that while the neigh-bors on either side have grass that is growing rather long and paths that are a bit overdue for weeding, my own yard has never been so assiduously tended.”
Have to admit, I’ve noticed that too. And when he called to figure out a time for Em’s next swim lesson, there was a certain amount of lingering on the phone.
Cass: “So I should go . . .” (Not hanging up) “Uh . . .”
Me: “Okay. I’ll let you go.” (Not hanging up) “Another family thing?”
Cass: (Sighing) “Yeah. Photo shoot.”
Me: (Incredulous) “Your family thing is a photo shoot?”
Cass: “Stop laughing. Yes. We do the annual photo for my dad’s company website, you know . . . It’s a tradition . . . sort of an embarrassing one, but . . .”
Then all at once, I remembered that. Mr. Somers and the three boys. I couldn’t see her, but Cass’s mom must have been there too. Standing on the deck of their big sailboat tied off the Abenaki pier, white shirts, khaki pants, tan faces. Cass bending his knees to rock the boat, his brothers laughing, me starting to climb down the ladder to clamber aboard. Dad catching me and saying, “No, pal, you aren’t family.”
“You still do that?”
“Every year,” he said. “I may be the black sheep, but appar-ently I photograph well.”
His tone was light, but I heard something darker in it.
I could hear him breathing. He could probably hear me swallow.
Me: “Cass . . .”
Cass: “I’m here.”
Me: “Are you going to do it? What your family wants? Say it was all Spence, go back to Hodges?”
Cass: (Long sigh. I pictured him clenching his fist, unclenching.) “This should be easier than it is.” (Pause) “Black and white. He’s my best friend. But I’m . . . My brothers are . . . I mean . . .”
It’s not like him to stammer. I pressed the phone closer to my cheek. “Yeah?”
Cass: “I’m not Bill, the financial whiz kid. I’m not Jake, the scholar/athlete.”
Me: “Why should you be?”
Cass: “They want the best for me. My parents. My family.”
At that point, Mom came into the room, sighing loudly as she took off her sneakers, flipping on the noisy fan. I told Cass to wait, took the phone outside, to the backyard, lay down in the grass on my back, staring at the deep blue sky. We had never talked like that to each other. His voice was so close, it was as though he was whispering in my ear.
Me: “I’m back. And the best thing for you is?”
Cass: “The whole deal. An Ivy. A good job. All that. I may not be as smart as my brothers, but I know that it . . . looks better . . . to graduate from Hodges.”
Here’s where I should have said that it didn’t matter how it looked. But I couldn’t lie to him. I knew what he meant.
Instead, I asked, “Is that what matters? Looks? To you.”
Another sigh. Then silence. Long silence.
I remember Cass’s brother talking to him outside Castle’s that day. Saying Spence would always land on his feet.
Me: “Wouldn’t Spence be able to bounce back? He’s pretty sturdy. And didn’t his dad get the expulsion off his record?”
Cass: “Well, yeah. But if I sold him out, that would be on my record. In his head. In mine. Who would—I mean, who the hell would that make me?”
My next thought was unavoidable. That you ask? That you worry? Not who I thought you were.
Finally, Cass: “Okay, I really do need to go.”
Me: “Yeah, me too. I’ll hang up now.”
(No hanging up) Cass: “Maybe if we do it on the count of three.”
“One. Two. Three.”
I don’t hang up. Neither does Cass.
Cass: (Laughing) “See you tomorrow, Gwen.” (Pause) “Three.”
Me: (Also laughing) “Right. Three.”
Both phones: Click.
Mrs. E. insists that we drive her Cadillac to pick up Emory and then head to the beach for his lesson. Emory is clearly aston-ished being in a car that doesn’t make loud squealing noises, like Mom’s, and where the seats are overstuffed and comfort-able, not torn up like Dad’s truck. “Riding. A bubble,” he says, mesmerized, stroking the smooth puffy white leather. “Like Glinda.” His eyes are wide.
This time Cass has yet more Superman figures for Emory to rescue, and a fist-sized blue-and-green marble. He places that one pretty far out in the deepening water, and tells Em he has to put his entire face under to get it. Em hesitates. Cass waits.
I squeeze Mrs. E.’s hand. I’ve set up a beach chair for her and am sitting in the sand beside it.
“My Henry was afraid of the water as a little boy,” she tells me quietly. “The captain was most impatient. He tried every-thing, saying he was a descendant of William Wallace and Wallaces were not afraid of anything—although I must say I doubt William Wallace could swim—and promising him treats and giving him spankings—that was an acceptable practice back then. But Henry would not go near the water.”