Cool, brine-flavored night air came wafting in through the sunroof and the open windows. The Sagamore Bridge hummed under our tires, and in the darkness far below us, the ebbing tide washed through the Cape Cod Canal.
ZZ Top was singing on the CD player. Beside me, Evie Banyon was singing with them. “‘She’s got legs. She knows how to use ’em.’”
Evie had splendid legs, and she certainly knew how to use ’em. She was wearing a short white skirt, and she’d hitched it up to the tops of her thighs. She’d pushed her seat back as far as it would go, and those long, smooth, tanned legs were stretched out in front of her.
Evie was in high spirits. A long August weekend on the Cape in a cute little rented cottage overlooking the water in Brewster? Beachcombing and antiquing, napping in a hammock and reading on a screened porch, making love and eating lobster? What could be more fun?
Me, I was pretty grouchy. A long August weekend on the most crowded peninsula on earth? Fighting smelly traffic and rude sidewalk mobs, sweating under a blistering sun, waiting in line at overpriced restaurants crowded with screaming kids and hostile adults? What could be more aggravating?
Well, the lobster part sounded okay, and the making-love part would be fine.
I’d let Evie talk me into it despite a vow I made years ago after sitting in traffic on Route 3 for an entire Friday afternoon in July. The sun had been blazing, the exhaust fumes nauseating, the wife bitching, the two boys whining. Never again, I promised myself, would I voluntarily drive down to Cape Cod between Memorial Day and Labor Day. For about a dozen years, except for a few unavoidable, involuntary meetings with clients, I’d managed to keep my promise.
And now here I was, driving across the Sagamore Bridge on a Thursday night in August. It wasn’t exactly voluntary, of course. Evie had arranged it without asking me how I felt about it.
She put her hand on my leg. “We made it,” she said. “We’re here. We’ve crossed the bridge and we’re on the Cape. You can stop sulking.”
“I wasn’t sulking,” I grumped. “I was being pensive.”
She laughed. “You can pretend to be an old poop if it makes you feel better, but you can’t fool me.”
“I’m not pretending,” I said. “I am an old poop.”
I turned onto Route 6A, heading east for Brewster. Six-A is a winding, two-lane country road that follows the coastline along Cape Cod Bay. It passes over tidal creeks and skirts salt marshes as it wanders easterly through the self-consciously picturesque little villages of Sandwich, Barnstable, Cummaquid, Yarmouth, and Dennis before it arrives at Brewster, out there toward the inner elbow of Cape Cod.
On a map, the Cape looks like a half-flexed arm, with Provincetown, the hand at its tip, giving the rest of the world the finger.
“You really are quite sweet, you know,” murmured Evie.
“I am not.”
“I know this isn’t your cup of tea.”
“Actually,” I said, “it’s my cup of hemlock.”
“That’s what I mean,” she said. “You’re doing it for me. That’s sweet.”
“Well, don’t tell anybody. I’ve got a reputation to uphold.”
She leaned over the console and laid her cheek on my shoulder. Her fingers moved along the inside of my leg. “The flowers were gorgeous.”
“There’s nothing a girl likes better,” she murmured, “than having a big bouquet of flowers from her honey delivered to her office. It shows the whole world that she is adored.”
Julie, I thought. Julie must’ve sent them. It would be just like her. My smart secretary knew that Evie’s honey was dreading the damn weekend on the Cape. I’d been crabby for a month, thinking about it. Julie knew the power of flowers. A woman who knows she’s adored will put up with anything, even an old poop like me.
I probably should’ve told Evie right then that it wasn’t exactly I who had sent them. But I didn’t want to spoil her happy illusion. I’d tell her later.
Down on the south side of the Cape, Route 28, the outer coastline road, would be clogged all the way from Falmouth to Chatham at ten-thirty on a Thursday evening in August. There the T-shirt emporiums and nightclubs and souvenir ripoffs and clam shacks and miniature golf courses stayed open at least till midnight. But here on 6A we moved quietly through the darkened villages. Even the gas stations were closed.
“It’s not so bad, is it?” said Evie. “Smell the ocean?”
“Low tide,” I grumbled. “Rotting seaweed and outboardmotor fumes and dead shellfish.”
She jabbed me in the ribs with her elbow. “You really are an old poop.”
Just past the traffic light at the little cluster of enterprise at what passed for the center of town in Brewster, Evie said, “Okay. Slow down. I’ve got the directions here.”
We took the second left past the light, another left at the fork, the dirt road on the right, and the third driveway through some scrubby pines, and then we rolled down a long, curving slope to our cottage.
It sat in a moon-bathed opening on a little sandy knoll. An L-shaped screened porch ran around the front and one side. Weathered shingles, fieldstone foundation, brick chimney. Beyond it, the salt marsh merged with the bay.
I parked in front. “Not bad,” I said.
“I thought you’d like it,” said Evie. “The woman sent me pictures. She said it’s totally private. There’s a deck out back with a hot tub. We can get naked and drink gin and tonics, and if you want, we can just stay here the whole time.” She opened the car door and slid out. “Come on. Let’s look.”
I followed her onto the porch. She found the key under the doormat where the woman had told her she’d cleverly hidden it, and we went in.
The entire left half of the cottage was a single open room—kitchen, dining room, living room, with floor-to-ceiling bookcases, woodstove, braided rugs, and sliding glass doors along the back that opened onto the deck. A bathroom and two bedrooms occupied the right half of the cottage. The ceiling was open to skylights in the roof. Copperware hung from big rough-hewn beams over the kitchen.
“Isn’t it great?” said Evie.
“It is,” I said. “It’s really nice.” I went over to the glass sliders and gazed out on the salt marsh, which reflected a sky full of stars.
Evie came to where I was standing and wrapped her arms around my neck, and the next thing I knew, she was pressing herself against me and kissing my mouth.
“About those flowers,” I murmured.
“I was deeply touched,” she said, and she grabbed my hand and tugged me toward the bedroom, and I decided that this was a good time to keep my mouth shut and let her think what she wanted if it made her happy.
Evie got up early the next morning to go running. I declined her invitation to join her. I knew she’d leave me in the dust.
When she got back an hour or so later, her slender body was sheened with sweat. She shed her T-shirt and shorts and sneakers on the deck and climbed into the hot tub.
I fetched coffee for both of us and joined her.
We sat naked across from each other in the tub with the hot water swirling around us, drinking coffee and playing footsie.
“I want to explain about those flowers,” I said after a few minutes. “I—”
Evie put her finger to her mouth. “Shh,” she whispered. “What’s that?”
I listened. It sounded like someone standing right around the corner whistling. “It’s a bobwhite quail,” I said.
“That’s so cool,” she said. She slid around to my side of the tub. “Let’s be quiet. Maybe we can see him.”
Pretty soon we forgot about the quail. We ended up back in bed, and the subject of flowers got lost along the way.
Later in the morning, Evie took the car and went shopping for food and booze. I stayed at the cottage and read a Nick Lyons fishing book in the sunshine out on the deck.
We had tuna sandwiches and potato salad and iced tea on the deck, and while we were eating, the wind shifted, the temperature dropped, clouds gathered in the sky, and a fogbank settled over the marsh.
Evie had planned to go to the beach, but now, she said, she wanted to go exploring. Maybe it was guilt about taking credit for my secretary’s thoughtfulness, so even though I’d been thinking about hammocks and books and classical music on the radio and maybe firing up the woodstove, I volunteered to go exploring with her.
“You don’t have to,” she said. But her tone told me that it would make her happy.
“No, really,” I lied. “I’d like to.”
We ended up driving in slow traffic all the way to Provincetown. We visited several art galleries and antique shops and used-book stores along the way, and in P-town I bought Evie a life-sized quail that had been carved from a single block of pine by a local artisan. Evie had a collection of hand-carved birds. She loved birds.
In my mind, that quail made up for our little misunderstanding about the flowers Julie had sent.
On the way back, we stopped at a rough-shingled seafood restaurant in Eastham. It was perched right on the edge of a tidal creek overlooking a long narrow dock and a small marina, so close to the water that high tide would wash around the pilings that held up the back porch, and even though it was a Friday night in August, we got a table by the window without having to wait.
My kind of restaurant, regardless of how good the food was.
We had gin and tonics, and both of us ordered a two-pound boiled lobster, onion rings, cole slaw, draft beer. We had barely finished our gin and tonics when the lobsters arrived.
Evie was an eat-as-you-go gal. Crack a claw, fish out the meat, dip it in the butter, and down the hatch. My method was to withhold gratification by picking out the entire lobster, filling a bowl with the meat, and eating only after I’d finished the dirty work. Our approaches to eating lobster pretty much defined the differences between us.
When Evie ate, she mumbled and groaned the way she did in bed. When I pointed that out to her, she laughed. “My grandfather in Maine had a boat,” she said. “He had a string of lobster pots, and we always had lobster. When I was a kid, lobsters were a staple in my grandmother’s house. I can remember my mother and my grandma and me sitting around the kitchen table all afternoon picking out lobsters. Grandma had a big glass punch bowl, and we’d fill it with tails and claws till it was full and mounded over. When we were done, we rewarded ourselves by picking the bodies and sucking the legs. I ate so much lobster when I was a kid, you’d think I’d be sick of it. But I’m not. I love lobster.”
“You can pick my body,” I said, “if I can suck your leg.”
She smiled, picked up a lobster leg, looked at me cross-eyed, and sucked it suggestively.
“That’s the first time you ever mentioned your grandmother,” I said. “Or your mother, come to think of it. I didn’t know you were from Maine.”
“I’m not,” she said. “My mother was.”
“I don’t really know anything about your childhood,” I persisted.
“Does it matter?”
I shrugged. “It’s part of you. I’m interested in you.”
“Nothing interesting in my childhood,” she said. She cracked a claw, pulled out the meat, dipped it in butter, and ate it. The drawn butter dribbled down her chin. “I’ve just had this ordinary life. Anyway, I like being mysterious.”
“What about me?” I said. “Am I mysterious?”
“Don’t you want to know about me?”
“I know I love you,” she said. “What else is there?”
“We never talk about our lives before we met. It doesn’t seem natural.”
“So what do you want to know?”
“Well,” I said, “what about—”
Suddenly Evie’s head jutted forward and her eyes narrowed. She was glaring over my shoulder. “Shit,” she hissed.
“Don’t turn around. There’s somebody at the bar. He followed me. Bastard.”
“This is no coincidence.” She wiped her mouth and hands on her napkin, pushed back her chair, and stood up. “I’m gonna take care of this.”
“Want me to—?”
“You stay right here, Brady. I can handle it.”
Evie headed to the bar, which ran the full length of the wall behind me. I turned to watch.
The place had gotten crowded since we’d arrived. People were clustered at the bar, talking and laughing and having a drink while they waited for a table.
Evie marched right up to a man who was neither talking nor laughing. He was a stocky guy with straw-colored hair and a good tan. He had a draft beer in his hand, and he was leaning back with one elbow propped on the bar behind him, smiling at her as she approached him.
He looked to be in his late twenties, which would make him a few years younger than Evie. He had pale eyes and a shy, expectant smile.
I don’t think he expected Evie to walk right up to him and slap his face.
It was no love pat. She started it somewhere around her hip and pivoted her body into it, and when her palm cracked against his cheek, it rang out like a gunshot, and the murmur and mumble of voices in the place suddenly subsided so that everyone could hear Evie growl, “You son of a bitch. Goddamn you. You better leave me alone.”
The guy barely reacted to her slap, but he flinched at her words, then shook his head and held up his hand. He tried to smile, and I heard him say, “Come on, honey, just listen …” before the other conversations in the room resumed and his voice was drowned out.
Evie stood in front of him, pointing her finger at his face and spitting words at him, and I recognized her anger by the hunch of her shoulders and the angle of her neck. I’d seen it before.
He looked at her with a little bewildered smile, and when she was done, he leaned toward her and said something. Evie lifted her hand as if to hit him again, and he held up his hands, stepped back, nodded quickly, turned, placed his glass of beer on the bar, and walked out of the place.
PAST TENSE. Copyright © 2001 by William G. Tapply. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.