Summer People

A Novel

Elin Hilderbrand

St. Martin's Press


Driving off the ferry, they looked like any other family coming to spend the summer on Nantucket—or almost. The car was a 1998 Range Rover in flat forest green, its rear section packed to within inches of the roof with Pierre Deux weekend duffels, boxes of kitchen equipment, four shopping bags from Zabar’s, and a plastic trash bag of linens. (The summer house, Horizon, had its own linens, of course, but Beth remembered those sheets and towels from her childhood—the towels, for example, were chocolate brown and patterned with leaves. Threadbare. Beth wanted plush towels; she took comfort now wherever she could find it.)

Three out of the four passengers in the car were related, as any one of the people milling around Steamship Wharf could tell. Beth, the mother, was forty-four years old and at the end of pretty with blond hair pulled back in a clip, a light tan already (from running in Central Park in the mornings), and green eyes flecked with yellow, which made one think of a meadow. White linen blouse, wrinkled now. A diamond ring, too big to be overlooked. One of Beth’s seventeen-year-old twins, her daughter, Winnie, slumped in the front seat, and the other twin, her son, Garrett, sat in back. That there was no father in the car was hardly unusual—lots of women Beth knew took their kids away for the summer while their husbands toiled on Wall Street or in law firms. So it wasn’t Arch’s absence that set their family apart from the others on this clear, hot day. Rather it was the dark-skinned boy, also seventeen, who shared the backseat with Garrett: Marcus Tyler, living proof of their larger, sadder story.

Beth lifted her ass off the driver’s seat. She’d driven the whole way, even though the twins had their learner’s permits and might have helped. She’d been awake since five o’clock that morning, and after four hours on the highway and two on the ferry, her mind stalled in inconvenient places, like a car dying in a busy intersection. In her side-view mirror, Beth checked on the two mountain bikes hanging off the back of the car. (It had always been Arch’s job to secure them, and this year she did it herself. Miraculously, they were both intact.) When she brought her attention forward again—she couldn’t wait to get off this boat!— her gaze stuck on her diamond ring, perched as it was on top of the steering wheel. This wasn’t the ring that Arch gave her twenty years ago when he proposed, but a really extravagant ring that he presented to her last summer. He called it the “We Made It” ring, because they had made it, financially, at least. They had enough money that a not-insignificant amount could be wasted on this diamond ring. “Wasted” was Beth’s word; she was the frugal one, always worrying that they had two kids headed for college, and what if the car got stolen, what if there were a fire. What if there were some kind of accident.

You worry too much, Arch said.

A rotund man wearing a Day-Glo vest, long pants, and a long-sleeved shirt in industrial blue, even on this sweltering day in June, motioned for Beth to drive off the ramp, following, though not too closely, the car in front of her. Seconds later Beth was not on the ferry anymore—not on the ferry, not on I-95, not in a parking garage on East Eighty-second Street. She was on Nantucket Island. The rotund steamship man waved at her (she could see him mouthing, “Come on, lady, come on,” as if she were just another elegant housewife from Chappaqua), but he didn’t know what had happened to her. He didn’t know that, along with the Pierre Deux bags and the expensive mountain bikes, they’d brought along the urn that held her husband’s ashes.

Beth’s forehead grew hot, her nose tingled. Here, again, were the tears. It was the new way she evaluated her day: On a good day she cried only twice, in the morning shower and before her Valium kicked in at night. On a bad day, a stressful day, it was like this—without warning, in front of the kids, while she was driving, in traffic. Tears assaulting her like a migraine.

“Mom,” Winnie said. She’d slept for most of the drive and the ferry ride, and now she gazed out the window as they cruised past the bike shops, the ice cream parlor, the Sunken Ship on the corner. The whaling museum. The Dreamland Theater. People were everywhere—on the sidewalks, in the stores, riding bikes, eating ice cream cones. As if nothing bad could happen. As if nothing could hurt them. Meanwhile, Beth negotiated the traffic surprisingly well at full sob.

“Mom,” Winnie said again, touching her mother’s leg. But what else could she say? Winnie pulled the neck of her sweatshirt up over her nose and inhaled. It was her father’s old, raggedy Princeton sweatshirt, which he’d worn often, sometimes to the gym in their building, and it smelled like him. Of all their father’s clothes, the sweatshirt had smelled the most like him and so that was what Winnie took. She’d worn it every day since he died, ninety-three days ago. Winnie tried to convince herself that it still smelled like him, but his smell was fading, much the way her father’s vivid, everyday presence in her mind was fading. She couldn’t remember the whole of him, only bits and pieces: the way he loosened his tie when he walked into the apartment at the end of the day, the way he ate a piece of pizza folded in half, the way he’d fidgeted with a twig when he told her and Garrett the facts of life one warm and very embarrassing autumn afternoon in Strawberry Fields. (Why hadn’t her mother done “the talk?” Winnie had asked her mother that question a few weeks after the memorial service—now that Daddy was dead, certain topics could be broached—and Beth said simply, “Your father wanted to do it. He considered it one of the joys of parenting.”) A whole life lived and all Winnie would be left with were snippets, a box of snapshots. She breathed in, listening to the atonality of her mother’s sobs as if it were bad music. The sweatshirt no longer smelled like her father. Now it smelled like Winnie.

The Rover bounced up Main Street, which was paved with cobblestones. Garrett shifted uneasily in his seat and checked for the hundredth time on the urn, which was a solid, silent presence between him and Marcus. It was embarrassing to have his mom losing it with a stranger in the car. Beth kept Garrett awake at night with her crying and he had a weird sense of role reversal, like she was the kid and he was the parent. The Man of the House, now. And Winnie—well, Winnie was even worse than his mother, wearing that sweatshirt every day since March sixteenth—every day: to school over her uniform, to sleep, even. And Winnie refused to eat. She looked like a Holocaust victim, a person with anorexia. And yet these two loonies were far preferable company to the individual sitting next to him. Garrett couldn’t believe their bad luck. The last thing Arch had done, practically, before his plane went down, was to invite Marcus Tyler to Nantucket—not for a week, not for a month—but for the entire summer. And since a dead man’s words were as good as law, they were stuck with Marcus.

Your father invited him to come along, Beth said. We can’t exactly back out.

Yeah, Winnie said

SUMMER PEOPLE Copyright © 2003 by Elin Hilderbrand.