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The beaches were empty, the stores were closed, and after sunset, all the houses on New Hampshire Avenue stood dark. For months, Effie had been telling him about this place and the many things they would do here, but she had only known it in the summer, and this was the end of September. She had not understood what “off-season” meant. They had come up from Georgia on the overnight train. They were supposed to spend two weeks here, for their honeymoon.
“I love it,” Henry said their first evening. “It’s like we got the whole place to ourselves.”
Effie laughed at that. A minute later, she began to cry.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “It’s nothing, really—don’t coo over me. I’m just tired, that’s all.” She smiled at him. “I’m glad you like it. We’re going to have a wonderful time.”
Before this trip Henry had never been north of Atlanta, and he had never seen the ocean. He and Effie had grown up in the little town of Signal Creek, half an hour east of Macon, and in the spring they had graduated from high school: Thomas E. Cobb, Class of 1957. He was twenty—like many people from the country, he had started school late—and she was eighteen. They both, as far as Henry knew, had been virgins.
In the taxicab from the depot they’d come out beside a harbor teeming with masts, and the sea beyond it was roiling, immense, speckled with whitecaps. From the harbor they turned into a residential area shaded with elm trees, and here were the grand Victorian houses Effie had told him about: bright colors, slate gables and conical towers, widows’ walks with wrought-iron railings, porches trimmed in elaborate woodwork, trellises opening onto the sidewalks, chrysanthemums in bloom. On New Hampshire Avenue the houses were more plain—one- and two-story cottages that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Signal Creek, aside from the colors. Aunt Lizzie’s place was one of these: pale pink, two stories, with a deep front porch above a dead flower garden. It was disappointing. But when he stepped out of the cab and heard the ocean three blocks away, a hushed, deep roar, it seemed to him that his true life was just beginning, and that every possible door was open to him now. He scooped Effie up into his arms—she shrieked and laughed—and carried her across the threshold.
The house looked different, she said when he set her down. She hadn’t seen it in three years, since the summer before her aunt Lizzie passed away. The wicker furniture was new. The gas stove, the refrigerator and freezer: none of these conveniences had existed. They seemed to trouble her. There were four bedrooms on the second floor—these looked different too—but Effie insisted they sleep in the attic room, where she had slept as a child. At the top of the stairs she slid a heavy glass door open and they stepped inside. This room, happily, had not changed a bit. The walls slanted sharply, bare wooden beams. A single bed stood in the middle of the room, a chest of drawers, a dusty vanity table and mirror. In a corner stood a small, dead Christmas tree, threads of tinsel still caught in the branches. That had been there too. She knelt down to the floor-level windows and cracked them open. From here you could see the ocean over the houses across the street; Henry crouched down for a look.
“I know it’s a little peculiar,” Effie said, “but you can humor me, can’t you? Just for a night?”
He could humor her for the rest of her life, he wanted to say, but Effie laughed at expressions of deep feeling; she had been on the verge of laughing all through their wedding ceremony. He kissed her instead, and put his hand on her thigh, his body humming. All these months of anticipation, and here they were. They had known each other since they were children, from church and from school, though for most of that time they had not thought much of each other. He could see her standing at the blackboard in Mrs. Mobley’s fourth-grade classroom, in her Mary Janes and white stockings, copying out a line from the Psalms: Mayor Tarleton’s snotty little daughter. And he, one of the boys from out there, beyond the town line. Now they were here, together and alone. In New Jersey, of all places.
She laid her hand over his. “Let me take a bath first,” she said.
It happened not in the attic room, which was too full of memories, but in one of the redecorated bedrooms on the second floor. They chose the one with the rose-patterned wallpaper. He drew the curtains closed. She’d just taken her bath, and while she stood still he undid the loose belt at her waist and slipped her robe off her shoulders. Until now, what little they had done had come in stolen moments back home: an afternoon at the bend in the creek, when he’d pulled the straps of her bathing suit down and seen her breasts for the first time; the night, shortly after they got engaged, in the backseat of her Buick, when he’d reached up her dress and she’d let him—the soft skin above her stockings, the elastic of her underwear, the scent that had lingered on his fingers—and every detail was burned into his memory but at the same time unreal, as if he’d dreamt it. Now, in this dim room, early on a Sunday afternoon, when they would normally be in their church clothes having dinner with their families, Effie lay naked on the rose-patterned duvet. She looked away while he unbuckled his trousers and let them fall to the floor, and after hesitating a moment, he pulled down his BVDs and got into the bed beside her. They kissed for a minute, skin against skin, smooth and cool and then warm, before he got on top of her, where he couldn’t quite see what he was doing. He hovered over her, fumbling between her legs, until she looked down, took his penis lightly between her fingertips, set it in the right spot—and there she was: their intimacy deepened in an instant. His breath caught. She lay still. In a few seconds, it was over.
Afterward they lay beside each other looking at the ceiling tiles. He wondered whether he felt irreversibly changed.
“Well,” Effie said. “I guess we’ve done it, then.”
Later, as they walked down to the beach in the early evening, they held hands and had little to say to each other. What was there to say? They knew each other now, in the biblical sense. He smiled at her; she smiled back. The dress she was wearing was one she’d worn often to school, before the thought of dating her had ever entered his mind, and the familiar sight of it made her strange: she was both the girl he knew then, in the hallways of Thomas E. Cobb, and the girl he knew now, far more intimately, in Cape May, New Jersey. His wife. With whom he had already shared an indignity: they’d made a mess on the rose-patterned duvet. But Effie, bless her, had been sporting enough to laugh about it, and asked him to run and fetch her a towel. He was grateful for her.
Down at the promenade they stood for a while and looked at the sea. The waves curled over and crashed, one after another, an endless succession. All that water: it was a wonder it didn’t swallow them up. The day was overcast and the wind had a bite to it. Seagulls hovered overhead, shrieking.
“It’s so weird,” Effie said. “In the summer this place is teeming.” She pointed to a pier that jutted out from the promenade, at the end of which stood an arcade where there had been games and music, she said, where she and her friends would spend entire afternoons, until the lights came on. Acrobats and strongmen performed on the promenade, there were stands of cotton candy and saltwater taffy, and boys surfed in the waves.
“We’ll just have to come back in the summer, then,” Henry said.
She took his hand again and they continued on down the promenade toward town. All along Beach Avenue, to their right, the shops were shuttered and dark, signs posted in the windows: CLOSED FOR THE SEASON. SEE YOU IN MAY!
At last they found a diner that was open and sat at a booth by the window. Their waiter was a boy with the kind of accent Henry had only ever heard on the radio. He wondered if he could tell that they’d recently had sex.
“If you’re from all the way down there,” the boy said, “why didn’t you just go to Florida?”
“Because it’s beautiful here,” Effie said.
Henry ordered the meat loaf, she ordered the fish and chips, and as the boy slipped his notepad into his back pocket he said, “Well, if you came to get away from it all, you came to the right place.”
They ate in silence. “I’m so glad to be here,” Henry said.
That evening, they called it an early night and went up to the attic room. It was not quite eight o’clock.
She prayed the way his grandmother did: on her knees beside the bed, hands clasped, muttering to herself. Henry looked away. She wore a nightgown and her breasts were loose inside of it, but after her praying, a pious aura surrounded her that stunted his arousal. She kissed him and said, “Is it all right if we just go to sleep now?” The look of pity on her face was annoying.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s all I want to do too.”
In the dark he clasped his hands over his chest and prayed silently. He thanked God for the day. He prayed for their happiness and future. He prayed that he would be a good husband. Then he lay rigid on his side of the bed, listening to the wind and the waves through the open windows—feeling gassy, worrying he’d pass it in the night, wishing he could be alone for a little while.
* * *
The next day was better. It was raining, but they were starving and there was no food in the house, so they had to go outside. They were soaked by the time they found the grocer’s in town.
There was life here, as it turned out. Weathered men in pea coats—fishermen, maybe. A group of Coast Guard cadets, from the training station north of town. A few men and women running errands under umbrellas. They passed a grammar school, and at least one of the windows was lighted, though they didn’t see any children anywhere. In the central part of town, several blocks inland, a candy shop was open, a dry goods store, the grocer’s on Washington Street, and beside it a hardware store and a liquor store. The old clerk at the grocer’s seemed as happy to see them as they were to see him, and Effie called out orders as if she were preparing for a banquet: a pork loin, a pound of haddock, a loaf of bread, a pound of butter, sliced ham and cheese, potatoes, eggs, peach preserves, plums, apples, strawberries—she would fill the kitchen with abundance. On the way back to the cottage the rain became a downpour and they started running, each of them hugging a bag of groceries, the paper turning soft and dark in their arms. They arrived winded, doubling over with laughter. They put the groceries away and then, up in the attic room, peeled their wet clothes off and made love, memories be damned, over a beach towel spread under them on the bed.
Afterward she lay naked against him—so casual, like it was nothing already. “I’m sorry I was so gloomy yesterday,” she said.
“You weren’t, Eff,” he said. His penis lay tipped against her thigh. He liked how it looked there. “You were tired. We’re settled in now.”
She nodded, her head moving against his shoulder. He couldn’t see her face. “It just feels so weird to be back here. It’s not like I remember it.”
He kissed the top of her head—her hair was still damp—and gave her bare behind a squeeze. “Hey, so what. We’re making new memories now.”
She looked up at him and smiled. “You’re such a sweet boy, Henry.” She kissed him soft and slow, and in a minute he was up again, and though she resisted, playfully—“I told you, Henry, I’m starving”—with a nudge she got on top of him and they found each other without trying.
After lunch they sat out on the front porch and watched the rain, which was cool and fragrant, and she pointed out houses on the street and told him about the people who had lived in them during the summers. There were the Woods, in the cottage across from them, whose daughter, Betsy, used to babysit her sometimes. Next door to the Woods, in the large house with the barn-shaped roof, lived her friend Vivian Healy, whose older brother, Charles, had died in Korea. A few houses down, on this side of the street, in the big purple Victorian, lived an older couple who always kept to themselves. She never knew their names. “You’d just see them walking hand in hand down the sidewalk, and they’d smile at you and say hello, but that was all. There was never anyone else there, no children or grandchildren. Just the two of them.”
“That’ll be us someday,” Henry said.
Effie laughed. “Don’t say that. It’s too sad.”
“How is it sad? It sounds sweet to me.”
She shook her head. “No,” she said. “You and me—there’ll be no peace for us, I’m afraid. We’re going to have us a roost.”
“God help me,” Henry said. She’d made it clear to him that she wanted five children at least, all boys if she had her way, that she wanted a house that never rested, that she and Henry, into old age, would be at the center of a maelstrom of life (she wanted dogs too), and though he didn’t care one way or another about children, or dogs—in fact her idea of the future had alarmed him when he really thought about it, in the weeks before their marriage—now it made him feel light and for a brief moment radiantly happy. They were going to be all right.
“What are you smiling at?” she said.
“You,” he said.
“Quit it,” she said, and she kissed him before he could say anything more.
They drank some of Uncle George’s brandy. In the house instructions he’d left for them on the dining room table he told them they could help themselves to his liquor cabinet, but if they drank more than half of any bottle he expected them to replace it, and he provided them with the address of the liquor store on Washington Street. “We should leave exactly half of every bottle,” Henry said, and Effie laughed. This Uncle George, Aunt Lizzie’s widower, lived in Philadelphia and wasn’t a blood relation. Effie had never had much to say about him, aside from the logistics of the trip and when the cottage would be available. Henry had the sense she didn’t like him very much.
She made the haddock for supper—it stuck to the pan and crumbled to pieces, but it was good—and afterward they turned the radio on, found a hits station that wasn’t too fuzzy with static, and danced in the den to “Chances Are.” They played a game of checkers, which Effie won handily. They passed the halfway mark on the bottle of brandy.
“What’s he going to do, bill us?” Henry said.
“To hell with King George,” Effie said. “Bottoms up.”
On Tuesday the sun came out and the streets and squares in town were spangled with light. They walked out to see the lighthouse, which stood near the point, on the other side of a wetland. This spot, according to Henry’s understanding of the town, marked the southernmost tip of New Jersey. Ahead of them lay open ocean, to the left of them lay open ocean, and off to the right somewhere, on the other side of the peninsula, lay Delaware Bay. Now that the sun was out, the sea was royal blue. “Just think,” he said, pointing to the horizon ahead, “about ten thousand miles down that way is Antarctica, or South Africa, or something. We could just swim and swim and never see the end of all that water.”
When she didn’t answer he looked at her and saw that she was frowning. She’d been grumpy that morning. They’d both had too much to drink. “That’s not right,” she said. “That way’s west.”
He felt a prick of annoyance. He’d only been trying to put a little wonder into things. “How is that way west? It’s ocean as far as you can see.”
“No, it’s Delaware,” she said. “You can see it with binoculars—I’ll show you a map when we get back to the house.” She pointed off to the left of where they were standing. “That way’s south. If you swam that way, you’d run into Antarctica or South Africa or what-have-you. Actually, I think you’d run into Venezuela first.”
Never mind. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. “Fine, Rand McNally, south is west and east is north,” and she pushed him away, smiling.
* * *
They made love every morning, before they got out of bed, and again in the late afternoon. They were gentle and considerate with each other. He caressed her between her legs, shy of looking too closely at it. He kissed her breasts, her soft, plump belly, her impressive nest of pubic hair, which smelled of linen, but he went no further, afraid of offending her, afraid that she would recoil or laugh or call him a pervert. How could he ask what she wanted? How could he tell her what he wanted? Sometimes she held his penis lightly and he lifted his hips to encourage her—he wanted her to hold it more firmly (but not too firmly), he wanted her, in his dreams, to put it into her mouth—but she shied away, afraid of hurting it, or else wary of it, or revolted. He didn’t know. But they made love, no words necessary, and it seemed to go a little more naturally each time. He took it slow and easy, holding back the tide for as long as possible. The headboard tapped the wall. She breathed close to his ear, her fingers in his hair.
Later, while they ate breakfast or tried a new route through the town, her expression would grow distant, and they might go half an hour without saying a word. He had to remind himself that these silences weren’t necessarily awkward, that in fact it was a sign of intimacy that they didn’t have to be speaking all the time. But even so, he couldn’t help thinking that if he’d been a brighter person, less quiet and inward—more funny and gregarious like his best friend, Hoke, whom Effie adored—then maybe she would be happier.
The days were long. There was little to do. She took naps in the afternoons, and Henry coveted the time alone. He’d been constipated since before their wedding, and only when she was asleep did he feel comfortable enough to try to go to the bathroom—far away from her, in the lavatory off the kitchen. The results were always unsatisfying. Afterward, feeling bloated, he’d sit in the den with the windows open or out on the back porch, where the birch trees made a calming sound.
He was reading Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, which his uncle Carswall had given him as a wedding present. Carswall had read it when he was a young man, and it had been a good guide to him, he said. “You’re always going to be at work on yourself, son, and it’s always going to be a struggle. But it’s the struggle that’ll make you a good man.” Henry liked the ideas; he had a vision of the kind of man he wanted to be—virtuous, humble, strong, and bold, full of good cheer but in healthy moderation—and he was eager to learn. But the book, so far, was a thumping bore, and he couldn’t read more than a few sentences before his mind began to wander.
* * *
Thursday morning they walked out to the marina to look at the boats. At the end of a pier stood an octagonal building with large windows on all sides. Effie thought she remembered going to parties there. The entrance was padlocked, but beside it a fresh-looking poster of a jack-o’-lantern in a sailor’s cap advertised a dance for Friday, October 11. “Is that tomorrow?” Henry asked, but Effie said no, that was next Friday.
“Hey,” he said, “that’s our last night here.” He took her hand. “Our last night, there’s going to be a dance here. How about that?”
She didn’t seem to share his excitement. She touched her fingertips to the poster. “My God,” she said. “I can’t believe we’re going to be here that long.”
They went down to the beach and walked along the edge of the surf with their shoes in their hands.
“You know,” she said after a long silence, “we don’t have to stay the whole two weeks. We could take the train out on Sunday and be home by Monday morning.”
“You want to leave?” he asked.
“Maybe?” she said.
From here Cape May really was beautiful. The edge of the ocean stretched off into the distance ahead of them, on one side the beach and the tall grasses and, farther off, the big Victorian hotels, the columns and striped awnings. Signal Creek seemed so dreary in comparison. Pine woods, fields of cotton and peanuts, the Courthouse Square, the toffee-colored creek itself. Carswall and Henry’s mother were having an annex of the house—what they grandly called “the Old Wing”—remodeled for them. A living room with a potbelly stove, a bedroom, a lavatory, a tiny hopeful room for the future baby. The thought of settling into their lives there—so soon, anyway—depressed him. “I don’t want to leave,” he said. “I could stay here forever.”
Effie smiled at him. “I’m glad you feel that way.” She stopped to pick up a shell from the flat, wet sand at their feet and turned it over in her hand. “It just feels so sad here, Henry. Sad and—I don’t know.” She looked past him. “Dull, I guess.”
It stung, and he opened his mouth to speak, but she kept on, oblivious: “Aunt Lizzie’s dead and gone. None of my old friends are here. Uncle George … Did you know he wanted to charge us for the cottage, and Mama had to talk him out of it? She had to remind him we were still technically his family. She was so embarrassed.” Henry didn’t see what that had to do with anything, but he said nothing. “I don’t know what I was thinking. That boy at the diner was right: we should have gone to Florida.”
“Eff,” he said, collecting himself, “we can’t go home early.”
“No, listen,” he said, but he wasn’t sure how to say what he wanted to say. How humiliating it would be. How everyone would detect failure, even if it wasn’t really there: they would think it and it would burrow in and eventually become true. “Think of your mama,” he said. “My mama. What are they going to say?”
It seemed to have an effect on her. She nodded, and tossed the shell away. They continued walking, and Henry thought he had won the point, although what good was it if she was just going to be sad and bored the rest of the time? But after a few minutes she said, “I don’t care what people say, Henry. I just want to go home.”
* * *
So they would leave Sunday afternoon. At least they would have the weekend. Henry felt hurt and angry at first—it was rotten of her to be sad, to say things were dull after what they had shared—but soon he felt as though a pall had risen from them, now that their honeymoon was ruined. After supper—the pork loin, which was delicious—they opened Uncle George’s brandy again and the evening took on a valedictory air. They took the bottle out to the front porch and watched the light fade from the elm trees. They told stories. How Betty Moody wanted Maynard Givens’s babies. How Suzie Blanchard could let the farts rip when it was just the girls. The time Hoke had tried to jump Lord’s Gully on his bike. Henry loved the rare occasions when he could make Effie laugh, when she briefly lost her cool and the whole top half of her body bounced. “Stop it, stop it,” she said, “you’re going to make me wet myself.” They finished the brandy and opened a bottle of scotch. They couldn’t pronounce the name. “I bet it’s expensive,” he said, and they said cheers and clinked their glasses. It was dark out now, and they’d turned the radio on, and soft, airy music was coming out to them on the front porch. They were in a lull—a comfortable silence this time, drunk and content—when Henry noticed the lights down at the end of the street.
He stood up and went to the railing to get a better look. There were lights in the windows of the house on the corner—three houses down, on the other side of the street, where New Hampshire Avenue intersected with Madison Avenue. He called Effie over to see.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” she said.
They weren’t alone anymore.
“You never said anything about that house,” he said. “Do you remember who lived there?”
She thought about it. “I don’t know,” she said. “It’s been so long.”
With their drinks in hand they walked down the sidewalk until they stood directly across from the house. Most of it was invisible in the dark, but the downstairs windows were bright. They watched and listened for signs of life, but nothing moved behind the curtains, and all they could hear was the surf and the wind in the trees.
“Should we go say hello?” Henry said.
Effie reached up to pat her hair. “No—Lord, no. It’s late.” She held up her drink. “We’d look like a couple of drunks, wouldn’t we?”
“Maybe tomorrow, then.”
She nodded. They stood watching a few minutes longer, until Effie pointed out that they were acting like creeps, and they turned back to the cottage.
* * *
The next morning, on their way down to the beach—it was a balmy day, finally, and Effie thought they might be able to get into the water—they passed the house on the corner and saw three automobiles crowded in the driveway: a little red sports car, a baby-blue Cadillac convertible, and what looked to Henry like a Rolls-Royce, though he’d never seen one in real life. They were rich, these people. Except that the lawn, more than the others on the street, was overgrown with weeds, and the house, set back in the gloom of the trees, had a condemned look to it.
The water was too rough for swimming, so they climbed up onto one of the tall lifeguards’ chairs and looked out over the surf. Effie was trying to remember who had lived at the house. She held the wide brim of her hat with both hands so it wouldn’t fly off. “It could have been the Richardses, I guess. They had a daughter, Mattie, who was a few years older than me—but they might have lived over on Maryland Avenue, I don’t know. It’s probably no one. A lot of these places turn over.”
When they passed the house again on their way back, two more cars had parked along the curb—a long, shiny Buick and another Cadillac. “It must be a party,” Henry said.
“Or a family thing. It might be rude to crash it.”
“Who said anything about crashing? We can just say hello.”
* * *
They decided they would do it at five, which was early enough, Effie thought, that they wouldn’t interrupt the newcomers’ supper. “We’ll just stop by,” she said. “If they invite us in, fine. If not—well, we’ll just see if there’s any life in this town on a Friday.”
They were nervous, for some reason; he could tell that she was too. Maybe it was the Rolls-Royce in the driveway. Maybe, absurdly, it was that they were expecting some kind of rescue and didn’t want to bungle it. Henry wore his good trousers and shoes and a gray blazer. Effie wore her navy-blue dress with the white collar and white belt cinched tightly around her waist. She’d bundled her hair up and looked pretty, especially in the late-afternoon light, but not as though she’d dressed up for a party, which might come off as presumptuous.
Another car had parked by the curb. That made six in all. They walked up the gravel drive and found the path, almost completely obscured by weeds, that led to the front door.
The front door was open, and through the screen door they could see to the back windows, but they couldn’t see anyone inside. Effie pulled a rope hanging by the door and a bell clanged inside. They waited. After a minute she pulled the rope again, and finally a voice came from deep within the house—“Coming!”—and soon a handsome woman with blond, elegantly coiffed hair and a white halter-top dress pushed the screen door open. “Hello!” she cried, looking at Henry, whose eyes dropped involuntarily to her breasts. “You must be…” And she seemed to search for the right name, ready to be utterly delighted, whoever it was.
“We’re just staying down the street,” Effie said. “We were on our way to supper and saw the cars down here and figured we’d introduce ourselves. We don’t want to bother you.”
While Effie spoke, the delight in the woman’s face faded, and she leaned forward to get a closer look. “No,” she said. “No, it can’t be—it just can’t be. Is that my little belle?”
Effie glanced at Henry, as if he would know the answer.
“My God!” the woman cried. “It is you. You’re the little Southern girl from down the street! My God—I could faint!” The woman wrapped her arms around Effie and squeezed her, and Effie tipped her head up as if for air. She seemed alarmed. Finally the woman let her go and said, “Don’t you remember me? You’re going to break my heart if you don’t remember me.”
And now something seemed to dawn on Effie. “Clara?” she said. “Clara Strauss?”
“Yes!” the woman cried, clapping her hands together.
And though Effie was smiling broadly, Henry knew her well enough to know better: she was sorry they had come.
“Come in, come in—Jesus!” the woman demanded, as if to scold them for not arriving sooner, and led them across a wide foyer into a bright living area that looked out through a bank of windows onto a lush patio and swimming pool. The shadowy look of the house from the outside was a disguise for the brightness inside. It seemed to Henry like an enchantment.
“We can only stay a minute,” Effie said. “We were just on our way to dinner.”
“I can’t believe it’s you,” Clara said, stopping to appraise her. “How long has it been? Five, six years? A lifetime? Who is this?” She placed her hand at the small of Henry’s back. When Effie told her he was her husband, the woman gasped—she had never heard of anything so marvelous—and gripped his hand firmly, painfully. “My God, how do you do? I’m Clara—Clara!”
Effie explained that Clara had been her older cousin Holly’s friend back in the day. On occasion Effie would have to go along with them to the beach or into town, if there wasn’t anyone else to watch her.
“Holly’s friend.” Clara put her hands on her hips. “What a cold bitch you are. I adored this creature,” she said to Henry, and to Effie: “Don’t you remember how much fun we had? But you were so young and impressionable then. And look at you now: a beauty! Married to William Holden, no less!” She laughed, and took hold of Henry’s forearm, and Henry smiled back at her like a fool. “Oh, my belle,” she said, and in a voice like Scarlett O’Hara: “My Effie Mae. That’s what I called you, do you remember?”
“Yes,” Effie said evenly.
“Those were good times, weren’t they? But the years do pass. Sit, sit!”
She directed them to a sofa that faced the back windows and a large fireplace made of slate and what appeared to be loose rocks. It didn’t look stable. The ceiling was open rafters, very high, and two frosted windows in the roof let in more light, and over the foyer, behind them now, an upstairs balcony ran the length of the living area. It was a much larger house than Aunt Lizzie’s, but it felt scattered and haphazard—and at the moment, empty of people.
“What can I get you to drink?” Clara said.
“Oh, we’re fine,” Effie said. “Really, we can’t stay for long.”
“Nonsense. It is cocktail o’clock. You have to stay for a little while. I haven’t seen you in so long, and here you are, like magic, back in this godforsaken place.” She looked at Henry. “What will you have?”
He waited for a cue from Effie, but she only stared at him helplessly. For his part, he was content to stay. “I’ll take anything,” he said.
“Gin and tonic it is!” she cried. “The only suitable drink before dinner.” She swept over to the minibar, and Effie closed her eyes and laid her head back on the sofa. “My God! Effie Moore, right here in Cape May, after all these years.”
“Effie Tarleton,” Effie said.
“That’s right! Oh, it’s all coming back to me now.”
She was a whirlwind, this woman. Henry had never met anyone like her. She was in her early thirties, he guessed, and big, not just physically big but aura big, the way Jayne Mansfield would be big if she could step out of the screen at the drive-in. She was at least as tall as he was, with a strong jaw and broad shoulders, and her breasts seemed always on the verge of falling out of her top. It was an effort not to stare at them.
“But what are you doing here this time of year?” she asked, taking two tall glasses down from a shelf behind the minibar.
Effie lifted her head and reported, as if with regret, that they were on their honeymoon.
“No!” Clara slammed the glasses down, and for a moment Henry thought she was actually angry at them. “You mean you’re newlyweds? You mean you’re on your honeymoon right now?” She turned away from them and shouted, “Mrs. Pavich!”
From an archway that led off the den a voice came back to them, thickly accented and dripping with ennui: “Yes, Mrs. Kirschbaum.”
“I have changed my mind. We will have the carrot cake.” She turned back to Henry and Effie. “But of course you’re newlyweds. You’re glowing—I can see it now.”
Henry smiled at Effie, but Effie kept her eyes fixed on Clara, a taut, neutral expression on her face.
“Well, that settles it: you’re staying for dinner. I can’t imagine where you were thinking of going; it can’t be better than what old Mrs. Pavich is cooking up. Everyone’s down at the beach right now—well, not Richard, of course—but we’re having a party, and you two are going to stay and celebrate with us.”
In his confusion Henry said, “You’re throwing us a party?” and Effie looked at him like he was an idiot indeed.
“Oh, I love him!” Clara said.
“I wish we could stay,” Effie said. “But we’re not here much longer, and we really wanted to see a little more of the town, you know—have dinner, see a movie…”
But Clara was rummaging behind the bar. “I hope Mrs. Pavich hasn’t forgotten the ice. We will need a lot of ice.” She stood up straight. “You two just sit there and look perfect and I’ll be back in thirty seconds. I can’t wait to catch up.” She dashed off toward the archway, shouting “Mrs. Pavich!” again.
“Wow,” Henry said. “She’s something else, isn’t she?”
“We’re leaving,” Effie said.
She stood up from the sofa, but Henry took hold of her wrist. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“The one person we run into, and it’s got to be Clara Strauss. Or whatever her name is. She must have snagged a husband.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
She brushed his hand away and looked toward the archway, from which they could hear Clara gleefully lecturing Mrs. Pavich: “This one is for the hollandaise, dear, and this one is for the pepper sauce. Do you see the difference in the spouts?”
“She’s a snot-nosed bully and a harlot,” Effie said. “She’s not a good person.”
Henry laughed. “Come on. Sit down. We’re not just going to walk out on her, I don’t care who she is.”
Effie sat down. “Of all the people—I mean, really. It never occurred to me. She wasn’t here the past couple of times, not since Holly married.” Clara was her cousin Holly’s friend, she explained again. Holly was Uncle George’s eldest daughter from a previous marriage. She was more than a dozen years older than Effie and never took to Aunt Lizzie or to the rest of her new family from Georgia, who were nothing but rubes, as far as she was concerned. The two of them, Holly and Clara, teased and tormented Effie, made fun of her accent, asked where her mammy was, made references to things she couldn’t possibly have understood—she was, what, eight years old?—and laughed at her ignorance.…
“What kinds of things?” Henry asked.
She seemed to struggle to find the words. “Like—I don’t know. Like they’d always be drinking and smoking around me, or they’d take boys under the promenade and leave me there on the beach to play with myself.”
“It sounds fun.”
“I was a child, for heaven’s sake.”
Henry smiled. “Well, you’re grown-up and married now. And so is Clara. She seems like she worships you.”
Effie cocked her head and felt the tiny mole behind her ear, a reflex when she was piqued in a certain way. “People don’t change so much.”
He knew that wasn’t true. There was a time when he could have called Effie a bully—like when she’d fed Betty Moody’s hair into the gears of the pencil sharpener in Mrs. Jackson’s class—and look at her now: his lovely wife. But he only shrugged and let it go.
A violent chopping sound came from the archway; they listened to it. A minute later Clara swept back into the room with a bucket of ice, her movements so smooth she might have been roller-skating. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting so long. Look at you two! I love the old dear, but if I’m not there to look over her shoulder every second … Well, you know how it is.” She was at the bar now, dropping ice into the glasses.
“What are you doing here?” Effie asked.
“We’re just here for the weekend. It’s my brother’s birthday. You remember Scott, of course,” she said, smiling meaningfully, but Effie didn’t. “Effie, you’re joking! You had such a crush on him!”
“God, yes! You were smitten with him. You used to hug him around the waist and he’d have to pry you off. You were a determined little girl. Is she still that way, Henry?”
Henry didn’t know what to say. He laughed.
“You’re thinking of someone else,” Effie said.
“Don’t worry, Henry,” Clara said, “Scott’s married now. To a little cunt, if you want to know the truth, but married nonetheless. You’re far more handsome, anyway.”
He wasn’t sure he’d heard her correctly; she couldn’t have said what he thought she’d said. He beamed at her and remembered Reverend Miller once saying in a sermon that Satan appeared in beautiful guises, singing praises and charms. He could listen to her talk all day. While she fixed the drinks she explained that Scott was turning twenty-five—next week, technically—and they were going to have a bash, and all his friends from Princeton and the army and the junior associates at the law firm were coming down, people from Philadelphia and D.C. and New York and as far away as Boston. Where they would sleep, she had no idea. “On top of each other, I suppose!” She crossed over from the bar and handed them their drinks and sat with her own drink in an armchair by the sofa.
“Well, it sounds like a personal thing,” Effie began, but Clara cut her off.
“Stop it right there. You will not be intruding, I promise you. It’s a party! Mother and Father aren’t even here, they’re staying in Philly.” Clara leaned forward and put her hand on the arm of the sofa. “My belle, I’m begging you to stay. I’ll hardly know a soul. You’ll be doing me a favor—really.”
It would be rude, Henry thought, to refuse at this point. He took Effie’s hand. “We can stay a little while,” he said, and when Effie said, “I mean…” Clara cried, “Oh, joy!” and held up her glass. “To long-lost friendships,” she said. “And to new ones too.”
The drink was delicious. He’d never had gin before, and the piney taste of it went perfectly with the airy room, the big windows, and the verdant backyard shimmering in the breeze. Before he knew it, he’d had half of it.
Clara grilled Effie about her life, but before Effie could fully answer anything she would interject with a story of her own, or a reminiscence about people they’d both known or things they’d done in Cape May. Like the time Clara and Holly had broken into the lighthouse and flashed their tits at the summer regatta, in the full light of day, while Effie sulked below because she was too scared to join them. (Effie had no memory of this.) Or the game of hide-and-seek, which Effie had begged them to play, when Clara and Holly and some other girl they were with had managed to elude her for nearly an hour, until Effie was sobbing in the street, in a part of town she didn’t know, and had to ask a stranger how to get back to New Hampshire Avenue. (This Effie remembered. “It was horrible,” she said, unamused, and Clara, stifling her laughter, said, “It was horrible, wasn’t it? Oh, darling! We were little beasts. I’m sorry.”) Occasionally she would ask Henry something—“Have you just been in love with her your entire life?”—and he would answer sheepishly, smiling like a fool. But mostly he just listened, or half listened, distracted by the sparkly sensation of the drink going down and the glowing light coming into the house. The gin was working; his body felt effervescent. Clara crossed her legs and displayed a lovely foot in high-heeled sandals, her skin tanned and gleaming, her toenails glossy white. She was the most glamorous person he had ever met. She lived in Manhattan, and she was married to a man named Richard, who ran a bank and whose family, Henry gathered, was extremely wealthy. There was no mention of children. Clara came from Philadelphia, from a more modest family of lawyers, and this place in Cape May was her parents’ summer getaway. “This old shack,” she called it. She and Richard had a place on Nantucket that she liked much more—but this was Scott’s weekend, and it was what he wanted.
Henry and Effie finished their drinks at the same time, and when Clara heard the clink of ice in their glasses she leapt up and took them and went back to the bar, talking all the while. When their drinks were refreshed, she glided over to the record player on the other side of the den and put on something smooth and Latin—or maybe Italian, because she started talking about her own honeymoon in Italy: Naples and Rome, a week each. The spring of ’54. It had been a dream, she said, but a very fleeting dream. (With small movements, she was doing a sort of cha-cha back to her chair.) “Richard was about to lose his mind by the time we got to Rome. Relaxation makes him anxious, you know. So I mostly walked around the city by myself. I had to have strangers take my picture. There’s me on the Spanish Steps. There’s me at Caffè Greco. I pretended I was a runaway princess, like Audrey Hepburn.” She sighed wistfully and sat down. “Ah, love! Hold on to it, darlings, for as long as you can. But you two must be in the throes of it.”
They looked at each other. Effie seemed more relaxed now. Her cheeks were pink, a wan smile played on her face.
“But why Cape May of all places?”
“I don’t know,” Effie said. “We thought about a few places”—that wasn’t true at all—“but then we’ve got the house up here, I guess, and I hadn’t been back here in so long.”
“Nostalgia, yes. I am the exact same way.”
“Mostly we wanted to keep it simple and easy. We could have gone anywhere in the world, I suppose, but we’ve got time enough for that.”
“Hear, hear,” Clara said.
All of this was news to Henry, but somehow, just now, it felt true.
Clara held her glass up to them. “You’ve got your lives ahead of you,” she said. “Right now, all that matters is love.” She gave them a smile that seemed pained. “Oh, you darlings. I just want to eat the two of you alive.”
Soon a stout, middle-aged woman appeared at the archway, scowling at Clara. “Mrs. Kirschbaum, the food is ready.”
“That’s wonderful, Mrs. Pavich. Will you go out and ring the bell? They won’t hear it, but who knows? The wind may be in our favor.”
The woman shuffled back through the archway, and a moment later a loud bell rang outside—there must have been a bell tower out there—and it rang, and rang, until Clara shouted, “That will be enough, Mrs. Pavich!”
* * *
The bell worked, or else it was a coincidence: not five minutes later a crowd of young people burst into the den from the backyard, looking flushed and windblown, wearing shorts and linen shirts and light dresses, all of them talking at once: “God help us!” “But I was turned the other way!” “It’s a wonder Dottie isn’t blind!” “But I was turned the other way!” “Hello, hello!” Clara made a flurry of introductions. There were seven or eight of them in all, and their names—Dottie and James, Alma and Roland and Max, Karen, and Betsy—were lost to Henry the moment he heard them, except for Scott, Effie’s old crush, who was handsome like his sister, and whose unbuttoned shirt showed off a well-tended chest and stomach. “You don’t say!” he said when Clara told him who Effie was, but Henry could tell he didn’t remember. Even so, he wrapped her in a hug and pressed her cheek to his bare chest, and Henry felt a prick of jealousy. Who were these people? They were weirdly, effusively nice: “Fabulous to meet you!” “Georgia, you say?” “Congratulations!” “Hank, you’re the luckiest man in the world.” This last came from a shirtless man with the stocky build of a boxer. When Henry said, “I know, believe me,” the man laughed and clapped him so hard on the back that Henry spilled part of his drink out onto the rug.
“I’m sorry,” Henry said, meeting Clara’s eyes. “I’ll clean it up.”
“Don’t even think of it,” Clara said. She came over and laid her hand on the boxer’s bicep. “My darling, you don’t know your own strength.”
“Sorry, Hank,” the man said, and struck him again, more gently, on the shoulder. Clara’s hand lingered at his back. Was this possibly Richard? He seemed too young for her. He was handsome, but shorter than Clara by several inches.
The crowd swarmed the bar. Ice rang in their glasses. One empty gin bottle was discarded with a crash, another one opened. Henry and Effie stayed close together, but when the group returned with their drinks they brought a whirlwind of merry chatter that radiated outward and broke them apart. They all seemed to know one another intimately, but it could have been an illusion; they made you feel like you were in on the conversation, even if you had no idea what they were talking about, and they were given to strange gestures of confidentiality—leaning in close, clutching your forearm, only to disclose some little trifle: “I hear there may be bourbon tarts on the dessert menu!” Henry smiled and nodded; a few feet away, Effie was doing the same. The talk was hard to follow, names and places and references that eluded him but that sent sparks through his imagination: Gabby and Sophie and Anders; Marblehead, the Berkshires, Palermo; the Fourth of July party with the Great Dane; Lorenzo’s hyacinths; the place setting that caught fire. Clara weaved among them all, holding a gin bottle in one hand and the tonic in the other, their host but—as Henry imagined—more than that: their sorceress, the one who was setting them spinning.
Mrs. Pavich appeared in the archway again. “Mrs. Kirschbaum,” she said, drawing everyone’s attention. “The food is getting cold.”
But then the doorbell clanged and more guests arrived, and the merry band rushed to see who it was. Cheers and greetings rang from the foyer.
Henry and Effie were reunited. “Do you want to go?” he asked.
She couldn’t seem to settle her eyes on any one place. “I mean—we’re here. We might as well stay for supper.” She caught herself and looked at him. “Do you want to go?”
“No,” he said. “I’m fine staying. If you are.”
“Then we’ll stay. A little while.”
“If that’s what you want to do.”
Their number had doubled. The newcomers were in two groups, as far as Henry could tell: one of them very fine, as if they had just arrived from Hollywood—two couples in light blazers and sparkling dresses that revealed a great deal of skin—and the other appeared to be beatniks—a bearded man in glasses, and three women who wore their hair long and had thick eyeliner. One of the women wore nothing more than a slip and heels. If she’d been out on the street in Signal Creek, she’d have been arrested.
Eventually they all gathered, in twos and threes, around a large table outside, in a covered section of the patio bordered by hedges and vines. A giant platter of what looked to be gumbo lay in the center. Around it, bowls of soup and sauce, plates of greens and olives and bread, and three carafes of red wine. It all looked vaguely foreign. There weren’t nearly enough places at the table, and people were dragging chairs in from the poolside or were content to stand, but no one would take Henry’s seat when he offered it—in fact, they laughed at him: “No, really! I’m fine! Stay, stay!”—and he had the feeling that he was acting too formally, too politely for this crowd. He was the only person wearing a tie; he took it off and stuffed it in his jacket pocket. Clara sat across from him and commanded everyone to dig in, though she ignored her own plate. Beside her sat the boxer, who had still not put his shirt on. Henry’s mother would have had something to say about that. Likely Effie would have too, if she weren’t dazzled, as he was, by the drinks and the chatter and the motley party gathering around them. Everyone was talking at once. Here and there, peals of laughter. A woman reached over him, pressing her breast against his shoulder, and her skin grazed his cheek and the tip of his nose; he caught the scent of strawberries.
The sun was setting. A soft, golden light lingered in the treetops. On the table, votive candles flickered among the settings. Everyone looked beautiful.
He was more comfortable out here than he had been inside. The gathering dusk enveloped him, and all he had to do was eat and drink and listen, catching one thread of conversation over here, another over there. Scott sat at the head of the table, beside a pretty blonde who must have been his wife—the little cunt. Most of the talk was impenetrable to him, about people and places and events he had no connection or access to, but some of it excited him: talk of art and gallery openings, of bebop records and clubs in Harlem, of cases before the Supreme Court, which some of the crowd seemed to know intimately, of the integration of the schools—vis-à-vis the tensions in Little Rock—which everyone seemed to support without question. It was thrilling to think of what Uncle Carswall or his mother would have said to all this, how disgusted they would be with these people, and Henry found himself nodding eagerly about opinions he’d never spent much time thinking about one way or another. The gumbo was delicious, rice and potatoes and sausage, a good bit of spice in it too, and he was pretty sure there were cashews in it, if that was possible, and crunchy disks of some kind of root vegetable—he didn’t care, he was shoveling it in. He said this to Effie: “Boy, I’m just shoveling this in! It’s outstanding, isn’t it?” But she only gave him a generic nod, distracted by someone on the other side of her, and that was all right, he had finished his third gin and tonic and had poured himself some wine, and he was feeling thoroughly, pleasantly drunk. Effie was too, he could tell: she had become chatty. The woman she was talking to, who appeared to be Mexican or Arabian or maybe just Jewish, was continuing the conversation about the integration of the schools, soliciting Effie’s opinion as if she were an eyewitness in a war: “But do you see much trouble where you are?” she asked, and Effie said, “Oh, no, no, no, not one bit, really, that’s just stuff in the news—I mean it’s there, you know, it’s obviously an issue, you understand, but it’s not the day-to-day, or rather, we live the day-to-day, so it’s quite different…” It might have been the alcohol changing her, or affecting his own ears, but Effie’s voice didn’t sound like her own: she sounded faintly aristocratic, a little like Clara imitating Scarlett O’Hara. She described how close her family was to her cook’s family, how they exchanged gifts at Christmastime; she explained how her father was the mayor of the town where they lived (this impressed the woman very much), how he owned a farm-supply store too, and gave money to charity. It was strange to hear Effie talk about Signal Creek to someone who knew nothing about it, and for a moment he felt a powerful kinship to her, of a sort he would never have felt back home. When the woman, seeing Henry listening in, asked about his family, Effie spoke for him, calling Uncle Carswall’s property an “estate” and saying he had nearly a thousand acres of land. She wasn’t lying, exactly, but it gave the impression that he lived on a big antebellum plantation instead of the plain old ugly country outside of Signal Creek. He didn’t mind, though. He could play the part. “How lovely it must be!” the woman said, and Henry cleared his voice and said it was, it was indeed.
An elderly man in a sweater and blazer came out onto the patio. He surveyed the crowd and, seeing Clara at the table, came over behind her and set his big veiny hands on her shoulders. To Henry’s shock, she said, “Richard, dear!” and reached up to squeeze his forearms.
The man couldn’t have been younger than sixty. He had a long, solemn face and unruly white eyebrows. He would have made a good schoolmaster. “I see the party is under way.”
“Sit, darling, sit,” Clara said. “How wonderful you’ve decided to join the living. Max, dear, would you mind?”
The boxer bowed and got up from the table with his plate, and Richard took his place and waited while Clara piled a heap of gumbo for him. Henry squeezed Effie’s knee under the table, to get her attention and point out what was happening, but she was too absorbed in her conversation to notice. If Clara was going to make introductions, she never got a chance, because another group of people came out onto the patio, and when she saw them she cried, “Helen Crabtree, you horrible bitch!” and bolted up from the table to give the woman in question a hug. Poor Richard was left to himself, but he didn’t seem to mind; his attention was directed at his plate, and steadily he made his way through the gumbo and a side of greens, pausing only once to pour himself an austere amount of wine.
Through the big windowpanes, now that the inside was brighter than the outside, Henry could see more people gathering in the den, big groups of them, laughing, sipping from martini glasses, smoking cigarettes. He saw the beatnik in the slip take her shoes off and hand them to a man who placed them into a potted plant. He saw a naked toddler run screaming from the archway. He saw an Oriental woman with a complicated bun and silvery eye shadow. He saw a man with circular sunglasses and a shaved head under a beret. Who were these people? Where had they come from? They had materialized out of the enveloping dark. Most of them seemed to be young, Scott’s or Clara’s ages, but there was a group of older men too, in tuxedos—family friends, maybe, or Richard’s friends, or people from Scott’s law firm, or professors at Princeton. Who could say? The record player had been turned up and something hopping, with horns and a drumbeat, was coming through the open French doors. For the past week he’d felt isolated from the world, and now the world was upon him, or some strange version of it.
A chill had set in. Through a part in the trees that bordered the yard Henry saw billows of fog drifting past the streetlight. The patio was clearing. The gumbo was gone. Richard remained, chatting with a couple of the older men. From time to time Mrs. Pavich would stomp out and silently gather a stack of empty dishes. The boxer—Max—had replaced the woman next to Effie. He was still in his trunks, but he’d put on an Oxford shirt and at first Henry didn’t recognize him. He was saying something to her, and she was chuckling, shaking her head, until he paused and said, “Three times!” and she burst into laughter, snorted, put her hand to her mouth, and twisted to hide her face against Henry’s chest. She must have been drowned; Henry had never made her laugh like that.
“What’s the good word, Hank?” Max said over Effie’s back.
“The good word?” The question confused him. It sounded like something a Bible salesman would say.
“Oh, Henry,” Effie said, sitting up and recovering herself. “Heaven help me, I’m not in my right mind.”
“Another drink would set your mind right,” Max said.
“I don’t think so,” Henry said. He wasn’t sure he cared for this Max very much.
“You,” Effie said, pointing at Max, letting the word hang there a moment. “You do not have my best interests at heart.”
Max laughed. “What do you say we dance instead? You dance, Hank?”
“Oh, does he,” Effie said, and she turned and smiled at him. “He was the best damn dancer at the Spring Fling. Wasn’t I proud, baby?”
“The Spring Fling,” Max said, grinning, and Henry felt a flush of embarrassment. What was the Spring Fling to these people?
“Look at him,” Effie said, “he’s so modest.”
“Come on, Hank.” Max pushed his chair back and stood up. “Why don’t you show us the stuff?”
Henry demurred—he didn’t see anyone dancing inside—but Effie was getting to her feet too, taking the hand Max offered, and he didn’t have a choice. He followed them inside. He took Effie’s hand and slowed his pace so she would let go of Max.
The large airy room they’d been sitting in earlier was close and smoky and loud now, and the music was jumping, infectious—a heavy drumbeat, saxophone and piano—and over by the record player a crowd of people was dancing, doing some kind of improvised bop, shaking and twisting and flailing their arms. Scott was in the crowd, and there was Clara too, shaking her hips in the middle of a cluster of Coast Guard cadets. What were they doing here? Had they heard the music from their cutters and leapt ashore?
“God, Louis Prima,” Max said, raising his voice over the music. “How I hate this sock-hop shit. I should have brought my Bird records.”
They joined the dancing, the crowd pressing them close, the air warm and humid. Henry’s normal reserve disappeared whenever there was music. He maneuvered himself between Effie and Max and let himself go. He danced and danced. The woman in the slip was hopping in place, her breasts bouncing wildly. A few feet away, one of the cadets was nuzzling Clara’s hair. A spray of something, Champagne or beer, fell on the crowd near Henry and they answered it with a cheer. What a party! The music let loose and went wild. He elbowed a woman in the back of the head, but before he could apologize she laughed and threw her arms around him and kissed him on the cheek. “Hey!” Effie cried, pulling him away. “Hands off, you hussy!”—and Henry gripped her hips to still her, but she was only playing: she got up on her tiptoes and kissed him, her tongue grazing his lips.
“I can’t take you anywhere!” he cried.
“But you have to take me everywhere—I’m your wife!”
One song ended with a cry of saxophones, the crowd cheered, and right away another tempo began, piano and drums, low but tense with suppressed energy. Henry didn’t know this record—Louis Prima?—but he was loving it.
Now Clara wedged herself into their midst. “My little darlings!” She hooked her arms over Henry’s and Effie’s shoulders, smelling of Chanel No. 5 and radiating heat. “I thought I’d never escape.”
“This is some party,” Effie said. “I’ll give you that, Clara Strauss.”
“Did you see that boy trying to get his hooks into me?” Clara said. Henry said he had, but she was talking to Max, who was suddenly frowning. He had his chin up, trying to see over the crowd. He wasn’t very tall. “Max,” Clara tried again, “you may need to defend my honor before the night’s over.”
Max didn’t hear her, and Clara leaned in and repeated herself, and he laughed and said, “Anytime, my lady”—but then he excused himself and made his way through the crowd. Clara watched him go, and for a moment Henry thought he really was going to defend her honor: he approached one of the cadets, who was kissing a girl’s neck, but instead of pushing the boy away he grabbed the girl’s wrist and dragged her to the edge of the crowd, toward a corner of the den that led off into a hallway. She was one of the merry band who had burst into the den from the beach earlier in the evening. She wore a long, drab cardigan over a white bathing suit and shorts, and her hair was tied up carelessly, strands falling all about her face. She stumbled after Max, looking not so much angry as bored.
“You know what?” Effie said, speaking more loudly than necessary. “I’m glad I ran into you, Clara Strauss, or whatever your name is. I was not glad at first, if I am to be one-hundred-percent honest, but I am glad now.”
Clara looked away from the hallway where Max and the girl had disappeared. “What are you talking about, my belle?”
“She’s a little soused,” Henry said, putting his hand to Effie’s back.
“I’m as soused as I ought to be. It’s a party, isn’t it?”
Clara laughed. “It certainly is!”
The beat let loose again and they were jostled but Effie cried over the music: “I used to think you were an awful person!”
Clara laughed again and cried, “What?”
“You and Holly,” Effie said, bobbing her shoulders to her own beat. “I used to think you were terrible! Well—you were terrible! I used to pray for your souls, but I didn’t mean it. I’d say, ‘Lord, please don’t send Holly and Clara to hell on my account, I’m sure they don’t know any better.’”
Clara stopped dancing and looked down at her incredulously. “Effie Mae, are you trying to tell me a joke?”
Henry took Effie’s arm and told her to stop it, but she jerked away. “Quit clutching me, Henry—damn! I’m not saying anything bad. I am building up to a compliment, in fact.”
“What a relief,” Clara said.
“I’m talking to Clara anyhow. As a matter of fact,” Effie said, placing her hand on Henry’s chest, “why don’t you go fix yourself a drink and let us two have some girl time?”
Clara looked at him and shrugged; she seemed content to hear whatever Effie had to say. And what did he care? He didn’t know these people. He left Effie to do what she would—to put her foot in her mouth, if that’s what she wanted. To hell with it.
Behind the bar, he made his best guess at a gin and tonic. He poured it half and half over the last fistful of ice from the bucket, and the first swallow seared his throat. Never mind: it would be a sipping drink. He was in a state of inebriation in which he felt in full possession of himself and at the same time in complete control of the room, free to wander anywhere, drop in on any conversation, or just stand and watch people without feeling self-conscious. He saw Scott dancing with a woman who wasn’t his wife—as far as Henry understood—and his hands were lost up the back of her skirt. For shame, he thought, and laughed. Elsewhere a group of young men was huddled close together near the foyer, around a small table on which sat a transistor radio, talking excitedly about something to do with the Soviets, and when one of them looked at him warily he had the thrilling idea that they might be covert Communists, of the sort that had supposedly infiltrated the upper echelons of American society—here, it was possible!—and quickly he left them to their business.
He wandered the perimeter. There wasn’t much to see, as far as photographs and decorations. A few paintings of sailboats and lighthouses. A picture of what must have been Clara’s family standing around the helm of a boat, holding sailboat-shaped trophies. A sepia portrait of a couple in Bavarian costumes. Near the record player he tapped the keys of an upright piano, but it was inaudible under the music, which had changed into a kind of honking, arrhythmic jazz that Henry found disorienting, and the dance floor had cleared up a bit as a result. The people who remained, he didn’t recognize. There’d been a slippage in time. Clara and Effie were nowhere to be seen. Neither was Max, or the girl he’d stolen away. At one point Mrs. Pavich muscled herself into the room and, without any announcement, giving everyone around her a withering look, dropped a carrot cake down on the coffee table and stomped away. The sight comforted him; he remembered, dimly, that the cake had been made for them, him and Effie, in celebration of their marriage. He went over to it and ran his finger along the side and tasted the frosting. It was perfect: smooth and buttery.
He thought he might dance some more, in spite of the music. One of the beatnik girls was dancing by herself and he swore she’d caught his eye and smiled at him. But first he had to relieve himself. It was, suddenly, an urgent matter. He hadn’t gone all evening.
Instead of navigating the crowd and trying to find the lavatory, he wandered outside onto the patio, where the air was cool and thick with fog, and the relative quiet was soothing. By the pool a group of men was looking up at the sky. He made out Richard among them, and one of the young Communists. Henry followed their line of sight but there was nothing to see through the haze. Maybe they were inspecting the fog itself. He walked away from them, along the side of the house, into the darkness of the yard. The grass was damp and overgrown. He ran into a bush near the back corner of the house and stepped around it to a hedge. The glare of a streetlight on Madison Avenue came through the trees. He was surprised to find that his glass was almost empty. He downed the rest of it, dropped it into the grass, unzipped his trousers, and let go—at last!—into the hedge.
What a night! He smiled up at the streetlight. It seemed to be telling him that his life was going to be brilliant. And it really was, it was really going to be brilliant. This was a party he would remember for the rest of his life—because it would mark the true beginning of his life. Yes. He would apply for that scholarship again. Forget Emory, he could go to Princeton. Marblehead, Nantucket: they would be places in his life. He and Effie would not speak often of their honeymoon, but when they did, they would say, Do you remember that party at Clara’s? Do you remember how we were? How you told Clara she was an awful person? And they would laugh about it, and they would have no memory of the first few days. God was pleased with them—he was thankful for that.
He shook himself and zipped up and was about to make the trek back inside when he heard something, so close he thought it might be coming from the other side of the hedge: a woman breathing. Under that, a steady rhythm that at first he couldn’t make sense of, until the woman cried, “Oh!” and again, “Oh! Oh!”
The cries were coming from a dark, open window of the house, just a few feet away from him. He had never actually heard a woman make that sound before—Effie hadn’t made it—but it was so precisely how his friends had made it for laughs that he wondered if someone were playing a joke on him. But there was a man in there too; he could hear his grunting. Henry held as still as he could, swaying, making an effort to keep his balance. “Oh!” the woman cried, and it seemed that she would never stop. The man was a Titan. Henry felt an acute pang of longing and envy. He stood transfixed, unable to pull himself away, until at last the man made a strained sound, the woman sighed, and they both fell silent. Henry waited a moment before he crept away from the window and around the bush, and he made his way back to the patio through the fog. He felt an urgent need to find his wife. The ground tilted under his feet.
The group of men outside had dispersed. Inside he saw one of them, an elderly man, slow dancing with an elderly woman who may or may not have been his wife. Who knew with these people? The party had changed again: the music was drowsy, people were mostly in pairs. Soon they would slip away together, he thought, into dark rooms.
Effie stood by the sofa holding her pocketbook. She looked lost and confused and he felt a rush of tenderness for her.
“Where have you been?” she asked.
“I was just outside—I’m sorry. I needed some air.” He put his arms around her.
“We need to go,” she said. He smelled peppermint on her breath.
“I was just sick in the bathroom.”
* * *
Outside, the fog was so thick they couldn’t see the houses on the other side of the street. Madison Avenue was lighted but New Hampshire wasn’t, so they walked into a thick darkness where, somewhere, Aunt Lizzie’s cottage lay. They stumbled over the ruts in the street. They passed the cottage without realizing it and turned back when they saw the big Victorian looming out of the fog, but eventually they found it.
Effie tripped on the top step and fell onto her hands and knees. To Henry’s relief, she started laughing. “For heaven’s sake,” she said, “I’m screwed.”
He helped her up and asked if she had scraped anything.
“Nah,” she said. But she had dropped her pocketbook and lost a shoe. He bent down to pick them up. She kicked the other shoe off and he bent down for it too.
Inside, he nearly knocked over the end-table lamp trying to find the switch. When he found it, and clicked the light on, she was leaning back against the doorjamb, grinning at him. Her eye makeup had faded into dark coronas, there was a run in her stockings, and she looked dissolute and utterly ravishing. He wanted to bend her over the sofa and violate her. But then she hiccupped, and put her hand to her mouth, and for a moment he thought she was going to throw up again.
“Come on,” he said, when the danger seemed to have passed. He took her arm. “Let’s get you into bed.”
Copyright © 2019 by Chip Cheek.