It was a quiet summer with a long terrible time of heat. It was blue in the evenings and black at night. The elderberry hung over one side of the house and near the cars were the locust trees with their long leaves. The lights went on in the other houses and glowed yellow. We heard shouting from the family house next door. Things crashed. There were too many children. In the evenings while the kids ate dinner you could see the mother out near the laundry line, daydreaming wearily. There was no sign of a father.
The children didn’t have enough to do. They strolled over to our porch with bored, expectant looks, swinging a little. Where’s Howard? they said, hoping for someone to catch crabs with. He’s not coming this summer, I said. The little girl glanced toward the channel where Howard used to swim in the evenings, as if expecting him to come up the ladder. Are the cats here? cried the little boy, his body going taut as if electrocuted. Yes, I said, under the house. Later I noticed a cat being hauled away in a splayed tortured position, paws skimming the ground.
The house had a lawn in front with a stubby oak in the middle and encircling the oak a rose bush which dropped its petals. Beyond were the other houses, all white, then a strip of dune grass which bent in a breeze, then the bay. A channel held up with pilings ran alongside the lawn back to a sort of marshy bog where people had little motorboats and tiny docks. Green stalks sprouted back there from shiny green saucers but never, that we saw, produced any blossoms. A female mallard swam alone. All around were stunted things.
Beside the conch shell on the mantelpiece, where I knew it hadn’t been a few days before because I’d put a vase of flowers there, I found a light pink rubber pretzel, the kind that babies teethe on. I’d been in the city one day that week to return manuscripts—I worked as a copy editor—and to pick up the next batch but otherwise had hardly left the house. I asked the kids next door if it was theirs and they paused, trying to decide if they wanted a pink rubber pretzel, then decided they didn’t and said no. None of the girls in the house knew anything about it and weren’t bothered by it, having other things on their minds. I suppose I didn’t have enough to think about.
Sometimes at night in our beds the wind hissed and brushed the trees against the house making a sandy sound which lulled us to sleep or kept us up. I must have gotten it confused with my dreams because beneath the sound like sand being thrown against the screen was another sound, far away, which if I hadn’t known any better would have thought was the distant wailing of babies in their cribs.
On an evening in July Dick Breen, looking very tan in a white tennis sweater, made his way across the lawn for cocktails on the porch. He was a small man with a large head; his hair was wet and combed. “You’re all going to die of cancer,” he said, noting the number of cigarettes lit in the twilight.
“We need a man’s point of view,” said Amy whose voice was already getting louder with drink. She’d been up that morning at eight planting the flower beds; then she baked cornbread, then went windsurfing, all before eleven o’clock. “What, Dick, do you think a man wants most in a woman?”
Ruth was only half-listening, picking at her manicure. Not too long ago her boyfriend of five years had left her and married a Japanese woman. We’d all known Porter—he came summers to the house—and were as surprised as she. He was an easygoing guy, handsome in a bland sort of way. When he left her he told her he’d been having affairs all along.
Ruth batted her red hair off her neck. She was very tall, as far from a Japanese person as you can get. “Aren’t you hot in that sweater?” she said with annoyance.
“Don’t you ever smile?” said Dick Breen. “Don’t you ever laugh?”
“When there are funny people around,” she said, skin tight over her jaw.
“Howard was funny,” Amy said. “I miss Howard.”
They all looked at me. “He was funny,” I said.
“What happened to him?” Dick Breen said.
“We went our separate ways.”
Dick Breen shook his head, amused. “The trouble is, you’re all looking for the perfect man,” he said. “I have news for you: he’s not out there.”
Through the curtains I could see the breakfast room where Howard used to read the local paper for hours on end, as if he had all the time in the world.
Dick Breen shrugged. “There is no perfect man,” he repeated.
“I’m so glad you told me that,” said Helen.
At sunset, sky still light, slowly growing dark, I strolled the narrow strip of sand with the rag piles of seaweed, picking up scallop shells, looking for white ones. The tiny surf rolled in as high as a pencil. When it pulled back there was a shimmering surface spinning with moonshells and periwinkles. I thought I saw when the water drew back miniature footprints deep in the soft sand. Each was a couple of inches long, each a few inches apart. Then the next wave shot forward like a rug unrolling and wiped them away.
The Sunday papers lay in disarray on the porch. Candace came up from the beach through the gray air, carrying her coffee cup by the rim. “Dick just asked me for a date,” she said. “I told him I was otherwise occupied.” Then Candace went on to say how Martin was calling her again and how typical it was now that she finally didn’t care.
From around the corner of the house where she was weeding, we heard Amy’s voice. “I wouldn’t mind being bothered,” she said.
The bay was the color of brown tea. When you waded in your knees disappeared, though the water was all right to swim in—just not as inviting. Algae bloom it was called, an imbalance in the ecosystem. Some people felt it was a natural cycle. Others blamed the factories in New Jersey whose spill-off heated up the water. The shellfish in the bay were contaminated. After three summers we were used to it. We no longer knew what the bay looked like under normal circumstances.
We were lying on the beach when Dick Breen appeared, affecting a nonchalant air. Amy was relating her previous night’s dream which involved planting seeds and having grass sprout from certain parts of her anatomy.
“Sounds like you need to get laid,” Ruth said. Her red hair was piled majestically on her head and she lay on an especially long towel so none of her skin would have to touch the sand.
“Hi, girls,” said Dick Breen. He was sporting reflector sunglasses. “Hot, isn’t it?”
“It certainly is,” said Candace. She rolled onto her stomach and closed her eyes.
I kept reading. Helen got up to scavenge for driftwood for her sculpture. Ruth flicked bugs off her long legs. Amy sat in the beach chair doing needlepoint, in a position to chat with Dick Breen. He hunkered down, rocking back and forth on his heels, he gazed up at the sun and plopped down. At the other end of the beach I saw the teenage guy who had bought Howard’s Windsurfer taking it out for a sail. He didn’t look unlike Howard. Amy was telling Dick about one of the sailboats passing around Shelter Island. She pointed out which one, but Dick’s attention was elsewhere. Nearby Ruth lay on her side, smoothing the sand in a fan, then placing with her long fingernails bits of shells in a pattern on it. Abruptly she wiped it out. “I’m roasting,” she said and rose to take a swim.
Dick Breen followed.
Ruth kicked away from shore in the brown water, elbows crooked, ignoring the splashing behind her, keeping her head down. Passing the breakwater the surface grew more choppy, small waves slapping her face. The other day, swimming out there, I saw little arms rise out of the churning surface, waving at me. Ruth swam forward, long and sleek, her hair glinting copper in the sun. “So you like to swim?” we heard Dick Breen call. Ruth turned around and a wave smacked her face.
There was a constant grumbling about the heat. We found rusty fans in the attic which clattered all night, had difficulty sleeping. Feet padded over bare floors; we lingered at the top of the stairs in T-shirts and towels, hips jutting, waiting for something to happen, for something to change. To walk down the dark hall and shut the door to our rooms would be to close off a little hope. “It was,” Ruth said, closing her eyes to picture the sailing date with Dick Breen, “a complete disaster.” He spent the whole time shouting orders at her, as captains are wont to do.
One day late in August I rounded the corner of the house and nearly ran into Dick Breen standing over the flower beds. “They need water,” he said and fixed me with his eye. There was something deeply annoying in that eye and in the way he wore his sport shirts with the collar upright. It was as if nothing could surprise him. A year before, Howard would have been in his ragged pants a few feet away, practicing chip shots on the lawn.
“In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a drought,” I told Dick Breen. “Amy’s the one who does the garden anyway.”
His gaze bore into me, waiting for me to say something more. “Have you seen the egret?” I said brightly.
“No,” he said and came close.
“You should,” I said and pointed over my shoulder.
“It’s back there.”
We went to the courts in town to play tennis. There was no one else there with the heat. It was still and quiet, like being in a deserted world.
Our lights stayed on the longest. There were dim lamps in the living room, a flagstone fireplace, peeling rattan furniture.
A pickup truck had been spotted across the channel, leaving the house of our landlord’s ex-wife.
“Least someone around here is getting some action,” said Ruth.
Out near the back door where she’d pulled the phone, Candace’s low voice could be heard talking to her married boyfriend, his family out in their house in Connecticut having all gone to bed.
Out of nowhere Amy said, “One reason I couldn’t go through with it”—we all knew she meant her marriage to Dan—“was that after, I thought he would stop wanting to do things with me.”
“Don’t worry,” said Helen, lying on the floor, her hands white with gesso. “He would.” Helen had been married to a dentist in Indiana when she was eighteen—a few lifetimes ago, before she became a sculptor.
“Maybe you would have,” Ruth said.
“You always say that.” Amy and Ruth shared a room out here and saw each other all the time in the city too. They drove out every Friday in their work clothes, stepping onto the driveway with crackling heels.
“I actually do better without a man,” Helen said.
“I haven’t gotten to that stage yet,” I said. I figured one day I would.
Helen was older than the rest of us, thirty-six, and I expected her to say, just wait. Instead she said, “You’re lucky.”
The sun wasn’t up, my room was a black and white photograph without daylight in it. I got out of bed, padded down the hall to the last door and went in. “Candace?” I said.
She squinted at me, not knowing who I was for a moment or where we were. She got up on her elbows, keeping her eyes closed.
I sat on the twin bed. “I think I’m going crazy,” I said and got a sort of relieved, airy feeling saying it.
“Who isn’t,” she said and glanced toward the window to see the light.
“There’s a homeless family in my closet.”
Candace pinched the bridge of her nose and rubbed at her eyes. “It was a dream, Fran,” she said.
“They’re in there now,” I said weakly.
“How’d they get there?” For some reason the logic of this made sense. The light airy feeling drained off. “Stay in here,” she said.
I pulled the covers back and forced a laugh. “It felt real,” I said.
“It always does.”
We lay there on our backs.
“This is no way to live,” Candace said.
From my upstairs window I could see his figure cross the lawn and disappear under the front porch. Down behind me through the empty house I heard him, sounding strangely far for being directly beneath me, call my name. It sounded odd in his voice, as if it had nothing to do with me anymore. Knuckles rapped on the glass sliding door. I didn’t answer.
He knew I was there. My car was outside. From the front he could see I wasn’t on the beach. Though I could have been anywhere for all he knew. Maybe I was somewhere else.
“Anybody home?” he called and stepped inside. His voice went lower. “Anybody?” His footsteps thudded then sneakers on linoleum in the kitchen. A pot of coffee was on the stove, warm, though I didn’t think he’d notice—still it was there as evidence.
At the back door he opened the screen, saw the morning glories Amy had strung up in an argyle pattern on twine. “Fran?” The door swung shut. A few more foot-steps then quiet. He was looking at the chalkboard above the telephone, messages from Helen’s gallery, Ruth’s sister’s thank-you note, sailboat rental rates.
He knew where everything was.
There were footsteps on the stairs. I tiptoed lightly, slowly, arms out, to the closet. It was a deep closet with a diagonal ceiling where the attic stairs came over. I avoided jangling the hangers. I shut the door as much as the warp would allow, leaving a sliver of light.
He reached the top of the stairs, the end of the hall. Through Candace’s door was disarray: camera equipment on the floor, bathing suits on doorknobs, towels furled into rosettes. Opposite, the room had beige apple blossom wallpaper with water stains, Ruth’s and Amy’s room, with beds made and tennis rackets against the footboards. He strode down the hallway past Helen’s room with the jars and rags on her bureau amidst the perfume and necklaces.
In my doorway he stopped. I couldn’t hear anything. He would see my coffee cup on the windowsill, a manuscript in two piles on my table, the blue pencil on top. I held my breath because breathing can give you away. Fortunately there were sounds outside, the noise of just. well, day. Now what was he doing? I couldn’t hear. A boat started down in the channel, sputtering, its vibration felt in the room. He could have left for all I could tell. Slowly the boat grumbled off, fading to a hum then to nothing.
He moved. His feet scuffed the floor. The sound was right near me, right near the closet and my heart nearly fled my body. I had no idea he was so close. It set everything pounding in me. I couldn’t have moved if I wanted to.
Dick came by the house using the lame excuse of needing to borrow the garden hoe. I didn’t ask him why but he proudly volunteered the information. Amy was helping him start a garden. He knew it was too late to plant for this year but he was planning ahead.
The heat was about to break.
Thunder began dimly, rumbling through dinner; there was lightning faint across the water. The sky lit up so the land across the bay stood out darkly then it all went black.
The storm moved in, wild, crashing around the house, rattling windows, lashing rain. For split instants there were ghostly flashes of a drenched world: gray lawn, gray trees, the gray house nearby. Then they disappeared. Everyone was away but Helen, silent in her room, already in bed.
It was after midnight. I went downstairs and stood on the porch with the lights off. Leaves tossed, the bay was pummeled.
Behind the oak in the middle of the lawn I saw something, the edge of a man’s shoulder. In the next flash I saw more of him, his whole back, in normal pants and a normal button-down shirt—normal, that is, for Howard.
He turned a little, in the next flash, to face the channel, his profile matter-of-fact. Lightning was coming more frequently, the storm overhead, and then there was another figure carrying a portable phone, Martin, Candace’s ex. In the next flash Dan was with them, holding his cigar, nor a hair out of place. Each time the world lit up there were more—Porter in a blue-jean jacket, Karl who shaved his beard off after breaking up with Helen, each face with an odd lack of expectation, unaware of where it was. The figures continued to increase, some near the barbecue, one picking up a croquet mallet. There was the guy with the sideburns Ruth brought out one weekend, Amy’s co-worker, the bald painter Helen had seen for a while. I recognized the Lebanese man who came in a limo to see Candace and the two brothers who’d fought over her. I saw one of my old flames from college, then the guy I kissed on Bastille Day, then a boy I once knew from Memphis. The flashes were coming less often but each time there were more figures. By the time the thunder had grown faint the lawn was crowded with them, scores of them, patiently gathered in front of our house.