The personal touch a coo.., p.1
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       The Personal Touch: A Cooney Classic Romance, p.1

           Caroline B. Cooney
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The Personal Touch: A Cooney Classic Romance

  The Personal Touch

  A Cooney Classic Romance

  Caroline B. Cooney














  A Biography of Caroline B. Cooney


  AT DAWN ON A raw April morning I was standing at the end of the Lansberry dock feeding popcorn to the sea gulls and thinking of Tim. Thinking of Tim is designed to give anybody a bad disposition but it affects me deeper than most, since I know him best.

  Or worst, depending on how you regard knowledge of Tim.

  Mr. and Mrs. Lansberry instruct me every summer not to use their dock, which is the primary reason why I use it every winter to feed the sea gulls. I like the messy white message the sea gulls leave for the Lansberrys to clean up each June 1st.

  I flung popcorn at the sea gulls. They caught each popped kernel midair, swooping and swinging with that marvelous sea gull grace. My favorite was a one-legged gull. Last winter he’d eaten out of my hand, but this year he wouldn’t. It hurt my feelings.

  From the forbidden dock, I could look across the marshes that stretch half a mile to the sea. Across the marsh to the west is Oyster River and the fishermen’s marina. The pleasure boat marina was still empty, waiting for the summer people to come.

  Beautiful, bleak New England marsh. Warped little trees, plump little bushes studded in the tall, sandy-colored grass. Wind and sky and sea and clouds.

  I live in the third oldest house in Sea’s Edge and for two hundred forty-one years that was the view from every window in our cottage. It’s a small house. Shingled, sway-backed, Cape Cod style.

  The Lansberrys came five years ago. We hadn’t even known the marsh lot was buildable, let alone for sale, until the Sold sign went up and the builders appeared to put up a summer house for the Lansberrys. We were still innocent. We pictured a dear little cottage much like our own, with climbing Blaze roses on the south wall and a cat sunning on the stoop.

  Live and learn.

  The architect designed the house with the sole purpose of winning architectural awards for design innovation. I understand he won them. Certainly whenever people visit us, they stare in admiration at the clean lines of that house knifing into the blue sky: gray-stained vertical cedar like a monument to the twentieth century, slashed with glass and jutting with warlike force.

  After they’ve visited us for a few days, however, people realize that those wooden walls are now our entire view. Gone the marsh, the sea, and the sky. Now it’s just a narrow alley with two Lansberry garbage cans between us and the high-rise next door.

  Mr. Lansberry found he didn’t care for mowing, so by the second week of residence it became necessary to cover their entire lawn with an enormous multileveled deck. Mrs. Lansberry sunned there for a few days before deciding her deck lacked privacy (after all, we Compton peasants next door could see her) and she put an eight-foot cedar fence around it all. Eight feet high. I ask you. What did she think we were going to do for the privilege of watching her get a suntan? Walk past on stilts?

  Fortunately the Lansberrys are here only from June through Labor Day. The rest of the year they bless Albany, New York, with their presence. Unfortunately, they don’t take their house when they leave. We have to stare at it year-round.

  Nobody expected Mr. and Mrs. Lansberry to have any children. They’d built a house where you knew the carpets would be white and the furniture glass and children forbidden.

  But they moved in with a son.


  My father insisted that “Tim” was not short for Timothy. He said “Tim” was an acronym that stood for Terrible Infuriating Monster. Tim made Dennis the Menace seem sweet and unassuming. Even my father, who is our elementary school principal and has tolerated more nasty little boys than any man deserves, could not tolerate Tim. Tim got thrown out of daycamp, swimming session, and library puppet show in Sea’s Edge. When we weren’t grinding our teeth in rage looking at the Lansberry house, we were getting migraine headaches from the Lansberry son.

  “Actually,” said my mother that first September when we were sitting on our little stoop listening happily to the commotion of the Lansberrys packing to go home for the winter, “you have to feel sorry for Albany, New York.”

  “I’ll bet there’s an elementary school in Albany that’s thrilled to see Tim move on to junior high,” observed my father. My father was not much of a fan of Mr. and Mrs. Lansberry either. They didn’t have much use for school teachers. Their attitude toward my father was: If you’re so smart, how come you’re not rich?

  I tossed a popcorn to a gull and he missed it. It fell among the marsh grasses and another gull rested lightly on the water to scoop it up.

  Believe me, gulls, I told them, I’d like to be rich. I’d buy that huge glassy house of theirs and then I’d build bleachers across the marsh and invite all my friends to come watch me blow the place up.

  The second summer of Tim was even worse. He had obviously spent the winter honing his monster skills. Daddy said he was the kind of smart-aleck that teachers immediately recommend for advanced placement—which is merely a jargon for getting the kid out of their class!

  When you live in a summer resort town like Sea’s Edge, you always have a sensation of being invaded each June. Usually, however, you look upon the summer people as friendly troops. Reinforcements, as it were. (Without them, you’d starve.) Well, Tim Lansberry was more like an enemy saboteur, actively and successfully destroying month after month of our lives.

  People stopped referring to us as “the ones who live in the third oldest house in Sea’s Edge” and began saying, “Oh, so you’re the poor things who live next door to that Lansberry brat.”

  The year Tim was fourteen, he went in for ham radio. That sounds like a worthy sort of endeavor, the sort of hobby for which good boy scouts win badges and so forth. It wasn’t. First of all, Tim’s father let him put up a seventy-five-foot antenna. On the property line. In front of our breakfast room window. We protested to the Planning Commission and we finally won—but not until after Labor Day.

  Second, when old Tim decided to do something, he did it constantly. He didn’t require sleep like ordinary mortals. He could go around the clock. The sounds of his transmitting and receiving came through our television, radio, stereo, doorbell and telephone. It wasn’t enough that Tim had to live next door. He had to take up residence in our wires as well.

  Tim decided a refinement to his antenna was necessary, and in order to reach the ailing portion he ran a rope from our chimney to his house so he could swing across. His house (built like the fortress it had to be to protect Tim from his enemies) remained intact. Our chimney, being 241 years old and in need of restoration, came tumbling down. That was Tim for you. Tim’s touch. His personal touch.

  That was the same summer Tim decided to paint a mural on his fence. He thought he was being very neighborly to paint the mural on his side of the fence, so we’d still have our nice, plain, gray-stained walls to stare at. He forgot that the fence had half-inch gaps between each slat and he sprayed this mural on. I don’t know what the subsequent colors were meant to be, but the first color was purple.

  We featured a purple-striped car, a purple-striped sailing dory, and a purple-striped north wall.

  The summer he was fifteen, having tired of ham radio and painting, Tim set about restoring a funny-looking half-car, half-wagon affair he claimed was a Model T Huckster Wagon—something from which vegetable sellers of old had
sold their tomatoes, or something like that. All June Tim clanked and whacked and bolted, and I have to admit that the result was the cutest little car I’d ever seen. All July he sped over the roads of Sea’s Edge giving people rides to the beach in his Huckster, charging them twenty-five cents a ride. Mr. Lansberry tried to pass this off as a splendid example of a young entrepreneur working toward his first million, but in Connecticut fifteen-year-olds are not allowed to drive, much less charge for passengers. All July the police kept driving slowly up the driveway we reluctantly share with the Lansberrys, with Tim reluctantly driving behind them.

  Those little stories are just the highlights. The biggies, so to speak. Laced throughout that sort of thing were the daily annoyances. Tim yelling meaningless syllables he claimed were Korean fight calls while he did calisthenics every morning on his deck for half an hour. Tim bringing home a puppy that barked around the clock. Tim starting a T-shirt printing factory that even his parents stopped because the requests were obscene. Tim replacing his Huckster wagon with his father’s Mercedes and backing over my mother’s rose garden. Tim—his personal touch—

  Enough of Tim already.

  It was April 30th. It meant precisely one Tim-free month left this year. It also meant I had better get my act together and find a summer job before they were all gone.

  I tossed the last of the popcorn to the one-legged sea gull when it obstinately refused to eat out of my hand and thought wearily of the day ahead of me.

  My schedule was definitely lacking joy. I would get up at dawn, pop a few quarts of popcorn to feed my gulls, go in and have breakfast and leave for school. After school I’d go interview for summer jobs, get rejected, go home and eat supper, do homework, and think of two more stores to go interview the next day.

  It’s too bad to waste summer—especially summer when you live at the beach—at a job. But when you need money, you need money.

  Last summer I wasn’t yet sixteen and I couldn’t get a decent summer job. I ended up being a “mother’s helper.” Definitely the worst job in Sea’s Edge. Baby Julie was this fat little thing with a deep need for Oreo cookies. She was always smeared with chocolate crumbs. Whenever I picked her up, which unfortunately was necessary about every five minutes, I’d get equally smeared. Julie’s mother spent the summer improving her tennis, swimming, and sailing. I spent the summer washing Julie’s damp cookie crumbs off my body.

  The only thing that kept Julie from having screaming tantrums was a combination of Oreo cookies and walks in her stroller. Tim would drift by in his father’s Mercedes and make suggestions on how I could keep Julie quiet. Usually he thought drowning in the marsh would be too good for her. There were times when I was close to agreeing, but I didn’t think Julie’s mother would give me a very good recommendation if I disposed of her kid, so I hung in there all summer.

  It was pretty grim.

  The only good part came in August when I began making use of Julie’s fits. I spotted Mrs. Lansberry on her deck, from that little strip where our driveways join and you can peek into their precious privacy. My mother was lying outside in the shade because Mrs. Lansberry’s house blocked every bit of afternoon sun. Those Lansberrys not only stole our view, they grabbed all our sunshine!

  I wheeled Julie right up next to the eight-foot fence and took away her Oreo cookies.

  Those screams made Tim’s Korean fight yells sound pathetic.

  Through the half-inch spaces (you could still see the purple paint) I watched Mrs. Lansberry cringe, hold her breath, wait, hope…and give up. She not only had to go inside, she eventually had to close all her windows to block out Julie’s shrieking.

  “That was a bit Tim of you,” said my mother disapprovingly. (She thinks that Tim is the level to which I must never stoop.)

  True, but it made me feel so good I did it several more times before the Lansberrys left on Labor Day. The odd result was that Julie got sick of screaming until her throat was sore, and she lost interest in Oreo cookies and stopped having tantrums. Her mother told everybody that they must, must, must have that wonderful Sunny Compton next time they needed a baby-sitter.

  Just thinking about baby-sitting again for another whole summer turned me, as my mother used to say when I was little, from Sunny to Rainy.

  I wanted to have a good summer for a change!

  Summer in Sea’s Edge sounds so good. Beaches, boats, live theater, terrific restaurants, dancing, street fairs and auctions. Somehow my last few summers, however, have been less than successful.

  I’m sixteen, I told the gulls as I left the dock. Sixteen should be a super year. Don’t let me have another dud, please!

  All winter I had been dating Leland Derrick. It was not what you might call an in-depth relationship. “I love her for her chocolate cheesecake,” Leland told people, beaming toothily. Our dates (if you could call them that) usually meant me in the kitchen baking and Leland in our den eating and watching television. My father saw more of Leland than I did.

  The only good thing about Leland was that I could say I had a boyfriend. It was stretching the definition. Leland was a friend, and he was a boy, but other than that Leland did not fit my romantic ideas of a real, true, boyfriend.

  “I don’t care for Leland,” said my mother this past March. “The only thing Leland has ever reflected on is his own face in the mirror.”

  I reflected on that and decided she was right and Leland and I split. He didn’t mind. I made him a mocha freezer cake to go out on.

  Since then I had had three dates. My parents were definitely not impressed by those boys either.

  “It could be worse,” said my father when I came in from the third date. “She could be dating Tim.”

  My mother and I gagged.

  I wondered if Tim, who would be seventeen now, planned to get a summer job. Probably not. He certainly did not need the money and he had never struck me as good employee material. He was a shade on the independent side to be somebody’s hireling. Besides, with his reputation locally, he’d have to go two towns away to get a job.

  That sounded so good I considered job hunting for Tim instead of for me. Imagine being able to place Tim two towns away!

  My mother’s roses were getting tiny green swellings where the leaves would appear in May. All summer the thick scent of her flowers would waft through the air.

  I began a rose-scented fantasy in which I would find this super, interesting, well-paying, stimulating job and my co-worker would be an equally interesting, stimulating, handsome, marvelous young man who would fall for me and adore me and take me everywhere and give me this wonderful sixteenth summer.

  It was strictly a fantasy.

  My first job interview had been one Julie’s mother wangled for me: clerk at a children’s clothing shop called (sickeningly) Heaven to Eleven. Now how many handsome young men are going to be out buying toddler’s sunsuits? Definitely not young men with whom I need to have a relationship. Heaven to Eleven is located in a half-above-ground basement under the coffee shop called the Rusted Rudder. Now if I could get a job there, and bring cheese Danish to handsome rich summer boys, that would be one thing. But the Rusted Rudder didn’t need any more help and the only thing Heaven to Eleven shared with the Rusted Rudder was an employees’ bathroom.

  However, Heaven to Eleven didn’t offer me a job, so I didn’t have to worry about that.

  I also didn’t get offered a job waiting table at Dock and Dine, a posh seafood restaurant for yachtsmen known for generous tipping habits, and next I was passed up by Josiah’s Antiques and Brassworks.

  It was beginning to look as though I would be able to spend the summer getting a tan and showing off my backstroke, which would have been okay, except I was too broke to buy a new bathing suit to do that in. They frown on swimming in the nude here in Sea’s Edge and my parents said I had a perfectly good navy blue tank suit that was only two years old, and if I wanted something expensive that was my problem, not theirs.

  So I had to get a job.

/>   The real danger looming, however, was that I would have to work at Chair Fair. My mother owns that store. It’s seasonal, opening May 1st, selling lawn chairs, beach chairs, barbecue cookers, beach umbrellas, picnic tables and so forth. I loathe helping there. Passionately. First I hate my mother’s partner, Jeter, who is this huge bosomy woman with a voice louder than Baby Julie’s. Second, I hate the customers. Anybody who shops at Chair Fair has forgotten something he meant to bring along and he resents spending the money and he’s in a hurry and he thinks we overcharge. He’s right about that; we are definitely in business to make a profit, my mother says, trying to balance our budget. And he’s rude.

  I have this terrible tendency to be rude right back.

  I waved good-bye to my sea gulls and they shrieked and wheeled as I walked back home, ordering me to come again and feed them tomorrow.

  When I was down to the last three employers I knew of in our entire village (and two of those my mother said no daughter of hers would ever work for)—I found a job.

  Mr. Hartley’s Second Time Around. (You may have noticed that here in Sea’s Edge we specialize in quaint names. Since neon or garish signs are zoned out, we have these cute little wooden signs that swing and creak in the breeze. The summer people love it.)

  Second Time Around sells used paperbacks. “Summer people,” Mr. Hartley told me, “read an awful lot. In winter I open only on Saturdays, but in summer I’m open six days a week.”

  Second Time Around is in a little cubbyhole of a store between the Savings Bank and Annette’s Bread Basket (a bakery), which is nice for depositing my paycheck but not so good for keeping my waist trim.

  It contains roughly ten thousand paperbacks sorted equally roughly by category, like science fiction or World War II. You bring in your old paperbacks and get a credit to apply to buying other people’s old paperbacks, for which Mr. Hartley charges you half price. At first I didn’t see how Mr. Hartley could make any money that way, but he said twenty-five-and fifty-cent sales really add up, and besides sometimes you sell the same book ten times a season.

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