Still summer, p.9
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       Still Summer, p.9

           Jacquelyn Mitchard

  Tracy wandered back on a ledge and slipped off her fins, inserting them carefully in a crevice. “Imagine people trying to hide things here hundreds of years ago,” she said, creeping farther along the wall. “Michel!” she called, reveling. “There actually is writing in here!”

  “Don’t go too far in, Tracy. You could slip. Yes, some of it is just graffiti. But some scholars say some is genuine, from the time of the explorers and the pirates.” He went on to say that no one could write on anything or touch anything anymore, because two-thirds of St. John was national park. “Of course, people sneak in and do things, the way they do anywhere.”

  “People are always sneaking around doing things,” Cammie whispered suddenly.

  Michel felt like the complete ass he was. He had hoped she wouldn’t get it. But she had.

  “Look,” Michel told her, turning his face fully toward her, brushing back his tawny hair. “I’m so sorry. That was rude.”

  “Oh, do you think it was rude? Is sex part of the package deal? My aunt was just widowed this year, you know.”

  “I didn’t know.”

  “Look, I couldn’t care less, but don’t pretend you didn’t know.”

  “C’est la vie,” Michel said, shrugging elaborately. “Seems as though this conversation is a waste of your time.”

  “I couldn’t agree more. I’d rather hear about the caves.”

  They sat, self-consciously turning their backs on each other. Cammie spat in her mask and rubbed it carefully. The minutes crept past. Her voice muffled, Tracy exclaimed over another scraping on the cave walls.

  Finally Michel said, “You really are the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.”

  “Whatever,” Cammie snapped. “Please stop it. You’re making me uncomfortable.”

  Tracy approached, and to cover his own discomfiture, Michel pretended he was finishing off a travelogue: “Now, Blackbeard, he used to put fuses in his beard and light them on fire to scare people away, literally burnt his beard. They would all drive other ships into the narrows and attack them there, grab on to the ships with these big grappling hooks. They never had to shoot anybody. People would just give their stuff up. Some went with them to go pirating. Actually, one of the most famous pirates was a guy named Dingdong Wilberdink.”

  “Oh dear,” Tracy said, putting her fins back on. “He probably became a pirate out of self-defense. They’d have killed him in middle school!”

  “He was involved with the brothel for pirates on the island called Olago, which used to be called Love and Go, you see.”

  “Like Ojibway became Chippewa over time, the name of the Indian tribe, from people’s way of saying it,” Tracy pointed out.

  “Exactly. Well, this Wilberdink, he started up bars, a hospital if you got a taste of your own wickedness, or a case of . . . well, you can imagine, and he started a boatyard—a body shop for pirate ships! Are we ready to go back down now?” The women nodded.

  Cammie muttered, “Finally.”

  But once below, they again marveled at the eels that darted out at them and were gratified by even fifteen more minutes. They examined a nurse shark, asleep far below them. Then Michel motioned for the surface, and they made their slow ascent.

  “Did you have fun, Holly?” Michel asked when they broke into the dazzling light to find Holly floating lazily on her back.

  “I could see all of you as if I could reach out and touch you,” Holly said happily. “And I’m as warm as I am in a pool. I think something stung me, though. I have a bite.”

  “Did you see it? It wasn’t a jellyfish, was it?”

  “Can you see them?” Holly asked, laughing. “I thought they were transparent.”

  “Let’s climb out,” Michel said. “Hand me up your things, Holly first; I’ll remove the tanks. We can go again after lunch if you like. Lenny should take a look at that bite and see if it needs a doctor when we go in.”

  “I don’t want to go to a clinic. I want to see this bar where the man saw the ghost,” Holly said.

  “I thought maybe we’d go to the Bight for the afternoon,” Michel said to Lenny when they returned to Opus. “It’s a great little—”

  “Little chop around here, though,” Lenny said.

  “It could just look that way. It does that,” Michel told him. “Is the paperwork all done? Weather?”

  “No events. We’ll see about the Bight. It’s a nice place to go in, Pirate’s Bight, a pretty cove with this wonderful bar, my favorite bar, on a little beach. Why don’t we have a little something to eat? You’ve used more energy than you think. Call Olivia, Michel. Maybe we’ll go to the Bight. We’ll definitely take the tender over to Willie T. when it’s nearer sundown.”

  If Holly hadn’t been bitten and then fallen, Michel might never even have kissed her, Cammie thought later.

  She would be tormented, bitterly, by what happened to her aunt Holly. She would recall it with a dank misery that she could never tint with philosophy. And at the same time, afterward, she was also perversely grateful, to the point of prayer, that Michel had the chance to kiss her.

  Aunt Holly had thrown out her back at Christmas and gained weight. So she wasn’t as agile as the rest of them, stepping down into the little motorboat. “Now, is it a tender or a dinghy, Lenny? I’ve heard you call it both.”

  “It’s a tender. We should call it a tender. I don’t know why we slip up sometimes. I guess because people are more familiar with the word dinghy. Up there, the life raft that’s lashed on to the mast is an inflatable boat. Inside it, there’s more MREs.”

  “And those are . . . ?”

  “Meals ready to eat, like in the army?” Lenny slapped his forehead. “Other people think they’re crap. I like ’em. And water and blankets and you know . . . A person could live in it for a while, some days, really, if a shark or a coral didn’t slice it. It comes that way. Oars and all.”

  “So you can never die on the Opus, like the people on the Annabeth,” Holly said as she prepared to make her way down into the tender after Olivia.

  “Well, you can die, but there’d have to be an awful lot that would have to go wrong. She won’t capsize, for example, unless the mainmast is broken and pulls her over. She’s a safe boat.”

  “I’ll assume she is,” Holly said. “And you have to give me the name of those ginger pills, in case I decide to have more kids and get morning sickness, or any sickness. They’re a miracle. Except they aren’t working right now. Lenny, Trace, I’m sorry. I just feel lousy.” She made the step down into the tender and then slipped, barking her shin and opening a nasty scrape. “Christ almighty! God that hurts like hell! Can you imagine that just two million years ago I was the flier on the cheerleading squad? Now I’m going to have a grapefruit on my leg to go with the bite!”

  “It could have been a scrape on coral,” Lenny said. “We need to get some ice on that, Holly. And maybe just ditch this and find a clinic—”

  “No, if you have butterfly bandages, it’ll be okay. I’m a nurse, Lenny. Most things look worse than they are.” With cumbersome care, she climbed out of the tender. Her wound was bleeding freely.

  Lenny said, “I’ll stay with you, then. Hydrogen peroxide. Ice. Gauze. Big drinks, huh? Michel, you can take the rest of them.”

  “I’ll stay with her,” Tracy insisted.

  “Mom! Lenny can handle this! Come and see the ghost guy. We don’t have to stay long,” Cammie urged her. “Aunt Holly, I don’t mean that in a bad way. But she knows how to take care of herself, Mom.” Cammie’s anxiety about going anywhere alone with Olivia and Michel was palpable but opaque to her mother.

  Tracy insisted, “I heard the story. I think Holly and I will play gin. As I recall, she owes me money.”

  It was a standing joke. Holly had cleaned Tracy out of her birthday money one night during Christmas break in college, tucked two hundred bucks into her bra, and walked away. Tracy had been furious, calling Holly over and over the next day, insisting she get a chance to win back her mo
ney. Holly had listened politely and then cruised blithely to the mall and bought a real leather jacket with a fringed purse to match it. Tracy could never bear to see her wear it. She would say, “That’s my coat, you whore.”

  Olivia pouted. “I guess this means I have to stay, too,” she said.

  “Yes, it does,” Cammie told her with cloying politeness. “With your lifelong friends.”

  “Wait a minute, no,” Lenny interrupted. “No one has to . . . Olivia, come on. Go ahead and go with Michel.” But the situation was fraught. He could sense, now, that putting Michel in the tender with Olivia and Cammie was like putting calcium carbide in water.

  “Never mind,” Olivia said. This was, she supposed, her penance, to watch beautiful Cammie motor off with beautiful Michel. Still, she was annoyed. Olivia was a vain woman, and vain women often make more mischief than they intend—although they often intend more mischief than they realize. Mischief with Michel had not only made a diversion, but proved a point. As a young wife in Europe, she was allowed certain latitudes; but now she was without the courtly protection of Franco’s name and stature. And being neither young nor older, she teetered on the slack in the wire. It would have been difficult for a woman like her to age in any case. But Franco’s death had flanked her, left her a chatelaine without portfolio. Her face literally had been her fortune. She had no skills, nor had she any need of them, and few interests beyond herself. Each year would be more than subtraction, it would be an amputation. Olivia’s need to be desired was prodigious. And now, to be consigned to sit here and fumble with sticky playing cards, while Lenny stroked his balding and sunburned head, was oppressive. Olivia had been looking forward to the bar. There would have been someone interesting there. Ah well, there would be other bars. There was no way that Michel would dare to try anything with Cammie. Tracy would eat him alive.

  There was that satisfaction, at least. She had bested a girl half her age, a girl more beautiful than Olivia had been.

  It would be impolite to dash off and seclude herself before a seemly interval had passed. Fifteen minutes? A whole half hour? Olivia glanced again at Michel and Cammie, both grimly silent as he stepped into the tender and prepared to help Cammie descend. Cammie had slipped into a sundress no longer than a man’s shirt. Both of them looked as though they were on the way to donate blood. When Olivia glanced up, she saw Holly, her face deliberately bland, reading Olivia’s own expression like the face of a clock. Holly had always been able to make Olivia feel as though Holly had pulled her over and were running her license plates.

  The four of them left behind draped themselves on chairs and benches in the saloon while Lenny mixed a paste of antibiotic and baking soda and applied it to the welt on Holly’s thigh. He then—quite skillfully, Holly thought—cleansed and thoroughly bound the cut on her shin, attaching a pack of ice with Velcro straps.

  Christ, Olivia thought, my kingdom for a book. She asked if she might later go down and peruse Lenny’s library. Distracted, he agreed. Telling the others she’d be back in moments, Olivia slipped away to Lenny’s cabin. The pictures of Meherio took her breath away. What had this girl seen in . . . But then she herself had married Franco. There was a television canted above the bookshelves and hundreds of neatly labeled, alphabetized DVDs. But the bookshelves were filled with fucking classics. She’d done classics. Anna Karenina—now there was a book that took all the fun out of adultery. The short stories of Grace Paley. A biography of Lyndon Johnson. Erudite legal thrillers. Olivia wanted a breezy murder mystery. Discouraged, she slouched back up to join her friends.

  “Now I know what you need,” she heard Lenny say to Holly. “It’s my specialty. Len’s Libertine. My own recipe.”

  “What’s in it?” Tracy asked. “And why’s it called that?”

  “What’s in it is whatever’s on the boat, plus pineapple,” Lenny replied. “And it’s called that because after one, it’s what you become. I usually save it for anniversary couples. They need a jump start.”

  They all laughed. Olivia sighed and decided then to treat herself to three Valium and a long, restorative sleep. It wasn’t that she didn’t care about them; she did, in abstract. But she could already feel the slow, inexorable contamination of suburbia. Shorts with blubbery knees tucked beneath. Quiche and quilting. Golf and garage sales. Welcome mats outside the door that read BLESS THIS MESS! She would soon be filing coupons and hosting a bunco club. She shuddered. More than any of them, she was still the girl she had been twenty-five years ago in Westbrook. She longed for things these women had forfeited decades ago. She had liked them; she had never been like them. Round, muscular Holly, even though tiny enough—then—to toss into the sky as a cheerleader, had always been about as agile as a Shetland pony. And as a sturdy little pony, she went through life. It was practically a metaphor. Tracy bounding down the court in three strides, sweaty, mocked, blithely unaware. Janis, just short of a tramp and only a few rungs above dim-witted, her lashes caked with mascara that looked as though it could be weighed on a scale.

  Olivia had written for the literary magazine.

  Yes, she had been a greaser like the rest of them, but better read and, she suspected, gifted with a subtler intelligence than any of the others. It had been she who hatched the escapades, the others who carried them out and were grateful, even if they later were punished. It was she who mesmerized the chemistry teacher—a boy probably no older than Michel—into giving her “just one look” at the previous year’s exam, pleading parents who would “really punish” her for a C. He had left her alone in his room, probably because he’d had a hard-on, and Olivia had copied all the answers onto the inside of her left arm. Holly was right: Olivia would have been a brilliant Mob wife, except for the obedience and the babies that had hung like hooked fish to her friends’ boobs until they lengthened into the equivalent of the National Geographic photos they’d all once studied with such hilarity and terror. She had attended mass regularly in Italy, but only for the social diversion: She was stunning in her long black silk skirt, a shawl thrown over her splendid shoulders, and raised her chin when she heard the village women, in their flowered frocks, whisper of “la contessa.”

  Olivia’s own breasts, tucked just an innocent tad by the physician, still perked. And her thighs were as lean as any college girl’s—yes, by dint of a suck, but what was money for? However much she’d scoffed when Holly confided that she weighed 150 pounds, Holly was right: Olivia would have killed herself, or fasted for a month, if some calamity caused her to pack on that much lard.

  Tracy was the only fit one, but she was no longer nimble and adventurous. And now, this was their idea of a big getaway. Olivia had foreseen a great many more opportunities for clothing and jewelry to ship back and men to entice—beyond the ship’s boy. And still, there had been that. Not one of them would have done what she had last night. Not one of them would have transgressed her vows or been able to please him. Olivia sighed in satisfaction. She supposed relaxation was a kind of gift. She turned again to her friends. They were chuckling now, a drink tucked away by each of them—Olivia didn’t drink anything but the scant flute of champagne—chuckling, the way her mother did with Aunt Tina, over coffee and cannoli.

  “I didn’t do anything in high school,” Tracy was saying. “I was sort of a lukewarm student. None of it made sense. I had no idea what I liked. I played basketball. People thought I was nuts.”

  “They did not,” Holly replied. “They thought you were gay.”

  “You were the elite. You were a cheerleader.”

  “Oh yeah. But Janis was a pom-pom. We were considered part of the team. They were the Dallas Cowboy girls. Janis had the first bare midriff in St. Ursula’s history.”

  “Not counting St. Ursula, of course,” Tracy added. “I’ll bet she had some wild outfits.”

  “But not maroon knee-high boots. Can you believe we let them call us the Teddy Bears?” Holly turned to Lenny. “You know, Ursa? Bear? The football team was from the boys’ school, Fath
er Fenton. But you can hardly make a good team name from Fenton. The Fighting Fentons. It sounds like my next-door neighbors. So they used our school for the name. The Battling Bears.”

  Holly’s monologue made this sound like one of the high points of her life. I will never, ever give in to such dreary wifeliness, Olivia thought. Life was a ripe plum, and she would suck it to the pit.

  “Take the radio, Michel,” Lenny shouted, his voice booming over the still water as the tender slid away. And Michel dutifully looped back. “Take the GPS, too.”

  “I can see Willie T. from here, Lenny.”

  “Take it anyhow. Be safe,” Lenny told him.

  So Michel and Camille set out again, the splutter of the motor the only sound. Michel finally spoke. “Are you going to ask him about Annabeth?”

  “Why else would I be going?”

  He could see the even picket of her smile in the darkness. “To say you’d been here. With me. With Michel Eugène-Martin, captain.”

  “Well, at least I’ll be able to say I’ve been there. What a shame my aunt couldn’t come!”

  “It’s probably better,” Michel said uneasily.

  “You really think so?” Cammie asked. “Jesus, weren’t you the guy who promised he wouldn’t talk to me?”

  “Fine,” Michel said, revving the engine. They approached the floating bar. To his astonishment, he couldn’t shut up. “It’s dead here now. You should see this place in the middle of tourist season. You can’t get on. People are dancing with a Piña Colada in each hand. They’re hanging off the railings. They’ll close down this week for the season. Not so many boats about now. But usually this place is a floating meeting of . . . what do you call it . . . Triple A?”

  “Alcoholics Anonymous? AA?” Cammie asked. “Why do you put on this act? I’m not an old lady who’ll fall for it. How long have you lived in the United States?”

  “Six years. But I studied English.”

  “So they get stinko. And then they go back to their boats,” Cammie said. “Big deal. It looks like a shithole.”

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