chapter one

 

“Children, beware of becoming commuter computers.” Beaufort’s words come to me at odd times. Know what commuters are, and computers, but can’t see any from my beach-side perch. Can’t see the cages tall and cold from here. Can see strange, beautiful, gold and rose lasers shoot through the clouds blackening near the city. Florescent green phosphorus lights the rollers and ripples flowing from the Sound. Out of breath from running, covered in sand, dirt, and leaves from the slide down the cliff to the beach at Oak Point. The noise of four feet pounding the pebble beach eastward is a relief. Some hoods. Glad I know my way around.

Have Oak Point all to myself but feel her slipping away. She too is strange, beautiful, as is Mona, the mistress of the manor, who is far away and when her superintendent takes a winter vacation, it is deserted. The manor house is long gone so when she visits she uses the converted sports house. When she is not here we have the run of the place.

Leaning against my smoking rock, part of a crevice in the crumbling sea wall. Borderline trespassing. Love to meditate on the jetty rocks, which used to be under Manhattan, excavated to make room for the subways. The last ice age left everything else, the sound, the beach, the precipice, and now the north shore of Long Island is a suburban idyll.

First climbed the cliff behind me when I was four, wandering away from a picnic on the beach. Daddy Sir was furious. Took care not to get caught after that. The cliff overlooking our beach is forbidden territory in every sense, and never so much as in the summer. It seemed larger to me then, but the bluff is still commanding. Had no idea that Mona lived up there, she was just the lady next-door with the birds flying around her house.

I am the runt of the litter; Hal, the oldest, is in Charlottesville, on the way to a career in litigation; Britt, next in line, is a raging hippie, also away at college. I came along six years later, the whatsit.

Enjoy being enveloped in the temporary calm of the sunset without family or friends hectoring me. Get enough of that throughout the day. The brine off Long Island Sound is a distracting balm for my jangled nerves. The waves lap at the edge of a border of pungent seaweed. I am alone.

Take off my fleece-lined jacket and fire up. The sunset is a kaleidoscope of colors up from the skies. Perfect. Ten minutes from now cool and mild will turn cold. Glad we ate before usual. Have to clear my head of the foolishness of the day. The Sound is bracing. Binaca and saltwater camouflages and I am set to leave. Take the short walk west to our beach, and turn south to Private Lane, our house, Green Hithe, and turmoil. Father glowers and smells me as I walk by but doesn’t say anything. Distracted. He smells of Virginia Gentleman bourbon. I fear him, the irascible country boy, the decorated counter-intelligence officer in the big one. He is everything I am not, and can never be. Been in a bad mood since he slipped on some ice years ago and got bursitis. Maybe that’s why he gets so tanked. Bypass by the heated family colloquy, and power upstairs.

Homework, eh. The phone. Voice from downstairs. “Evan.”

“Thanks, Mum.”
“Whattya got?” Frank is abrupt on the phone. His tone puts me on edge, but I put up with it because he and I play off each other, learn from each other, filling in weak spots. We are a good team. He is legit. Myself?

“I got nothing.” It is freezing after the sunset, and I am all ears. Thursday night means plans for the weekend. “Whatta you got?”

“I’m working on something. You coming over tomorrow after dance class? We’ll go skating and I’ll tell you. Roberta and Collette will be there. Just keep your eyes in your head. We have to make this a big summer. Next fall starts our last year at the Mill, and I want to go out in style. That means girls.” Frank gets to the point, unlike most of our friends, who are still waiting for their balls to drop.

“Yeah. Guess we’ll only get one 1969 in our lives.”

“Wasted it so far?”

“Well, there was New Year’s. Frenched Lisa Prince at Clint’s party at midnight. That was robust. She’s a natural. Bet she’s sexier than her sister Denise someday.” Search my brain. “Alina Ballantine at Jody’s party. She was game. Said I was like the U.N., with Roman hands and Russian fingers. Haven’t seen her since. Boarding school.

“What else? You spend a lot of time with your Bayville friends.”

“Hmmm. Skinny dipping in Dott’s hottub during the blizzard. Turning off all the lights. More than one full moon that night. Denise was there too. What a trip. And Lizzy at Phil’s birthday party.”

“That all you got? Spin-the-bottle at Phil’s party? You counting that?” Going lip-to-lip with Liz was arbitrary and capricious, and unlikely to happen again.

“OK, skip that. Suppose it has been a slow start.” Not that Frank is any great shakes in that department.

We are students at Mill Hill, a country day school in an old manor house on Long Island, halfway between Bayville, where I live, and Cold Spring Harbor, Frank’s home. Started in fourth grade, him a year later. Eighth grade is the end of the line for boys; off to prep school somewhere, Jersey, New England, out of the ‘rents hair.

Mill Hill does go to ninth grade for girls for some reason, a situation ripe with potential. Frank is clean in. Just the sort to appeal to a mature girl. Almost full-size at five-foot-eight, brown bangs and eyes, and a permanent smirk. Wears the standard-issue uniform. We are interchangeable with our friends. Blazer, khakis, loafers. Hand-me-downs from Brooks Brothers. One less thing to worry about.

“Been to the club yet?”

The club is the Cold Spring Club, a ten-minute walk for Frank down steep and winding Morris Hill Road. With few houses between his and the club, the area is still wooded. School busses are not supposed to drive down Morris Hill, but it is such an outstanding and hair-raising shortcut that Leroy, the driver with the tie-bar from Atlantic City depicting two prominent breasts, always chances it. He has been nailed twice, once by the police, and once by an oil tanker whose driver had not gotten the heads up.

Mill Hill gets out early on Fridays, at twelve-thirty, to make up for staying until four the rest of the week. There is enough merit in this plan that it surprises me that other schools do not adopt it. More time for study hall and volunteering during the week. More time for sports, or, in my case, detention. More time for skiing and sailing on the weekend, not that Daddy Sir would be caught dead on a slope or in a sailboat. Every weekend, a long weekend. We make the most of this accommodating arrangement.

“Ask your mom if it is OK,” Frank says.

“I’ll be there. Get that tire for your mini-bike?”

“Nah. What about H.T.?”

“He’ll be cool.” H.T. is “The Herbert Thing,” the scourge who is Father. Crazy and old before his time. Friend of the grape. Packs a real corporation up front, as Jack LaLanne says. Intimidates executives and his children with equal ease.

“Evan” There is his soul-shaking bark now. Christ.

“I gotta go. It stirs.”

“Got ya. See you at the bad place.”

“Come down right now,” is next. Routine. Saunter down the front stairs and amble into the kitchen, where Mother and the middle brother Britt sit at the table, continuing the dinner harangue. It never stops. “Fred’s mother says he saw you smoking at the beach yesterday. What do you have to say for yourself?”

That pecker. Hadn’t seen him. There you go. The wheels grind faster than usual.

“He’s just trying to get me into trouble or something Daddy Sir. We had a fire going. That’s it.” Casual. Unwavering eye contact.

“Are you telling the truth?” Always on the stand. The lawyer routine is old.

“Yes sir.”
“Are you the biggest lier in the continental United States?” he says.
“I don’t think, Sir, that that is a fair question to put to me.” Glance at Britt, who is looking down at the round mahogany kitchen table he made suppressing a laugh, my line from “Dubliners” going over H.T.’s head. Daddy Sir lurches to his feet, his hands on the table.
“I decide which questions are fair in this house. Homework?”

“Almost done.”

“OK. No more calls.”

“Yes sir.”

Get up and slouch off upstairs, calculating how much effort to put into excuses, and how much on homework. No Latin ‘til Monday; a relief. History is a snap. Should be able to bluff it. That is where outside reading comes in handy. Just compare whatever the topic is to something in a book. Is that so hard? The Civil War? Dickens or somebody. English on the bus. Algebra at recess. Angle for some help there, call in some chits.

Turn on my wood-grained RCA radio and wait for it to warm up. Too early for Alex Bennett on WMCA. Settle for Rosko on WOR, who will put me in a good mood. He is spinning some Coltrane, “Greensleeves,” which I recognize from “How the West Was Won,” and Jeff Beck’s “Truth.” Crappy flick, but a bit of work for the old man, a hired gun for the studios. He and my godfather, who is general counsel of National Theatre, are duking it out with Cinerama, their former partners, over the widescreen trade. A Cinerama flop is as good as a Cinemiracle hit. “How the West Was Won” is no hit. Doesn’t break even. No one talks about Cinemiracle, but “Windjammer” has its moments, and it drew my godfather out to Syosset from Bronxville, something of a miracle right there.

Moved by “Greensleeves,” one of the few diverting moments in a long, tedious movie. Sometimes we sing it in church. Its keening melody makes me feel less alone. Coltrane nails it. Hard to believe that he lived in Huntington, that is so cool. His death is still sinking in because of disk jockeys like Rosko, Ed Beach and Van Jay of WRVR, playing albums like Giant Steps and Blue Trane. Lot of tape-recorders seeing action these days, as rare recordings get aired. PK-radio in Bridgeport on a clear evening. Couple of hours of Rosko and WRVR, then Alex Bennett at twelve. That is my homework for tonight.

Raise the east window to get some air and stare out at Private Lane. A pebble ricochets off the slate roof a few feet away. Has to be Clint. Slip out the porch door and descend the exposed back stairs. The hard part is the creaky steps past the beer refrigerator and the garbage. H.T. and Britt are going at it. He’s back from Vermont for a night to pick up some tools. Meet Clint at the end of the service driveway.

“What’s up?” Relieved to be outside again.

Clint slams me on the shoulder, where I have a permanent bruise. At least switch sides every so often. Everyone is always punching me on the shoulder. Brendan, Clint, Hans. Not so much Frank. Did I miss that in growing up class? Britt’s friends never do that, they are far too cool. The space cadets. My oldest brother, a UVA man like Father, is an edjamacated kind of cool. Harold, or Prince Hal, depending on Father’s mood.

“Mother is going to Newport for the weekend.” Clint starts shaking my shoulders. “You know what that means, baby.”

“Denise?” I say, trying to appear nonchalant.

“Come on, Denise. What, ya got other plans? What’s up with H.T.? I knock on your door and he says you are busy. Is he on a tear again?”

“What? Oh yeah, I suppose. Britt’s hair or something. I got dance class in Cold Spring and maybe some skating. I was going to spend the night at Frank’s. Maybe Saturday?”

“Your loss, my friend. I know where I’ll be.”

Denise is seventeen, and looks and dresses like Raquel Welch. Buxom, as H.T. would say. Thick, honey colored hair. Friendly. Clint’s mom is oblivious to that old devil consequence. Or maybe not? With Denise babysitting Clint’s younger sister, Amanda, there is no need for any awkward Birds and Bees chat. His older brother Graf is away at school, so we will have her to ourselves for the weekend. Beer. Tunes. Her friends. Our friends. Spin-the-bottle. What could go wrong, besides everything?

“Got a smogie?”

“Sure. Always.” We walk down the Adirondack bluestone pavement, which, no matter how dark the night, never looks black, and is sensuous in bare-feet. We don’t talk, but keep walking toward the sound, past “Ma” Farnham’s house and into Clint’s field across the road. I pass him a Camel and strike a white-tipped wooden match off my jeans. Inhale and look at the inky, cloudless sky, clearer than usual. Our visible breath mingles with the smoke. Hate having a nic-fit before bed.

“Great night,” Clint says, looking across the field toward Mona’s house.

“Colder than a witch’s tit.

“In Alaska.”

“In January. Let’s take Denise to Mona’s Saturday, whattya say?”

“Yeah, baby. Haven’t been there in a while. Excellent idea. I’ll snag some wine and we can have a fire.” It doesn’t take much to get Clint excited about Oak Point, the estate on the other side of the rusty cyclone fence. The absent owner, Countess Mona von Bismarck, was once the most beautiful, best dressed, and richest woman in the world, a status no other woman known to the ages combined before, or since. The old man, Harrison Williams, was a Wall Street operator, a smoke and mirrors man. Most of it disappears with the crash he helps precipitate with his holding companies, and now Mona is walking around Paris to save funeral expenses. We run riot in her domain, beholden only to her efficient superintendent, Tobias Mullen, who is a crack shot.

“Yeah, a night at Mona’s. Good idear. Maybe we can get Denise’s sister or someone to tag along.”

“Not too many. Like, four is ideal. One-and-one. I don’t want a lot of people who don’t know the ropes. Too much can go wrong at night.”

“No shit Sherlock. Steve’s been rubbing his butt for weeks. That was a pisser the night he got shot. I can’t believe how lucky he was.”

“Yeah. Grazed him. Salt buck is like that. Wide field. Thank God he didn’t have to go to the hospital. Glad we could patch him up. Still, a cautionary tale.”

“Steve’ll be careful next time. He got lucky twice that night.” We crack up.

“Something like that might make you weird about sex and pain later,” says Clint.

“I’m more worried about sex now than later. I gotta go. Walk back?”

“Nah, I’m going in the patio door. Take care of yourself.”

I duck and he misses my shoulder. “Nice. You losing a step? See you tomorrow.”

Clint is already hoofing it back to his house. Retrace my steps, kick off my shoes, and recline on my bed. Fall asleep in my clothes, and miss Alex Bennett’s clarion call, “Namaste, New York.”

###

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